The “Forgetting and Remembering of the Air” chapter in Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram struck a chord in me because a lot of the topics he discussed were aspects I have internalized and been learning through my entire Jewish upbringing. As Abram says “Torah demands interpretation” (p. 244) and I have always identified with the idea that Judaism changes from person to person. When I went to the JVP conference in Chicago, Judith Butler spoke and said “disagreement is the basic qualification for being Jewish.” To me, the aspects of Judaism I deeply identify with is the questioning and constantly revising the ‘answers.’ It is crucial to understand that one person’s interpretation of the holy texts might be completely different than the the person sitting next to them (and SURPRISE this feels very relevant to all the life dilemmas that arise when transitioning our of college). Abram says that “The Hebrew bible is not a set of finished stories and unchanging laws; it is not a static body of dogmatic truths but a living enigma that must be questioned, grappled with, and interpreted afresh in ever generation. For, as it is said, the guidance that the Torah can offer in one generation is very different from that which it waits to offer in another” (p. 244). I appreciate the acknowledgement that every person might be taking away something completely different (and sometimes oppositional) from the religious teachings. I know that for me growing up, sometimes the different interpretations by famous religious leaders (in the Tanhak etc) were sometimes MORE meaningful than actually Torah texts themselves. Wendell Berry talks about this same idea in the context of our current environmental crisis. He says now that “we have acknowledged the problems are big, now where is the big solution? What is the big answer? You are implying that we can impose the answer.” He argues that the answers will come by saying “what do you need?” And the ‘answer’ will probably differ from situation to situation and that is okay.
An example of something up to interpretation is the Hebrew name for God. I have always been fascinated with the various names of God in the Jewish world. There is the “unutterable name” (yod hay vav hey or in Hebrew: יהוה), also known as the “tetragrammaion,” the four letter name. Sometimes we refer to God as Hashem, which literally translates to “the name,” but most of the time we use Adonai which means “our lord” (I have been in some radical spaces that use the feminine version of this too, because Adonai is masculine). But, the original name for God, as found in the Torah is יהוה and these are all vowel sounds, and therefore this name is supposed to be like the wind because you can feel it but not quite see it. It is intentionally unpronounceable. Abram says that this concept is a “recognition of the air, wind, and the breath, as aspects of a singularly sacred power” (p. 226). He draws the connection between this sacred regard for the air and also recognizes it as a beautiful force that connects us all, saying that “a new sense of the unity of this unseen presence that flows not just within us but between all things, granting us life and speech even as it moves the swaying grasses and the gathering clouds” (p. 249). I appreciate being able to make this connection between what I have been raised to think of God is (and I appreciate some aspects and definitely reject others) and what Abram is also saying about how “air is the most pervasive presence…itself invisible, it is the mediums with which we see all else in the present terrain” (225, 226). As Brandon Rothfuss said at Greensboro Swarm “sometimes it is better to listen to understand rather than respond.” As the semester is wrapping up I am appreciating more and more the connections I can draw between my academic studies, religious identities, social justice passions, and personal life. This class has provided me the energy and space to feel comfortable recognizing how intertwined life actually is. I also have gotten more and more okay with the fact that I don’t “know” everything and that I am evolving every day. Just like how the Torah is up for interpretation, so is my path to success. As my favorite Rilke quote states:
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer (Rilke, Letter 4, 1929).