This week's portion: not empty-handed
New moon of Ramadan and Elul

In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged

I've mentioned Catherine Madsen's work on this blog before. She's the author of The Bones Reassemble, a powerful critique of modern liturgical language. (She's also a former contributing editor to the journal CrossCurrents; if you want a sample of her nonfiction online, try Notes on God's Violence, published in that journal.) I first encountered her work when I was editing The Women's Times, the regional women's monthly newspaper. That's when I got my hands on an Avinu Malkeinu variation she'd written, which startled me and moved me so deeply that I folded it up and carried it in my tallit case for years. She and I met for lunch a few years back, when I was hard at work on a manuscript about creative Jewish liturgy. (The manuscript has since been tabled; in writing it, I realized that rabbinic school was still calling my name, so it served its purpose.)

Anyway: I'm a longtime admirer. When I got home from Jerusalem this summer I found a copy of her latest book on my desk: In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged.

Anyone who writes a deliberately controversial book about the failures of modern liturgy should be expected to follow it with a book that shows how the job should be done. This is not that book. In Medias Res was written some fifteen years before The Bones Reassemble, when I had only begun to feel my way toward the premises for liturgical writing that I set out there. I was in the fairly common position of being unable to accept any of the revelations on offer, but not wanting to live without shared ritual; I drew from the only scriptures I had, the poetry and prose I trusted, to imagine what that ritual might be. There are certainly things here that I would no longer write -- and I could prove by my own methods how much of it is not worth repeating -- but the approach may still be useful to other liturgists.

That's from the 2007 Author's Note which begins the book; it's followed by a preface (written in 1990) that talks about the challenge of making "certain thoughts sayable," of crafting a liturgy "not of revelation but of experience and uncertainty." Not top-down, but bottom-up; not ignoring or setting aside the uncertainties of our contemporary experience, but arising directly out of those uncertainties.

If the old liturgies are not possible to translate convincingly -- if, to the translators, they are no longer effectual -- perhaps it's because the conditions of life, the type and scope of the threats that face us, are new in human experience. We need liturgy to accomplish a new thing: not simply personal or collective communion with the holy, but the restoration -- the re-creation -- of the world.

My rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, has written a great deal about paradigm shift and the ensuing need for liturgy that speaks to the times in which we live. So this idea of Madsen's resonated for me. So did several other lines from the introduction, which I copied into my commonplace book as I read: "To rule out biblical metaphor as a means of talking about the world is like refusing to breathe air. Is it polluted? Yes; but can you choose to be anaerobic instead?" And "What is necessary is to remember holiness, not to define it." And "Liturgy is about that resiliency, the reasonless, bodily, flat-out here I am of being here: being here and being glad."

Late in the introduction Madsen asks the question, "A Judeo-Pagan tradition?" But it's never answered; the query continues to reverberate on the page. One could argue that the remainder of the book is her response (or, at least, one of her responses.) "The rituals are 'secular' in the sense that they assume no necessary connection between ritual and theism, and 'pagan' in the sense that they take the seasons for their calendar. In some underlying sense they are Jewish, or proto-Jewish, in their reaching for what Emmanuel Levinas called a religion for adults," Madsen writes.

The first half of the book holds the "Seasonal Rituals:" a ritual for the Winter Solstice, a ritual entitled "The Trees Praise" (designed to be said at or near the holiday which some call Imbolc or the Feast of Brighid; it could also be prayed as part of a Tu BiShvat liturgy), a ritual for "The Feast of Fools" designed either for the spring equinox or for April Fool's day, rituals for Mayday and Midsummer, Harvest and Fall Equinox and Allhallows. Eight rituals, one for each of the cross-quarters in the wheel of the year. After an interlude of various personal prayers, the book continues with a section entitled "Rites of Passage:" rituals for baby-naming, coming of age, marriage and divorce, healing and burial.

Madsen's language is direct and unflowery, often making seamless use of quotations and references. Reading these rituals, I see the influence of Jewish tradition everywhere: in the quotation from Eicha (Lamentations) in the harvest ritual, the echoes of the Yom Kippur vidui (second-person plural confession of misdeeds) in the Fall Equinox ritual:

From the harm we have done through power and the harm we have done through powerlessness, turn us again.

From the harm we have done knowingly and the harm we have done unknowingly, turn us again.

From the harm we have done for truth's sake and the harm we have done without truth, turn us again.

From the harm we have done from cowardice and the harm we have done from courage, turn us again...

Had the book entered my hands ten years ago, I would have gathered a motley crowd of friends (Jews, neopagans, people who are "spiritual but not religious") to pray these liturgies together, sitting in a circle on my bedroom floor or outside in the woods. Today I read the words and admire the audacity of the undertaking -- a liturgy for the year and for lifecycle events, comprised of poetry and quotation and passion, in which it seems to me that God is everywhere present but never mentioned! Holy wow...even if this isn't the liturgy I need to be praying. After all, the book's subtitle is "Liturgy for the estranged." Ten years ago I would have counted myself in that camp. Today I feel firmly planted in a received tradition of Jewish liturgy.

Still, I admire this book's creative spirit and its sensitivity to the cycles of the natural world. Also its love of poetry. (Anyone who could write, and mean, "Poetry already functions as a kind of liturgy for those who take it seriously: as much as any psalm or commandment, it charges the reader to be faithful to some essential knowledge" is a woman after my own heart.) I don't anticipate making this book a part of my regular prayer practice -- but it's a book I'm glad to have on my shelf. I know I'll return to it, and draw from it, as my own ritualcraft work continues to develop.

If you're interested in the intersections of liturgy and poetry, in Jewish work that's alive to the possibilities of engaging with the natural world (and/or neopagan work that's steeped in Jewish and poetic traditions), this is a book you should pick up.

Thanks to Erik of Executive Pagan for nominating me for the "I Love Your Blog" award! I'd been meaning to review Catherine's book sometime soon, and Erik's kind words about this blog spurred me to do it now, since I'm guessing this book might appeal to Erik and some of his readers too...

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