Judaism is a Religion of Symbols

Judaism is a religion of symbols.  Every Saturday, the two loaves of bread nestled under the challah cover represent the double-portion of manna. Passover night, we dip horseradish into chopped apples to recall the bitter slavery of our ancestors. We build funny huts outside in our backyards to remember when God sheltered the wandering Israelites, only sometimes ours collapse in a chaotic, rainy storm. We wear garments threaded with fringes to kiss commandments. These prayers in ancient tongues, these traditions linger like, frankly, odd guests long after the event has ended, yet we still cherish them like vintage records.  All of this is meant to remind us, lest we veer off-course.  Lest we one day take the holy part of ourselves as if it is a moon wrapped in brown paper, and light it on fire, sacrificing it to small gods.

What not to do? “Burning Love” Art by Diggie Vitt. From The Sunday Muse

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Written for Shay’s Word Garden Word List, Poets and Storytellers United, RDP, MVB-Prompt, WOTDC (Frankly), WOTDC (Cherish), YDWordPrompt, dVerse, Twiglets, and The Sunday Muse

107 comments

        • I wrote this poem about Judaism because that is what I know, but I think there’s truth to the idea that tradition, while impractical and illogical at times (sometimes very impractical and illogical…) serves as a means of connection to history and community, and that’s true for traditions outside of a specific religion

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          • I have argued with commitees that act clueless about why the churches don’t attract young people, but paganism does, is that Wicca and other pagan religions are popular among young people is because they have traditions, symbolism and rituals. Most Protestant denominations have abandoned the few traditions, symbols and rituals they had for screens, video, and trying to be hip and entertaining.

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          • Interesting. We have traditions and rituals in Judaism, and we still have issues attracting young people. Membership dues fees is more likely the culprit there. I think it’s also somewhat of a catch-22 – young people don’t go because there are no other young people. Personally, people approximately my age or younger make me feel competitive and antsy, so I do not mind congratulations with few/no young people. But that’s just me.

            Screens and video? Like Zoom services?

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          • Screens instead of a cross at the alter and video like in movie theaters. This is long before zoom. Now many of the evangelical churches have used screens because the stream the main church service to the satellite churches, which makes more sense. The Methodist churches were simply trying to be entertaining and what they thought was “with it!” I know what you mean about people in the same cohort being competitive, but for us different, also. We are true weirdos, and older people didn’t seem to care or found it entertaining. People our age had a hard time dealing with us.

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          • What age group were the screens intended to attract? I can picture this working for little kids who might be more inclined to behave in church if there is a cinema-like video vs. a boring sermon. I can also picture this making sense for vision/hearing accessibility like if the screens are used for projecting text/sound for those with impairments.
            I didn’t realize that the evangelical churches stream a service from a satellite church. But I guess that makes sense

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          • The screens were supposed to attract teens and twenties types. The evangelicals have full TV production of their services, and they are very good at producing slick, football game-like, rah rah, high energy services. Turned me off big time, but a lot of people love it. The Methodists suck at it. I don’t know why they try.

            Of course another reason young people are not interested is that many churches have lost a sense of what adherehants are supposed to believe. I remember one time a young woman from China asked the pastor at one church I was involved with what Methodists believed. He said “Ah! The Bible I guess!”

            I hit the freaking ceiling. I said “No! We DO NOT believe in the Bible. We ‘believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; Born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate; Was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into Hell; On the third
            day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
            We believe in the Holy Spirit; The Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body; And the life everlasting.'”

            That is the Apostle’s Creed I recited to the pastor and the young woman. He should have known that. We used recite the Apostle’s Creed in Sunday services, but he had stopped having the congregation recite it. BTW the Catholics recite the Nicene Creed which is much longer than the Apostle’s Creed. The Nicene Creed was first formulated and adopted in 325 CE and then updated in 381 CE. As a profession of faith, the wording was used to exclude heresies.

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          • So interesting. TVs seem like they would create the opposite of a high energy service. I’d think that an awesome cantor/choir/band and well-chosen arrangements would be more effective, but that’s me. I love gospel music, actually.

            That is a super-weird story about the pastor. Like you’d think of all people…maybe he thought the person asking the question didn’t have much in the faith? Although to someone with little background knowledge, saying “we believe in the Bible” is not especially elucidating.

            I did not know about the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, and the differences, so this was very educational.

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          • They have full rock bands, but it’s not anything like gospel music. I remember one song had the the lyrics “He reigns from above…” and the performers made rain like gestures with their fingers. I about choked laughing at their stupidity.

            Believing IN the Bible is a touchy subject. Most evangelicals worship the Bible as the infallible word of God. The Bible is their god, and you know the problem with that. Methodist doctrine is along the lines of take the Bible seriously not literally. Besides, most modern interpretations and understandings of the Bible are way off from how the ancient Israelites’ and first century Christians’ understood it.

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          • Exactly. It could be believing in the Bible literally as the word of G-d, believing in it seriously, but not literally, believing in it, but in practice, following the rabbinic commentary rather than the Bible itself (Judaism), etc.

            That is funny about the reigns/rains. I like some of the Christian rock music too. I feel like I’m not supposed to say that, but some of the stuff on the Christian rock station here are really catchy! I also like some rap, hip hop, pop, Disney (well, you knew that) – what’s life without some guilty pleasures.

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          • There some some excellent Christian rock songs. There is usually a few excellent songs in most genres. I know a lot of people identify with certain types of music, and judge other people by the type of music they like. That’s silly in my opinion. Everyone has their own tastes in music, and the great thing about music is there are styles and genres for every taste. I’m not a huge fan of Country music, but there are a lot of really decent Country songs out these days. I don’t like most rap, but there are a few really good rap songs I’ve heard. You don’t have to apologize for any music you like as far as I’m concerned.

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          • I like country so much that I forgot it was uncool to like country! (And in my area, it is uncool to like country music.) But yes, that too. I liked country line dancing before the local country line dance bar closed, even though I was not especially good at it – that’s even more embarrassing. Yeah, I hate the pretentious judgements of people based on music tastes. Life is short – just listen to music you like and quit judging everyone else, you know?

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          • I’m not much of a Country dancer, but I used to go to Country bars every now and then. A lot of the women at country bars are really good dancers and follow really well. In the 70s I learned all the disco dances. West Coast swing was a popular “slot” dance back then. Country has usurped West Coast swing and it’s changed a lot. I do the vintage style which has a lot of cool moves that are long lost. When I’ve danced West Cost swing with the good country dancers, they got really excited because the old WCS moves are not only cool they are pretty sensual as well. When the country women came to the salsa dancers they were fun to dance with because most of them could follow so well.

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  1. This is so spiritually moving. I am deeply affected by this. Thank you.

    This gave me chills. Breathtaking:
    “We wear garments threaded with fringes to kiss commandments”

    “Lest we one day take the holy part of ourselves as if it is a moon wrapped in brown paper, and light it on fire, sacrificing it to small gods.” … Amen. That is brilliant. Absolutely not worth it.

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  2. I was brought up Methodist, imo the driest religion on the planet. After much consideration, I converted to Roman Catholic, partly because of an attraction to the seeming timelessness of it, the deep roots, the saints, statues and incense, all of it suggesting a connection to something finer and eternal, something that would remain as the crosscurrents of the daily chaos swept by it.

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    • Thank you, although I must admit I feel a little uncomfortable about this comment. I am happy you have had such positive experiences with Jewish people, and I am gladly to be part of that positive experience. But Jews are full of variety, just like any other group. And while I would love to say that all Jews are wonderful, we also have our share of not so wonderful people too. But I am very glad and grateful that your experience has been positive. What is your background?

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  3. I love this piece and would love to hear more. I am Catholic and really appreciate the symbolism found in Judaism because so much of my own faith borrows from it. I will never understand the ignorance of anti-Semitic Catholics and always cut those people out of my life right away should I be unfortunate enough to meet one (thankfully that is extremely rare).

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    • I focused on Judaism here because it is most familiar to me and I could write it authentically. But I think there is a larger point about what is the purpose of tradition and its symbolism that transcends Judaism specifically. On the one hand, tradition almost by definition has an element of impracticality – one does a tradition not because it is practical or logical (it often isn’t), but because it’s tradition. But on the other hand, tradition is one of ways in which one builds a concrete connection to history or spirituality.

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        • Do not feel dumb, because this was deliberately written to ambiguously straddle the prose-poetry border. One prompt wanted prose, another wanted poetry, and I wanted this to work for both prompts because I didn’t want to write two different pieces.

          For the second draft of this when I’m not bothering with any prompts, I am going to make it more poem, put in proper line breaks, and fix the glaring grammatical error in the last sentence to “if it were a moon” (one of the prompts had the directive to incorporate “it is a moon wrapped in brown paper” exactly without any changes).

          Actually, I have mixed feelings about the last sentence generally. A few of the comments here suggest that line is working as written; Husband read this and thought it would make more sense to have the moon be one of the small gods one sacrifices to, not something sacrificed to a different small god. You can only sacrifice something that you actually own, right, and who owns the moon? Husband is very logical like that.

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          • Interesting. Thanks for the feedback! I hear you on the way “were” makes it more distant and “is” puts you closer. Maybe the grammatical solve is to take the what if aspect of the sentence out? But I feel like that changes the sentiment too much. Hmmm…revision is certainly tricky sometimes. I’ll play around with it

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  4. Poetic not only in the traditional sense of the word, and not only in its additional meaning of provoking and emotional response, but also in being thought-provoking: what is the role of symbolism? Are they intended to be guardrails as in “All of this is meant to remind us, lest we veer off-course.”? As elements that unite us? As catalysts to learn and explore? Or as warnings, as in “Lest we one day take the holy part of ourselves as if it is a moon wrapped in brown paper, and light it on fire, sacrificing it to small gods.”? Thank you for provoking this exploration!

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    • Great questions! I think tradition touches on several elements. There’s the “do this so we don’t forget our past” connection to history, the “we do this because we were commanded to”, and also, tradition builds habits and memories that make it less likely that one might veer off-course.

      Thank you!

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    • I’m really glad it was accessible. Often when publishing on my blog. I will link to an explanation of Jewish references. This time, I wanted to see if I could provide enough context within the poem. I’m really happy to get your feedback! And yes, I focused on Judaism because it comes more naturally for me, but I think there’s something here that transcends a specific religion

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  5. Thank you for sharing these traditions of your religion. It is both informative and interesting for a person of a different religion.
    Our first Chief Minister (our country’s self rule before independence from UK) was a Jewish lawyer.

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  6. Tradition and spirituality dance well together. I would even say that they must have each other to dance properly. Beliefs grow and evolved from a solid foundation. And when it comes to religion, said foundation is often crafted out ritual and observance.

    A lovely piece.

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  7. Never underestimate the power of symbols, especially the ones that move us to our very soul and were passed on like the most treasured of heirlooms. I need to show this one to my husband and children (he and my kids are Jewish). I think my mom-in-law would love it too.

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  8. ” and light it on fire, sacrificing it to small gods.”

    that is a very powerful ending, very well written poem.

    i was born and raised catholic, but in reality, i became agnostic at a very early age, before i even knew the word agnostic (around the time i discovered santa claus and the easter bunny were not real) but i have always been fascinated by religion. in college, i took a world religion class and a world literature class at the same time, best semester ever! i read the same material for both classes but viewed from different perspectives… kind of wish i had taken a world history class as well, that would have rounded out the experience perfectly i think.

    i am fascinated by symbolism, both as a writer and a person, the relations between symbol and tradition and feeling of hope and, i guess, mental comfort. again, very well written, enjoyed this very much

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    • Thanks! Great to get your feedback. Whenever I write poetry with religious themes or concepts, I’m always interested in how it reads to readers across the spectrum of religious belief and practice, including agnostic and non-believers, so I really appreciate your feedback.

      That sounds like a great experience to be taking world lit and world religion at the same time. Were these classes related to your major, or classes taken for fun? Reading the same material but through different lens is a great exercise I think. And fascinating to think about how religion has shaped culture and literature throughout the centuries.

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      • you are welcome!

        my degree was in biology (which i never did finish) so the classes were just for fun.

        “…And fascinating to think about how religion has shaped culture and literature throughout the centuries.”

        yes, and also the reverse, the effect culture and literature had on religion, i.e., the effect of the introduction of the printing press in europe and how it changed christianity forever, etc. (also in china, in buddhism and taoism) i could go on and on.

        culture and religion are deeply connected throughout the world, in every religion and culture, and produces massive amounts symbolism, which permeates literature, whether religious or otherwise, which paints endless portraits of the human psyche, the human condition… which is what i find so interesting.

        currently, i have been reading about how the symbol of ouroboros and infinity are kind of analog in their nature, and how ideas like kabbalah (tree of life and magic boxes, etc) are more digital in their nature. whether or not any of that is true or even relevant, i don’t know, but it’s interesting

        sorry, i got kind of windy there, i enjoyed your poem very much!

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        • Great point about the impact of the printing press. There are parts of the prayer service from our services that are repeated aloud – a holdover from when more people in the congregation couldn’t read and/or didn’t have prayer books. And yes, the symbolism, human psyche, the universal search for meaning and connection.
          I was a science major myself. My grades were terrible.
          No apologies needed – I enjoy the conversation!

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