Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Faith Of Sick Souls

This year, Harvard's veteran Worship and Study Congregation took over the Unitarian Church in Harvard Square for the High Holidays; the congregation's rabbi, Dr. Norman Janis, asked me to offer some thoughts during the Yom Kippur Torah service, which I was honored to do--especially in a space in which the memory of William James is strong. Consider this a sermon for (permanently) recovering souls. If you are what James called, with graceful irony, "healthy-minded," you may want to give this a miss.

Mostly, today, we stipulate our faults and plead for forgiveness. I want to revisit this morning some things we seem to know in our bones but don’t really discuss very much. Yom Kippur’s liturgical parts—I don’t just mean the Torah and Avodah services, but the prayers and piyutim themselves—are fascinating for many reasons, but most of all perhaps for their often morbid overtones, which produce, ironically, a kind of crescendo of meaning by the end of the day. How does this work?

It is obvious, I suppose, why the contemplation of death, and inevitably one’s own death, is so gripping. But why should the poetics of death—not afterlife, but oblivion–seem so consonant with, of all things, relief? Let me ask this another way—still in keeping with the metaphoric of the day. Why, if we are merely clay in the hands of a potter—and an apparently indifferent potter at that—do we feel more, not less, substantial? Why, if we are matter, do we matter?

Read the entire sermon here.