Sunday, April 12, 2009

Practicing Human

"If things are so bad, why don't you just leave?"  No matter how often you hear such things, they always sting--in part, of course, because there are enemies and scoffers you don't mean to comfort--but more deeply because unusually detailed criticisms imply an unusually vivid idea of how things might have been; they occur, typically, to people who have had their lives changed by moments of revelation and romance, when things that seemed painfully contradictory seemed reconciled--when something like "identity" took shape. To be asked why you don't leave feels like being disinherited.

This is a round about way of saying why Jim Carroll has been as much an inspiration as a friend for nearly 30 years, and why I so resent the odd review of his new bookPracticing Catholic, in today's Times. More than anyone I know, Jim has criticized the church out of a relentless desire to live out what he knew it could be; to hold dear its history, grandeur and gifts, and yet finally move it beyond the grotesque infallibility of its clerical hierarchy. The reviewer of his book, Jack Miles, a good man and a fine writer in his own right, is asking Jim why, in view of all his criticisms, he remains a Catholic. As if Jim has not asked his friends to answer this very question, letting loose a self-deprecating laugh, every time he asks them to read a manuscript. As if asking this is not like asking someone on page 879 of a Russian novel why he intends to finish it.

Obviously, there is particular fellow-feeling here, since a great many people are now asking why people with democratic impulses don't just give up on the Jewish state. For me, the moment of truth came on a farm in the Valley of Jezreel where I volunteered for work during the summer of 1967. Chanan, the farmer who hosted me--his sunny daughters hanging from him--was trying to explain that his friend who had been killed in the war was an excellent farmer; he said, "mi shichmo va maala," "from his shoulders and higher," which I instantly recognized as a fragment of the phrase "from his shoulders and higher taller than the people," the description of Saul--so I had I had learned--from The Prophets which caused Samuel to choose him as king of Israel. 

Just why hearing Chanan say this meant the world to me is hard to explain quickly. I loved my father, still back in Montreal, but hated (as he tried to, but could not quite) the orthodoxy of the extended family. Which meant I loved his Zionist criticism of orthodoxy but loved all the more Philip Roth's skepticism about fathers. Then again, I loved the Torah, but hated what the rabbis did to it, but hated all the more what Nazis did to rabbis. Anyway, here on my new mentor's farm, I suddenly saw a way of loving more freely. One did not have to sacralize the Torah, one could milk cows quoting it. One did not have to give up on fathers.

JIM'S MOMENT WAS the feel on his cheek of Pope John XXIII's cheek, at an audience in the presence of his father, whose own cheek (so we learn from Jim's award-winning memoir, American Requiem) was not easily brushed against. This meeting was just before, and became inseparable in Jim's mind from, Vatican Two and President Kennedy's election--events that were going to insinuate what American Catholic life might yet be, and has since become something else again.

What Jim teaches is quite simple, really. How you make your stand for conscience defines who you are. Where you make that stand is mostly a matter of fate. You may, for all kinds of good reasons, choose to let the cup pass from your hand, but it will be placed there. To ask Jim why he doesn't leave the church is to wish, not for a better world, but for another one--not a bad thing to be thinking about on, of all days, Easter Sunday.

So here is an Easter gift, and a Passover gift, for that matter. Listen to Jim's interview about his book on Chris Lydon's indespensible program "Open Source."

7 comments:

Y. Ben-David said...

I guess the message here is that "Judaism would be fine if only could get rid of the religiously observant Jews and the Rabbis" and that "Catholicism would be fine if we could only get rid of the pope and the Church".

Bernard Avishai said...

YBD: Thank you for a serious question which deserves an answer--well, actually, a question. Have you never heard of the Haskalah, which engendered Zionism, or Vatican Two? I am myself observant after a fashion; religious if not "dati." And Jim is certainly not the first to suggest that the Church needs democratizing. The simple truth that animates me is that the human limitations that make democratic tolerance necessary for politics also makes it necessary in the real of spiritual insight. This makes orthodoxies of all kinds, whether in physics, or in Judaism, or in the Church, vaguely ridiculous. And so you have to ask, Why do people hang on to them? We know why children do, but why people?

Shoded Yam said...

"...We know why children do, but why people?"

You're a nice guy Bernie, but you know why. Despite repeated claims of intellectual and moral superiority, most people are lazy and stupid. Listen to the chorus of the great unwashed as they chant repeatedly; "Excuse me, but I was told there'd be no math". It's easier to adhere to dogmatism, to listen to the siren song of the charlatan and the carnival barker, to use religion as some kind of moral and ethical crutch, than it is to blow the dust of your own moral compass, make the effort to recognize, acknowledge, and act upon those truths which are empirical, and to discern that which is right and wrong. I suggest, that when the almighty gave us brains, he was in effect delegating responsibility. Since he put so much labor into this piece of work that is man, He has every right to expect us to use the grey matter He gave us, not to sit around all day asking Him what to do through the medium of incompetent interlocutors.

Bruce said...

Shoded Yam, John XXIII was NOT an "incompetent interlocutor." Neither is Mr. Carrol, and, after reading Mr. Avishai's wise and generous account of Mr. Carrol's tenuous position in the Catholic Church, I have to consider that neither is he. Mr. Avishai obviously knows that Mr. Carrol has to be counted, after publication of his book Contantine's Sword, as one of Judaism's greatest modern friends.

Shoded Yam said...

"..Shoded Yam, John XXIII was NOT an "incompetent interlocutor."

No disrespect to Mr. Carrol, but how do you know? Sorry but I'm somewhat sceptical of this concept of "gods emissary on earth" stuff.

I'm reminded of that scene from Monty Python's Holy Grail;

King Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: Well I didn't vote for you.

King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.

Woman: Well how'd you become king then?

[Angelic music plays... ]
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.

Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

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