...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Lewis & Clark School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Eric and I were talking at the Religious Studies reception about which academic departments would correspond to the different Hogwarts houses, if Hogwarts were a liberal arts college. (Hot Tom: "You guys are such dorks!") We're stuck on Gryffindor--I propose History, but Eric thought International Affairs; the IA students have to be brave to deal with the crazy-ass, Slytherin-esque professors in that department. Maybe Biochem? Ravenclaw would definitely be Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Classical Studies. Slytherin would be International Affairs and Political Science. And we immediately agreed that Communications is the Hufflepuff of the liberal arts. (Eric wanted to add Sociology/Anthropology to Hufflepuff, but I protest!) Post your ideas!

After that intellectual debate, I talked with Sylvia, the Jewish studies instructor, about--surprise!--Hasidic Judaism. Sylvia is, I believe, of the Conservative tradition, which means that she is more observant than Reform Jews, but less observant (and more skeptical about the necessity and importance of observance) than Modern Orthodox and Hasids. Regardless, she's friendly with the Lubavitcher Hasidic community in Portland and I enjoyed hearing about her experiences with them. At the end of the conversation I brought up "tikkun olam," the mending of the world. Ever since I first learned of it two years ago, I've been fascinated by the parallels between the humanitarian, liberal Jewish focus on social justice (for instance, check out the Jewish Renewal magazine "Tikkun") and the ultra-fundamentalist Lubavitcher emphasis on tikkun olam as a means of bringing about Mosiach, the Messiah. Lubavitchers believe--and here they're heavily influenced by mystical Jewish kabbalistic belief--that by encouraging secular Jews to pursue more observant lives, they're piecing together the brokenness of the world, perfecting the world, and bringing the Messiah that much closer to returning.

Sylvia added a really important distinction and nuance to my understanding: the Lubavitchers see the brokenness of the world as, fundamentally, the Jewish exile from the Holy Land. Social justice for them is about what's good for the Jews; piecing together the brokenness of the world is primarily about rekindling the sacred light in each Neshama, or Jewish soul. That's not to say that they don't care at all about us gentiles, but there is not anything approaching the worldwide social justice emphasis that you find in, for instance, Reform Judaism, or any real sense of the importance of environmental conservation. She mentioned how frustrating it is to attend Shabbos dinners with Lubavitcher families and find that everything is served on disposible plates, with plastic knives and forks that are just dumped into the trash. Conversely, Reform Jews typically don't believe in the physical person of the Messiah, just the "messianic times," whereas belief in Mosiach and his imminent return is a central tenant of, at least, Lubavitcher Hasidism.

As I was walking from Howard to the library, I had an idea: writing my thesis contrasting the notions of tikkun olam in the two traditions, Reform Judaism and Lubavitcher Hasidism. After all, I'll have years to study and write about American religion. I'm going to have to talk with Kugler about how far I can get not knowing Hebrew or Yiddish, and I might have to tweak it depending on what he tells me, but right now, I'm really excited!