Monday, September 20, 2010

Point Of Origin

My wife, the Hebrew University literary critic, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, was asked by Harvard's Worship and Study Congregation to share reflections in response to the Torah reading during Yom Kippur services at this past weekend. Sidra noted that tshuva, usually translated as "repentance," means "return"--and asks, return to what, exactly?

The danger, she stresses, is the yearning to return to a kind of primordial innocence, a "sweet nostalgia" that becomes "vengeful." I thought readers of this blog might like to give her sermon some time. It is hard to think of a more piercing critique of the extremist tendencies that have gripped Jews over the past 40 years, but in a language, and with sensibilities, we once called Judaism:

I want to talk about teshuva. As we all know, the word that connotes repentance in Hebrew literally means return. I’ve long been fascinated by the notion of return to some pristine state—‘renew our days as of old’ (hadesh yameinu ke-kedem) and wondered what the collective voice is pointing to when it invokes this something called "Kedem." This is of course not limited to the High Holiday liturgy. In one of the seven wedding blessings recited under the chupah, the wedding canopy, we allude to the primordial harmony of lovers fresh with the joy of their Divine manufacture in the Garden of Eden from "Kedem."

שַמֵח תשַמח רעים אהובים כשַמֵחַךָ יצירךָ בגן עדן מקדם

Is "Kedem," קדם, then, a place–the eastmost point, the cradle of our existence, what we once would have referred to unselfconsciously as The Orient, our ultimate point of orientation—or is it a time, the very first moment of time? In any case, as a time/place or chronotope, it is a reference to the very beginning, that Edenic millisecond in our mythical consciousness before the temptation and the deception and the discord and the punishment. So what does it mean to invoke that brief glimmer of utter innocence as the time/place to which we, weary with life and history, desire to return? And the corollary to that question is: what is the difference, if any, between personal and collective teshuva, between the idea of return as a personal point of reference and as a collective object of desire, the eschatology of return to the point of origin?