Thoughts on Religion and Return

Any true religion is poetry translated into bodily action. That is, religion approximates—and can only approximate—a level of life that cannot be expressed in words. Wars between religions result from taking these approximations too proudly and literally, treating them as flat truth rather than path.

I do not believe Judaism has an edge over Christianity or vice versa. That Judaism is now my form of religious expression does not mean that I believe much of it literally at all. And yet I believe that it points at something, and that its rituals and texts have centuries, sometimes millennia, of practice and wisdom behind them. The conflict between the concept of a single God and that of a Trinity can be (partially, tangentially) resolved if we consider how far God lies beyond our comprehension in the first place. That is one of the central tenets of Judaism: that God is far greater, far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Even the Shechina (the manifestation of God in the world) is barely at the edge of our perception; God’s other levels are so deep and immense that at most we can apprehend the existence of the vastness.

Christianity ritualized and championed the concept of conversion; while Judaism has had converts here and there all along, Christianity made conversion its central premise. Any Christian is (supposedly) a convert, since to be a Christian, you must willingly turn yourself over to Christ. There’s a beautiful openness to this, but also a temptation toward condescension: toward the view that those who have not converted are, at best, poor lost souls.

I do not see a necessary conflict between Judaism and Christianity (within an individual). I know that the two religions are historically and theologically incompatible, and painfully so. I know that not only the Catholic Church, but also Protestant churches have traditionally portrayed the Jews as the killers of Christ—which evades what I see as the true sources of the crucifixion: human nature, tragic misunderstanding in all directions, and political expedience. (Not to mention that Jesus the historical figure probably came across as a bit of a gadfly.) But I have room for internal reconciliation, not only between the religions themselves, but between what they have been for me. I have no desire to be a Jewish Christian. I have an aversion to movements such as “Jews for Jesus” that claim a Jewish identity while proclaiming Christ. I reject insinuations that Christianity is superior to Judaism and other religions. But it isn’t for nothing that the trope of Christ has moved people around the world and inspired astounding art. Treating people kindly, no matter what their status, feeding and healing them, encouraging them to lay their sins aside and start over, and speaking in parables that point to our own deepest contradictions and deceptions—that’s profoundly compelling and confounding. To me it’s no surprise that this man was described as the “son of God”—but that term has led to all kinds of grief.

Judaism, for its part, can overemphasize the tribe and tribal identity; while many congregations are moving away from this and trying to welcome people of different backgrounds, you can still feel distinctly left out if you do not know the many codes of Jewish life. Yet Judaism is not self-enclosed; tikkun olam (roughly, helping to repair the world), hesed (lovingkindness, charity), and welcoming the stranger are among its central practices.

In my late teens and early twenties (starting toward the end of high school, and then at Yale) I attended church and was baptized and confirmed (by turns Episcopalean, Lutheran, Catholic). But my life was in upheaval; my family was breaking up, I was asserting early independence, and trying to figure out who I was in myriad ways. I lacked even basic self-confidence. Being Jewish wasn’t even in my consciousness; I knew only vaguely that I was Jewish according to Jewish law, and knew close to nothing about what that could mean. Once, with a friend, I attended several Jewish services at Yale, but the more traditional services seemed remote from me, and the Reform service seemed like summer camp. Christianity, in contrast, was open-armed and engaging, up to a point. I say “up to a point” because I never felt comfortable with churchiness, with the idea of being a “good Christian.” To me, the point of religion, or part of it, was never to become pat and staid.

Much of my searching took place at Dwight Hall, and in Dwight Chapel itself: not only services, but late evenings when I would sit there alone and listen to the organ, At Dwight Hall (Yale’s center for social service and social justice), I took part in many activities—service, political advocacy, Cabinet meetings, support groups, get-togethers, events and discussions—and endured a few heartbreaking crushes. I was mixed up and unmoored, so badly in need of company that I neglected my studies, and so unsure of myself that I made friendships difficult if not impossible. But I met remarkable people and have rich memories of that time.

Two and a half years into my studies and extracurriculars, I took time off from Yale and worked at Sterling Memorial Library for several years; the work kept me in contact with the university and brought regularity and responsibility into my life. When I returned to Yale as an undergraduate, it was with clear focus; I did well in my studies, graduated with distinction in the (Russian) major, and went on to graduate school there (where I ultimately earned a Ph.D., with a dissertation on Gogol, and translated a volume of Tomas Venclova’s poems). I had distanced myself from religious practice; from the age of twenty-four or so, I no longer went to church. It took another twenty-five years before I would start going to synagogue and learning Jewish liturgy and cantillation.

My entry into Jewish life was different from my earlier explorations, though not entirely. For one thing, I had solid footing; for another, the impulse came not only from an internal yearning, but from a perception of history. A series of events brought me to my first encounters with Hebrew and Jewish liturgy: in particular, a recording of the “Blessing Before Haftarah,” which had a strong resonance for me, a memory of something I didn’t remember. I found meaning in those very syllables and melodies; because of this beginning, and because of the richness of the learning over time, I have been a practicing Jew for almost ten years, and serving as Szim Salom’s cantor here in Hungary for five. This way of life is for the long term, with increasing responsibilities, so now I have room to look back and pull things together. It is essential for me to do so; I have changed and learned a lot over the years, but everyone has a unity between past and present, and I am ready to face my own.

When we visited Dwight Chapel with the Hungarian group in October (during the ALSCW conference at Yale), when Sebő and Gergő (the Platon Karataev duo) played a few of their songs there, old memories started to come up for me, but the music in the room was far more important to me right then. Still, it was only because of this past, my readiness to return to it in some way, and the helpfulness of the Dwight Hall staff that we were able to be there at all. Also, maybe the possibility wouldn’t have occurred to me if we hadn’t had to cancel the concerts, and if Gergő and Sebő hadn’t been so willing to play this unofficial, informal session for its own sake. On top of that, if Tim and Jenn hadn’t been able to lend their guitars in time for this, there would have been no music, though we might still have stopped inside. The songs themselves, or many of them, have to do with internality, searching, intuition, self-loss, but are not religious per se—so there was no statement here, no pressure to believe this or that. All of these conditions together allowed for this beautiful occasion, and now it too has joined the layers of life.

I made a few edits to this piece (for clarity) after posting it.

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6 Comments

  1. Re: Any true religion is poetry translated into bodily action.

    Exactly rite 😉

    Reply
  2. Joyce

     /  November 25, 2022

    I love hearing about your journey!!!

    Reply

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

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