Monday Washing in New York Circa 1900

Stories that Wear the Clothes of My People

When the “Jewish heirs of old Israel” went into exile, said the Oxford, they came “to perceive that there were other ways to understand the death of their nation.” They learned to “sing new songs to their God,” whose authority “transcended all national boundaries.” They figured out a way “to be both Jewish and citizens of diverse nations” (Oxford Study Bible, page 42).

It was a transformation and it demonstrated some serious resilience.

When Israel was dismantled and the people exiled, when they were forcibly removed from the land of their stories, they couldn’t rely on the physical roots of their faith to define them anymore. In order to survive, their faith had to become portable. In order to travel, God had to become larger than any nation: so large, in fact, that no nation could claim him solely — not even their own. In order to maintain some grasp on their God, they had to share him. They had to open doors to others, even as they fought to close doors on how they would or wouldn’t participate with those others.

It was “a situation in which the struggle for new identities, new forms of religious community, and new ways of being the people of Yahweh, could be explored.”

These were the communities of the biblical tradition, those “that produced and treasured it” (ibid., page 41). I did not produce the biblical tradition, but I come from a community that treasures it. Now, millennia later, thanks to the way that ancient Israel reinvented itself during the diaspora, people like I who had nothing to do with the production of Israel’s traditions nevertheless feel that they belong to them, because they treasure them.

I wonder if a global religion is too big

Religious homogenization may be no better than the cultural kind, where every highway off-ramp and mini-mall in America looks about the same. It’s not to say there isn’t one God, but that it may not be good for everyone in the world to approach that God in the same way. A healthy person in one place will have much in common with a healthy person anywhere else, but the ways to achieve health are diverse. There are many culinary traditions, many kinds of work, many ways to exert, connect, nourish, celebrate. There are many ways to worship.

This ancient Israelite anomaly, where they reinvented their faith in order to transplant it in so many other countries, both moves and unnerves me. They found a way to hold onto their root even after they’d been torn up, and that makes my heart beat with hope for home. But in so doing, they erected impassable walls between themselves and their new homes, their new neighbors. And though they did hold on, they couldn’t keep from evolving into something new. Bringing the old ways with them kept their tradition from dying, but it also divorced those ways from the land that defined it.

Without context, what are we? Facts are meaningless until they’re framed in a story. A rule of grammar, a foreign word — they mean nothing until you have a web of interrelated rules and words to give them context. What is Zion to me? An image, an expectation of some spiritual realm; but to those who lived there, it was concrete. They knew what it smelled like.

I’m starting to think that religions should be local

It’s fine to know about other peoples and places; it’s good to learn their languages and see their homes. But I think your heart needs to be rooted in your own land. Religion is place-specific. In the same way the universal truths that any religion can express are tied to culture, they’re also tied to place.

It’s taken me a long time to see the role that culture plays in faith, and to get it that that’s okay, that people need to adapt things into their own context, even when they’re converting. Now the importance of location strikes me too. We’re so used to underestimating the specificity of place. Our fruit, toys, cars, clothes come from around the world. Only lately have we started to embrace the richness of living, eating and buying locally.

I realize that in a way, what I’m trying to do now is like what the early Jews were attempting. I want to understand how on earth it makes sense for me to treasure the traditions of a people not my own. They wanted to understand how in God’s name their nation could die. I too seek new songs to sing to my God, songs that hold relevance to me, an American woman living around the turn of the twenty-first century, just as they sought new songs to build new relationships in a new land with the God they knew. I too am struggling for a new identity, a new form of religious community and a new way of being among God’s people. I too want to reconcile my religious and ethnic lineage with my current place and time and people.

At the same time, we live in a global world. We read Rudyard Kipling, Rumi, Lao Tzu, and we’re better for it. We grow Japanese maples in Oregon. We eat wheat, which comes from the Near East, and we raise chickens that were domesticated in China. There’s no point in resisting all that.

At the same time, what I want now is to build a faith rooted in the soil beneath my feet: one that speaks from the world directly surrounding me, that I can taste in this air and smell in these woods. One that can’t be found just anywhere, because it comes from here. I want stories that wear the clothes of my people. Not stories that make me stretch my imagination halfway around the globe to a culture I will never fully understand because it isn’t mine, and to call home a place I have never been, from which I did not come.