Sunday, July 02, 2006

Adonai Eloheinu or Adonai Osmond?

Hafhida's puzzlement about why diversity-conscious UUs would end a prayer with salaam if Muslims don't even end prayers that way reminded me of a time about fifteen years ago, when I was a teacher in a Catholic high school in Minnesota.

I used to go batty in the mornings when the announcements would include some prayer about what "good Catholics" would think or do. I'd say to myself with a barely-surpressed fidget of discomfort, "Good gawd awmighty, that's what good HUMANS would do!" My English department colleague and fellow UU Paul S. and I would hide out in our classrooms during the so-called "chapel" services in the auditorium. They were hardly reverent: the students almost always released a lab mouse or some other source of mayhem just to kill the boredom.

At one point during my tenure I was keeping an eye on the computer lab for any students who might need help writing essays. I roamed the room, stopping whenever I saw a frustrated face and generally offering support. One of my students, Kellie, was working on a paper for Religion class. I read over her shoulder, "Jesus came to save his people from the Jews."

"Kellie," I said. "Did you know that Jesus was Jewish?"
Kellie hurriedly deleted the sentence and said, "Oh, I know, I know... of course I know that."

Yikes. I wanted to ask, "What are they teaching you in Religion, anyway?"

But I was already in trouble in the school. I was in trouble for living in sin with my boyfriend David who also taught there (although the two gay administrators were left alone since they obediently referred to their live-in partners as "my roommate"). I was in trouble for thundering at a student, "Sit down and don't be an ASS" when he jumped up and cheered at the end of the movie "The Diary of Anne Frank" as the Nazi stormtroopers broke into the Franks' attic hiding place. My students loved me, but I was in not a favorite of the administration.

David managed to make an artistic silk purse out of those sows' ears years, a fact that gives me great joy:

When I left the school and attended the good-bye party for myself and a few other teachers, I bowed my head respectfully for the lengthy blessing before the meal and almost couldn't stifle a chuckle when one of the Minnesotan administrators invoked the name "Adonai," but pronounced it "A-DON-ee," with the flattest Midwestern "a" you can possibly imagine. My boyfriend and I exchanged stricken looks and bitten lips (I mean we both bit our own lips; I didn't bite his).

They gave me a nice pen. They were nice Minnesotans. In Minnesota, Nice is the state religion.

That night I asked David, "Did you DIE when Mary Anne said AdAHnee? Since when do they use that word in their prayers, anyway?"
"It was a Jewish thing," he said. "They did it for you. I know because Mary Anne asked me about it beforehand."

I was touched and mortified all at the same time. I still am. It was sweet and well-meant, but it highlighted our difference and presumed a religious orientation based on my name and heritage that was inaccurate. With all good intentions, they butchered the word and invoked the Deity in terms that I have never used in my own devotional or congregational life.

Experiences like this are a small part of why I have never embraced the small-u Universalism of the 20th century that proclaimed the vision of One World Religion. None of the religious teachers I have deeply admired had this vision. Jesus didn't have it. The Dalai Lama doesn't have it. Elie Wiesel doesn't have it.

I know this will seem not to follow a logical through-line to many of you: how did I go from someone's endearing mispronouncement of "Adonai" to a lack of support for the concept of universal religion?

I'm not quite sure, but it has something to do with universalism's smorgasboard approach to language, as we discussed in my earlier post about concluding prayers with Everything But Gesundheit. Because one-world-religion universalists so often like to sprinkle their liturgies with exotic words and phrases from world religious traditions, often without even considering the possibility they are being inappropriate in doing so. I think we're getting better, but we have a long way to go yet.

Unitarian Universalist erroneously believe that if we harbor good will for a particular tradition within our breast, we are welcome to use the language of that tradition. It matters not if we know nothing beyond elementary basics of the religion's doctrines or if we may offend the ancestor spirits of a people by invoking their gods or using their prayers. It's all in fellowship, so it must be fine! If it's fine with us it must be fine!

I don't think it's fine, only in that I believe the trend in definining UUism as "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" (seen especially vibrantly in our religious education programs) is a failure of imagination and a blatant dishonesty, but that's beyond the scope of this post.

We have enough rich linguistic resources in a humanist, poetic, language of reverence and Biblical faith to draw on. I suggest we start there, and tread any other linguistic territories very, very carefully if we dare go there at all. When David explained to me that "Adonai" had been invoked as a kind of shout-out to the one Jew on the faculty (although I was, of course, religiously UU and culturally Jewish), I could just hear my ancestors saying, in the ancient, collective invocation of wry humor and resignation: "Oh darling... OY VEY."

I believe in radical hospitality and deep encounter between peoples of all faiths, and a mutual appreciation of their various traditions. But in my opinion, specificity of tradition is too precious, too divine and too culturally-bound to forego on behalf of (mostly) white Western people's idealistic vision of a universal faith.

This is a personal reflection based on my experiences. It doesn't feel particularly logical or organized to me, but it's honest. Take from it what you like. Discuss, dismiss, etc. on your own blogs or with friends.
A Good Sabbath to you.


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