Saturday, August 7, 2010

this little piggy and the scape-chicken

Religions have this thing called 'take-backs' or maybe 'do-overs.' Usually framed in terms of regret and/or repentance and often accompanied with little rituals of absolution. I understand that afterwords, the penitent feels better, maybe relieved, and maybe absolved. Cleansed. Purified. Sinless. And a lot of crap like that.

This is one of the things that makes me despise religion, and why I've seen it as a (dare I say it) cosmic joke that I have somehow ended up teaching about religion when I set out to do anything but. Anything!

My specialty was land reform. Agrarian development. The study of risk management, State control, peasant strategies. Sheep, goats, chickens, camels. Anything but religion. Mud brick architecture. Kinship patterns. Alliance and descent. Cycles of history. Oscillation of elites. Royal dynasties and political elites. Oops, here we go ... sliding dangerously close to religion. Back to peasantry. Farm labor. Migration. Anything, anything but religion.

It's not just the god problem. I mean, that's a pretty obvious objection. But this absolution thing just feels like cheating. Same with notions of a potentially punitive afterlife. Fear school and absolution. It feels like a cheat because it implies that we can make up for our mistakes. That there's the possibility of redemption. And, to be blunt, I don't think so.

There's something too safe about the idea of repentance. And knowing that you can repent your misdeeds, accept your absolution, and poof start over with a clean slate.

As far as I'm concerned, there is no clean slate.

What if, instead, we acknowledge what we consider our mistakes — and live with them. Knowing that we've done something just terrible and that there really isn't any way to make it better. Being more responsible in the future is fine, right, and even righteous maybe — but it doesn't erase the past.

Yom Kippur rolls around and we're supposed to think about the year that has just passed. Think about our misdeeds, and prepare to make amends in the following year. I'm okay with that. Okay with living the future more in accord with who we aspire to be. But that doesn't absolve us of what we have done in the past.

There's an ancient ashkenazi custom called kaporos that appears to be alive and well, especially in the bowels of Brooklyn and other abodes of highly ritualized orthodoxy. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the sins of the penitent are ritually transferred to a live chicken. Hens for the women, roosters for the men. The penitent then invokes a prayer of atonement (kippur / kaporos are permutations of the grammatical root for atonement), waves the chicken overhead three times, killing the now sin-laden chicken. The year's sins are thereby magically transferred, the human is atoned, and the chicken gets eaten by the poor.

I think scape-goats have just been too pricey in the past couple millennia. Lucky for the goats. Maybe people think their sins are (conveniently) chicken-sized and that a goat would be just a little too melodramatic for modern times. Imagine Brooklyn, for example, with all those scape-goats trying to run for the hills to make those sins disappear.

Kaporos, it seems to me, makes the selling of indulgences seem downright admirable and thoroughly benign.

And how do you atone for the sin of trying to slough off your sins onto a chicken?

I've only ever regretted one thing in my entire life, and there's just no shaking it off. I can hear my son groan: "Oh no, not this again. I'm so sick of hearing about this!"

But here's the thing. Nothing, nothing can make it better. The horrible guilt just doesn't go away. There's nothing I can do to change the past. Being mindful in the present is fine, of course, but it doesn't change anything.

Here's what happened.

It was Christmas time in NYC. Christmas tree with all the bells and whistles at gramma's house on the upper East Side. One of the main reasons we spent every single Christmas in NYC in those years is that I refused to have a Christmas tree in my house. I mean, my parents just couldn't have handled it. And clearly neither could I.

I remember it as clear as day ('cause I can't get it out of my mind). R was about two, which means that M was probably five and a half. She, the pampered baby, was sitting in my lap and I was doing this-little-piggy with her. (Okay, piggies, Christmas, I know— but all the treif is actually irrelevant here). And she would say, "Again, mommy! Again!" And I'd do it again. And again. And again.

And M, my perfect first-born came up to us, and said (after the millionth piggy), "Do me, mommy! Do my little piggies," or something reasonable like that.

And I turned to him and said, "You're too old for this ..." and returned to indulging the babe in arms.

That was it.

The big crime. And what made it a crime was the look on his face. That look that I still can't get out of my mind. That brings me close to tears even today. This was the terrible deed — a sin, as it were, if I understand the term correctly.

And I've apologized, year after year. And my son just thinks I'm nuts. And I've been absolved again and again, by the only one who counts — my son — and it's not enough.

So what's this about? Would wagging a chicken over my head three times make this crime or any other disappear? Do indulgences or repentance make one blameless? Can you give a heartfelt apology and be forgiven? Can you forgive yourself ?

I don't think I believe in forgiveness, either. Because I don't think anything really washes away. Maybe the real lesson I learned too young: I can see Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, trying to wash that blood off her hands:

Here's the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand ... (Act 5, Scene 1)

If she could just swing a chicken over her head three times, we'd all have been spared the delicious torment of her soul. And we'd never bother giving Macbeth a second read.

Now, objectively speaking I know that this-little-piggy pales in comparison to Lady Macbeth... but it feels the same to me.

I disappointed my son. I favored my daughter. In that moment I forced him to grow up. As if he were now beyond any trivial silliness that I might share with his little sister. I wasn't fair...

And over and over and over again. The Lady Macbeth thing, ad nauseum.

"Out damned spot, out I say ..." but it never washes clean.

Which is why I much prefer Freud to religion. No chickens. No goats. No take-backs. No do-overs. Just a comfy couch and charging by the 50-minute hour. Until you bore yourself to tears. Give it up. Get on with it.

And then it's done.

And then you feel cleansed. Purified. Absolved. And there we are, back again, getting dangerously close to religion. And this is why I so love teaching about religion. Because we get to explore the myriad ways that humans seek to alleviate their suffering. And the lengths they go when they cannot wash it away.

Oh. And nobody gives a shit about land reform anymore. Even the families in mountains of North Africa that I've worked with all these years — would much rather talk about religion these days — or even Freud — anything but land or chickens or goats.


  1. I think there must? should? be a redemption mechanic, although I wouldn't go as far as outline it. An argument could be made that it is is more difficult to accept redemption from the outside, than saying it's my mistake and I'm living with it. I would certainly make that argument.

    As for the 50 minute hour of Freud, I've been reading Foster Wallace and the short story about the depressed woman and the therapist comes to mind.

  2. I've been thinking about what you wrote for weeks now, and I just can't parse it. Redemption from the outside as MORE difficult? I've seen therapists (and priests) give absolution, and the awfulness just seems to wash away. I always felt redemption from the outside is just too damned easy. But maybe I just don't really get it.

    And I think I need to read more of Foster Wallace!