SERIATIM,  OR SAILING INTO THE WIND[1]

 

The Images

 

            It is not possible to sail directly into the wind. A sail must have wind blowing across it, or into it, in order to propel a boat. Hence, if one turns a sailboat directly into the wind, the sail flutters uselessly and the boat cannot advance. If one must move in the direction from which the wind is coming, one must advance in a zig-zag fashion, always sailing at an angle to the wind. This strategy is called “tacking.” Ideally, one sails at 45 degrees to the wind in one direction and then tacks 90 degrees to sail at 45 degrees to the wind in the other direction, repeating the procedure as often as necessary to reach an up-wind destination. If the ideal cannot be achieved, one sails as close to the wind as one can, advancing into it towards one’s destination as best as one is able.[2]

            Seriatim : medieval Latin; “one after another, one by one in succession.”

 

The Images and Life

 

            Living life is sailing into the wind.[3]

            Sometimes, the wind is strong; sometimes, light. Sometimes, the trip is a pleasure; sometimes, it is hard, even dangerous, work.

            Always, life is a moving into, an advance toward -- love, success, understanding; peace, accomplishment, friendship -- goals which are not easily attained, yet worth striving for.

            Sometimes, life pulls and pushes us; we are caught up in the wind. Sometimes, we are in control, or more accurately, we have some control; we develop a useful relationship with the wind, with life.

            When we articulate a goal worth achieving, rarely can we attain it by direct assault. Life, in its variety, complexity, and in its very integrity, is not given to simple, straightforward acquisition. We cannot sail directly into the wind of life. So, we learn to tack, to advance obliquely. In order to get where we want to go in life, we set our eyes on a goal, we test the winds, and we set off on an indirect course, perhaps one which is at 45 degrees from our goal. We continue on that course for a while, until we seem to be getting off course. Then, we tack, we “come about” and we set off on another oblique course, always with the goal in sight -- the goal which can only be reached by indirect advance. And we repeat the procedure -- check the goal, check the forces we must engage, set an oblique course, sail; recheck and set another course -- as often as necessary. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” -- but with method, with subtlety, with indirection.

            We sail through life, by tacking into the wind of life. This accounts for the seemingly erratic nature of the human endeavor for, to achieve our life goals, we must do contradictory things; to get where we are going, we must sail in different directions.

            We live seriatim. We live in sequences of acts, and they do not form a straight line; rather, they err, they wander, in a rough direction. We walk the path of life, not as an unswerving highway, but as a meandering road that gets to where it is going, but indirectly. We walk the path of life, not as a concrete ribbon, but as a path that wanders through meadows and fields and cities, yet arrives at its destination, in due time. To act seriatim  is to err with vision. It is to start, to stop, to get lost, to find the path once more, and to start again; and it is to repeat this process as often as necessary, as long as we have strength. Life is a walk, not a march; a walk errs, even as it heads towards a destination.[4]

 

*

 

            Universes of discourse are tacks, paths in different directions which enable us to live life in all its variety without losing our sense of direction.  Thus, one may explore the universe of aesthetic discourse -- its terms, its varieties, its nuances, and the points where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. One learns about art, music, dance, and the other muses and draws on them for an understanding of life. The arts serve as a fundament of metaphor for what life is all about.

            One never exhausts the aesthetic; rather, one tacks and chooses another course. Then, one may explore the universe of moral discourse -- its terms, its varieties, its difficulties, and the points where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. One learns about goodness, evil, justice, compassion, and suffering and draws on them for an understanding of life. Moral judgement serves as a way to see and express one core of human existence.

            One never exhausts the moral; rather, one tacks and chooses another course. Then, one may explore the universe of personal discourse -- its concepts, its tools of interpretation, its subtleties, and the areas where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. One learns about character, transference and countertransference, trauma, and healing and one draws on these, too, for an understanding of life. Personal psychology serves as a way to comprehend the depth and power of humanness and of life.

            One never exhausts the personal; rather, one tacks and chooses another course. Then, one may explore the universe of rational discourse -- its structures, its power, its usefulness, and the areas where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. One learns about logic, about reason as a way to order reality, about rational communication as a tool for conflict resolution and one draws on these, too, for an understanding of life. The intellect serves as a way to see the world and our relationship to it.

            One never exhausts reason either; rather, one tacks and chooses another course. Then, one may explore the universe of spiritual discourse -- its otherness, its comforting power, its inspiration, and the points where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. One learns about holiness, ritual, sacred time, and sacred space and one draws on these insights for an understanding of life. The numinous, too, serves as a way to see the world, life, and our fellow human beings.

            There is no true starting place. On the contrary, one heads off into the wind of life and one tacks, from one universe of discourse to another. One sails into what life has to offer us, and one shifts course from one realm of human experience to another.[5]

            This shifting of courses creates contradictions: The spiritual may move us toward meditative retiring from the world, while the moral may move us to social action. The aesthetic may blind us to evil, while the personal may sensitize us to the same evil. Each course, each path, has its integrity, its meaning‑fulness. However, we cannot experience everything at once, nor can we act in consonance with all of our experience; so we alternate our contradictions, we live them fully but seriatim. 

            To be open to everything, even if one does it seriatim,  is to run the risk of having no center. It is to have identities, in place of identity. It is to defy the logocentric thrust of western tradition. But logocentrism is not the only way to see life. Life need not have only one center and we who live it need not have only one identity. Drawing from the universe of personal discourse, we know that, in different situations, we have different “identities.” I am father to my children, husband to my wife, teacher to my students, member of committees in some circumstances, rabbi in others, young in some contexts and old in others. Such multiple existence is true of all of us. One might say that these are roles, as distinct from identities; but we are our roles or, to put it differently, we live our roles fully, so fully that we fuse with our roles.[6]

            Furthermore, many of us are comfortable without the logocentric assumption of a single center. Our lives are rich and full and meaningful precisely because we tack and set new courses -- professionally, personally, morally, aesthetically, intellectually, and spiritually. Change -- repentance, being born again -- results from not “being in a rut,” from tacking to new courses in life.

            Finally, to live seriatim  is not to be completely without focus; there is still the wind into which one sails. Life lived on multiple paths still has a general direction, a compass setting, toward which one orients oneself from time to time. Life lived in many universes of discourse still has language and subjectivity.

 

The Images and the Text(s)

 

            A text has historical meaning; it also has moral and personal meaning, and aesthetic value, and rational coherence. To read a text is to be open to all the dimensions embedded in the text. Life is also a “text”; to live life is to be open, seriatim,  to all the dimensions of the text of life.

            Scripture, as the text par excellence  in western culture, is a model of shifting perspectives. Parts of it are narrative -- personal, moral. Parts are legal -- rational, moral, cultic. Parts are prophecy -- moral, aesthetic. Parts are pietistic -- spiritual (in the western sense of the word), personal. And parts are cultic -- holy, rational. To read Scripture is to sail into the wind of the text. To read the Bible is to tack, to set a new course every few verses or every few chapters.

            The rabbis debate which is more important study or action. In one place (Mishna, Avot 1:17) they say, “Study is not the essential; rather, deed.” And in another place (Mishna, Pe’ah 1:1), they list many deeds and say, “But study weighs as much as all the others taken together.” The issue of the relative importance of various commandments is widely discussed in rabbinic literature. The answer lies in tacking, in living life seriatim.[7] One engages the path of one mitsva; then, one tacks and sets out on the path of another mitsva. One devotes time and energy to study; then, to prayer; then, to charity; then, to acts of social justice and kindness; and the course keeps shifting. That is life. If life, then, seems disorderly, then it is that; but it is full, rich, deep, even if it seems “unprioritized.”

            Maimonides, in his philosophical work, teaches that prophecy is an emanation of pure intellectual-spiritual energy that comes from God to the prophet. That emanation is passed on to the rational and imaginative faculties of the human soul which give the emanation form; they transform it into concepts, words, and images. Prophecy, then, has a pre-verbal, pre-conceptual state which is only later converted into narrative, law, poetry, and ethics. Maimonides further teaches that, on Mt. Sinai, the people heard only a loud indistinguishable noise. Moses, however, since he was physically, morally, and intellectually prepared for revelation, was able to receive the intellectual-spiritual emanation in its pre-verbal, pre-conceptual state and to give it form; that is, Moses was able to take the revelation at Sinai and turn it into Torah, as we know it. In his thirteen principles of the faith, Maimonides takes a slightly different position. He teaches there that the Torah is word for word, indeed letter for letter, the binding Word of God; i.e., that it is not (just) the Mosaic rendering of the divine emanation but the “speech” of God in a very literal way.

            Why does Maimonides have this tension in his system? This, too, is a function of living life seriatim.  From the point of view of phenomenology, prophecy is a religious experience, an influx of divine consciousness which must be construed in human terms by the human subject. Yet from the point of view of social reality, prophecy is the authoritative revealed text, the “constitution” of the people. In this perspective, prophecy is the covenant with God, not a mixing of divine and human intellectual-spiritual consciousness. One needs both approaches in order to articulate a coherent socio-spiritual view of religion, and one lives first one, then the other, seriatim. [8]

            “For everything there is a moment, and a time for every need under the heavens. There is a time to ... and a time to ...” (Eccl. 3:1ff.). We start with enthusiasm, we waver, and then we reaffirm -- in all things: in marriage, in parenting, in career, in faith, even in theology. In matters of belief, there is a time for unyielding protest (on the subject of the holocaust) and there is a time for submission (on the subject of our own recalcitrance). There is a time for an absolutely omnipotent God (in humiliation and disaster) and there is a time for a fragile Lord[9] (in building a community or family). There is a time to repress the dissonance (in moments of danger) and a time to cultivate it (in prayer, poetry, study, and reflection). There is a time to demythologize (when history and literature beckon) and a time to live the myth fully (in seeking the depth of one’s souls within one’s people, one’s Torah, and one’s God). The polar structure of my rhetoric does not begin to grasp the complexity of the real-life movement; reality undermines the trope itself.

 

Other Voices

 

            Rebecca Chopp, in The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God [10] shows that the very structures by which we think and relate to one another reflect unstated assumptions that are inherent in our culture. In her words, “Language, subjectivity, and politics: these three realms, dimensions, common places, form today the structuring of the dominant  social-symbolic order” (104). Chopp, then, proceeds to “name the economies that dominate the basic themes and rules in modernity: in language, representational discourse; in subjectivity, narcissistic patterning; in politics, self-preservation” (105). The answer to oppressive structuring of language, subjectivity, and politics into a dominant social-symbolic order lies, according to Chopp, in “resistance to and transformation of the rules, principles, orderings, and substance of language, subjectivity, and politics” (107).

            After identifying two unsatisfactory types of feminist response (107-15), Chopp proposes a turn to the Word “not as primal referent for monotheistic ordering but as perfectly open sign that blesses specificity, difference, solidarity, embodiment, anticipation, and transformation” (116).

This requires, of course, that any reflection on women begin not by securing an essence of experience or by trying to make women into something that they are not and cannot be, but by considering the position of women in the present social-symbolic order and likewise standing in this position to try to transform the social-symbolic order. It again must be emphasized that to describe women’s marginality is to deny any claim about the essence of woman’s subjectivity, to forego a quest for the identity of “woman” as a universal singular....

To further, then, the proclamation of emancipatory transformation, feminism ... must pursue the richness of women’s marginality to push against the ordering of language, subjectivity, and politics and to find new images, ways, forms, expressions of language, subjectivity, and politics. (116-7)

            Chopp, then, goes on to propose several areas in which women’s experiences can lend new meanings and emphases to the religious understanding of life: the caring for the wounded, the birthing of children, the feeding of souls and bodies.

Many women have found satisfaction in expressing their piety and knowledge of God in the language of caring for and being with rather than mysterium tremendum et fascinans , wholly other and ultimate concern. The nexus of religious experiences, at least for many women, is in and through relationships, friends, families, memories of the dead. (119)

Chopp also stresses women’s understanding of time and space (120), adornment and jouissance  (121), and corporality (123). Most important, though, she concludes:

From this place feminism questions the constant emphasis on identity and sameness at the expense of difference and specificity.... she lives in the difference and specificity in the ongoing relationality of women and women, women and children, women and nature, women and creation, women and beauty ... a subjectivity, a language, and a politics that desires and embraces otherness, multiplicity, and difference. (122, emphasis added)

            Chopp’s public call for openness and multi‑possibility in life has been echoed by other feminists. Catherine Keller[11] has called for “composite selfhood,” “composite subjectivity,” “momentary subject,” and  “polyvalency” and Jessica Benajmin[12] has called for “intersubjectivity” and “conscious ambivalence.” I understand this multi-possibility to be not very different from the claim for a life rooted in the images of sailing and seriatim.  Indeed, for many men, the entire call for a non-gendered or womanist / feminist reading of texts and life is itself a new tack, a new course in understanding the self and the other, which leads to greater openness and polyvalency of meaning.

 

Counter-image

 

Everybody in the block had typhus ... it came to Belsen Bergen in its most violent, most painful, deadliest form. The diarrhea caused by it became uncontrollable. It flooded the bottom of the cages, dripping through the cracks into the faces of the women lying in the cages below, and mixed with blood, pus and urine, formed a slimy, fetid mud on the floor of the barracks....

Urine and excreta poured down the prisoners’ legs, and by nightfall the excrement, which had frozen to our limbs, gave off its stench. We were really no longer human beings in the accepted sense. Not even animals, but putrefying corpses moving on two legs....

The location was slippery and unlighted. Of the thirty men on this assignment [to clean the latrines], an average of ten fell into the pit in the course of each night’s work. The others were not allowed to pull the victims out. When the work was done and the pit empty, then and then only were they permitted to remove the corpses....

The men could not bring themselves to obey this devilish order [to drink out of the toilet bowls]; they only pretended to drink. But the block‑fuehrers had reckoned with that; they forced  the men’s heads deep into the bowls until their faces were covered with excrement. At this the victims almost went out of their minds -- that was why their screams had sounded so demented.... [13]

 

*

 

            “Excremental Assault” is what Terrence Des Pres called it and, together with the gas chambers and the crematoria, it is the counter-image. Auschwitz is the incarnation of our century and the image thereof will haunt generations of men, women, and children.

            Concentration camp inmates -- the victims -- did not have the luxury of tacking, of living seriatim.  Survival, physical and moral, were all one could manage, if that much. How, then, can we wallow in that luxury?

            One of the paths of our life is walking with the victim -- beyond endurance, into suffering that cannot be told -- as best as we can. One tack in our lives is to confront what we would rather avoid, with as much courage as we can muster. Not so that we, too, will suffer, but as an act of solidarity; not in guilt, but as an act of remembrance. We must do this in our texts, in our deeds, in our commitments. We must do this in every universe of discourse we use. As we tack, we need to bring the ghosts with us. As we move seriatim  through life, we need to carry history with us. Language, subjectivity, and politics must confront the counter-image, if life is to be true.



[1] This first appeared as Chapter 5 in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster / John Knox, Louisville, KY: 1993).

[2] My thanks to my sailing friends in Larchmont, N.Y. who taught me these important lessons.

[3] The Index of John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations , fifteenth edition, revised and enlarged (Boston, MA, Little, Brown and Company: 1980) has twelve columns of listings for “life” and another six columns for “live / lives / living.” I did not see the metaphor of sailing.

[4] I have used the term seriatim   in my previous work to express this idea. Cf. God at the Center,   at the Index. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology  is the title of a book by Mark C. Taylor (Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1984) which proposes a  nonlogocentric theology. Cf., however, my review of it, “But Rabbi David Says,” Cross Currents  (Winter 88-89) 468-74.

[5] Cf. A. Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name  (Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1992) -- reviewed by me in Modern Theology   xxxxxxxxxx -- 217, 224 for the Hebrew equivalent, ratso’ va-shov.

[6] There is a substantial amount of research on social conformity which shows that people become the roles they live. Cf. e.g., H. C. Kelman and V. L. Hamilton, Crimes of Obedience  (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1989).

[7] Max Kadushin in The Rabbinic Mind   (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary: 1952), chapter 4, suggests that the variety of rabbinic stances on this issue reflects the variety of the human personality as it chooses to express its own character. That is not far from my position.

[8] I have dealt with this topic in a thorough way in “Maimonides’ Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority of the Prophecy of Moses,” Studies in Medieval Culture,  10:51-67; reprinted in Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times  (Chico, CA, Scholars Press: 1984) 1:27-52.

[9] Jon D. Levenson,  Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence   (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) -- reviewed by me in Modern Judaism  10 (1990) 105-10 -- 139.

[10] New York, Crossroad: 1989, reviewed by me in Religious Studies Review  15 (1989) 122-25.

[11] Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web  (Boston, Beacon Press: 1986) 163, 186, 187, and 206, respectively.

[12] Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love   (New York, Pantheon: 1988) 15ff., 179. Cf. also, below, yyyy.

[13] Quoted from Perl, Weiss, Weinstock, and Szalet in Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps   (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1976) 53, 57, 59, 66.