Sunday, July 05, 2009

Choice and being chosen

I have written my last word on hipster Jews—for now. The criticism that my view of choice and being chosen is “static,” though, continues to rankle.

The source of my thinking, as so often the case, is J. V. Cunningham:

Allegiance is assigned
Forever when the mind
Chooses and stamps the will.
Thus, I must love you still
Through good and ill.

But though we cannot part
We may retract the heart
And build such privacies
As self-regard agrees
Conduce to ease.

So manners will repair
The ravage of despair
Which generous love invites,
Preferring quiet nights
To vain delights.

Cunningham was a renegade Catholic—the term he preferred to “lapsed Catholic”—and in some important ways this poem derives from the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of marriage. And doubtless some will read this poem as bleak and even unloving.

It has never struck me as that. It is a firm repudiation of romantic love, however. Under the régime of romantic love, the problem is finding the right person. The real problem of love, as anyone who is happily married can tell you, is rightly loving the person you have found. Cunningham explains how: “We may retract the heart.” Not only from our spouse, but from anyone who might be tempted to seize and break it. This does not mean that we grow distant and cold toward our spouse, but that the heart—the seat of desire, the immediacy of feeling, the swoon of infatuation—no longer regulates our behavior toward him. We can’t fall out of love either.

The mind stamps the will: a learned pun is contained in the line. An ethos or character is stamped upon a coin—that’s where the term and concept originate. The mind creates our character by controlling our intention, permanently. Thus whether we choose or are chosen is irrelevant, because the effect is the same either way. Once we choose we are as good as chosen. We have committed ourselves to a way, and there is no turning back.

For this reason, the theologian Michael Wyschogrod says that a convert to Judaism undergoes a miracle. While a Jewish proverb calls the convert a yiddishe neshama in a goyishe bod—a Jewish soul in gentile flesh—Wyschogrod holds that the convert becomes carnally Jewish, as if born to a Jewish mother. Once the convert chooses, his choice disappears; forevermore, he is chosen.

Perhaps the eternity of this sentence, whether in marriage or covenant, will cause some to despair. Modern culture teaches that we must pass up none of its delights. The cost is repression! You know what happens to repressed desires: they return eventually! But those of us who believe in being chosen prefer quiet nights to vain (self-flattering and bootless) delights. And if the repressed returns, we can react with good manners, and pretend the impropriety never occurred.