Saturday, March 22, 2014

On stubbornness, stiff-necks, and rebelliousness

Sometimes I have been hit immediately by a site in Rome, and I can't stop thinking about it.  Other times, a building, a painting -- that of Lorenzo Lotto in the Borghese, for example, or San Clemente --  creeps into my thoughts slowly.
I have passed the small church on the Tiber, just opposite the Gran Templo -- the Great Synagogue -- numerous times and have noted with curiosity the fact that an image of Christ is painted on the front, along with a Latin inscription, and, what appears to be a translation, in Hebrew.  This seemed bizarre.  But the answer is simple. (And I was fortunate to be in the company of Martha Ackelsberg, Esther Schor, and Carol Weinbaum when trying to figure this out).  This church, San Gregorio a Ponte, was just on the other side of the walls of the Ghetto.  It was from this church (and others) that sermons were read and listened to, by law, by the Jews of the Ghetto.  The inscription is from Isaiah 65:2:
פֵּרַשְׂתִּי יָדַי כָּל-הַיּוֹם, אֶל-עַם סוֹרֵר--הַהֹלְכִים הַדֶּרֶךְ לֹא-טוֹב, אַחַר מַחְשְׁבֹתֵיהֶם.
"I have spread out My hands all the day unto a rebellious people, that walk in a way that is not good, after their own thoughts;"
A bit earlier in Isaiah, in 48:4, is one of more famous ideas, on this similar theme: 
 מִדַּעְתִּי, כִּי קָשֶׁה אָתָּה; וְגִיד בַּרְזֶל עָרְפֶּךָ, וּמִצְחֲךָ נְחוּשָׁה.
"Because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;"
The "stiff-necked" people.  Difficult.  Rebellious.  This is the accession that was projected onto the Ghetto, from across the wall.
But I can't but think that some of those Jews forced to listen to sermons and look at those words, didn't scoff derisively:  "Stiff-necked, indeed.  How else I have we remained here, committed to a religion which has regularly brought venom upon us?  Stiff necks has kept us alive."  I have been reading George Steiner's Real Presences, which notes that it has been the "reading without end," the circles of debate and discussion of the core texts of the religion that "has proved to be the instrument of improbable survival (p. 41)."  

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