story and presence

Our stories tell of the loss of a place and hearth—home and temple—by which we imagine and structure an original, unmediated presence as being lost. Our dancing liturgies endow it with power (cre-do), name it our god(s), send some of us to approach the hidden monuments of that presence. The place was also the temple, the fire its sacrificial cult, the prayers the consolidation or condensation of this no-name “presence.” The temple and its (hi)story are remembered and rebuilt as a dreamy capacity to get near the presence and keep up the possibility of visitation and renewal. It is part of the dynamic capacity all human beings are thrown into and have at their disposal. We are capable of recognizing we are in “circles” that can be described as distant points from something that ipso facto gets figured as a center. And so we keep re-imagining and reinventing our history, both individual and macro-social. The history of the mapping of, or distance from, this center at the beating heart of the person, its consuming life, gets things accomplished in ways more and more distant from and yet articulated on an improbable center. This, amici, was a comment on the polished story of Baal Shem and successors, quoted by Gershom Scholem (where? I don’t have a copy) and requoted by Martha Himmelfarb:

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

From Himmelfarb’s Ascent to heaven in Jewish and Christian apocalypses (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 113.