We are among the first peoples in human history who do not broadly inherit religious identity as a given, a matter of kin and tribe, like hair color and hometown. But the very fluidity of this—the possibility of choice that arises, the ability to craft and discern one’s own spiritual bearings—is not leading to the decline of spiritual life but its revival. It is changing us, collectively. It is even renewing religion, and our cultural encounter with religion, in counter-intuitive ways. I meet scientists who speak of a religiosity without spirituality—a reverence for the place of ritual in human life, and the value of human community, without a need for something supernaturally transcendent. There is something called the New Humanism, which is in dialogue about moral imagination and ethical passions across boundaries of belief and non-belief.
But I apprehend— with a knowledge that is as much visceral as cognitive— that God is love. That somehow the possibility of care that can transform us— love muscular and resilient— is an echo of a reality behind reality, embedded in the creative force that gives us life.
― Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.
It is surprising to me that one of the great crimes of history has gone unnoticed; the abduction of god by religions. This slight-of-hand has been the cause of countless blood-shed and has been found at the root of innumerable acts of evil. The argument continues today, as to which religion the true god belongs, when what would be most healing and empowering is to free god from the shackles of religious limitation and judgment. It is by emancipating god from the ignorance of our ancestors that we become empowered to explore and express our own relationship with what god may or may not be.
We classify ourselves into groups which give meaning and order to our experiences. What happens when those groups inhibit growth?
Ronit is the daughter of an orthodox Jewish rabbi, living a secular life as a successful photographer. Disowned by her family and cut off from her roots because of a teenage romance with a young woman, her life is thrown out of balance when she receives a call that her father has died. Returning to her community in order to attend the events surrounding his funeral, she finds a mixture of forgiveness, suspicion, judgement and sympathy. Esti, the girl that Ronit had loved, has grown into a strong but tightly wound woman, married to Dovid, their best friend growing up, a man who trained with Ronit’s father to become a rabbi. Indeed, he has been selected to succeed the celebrated Rav Krushka. Dovid and Esti are poised to take on the most important position in the community. But something is not, and has never been quite right under their roof. Now that Ronit has returned, the fragile life they have built together is rocked to its core.
In making Disobedience, it would have been easy to pit people of faith fully against homosexuals and require us to choose one side or the other. That is not what Sebastián Lelio has done in this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel. Jewish tradition is honored, the beauty, depth and expressive power of its theology and, especially, of its liturgical music is depicted. Neither does the film shy away from the shortfalls of the faith’s adherents, nor the uncontrollable desire that binds Esti and Ronit. Clearly their romance has troubled the waters in this small Jewish community. There is not much sympathy and no support for homosexuality here. Most of the reactions to the unsanctioned romance are lacking in compassion. All are at least somewhat ignorant. And yet, there are enough ambiguities in the faith, in the sacred writings themselves, to create space for new interpretation that may lead somewhere in future generations. The place where we see this revolution of faith is not within the community itself, but within Dovid. I don’t want to spoil the film. The first time I watched it I had no idea how Dovid would reconcile the interior crisis of faith caused by the realization that his relationship with his wife is based on the premise that he, through his caring nature, would be able to convert her to heterosexuality. He has not, and their relationship has caused psychological damage to Esti by making her feel obligated to have sex which she does not desire. His community has required him to violate her personhood and now implies that he, as Rav Kuperman, should require her to completely give up her feelings for good. But is this what God requires?
One of my favorite scenes is of Dovid teaching from the Songs of Solomon. He postulates that surely there is something higher in the love between man and woman than physical sexuality, while the young men in his class agree that the text, bold in its passion, says otherwise. The trouble is understated, as is almost everything in the film, but you get the sense that Dovid is aware that his passionless marriage, as respectful as it is, is not what it should be.
This is a quiet, intimate movie. There isn’t screaming and railing. Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, who is nearly unrecognizable behind a full beard, all give sensitive portrayals of complex individuals that never behave in cliché fashion. Ronit, Esti and Dovid are controlled people, quietly torturing themselves in their own private solitudes. They are living their experience moment to moment, not knowing where they are going. The cinematography enhances this, as does the musical score, which often goes dead silent. There are many closeups of inscrutable faces and the camera constantly catches small awkward gestures and movements. This renders the erupting passion between Esti and Ronit incredibly powerful in its decisive boldness. The only scenes which are not understated are the physical encounters between the women, culminating in an intense extended love scene. By contrast, the scenes between Dovid and Esti, while containing more nudity, are clinical and cold. The camera reinforces the emotional and spiritual climate that Esti must navigate.
Disobedience gives me hope that there can be space for dialogue within the most conservative faiths. It is in our best interests to expand our definition of ourselves and how we relate to others rather than allowing our institutions to do it for us. No group is a monolith: be it race based, gender based or faith based. It is often said that we join groups or causes to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is also true that how we live our lives enriches and imparts meaning to the causes and groups we embrace. Speaking of our inward beings and granting each other freedom are the very first steps in allowing ourselves and our beliefs to grow. We may not understand each other, but we have to start the conversation somewhere. The healing and wholeness of our communities depend upon it.
Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.
Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.
Cultural and religious traditions that forbid cross-cultural unions prevent peace on earth. Instead of rejoicing that our sons and daughters are heart-driven and love other humans outside of their familiar religious, social or cultural domains, we punish and insult them. This is wrong. Honor killings are not honorable by God. They are driven by ignorance and ego and nothing more. The Creator favors the man who loves over the man who hates.
–Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
When you grow up as a girl, it is like there are faint chalk lines traced approximately three inches around your entire body at all times, drawn by society and often religion and family and particularly other women, who somehow feel invested in how you behave, as if your actions reflect directly on all womanhood.
—M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight
Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity.
—Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod
Competition is distilled from survival instincts. Ironically, it may destroy our chance for survival. Can the arts help change this?
The mbira, or thumb piano is a traditional musical instrument found in many places on the African continent. It consists of a wooden board fitted with metal tines which are plucked with the thumbs, producing a sound not unlike a music box. Due to the rhythmic complexity of mbira music, some listeners get the impression that more than one instrument is being played at the same time.
The national instrument of Zimbabwe is the mbira dzavadzimu, or voice of theancestors. It originated among the Shona people and is identified by them as a sacred instrument, used in ceremonies that communicate with the dead. These ceremonies are called bira. Led by mbira music, participants enter a trancelike state in which the dead speak through them and may answer questions that pertain to the welfare of the tribe. Buttons, shells or bottle caps called machachara are attached to the mbira to create a buzzing sound that is purported to call ancestral spirits. For greater resonance, the instrument is placed inside of a hollowed out calabash squash, called a deze.
During the course of Zimbabwe’s history, the mbira dzavadzimu was taken up by missionaries and converts to Christianity. A genre called mbira gospel resulted, as people combined their traditional music with new beliefs, enlisting the soothing power of the thumb piano to spread their message. This has created two camps of mbira musicians: Shona and Christian, both of which consider themselves the traditional art form and both of which are resistant to new, western inspired innovation and technology.
Here is a traditional performance by mbira artist Hope Masike. The song is called Hondo, or War, and is a lament for those who have suffered from political unrest, military action and AIDS/HIV. It is heartrending in its understatement and transparent beauty, highlighted by the calls of animals along the lakeshore in Johannesburg, South Africa. It makes me misty-eyed.
Video via Werner Puntigam on YouTube.
Hope Masike is a marvelous singer and gifted song writer. She is steeped in the traditional music of her native Zimbabwe, specifically mbira music, but reaches out to include more modern elements, incurring the wrath of those who would prefer to keep the traditional art “pure”. She is Christian, but sees great value in reaching across the divide to unify mbira music and to move people of differing faiths to prayer.
Video via Hope Masike on YouTube.
This song is Huyai Tinamate, or Come, Let us Pray, a stirring example of mbira gospel. The video couples words from the Bible that exhort the believer to pray through hardships with African mythology concerning the struggle between good and evil. Masike portrays both a benevolent spirit in white and a dark witch companioned by a serpent, as if to say that our best self is always at war with our worst self. This stunning video crosses borders. The world of the Shona and the world of the Christian is acknowledged to be the same world. Both groups seek survival and peace. Can we not find common ground as human beings? Could we pray together?
The requirements for our evolution have changed. Survival is no longer sufficient. Our evolution now requires us to develop spiritually – to become emotionally aware and make responsible choices. It requires us to align ourselves with the values of the soul – harmony, cooperation, sharing, and reverence for life.