13 June 2018

The doyikayt of the Mother of God

Yiddish is one of those languages that has been on my ‘wish list’ a long time, and not merely for genealogical reasons. The tongue of the Jewish diaspora in Eastern Europe, a Germanic language inflected by various older Hebrew usages, it expresses an existence ‘in the margins’. The story of the Jews in Europe is the story of a people ‘between the cracks’, a people not entirely innocent even within the context of its own oppression – but oppressed all the same.

Yiddish has two words for ‘here’. The first is simply: do דאָ, cognate to the German da (as in Hegel’s Dasein). The second is a compound word also derived from German, and its connotations are more complex: aher אַהער, which comes from the German hier and a prefix a- which is derived either from the Germanic as or also.

There’s a difference in connotation between the two forms. The first, being simple, monosyllabic and straightforward, doesn’t seem to connote any kind of self-awareness; it’s literally just ‘being there’. But the compound aher already has a kind of reflexivity built into it; it means ‘in this place’. I have to wonder about the prefix here, the ‘also’. The ‘also-here’ construction of aher seems to connote that the Jew in Europe has trained herself to think of herself as ‘also’, as ‘other’. The ego is present in aher; there is a self-distancing and a double-mindedness in aher which is absent in do, which – again, I have to wonder, not being knowledgeable about Yiddish except in a second-hand way – may be one of the reasons that doyikayt was constructed from the latter.

Doyikayt is a political idea that arises, interestingly, from the aher, the ‘also-here’, experience of Jews in Europe. It is the idea that a kosher Jewish life, a life in accordance with the Mosaic law, can be lived wherever it is already found. It does not require a ‘homeland’ because its homeland is already here. But even as a political idea, the parallels between the political life of the European Jew and the spiritual life do not have to be sought at a very deep level.

The Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, may be thought of as truly doyiker. Let’s first understand the context: she was living ‘between the cracks’ in an occupied Roman territory – Judæa – which was under the rule of a deeply-Philhellene, all-but-pagan client ruling house – the Herods. Everything about the experience of the Second Temple Jews under the Herods was aher. They were ‘also-here’ in the sense that their political expectations had been shaped by the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom of the Maccabees. The debates within Second Temple Judaism about the rôle of the law in Jewish life all arose within this historical-political context. The political questions about the law and its interpretation were all aimed at the achievement of the same ‘homeland’ that the Maccabees had won in the Holy Land, for their one brief glorious historical moment. The Pharisees and the other teachers of the Law were not wrong to take an expansive – one might even say ‘liberal’ – account of it. But their embrace of the Law was fundamentally egoistic, fundamentally reflexive, fundamentally ‘also-here’. The Law was a means of distinguishing themselves from the Romans, from debtors, from the ‘unclean’.

By contrast, the Most Holy Mother of God had a spiritual understanding that was never ‘also’, merely ‘here’. An impoverished but highly noble descendant of David, she never sought any return to the glory days of the earthly kingdom of Israel. During her life she who was most worthy of distinction and honours never sought after any this side of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Saint John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, put it: ‘the Virgin Mary during Her earthly life avoided the glory which belonged to Her as the Mother of the Lord.’ He cites the Evangelist Luke, who was the one not only to paint the first icons of the Virgin Mary, but also to recount her life. Her devotion to God is single-minded, is completely lacking in ego. Notice how in the icon of the Annunciation her head is always inclined, bowed meekly. She never seeks to compare herself to anyone else. Her first reaction to her visitation by an angelic power is one of awed silence.

Great attention is given in Orthodox Mariology to the ‘yes’ that she gives to God, that allows Our Lord Christ to be born within history. In the Gospel of Luke, she says: ‘Ίδου η δούλη Κυρίου’, which is rendered into Jacobean English as: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord.’ But unfortunately, this sounds a trifle ostentatious to the modern ear – the word ίδου simply means ‘look!’ In the Aramaic that the Mother of God would have spoken herself, this language is even simpler: ‘ܗܐ ܐܢܐ ܐܡܬܗ ܕܡܪܝܐ Hâ ’annâ ’amtâh d’Mâryâ.’ There were other words she could have chosen to express herself: the more formal ‘hineni’, for example, or the theatrical ‘chava’. But that monosyllabic , that ‘here!’ which is also an exhaled ‘ah’ of self-forgetting admiration, is the same word as the Yiddish do, with the same meaning and connotation. Before God, the Blessed Virgin has nothing ‘also’ to prove, nothing to expect, no one to compare herself to or against; she is simply here. Her ‘here-hood’, her spiritual doyikayt, makes her uniquely free to give her ‘yes’ to God.

At this point, I feel I should apologise if I have overstepped my mark, tried to intellectualise something that is best comprehended in the same awed silence that the Mother of God held at the Annunciation. At the risk of exposing everything I have said up until now to the charge of being linguistic-analytical sophistry and etymological fallacy (a charge which may indeed have some validity), I am not arguing that the Blessed Virgin was somehow a forerunner of the General Jewish Labour Bund among the Eastern European diaspora. Though it would take a peculiar and wilful kind of density to ignore the radical political connotations of her song to the Lord, the ‘autonomy’ that she has is a spiritual truth first and foremost, a fruit of her soul’s self-forgetting transparency to God that allows her to magnify Him.

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