Shekinah

These were difficult days for Shmuel and for Miriam, as they struggled to envision what the future might look like for them. On the one hand, their fathers, who had previously opposed their relationship, as a marriage between a Christian, especially a converso, and a Muslim, was out of the question, now found themselves actively encouraging the couple, as Miriam’s father had quickly submitted to the decree and had his wife and seven daughters baptized with him. Where previously they lived for secret trysts outside the city walls, on the Trapani road, now their families were inseparable, constantly feasting together on the pork their Christian neighbors gave them as gifts, and asking the couple if they were ready to tie the knot.

—It will be a great alliance, said Shmuel’s father. My textile business joined to Ali’s spice empire? We will be unstoppable. 

Shmuel, for his part, refused to have any part of this.  He despised his father and everything the man stood for and even if he understood the prohibition on eating pork to be symbolic, he could not risk losing his credibility in the Jewish community, with which he had cast his lot. Miriam, on the other hand, was very close to her parents and especially to her sisters. And while her hatred for Christendom was, if anything, more profound than Shmuel’s, she had no problem with taqiya, or religious dissimulation, and had told Shmuel more than once that her family was already practicing it, as their original tradition was not Sunni and Maliki like the Sicilian Muslims they emulated, but rather Nizari.  

The result was their first real argument. 

—This may be our only chance to be together openly, she said to Shmuel. Imagine what we can accomplish together if we are freed from the need to hide our relationship?  

—That is fine for you to say. You are woman and will never have a public life. But my goal is to become a public teacher.  I can’t engage in dissimulation. 

—Are you certain that you are just not trying to punish your father? she responded. 

—Are you sure that you are really the independent thinker you claim to be, and not your father’s puppet? he countered. You are mired in a tradition which once produced brave warriors for justice, but which now teaches you to hide who you are and what you believe!

Miriam was enraged.  They were sitting in the garden outside the blue domed church where Shmuel had located his laboratory. 

—Do you have any idea what is about to happen here? Our world —the world in which you hoped to be a public teacher who could march into a disputation in any school, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim and rant about wanting to be God— that world is coming to an end. Whatever we do —and I am still convinced that there is much we can and must do— will be done secretly, in the shadows. It is not what either of us would choose, but it is the world we have been given.  

Miriam took his hands and looked deep into his eyes. He saw the wisdom of what she was saying and wanted desperately to yield, but his rage overcame him.

—I don’t know you any more, he said, pulling away.

—Nor I you, said Miriam, turning to leave. You are no better than that idiot Ruben who imagines that a flask of stinking piss is going to convince the Ottomans to let him restore Zion. 

—I thought you supported my alchemical research?

—That is different. It is science. Ruben is an ass.  But at least he is planning to leave this place. You won’t last a day teaching publicly once the decree is in effect.

—And so you are just going to be some merchant’s wife!

At this she slapped him across the face and fled. 

—Leave and we are done! he shouted after her. 

But she continued on her way.

Shmuel  was instantly contrite.  And Miriam regretted what she had done as well. She knew that what she was asking was not easy for someone who had made the choices Shmuel had made, renouncing his father’s conversion and making teshuvah. And Shmuel had, after all, had at least the formal possibility of a public life, something which was not open to her as a woman and which she would not, therefore, be sacrificing. But she stood by her conviction that marriage was the right course, and wanted to make sure that her point was well made. 

For three days in a row Shmuel waited below her balcony for her to appear after sunset, and for two nights he waited in vain. During the day he sent letter after letter begging forgiveness —though not, in fact, promising anything substantive. Then, finally, on the third day one of the family’s servants appeared with a note which said only “Tomorrow.”

Shmuel knew what it meant.  The next day he waited in the garden above the crypt that held his laboratory. Miriam appeared at sunset. The air was crisp and cool and the trees a beautiful gold beneath the indigo sky, with the final light of the day oozing like honey through the nooks and crannies of the garden. 

She caught him by surprise.  He was sitting, crying, with his head in his hands. She stood above him and put her hands on his shoulders.  He looked up and saw her smile gently, and he fell to his knees.

—I am so sorry, he said.

—I am too. We both said things that we shouldn’t have. It is a difficult choice. 

—I don’t want to lose you. I want to be with you more than anything in the world. But I am not ready to lose myself …

He could see that this troubled her. 

—And yet, she said, that is the path that we all must follow. Every time we grow we die and are born again. And the road ends in the total loss which is death, through which we must pass if we are become more than human.

He looked at her, wondering at her wisdom. Then she kissed him on the forehead and said:

—There is still some time. Just promise me that whatever happens you will not leave me and that you will listen and let me try to persuade you.

—Of course he said.

Then she took his hands and they looked into each other’s eyes. So wise, so forgiving, he thought. So brilliant, she thought, but still so young. Shmuel felt a pleasure rising in him which was so intense that he did not know how entering her could give greater pleasure. And she felt him as well, filling her with his intensity, an intensity greater than all others.  And they each understood, in a way neither had before, what she had meant when she said that in the end we must all lose ourselves. 

Neither of them remembered parting. Shmuel awoke alone in the garden. It was well past midnight, but the blue dome of the church and the golden leaves and the remaining flowers of autumn all glowed with life. It was the  first day of the second month of his eighteenth year —the last of the Old World. 

Published by:

Anthony Mansueto

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943/1993: 556). Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely. Human history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise. Precisely because we are finite and contingent, our seeking takes place under definite material (physical, ecological, demographic, built-environmental) conditions which shape the ways which emerge, as well as the social structures through which we pursue them. As something set apart we call this power of Being the sacred but it is, in fact, the warp and woof of the world in which we live, driving secular projects as much as those which understand themselves as religious. My work is centered around an effort to engage the sacred analytically, interpretively, normatively, creatively, and practically. My scholarship is centered around an effort to restore theoria to its original sense as an encounter with the sacred which is empirical, analytic, interpretive and normative, and specifically to understand the diverse ways (including secular ways) in which humanity seeks (to be) God in the context of the material realities out which they emerged and the structures through which they operate while engaging these ways normatively, contributing to the transhistorical deliberation around what it means to be human. As an artist I work first and foremost with narrative, telling stories which, blending elements from magic realism, science fiction, and fantasy, highlight humanity’s engagement with the sacred. But I also create paintings, photo collages, and illuminations and am experimenting with alterealities, games which actually change the world, and which engage all these elements in an interactive context. And I work in the medium of food, creating alchemical cuisine which at once encodes meaning and transforms those who consume it —especially in community. My scholarly and creative work aims at charting a new way of being human, at making the sacred present to people in their day to day lives, and at helping people situate their lives and their decisions, individual and collective, in he context of the ultimate aims of human life. My practical engagements with the sacred cross the boundaries between teaching and mentoring, leading and organizing. As a teacher, it is my aim to cultivate free, creative human beings and engaged citizens with a mature spirituality who have the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding questions of meaning and value, to understand their particular calling and how to realize it, to build and exercise power in service to the common good, to learn the difficult spiritual lessons that come from both success and failure in our lives, and thus to pursue and progress along the way they have chosen. In addition to teaching in formal academic and community based settings, I mentor individuals using a process which integrates deep listening with both traditional spiritual disciplines and secular insights drawn from organizing and business strategy. I cultivate both scholars and practitioners, and challenge my students to cross the boundaries between these two domains. As an academic leader I have worked to promote liberal education for students from working class and ethnic minority communities, to make the institutions I serve into centers for deliberation around questions of meaning, value, and public policy, and to restore (nonconfessional, pluralistic, but still normative) engagement with the sacred to its rightful place in the academy. I see this academic leadership as an extension of my broader work as an institutional organizer helping organizations and institutions find their way, and working to build, conserve, and transform them in service to the Common Good. My work as an organizer has also included significant contributions to interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, from building financial and institutional support for interfaith organizing through catalyzing public deliberation around questions of meaning and value across diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. I bring to this engagement a substantial record of publications, including nine books and numerous articles in both scholarly journals and journals of public opinion setting forth my vision and strategy, decades of experience teaching the liberal arts to students from working class and ethnic minority communities, a history active civic engagement, primarily in interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, and a range of institutional leadership roles in the academy including department chair, program director, dean, and campus leader with responsibility for all community college functions for a large rural area. As I continue my formal institutional engagements as an academic administrator over the next several years, I am also looking to build support for my creative work and a consulting practice mentoring individual leaders and organizations across the academic, religious, and civil society sectors. Supporting my work through Patreon is a way to contribute to making this possible while getting a glimpse of my creative process, free or discounted artifacts from my alterealities, and the opportunity to benefit from my mentoring and consulting practice at much reduced rates.

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