07 September 2012


On the right side of my desk rests Of Gods and Men, the DVD of a film directed by Xavier Beauvois and adapted by him and Etienne Comar from a book entitled The Monks of Tibhirine by John Kiser. I have recommended this film to be shown this year as a preface to Selichot services at Beth Jacob Congregation. The term “selichot” refers to the penitential prayers and poems that are recited during the days preceding the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For Jewsand it surprises me every year how many Jews choose to identify as Jews and return to the synagogue to celebrate the High Holidaysthese solemn days are a time for reflection, for an acknowledgement of spiritual matters, and a return, however brief, to community if not necessarily to belief. The selichot liturgy is meant to direct the individual’s thoughts and feelings to the deep solemnity of the approaching days of awe, to reflect on the affairs of the year just past, and to prepare the spirit (however one might choose to define that entity) to enjoy some sense of renewal or, better, to experience a turning for the coming year. The High Holidays can be a time of great spiritual insight and elevation.
I suppose that one does not enter into such a state without some preparation. The introduction of selichot prayers of awe establishes an atmosphere that can conduct the individual into a spirituality appropriate to this time of the calendar. Selichot refers to both the poetic piyyutim (songs)that compose the service as well as to the service at which the prayers are spoken. Customarily, the recitation of selichot begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, but if the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, as it will this year, 5772, then recitation of the selichot prayers begins on the previous Saturday night to ensure that Selichot can be recited at least four times. The prefatory late service that institutes the period of selichot begins usually at midnight and is also referred to as Selichot.
The Jewish High Holidays have been for me long wrapped in versions of awe and wonder. When I was a child, by the arrival of the Selichot service (to which children were definitely not invited) my mother has purchased for me a new sport coats and slacks and sometimes even new shoes and socks in anticipation of the holiday season. My mother (and the other women in the community) would acquire from the milliners new hats (that would be volubly and sometimes jealously admired by others in attendance), and would remove from storage their fur wraps and stoles that had been packed away the previous Spring. For my father, then serving as chairperson of the religious committee and charged with handing out aliyotthe honors, that accompanied the performance of the holiday servicesthere were innumerable nightly meetings. I barely saw him during the days leading into the High Holiday season, but by Selichot, the formal letters inviting participation had been sent out, and to him Selichot began the final approach to Rosh Hashanah and signaled for him the beginning of the Days of Awe. As best as he was ever able to do so, he could relax and attend to his prayer for a little while, at least.
When I was a child I felt a sense of wonder as my parents prepared to attend late night services on Selichot. The baby sitter they had hired would arrive when we children had already been put to sleep in our beds, but our parents dressed early enough for us to see them in their formal attire: my mother in one of her new dresses and my father in his cleaned and pressed suit. On Selichot, the prayer leader, skilled in the elaborate melodies that comprise this first selichot service wears a kittel, a white robe that symbolizes both the purity to which we aspire and the shroud in which we will be buried. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur many in the congregation don kittels, and during the services the sanctuary seems speckled not unlike the goats that Jacob produced and took with him and his family when he left his uncle Laban’s home. Selichot served for me as a preface. I valued the feel of the approaching High Holidays.
A preface should offer a pre-view of the material that is to follow, introduce the themes that the text will develop, and settle the reader into the world of the writing.  In this sense, Of Gods and Men seemed to me an appropriate preface not only to the selichot services but to the entire holiday season as well. The film offers a portrait of lives informed by a deep spirituality and love of God, by a sincere commitment to communal and community engagement, and to expressions of true and guileless brotherly love. The monks of Tibhirine, after the teachings of St. Benedict, “practice[e] the disciplines of charity, humility, and obedience;” in a very difficult world, the monks of Tibhirine aspire in their prayers and by their actions to an intense devotion to God and a passionate dedication to the community in which they live and which they serve. The film depicts the intimate personal and communal path by which the monks elect to continue their lives at the monastery that shelters the village despite the danger of the violent deaths that threatens them daily.  The heart-wrenching emotional struggle and ultimate commitment epitomized for me the meaning of the High Holidays: the dedication of an individual through her relationship to God to turn towards this world to effect its repair.
The eight monks who occupy the Monastery of Notre Dame d’Atlas serve their God and the community in which they have chosen to live. Indeed, they serve the former, in large part, in their promise to the latter. À propos of the monks but not of them, Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “What gives birth to religion is not intellectual curiosity but the fact and experience of our being asked.” The lives of the monks of Tibhirine gave answer, having chosen to live amidst the poor of Tibhirine in Algeria whom they voluntarily and willingly serve. In the exercise of their daily lives the monks of Tibhirine achieved a life filled with a spirituality that expressed awe and wonder. “Awe, unlike fear,” Heschel teaches, “does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe,” Heschel says, “is compatible with both love and joy.” Amidst the terrors of our daily lives, in the face of our fears and doubts, awe promises us redemption and hope. “The meaning of awe,” Heschel continues, “is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life and even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe,” Heschel suggests, “enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” It was Heschel’s teaching that I recognized in Of Gods and Men: In their refusal to abandon the village of Tibhirine, the monks act from the sense of awe that first brought them to the service of the small impoverished Algerian village; their daily offices and public service offers them the strength to continue their effort in the face of the horror and violence that surrounds them and threatens their safety. Despite the terror the film portrays, Of Gods and Men focuses on the expression of the monk’s strong love for God, for each other, and their work, and the film portrays the sense of joy and wonder that the monks realize in their commitment to the people of Tibhirine and of the love that the village returns to them despite the danger and adversities which they suffer together.  Such is the story of the film.
I first saw the film Of Gods and Men not long after its release on a visit to New York City in 2010. I was with my oldest friendboth in age and longevity, and with whom I share a sense of the spiritual.  I remember that we were both strongly affected by the film, but at the time we had other affairs to which to attend. We have known each other forty years, had become adults during that time, maybe: we were so much older then. Now we live too many miles apart and there was much life to fill in. Our conversation engaged other matters and the film got lost.
And then I netflixed (a new verb for the language) the film to view with a colleague, but the world got in our way, and the film lay dormant on my desk until one early evening and I was alone and somewhat fitful. I poured myself a single malt scotch and without too much motive put the disc in the DVD player. In the end, I hardly tasted the delicate liquor: I was mesmerized and deeply touched by the deep spirituality by which the monks lived their lives, fulfilled their purposes, and cared for each other. The monks’ final communal dinnerwhich in fact does not allude at all in word or image to Jesus’ reputed last supperfilled as was the monks’ meal by a peaceful silence save for the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that played on their venerable cassette player, blanketed in a deep holiness (I cannot find a better word) and lit by the light of an overwhelming and visible love for each other and the work they together do, erased from my mind the violence in which the monks functioned and in which we now all live; and from their faces shone the light of a peace that passeth understanding. Shantih. Shantih. Shantih. I wept unashamedly. When asked if I knew of a film that might preface Selichot, I thought of only Of Gods and Men.
In Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, Jerry says that “Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” This story of Trappist Monks seemed a long distance out of the way back to teshuvah and yet, I considered that there was no more direct route to this penitential season of reverence and hope than to consider Of Gods and Men. It is the lives of these simple monks that offered me some understanding of what the High Holidays shall mean. From Ki Tavo: “This day, Adonai, your God, commands you to perform these decrees and the statutes, and you shall observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.” Watching the monks of Tibhirine, I understood what with all your heart and with all your soul meant.


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