Friday, December 02, 2005

The Things That Matter

You know, on some deep fundamental level, I think people have a tendency to assume that everyone is just like them.

Most of us do it. I think that's why people often argue deep matters of morality by telling their opponents "You know I'm right. You just disagree because it's politically correct to say otherwise." Or, "Really, you agree, you're just afraid of what people will think of you if you break with the flock."

When the assumption that everyone in the world is just like them is broken, people freak out. There are a lot of examples in the world, but the one that occurs to me just now happened to me in college. I was twenty. Raised in a Classic (High Church) Reform shul and an activisty whole-wheat eating Jewish home (with an Irish Catholic ex-cop father). Not exactly from Crown Heights. I majored in early modern European history. I was doing a paper for an art history class. (About which I used the line "If it ain't Baroque don't fix it," too many times.)

I'm in the library flipping through a book of Renaissance art photos, when I suddenly come across a section of Michaelangelo's Sistine chapel frescos, in sections. Suddenly, I realize something.

You know that picture? Of the fierce, bearded old man pointing a finger? Leaning down from on high, with his eyes full of fire and intensity? The Michaelangelo one? OK. I thought that was Moses. For years, I figured it was Moshe. The fierceness. The beard. The whole--you know--manner.

I never saw him in context, I guess. Or never pieced together something my brain couldn't cope with. Suddenly, in the Mills College library, at the age of twenty, I realize that the scene is The Creation of Adam. And that the bearded bloke is....


Oh no.

Oh, it can't be.

That's not ALLOWED, is it?

It must have been. This was a commission for the Pope.

Of course, it's God, reaching down to zap life into Adam.

Never realized that.

My heart was pounding. I actually slammed the book shut and pushed it away from me. I sat in the carrel and trembled. I was completely horrified. My entire world view had just twisted around the sudden realization that in the canon of Great Western Art, it was apparently OK to actually paint a picture of God. As a person. With a face. Like, a nose. And ears. And, you know, clothes and stuff.

That the Renaissance Italians I studied and kind of flattered myself I knew about would think this was normal. Acceptable. Non-frightening.

That the Christian-raised feminist theologians I hung out with really meant it when they said they'd been taught God was an old man with a white beard. Like, literally.

That I was not LIKE people who could look at something like this and not feel themselves in the presence of something blasphemous and potentially dangerous.

Eventually I managed to stop rocking and chanting the Rambam's principles and get out of the fetal position (OK, I'm exaggerating a lot there), made my way home, and spent the evening trying to explain what had happened to me to non-Jewish friends who were very nice, but obviously didn't really believe that I could have been raised so differently from them that this actually shocked me.

Anyway, that was more than ten years ago, now, and it sure was an interesting cultural experience. It's an occasional reminder to me about the truly surprising variety of human experience and perception.

There actually was a reason I brought this up. Next post.

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