It’s suggested that the oldest rabbinical scenario for liturgy was that of a rabbi -- so ancient that he was the equivalent of a shaman -- who would obey the necessity of worship by going into the forest to a certain place, a clearing; kindling a fire there; saying an ancient prayer; and then telling a specific story. (I suspect it was what they call a “founding story” -- how the larger religious group came to be.)
Decades and centuries passed. The next rabbi couldn’t quite remember how to find the place in the forest -- it had changed. Maybe clearcut. The next rabbi was not able to start a fire. Finally the original prayer was forgotten. But always they told the story -- people don’t forget stories.
Historically, the first Jewish worship evolved out of people meeting in a study group who studied the scrolls that became the Talmud. This was so important that they said a little prayer at the beginning and the end. Prayer was a threshold for entering the liminal space of the text. The content of those scrolls was sometimes rules, sometimes genealogy, but what brought the scholars back was the stories. Rabbis are often excellent story tellers and liminal space is the right setting for the really significant ones. As Steven Moore points out in his brilliant history of "The Novel," these stories had been floating around for many centuries before they were sacralized in texts. They are the real foundation of Judaism.
Let’s go to an historic female liturgist who knew about stories: Schaherazade. Most of us have read “The Arabian Nights” in bowdlerized children’s versions, the same as we read the diminished “myths” of indigenous peoples that have had the power of sex and death taken out of them. Schaherazade’s stories included sex and death. She was not telling children’s nursery stories to an indulgent sultan. Let’s suppose the sultan was like someone we know: Muammar Gaddafi. (Not Bin Laden, who would prefer a different story.) What should Schaherazade think about when choosing her literally life-saving stories?
When one googles for Gaddafi’s psychology, there is a long list of material . One is at: تحليل نفسي لشخصية القذافي – د. طارق الحبيب the title of a YouTube vid that’s also spoken in Arabic. At the other end of the scale is the DSM, the diagnostic manual for psychologists. One commenter suggests “multiple diagnosis personality disorder – narcissistic/histrionic/sociopathic. All may evidence psychotic episodes. The revolt of his “subjects” has caused him significant narcissistic injury which has resulted in narcissistic rage and/or OTT [over the top] self-pity. He is also delusional.” (“My people love me.”)
Then the commenter makes this rash statement: “At any rate his narcissism is a reaction to deep insecurity and narcissism which may be said almost to be endemic among Arab Muslim males – viz Saddam Hussein and the Muslim prophet himself.” This brought a fiery reaction from a woman recently attacked by super-conservative Jews in Israel. And another commenter suggested that narcissism and paranoia are characteristic of all intensely religious people: no distinction between left and right within religions. Anyway, Gaddafi declares no affiliation, neither Arab nor Islamic.
Schaherazade is presented with the necessity of converting a sultan. She has a different (imposed) liturgical sequence than the shamanic rabbi: the sultan calls for a woman from his harem, she is brought in, they have sex, and we don’t know whether the other women told stories, but they are killed at dawn to make way for the next woman. Does Schaherazade tell the story to keep the Sultan from having sex with her? She is smart. His "love-making" will tell her how to shape her story. With luck he will tell her HIS story, which will furnish all sorts of clues about his narcissism, his grandiosity, his paranoia, his extremism, his insecurity, and what he thinks love is. (The unconditional positive regard of the mother?)
It’s important to avoid stereotypes, which can lead one badly astray. Gaddafi’s actual origins are strategically ambiguous: possibly Jewish in part, maybe Bedouin, certainly tribal since that’s what the country is and he has fit into their assumptions. Schaherazade, assuming she has access to all the stories that ever were, might do well to use Plains Indians stories like the life of the actual Crazy Horse or the archetypal Star Boy. She would be well-advised to stick to the Joe Campbell stories of heroes found in every culture and religion, because we’re ALL a little narcissistic, grandiose, paranoid, extreme. (Dick Cheney? Tom Cruise? Mel Gibson? Oh, surely we’re not so nutty as they!)
She would remember hearing Gaddafi say: “I am with you in the battle. My gun is with you.” (How Freudian!) He believes that millions of followers love him intensely and will defend him to death, which will be the sacrifice of a martyr. That the Western powers were traitorous and exposed him to the malevolence of enemies. When he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see a disordered old man, but rather the rock star in aviator sunglasses of his youth.
Schaherazade has a lot to work with here, but the actual work depends on her skill in two ways: her ability to empathize with this man, to “read” him, and her stability and resolution along these same dimensions so as not to be pulled into his fantasy world. She must know the narcissism and paranoia in herself well enough to have compensated for them, to be anchored in reality. (Is that possible?) Her understanding of the universe must be so huge and coherent that she is not threatened by her own miniscule participation in it, nor intimidated by the threat of death, but still able to think without paralysis and indecision. (How does a shrink keep from being driven crazy by clients?)
Obviously she must praise this man. (Probably his love-making is like his politics. He has made some brilliant moves when it comes to deceiving the West. Declarations of love for his people might even include the woman he is fucking. More accurately, raping.) And she must reassure him so that he doesn’t -- in panic -- order her death. She must convince him that martyrdom is realistic and death will be a triumphant explosion, not a long miserable erosion in confinement. His fragile bubble must not be broken, because outside of it will not be sanity but rather psychosis unlimited and destructive, raging formlessly.
Qaddafi is a story for us to ponder, religiously or not. Certainly politically. Schaherazade, wise about dictators, may still be living among us, so where are her stories? Are they the same ones as before, or is everything changed by our modern contingencies? What stories would she tell to the mothers in Somalia, laying their skeletal dead babies down in the dust before they stagger off in any direction, seeking their own death. What is the story that would save their lives?
Take your hands off your ears. Dry your eyes. Think like Schaherazade. The moral rule for the liturgist and the rest of us is to have the courage to preserve empathy even for madmen, without being drawn in or walking off. Use shared liminal space effectively. Tell a story.