Especially when discussing technology, I often find myself saying to someone, “I know the meaning of every word you just said, but I do not understand a thing about how they fit together.”
Actually, that is mostly true. As often as not, the most confusing part is a word I think I ought to know, like “transmogrifier,” without which I am without hope of connecting the rest of the vocabulary.
I sometimes feel the same way when reading the Bible, including the occasional “what-the-heck-is-that word?”
The technical details of constructing the Tabernacle and outfitting the priests are filled with familiar words like “gold” and “crimson” and “linen,” but figuring out how they fit together has always been a challenge for me.
Throw in a word like “ephod,” and I go running to picture books drawn by people who believe Aaron the high priest was the ancestor of Santa Claus.
Occasionally, I am the one who possesses the secret language.
The cubical leather boxes containing hand-lettered parchments with biblical verses on them that attach to arm and head with leather straps that I wear to pray are called “tefillin.”
If you don’t know what “tefillin” are, then the description in the preceding sentence needs a lot of unpacking. And if I tell you that the dictionary translation of “tefillin” is “phylacteries,” that helps not at all.
I learned this lesson long ago and far away in a study circle I joined with local evangelical Christian clergy.
We were talking one morning about our daily prayer ritual. One pastor greeted the Lord from his bay window upon arising. One opened his Bible to a random page, plunked down his index finger and reflected on whichever verse was underneath it.
The rabbi (me) said, “Well, first I tie myself up in leather straps…” I wasn’t invited back after that.
There is not necessarily an arbitrary nature to the meaning of words in specialized circumstances, but it can sure feel that way.
The usual quotation invoked when discussing these matters is what Humpty Dumpty said to Alice who was in wonderland (and why should I be different?): “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
The speaker who chooses a word, a phrase or an oration declares what she or he chooses. It is the rare (and unusually secure) listener who does not pretend to know just what the word has been chosen to mean.
In my professional life, the current version of transmogrifier ephod and tefillin is the term “religious liberty.”
It is bandied about as if it were as self-evident as the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it is used with conflicting meanings, depending on who is speaking.
Its Constitutional meaning, in my humble and somewhat educated opinion, is that the right of religious conscience is guaranteed. Those beliefs and practices which make up my faith (or lack thereof) may not be outlawed or constrained (or, conversely, enacted or promoted) by the government compared to others.
But in its political usage by some segments of our citizenry – most of them to the far right of their own faith traditions – there is an insistence that nothing can constrain the free exercise of deeply held religious beliefs.
Religious liberty, they claim, protects the imposition of legalities and precedents on anyone who objects to them.
I am a jeweler who will not sell wedding bands to a couple whose nuptials do not fit my idea of a marriage. I am a real estate broker who will not show a home to a family whose cultural preferences do not fit the character of the neighborhood. I am a taxpayer who does not want my income supporting medical procedures I would not allow women in my community to undergo.
And I claim these exemptions based on the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights: religious liberty. It trumps (small “t”) the rule of law.
I know the meaning of every word in these arguments, but I do not understand how they fit together.
By reinterpreting a term that sounds so official, the specious representations begin to sound reasonable.
By isolating the examples of genuinely nice people who are bakers or florists or county clerks agonizing over the choice between fidelity to their personal beliefs and the requirements of the laws that the rest of us are duty-bound to obey, the overlay put upon the ephod of the Bill of Rights looks just like original material.
But don’t be transmogrified. When things make no sense, there is usually a pretty good reason.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.