September 7, 2009
Fear, faith, horror movies and the Jewish New Year
Religion has a central place in many horror movies—think of “The Omen,” “The Exorcist,” “Carrie,” “Seven” and my favorite, “Rosemary’s Baby.” It isn’t difficult to suggest reasons why. Pageantry, sublimated sexuality, suffering, sin, death—these are core elements of most religions that are right at home in the horror genre.
Horror also has a central place within religion. Not only do many sacred texts read like horror novels (think of the 10 plagues, Nadav and Avihu, and Korah), but some current religious rhetoric seeks to scare. We live in a world in which a rhetoric of fear convinces people of faith to strap explosives onto their bodies and walk into public markets.
Although I am uncomfortable with horror’s role within religion, I am not convinced that one could or should remove the language and experience of fear from the language and experience of faith. If religion, like the genre of horror, is about facing the edges of life and imagining what lies beyond, then it may be impossible. Like Israel at Sinai, all people tremble before the Infinite.
Fear also is a powerful motivator, and religion is about motivation. Every parent and child understands the power of a rational or even an irrational threat to initiate positive change. Yet contemporary Jews are uncomfortable with a religious language that appeals to people’s fears and insecurities. Just as we want our movies to end happily, many of us want a religion that is comfortable and reassuring. And most of us want a God that comforts and reassures.
But that is not the God of the Bible—at least not always. Often we meet a scary God, a God who threatens to wipe out Israel through disease, famine or sword.
I hunt monsters in the Bible. My work studies the Bible’s rhetoric of horror and examines the ways in which the Bible, like horror movies, is designed to terrify its audience. I consider the ways the biblical prophets, like Jeremiah, construct a monstrous God to convince Israel to reform. The prophets warn that if Israel continues to misbehave, God will wield a bloody, flesh-consuming sword much like Freddy Krueger’s razor glove.
Though in my work I am careful to stress that the monstrous God of the Bible is a literary construct, to some calling God a monster may seem irreverent. Yet now, in this awesome season—the Yamim Noraim, the days of terror—I argue for the theological richness, even necessity, of facing a scary God by considering one image from the High Holidays liturgy.
The seemingly innocuous but powerfully disturbing image of God the shepherd is woven throughout the holiday liturgy. In one of the most well-known and well-loved High Holidays prayers, Jews say to God, “We are your people and you are our God ... we are your servants and you are our Lord ... We are your flock and you are our shepherd.” Placed right before the communal confession, Jews happily sing these words as if to ensure God’s forgiveness.
At first glance, God the shepherd evokes only comfort. Psalm 23, the mainstay of the Yizkor service, describes God the shepherd as the protector and the provider: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ... I fear no harm for you are with me. Your staff and your rod comfort me” (Psalms 23:1-4).
Yet the image of God as shepherd takes a dark turn in what is arguably the centerpiece of the High Holidays liturgy—the Unetaneh Tokef. In this prayer, Jews proclaim the awesome, terrifying sanctity of the Day of Judgment. Even the angels tremble as they, like we, face judgment. In this terrifying moment, God the gentle shepherd becomes God the terrifying shepherd who considers which of his flock to slay—the prayer graphically continues—by fire, flood, sword or beast.
God the shepherd functions like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—sometimes nurturing, sometimes killing. Yet despite the erratic behavior, the dual nature of this image instills within me the essential religious perspective I seek during these holidays. It makes me feel safe, yet vulnerable; protected but not invincible. I am aware of all that I have and all that I can lose. I feel alive yet mortal.
The image of God as shepherd is an unsettling image. Personally, I want religious language to unsettle. At their best, the High Holidays prayers, like God the shepherd, comfort and terrify. They tell us that God loves us and cares for us, but that some of us will die this year.
Just as I feel that the rhetoric of horror is essential to the Bible’s message (which also, incidentally, has a rhetoric of love), I feel that the rhetoric of horror is essential to the liturgy of the Yamim Noraim. In order to shape my life, I need to consider how I should live before I must die. Though I long for the gentle shepherd, I must face the terrifying shepherd (the celluloid monster) and, hopefully, pass safely beneath his staff.
(Amy Kalmanofsky is an assistant professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.)