Anyone who has trained to be a Torah scribe or a potter, a pianist or a knife-maker, a chef or a dancer or a social change artist knows about the principle of chazara. In the studio we call it refining, on the stage we call it rehearsal, at the piano bench we call it review, on the streets we may call it engagement. One cannot refine one’s craft without continually returning to the basics, without focused practice, discipline, and curiosity, and without the willingness to be in unknown, unformed spaces.
Yom Kippur liturgy draws on the metaphor of a potter at the wheel, our lives being formed, like clay, in the hands of our Creator. But we humans, we Jews, are also creators with an obligation to continue our own practice of formation, continually shaping our Jewish lives, both personal and communal. Chazara is a tool to refine our practice, our Jewish sensibilities. We come to our Judaism through such diverse avenues, and we return to it with deliberation. Both the student of Torah who returns to a text and the woman or man returning to the fixed language of prayer represent this chazara, this return — this continued discovery of our Jewish selves.
What might we do to craft our Jewish selves through the same lens? Could we consider our Jewish practice a discipline that we return to time and again to refine — both collectively and personally?
I serve with the chevra kaddish a because I want to understand who I am as a Jew in the world of death and dying. The work is at once repellent and remarkable. But I know that each time I emerge from the tahara room I have understood more deeply who I am as a Jew. I am at once shaped and shaping.
I am struck by the talmudic passage that compares the words of Torah to a fruit-filled fig tree. “Just as with a fig tree, each time one handles it, one finds more ripe figs [for the fruits of a fig tree ripen at staggered intervals], so too with the words of the Torah, every time we study them, we find in them new flavor.” (BT Eruvin 54b) As a Torah scribe, I find that no matter how many times I have read the words of Torah, when I form the words meticulously with my hand, with kavannah for the sake of holiness and beauty, I encounter “familiar” painful passages that hit up against my sensibilities as a woman. Nevertheless, I must write them, careful not, though tempted, to change the language. And as my ink-dipped-quill shapes each letter, I travel through the white fire, the sacred white space of imagination that envelopes the letters, that makes them visible and that gives rise to thousands of interpretations. This simple practice helps me draw yet again closer to the text.
Chazara, then, becomes a discipline, similar to an artist’s, that frames how we shape and construct the Jewish self — the ways in which we cycle back with greater insight and experience to the holidays, to prayer, to study, to Jewish parenting, to our practice of mussar, ethical behavior, and so much more. Rabbi Arthur Waskow first made me aware that I return to a holiday one rung higher than the previous year, having evolved and arrived at the season with new understandings. While the raw materials — the Haggadah or the foods on the seder plate, the language of prayer, or the ritual of candle lighting — remain the same, we are different, and we see new possibilities for how to work with our “clay.” Our interaction with the materials of Judaism become masterful only with time and discipline and from this mastery emerge new sensibilities about our Jewish selves.
Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem is a socially engaged conceptual artist, Torah scribe, and arts educator (shoshanagugenheim.com). She is an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.