The man in the low castle
At three sites, the Kohanim stood guard in the Temple… [two] were balconies, and the youngsters would stand guard there. [The third] was a dome, and it was a large building, surrounded by stone slabs, and the elders would sleep there, holding the keys of the courtyard in their hands. The young Kohanim would sleep in their clothes on the ground. They did not sleep in their holy clothes but would take them off, fold them, put them under their heads and sleep wearing their own clothing.
Mishnah Tamid 1:1
Tractate Tamid, the oldest in the Mishnah, bears peculiar relevance for our times. That is precisely because it is so very strange.
The first passage is typical, concerning almost laughably trivial details about the Temple’s work. Throughout the tractate, we find lovingly detailed descriptions of the shape that the sacrificial ashes formed, the types of wood used to stoke the fire, and the contour of the staircases. Tamid’s subject matter is seemingly so trite that other rabbis respond incredulously when I say I am studying it.
But I find Tamid inspirational, particularly in this era of political crisis. The rabbis lived through a crisis, too — one significantly greater than our current threat to American democracy. They experienced a comprehensive defeat, a destruction of the divine house, God’s abandonment of Israel and the exile of Jews. The rabbis did not do everything well, but they did react to despair and catastrophe well.
How did they respond?
They remembered. They learned. They created. And they did each for its own sake, without illusions about remaking the world.
Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi redacted the Mishnah around 200 C.E., long after the Second Temple’s destruction and long after it became obvious that it would not rise again barring divine intervention. So why bother recording all these minuscule details? Because the act of remembrance — creating a culture of memory — is holy, in that it gives our lives transcendent meaning. The great funeral prayer Ha-Tziduk Ha-Din references the “rope of life”: memory and its culture.
As I study Tamid, I find myself comparing it to another book: Philip K. Dick’s award-winning dystopic novel “The Man in the High Castle,” now famously adapted into a series by Amazon Prime.
“High Castle” imagines another disaster: Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan triumph in World War II, with Germany conquering the Eastern United States and Japan gaining control of the Pacific coast states. This scenario evokes the rabbis’ experience: the liquidation of their institutions and the destruction of their most basic assumptions about the world.
The show’s version focuses on the nascent resistance to Axis domination, which makes for good television, but actually perverts the entire point of the novel. Nothing gets resolved in “High Castle” — the Japanese and the Germans remain firmly in control. Indeed, there really is no resistance to speak of.
The book’s power, instead, rests in how its characters gain meaning through their individual deeds of creativity and remembrance. Frank Frink, the book’s sole Jewish character, is saved from the Nazis but returns to his studio, carefully crafting abstract jewelry that he puts his soul into. Bigoted art dealer Robert Childan, eager to suck up to the occupiers, achieves a new personal dignity by refusing to cooperate with Japanese counterfeiting efforts and defending the integrity of his wares. Frink’s ex-wife, Juliana, acts against the Nazis, but ends the book literally unsure of her next step. A Japanese trade official, Nobusuke Tagomi, risks his life protecting his charges from the SS although he knows it will have no long-term effect. We eventually learn that “The Man in the High Castle” himself, Hawthorne Abendsen, who wrote an “alternative history” in which the Allies won the war, no longer lives in the high castle. He is back in town, no longer afraid of assassination because he has produced a life-defining work of literature.
Tractate Tamid reminds me of “The Man in the High Castle” because both point to the same lesson about creating meaning in dark times. There is no triumph here, no lasting redemption. People take actions, however, that give themselves great meaning, mostly by creating and preserving civilization, whether it be junior priests taking care to scoop out the sacrificial ashes in just the right way, or the post-destruction writers ensuring that we know precisely how they did it. The priests are quite literally the “men in the low castle” (after all, the Temple Mount is not that elevated physically), and their physical position reflects their spiritual one: taking small steps, carving out a zone of meaning when all seems pointless.
Frank Frink knows little of Judaism, and Nobusuke Tagomi even less, but I think that, had they met Yehudah Ha-Nasi, they would recognize a kindred spirit.
Perhaps this is why the rabbis declared that a person encountering personal disaster should study Torah (Berakhot 5a). On the surface, this seeks God’s favor, but more subtly, it reaffirms our connection with our tradition and civilization.
Feel frustrated about the latest outrage from Washington, D.C., or from anywhere in an increasingly insane world? Resist of course, but also create civilization on your own. Paint. Write. Read, to yourself or a child. Perform a random act of kindness. And then record what you do — for the future. Establish by your most minor action that, no matter what happens in a world you cannot control, you will uphold civilization wherever you can. Be the man or woman in the low castle, arranging the ashes in the holiest way.
Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.