When Comfort Seems Impossible

The scene is all too familiar. The husband (let us say) of a friend has died — suddenly, from a massive heart attack – and you are getting out of your car for a shiva call.. You thought you might be out together enjoying a movie this Saturday night. Instead you are visiting on Thursday, and you wonder what to say when you get inside.

Some scenarios are worse. It might be a son or daughter who dies: in a car accident perhaps, no fault of their own. Either way, you are about to visit the grieving family. It is the Jewish thing to do, and you’ve done it before. But you wonder again: “What will I say? What comfort can I offer?”

In a week, we get to Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. It began after the defeat by Rome and the destruction of the 2nd Temple, and we generally treat it as a time of national disaster. But it was equally personal: soldiers who died in battle; families whose homes were burned by marauding soldiers. Widespread famine and more deaths. People made shiva calls then too – and had the same question:

“Comfort? How can I comfort someone whose father never came home? Whose daughter was raped and killed by enemy soldiers?”

This is the time of year when our calendar instructs us on tragedy and trauma; when we remember again that every day of life is a gift, a tenuous extension of the day before, which was itself nothing to take lightly. Why should we be here at all? Why should human life even occur in this remote outpost of the universe that just “happens” to have the right gaseous makeup, and sufficient evolution to lead to you and me? Then too, instead of reading this column, you could be one of the two million children reported by the United Nations as enslaved for sex around the world, or running for your life in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Liberia, or a dozen other failed states where life is cheap and you know for sure how tenuous it can be. “All flesh is grass,” says this week’s Haftarah; “All its goodness like flowers of a field. Grass withers and flowers fade.”

So you exit your car, and wonder again, “What can I say to comfort?” Again, the Haftarah has anticipated you, as if it knew the inner dialogue that haunts you. “One voice cries out, `Speak!’ Another asks, `What is there to say?'” Precisely. You will go inside and have to speak. But what is there to say?

Then comes the answer. “Comfort,” God says, “Speak tenderly.” There it is, “Speak tenderly.” The Hebrew phrase is, “Speak to the heart,” that is (say our commentators) “words that are accepted by the heart,” not the rational faculty we call mind. There is nothing logical to say right now. Go find reasonable grounds for a grieving mother to heave a sigh of relief, when she has just buried a daughter! Impossible!

But lacking something profound to say does not mean that you should settle for small talk. A loving embrace, a heartfelt look from eyes that understand, some fond memories of the person who died, and a few short sentences that mean, “I love you; I’m sorry; it’s awful; I don’t understand either; but I am here with you in your moment of grief” — that is the comfort we have to offer. As Jewish wisdom puts it, “Words spoken from the heart enter the heart.”

“Do not reason with people when their deceased lie before them,” advise the Rabbis. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid visiting. You can park your car outside the next shiva home knowing that having been through Shabbat Nachamu, you are positively prophetic in your power to comfort. Step confidently through the doorway and “speak tenderly.” What comes from your heart will go directly into theirs.

You cannot Source Out Moral Responsibility

Complex things require two kinds of people: experts to do them and ordinary people to watch over what the experts do. That’s the rabbinic lesson from this week’s Torah portion. “Watch over” the sacrifices, our text says – implying not just that expert priests and Levites do them, but also that ordinary Israelites must “stand over them” while they are going on. “From this,” Rashi summarizes, “we learn to establish ma’amadot.”

The word, ma’amadot (singular, ma’amad), from the root amad, meaning “to stand,” designated representative groups of Israelites from all over the country who took turns traveling to Jerusalem to “stand over” the sacrifices that the priests and Levites performed. As the Talmud describes the situation, all of Israel was divided into districts. The yearly sacrificial calendar was then allocated equally among the districts. When a district’s turn to sacrifice arrived, it sent a delegation of priests and Levites to the Temple to make the offerings. In addition, a ma’amad (a representative group of laypeople, regular “Israelites”) accompanied them to observe what they did.

What exactly did the Israelites add to the occasion just by watching? They hardly had the sacrificial expertise to correct anything going wrong; and they watched from an observation point well beyond the sacrificial area itself. They simply watched.

But that’s precisely what they added: watching. They watched over what was, after all, activity on their behalf.

That’s still a far cry from fully representative democracy, but give the Rabbis credit for getting the principle right: what represents the people requires oversight by the people. Experts perform the task, but the people retain ownership of, and responsibility for, it.

By “the people,” moreover, they meant “all the people.” Only a tiny fraction of the population had the time and money necessary to travel to Jerusalem, so another ma’amad was convened back home at precisely the time that the sacrifices were occurring in the Temple. Tradition associates that gathering with reciting the Amidah – our prayer that the Rabbis believed to be a substitute for the sacrifices. As sacrifice required an expert priest, so the Amidah required an expert prayer leader – someone known expressly as a sh’liach tzibbur (“representative of the people”). He was to be removed if he failed in the task, or even if he had a characterological flaw that made him unfit to represent the people before God.

Some sixteen centuries later, European philosophers developed “social contract theory” to justify conditions under which even kings might be removed, if they did not properly represent the people. Philosopher John Locke affirmed our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property – Thomas Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness,” and the rest is history.

The idea, however, goes back to the Rabbis’ reading of this Torah portion. Leadership of the body politic requires experts, but even experts are answerable for their expertise and character. Failing either, we, the people, remove them.

We might remember that lesson as we prepare for next year’s primaries. We should demand precisely those two qualities of anyone who seeks to represent us – expertise and character.

The most important lesson, however, is that, ultimately, we, the people, are responsible for everything our leaders do. If our people suffer poverty (as they do) or the rampant and racist slaughter of innocents (think “Charleston,” for example); if our prisons are inhumane (as they are) or if we practice, or have practiced, torture (as we have and probably still do); then we, the people, are responsible for not watching over the policies enacted or permitted in our name.

One obvious objection is that the sacrificing priests and the leaders of prayer were not just exercising authority in the body politic; they were representing us to God. But that won’t do. From a Jewish perspective, what we do as a body politic does represent us to God. And God’s message this week is that you cannot source out moral responsibility.

Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father Our King”

Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father our King”: over the years, Jews have looked forward to this High Holy Day prayer as they have few others. It comes with verbal familiarity, music we love – and with problems: is God really a “Father” and “King” after all? Now my newest book handles all of that — the history, the music; the meaning, and more (Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King” (Jewish Lights Publishing) — https://www.jewishlights.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?

Naming God is Volume Six of my High Holy Day series, “Prayers of Awe” (Jewish Lights Publishing) and like its predecessors, this book too assembles some 40 authors from The United States and Canada, but also Israel and Europe – rabbis, artists, composers, scholars, and thoughtful everyday worshipers, who tackle the meaning of High Holy Day worship in their lives.

The issue of Avinu Malkeinu runs deeper than the prayer itself. At stake is how we dare to name God at all, especially in prayer, which seems to presuppose our calling God something or other: if not Father and King, then what? “Our Mother and Queen?” “Parent and Ruler” solves the sexist issue, but sounds so distant! Children in pain never run into the room crying, “Parent! Help!”

In the end, what we name God says more about ourselves than about God – which is not to say that God is a fiction of our imagination. Nothing grand and glorious comes without imagination as the conceptual map to take us there. Love, loyalty, honor, character – these must all be imagined by artists and poets, who teach us how to find what we would otherwise miss. Life requires imagination to make sense of its complexity, and prayer is the longest running play of imagination that the human species has ever devised.

One of my own essays here (“The Many Ways that Liturgy Means”) is on that very topic – a way to appreciate prayer even for people who don’t believe in it. Disbelieving in prayer is like disbelieving in literature or in painting or in music.   These are matters of appreciation, not belief, and “Prayers of Awe” is a series that instils appreciation – like a do-it-yourself course in art or music, but in prayer.

Even people who think they disbelieve in God may find themselves praying, because contrary to “common sense,” the success of prayer is independent of the certainty that there is “someone up there listening.” Since names for God are metaphoric, all three terms — “someone,” “up there” and “listening” — are far from literally true. So we pray not because we believe in one any of them (God is not a “someone”; there is probably no “up there” up there; and if God listens, it isn’t in any way that human beings do). We pray because prayer is as much a human activity as listening to music and looking at art. You don’t exactly “need” Beethoven or Renoir, but life is impoverished without them.

Artists establish virtual universes: the sunflowers and waterlilies of Van Gogh and Monet are not exactly what you see in your back yard, but having experienced them in a museum, they are just as real, in their own way. So too is the exaltation of Beethoven’s “Ninth” and the pomp and circumstance of, well, of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” without which many a graduation would fall flat on its face. Great artistry intuits the depths of human experience and creates an alternative universe that explores it, and then changes us with that exploration. Prayer is such an art form.

Naming God provides everything you want to know about Avinu Malkeinu – and then some: but it also tackles the bigger questions of how we name God, how the “art” of prayer works, and why we pray altogether. I am proud of the whole series – and of this, the latest volume, in particular.

Everybody Loves a Good Pope: Especially Jews.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis I on March 13, 2013; by December, he was Time’s “Man of the Year”; and in January, the Huffington Post announced rave reviews by the “Forward 50 list of top American Jews” as well.

Calling the Jewish People “Our big brothers” on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht certainly helped, as did his giving Rabbi Abraham Skorka (of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano) an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Argentina.

But this Jewish adulation is also a sigh of relief following an era when Jewish-Catholic relationships seemed again to be in jeopardy. After centuries of Catholic enmity over the Jewish “rejection” of Christ, Vatican II had surprised the world with its1963 affirmation that God still “holds the Jews most dear” and “does not repent of the calls He issues.” That is to say, Judaism has not, after all, been superseded by Christianity; Jews should not be reviled as Christ killers; and Christian anti-Semitism must cease.

That was the liberalizing era of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, however. With their successors, John Paul II and then Benedict XVI, the revival of conservative forces in the Vatican made Jews suspect the imminent return also of medieval Catholic separatism. When Francis reasserted the “common roots” of Jews and Christians, and the reminder that “a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” Jews concluded that the gains of Vatican II might be here to stay.

But the Jewish love affair with Francis isn’t all about self-interest.

An article in Haaretz (Anshei Pfeffer, “Pope Francis Cannot save Us.” Dec. 11, 2013) got it right: “In the total absence of truly charismatic political or spiritual figures, in a generation where Israel’s elected leaders and rabbis constantly make us cringe with their outrageous statements or despair at their hopeless blandness, Bergoglio… extends some hope that we may yet see some wise old men [sic] of faith in our lifetime.”

We would say “men and women” not just “men”; being “old” has nothing to do with it; and the issue is not just Israel. But otherwise, hurray for Haaretz for observing that the positive public voice of Judaism has been wanting. Whatever happened to the Jewish visionaries who spoke truths instead of platitudes, posited promises of Jewish purpose rather than threats to Jewish continuity, held out hope for a troubled world, and made us proud to know that our Judaism is deep and wise, compassionate and compelling?

Who remembers the days when Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke poetically and prophetically to reassure a worldwide audience that religion still had something important to say? Or when thousands of Reform Jews gathered biennially, to hear Rabbi Alexander Schindler demand that they act boldly, think creatively, and make a difference?

The relative dearth of such voices today is a generational flaw, not because rabbis now are less able, but because of the way they have been trained (their “spiritual formation,” in theological language). Heschel and Schindler took it for granted that as experts in Jewish tradition, rabbis think deeply, speak boldly, and command a bully pulpit. Seeing flaws in this “Big Man” model of leadership, their students (my generation) emphasized alternative strategies like team work, collaboration, and facilitating group process.

So far so good – but we went too far: confusing authoritarianism with authority, we stopped speaking authoritatively.

Congregations aid and abet this downfall of authority by making rabbis managers, bureaucrats and apparatchiks. Success is attending meetings and managing a process that slowly creaks along while people forget why it is creaking altogether.

The economy hasn’t helped either: those in positions of national authority (not just Jews but everyone) exhaust themselves just to avoid closing plants and programs – leaving little time or energy to think or to proclaim anything. The national mood too is at fault for thriving on negativity and crippling great vision with a lethal combination of parsimonious bookkeeping and meanness of spirit.

What is the point of religion in the first place, however, if not to insist on vision, especially where the complexities of life seem to foster helplessness and hopelessness, precisely our situation today?

So along comes Francis, a welcome reminder of religion beyond bureaucracy, and heralding the best that we must become. I do not agree with everything he says – his economics, for example; and, no doubt, he has his own conservative naysayers who cringe at the very things that make the rest of us stand up and applaud.

But most Jews are on their feet and clapping – not just for Francis, but for what he represents and what we miss. The responsibility for making up that loss cannot be laid on the shoulders of the rabbinate alone. We have all colluded in manufacturing our problem; we must all work together in solving it.

Synagogues can insist on rabbis with learning and vision – then expect them to learn and engage them in visioning. Seminaries can demand that students think deeply, not just hurriedly and passingly; philanthropists can invest in big ideas with a future, not just reactive strategies dictated by the past. Jews don’t need Francis; we need rabbis like him, because without them, it remains unclear why we should even remain Jewish in the first place.

Magic Wands, Conductors’ Batons, and Other Miracles

Synagogue goers this week will hear the biblical story of Korach: a revolution in three days of screaming headlines: “Rebels Master Moses in Surprise Israelite Coup!” Then, “Earth Swallows Rebel Leaders!” And, finally, “Aaronide Priests Purge Rebels, Regain Power.” This looks like a banana-republic revolt suppressed by the old-guard that then restores the status quo ante.

But the tale is deeper than that. Look at the two miracles with which it ends. In the first, the rebels die by being swallowed up into a fissure that miraculously opens up in the earth’s crust. In the second, a staff belonging to the Levites suddenly blossoms as if it were still alive.

The story could have ended with the first miracle alone: the rebels perish; Moses and Aaron are vindicated; end of tale. Why then do we get the second miracle, and why precisely here? The answer lies in a deft piece of literary construction — the arrangement of two miracles back to back as mirror images of each other. First the rebels, full of life, are sucked up into the earth to die. Then a dead piece of wood (the staff) flowers as if it were still alive.

From life to death; from death to life: this is a metaphoric treatment of life and death.

The Hebrew for “staff,” moreover (mateh) also means “tribe,” so the Levites’ blossoming staff signifies that its owners will take the Israelites forward in their ongoing struggle against dying in the desert. The rebels go from life to death; the tribes who follow Moses and Aaron will fight off death to celebrate life renewed.

The staff is like a conductor’s baton or a magician’s magic rod, where owning and operating produce music or magic, but only in the hand of the right user. The rebels most assuredly had their own staffs, but wielded (perhaps) the way riot police swing clubs. They produce only death. The Levitical staff is deposited in the sacred shrine where God’s presence is manifest. That is to say, it is used only for sacred ends.

At one extreme, then, Korach’s demonic abuse of power reverses the miracle of life. At the other extreme, we see the possibility of music from a dead baton, magic from an ordinary wand, and flowers from a leader’s sacred staff.

Few of us are actual conductors, magicians, priests or tribal chiefs (who had their own rods, according to the story). But we all work with staffs of some sort: the extensions of our hands, minds, and hearts by which we hope to make life flourish — pen and paper to dash a note to those we love; a preschooler’s paintings that we fasten magnetically to the refrigerator door; or a camera for family photos charting a child’s growth from toddler to teenager. Pens, paint, or cameras: these are examples of modern-day staffs that can blossom.

The death of the rebels is dramatic and memorable. But I prefer the flowering of the staff: not the way the earth opens up to swallow evil, but the way it opens also to let a green shoot of promise reach toward the sunlight. Judaism regularly elects that image. What do we say whenever we eat bread, that staple which we call also the staff (!) of life? “Blessed [is God] for bringing forth bread from the earth.” We do not, upon experiencing an earthquake, praise God for swallowing up evil.

Savor, then, the ability to love, to create, to weave miracles into life’s tapestry. Let your home and work be places where you wave your wands of life and bring forth music and magic. You too can watch the earth on which you walk open up, but for good and not for evil.

“In My Childhood, I had No Childhood,” He Said

“In my childhood,” Anton Chekhov famously said, “I had no childhood.” He said it “famously,” of course, only because he was famous. For lots of people, the idea of childhood raises wistful sadness of something we were cheated out of.

If the bliss of childhood is something we sometimes fail to get but regularly wish we had, the second infancy of advanced old age is something we regularly hope to avoid but will probably have to endure. How ironic to suffer the worst of both possibilities: to miss out on childhood but have to endure the creeping debilitation of old age.

In between, we get the broad landscape of the adult: independent and all-powerful; no longer the child, at the mercy of others, but not yet conscious of advancing time and attrition. Adults are grown up but not yet grown old.

These views of life’s stages are prototypically modern, a function of the hubris that set in with science, the Enlightenment, and the machine age, all of which promised ultimate salvation by and for “can do” adults. Adulthood, we imagine, is time set aside for achievements that we list in a c.v. like notches in a cowboy’s gun. “What do you do?” we ask adults whom we meet for the very first time. When you get too old to “do” anything, we retire you to a “rest” home as uninteresting.

This fetish for achievement is a modernist critique of medieval Christianity, helped along by capitalism. The medieval church had done its best to convince human beings that they could never accomplish anything worthwhile; that we are all sinners; that being born into serfdom or royalty, poverty or wealth, was God’s will to be endured; and that deliverance arrives only in the afterlife and only for those without pride of self. With no possibility of accomplishment, the point of life was just to get through it and make it to rebirth on the other side of death; hence the idea of life as a “cycle” – from birth, to adulthood, to old age, and, then, to rebirth (a progression evident in Christian iconography of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries).

The capitalist influence attracted a host of early theorists. Max Weber (1864-1920) named Calvinist Protestantism as the force that cast doubt on the medieval narrative: Protestants accepted human sinfulness, but thought that God predestines some people for salvation in the world to come and signals that choice by allowing the predestined chosen to multiply wealth, power and achievements here and now. Werner Sombart (1863-1941) thought Jews the more likely candidate: excluded from medieval guilds, Jews opted for a competitive system that rewarded entrepreneurial individualism. More likely, Ferdinand Toennies (1855-1936) was right in seeing capitalism as a function of individualism and modernity per se. In any event, individualism and capitalism inherited the vacuum opened up by the shrinking medieval sacred canopy, giving us the unquestioned view that life’s purpose is to pile up achievements, preferably quantifiable – enough to fill long obituaries that prove we were once worthwhile.

This rapturous sense of adult possibility takes its toll, however. At the very least, the endless search for achievement comes at the fearful price of never having enough and being only as good as the last healthy bonus, satisfied customer, enthusiastic client, or rave review.

No wonder we romanticize childhood as the innocent time we never got. Did we really never have it or do we just wish, sometimes, we could get it again: abandon the burden of adult achievement and retire – not to old age, of course, but back to childhood, where we still have boundless energy, but don’t have to accomplish anything.

Other cultures and eras carve up life’s promises differently. Classical Judaism, for example, honors aging as a goal, not a falloff from one’s prime. When Rav Ashi, the most cited rabbi of the Talmud, is invited to offer a public prayer but is not sure what prayer to say, he looks to an old man (hahu sava) for confirmation, because elders have what mere adults do not: wisdom. And Judaism values wisdom as a guide to what counts for real achievement and what does not.

To be sure, achievement matters for the Rabbis, who are hardly passive about the world. But they know better than to think that all things are humanly possible, and they had read Ecclesiastes, the very epitome of wisdom, for whom the endless quest for achievements is “vanity of vanities”; it leaves you “pursuing the wind” (Ecc. 2:11). So the achievements they advocate are those that wisdom recognizes as lasting and satisfying, available yet ultimate: acts of kindness and righteousness.

Here is a vision of achievement where childhood is not frivolity nor old age doddering. Childhood inaugurates the search for wisdom and the art of dealing kindly and righteously. As adults, we seek to model such a life. In old age, we are still kind and righteous, but surprise of surprises – freed from other demands of adulthood, we are free to master wisdom.

Why do people label religion irrelevant? The Jewish view of growing up and growing old is as fine a model of life as I can imagine.

Not Just Economics but Fraying Social Fabric: Robert Putnam and His Reviewer

My first academic book (The Canonization of the Synagogue Service, 1979) was a study of the political process by which the first Jewish prayer book came into being. The book was reviewed positively and is still required reading in the field. Imagine then, my surprise, when, a few years back, an Israeli scholar published a related volume but relegated my book to this single footnote: “Hoffman’s“Hoffman’s book is too foolish to bother including here.”

A similar incident occurred when I wrote Covenant of Blood, a historical but anthropological account of circumcision, that demonstrated, in part, how the ritual functioned in the Middle Ages as a male bonding ritual in which male blood and female blood were juxtaposed as primary symbols of positive and negative valence. Once again, the book was greeted warmly, and once again also, one reviewer unaccountably condemned me – this time, as anti-Semitic.

Such minority reports are often more indicative of the reviewers than the book being reviewed. New perspectives can mistakenly be seen as necessarily negating old ones, when, in fact, they simply widen prior understandings.

Truth is seldom such a zero-sum game: new analyses may add to old truths rather than displace them.

In a recent Facebook posting, I urged people to read Robert Putnam’s recently published Our Kids. Some readers then forwarded to me the review from the New York Review of Books by Nicholas Lehmann (Unhappy Days in America, May 21, 2015) which I had somehow missed. What did I think of it, they wanted to know. Did it change my view of Putnam’s book?

The review is competent, learned, and formidable. But it didn’t change my mind. Here’s why.

Lehmann contrasts Putnam’s work with Thomas Picketty’s recent Capital in the Twentieth Century, a deeply disturbing claim that our economic policies are producing a tiny upper-class “living like feudal lords,” at the expense of an underclass that will be eternally poor. Putnam acknowledges this economic disparity but adds a nuanced sociological understanding to Picketty’s economic one. Most of Our Kids focuses on family life, early childhood development, schools, and neighborhoods — as contributory factors to our emerging two-class phenomenon. These, Lehmann implies, are just subsidiary issues that do not even have proven causal connections to the phenomenon in question.

I am, to paraphrase the prophet Amos, “neither a sociologist nor the son of a sociologist” so I cannot rule on the technical matter of the extent to which the data display clear lines of causality. But Putnam makes no simple causal claims so much as he unveils a set of interlocking factors that combine to magnify each other’s detrimental influence. Both Putnam and Picketty are describing the same phenomenon from diverse points of view: Putnam understands the economics but adds the social factors that make the economic impact even worse than it would be on its own. He expands our purview to see just how insidiously economic privation poisons everything else: families, parenting, schools, and neighborhoods – the very essence of the social fabric that sustains us.

Our Kids should be read as an extension of Putnam’s prior work, Bowling Alone (a 1995 essay expanded into a 2000 book) and even his later American Grace (2010). All three works emphasize the power of social capital, the means by which dense social networks support the kind of mutual engagement that leads people to help one another. If there is a bottom line to Our Kids, it is the fact that the underclass suffers a breakdown in every aspect of social life: not just grinding poverty, but fear of violence that shuts people off from their neighbors; families under stress; parents too tired or strung out to communicate with their children; schools that barely educate, and then phase out extracurricular networking that would provide social capital for its overworked and under prepared students.

None of this necessarily implies that we ignore the underlying economic causes of class disparity. On the contrary, I suspect that Putnam was deliberately understating what everyone knows to be the case anyway, not papering over the need to provide equal economic opportunity, but suggesting important ways in which social realities can be restructured to ameliorate the situation. These social issues are not just Marxist epiphenomena, smoke screens that divert us from attending to the real culprit, the economy. Of course the economic disparities lie at the core of it all; and of course they deserve our attention; but so too do the other issues that Putnam details with such care.

Putnam’s work expands economic analyses with insight into the fraying social fabric that is devastating the subjects of this book, “our kids.”