Open Letter to My Students 42: The Cat is Not on the Mat. 

The cat is not on the mat. 

It’s not even my cat. 

But its owner has sent me its picture. 

It is sitting outside the refrigerator, as if stalking something that has crawled, scampered or otherwise hidden beneath it. A spider? A mouse, maybe? Or worse. In any case, there sits the cat, with all the primary patience that the slow march of evolutionary time has bred within it, to make it a hunter. I would have given up long ago. I’m on different evolutionary journey.

But what is that human journey? That question obsesses me more and more as I get older. And I think I have an answer.

I’m not the first person to ask the question. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) thought we are bred for rationality: we are, at bottom, rational beings. One of the most rational among us, mind you, the great Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) included that definition in his collection of “intellectual rubbish,” although a concurring opinion comes from philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who said, “I think” – not “I hunt” – “therefore, I am.” 

Opinions multiply. Fixated on the plight of the proletariat, and armed with an economic theory whereby the value of a product is determined by the labor that goes into it, Karl Marx (1818-1883) called us “laboring beings.” Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the pioneering historian of religion called us “religious beings”; and philosopher of symbolic forms, Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), preferred (of course) “symbolic beings.”

Judaism too has its definition: we are beings who are made in the image of God; we are the species, therefore, that strives to be Godly.

But what is “Godly”? The obvious answer is “holy” (as in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy as I, your God, am holy”), but in and of itself, that doesn’t help very much: it just substitutes one unknowable term for another.

So what does it mean to strive to be like God?

However we conceive God, we all agree that God, traditionally, is the name we give to denote an idealized portrait of perfection. God is eternal, we say: also all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful. True, that definition gets us into trouble with such questions as, “Why would a perfectly good, omniscient and omnipotent  God allow bad things to happen to good people?” But my concern here is not the reality of God so much as it is just the concept of God, as an ideal toward which human beings at their best seem intrinsically to strive. 

As God is all-knowing, we have, over time, sought to know more and more; as God is all good, we seek increasing to fill the world with goodness, even in the face of continuing (and often horrific) evil. As God is all-powerful, we inherently strive for power, influence, and impact upon the little corners of our private world, and even beyond it. And because God is eternal, we seek our own eternality: longer and longer lives; works that outlive us; even life after death. 

  We don’t chase spiders under refrigerators. We chase knowing things: the what of the universe. We chase the good, the right, and the just: the why of the human enterprise. And we chase the ability to exercise power beyond our paltry selves: the how of getting good things done. The “what,” the “why” and the “how” are questions only human beings agonize over. And we ask these questions not just for the moment, but for all time. Human beings do hunt, but not only for prey; we have evolved to hunt for the ingredients of forever.

To be sure, this search to be like God is not found equally among everyone. Our own time is one in which the existence of truth itself has been thrown into doubt. Some postmodernists believe that there our so-called “truths” are so fraught with politics and power that all we have is disparate and competing self-serving narratives. So too, if everything is self-serving, then there is no such thing as the good; each individual is the measure of all things. And power is just what corrupts: those who have it just manipulate it for their own ends, not for the good of humanity.

These are the pervasive heresies of our day; they should be vigorously denied. They reduce the world to a sorry state of redundant selfishness and conflict, with no hope of bettering things over the course of history.

Yet the historical record is satiated with progress over the long run.

First, the search for truth: an easy case to make. Can anyone deny the buildup of knowledge over the years? I don’t just mean in science, which goes back seriously only to the 17th century. I mean art as well, the truths of the human condition portrayed by Van Gogh, celebrated by Beethoven, and amassed in poetry and literature throughout the globe. 

Second, power, which is well recorded by historians as the essence of what makes the world turn. But Plato (428-348 BCE) already urged the use of power only to attain virtue. It was Machiavelli who dispensed with virtue, but the reason we read him is that he is despicably Machiavellian. Increasingly, we have arrived at the point where we believe that power is necessary, and that as much as it can be wielded for evil, it can also be exercised for good.

The hardest case to make is that we human beings are increasingly striving for the good. But compare us to ancient Rome: 25% of the population were slaves; torture was an accepted practice; aristocrats cheered on gladiators who maimed and killed one another. To be sure, just last century, Nazi Germany murdered 6,000,000 Jews; Stalin starved 4,000,000 Ukrainians; Americans lynched black people with impunity. But 2,000 years after Rome, the world is at least increasingly aware of just how inhuman those things are; and that is progress.

Cats are better than we are at all sorts of things. But the best they can do is smell their prey under the refrigerator and wait for it to come out. We humans have attained a higher-order imperative: to be like God. The search for truth, the drive to be good, and the virtuous exercise of power to influence history far beyond our own meagre lifetimes – these are what make us distinctively human.  

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Open Letter to My Students 41: Dumas

My parents, apparently, never warned me against talking to strangers, so I tend to talk to everyone: taxi drivers, check-out clerks, maintenance workers, trash collectors – some of my best conversations have been with people whom the rest of the world ignores. So let me tell you about Dumas, a security guard at a hospital I visited last year, part of a daily radiation regimen I had to undergo for a month or so. As security officers go, Dumas is hardly menacing, but he is a big man, strategically perched at the hospital’s entrance: the last gatekeeper, before you enter the lobby. Despite his size, or perhaps because of it, no one pays him any attention, but I did, and over time, I got to know him.

Dumas speaks a sort of Creole French, so the minute he heard I was from Canada, he began peppering our conversation with French words, most of which I either didn’t remember or didn’t understand, but no matter:  Dumas saw me as his sort-of-French speaking friend. On my last appointment day, I said au revoir to my new-found ami, and gave him a box of chocolates to thank him for his sweetness. 

What linked us together beyond the French was the mutual realization that both of us are religious. 

“Welcome, my brother,” Dumas would say, “The Lord has given us a pleasant day.” 

“Amen to that,” I’d respond.

“God bless you,” he said, as he opened the chocolates.

“God bless you too, Dumas,” I answered. “You yourself are a blessing, you know. I am grateful to have met you.” 

I hated each hospital appointment; I loved what I shared with Dumas. 

I came to see myself as inhabiting two worlds simultaneously. The first was the world of healthcare: the hospital visits themselves, the blood draws, lab tests, wrist IDs, and treatments – the kind of thing that raises anxiety even if there is nothing to be anxious about. The second was a religious reality, where God gives us lovely days and blesses us as we pass through them. “Be blessed in your comings and your goings,” as Deuteronomy says (28:6). Dumas guarded the hospital of the sick; he welcomed God’s creatures who came to visit.

We actually inhabit many worlds: work, school, healthcare, and so on. They appear to us as simple givens, the brute facts of life, but actually, they are socially constructed, embedded in institutions with rules of dress, conduct, status, and behavior. Think of them as a set of circles, with pathways leading from one to the other. On any given day, we commute from circle to circle, world to world. 

Each world comes with its own appropriate vocabulary and conversations. In the world of business, for example, I might file a written claim with my insurance company, and sign it, “Sincerely” – not, however, because I am particularly sincere about what I have just said, but as a sign that my letter is a business sort of thing. If I write about the incident to an old friend, however, I sign it, “Warmly,” or “Fondly,” although probably not “Love” – -a sign that we are part of the world of personal relationships, but not quite as intimate as the world of family. If you’ve ever paused before signing off with “Warmly, “Fondly,” Love,” or “xxoo,” you know how much the specialized rules of language matter.

Rule confusion can sometimes court disaster, as in this tale I heard when I worked one year for the US Navy. A traveler falls overboard into the raging sea. The captain stops the ship, but unable to locate the victim, shouts into a megaphone, “We will save you! Tell us your position, what is your position?” “I’m president of a bank!” comes the reply, “President of a bank!”

A more usual problem with vocabularies is our reluctance to use them if we are hesitant to buy into the worlds they represent. That’s the problem with the religious vocabulary that Dumas and I shared together, but which most people avoid because they think they are not religious. They are not sure they believe in God; less sure that God blesses us; so they feel foolish saying “God bless you” (except for sneezes, where they say it without meaning it). But sometimes the vocabulary has to come first, as a sort of password into the reality that it conjures up. It is not entirely the case that when I greet Dumas with “God bless you,” I am already convinced of a God who blesses. Rather, I entertain the possibility of divine blessing because I let myself say “God bless you.” 

It’s not altogether different from the first time you told someone, “I love you.” Just saying those words initiates you into a world of romantic love that you may have thought you’d never find. Remember Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof. “Do you love me?” he asks Golde – who, forced now to consider the question, decides that maybe she does. The point is, marriage throughout most of history had nothing to do with our idea of love. Love too is a social construction, albeit more universally accepted than religion. 

Religious language need not be taken literally: it is suggestive more than it is descriptive. I say, “God willing, I’ll meet you for lunch,” even though I don’t literally believe that my meeting depends on God’s will (whatever God is, God surely doesn’t care where or with whom I eat). Similarly, upon hearing that you are safely out of surgery, I say, “Thank God,” even though I don’t believe God micromanaged the surgeon’s hands. Language is sometimes just indicative of the larger world it represents. I use God language to raise the ante – “Thank God” expresses the ultimacy of the moment: it’s better than, “Great. You had a good surgeon.” 

That’s why I say blessings: those one-liners that Judaism prescribes for eating various kinds of food, for seeing a rainbow or a beautiful flower or a lightning storm. Take what we call shehecheyanu, for example, “Blessed is God who granted us life, sustained us and brought us to this day.” I use it at holidays, when I eat the first summer produce from my garden, and at family reunions, because I want to elevate the moment to the level of sacred appreciation, and using religious vocabulary gets me there.

Religion is a world unto itself, but a world that we can enter just by speaking it into being. It is a world where the beautiful is also divine; where even in our loneliness, God is somehow with us, so we need not fear; where death is not the end, because in some divine calculus, our dead are “bound up in the bond of life eternal”; where life itself is not just accidental but riddled with purpose; and where hope never fails because my language invokes images of a better world than this in the long run.

Were it not for Dumas, I would have entered and left the hospital as just a patient. Were it not for me, Dumas would have come to work and gone back home as merely a security guard. Together, however, colluding, as we did, to speak of God and of blessing, we discovered that we were “brothers,” “blessed,” and somehow watched over by some higher reality than either of us can understand. 

Open Letter to My Students 40: Footprints In The Snow

“The snow was building up,” says Claire Keegan, in her beautiful little novel, Small Things Like These, so that Furlong (the story’s hero) could not help but notice how the footprints of people who had gone before and after him stood out plainly on the footpath.” How marvelous (I thought, as I read that line) — how marvelous to be able to differentiate the footprints of those who entered the world before my birth from those who entered it afterward. How would the two measure up?

This question intrigued me especially last week, as Yom Kippur blended into Sukkot, a time, traditionally, when even those Jews who cannot successfully hang a picture on a wall are mysteriously moved to hammer together an outdoor sukkah – that temporary booth whose very flimsiness symbolizes the fragility of life itself. If we can, we eat and even sleep there for a week, meditating on Ecclesiastes for whom, on one hand, everything is futile, while on the other, this is the life we have and we may as well live it the way God would like us to. 

But still, why footprints? 

Well, the thirteenth-century kabbalistic masterpiece, The Zohar, pictures biblical ancestors being invited to rise from the dead to share the sukkah as our guests — ushpizin, in Aramaic. There are seven of them: the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) plus Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. Nowadays, we commonly add also the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) along with Miriam, Abigail and Esther. 

For the kabbalists who hatched the idea, however, the names were mere pretext: they stood for seven aspects of the divine that lend their aura to our simple sukkah. The point of the invitation was to sit for seven days alongside God: to bask in the blessing that comes from being in touch with something higher than ourselves.

What interests me is the relatively recent custom of making up our own list of guests: people whose pathway through life represents something godly. Hence footprints: I imagine myself studying the footprints in the snow of time, looking for worthy exemplars of humanity to share my sukkah as reminders that we human beings really can be godly. 

My invitees need not be perfect, you understand.  To be sure, I draw the line at utter reprehensibility. King David, who had Uriah the Hittite killed so as to marry his widow Bathsheba, would never have made my list, for example. But failing such excesses, and making allowance for ordinary human frailty, I search the footprints in the snow for models of the soul’s nobility – and I discover a problem. 

Like Furlong, from Small Things Like These, I see two sets of footprints: the footprints of those world leaders who were born and reached ascendancy before my time; and the footprints of those who came after me and are still making headlines. I don’t mean friends and family, living or dead: they get automatic invitations. I mean the movers and shakers of history, the people whose fame, influence, and power can sway the world toward the good and the godly or, just the opposite, toward mean-spirited pettiness, small-minded selfishness, self-serving lies, and even downright cruelty.

There are exceptions, of course – there are to every rule of thumb — but still, what shocks me is how easily I come up with invitees from the footprints that came before me; and how hard it is to find them among those whose footprints are much newer, the people dominating the news today. 

From the past, I’d invite Vaclav Havel, for example: author, poet, and dissident for humanity. I’d seat him next to Winston Churchill (warts and all), whose courageous leadership held off the Nazis while America waffled. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have a seat. So too would Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, I grant, is tarnished by the Vietnam War; I grant, also, that he was a tough politician with a reputation for having a filthy mouth (I’d hope he keeps mostly quiet at my sukkah feast); but he gets a seat at the table for championing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. Across the table, I’d seat Albert Einstein: brilliant scientist, proud Jew, and humanitarian. Anxious to have at least one Supreme Court justice, I’d welcome Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Thurgood Marshall as well; and David ben Gurion and Golda Meir: founders of a Jewish state to save the Jewish People from extermination get a couple of places at the table. 

You get the idea. I have no trouble finding guests from the footprints of people whose birth preceded my own; but I do not so easily find them among those whose footprints are more recent.

I don’t think my difficulty stems only from the fact that we know so much more about today’s world leaders than we do of their predecessors. I worry that the culture has changed to the point where no one very much strives for moral greatness anymore; or cares very much if they are known for it. People of power and influence should personify the great and glorious hopes for human betterment, especially because their privileged position makes it easy to settle for less.

I’m a firm believer in the Rule of Three, a rule that I confess is only my own, but here it is: “Like pleasing arrangements on a mantelpiece, human thought arranges things best in groups of three.” Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson); thesis, antithesis, synthesis (Hegel); God, Torah, Israel (Judaism); Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Christianity). Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (French Revolution). Our character depends on the triad we choose for the mantelpiece of our conscience.

Marc Fisher (Washington Post , October 17, 2022) reports a study by Moises Naim at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, according to which, more and more world leaders of today live by the triad of populism, polarization and post-truth. By contrast, during the 1930s, as an antidote to an earlier generation of totalitarian strongmen, Superman comics preached, “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” Superman was the brainchild of writer Jerry Siegel, who may have encountered the famous Jewish adage (Avot 1:18): “The world stands of three things: justice, truth, and peace.” I have my own triad, influenced by the Jewish one: justice, truth and kindness.  

When the people at the top fail the test of moral stature, the onus falls on the rest of us to fill the vacuum – as in the rabbinic admonition, “In a place where humanity is lacking, strive to be humane yourself.” As Sukkot ends and the guests return to their eternal dwelling on high, I trudge back out to add to my own footprints, with the faith that this era of minimal goodness will pass, but those who look back upon it may wonder what I chose to leave behind. Justice, truth and kindness will do just fine.

Open Letter to My Students 39: “Tradition, Tradition”?

One of the funniest Purim schpiels I have ever witnessed was a lampoon of Reform Judaism by one of my Hebrew-Union-College students who dressed up like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, and sang, “No Tradition, no tradition!” Indeed, “traditional” Jews often represent my Reform forebears as unfairly dismissing tradition. And to some extent they are right.

By contrast, Reform Jews frequently represent “traditional” Jews as blindly advocating tradition just because it is tradition, and to some extent, they are right also.

Radical Reform Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) dismissed much of rabbinic tradition because he thought he lived at a higher moment in evolved human consciousness — as if he had changed but tradition hadn’t. The Chatam Sofer, an equally ardent opponent of Reform, ruled, “Novelty is itself forbidden by Torah” — as if tradition never changes so we shouldn’t either. They were both wrong, because tradition is never stagnant; it is an ever-changing thing. Take our prayers, for example.  

The most important of them date to the second century, but exact wording varied from place to place and service to service, as prayer leaders constantly improvised, the way jazz musicians riff on themes. In the 9th and 10th centuries, authorities fixed their favorite wording in prayer books, but we have more than one such book; they are not entirely the same; and much was yet to change. 

The Passover Seder’s Dayyenu was new in the 10th centuryNo one said a Mourner’s Kaddish until the 11th or 12th century. Alenu did not close the service until the 14thcentury. Sixteenth-century kabbalists composed L’kha Dodi and most of the Kabbalat Shabbat from scratch. Kol Nidre was a popular innovation that the Rabbis despised, but it stuck somehow, and now we love it. Polish-Ashkenazi and German-Ashkenazi Jews have different versions of Avinu Malkenu. Sefardi tradition has its own alternatives, differing from place to place and time to time. Even our oldest synagogue music is relatively modern; the usual melody for Birkat Hamazon is largely based on Polish mazurkas.

So which version of “tradition” is “traditional”? Everything was an innovation once, and even old things get said or sung differently and become something new. So-called “tradition” is a negotiation between past and present. 

Denominations differ on their criteria for that negotiation, but we all go about it in good faith. People wrongly cite “tradition” as a club for cudgeling others, as if one side has “the right amount” while others have too little or too much. 

This meditation on tradition is prompted by Sukkot and its mandatory reading, Ecclesiastes, the biblical book that juxtaposes jaded cynicism (“Utter futility; all is futile”) and complete faith (“Revere God and keep God’s commandments”). Some early reader probably added the latter to balance the former. Even Ecclesiastes is not unchanged through time.

Struck by Ecclesiastes’ advice (Chap 5:1) to “make your words few,” Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spain) condemned the prolix prayerbook poetry of Eleazar Kalir, an undisputed poetic genius of an earlier century. Ibn Ezra dispensed with him for being a poor theologian and worse Hebraist. Is tradition the version that likes Kalirian poetry or the version that doesn’t? 

Think of tradition as our basement storeroom. We live on higher floors, but descend on occasion to examine all those antiques that we have inherited. Lots of them are gorgeous, brilliant flashes of genius that somehow got lost and are well worth dusting off and bringing back upstairs. But some are products of superstition or reflections of unethical biases and embarrassing tastes. Basements also harbor creepy crawly things that we are better off without. 

Besides, we will just be coming in from the sukkah, and the thing about the sukkah is that its necessary bareness teaches us how little we really need in order to live, a lesson applicable not just to conspicuous consumption but to our traditionalisms as well. Tradition is wonderful, in proper doses. Too little of tradition’s best stuff will starve you; but too much of the wrong stuff will kill you, just as easily.

Open Letter to My Students 38: Mr. McGarrity

I grew up reading Maggie Muggins, a popular Canadian story-book series for kids. Each chapter is a different day for little Maggie, who stumbles across the endless curiosities of childhood. Her every adventure ends with a verse, like: “Tra la la la,  tra la la lay, I helped a squirrel find food today, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”  Or, maybe:  “Tra la la la, tra la la lee, I held a bird who could hardly see, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Maggie’s confidante is Mr. McGarrity, a grandfatherly farmer next door who explains the world’s wonders when Maggie comes running in astonishment or fear. With a lifetime of experience on which to draw, he has seen it all before, whereas for Maggie, everything is new. 

I do not romanticize Maggie’s wide-eyed naivete: In her world of anything goes, the cute and cuddly animals of today can be terrifying monsters tomorrow. Nor do I disparage Mr. McGarrity’s clearsighted sense of the familiar. The sunset is not less beautiful just because we’ve seen it before, and it’s rather nice to know that no giant spider will pop up out of nowhere to eat us. Maggie and Mr. McGarrity are a pair – like Laurel and Hardy, Batman and Robin, Antony and Cleopatra. They are the classic idealized duo that we know so well: childhood innocence and grownup sophistication. They need one another.

In my mind’s eye, I remember being Maggie once upon a time, but having turned 80 just last week, I look into the mirror and see Mr. McGarrity. I wonder what the Maggie Muggins stories would look like from Mr. McGarrity’s point of view. 

The chapter I have in mind finds Mr. McGarrity marking the first anniversary of his wife’s passing, as indeed I am this very day. Since Mrs. McGarrity died just a year ago, he has tried valiantly to keep the garden going, even though his heart isn’t always in it. He enjoys the buoyancy of Maggie, a welcome relief from his memories. What he has learned in the year gone by is the persistence of those memories. Maggie sees each day’s adventures as a surprising confrontation with things of the world that she had never noticed before. Mr. McGarrity knows all about the things, but he has had to confront the memories associated with them. Memories too come in two varieties: not cute and cuddly/terrifying but warm and comforting/painful. “Tra la la la, tra la la lay, everything reminds me of yesterday. I wonder what I’ll remember tomorrow.”

We moderns are consumed with memory, because memory makes us human. Without it, we are static blobs in three-dimensional space; with it, we are projected into time, replete with birthdays and biographies, histories and holidays. We can “remember the Alamo” or “the Maine” or “Amalek”; watch the ball drop on New Year’s eve, celebrate the Christian Eucharist or the Passover seder. We go to great lengths to establish a chain of memory: pictures on our phones; children’s artwork on the fridge; inherited knickknacks all over the house. We keep yesterday’s letters; last year’s paperwork; filing cabinets filled with stuff we could have thrown out but didn’t. These all add up to a trail of breadcrumbs scattered in the forest of time; on important anniversaries, we take trips down memory lane, retracing our steps through the breadcrumbs to remember what has brought us to where we are.

We don’t usually walk around the house taking it all in. But Mr. McGarrity does. The desk in the spare room is where Mrs. McGarrity used to work; the half-finished novel on the bedstand is what she was reading near the end; she never liked her old wristwatch; she wanted to buy a new one; but there’s the old one still telling time, as if time hadn’t stopped for her. No lamp, book, recipe, picture, pot or pan is simply what it seems. Each one has a story: sometimes tender, even comforting; sometimes plaintive, even crushing. 

Judaism has words for life’s breadcrumbs: each one is a zekher or zikaron, from the root z.kh.r (or z.k.r). The usual translation “remembrance,” is fine as far as it goes, but the deeper meaning of zekher/zikaron is “pointer.” That’s how remembrances work. Children like Maggie, still trying to figure out how to get around in life, see things as the furniture of the universe: a soap dish is for washing your hands; candlesticks are for Shabbat dinners. How do birds build nests? And what are rabbits for? The furniture is familiar to Mr. McGarrity. What he is discovering is their histories: the way they point to a time when Mrs. McGarrity used them, lit them, joked about replacing them, or lovingly tried to feed or grow them. 

At her funeral, Mrs. McGarrity was remembered in a eulogy, a verbal reflection on her life’s breadcrumbs and her pathway through them. On anniversaries of her death, the McGarrity family will gather to say Yizkor, the prayer that asks God to remember her, or, more accurately, a prayer that directs God’s attention to her, pointing her out as she once was and maybe as she still somehow is, lodged in the eternity that God alone can access. She should know she is not forgotten, by us and by God. 

Immediately after her death, the household of pointers was altogether overwhelming, an endless minefield of memories that Mr. McGarrity would sometimes just as soon forget. Yet Judaism cherishes memory, he knew. Zikhronah livrakhah, the rabbi said at the funeral. “Her memory will be a blessing,” or maybe, even better, “Remembering her will be a blessing,” and with the passing of the year, Mr. McGarrity has begun to suspect that the rabbi was right. He cries less and smiles more. Yizkor Elohim: “God will remember” Mrs. McGarrity and so will he, in what is increasingly becoming a sacred act of conscience. Mrs. McGarrity lives on, in the memories and memorials that celebrate her story: what she loved, what she left behind, what she wanted for her family, her community, the world even. 

Rosh Hashanah is coming: Mrs. McGarrity would have welcomed it, taken it seriously.  It is called Yom Hazikaron, Mr. McGarrity knows, a day that celebrates memory itself. God remembers, we say as the shofar is blown; and we remember too. It will take more than the year gone by for Mr. McGarrity to sort it all out completely, but meanwhile, he is back in the garden, picking up the pieces of his own life, and wouldn’t you know it? Along comes Maggie Muggins again. In Maggie’s version of events, Mr. McGarrity is her rock, the kindly old man who makes sense of her world, as she learns to live within it. As Mr. McGarrity sees it, Maggie is the inquisitive and effervescent child, who reminds him that the world is still worth making sense of. Maggie is learning to live; Mr. McGarrity is learning to live again.

Open Letter to My Students 37: The Newest Totalitarians

In my last Letter, discussing the Catholic Church before Vatican II, I was not overly kind, though I hope I was fair (my letter #9, “Seriously Speaking”[October 23, 2020] which praised Pope Francis should testify to my open-mindedness). I know too that it was both Catholics and Protestants who embraced the Third Reich; and both Catholics and Protestants who did not. 

A related issue is the inherited structure of the Catholic church — not just for what it says about Catholics, but for what it warns about us all at this moment in time.

To start, consider the sheer number of Catholics — some 1.3 billion worldwide – compared to my own paltry 15.2 million Jews. To serve that population, the church has evolved into an enormous bureaucracy, compared to which parallel Jewish organizations are like mom-and-pop stores. When Catholics change their liturgy, they develop worldwide committees informed by experts, some of whom are assigned full-time to the task at hand. When Jews change their liturgy, they find some already overworked rabbi, who meets part-time with a dozen other overworked rabbis, only some of whom have prior liturgical expertise or training to start with, and who cobble together a new prayer book. I don’t make light of either instance; it is hard to know which is the more difficult to pull off.  But the sheer size of the Catholic bureaucracy astounds me. 

So far so good, but there are different kinds of bureaucracy. Particularly before Vatican II, but even now to some extent, the Catholic one is a version of what Max Weber labelled “traditional,” in that it is 1. hierarchical; 2. with total authority vested in one traditionally appointed leader at the top; 3. and with a system that relies on the capacity to squelch or punish internal critique of those farther down the ladder.

One example will suffice. In 1925, some Dutch Catholics founded Amici Israel, “Friends of Israel,” an organization that still prayed for the conversion of the Jews, but (seeing racist anti-Semitism on the rise) sought also to erase negative references to Jews in the liturgy (like “Perfidious Jews” in Good Friday worship); and to end the traditional charge against Jews of desecrating the host and even of deicide. By 1928, the single founding chapter had mushroomed into an international movement – and the pope (Pius XI) closed it down. It could remain only as long as it prayed for the Jews to convert; more than that was to fall prey to “the hand and inspiration of the Jews themselves” part of the longstanding Jewish plot to “penetrate everywhere in modern society.” [1] 

Hard stop, everyone. I am not out to bash the Catholic Church, the depth of which, you must already know by now, I appreciate and admire. The “Friends of Israel” example is just indicative of what happens when any organization, religious or secular, is run with total authority, a claim on every aspect of people’s lives, and the ever-present power to punish dissent. In politics, that approaches what we call totalitarianism. 

It was Hannah Arendt who gave us the classic study of totalitarianism. To be sure, the Catholic Church is by no stretch of the imagination the same as the USSR and the Third Reich. But “totalitarian” is a type, to which any institution is prone, in varying degrees, insofar as (following Arendt): 1. The regime in question makes a total claim on its population: every gathering, lecture, artistic expression, and social institution is subject to that claim. 2. The regime supports this “totalizing” claim with an apparatus of power and the ever-present threat of punishment, which, taken to its ultimate extreme (Stalin and Hitler), produces regularized brutality and terror. 3. Unlike ordinary dictatorships which don’t care what the people believe, as long as they “behave,” totalitarianism uses the threat of punishment to inculcate ideological loyalty to the principles that the regime holds “sacred.”

By that definition, most premodern religion was totalitarian – not just medieval Christianity but medieval Islam and medieval Judaism as well. For better and for worse, Jews had no “secular” Jewish governments with which to contend, whereas Christianity and Islam did. At times, rivalry between church and state limited religious power. At times, however, the two sources of power coalesced, and when they did, the chances of effective totalitarianism increased dramatically. 

Modernity changed all of that, because its Enlightenment mentality unseated absolute monarchies, denounced medieval religion, and venerated individual freedom. Tellingly, the Catholic Church (until Vatican II), ultra-Orthodox Jews of eastern Europe (until murdered by the Nazis), and most Islamic regimes (even today), were (or are) steadfastly at war with modernity.

Modernity was far from the final answer, however, because modernity itself crystallized into the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler. Hitler coopted the established churches to preach support of the Nazi doctrine; and annihilated those religionists who objected. Communism was officially atheistic, but erected its own “secular” religious structure, practically deifying Marx and Lenin, for example, as transcendent sources of absolute truth. [2] 

It is Enlightenment thinking that saved science and scholarship from medieval church control; that gave Jews civic rights; that gave humanity promises of “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” and “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Absolute religion allied to absolute state governments are the epitome of all that the Enlightenment feared most. 

It is the coalition we should fear as well, because instances of it are on the rise: Putin’s Russia, for example. The same Putin who deplored Christianity as a Communist now upholds its Russian Orthodoxy, which blesses the war in Ukraine.  And then there’s Israel and our own United States of America. 

Israel faces an election in which a coalition government threatens to enlist fascist-like forces of the extreme right, with the religious blessing of the equally extreme Orthodox. What an unholy alliance that would be! Not that Israel will become totalitarian in its entirety: its citizen army is nothing like what we saw in the classic fascist and communist regimes; it is, and will remain, a democracy. But we can only begin to imagine the terror that will reign down on innocent Muslims. By analogy, the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church too was nowhere near the classic examples of Hitler and Stalin. But Jews were subject to vilification and its consequence: anti-Jewish outbreaks as their own reign of terror. 

Americans too have an election on the way; and we too face the rising clamor of the religious right in league with extremist politicians to urge the imposition of Christian nationalism upon the country. 

Old-style religion reborn – Christian, Muslim or Jewish — claims total authority over our lives. Beware of it: the newest would-be totalitarians. I am all for a religious voice in the public square. I want freedom for all religions. But I also want freedom from religion, especially religion wed to political power, from which no good can ever come. 

  1. Cf. David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini, p. 250; John Connoly, From Enemy to Brother, p. 97
  2. The Classic account is Eric Voegelin, The Political Religions  (1938).

Open Letter to My Students 36: The Catholic Church and Me, Then and Now

A good part of my adult life has been spent in wonderful collaboration with Christian liturgists, many of whom remain my very best friends. Through them, I was introduced to the Catholic Church post-Vatican II (“The Council” in short), which I saw as the mid-20th-century Catholic equivalent of my own 19th-century reform of Judaism. I learned to admire Pope John XXIII, who initiated it, as immensely courageous and farseeing. But reform always begets counter-reform, and with John Paul II and Benedict XVI after him, the conservative reaction set in. 

What really is the Catholic Church of Rome? Is it the expansive, daring, and open-minded church of Vatican II, the church that empowered its laity, transformed its liturgy, opened wide its windows onto the world, and openly disavowed its anti-Semitism? Or is it the reactionary aftermath, the church that threatens to retreat into its more dismal past and resurrect the Latin Mass that still prays for the conversion of the Jews?

I am now discovering yet a third Catholic Church, largely through David Kertzer’s recently published The Pope at War. If you read no other book before summer quietude becomes  autumn madness, make it this one. It reads like a novel, but it is history at its best, based largely on the recently-opened Vatican archives concerning Pope Pius XII. Kertzer won a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book (2014), The Pope and Mussolini, which traced Pope Pius XI’s tortuous connection to the rise of Italian fascism; The Pope at War is his follow-up study of the much more controversial Pius XII, whose years as Eugenio Pacelli, papal nuncio to the Weimar Republic (1920-1929) made him a committed Germanophile and served as backdrop for his papacy during World War II itself.

It is fifty years, now, since Rolf Hochhuth first faulted Pius XII for his silence in the face of Hitlerian horror, in his 1963 play, The Representative (in English) — but far more troubling (in German), Der Stellvertreter: Ein christliches Trauerspiel  (“The Deputy: a Christian Tragedy”). Hochhuth claimed however, that he was “condemning the sin and not the sinner – not the Church but its silence” and highlighting “the enormous difficulty of living up to the Catholic creed,” something any of us, in any religion, might say of our own faith, given the sins to which religions allied with power are prone. 

By the 1990s, expecting to rescue Pius XII’s reputation from Hochhuth’s damning portrayal, British journalist and committed Catholic, John Cornwall, convinced the Vatican to open its archives to him. The result was Hitler’s Pope (1999), which Cornwall himself summarized in an article in Vanity Fair (October 29, 2013). 

“I was in a state of moral shock. The material I had gathered amounted not to an exoneration but to an indictment more scandalous than Hochhuth’s. The evidence was explosive. It showed for the first time that Pacelli was patently, and by the proof of his own words, anti-Jewish. It revealed that he had helped Hitler to power and at the same time undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. It showed that he had implicitly denied and trivialized the Holocaust, despite having reliable knowledge of its true extent.” 

Kertzer’s verdict is more judicious: “Pope Pius XII was certainly not ‘Hitler’s Pope,’” he says. Nazism was “anathema to the pope and to virtually all those around him in the Vatican.” But if not Hitler’s pope, he was at least Hitler’s pawn (or, dare I say, his bishop?), a piece of the world’s chessboard that Hitler played most brilliantly. Perhaps it is true (as the pope’s supporters have claimed) that the megalomaniacal Final Solution would have ground relentlessly on, whatever the pope had said or done. But 35% of Germany and 77% of Poland was Catholic, after all. Wouldn’t at least some of those Catholics on whom the concentration camps at least partly depended have had second thoughts if the pope had instructed his own army of bishops and priests to denounce participation in Jewish genocide as a mortal sin, punishable by eternal damnation?

The fact is, this pope didn’t, even though he knew full well what was happening. By the fall of  1942, he was hearing independently from an American envoy to the Vatican, the Polish ambassador to the Vatican,  an archbishop of the  Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,  and a member of his own Secretariat of State, that (among other things), Mauthausen was “a place of the cruelest and inhumane treatment, including the use of asphyxiating gas”; that “in just a few days, 130,000 Jews” were executed in Kiev; and that with the “liquidation of the Warsaw  ghetto….  all Jews irrespective of age or sex” were being “shot… their corpses utilized for making fats and their bones for the manufacture of fertilizer.” To be sure, he deplored all this. But he kept quiet. 

Kertzer has several explanations, the most damning one being his suggestion that those many Catholics in the Reich wouldn’t have listened to him anyway. “If Pius XII’s silence was motivated by fears of the actions that the Axis powers might take against the church if he spoke out, it was motivated as well by his fears that denouncing the Nazis would alienate millions of Catholics and risk of producing a schism in the Church.”

All of which raises for me the specter of the pre-Council Church that I never knew. I knew all along that medieval Christianity officially saw Jews as cursed for killing Christ. But I did not adequately appreciate how deeply that theology went and how widely it was believed even in my own lifetime. Nor did I comprehend the finesse by which 20th-century theologians described Jews as cursed a second time: by its justly deserved exile which infixed upon its DNA all those despicable qualities that anti-Semites cited to prove that Jews are not just the religious but the racial scourge of history. More than one Nazi official justified its Jewish policy as just the logical extension of what the church had been doing to Jews all along; and even those Vatican officials who did denounce actual genocide, sometimes argued that short of being murdered, Jews were quite rightly being put in their place, as Catholic theology had insisted from the start.  

I now have an even greater respect for John XXIII and the Vatican council that rejected the Church’s damning medievalism, including most specifically, its doctrine of the “perfidious” Jews. I hope the current Catholic “counter-reformation” is coming to an end with Pope Francis. I embrace my own Catholic friends and colleagues with special warmth, knowing the Church they left behind and the vision of Church they believe they serve, a Church reborn as an ally of my own Jewish community – itself a reformation of some medievalisms that I abhor. The world needs us all: religionists of all faiths, but committed to mutual respect and working together for a humane and moral future. 

Open Letter To My Students 35: Chicken Little and Our Rabbi Problem

Jewish media these days are filled with doom and gloom about the future of synagogues. They are legacy institutions, we are told, a euphemism for a bequest no one wants, like a decaying British manor that the unwilling heirs cannot afford to inherit. The “smart” money, it is widely suspected, goes to entrepreneurial startups of pretty much anything that legacy synagogues are not. 

None of that is true. 

Here are some facts from the 2020 study of American congregations by Faith Communities Today (FACT), a publication of Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership (CCSP) at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. Unlike other polling organizations that survey the religious views of individuals, CCSP studies actual congregations, mostly churches, but synagogues too, as of the 1990s, when Synagogue 2000 (S2K) became its Jewish partner. In 2013, S2K ended its pioneering work in synagogue transformation, but it remained the Jewish research arm for FACT. (For technical reasons, the survey covers only Reform and Conservative congregations. See the full report at https://www.synagoguestudies.org; and the larger version for all congregations, not just synagogues, at https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/fact-2020-survey/.)

  1. 40% of synagogues do report declining numbers, but an equal 40% are growing, while 20% remain unchanged. All is all: a stable picture.
  2. In both the 2010 and the 2020 study, respondents were asked if they thought their synagogues were “willing to change to meet new challenges.” In 2010, only 4% said they were; by 2020, that number had risen to 83%.
  3. Synagogues are genuine assets to their communities. 54% say they are actively involved in community life. 15% host another congregation in their building; 23% have communal day-care programs; 27% host other not-for-profits, like communal food drives. 25% open their building to support groups like AA. 
  4. But do younger members ever join? In 2010, only 8% of members were in the “young member” category (age 18-34); by 2020 the number was 20%. 

To be sure, there is much work to be done. For example, synagogues need to invest heavily in the ways they communicate: 78% use Facebook, but only 40% use Instagram, only 45% txt, only 25% have blogs, and most important nowadays, only 11% have podcasts. In addition, despite rising young-adult membership percentages, only 8% of synagogues say they emphasize attracting young people, while 55% say they put no emphasis on it. The problem is partly demographic: some synagogues are in areas where housing is so expensive that young people cannot live there. But mostly, synagogues just do not know what to do. 83% say they are willing to change, but that doesn’t mean they know what changes to make and how to go about implementing them.

What cries out most for attention is synagogue worship. Worship attendance has been falling in mainline churches as well. From 2000 to 2020, it has declined by 50%! But there is another side to the picture: the spectacular success of megachurches, where in any given church, thousands come to worship every Sunday. They describe their worship as “joyful, inspirational, thought-provoking, innovative.” The atmosphere breathes “optimism, vitality and purpose.” This is a far cry from those synagogues that still worry most about getting the prayerbook read right; or that have good bands but not much else; or that feature short divrei torah that are cute, even interesting, but do not send anyone home with thought-provoking and inspirational input for their lives. There are exceptions, some of them well-known, but for most synagogues, worship is anything but what it should be—and can be.

Still, the overall picture is far from dire; despite the challenges, think of all the things that synagogues do so well that we take them for granted: pastoral care (everything from hospital visits to personal emergencies and life-cycle counseling); life-cycle rituals themselves; regular Torah study for at least the loyalists who attend it; outreach and conversion; interfaith dialogue. Where else do we find a multi-generational community through which you can grow through time? Where else do people assemble in moments of communal trauma? Where else will you find a rabbi or cantor who will drop everything for your mother’s funeral and deliver a loving eulogy by someone who actually knew her. Who else regularly sends marchers to Washington, collects food for the hungry and help for the homeless? Congregations are changing, but America remains a congregational country. Without Jewish congregations, there will be no American Jews: it’s that simple.  

But here’s the clinker. Synagogues need rabbis, and we are not even remotely producing enough of them. As more and more rabbis approach retirement, fewer and fewer are in the pipeline to take their place. The FACT study reveals that in ten years time, we will lose 54% of our pulpit rabbis and gain only 46% — leaving a shortfall of 8%. And those figures predated post-covid levels of seminary applications, which overall have fallen to unprecedented lows, hardly even imaginable when the FACT survey was taken. 

So, my question: why is rabbinic enrollment so dramatically low? Why aren’t young people opting for the rabbinate?

The answer is Chicken Little.

Chicken Little is the American version of a Danish folk tale about a chicken named Kylling Kluk. The Brothers Grimm popularized the tale in Germany, with a side character named Hoene Poene. An 1840 English version altered Hoene Poeny to Henny Penny and made him the main character. Whatever the character’s name, the story is about a gullible chicken and an evil fox, who seeks to frighten the farm animals into running to and fro, so he can pick them off one at a time; to do so, he convinces the chicken that the sky is falling. 

Henny Penny became Chicken Little in a 1943 Walt Disney cartoon, made expressly to counteract the mass hysteria that seized America with rumors that the Germans were on the verge of landing in New York, and the Japanese were about to bomb San Francisco. The Disney version ends with Foxy Loxy himself addressing the theatre audience with the moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you hear.

Wise words indeed. When it comes to synagogues, don’t believe everything you hear. If we all go about forecasting the end of synagogues, we should not be surprised at falling numbers of rabbinic candidates. It is time to give up the Chicken Little gullibility and become properly bullish on the synagogue future. 

Here’s my rabbinic job-description:

  • Be a voice for healing and hope. 
  • Change people’s lives for the better. 
  • Find personal authenticity in the Jewish wisdom of the centuries.
  • Speak your mind and nurture your soul. 
  • Build meaningful communities around a moral and spiritual compass for our time. 
  • Direct ritual moments that touch the heart.
  • Earn respect, love, and gratitude from more people than you know. 
  • Make a difference, have an impact, and matter in the long run. 

A next great chapter of synagogue life will take leadership, vision, courage, and teamwork, but that’s what rabbis are for.

And in the meantime, the sky is not falling.  

Open Letter to My Students 34: The Supreme Court, Originalism, and Jewish History

Like most of my friends and colleagues (and most Americans as well), I deplore the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson decision which denies the right to abortion. It has been likened to the infamous Dred Scott v Sandford case of 1857, in which Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled: (1) “a negro of the African race” is “an article of property” with “no rights which a white man is bound to respect”; further, (2) such “property” may never be considered American citizens and (3) have no right even to plead their case in court; also, (4) laws protecting free states from adopting slavery are unconstitutional. Like Dred Scott, Dobbs too will go down in history as a nadir in the annals of American jurisprudence.

What is worse, in our case, is the expectation of more to come, as the Roberts Court (suspiciously looking more and more like the Thomas Court) opens the door to a reversal of Obergefell v Hodges (2015, granting the right to same-sex marriage); Lawrence v Texas (2004, allowing same-sex couples the right to sex in the first place); and even Griswold v Connecticut (1965, permitting contraception). 

Much has been said about the Jewish opposition to Dobbs. Little has been said about a Jewish approach to originalism, the conservative judicial philosophy behind it.

Scholars disagree on just what legal originalism is. The term seems to have been popularized by Paul Brest, a Stanford law professor, who saw it as an approach to law that “accords binding authority to the text of the Constitution or the intentions of its adopters.”[i] By now, there are many definitions. Is the actual intent of the Constitution’s “adopters” the issue (and can we even know what that is)?  Or is the goal simply to understand the original words in their original context – the sort of thing seminary students do when they trace the ambiguous meaning of a biblical word in one particular verse by seeing how it is used less ambiguously in other verses. In either case, originalism does not just seek out those “original” intentions or meanings; it also prejudices them at the expense of more contemporary understandings and sensibilities.

An example from Dobbs revolves around a stipulation in the 9th amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” But what exactly are those “other” rights? Dobbs assumes a standard arising out of a 1997 ruling (Washington et al v. Glucksberg) which denies the right to a physician-assisted suicide, on the grounds that the “extra” 9th-amendment rights must be “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition,” and suicide is not so deeply rooted. So too, says Justice Alito, “a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.” If there was no right to abortion way back when, then there must be no right to abortion today.  

Originalism’s opposite is a kind of legal evolutionism, generally called “living constitutionalism”: the perspective that likens law to a living organism that changes with time. The constitution is (1) a set of words in (2) a particular context. But the writers of those words also held (3) core values that governed the words they chose. In a different context (our own), we must attend not just to whatever the words meant originally but to the moral values that prompted them. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., for example, saw the constitution not just as words with a single time-stamped meaning from the past, but as “a sublime oration on the dignity of man, a bold commitment by a people to the ideal of libertarian dignity protected by law.”[ii] He interpreted our formative texts with “dignity” as their underlying and unchanging principle. 

Does Judaism have a position in this debate?

Like any legal system, Jewish law too has both conservative originalists and moral evolutionists. The question of legal philosophy cannot, therefore, be deduced from the internal evidence of the legal system alone. But Jewish wisdom is not only textual: it is historical. Perhaps Jewish history touches upon the originalist/evolutionist divide.  

Our history’s most damning evidence against originalism is rabbinic Judaism itself. There would be no rabbinic Judaism (and no Jews anymore) if we had applied originalism to the Bible. Absolutely nothing about Jewish law and practice depends solely on the original meaning of the Bible’s words. The Bible accepted slavery; women were chattel, married off by their fathers to men who could divorce them at will; stubborn and rebellious children were to be stoned; “an eye for an eye.” None of that survived the thoroughgoing interpretations that the Rabbis applied to come up with the kind of Judaism that has sustained us ever since.

By the late Middle Ages, however, a trend toward originalism set in. Medieval codes like the 14th-century Tur and the 16th-century Shulchan Arukh were increasingly treated as a new set of “original documents” from which textual confirmation was required. But there were exceptions even there — Moses Isserles (1530-1572), for example, famously performed a marriage for an orphan bride after sundown on Shabbat, because he was afraid that if he waited until after Shabbat was over, the bride’s uncle would renege on the promise of a dowry and the marriage would fall through. His justification? “When there is reason to worry about the dissolution of the potential married couple [and] the embarrassment of an unmarried woman, someone who tends toward leniency will not be remiss.”[iii]

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the issue recurred and gave us the dawn of Jewish denominationalism. Conservative Judaism’s historical approach to halakhah was a modern statement of evolutionism as opposed to medieval originalism. Reform Judaism went farther: stressing the limits of halachic evolution, Reform Jews wrote responsa that sometimes expressly overturned all precedent, given the moral tenor of the times in which new challenges arose. It seemed self-evident, for example, that women should be cantors and rabbis; and that same-sex marriage should be permitted. In retrospect, we can see Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism as insurrections, in their own way, against originalism; even within Orthodoxy, and within the halachic system as Orthodoxy understands it, there are liberal evolutionist interpreters, not just originalists.

Jewish history contains a set of inflexion points where a living constitutional approach allowed Jewish texts to retain their appeal rather than fall prey to originalist protectionism. Yes, “protectionism”: that is the right word. Originalists see themselves as protecting the purity of sacred texts, sometimes at the expense of the people who are held hostage to them.

Fortunately for the Jewish People, most of us are not subject to the originalist choice of text over life. Unfortunately for the American People, an originalist court majority is now fully in charge of our lives, and we are increasingly suffering the consequences. 


[i] Lawrence B. Solum, “Originalism Versus Living Constitutionalism: The Conceptual Structure of the Great Debate,” Northwestern University Law Review 113:6 (April, 2019), p. 1252, n. 9.

[ii] https://fedsoc.org/commentary/publications/the-great-debate-justice-william-j-brennan-jr-october-12-1985.

[iii] Sh’elot Ut’shuvot Harama (Jerusalem: 1990), #125, p. 488-495.

Open Letter to My Students  33: “Life After Death” or “Memories Are Made Of More Than You Think”

I’ve been thinking about life after death, not just because I am, as they say, gracefully aging, but because of my obsession with the human certainty that we are evolving selves in time, biographical stories in the making, but stories with an inevitable and tragic end. Is Macbeth right when he calls them “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

Religion wants to dismiss Macbeth’s world-weariness as just plain wrong. The introduction to the Mourner’s Kaddish in the old Reform Jewish Union Prayer Book, for example, poses a poetic alternative, in two parts: “The departed whom we now remember [1] have entered into the peace of life eternal. [2] They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory.” The second claim is obviously true. But what about the first one? Is there such a thing as “the peace of life eternal”? 

The Macbeths of our time are likely to dismiss it as a bit of rhetorical fluff to make us feel better. After death, our bodies decompose and disappear; we cannot see or know what religious traditions calls “the soul.” Science knows no actual afterlife, so there isn’t one. 

But I am a rabbi, tasked with a religious message. What is that message, if I have nothing to say other than what science already knows? 

*

In my undergraduate days, I studied philosophy with a certain Professor Anderson, who habitually repeated the ends of his sentences three times in a row, in a row, in a row. We privately called him Professor Anderson, Anderson, Anderson. To illustrate Socrates’ parable of the cave, he asked rhetorically, “Can goldfish imagine the possibility of existence beyond their fish bowl, fish bowl, fish bowl?” I came later to believe that I should imagine possibilities outside of my own goldfish bowl, not anything contrary to science, but an enrichment of understanding beyond what science can know, something transcending my life in the here and now, here and now, here and now.

The expression “here and now” is telling, because “here” is spatial and “now” is temporal, so that “here and now,” taken together, conveys our dependence both on space and on time — the space/time continuum of modern science that we have trouble grasping, because our brains are so arranged that we experience space as one thing and time as another. We think of different points in space as coexisting: I live in New York, but when I visit Toronto, say, New York doesn’t vanish. It’s still out there. With a tall enough body and long enough legs, I could straddle and look down upon them both. Time, by contrast, seems more like a video passing us by, frame by frame, and then disappearing forever. Unlike space, time (we think) is not arrayed around us “all at the same time,” as it were. Time passed is memory; time to come is mystery. The very phrase “after death” implies that we cannot be both dead and alive at the same time. 

What Professor Anderson Anderson Anderson’s fish could not envision was life in the space beyond their fishbowl. But what goes for the fish in the realm of space may go for us humans in the realm of time. What if the moments of time do not disappear into a past that is gone? What if moments of time exist side by side the way places in space do? What if time and space really do coexist in a space/time eternity —  the Union Prayer Book’s “peace of life eternal” — even though we human goldfish cannot experience them that way? 

*

We are to goldfish as God is to us, but with this difference: The tiny goldfish brain cannot even imagine us, but our advanced human consciousness allows us at least to imagine God. One of the ways that Jews do that is in our standard blessing formula which calls God melekh ha’olam, which we translate literally as “Ruler of the universe.” But that literalism is misleading, in two ways.

First, it falsely humanizes God as a humanoid ruler, scepter in hand, directing the affairs of the worlds down below. We are better off thinking of God as a perspective, a point of view, the viewpoint of eternity, as Spinoza called it. 

Second, there is the word olam, translated as “universe” a metaphor of space. Yes, the Hebrew olam does denote space, as in the phrase kol ha’olam kulo, “the entire world” or “universe”; but it also denotes time, as in la’olam va’ed (“forever”).  Melekh ha’olam, then, is the perspective that we humans cannot fathom: the point of view that takes in all of space and time (the space/time continuum), all at once. 

From the perspective of God, time does not pass like a video, here today but on its way to an unrecoverable yesterday. Rather, yesterday and today sit side by side; nothing we do or are is ever gone; even after we die, every moment of our lives persists somewhere in eternity. Though we cannot see it, God, by definition, can. From God’s viewpoint, there is indeed life after death, “the peace of life eternal.”

*

All we poor human goldfish have is what we call memory, zekher or zikaron, in Hebrew. But I have looked up every instance of zekher/zikaron in our classic liturgy and I can tell you that there is a lot more to zekher/zikaron than memory. Sometimes, when applied to time, these words do mean “memory,” but they are applied also to logical argument, having nothing to do with time. When the Talmud is convinced of a legal point but can find no proof for it, the Rabbis say, “Though there is no proof for the matter, there is a zekher to it.” Zekher can hardly mean “memory” here. A better translation would be “pointer” — a kind of pointing, or showing, across a logical gap, to what cannot be logically proved but can be pointed to as true. We use logical pointers (“Just look,” we say, “Can’t you see it?”); but also spatial ones (signposts, for example); and temporal ones too, which we call “memories.”

Like the words “ruler” and “universe,” the word “memories” too falls short of reality, because we are trained to think of memories as insubstantial mental traces of what has passed us by and is now gone. That misconception is derived from our goldfish-like blindness to time being like space, where all points coexist side by side. The more general term, “pointer” avoids that bias, by making memories the same as signposts, but in time, not space. 

The consequences for religion are significant. When Jesus says, at his last supper, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he is better pictured as asking his followers to engage in ritual action that points their way to him. The Jewish High Holy Day entreaty, zokhrenu l’chayim, doesn’t mean “remember us for life” (an English construction that means nothing at all, actually); it means “point us toward life,” life in the here and now, certainly, but equally, life as it still exists for those we knew and loved, even when we think it has disappeared from our impoverished goldfish-limited view. 

There really is life after death, a “peace of life eternal,” though we lack the perspective to see it. And meanwhile, there is the promise of our own lives in process. Religion points our way toward life in the now, even as it points us toward the continuance of life forever.