New and Noteworthy!
1. Tradition and the Rule of Creepy Crawly Things
How do we use Jewish tradition to help us navigate life’s challenges? Just like love, tradition is a many-splendored thing, but its wisdom comes liberally mixed with age-old prejudices, superstitious nonsense, and downright stupidity. Thirty years ago, while researching an article on the subject, I asked my teacher and colleague, the late Harry M. Orlinsky, to define “tradition” and he replied, “Tradition is just a lie going back at least a century.”
That pithy definition made it into my article, along with my equally jaded observation that as much as tradition is often a very good thing, the wrong traditions, like the wrong food, can kill you; the wholesale recovery of Grandma’s favorite ethnic recipes turns out to be less wholesome than we expected.
Another metaphor made it into my book on circumcision, when research dug up various medieval traditions that I found abhorrent. It occurred to me that tradition is like a high-rise apartment building where each generation lives atop the abandoned apartments of earlier generations who occupied the floors below. From time to time, we walk nostalgically through the places downstairs, looking for old and dusty ancestral pictures to resurrect, refurbish, and reframe as our own. Often, however, what our ancestors admired simply embarrasses us.
The basement can be particularly disturbing; it’s where our forebears deposited what even they considered the detritus of their times. And for every grimy picture we find there and choose to redisplay back home, there are a hundred that we are happy our ancestors got rid of. We don’t readily even admit they are still there. That every tradition has an embarrassing basement is what I call “The rule of Creepy Crawly Things.”
It’s worth frequenting tradition’s basement on occasion, not to find what is recoverable but to admit what is not: to see what we once were, to remember how we have improved, and to keep in mind the likelihood that we probably still have a long way to go.
2. A Short List of Continuities
I think of this analogy whenever people ask me what Judaism has to say about things, because everything depends on what part of the Jewish apartment building we investigate; and what antiquated basement specimens we choose to dredge up. Tradition’s mixed bag of goods should come as no surprise, mind you. Nobody would seriously ask, about some matter of moment, “What is the position of western philosophical thought?” – as if everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell must have a single point of view. Why do they imagine Judaism must be any more homogeneous in content?
Traditions on their own (whether religious or philosophical) can teach us nothing: they are layer upon layer of interpretation, some interpretations properly relegated to oblivion, others deserving renovation, but “relegation” or ”renovation” is a matter of subjective judgement.
Still, as I wander through my Jewish apartment building looking at all the generational dwellings below my own, I cannot help but notice some things that pretty much everyone valued and pretty much no one repudiated as disgusting basement rubbish. These are what we mean by “Jewish values,” Jewish tradition’s attitudinal continuities that are more likely to prove lasting.
My short list includes Five Principles:
1. Learning: the supreme regard for learning, reason, and argumentation “for the sake of heaven,” to get at the truth. We question everything, preserve minority opinions, have no hierarchy we must follow, encourage debate, answer questions with more questions, and love learning for its own sake.
2. Truth: we have, by and large, welcomed truth from all quarters, not just Torah but the world of science and the arts as well. The Talmud valued the physics, astronomy, and mathematics of its time; medieval rabbis became physicians, philosophers, and poets. The best of modern rabbis too are widely read and convinced that science and philosophy matter. Truths may be eternal, but our knowledge of them is not: as we grow in knowledge, we see the truth of things more clearly.
3. Justice: a passion for justice, and the absolute horror at the idea of a social order without trained, compassionate, and thoughtful judges, dedicated to arriving at the truth by reasoned and impartial investigation. The worst that can be said of a society is, “There is no justice and no judge.”
4. Political realism: the realization that without government, we would “swallow one another up alive” (Avot 3:2); balanced by the caution that people in power will usually sacrifice principle to the furthering of their own interests (Avot 2:3).
5. A mistrust of violence, especially mob violence: not because Jews were the ruling parties protecting their own monied interests, but because they knew how easily mob violence settles for scapegoats and achieves no substantive change.
Given the Rule of Creepy Crawly Things, we can easily find exceptions to all of this: the very rabbis who warned against abuse of power could be powerfully abusive themselves. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox elite are hardly committed to the open-minded search for truth. Left to their own devices, rabbinic ”true believers” too resort to violence to achieve their ends. But overall, my Five Principles have adorned the various levels of Jewish tradition enough to make them “continuities.” They are my starting point for thinking about what to do with the monuments of oppression, now under attack across America.
3. Monuments of Oppression: A Museum of the American Amalek
Principle 3 (Justice) demands we do something about these monuments because we see now how injustice is perpetuated by them. That we never saw it before should not blind us to what we see now, because Principle 2 (Truth) leads us to welcome revisions of truth based on new evidence. Alas, Principle 4 (Political Realism) reminds us that politicians and power brokers will not always do the right thing; they are likely, instead, to do what their interests dictate. However, Principle 5 (Mistrust of Violence) warns us not leave it to mobs on the street, not even the mobs we like; the last thing we want is on-the-spot decisions to tear things down violently, especially because it will be easy for people with power to sacrifice a monument or two and do nothing to correct the actual injustices. Principle 1 (Learning) recommends empowering a process of study to decide the best course of action. If nothing happens, there are other principles that kick in, including ways to change the governmental order through nonviolent means, wherever possible. But in fact, despite outliers to the contrary, we already have widespread acceptance that something must be done. We have made great progress in just the last few weeks.
I suspect I will not make anyone’s short list of the thinkers charged with the decision on the monuments, but I do have a piece of Jewish wisdom that I would recommend. I am thinking of the biblical arch-enemy Amalek who attacked the fleeing Israelites as they struggled to make it out alive in their trek across the wilderness to the Land of Israel. Instructed ever after to eradicate Amalek’s memory (Exodus 18:14), Jews dedicated an annual Sabbath to reading the Bible’s indictment of him (the best way, ironically, to perpetuate the memory we want destroyed).
The idea seems to be this: only by retaining our worst memories of cruelty can we be assured that humankind will not again revert to the very same cruelties again – hence, the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery. I would, therefore, dismantle the offensive statues and remount them in a Museum of the American Amalek, a series of rooms dedicated to showing how even the greatest of American heroes went terribly wrong, how generations then perpetuated their wrongdoing, and how at last we dedicated ourselves to doing the right thing.
I didn’t travel to New York to join the protests this week; I wish I had; I couldn’t. And I wonder how many other people feel that way.
I’m 77 years old with an underlying heart condition. My wife has cancer and is on chemo. Were I to contract Covid-19, I stand a pretty good chance of dying. Were I to infect my wife, she would almost certainly not survive. So I stayed home. Call it white privilege, if you like — I could afford to do it. But there it is.
I am also, I admit, just not the marching type. I don’t do well in crowds, am inherently non-confrontational, and have an irrational fear of violence. I loathed the rough-and-tumble boy-
culture of my childhood; and the only semi-contact sport I ever played was intramural high-school basketball, which I dropped when its aggressive nature so rattled me that the first time I got the ball, I headed in the wrong direction and scored against my own team. No doubt all of that played a role in my decision.
So what does someone like me do, as the early summer swelters with the stench our country’s rotten underbelly, in the form of George Floyd’s murder?
If I don’t habitually march, I do obsessively think, so I have been thinking. If I play no role in the today’s street, mIght I find my proper place in tomorrow’s aftermath? And might you, dear students, friends, and colleagues join me?
Begin with what we want to prevent: a real-life rerun of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s reflection on Europe’s abortive 1830 and 1848 revolutions. The operative word is “abortive.” People marched and were killed and nothing changed. Nor do we want another French-style revolution with a bloody “reign of terror” (already there are calls to disband the police, as if the police per se are the root of our problem). But we dare not return to where we were with some social band-aids here and there, until someone else is murdered and we start all over again.
How do we get peaceful revolution: an evocation of the national conscience that finally ends racism; that invests seriously and heavily in reversing past injustices; that uproots obscene discrepancies in education, wealth and opportunity; that resurrects respect for decency; and guarantees the simple joys of work and of play and of safety, food, and shelter?
Such change may begin in the streets, but it doesn’t end there. If my place lies not in the streets, then it may lie somewhere else.
According to the classic study of revolution (Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, 1956), societal change begins when conditions of injustice are sufficiently transparent for more than just the underclass to say, “No more!” There must also be a catalytic crisis to ignite the moment, usually a series of them, with one culminating blow that is just too much to bear. That’s where we are today: a president who encourages white supremacy and spews hatred enough for even our military leaders to express their horror; America hovering on the brink of fascism; the Covid crisis, that reveals how sick society is, how unprepared and undefended we all are – and this latest and culminating ignominy, one more black man murdered in cold blood and the president teargassing protesters so he can hold aloft a Bible in front a church.
The underclass and middle class joined in common cause? Check.
A catalytic crisis beyond our wildest fears? Check.
That’s what makes these protests different. That’s why we harbor hope that they will not be in vain.
But protests alone have insufficient staying power. Eventually – in a week, a month or a year — they exhaust themselves; people necessarily return to jobs, families and school. As frustration builds, the leaders who remain become increasingly radicalized, frightening off yet more of the coalition, until the powers that be intervene with force or buy off the revolutionaries with promises that never materialize.
Hence, the necessary next step: spreading the moral urgency beyond the streets into the very fabric of society, where those with power, means, and opportunity can carry the torch of reform. And that is where we clergy come in. We are the bridge beyond the protests in the streets. Religion through time has been rightly criticized for using the bridge to hold change back — part of the problem, not the solution. No wonder those who dream of a better age have nothing good to say about organized religion and those who represent it,
But clergy can equally be the moral force that sears the cause of the street into the conscience of the nation. We hold bully pulpits, and are trusted to tell truths that no one else will. We are the last best bet to keep the hope of change alive when the street dies down.
So what do we do, if you, like me, cannot or do not see the streets as your sole or major contribution? The answer is, we do what we were called to do: we speak, and sing, and argue the moral truths of our tradition. We hammer home the reality of America’s ethical decay; we condemn fascism in the making; we say that black lives matter, that immigrant lives matter, that the life of our planet matters, that education matters, that science matters, that children matter; that hate-filled alt-right evil is dangerously afoot in our land, aided and abetted by knowing winks from the White House and by partisan elected officials who are cowed into compliance; we insist on ethical and compassionate leadership, in league with America’s sacred best not its unholiest worst.
I spent yesterday listening to sermons by colleagues who are rising to the occasion and telling these truths, sometimes at risk to themselves. I join my voice to theirs. We may not hold the power to effect deep change ourselves, but we are the bridge from the street toß the people who do.
[Last week, the Forward invited reactions to the news that the financial crunch is already forcing our movements to downsize. Rightly or wrongly, I took the invitation as a suggestion (once again) that denominational Judaism has had its day. Aren’t denominations divisive? Aren’t people increasingly “just Jewish” — rather than Jewish in a denominational way? I so strongly disagree that I used my 300 words to say why we need denominations more than ever. Some colleagues were represented in the on-line forum; I was proud to be associated with them. My remarks are reproduced below:]
Think of Judaism as a grand work of art spanning the centuries, the Jewish people’s glorious experiment in the mysteries of life, the purpose of existence, a full and spacious vision for this grand gift of God that we call the human condition. Art evolves, mutates, surprises: baroque is not romanticism; impressionism is not cubism. Artists take their stand in a given artistic tradition, not in “art” as a single generalized ideal.
As its own work of art, Judaism supports independent schools of religious artistry: these are our “denominations.” All Jews share a common heritage of historical memory, textual tradition, calendrical cycle, and so on. But we share them differently, and that is all to the good. Music needs Bach, but also Tchaikovsky; museums are richer with Monet in one room and Picasso in another.
At their best, denominations are not just programs and shared best-practices: they are evolutions of Jewish artistry in the making. You cannot combine, erase, or homogenize them any more than you can combine, erase, or homogenize Vincent Van Gogh, Henry Moore, and Andy Warhol. Denominations need to flourish as what they are. Losing any single one is like lopping off the museum room with Rembrandt or with Chagall.
It has often, and properly, been said that whether born as Jews or not, we are all Jews by choice. But no one chooses Judaism as a whole – it is too big for that. Implicitly, at least, we are attracted to some particular Jewish artistic school in the making, one denomination rather than another. In an age of choice, we need strong Jewish addresses all along the spectrum of Jewish life. Losing any single one would be catastrophic.
“I knew in an instant that everything would be alright” (Naval recruit, Ludovic Kennedy, after hearing a broadcast by Winston Churchill, in the midst of a crisis a thousand times worse than our own).
It was the opening days of World War II. In a “lightning-like” Blitzkrieg, Hitler’s army had swept across Belgium, overrun France, and trapped the British forces on the beaches of Dunkirk. Miraculously, the British were largely rescued by a veritable armada of naval vessels, private yachts, and tiny fishing boats; but British joy was tempered by the realization that it would be equally possible for a German armada to go the other way — a Dunkirk in reverse, as it were.
At the Prime Minister’s 10 Downing Street address, in Buckingham Palace itself, and in every British city, town and village, nerves were frayed, fears were rising, spirits were low. Then came the speech that Kennedy remembered with such clarity.
“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight on the seas and the oceans…. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
A private secretary to Churchill, John Martin, got to the heart of the matter when he described Churchill’s leadership genius as the ability to convince people that they were “protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause.”
This, dear ordinees, is what we have been preparing you for all these years of Bible, Talmud, history, theology, liturgy and nusach: the certainty that we human beings are protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause.
You might think that here, in America, where your ordination is taking place, people must already know that. But we don’t: we haven’t known it for some time now. The official national rhetoric has mired us in just the opposite supposition: that the only thing of consequence is our own national interests, not any principles at all; and within those interests, it is increasingly the interests of the rich and powerful that have mattered, no one else’s. Even as I write these words, one-fifth of America’s children may not have enough to eat, and a senate majority is refusing to expand long-term food-stamp relief.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus, for an America that she personified as “The Mother of Exiles.” There’s a “high and invincible cause” for you – imaged right out of Jewish tradition. America as Shechinah! The Great Seal of the United States portrays the providential eye of the divine, with the hope that America will be a “a new order for the ages” (Novus Ordo Seclorum), our undertakings earning the favor of God (Annuit Coeptis). How much will the mothering presence of God smile upon an America that won’t feed her children?
And here we are today, in a blitzkrieg of disease, bunkered down in the four walls of our respective homefronts, dependent on our own armada of “required workers” and volunteers – hospital staffs, police, firefighters, ambulance drivers, lettuce pickers, proxy shoppers, and more. They are indeed saving us: a new and American Dunkirk is under way. We all know, however, that the war isn’t over; we may be in this for a longer run than we care to imagine. So we wait to hear not just that we will survive (we pretty much know we will) but that the fight is worth it because in the end, we are “protagonists on a vaster scene, champions of a high and invincible cause.”
And we wait in vain: because our dominant governmental voices do not even know how to frame sentences about a higher cause, a nobler vision, an America of kindness, gentleness, and elemental human decency.
Who, then, will remind us of all that now? Who, if not you? You graduate this week with the most ethereal of degrees, something called “ordination.” You sport no degree in medicine, law, or accounting; you have no elected office. You might think that you are powerless. But precisely there, you are wrong. You have the enormous power of moral suasion. You are exactly what we need right now, because you are the keeper and transmitter of the “high and invincible cause” that we inherit just by being human.
You will very shortly discover that your work as cantor or rabbi is far more onerous than what you are used to as a student: you must be pastor, priest, and prophet, all rolled up into one. A pastor to care for the well-being of those you serve; a priest to invoke God’s presence at every marriage, birth and death, at public worship, and at study of Torah; a prophet to speak the truths of Judaism’s moral certainties — and in between it all, you will manage the office, wade through daily to-do lists, and negotiate the politics that are inevitable in human affairs.
You will be tempted to think that success can be defined as honorably clearing your desk of such responsibilities, but if you do, you will wear yourself out even as you wear yourself down, because each new day brings just another set of tasks, and eventually you will wonder whether it is all worth the effort. You too need to remember that you are “protagonists on a vaster scene, champions of a high and invincible cause.” And in so remembering, you have to remind us – not just “us” the people you serve; but “us” the body politic, that has forgotten that there is any “vaster scene” or “high and invincible cause” altogether.
Remember, therefore, how much we need your regular reminders of the higher scheme of things. There will be times when everyday banalities completely fill your days; when bureaucratic interests harden your institutional arteries; when the official rhetoric of injustice and untruth starts sounding acceptable; when affairs of business and of state, important as they are, eclipse affairs of the human soul. In all such cases, you are the keeper of the sacred, the source of inspiration that will save us. When we are mired in the muck of hopelessness, lift our eyes to the sky; in the perennial affairs of the moment, remind us of the momentous.
Every step of your journey to become rabbis and cantors has been in service to the inherent nobility of human life; the decency that marks us at our best; the high and invincible cause of goodness and holiness, love and compassion, justice and truth. May these certainties sustain you — that you may sustain us.
 Quotes Kennedy and Martin are from Eric Larson, The Splendid and the Vile
Sometimes a poem gets it “Oh so right!”
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
In this case, it is W H Auden’s lament over Hitler’s invasion of Poland: entitled September 1, 1939,
It became a staple at funerals during the AIDS epidemic (Auden himself had been gay), and it was widely cited after 9/11 (for its references to New York City).[i] With Covid-19, it returns to haunt us – especially in its even more dramatic fifth stanza.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
At least metaphorically, isn’t that us? The lights of life darkened; the music silenced? And not so metaphorically, here we are, quite locked away – not in forts we imagine as homes, but in homes that have become forts.
I wonder, however, about the last line: We are indeed reduced to “children afraid of the night,” but have we “never been happy or good”?
Where did Auden get that idea?
Auden’s devoutly religious family of origin had instilled it in him with the belief in original sin and a suspicion of pure enjoyment. As an Oxford undergraduate, he rebelled, by embracing Freud, Marx and Berthold Brecht, but by 1937, he was already beginning to despair of his youthful left-wing hopes and flirting with a return to his Christian roots.
In December 1939, with America still neutral in the war, he attended a movie in New York City’s “Germantown” (the Yorkville area, around East 86th St.). As a newsreel showed German soldiers taking Polish prisoners, the German-American audience erupted in shouts of, “Kill them! Kill them!” Auden was stunned.
On what grounds, he came to wonder, did he even have a right to expect anything better of those around him? His inability to answer this question, he explained, “brought me back to the Church.”
But he was already on the way back, after visiting Spain in 1937, and seeing civil war there tear apart his leftist ideals. Then Hitler invaded Poland, and by the fall of 1940 he was going to church again, and would affirm the Christian faith for the rest of his days.[ii]
Auden’s rediscovery of original sin, the view that we had “never been happy or good,” was a commonplace event for intellectuals of his day. In 1908, G. K. Chesterton wrote an entire book to explain his return to the Christian fold, putting it down to “the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes” and “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”[iii]Auden himself admired Kierkegaard’s view that “Before God we are always in the wrong.” September 1, 1939 was cited in an introduction to Paul Tillich’s theological masterpiece The Courage to Be, because for all his modernism, Tillich too taught that the ultimate experience is the despair of guilt. The “courage to be” is the courage to affirm oneself in spite of it.[iv]
Is that the lesson we are to draw from our plague of the moment? That the lights have gone out, the music has stopped, and we realize now that all along, we have never been happy or good? Because after all, we are inveterate sinners? Really?
It is not Christianity to which I object. Most Christian thought has nuanced the concept of sin – it’s hardly as black and white as I have portrayed it — and anyway, you see a different form of it in medieval Judaism too, including medieval Judaism that persists, here and there, today. Evangelical Christians were not the only group to defy the social distancing rule so as to pray in droves for a divine end to the pandemic; some Haredi Jews did too, not out of concern for “original sin,” but because of “ordinary sin,” the sin that makes us Jews at least “primally” sinful, if not “originally” so – to the point that plagues may be divine punishments that we deserve. This is the attitude that blamed the Shoah on the victims for not putting m’zuzot on their doors. If that is true religion, then spare me from it.
I see another response to the Covid debacle, a reaffirmation of the more mainstream Jewish belief that human beings, at our core, are really a mixture of bad and good – not essentially sinful, as Auden, Chesterton, and Tillich presupposed. I love Auden the poet, Chesterton the writer, and Tillich the philosopher, but try as I may, I see the world differently.
I think that locked away in “our dives on 52nd St.,” the lights out and the music silenced, we are indeed “children afraid of the night,” but all the more frightened because we know we have indeed been happy and good, and we wonder if we will ever be so again.
I do worry about American society and the American dream that I have come to know and love. It is April 2020, not September 1939, but we too might rightly claim to be watching “the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade.” And so far, the next decade doesn’t look all that much better, not if we judge tomorrow by the headlines of today: the uneven impact of our plague upon the have-nots and left-behinds; and the bailout efforts gerrymandered to favor corporate banking favorites, for example.
But yesterday, here and there, amidst the April rain and gloom, a rainbow majestically appeared. We are, God help us, ordinary dust of the earth, alive all too often to just our personal well-being, our own self-enrichment, our own creaturely comforts — as much of them as possible before we die, and others be damned. But we are also, equally, and maybe even usually, the love and light of God’s presence, the purity of soul breathed into us at the beginning, our better natures that do come out in the midst of a storm to shine like the sun: the self-sacrifice of hospital workers and first responders; the folk who buy groceries for elderly neighbors and sew makeshift masks because our government cannot get them for us; the phone calls we all make and get with people we haven’t spoken to in years.
In the middle of this April winter of our discontent, the support staff at Hebrew Union College in New York, who double as professional singers and work for us in between their gigs in operas and musicals, sent around their version of the priestly benediction (https://vimeo.com/405088660).
I see promise where others see defeat.
And even Auden, back in September, 1939, still had his doubts about the human incapacity to, at least partially, save ourselves, because he ended his masterpiece in a poetic flourish that defies despair:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Exactly. We seem “defenseless,” feel “beleaguered,” but are charged now more than ever to “show an affirming flame.” Things can change. Tomorrow can be better than yesterday. “The Just can exchange their messages.” The happy and the good can prevail.
[i] Ian Samson, “The Right Poem for the Wrong Time: WH Auden’s September 1, 1939,” The Guardian (August 31, 2019).
[ii] Alan Jacobs, “Auden and the Limits of Poetry,” First Things (August 2002).
[iii] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908: Image Books ed., 2001), pp. 4/5.
[iv] Peter Gomes, Introduction, Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be , 2nd edition, (New Haven: Yale University press, 1952).
Movement 1: That’s Not the Point, But How Would We Know?
Movement 2: How Do We Decide? Turtles All the Way down?
Movement 3: A Tale of Two Horizons
Movement 4: Artists Never Copy Wholesale
Movement 1: That’s Not the Point, But How Would We Know?
“That’s hardly the point of Passover” says Michael Isaacson, objecting to my Facebook poem, beginning, “The point of Passover is the Spring.” Spring, he continues, is “just a side perk. The point of Passover is to turn slaves into aspiring Jews!”
Michael’s thoughtful objection made me wonder, “Do I really believe what I said? Or am I just being ‘poetic?’” I think I do believe it, but then how do I answer Michael?
“Turn slaves into aspiring Jews,” I presume, is Michael’s updating of the biblical account that portrays God freeing Israel so that they might serve God instead of Pharaoh. But doesn’t that mean that if Egyptian slavery hadn’t prevented our serving God, it would have been alright?
How would we know? How does one even answer questions like this? How do we decide what the point of Passover “really” is?
Movement 2: How Do We Decide? Turtles All the Way down?
In the premodern world, the preferred way to interpret a biblical narrative was midrash, similar to what we might call a sermon today. But midrash is to sermons as poetry is to essays, in that the point of essays and sermons is the content or message being conveyed; whereas in poetry and midrash, the message is largely secondary to the art form that conveys it– which is why we study midrash just for the fun of it: discovering how the midrash arrived at an interpretation even if we find that interpretation useless, banal, or even offensive. Even the Rabbis who wrote it never intended it all to be used equally to guide human life. When we want to cite, sing, or teach a midrash, we sometimes read through pages of examples before finding one we can use — at which time we choose it judiciously; and then outfit it with our own interpretation so as to make our point.
Early Reform rabbis replaced midrash with scientific biblical criticism. If midrash on the Bible didn’t tell us what the Bible really said, maybe scientific study could, they hoped; and in fact, it often did. But in fact, as well, it couldn’t tell us what the point of the Bible was, because the Bible’s point wasn’t necessarily our point – that’s the nature of canonized writ: even fundamentalists read and interpret it selectively. We do not live by what we preach so much as we preach what we know we want to live by.
We now know, for example (from scientific criticism), that Passover was originally two festivals, chag hamatsot followed by chag hapesach. Also that the root p.s.ch does not mean “pass over” so much as it means “protect” (as in Isaiah 31:5). In Exodus, the blood of the pesach daubed on the Israelite homes “protected” them from the angel of death. But we do not, on that account, decide from now on to eat matzah for just one day and then offer up something for a holiday renamed “Protection.” Don’t get me wrong. I enormously value biblical scholarship; I love knowing what this or that ancient text originally meant, and sometimes, I do use that knowledge for my own interpretive ends. But I know that in the end, it is the interpretation that matters.
As to the point of Passover, it is indeed, by my reading, setting the slaves free (I’ll get to “Spring” later); and, in Michael’s favor, they are indeed set free so as to serve God, not Pharaoh. But all by itself, doesn’t that imply an ideal social structure of mastery and servitude, the only difference being who the master is – making Passover the reclamation of the servant-people Israel from Pharoah back to God? None of this is likely to make it into our explanation of freedom because we abhor the idea of servitude as an ideal human condition, even if the one being served is God. We use the word “serve” in both cases (Pharaoh and God), but we hardly mean the same thing by it. We should reject the servitude metaphor altogether, and in fact, we do! We pick and choose among contending theories, ignoring the banal, bypassing the problematic, and highlighting the useful. There is no way out of this dilemma. Before we adopt an interpretation, we already have some idea of what counts as a good versus a bad one.
The art of interpretation is called hermeneutics; the problem of more or less knowing in advance what will count as a good interpretation and then finding one that looks good by those standards is an example of what is called the hermeneutical circle. There is no way out of the circle.
A biblical story is itself an interpretation of whatever the Exodus was; both midrash and biblical scholarship are interpretations of that interpretation. Our own reading is an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation. Remember the cosmology of the earth resting on the back of a turtle, and that turtle sitting on the back of another turtle, and so on – so that reality is turtles all the way down? Replace “turtles” with “interpretations”: the meaning of things is interpretation all the way down.
Movement 3: A Tale of Two Horizons
Alternatively, think of texts as if they are points in space, geographical locations. From no point in space can we see the whole universe: we never get to see it all. What we do see, we call the horizon of our sight line. But another horizon matters just as much, the horizon of what we bring to the task of seeing in the first place: the product of our own imagination, upbringing, class, gender, education, and so on. Meaning comes from the point where the two horizons meet. So too with texts. What seeing is to geographical locations, interpretation is to texts. Interpretations vary with the text’s horizon and with our own.
So what is the real point of Passover? That depends on two things: the text’s horizon and our own. Can the point of Passover be “spring”? Legitimately, it can, as long as “Spring” is within the horizons of both text and interpreter. Now, as it happens, Passover is inextricably linked to Spring: we gerrymander the lunar/solar calendar to make sure it never falls in winter. So much for the text’s horizon. As for our own, we need simply ask what Spring symbolizes to us, if not hope, new life, regrowth, and a way out of death and despair. Can it also be an end to slavery? Yes, if spring can be interpreted also as a successful metaphor for freedom.
Ah, but Nicole Roberts, writes from Sydney Australia, to say that the “Spring as freedom” metaphor does not work for her, and that does give me pause. Her interpreter’s horizon differs from my own. If we had a few hours together, we might come up with an interpretation of my interpretation of the biblical/rabbinic interpretations of the biblical interpretation and find some common ground. Alternatively, she would choose her own, but in any event, what Passover means is not simply a matter of reading our texts more carefully. It is always about our interpretive artistry.
And so, to my larger point: interpretive artistry!
Movement 4: Artists Never Copy Wholesale
I am in awe of the way we teachers of Torah practice the art of interpretation. The one thing I know is that artists never just copy wholesale: composers write “variations” on other composers; poets, says the late great literary critic Harold Bloom, write in anxious response to prior poets; Alfred North Whitehead says all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. We inevitably beg, borrow and steal from our predecessors, but we never just copy them.
Dutch artist, Han von Meegeren (1889-1947) so successfully copied the style of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) that for years, no one knew the difference. But if a Von Meegeren actually looks like a Vermeer, why isn’t it as valuable as a Vermeer? Because it was just a copy, a good one, mind you, almost a perfect one, but even a brilliant copy is just a copy.
What originals have (that copies lack), said philosopher, writer, and critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), is a surrounding aura, the sense that by encountering it, we are encountering, as well, a unique cosmic moment, so to speak, a unique insight into life that a singularly qualified artist gives us. We return to the museum again and again not just to see the painting, but to be gathered into the aura of the artist doing the seeing. And we leave, with our own “take” on what we just saw. That is our “value added,” our original artistry, that we can gift to others. The aura of the art work constitutes its authenticity; the aura of our interpretation is our authenticity.
We teachers of Torah strive for that authenticity – coming up with an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation (it’s interpretation all the way down, after all) and presenting it so artistically that it links our own horizon of meaning to the horizon that our listeners bring with them – they see something in what we saw because their horizons overlap with ours.
To be an interpreter of Torah is to love our people enough to invite them into our art salons – in the hope that they will become artists in their own right.
Humanity, at its best, is an expanding community of artists, where everyone gets a paintbrush; or a musical score; a thesaurus or two if they work in words; some space to occupy, if they like dancing or building or interior design. And a life: yes, they all get one life, itself a work of art that the other works of art are meant to nurture, and from which their own artistic masterpieces get their own aura of authenticity.
I like to think that all the arts come most beautifully together in the liturgical arena we call prayer. But that’s another story.
The point of Passover is the Spring
The pure sheer gorgeous outrageousness of it all
Hope amid despair,
The destination that our hearts demand and somehow find,
The sun, at last.
For we were slaves in the Land of Egypt
And we went free.
Let Passover be,
Especially this year,
One great booming voice of promise,
The human project rediscovered, come alive, for each of us
In our own way,
Though shut up in our homes,
We meet remotely,
With the miracle of spring to let us know
That every winter ends,
Ours among them.
In 1947, still fresh from serving in the World War II French underground, Albert Camus completed his classic novel, The Plague. The story pictures a modern-day outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in the otherwise unremarkable Algerian city of Oran. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, tends daily to the plague’s victims, until at last, having taken its toll, it passes.
“The tale he had to tell” the book concludes, “could not be one of final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror… by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” At the end, Rieux learns two things: “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” and that, with people, “There are more things to admire than to despise.”
Early on, Camus establishes another theme, “exile.” The plague-infested city of Oran is closed off to outsiders, and practically shut down to those who live there. People stay home, afraid to venture out. The government dithers; it won’t admit the situation’s severity; doctors and nurses lack vital equipment; hospitals run out of beds; corpses pile up; the sick and dying are housed in a football stadium. Sound familiar?
With the whole world apparently toppling, Camus pronounces the city’s inhabitants as living in exile.
Interpreters of The Plague sometimes see it as a parable for political oppression, the trueplague that returns with regularity, the Nazis being but the latest example. It can also be just what it says, however: an actual plague, like our Covid-19. In either case, whether medical or political, we are there now: a murderous virus is running rampant; we are unprepared; with a president who gives us no good reason to imagine that he understands the situation or would do the right and moral thing even if he did.
Sociologists define terror not simply as unimaginably bad things happening, but the sense that they happen without rhyme or reason, with no predictability, no way to know what tonight, tomorrow, or the very next hour will bring. The problem is, of course, the suffering and dying, the enforced loneliness and idleness, the stock market in free fall, the work we cannot do and the food we cannot get. But it is more: it is the irrationality of it all, the never knowing where the dreaded bacillus lurks: in the smile of a neighbor who passes too close beside us, perhaps; on a park bench that we inadvertently touch during risky morning walks. It is the terror of it all that never leaves us.
Camus was prophetic: we here face again what he called “the never-ending fight against terror”; and while we face it, we are indeed like exiles in a world that goes merrily on its newly twisted way without asking our permission or even notifying us in advance. Like The Plague’s Dr. Rieux, we are “unable to be saints, but, refusing to bow down to pestilence, we strive our utmost to be healers.”
But how can we be healers while a virus metastasizes through our streets like a sci fi nightmare, and we dare not read the morning news lest we be cruelly reminded of the political and moral morass of incompetence at the top? How can we be healers in exile?
Well, we Jews know a thing or two about that. Jewish history is precisely about exile. The theme of exile appears at our Bible’s very outset – Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, which we should see as dramatic foreshadowing for the Babylonian exile with which our entire biblical history virtually ends. The entire Bible in between is mostly about exile: Abraham and Sarah, driven from their comfortable home to a Land that God will show them; the announcement that even from their new home, their progeny will face a centuries-long exile; then Egypt itself. Exile is Israel’s master theme.
Yet our Bible doesn’t stop there. The final message is not the exile. It is Second Isaiah’s Nachamu, nachamu ami. “Take comfort, take comfort, my people”: words of healing! Enough is enough. The constrictions of exile will eventually open wide to the expansiveness of restoration, revival, recovery – so many words for healing!
Camus describes the Oran “exiles” as uncertain about their future, panicked over their present, and fixated on memories of the past. But he departs from the Jewish script when he concludes, “They came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live with a memory that serves no purpose.” That’s where he is wrong. Memories can be precisely where we find our purpose in the first place.
If terror is the pure irrationality of it all, Jewish memory is the guarantee of a larger pattern beyond the immediate patternlessness. That larger pattern is not scientific so much as it is metaphysical, a matter of faith that Jews have managed to acquire because we take our historical memories seriously. Every Passover we review them: the calm but sobering lesson that every generation unleashes forces bent upon destroying us, but that in the end, we will prevail. Way back in 1964, Look magazine ran a famous article called “The Vanishing American Jew.” Well, we haven’t vanished; we’re still here; never mind that you can’t buy copies of Look anymore.
We become healers in exile when we champion our memories as models. In an unredeemed world, we say, there will always be recurrent exiles – for everyone, not just Jews. But exiles pass; restorations rise up in their place.
When we once again see friends whom we have missed for a very long time, Jewish liturgy has us say, Barukh atah Adonai, m’chayei hametim, “Blessed is God for reviving the dead.” Alas, in every exile, there are those who really die, those whom we will not see again. But this our history promises; this we know for sure: The Covid-19 exile will end; and we will say for so many others who emerge to greet us as they always did, “Barukh atah Adonai, m’chayei hametim, “Blessed is God for reviving the dead.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer is credited with saying, “We Jews have many faults; amnesia is not one of them.” We Jews love to remember, because these times of trial, these moments of plague and exile, are not the only things that come redundantly; so too do times of healing that follow. We were slaves in the Land of Egypt; but we found our way home. All America, all the world, is now enslaved. But we too will find our way home.
We are in the midst of a situation that Jewish tradition captures nicely as “ones.” Even though the transliteration looks like WUNS, it is, of course, pronounced OH-ness: a general term implying “force” – as being forced into a situation against our will. Most appallingly, the term denotes rape. Less appallingly, it is used legally to characterize a certain degree of liability. Suppose I let you use my home while I go on vacation. If you enjoy a candlelight dinner but accidentally set the house on fire, you are responsible. If a lightning bolt out of the blue burns down the house while you are out buying the candles, you are not. The cause of the latter misfortune is said to be ones: force majeure (in legalese), “an act of God” (the insurance companies say). The proper pronunciation is apt: OH-ness, as in “OMG: OH My God, how did this happen?”
Another term for the pandemic is “black swan,” a metaphor used humorously as early as 1694, when an anonymous work with the lengthy title, Ladies Dictionary, Being a General Entertainment for the Fair Sex : a Work Never before Attempted in the English Language gave as its example, “Husbands without faults (if such black Swans there be).” More seriously, it is used by economists to denote a totally unpredictable event that all the computer-generated algorithms in the world could not have foreseen. Black swans suck the stock market downward into dizzying depths – making financial black swans like the astrophysicist’s black holes: regions of space that absorb all light, leaving ever-growing blobs in space of deep dense darkness. That’s us, in the middle of the covid crisis: a black swan (Oh God, how did this happen?) and a black hole (so much darkness, when there used to be light).
Even black holes generate wisdom, however: in our case, how everything leads to everything else. When we close schools, children stay home; if children stay home, parents miss work to care for them; if they are poor, their income disappears. Alternatively, major league baseball can’t start on time, so the soft market of ushers, vendors, ticket sellers, kiosks, restaurants and bars close down, maybe go out of business altogether. You get the idea. “The head bone’s connected to the neck bone; the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone” and so on. Ezekiel got it right.
We Jews say kol yisrael arevim zeh vazeh, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” Actually, the humanity worldwide is responsible for one another. We are all intertwined, we children of Adam and Eve. Why did the Torah teach about Adam and Eve? In order to assign all humanity a single set of parents, the Rabbis say. We are all family, it turns out. One of the reasons I chose to be specifically a Reform Jew was my admiration for classical Reform rabbis who insisted on this radical universalism. As the corona virus spreads, I pray for everyone (not just Jews), especially those who live on the margins of society and get routinely dropped off the real-life society page — left behind as historical footnotes that had to fend for themselves.
We also fear for ourselves, of course – at least, older people like me do. Early on, doctors warned me to avoid the gym, get groceries delivered, cut my own hair, attend no meetings – and I am one of the healthy ones. A woman I know is sick, maybe in the early stages of dying. Quite naturally, she asked to see her grandchildren. Should her daughter, the kids’ mother, take the kids to see her? What if their parting gift to their grandmother turns out to be the virus which assures (if not also hastens) her demise?
“Family systems” we call it. “Do not separate from the community,” Hillel reminded us. We do have a special connection to our own family, but we are increasingly a single “family system,” a single community, from which we could not fully separate even if we wanted to!
So much for the macrocosm., How about the microcosm – you personally, I mean? Personally, how are each of you doing? Black swans do more than drive the stock market downward. They fray our emotions, uproot our certainties, drive our state of mind downward into ever deeper eddies of vertigo. Acrophobia is “fear of heights”; aquaphobia, “fear of water”; agoraphobia, “fear of open spaces”; and now, we have, ones-ophobia, “fear of black swans,” of things spinning out of control — the discovery that we are not actually in charge down here – in a word, ones.
Tradition lists a very specific case of ones, however. The state of being affected by ones is the Hebrew passive-participle form, anus. When Jacob is forced by the famine to go down to Egypt where Joseph guarantees food, he is said to be anus al pi hadibbur. “forced by the word of God.” It is as if, sometimes, the hand of God can be found even in a black swan – an “act of God,” in a sense, after all.
I do not mean to say that God causes suffering so that we can benefit in the end, or even that we may learn something useful as a consequence. God just doesn’t work that way. But for those of us who will gratefully ride this swan to its bitter end, without ourselves or those we love getting hurt; for those of us who, thankfully, do not lose a job or have to wonder where the next month’s rent will come from; for you, my rabbinic and cantorial students, you who are charged with learning Torah not just from texts on parchment and paper but also from the vagaries of real life – you will that the dibbur, the voice of God, can speak to us in the depths of swirling vertigo no less than on the peak of Mt. Sinai.
Like the rest of the world, I too read the mainstream media to get the news. But those sources alone can cripple us. They only exacerbate the feeling of helplessness, endlessly reiterating the inevitable constriction of the social noose around our lives. In such an environment, it is our job to tune into another source of wisdom, the one that will never make the papers, the wisdom of Jewish tradition that becomes ever more necessary when all else fails.
Highest on my “alternative-wisdom” list are basic values like truth, kindness, decency, and love, that we used to think were as American as apple pie, until we discovered that the apples in the pie were increasingly rotten. We need to say out loud, over and over, to everyone who will listen, that truth is not relative, expedient, alternative and fabricated; that ethical and scientific certainties are not just so much quicksand. We need to blow the whistle on a national ethos and rhetoric that has swamped kindness under a tsunami of cruelty and meanness. We need to combat the situation where no one even expects decency anymore, least of all from those we elect, those with power; where, everywhere we look, love of others has come to mean others “who are like us,” just our own tribe.
The very heart of the monster is indeed tribalism, even as the very heart of the pandemic is the obvious demonstration that pathogens have no tribal map to instruct them where to go and who to spare: they are “equal opportunity deployers”; they spread their poison indiscriminately. Yes, there are enemies in the world; there is actual evil, God help us. But an enemy of Jews is an enemy to us all; evil toward others is evil toward Jews, sooner or later. America cannot stand alone: it too needs allies, friends, more outstretched hands – like the hand of God: Atah noten yad laposhim we say in that final moment of truth that arrives as each year’s Yom Kippur at N’ilah. Poshim, mind you, “sinners” – all the more so, the good guys. But sinners can be good guys just as good guys can be sinners. In viral crises, we no longer get to hold people’s hands; we can all be good guys, Godly even, if we reach across the mandated 6-foot personal boundary as God does: mutually extending hands to one and all.
For in the end, we are all merely mortal. We will never know it all. We are not in charge down here. We should not be surprised by surprises. But equally, we should not despair, for modern Judaism, anyway — Zionists who founded Israel, and, once again (for me, anyway) my Reform forebears who charged into the morass of medieval Jewish prejudice and did away with it – yes, modern Judaism, anyway, has taught us that we are actors in history, not just passive recipient sufferers of the random black swans that interrupt the way we thought the world worked.
I believe with all my heart that the uniquely placed “we” who is ourselves — we cantors and rabbis, that is – are not powerless. We have been charged with the task of reminding people that God breathed a soul into us all. As the rest of the world falls apart, as even our very bodies are at risk, we at least have the certainty of our God-given souls, the part of us that rallies to provide truth, kindness, decency and love; the part of us that is buried so deep within that it can reach nowhere else but out, out into the world where we are all children of the single God, in need of one another more than ever.
Take your enforced time at home not just for zoom calls; use it to rediscover your soul. When you’ve had enough of the saturating sadness that makes the daily headlines, just stop reading it. Replace it briefly with the prayer book or with Psalms, to find some single line of eternity that you never knew was there — sometimes, even, something familiar that had its eternity tarnished but that now leaps off the page with new-found urgency, fairly shouting at you, “Don’t you see? This is really true! It really matters! It can sustain you.” Sing it, if you can; melodies sink deeper, faster, into our being. Share it on those zoom calls before and after meetings. Be grateful for the opportunity to be a rabbi or cantor whose expertise is the eternal verities that we call Godly, and the human soul that intuits them.
Reading the stories of Genesis can make us miss our mothers – mothers who cradle us, cuddle us, and cry for us.
I exclude Sarah, who hardly even talks to Isaac. Rebecca ranks higher, however, loving Jacob enough to pass him off to Isaac as her first-born and then assuaging Jacob’s guilt over the deceit by assuring him (27:13), “Your curse be on me. Just do as I say.”
Imagine, then, Jacob’s shock when he hears of Rebecca’s death, miles away, and many years past the time he last laid eyes on her. Yet her death is never mentioned in Torah! We are to infer it, says the midrash, from a laconic reference (35:8) to the death of Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah. “Why record the demise of this practically unknown woman?” commentators ask, if not to allude to a parallel death in Jacob’s life, his mother’s, too painful for Torah to acknowledge directly.
Esau’s version of his mother runs much differently, of course, so my personal award for motherhood goes to Rachel. Her mothering, alas, ends tragically and prematurely. Her first son, Joseph, is enslaved by brothers who manufacture reports of his death. When, later, she bears Benjamin, she dies in childbirth. Plagued by infertility, Rachel has just two sons: one who disappears and one she never knows.
Jacob buries her on the spot and marks her resting place for all time (35:20).
What Rachel lacked in life she gets in death, however, for tradition makes us all the children of Rachel, our quintessential mother. Jeremiah (31:15) enlarges the love unspent on Joseph and Benjamin to include the exiles who will pass her grave on their way to Babylonian captivity. “A cry is heard in Ramah — Rachel weeping for her children,” he insists. She awaits their return we are told; and there she remains, crying for us as well, for we too are in a kind of exile.
Our exile is from the world we once knew as certain, safe and sound: an innocent America, unquestionably on the side of right; where we went to school, worked hard, settled down, and got ahead. We lived close to family; knew our neighbors names; got the same nightly TV news; trusted the government. We were optimistic.
The reality was seamier, we now know: fears of nuclear attack, racist and gender bias, and widespread sexual abuse that no one acknowledged. We can’t go home again to those times and shouldn’t really want to. But languishing in today’s realities can prove unsettling: knowing more about the world in real time can rob us of the certainty of even wanting to call this world “home.”
We work longer but are no happier. We have fewer long-term hopes and less certainty about them. The newer generations seem less likely to remain Jewish, join synagogues, and care about Israel. The earth itself is endangered; and we cannot manage to save it.
We are, as it were, in virtual exile from a world that seems less and less to be our own. Whereas once we thought expansively, now we hunker down in self-defense against hackers, bots, and trolls that feed us lies and know our every move. It would be nice to have a mother’s embrace, guaranteeing that all will turn out right.
As an exile in a world that puts up endless walls and warnings, I increasingly listen for Rachel. She reminds me of another motherly presence that knows my anxiety: the Shechinah, the side of God, the Talmud says, that accompanies us into exile. Together, they give me hope. Exile is not forever, they say; tomorrow is a new day; so is the day thereafter. When despair threatens, I sense Rachel’s tears from Ramah, but I hear also the promise that she will wait for my return, into a world of renewed promise and passion. I believe the day will dawn when Rachel welcomes me back home.