Category Archives: Uncategorized

Moses Goes to Law School

This week, Moses goes to law school. Contending with Pharaoh had been easy – it came with a magic staff and miracles. Even last week’s Ten Commandments were child’s play, compared to this week’s  crash course on bailment, theft, kidnapping, labor law, the indigent, mayhem and murder.

And this was just the first lecture. “This is what God calls freedom?” Moses must have wondered. Lawyers reading this will probably sympathize.

By the reading’s end, God sympathizes also. Moses is invited for a personal tutorial in God’s office on Mt. Sinai. God will personally dictate a set of course notes – to be called “the Torah.”  It will take some 40 days and nights.

But why so long? asks Abravanel. “How long does it take for God to write the Torah? Creating the entire world took only a week!”

Ah, says Sforno. This 40-day stretch was for Moses’s sake, not God’s. New-born babies, he reminds us, are not considered fully alive until they make it through the first 40 days. Faced with this wholly new challenge of mastering Torah, Moses was like a new-born.

So God gave him 40 days to adjust. “Come join me on the mountain,” God said. “I can dictate the details to you in an instant, but you’ll need more time than that — someday, people will call it a ‘time-out.’ Forty days in the rarified air of the mountain will provide a bird’s eye view of it all, the big-picture reason for being, and the confidence to start again.”

I love that idea: Time-out in life for us as well – like in major-league football, where play stops on occasion for teams to catch their breath, restrategize, and reenter the game refreshed and renewed. When living wears us down, we too should get to signal to whoever is running us around at the time, and retire for a while without penalty. As in football, life would stop temporarily, maybe with a commercial in some unknown planet where extraterrestrial beings are watching. Who knows?

When the time-out ends, we would bound back into our work and families, new strategies in place, as if reborn and newly ready to face whatever challenges life throws our way.

As it happens, tradition credits Moses with climbing the mountain not just once, but three times – for the first tablets, then the second ones, and, also, in-between, to plead for Israel after the Golden Calf. Three times, Moses huddles alone with God, to rethink, re-strategize, and (like the new-born baby) reemerge reborn. That’s my plan for us as well. We too should schedule a time-out three times in the course of a normal lifetime: as young adults about launch our independence in the world; in our middle years, our “mid-life crisis,” when what we have been doing may not sustain us through the years ahead; and when we grow old, when a lot of life may still be left and we need “time out” to consider what to do with it.

We may need others as well. I won’t limit it to three, because life regularly throws us curves, erects new challenges, and wears us down. At some point it dawns on us that life’s complexities cannot always be mastered just by trying harder and doing better. The solution, then, must lie in stepping back and looking for some hidden reserve deep down within ourselves — the kind of wisdom that comes only from taking time out to reflect on where we’ve been, and to recalibrate where we still most want to go. We call that “revelation.”

Revelation was not just for Moses atop Mt. Sinai; it is available to us all, atop whatever counts as our own personal mountain. Whenever we feel overwhelmed, we need time out to rediscover the still small voice of God within, the renewed discovery of our own self-worth, and the confidence required to reaffirm our purpose and know again how precious life can be.

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The Plague Zone

“A season of Darkness”: that’s how Charles Dickens describes the reign of terror that gripped revolutionary France under the spell of the guillotine. He might equally have had in mind the plagues that seized Egypt, one after the other. Plagues are nothing, if not death-like in their darkness.

And not just metaphoric darkness either. Abravanel notes that all three plagues in this week’s reading — the last and the worst, compared to which the first seven plagues were child’s play — have darkness in common. The locusts arrived in droves so thick that “the land was in darkness” (10:14). Locusts come and locusts go, however – Egypt had experienced them before. So the next plague upped the ante: just deep darkness; lasting and inexplicable; “thick darkness that can be touched, for three whole days” (10:21-22). Still, no one died from it; people huddled together, holding hands, perhaps, until it was over. The final plague, therefore, added death to darkness: every first-born killed, precisely at midnight.

No one willingly enters a plague zone. Even if you think you are personally exempt from danger, the horror of being there is just too much to bear. That is why, with the locusts about to arrive, Moses had to be “brought,” to Pharaoh (10:8) – he would not come willingly. Blood, frogs, boils and the rest – those he could handle. But not pure darkness, the sun and all the stars in total eclipse. Not that! “Let someone else tell Pharaoh that three stages of increasing darkness are on their way,” Moses must have hoped.

He should have paid closer attention to God’s command: “Come,” not “Go,” to Pharaoh. “We can never distance ourselves from God,” says Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, “When God said ‘Come,’ God meant, ‘Come with Me. I, God, will accompany you.”  God would not send even Moses all alone to announce the plagues of escalating darkness.

I think of this when I visit a dying patient. We picture plagues as mass diseases, spreading person to person, home to home. But terminal illness is equally a plague for the person suffering it. It too spreads, limb by limb, organ by organ. It may start with the metastatic proliferation of murderous cells that consume the body like locusts devouring a landscape. Then comes darkness of despair so thick it can be touched; and, finally, death at what may as well be midnight.

It is a terrible thing to watch someone die. “The mind withdraws,” says Louise Harmon, in her Fragments on the Death Watch. “There is a turning in toward the self, a curvature of the spine that directs the remaining life force toward the center. The knees are tucked up under the body. The arms are folded like a praying mantis, a caricature of moot supplication, and the petition is for safety.”

As I say, no one willingly enters a plague zone – because no sane person wants to watch this happen. So when disease approaches hopelessness, and the hospital room becomes a virtual plague zone, people invent reasons not to visit. As the plague advances, loneliness sets in: no one to talk to, even as we lose the light to see them by.

But precisely when final darkness looms, the dying need our visits most, and not just to talk banalities. We come at such a time to share the darkness, not turn on lights. It can be a horrible ordeal to sit, and wait, and do nothing more than lend a loving presence through the moments leading up to midnight. But it can be strangely satisfying too, if we remember that the commandment is “Come,” not “Go.”  “Come with Me,” says God, “I will sit there with you.”

The Talmud locates God’s comforting presence alongside the patient’s head. Visitors too report sensing that presence at times, especially when death finally arrives. And why not? God never dispatches us all alone to endure the darkness.

I Am Retiring: Because Why? What I Really Do

[From my retirement talk, delivered at a testimonial dinner, October 24, 2018]

I am retiring after 45 years of teaching at the Hebrew Union College , not because I do not love the College but because I believe that God isn’t finished with me yet. I believe I have another chapter, but I won’t know what it is until I turn the page. I think of it as applying for residency in the post-graduate School of Deuteronomy. I have been unable to ascertain in advance how long the program lasts, but its curriculum involves projects that I alone can do and that might make a difference to others: like traveling to help synagogues, taking alumni calls, and writing a book or two or more, of course. I want more time with Gayle. Mostly, however, I will prepare for my final exam, by reviewing my life as Moses did, that I may become my very best self before God, and die knowing that I have loved my family and friends, that I was faithful to the work God set me here to do, and that I pass it down to some Joshuas to carry on where I left off.

As I leave the College, I can reveal a secret that I have carefully kept from everyone: what I have been doing at HUC all these years. My job, you see (teaching and such) is not what I do; it is just how I do it.

What I do, I hope, is practice kindness: Helping students, counseling alumni, responding to phone calls, righting wrongs (when I can), watching for unhappy people to whom I can lend an ear or a hand — I am proudest of things like that. They do not get in the way of my work; they aremy work.

Beyond that, what I do most and best, I think, is think! Rabbi Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory, recalled moving to a synagogue and instructing his assistant to inform early morning callers, “The rabbi cannot speak right now; he is busy thinking.” The rabbis and cantors here will have a pretty good idea of how that went over. When congregants professed outrage, he had his assistant say, “The rabbi is in conference.” People understood that.

As you saw from the video, I have done a great many things, but I have studiously avoided being “in conference.” I luxuriate instead in being paid to think!  “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” our Rabbis said of Torah. I do that; I write a regular newspaper column on the parashat hashavu’a; and then put it in my newly-conceived and barely-born-blog. But I like Galileo’s defense (before the Church that condemned his scientific observations) to the effect that the universe is actually God’s second book; how can we notstudy it? I have made a point of turning and turning both of God’s books, Torah and the universe, both Jewish and general knowledge, which I take as mutually complementary.

“You’re no rabbi,” an illustrious rabbi once complained, “You’re a philosopher or an anthropologist.” More embarrassing still, I once had rabbis condemn me for wasting my time with cantors and even cavorting too closely with Christians. I plead guilty, your honor, on all counts. “Open our eyes that we may see and welcome all truth, whether shining from the annals of ancient revelations or reaching us through the seers of our own time,” the old Union Prayer Bookadvised — I love that line!

It took many paths of truth to learn that actual prayertexts(their origins and history) are relatively inconsequential, compared with how we pray them: all the world’s a stage, but especially when poetry, drama, space and music magically explode in worship. I hope the College continues my life’s work of moving the study of liturgy forward into worship, without which liturgy is like reading descriptions of Van Gogh but never seeing his sunflowers. I take pride in teaching the generation who has revolutionized Reform worship — a revolution still continuing. So many of my students, now our teachers, yours and mine, are revitalizing prayer in synagogue after synagogue. They and what they are achieving is my legacy. They and it exist because the College let me think.

“Think big,” I tell my students, or, preferably, “Think bigly” – they remember it better that way. At creation’s first unfolding, God said, “Let there be light” not “Let there be a bagel.” To be human is to think like God, to think bigly, not bagelly.

But God did not just think the world into being; God spoke it, and ever since, we Jews have marveled at the miracle of human speech. Plants, the Rabbis say, are tsame’ach  — they grow; animals, a step up, are chai, “they live.” But humans are like God: we m’daber, we speak. Philosopher Richard Rorty says, “We make progress not by arguing better but by speaking differently.” So I tell students, “Speak differently and think bigly.”

I think bigly a lot about the human condition, our penchant to love, to work, to laugh, to matter; and to be eulogized at the end, for a life worth remembering. I define religion as the practice of speaking in a register that does justice to the human condition— most compellingly through prayer, the ritual artistry that delivers its lessons in exclamation marks, not just commas and periods. Ritual is the wrapping for ideas that would otherwise be unbelievable, unthinkable, unsayable.

A small-town synagogue president once attended a biennial in Canada and was carried away by 5,000 Jews all praying together. When border guards  asked what he had to declare, he said, “I declare the glory of God!” I tell the story not because I think you should try it out when you next encounter immigration, but to show you one way to think about prayer: it is a people’s reservoir of the most important things we can say.

So I model the way we allmight talk differently, moving synagogue board conversations (for instance) from the banal to the beautiful, the prosaic to the profound. I do not know exactly who God is, but I invoke God regularly, because at the very least, the word “God” is my placeholder for the best I can imagine, the best that life can offer. Thanks to Gayle’s gift for gardening, our once barren backyard bursts each year into a riot of flowers, a chance not just to think “How lovely!” – that’s thinking bagelly; but to think bigly, and to say, “Barukh atah  Adonai  shekakhah lo ba’olamo–“Blessed is God for a world such as this.” I teach students to end meetings with prayers, not just “Thanks for coming.”

Since words are holy, I call Judaism a conversation, a conversation that does justice to the human condition: our loves and laughter, our problems and promise. It is a conversation that occurs through music and the arts as well; it is inherently elevating and compelling. All may join in it, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, and anyone else at all, who happily locate themselves in a Jewish orbit.

That’s what I do. I speak differently, think bigly, and deepen the Jewish conversation to appreciate the human condition. None of that is my official job description, but I have stayed at the College, not move somewhere else, because the College let me do it. The Hebrew Union College is not just a school; it can be the cutting edge of what will save us.

It is, moreover, Reform. I applaud all denominations – I have taught or received honorary degrees from them all; through the Wexner Foundation, in particular, I have taught Jews of every stamp and conviction all across this continent.  But as much as we need strong Jewish addresses throughout the spectrum of Jewish life, ReformJudaism is myaddress, and Hebrew Union College is the hearth and heart of that address, my home.

The College took a chance on me, a kid from the boonies of Canada, who showed up knowing how to daven, but not much more. At my admissions interview I was asked to adjudge the impact of the Baal Shem Tov on Franz Kafka — Can you imagine? I had barely heard of either one (was it maybe Baal shem Kavka and Franz Tov???). But someone at the table said, “You love people; and you are willing to think; we can teach you the rest.” The College took me in and made me what I am; and then encouraged me to make myself, that I would later help make others – some of those others being some of you, who have gathered here tonight. But the maker has himself been made by those whom he was making — whatever I have given you, you have given me more; I can never adequately thank you all for coming.

Barukh atah Adonai, Blessed is God for life and its promise; for family and friends, for students and teachers, for thinking and speaking a world into being; for speech and song, for warmth and love, for hope and comfort, and for gratitude. Barukh atah Adonai, Blessed is God indeed, shekakhah lo ba’olamo,for a world such as this.

 

 

 

The Secret Well Greeted By Silence

Hidden away in this week’s reading is a single tiny verse with implications that should take our breath away. During Abraham’s day, we are told, “the Canaanites were thenin the land” (Genesis 12:6). But the Torah is said to have been composed by Moses, and when Moses died, they were still in the land. The verse must, therefore, have been composed by an author living after Moses died.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1091/2-1167), who gives us this insight, calls it a sod, a “secret” and cautions, “The wise will keep silent.”

Ibn Ezra’s caution is usually explained by assuming he was wary of openly questioning Moses’s authorship of Torah. But Ibn Ezra doesn’t sound afraid. He repeats his discovery regarding several other verses, including Deuteronomy 34:1, where he identifies the other author as Joshua, an opinion he got from the Talmud itself (Menachot 30a). To be sure, questioning the Genesis verse went one step farther, but why assume, gratuitously, that Ibn Ezra was afraid to go there? Maybe he was not just playing it safe when he said the wise would greet his sod with “silence.”

In the context of Torah,sodis no ordinary “secret.” It is an advanced, even esoteric, interpretation of the text. In time, it came to denote meanings that are specifically “mystical,” but in the 12thcentury, it more likely meant “profound” – the description of an insight so penetrating, that it takes the breath away. Fools who rush to judgement might indeed charge Ibn Ezra with heresy, but as to the wise, his bold interpretation would simply stop them in their tracks, inducing “silence” (as he says) to allow its full significance to sink in.

Ibn Ezra’s breakthrough would someday change the very way we think about God, revelation, and religious truth itself, because in retrospect, we can see that it anticipated the scientific study of the Bible: a method that revealed even Torah as a composite document repeatedly edited over the course of centuries. Its authors are legion.

Some people still worry that if the Torah was written by human beings over time, it cannot be sacred. But the exact opposite is the case. The miracle of Torah is not dependent on God’s speaking it into being once and for all time at Sinai. It is that the Jewish People, in covenant with God, has consistently been discerning divine purpose, generation after generation; that generations of such discernment were somehow edited into what we call “The Torah”; and that generations thereafter have been reading and interpreting that very same Torah ever since.

Rather than destroy religious sensibility, Ibn Ezra’s modest beginning only enhances it. God did not just speak at Sinai. God, we say, is melekh ha’olam, and olam means not just “universe” but “infinity,” making God not just “ruler of the universe” (our usual translation) but “ruler of time and space”!  God addresses us always and everywhere.

The very essence of rabbinic Judaism is the conviction that through Torah, God speaks to every generation anew. That is why we have columns such as this, why rabbis sermonize, why we study sacred texts not just for what the original author intended, but for what the Talmud later thought, what centuries of commentators intuited even after that, and what our own sages discover today.

The Rabbis also insisted that God is revealed in day-to-day encounters that set us wondering why we are here and what counts as a life well led. We find God similarly in mathematics and science, the ways through which the world works. Judaism provides blessings to greet the intricacies of nature, no less than for religious commandments.

Ibn Ezra was discussing more than a single verse here and there. He was unveiling the reality of a divine mind that cannot be limited to a one-off revelation at Sinai. To be fully human is to uncover one divine secret after another, and to have our breath taken away by the incredible mystery of it all.

“Tradition? Tradition?”

The funniest Purim schpiel I ever witnessed came when one of my students at Hebrew Union College lampooned Reform Judaism by dressing up like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, and singing, “NoTradition, 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.

Most 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 10thcenturies, 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 century. No one said a Mourner’s Kaddish until the 11th or 12thcentury. 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 differ on 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 to think twice about what 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.

High Holiday Worship Retooled? Or the Borscht Belt with all the Food That Can Kill Us?

I have a riddle: Why are High-Holiday Services like the long-gone borscht-belt hotels in the Catskills?

Answer is: The hotels served all you could eat of dreadfully unhealthy food, giving rise to the joke, “The food there is awful, but they make it up in volume.” High-Holiday worship, likewise, is judged by many as terrible, but we make it up in endlessness.

So why aren’t rabbis and cantors doing something about this (the High Holidays, that is, not the Catskills)?

Actually, they are, says Professor Jack Wertheimer, who has documented how synagogues are coming to terms with their reputation for being “crashingly dull.” He excoriates those large funders and federations who abandon synagogues to do their necessary work unaided by the very philanthropical agents most able to help them.

But, Wertheimer cautions, this liturgical innovation comes at a cost: the loss of liturgical competency. In their effort to respond to the momentary, synagogues sacrifice the momentous: they “absorb into Jewish life much that is inimical to it” thus “ratifying” the loss as an acceptable given. That, Wertheimer bemoans, is “the actual—and unaddressed—crisis of American Judaism today.”

Is Wertheimer correct?  “Yes, yes, and no,” I say, in my response to him (mosaicmagazine.com). Yes, the best of our synagogues have embarked on transformation of historic proportions; yes, only a handful of federations and independent big givers recognize it or seem even to care, one way or the other. But, no, the biggest problem is neither the “loss of cultural literacy,” nor synagogues that hasten the loss along.

I differ most when Wertheimer identifies “hospitality, diversity, spirituality, creativity, non-judgmentalism, tikkun olam, [and] personalized religion” as “faddish nostrums.” The word “tradition” comes from the Latin tradere, “to deliver or hand over” as a matter of actual ownership. No one will care to own anything of Jewish tradition if they do not feel hospitably welcomed by synagogues that offer it, and all the less so if the “it” being offered is a-spiritual, uncreative, judgmental, unconcerned with the shape of the world, and impersonal.”

Wertheimer romanticizes tradition. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and neither is the tradition for which we feel nostalgic. Tradition is the famous river of Heraclitus that changes each time we enter it. But he is not altogether wrong: if tradition is a river flowing through time, we need at least to stand in the river bed, not beat out a path of our own in the jungle growth that leads away from it. Jewish competence (a better word than literacy) does matter.

Jack Wertheimer is a fine scholar and observer of American Judaism. He and I are fellow travelers, passionate about a Judaism that is thick with substance and import. We are committed likewise to synagogues as what I like to call “communities of profundity,” the communal foci for our spiritual and moral Jewish future, the places where we “speak and act in a register that does justice to the human condition.”

For the discussion in its entirety see:

https://mosaicmagazine.com/response/2018/09/whats-wrong-with-nostalgia-for-judaisms-millennia-long-tradition/

Social Justice and the Secular Bath

I follow synagogue mission statements the way normal people follow the stock market. A synagogue’s statement of purpose is its prospectus, the reason we should care that it exists. For many synagogues, this raison d’etre features tikkun olam, some form of social justice.

Tikkun olam, however, is not the simple thing that they imagine.

The concept is rabbinic, but it took on special importance in medieval kabbalah, which pictured fault lines creeping into the fabric of creation from the very beginning of time. These cosmic fractures, as it were, engender all that is bad about the universe. Tikkun olam — literally, “correcting the universe” – was redefined as the process of restoring creation to its intended state of wholeness.

The Kabbalists were a mystical elite, however, less interested in helping the poor than in helping some metaphysical cosmic unity to come into being. The kabbalistic tikkun olam consisted in performing mitzvot with esoteric meanings in mind. Saying the right prayer with the right intention, for example, would crank the world forward on its way to messianic perfection.

Hasidic masters popularized kabbalah by applying it to human psychology. The universe requiring correction was now said to be our very own souls – the human psyche, we might say. We bear our own internal fracture lines that impact the world’s goodness; we cannot be part of the solution until we admit we are part of the problem.

Take this week’s mandate to appoint “for yourself judges and officers in your gates.” On the face of it, the Torah is describing the institutions of a just society. But sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz read it differently.  The Hebrew “for yourself,” he said, is l’kha (singular) not lakhem (plural), so it must be addressing each of us as individuals, in which case, the “gates” denote the sensory openings to our inner selves: our eyes and ears which take in the world; our mouth with which we give back to it.

Yes, said Hasidic master Jacob Joseph of Polnoye.  We must see to our own fractured state of being first.  If we do not fix ourselves, we will never fix the universe.

Synagogues who advocate tikkun olam have largely forgotten these kabbalistic/Hasidic theologies. If they know them at all, they discount them as medieval superstition.Tikkun olam has been laundered free of any stains left by its original mystical context and become a benign catch-all term for good deeds, charity, and social action in general.

Other richly contoured metaphors of Jewish tradition have similarly been given a secular bath by modern-day Jews who get queasy about anything theological. God’s “graciousness” (for example) was originally “grace”:  not some ho-hum variety of pleasant benevolence, but the wow-inducing experience of knowing God loves us, even if everyone else lets us down and even if we don’t deserve it. God’s “grace” is closely associated with tikkun olam. When we are utterly broken, God actually fixes us, and then empowers us to fix others.

How is it that we Jews who do so much else with panache manage to lose our imaginative nerve when it comes to religion? We probably would have advised Marc Chagall to forego all those angels, donkey’s heads, and heavenly brides. Some pretty clouds and sunsets are enough, we would have said.

Deracinated views of tikkun olam as some mere and modern do-good impulse has failed us. Sociologists have studied congregations that say they stand for social justice. Their members, it turns out, like the idea that their synagogue does “good deeds,” but, on the whole, they themselves do no more “good-deed work” than other people. The synagogue’s way of speaking is so uninspired! It does not move them.

Synagogues are not just secular bodies that provide life-cycle ceremonies and hootenannies in Hebrew called services. Synagogues are to other not-for-profits what Chagall’s imaginative skyscapes are to ordinary clouds and sunsets. Without transcendently imaginative language to stir the soul, tikkun olam becomes banal; so does the synagogue; and so do we.