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Open Letter to My Students 46: a Meditation on Golf Clubs

[Once again, thank you for contributing to the fund for adult learning that memorializes my late wife, Gayle Hoover.

Your generosity means the world to me.

To contribute:

In the United States, https://urj.org/GayleHoover

In Canada, https://www.therjcc.ca/donate.]

I went golfing once, and only once, and only because of Harry Levine, a friend of my father’s. A heart attack had forced Harry to retire young, and with no open-heart surgery yet, he spent his days bedridden and bored. On the way home from school, I would sometimes drop by Harry’s house to talk.

On one such visit, Harry pointed to a set of golf clubs. “I’ll never use those again,” he explained. “I want you to have them.” And with that, I carried home a gift that my parents would never have been able to afford. I was, perhaps, twelve or thirteen at the time.

At the year’s first sign of robins, spring, and sunshine, I met three more-or-less friends my own age for my first golf outing. That was when I discovered that my many gifts did not include good hand-eye coordination. I struggled through the first half dozen holes; my friends struggled with me struggling. I left early, giving up golf forever.

Thirteen years later, when my father died and my mother decided to downsize to an apartment, I went back home to help her sort through the remains of her life with Dad. In a corner of the basement, we rediscovered the golf clubs.

We probably should have sold them as antiques, but I had as much business acumen as I had hand-eye coordination, so I said, “Mom, no one uses golf clubs like these anymore; throw them out.”

But Mom, a depression child, who darned socks and pinched pennies, never threw anything away. “No,” she said, “We’ll advertise and sell them to the highest bidder.” 

The next night, as we sat down for supper, the phone rang. Someone was replying to the newspaper notice, and this is what I heard my mother say. “Golf clubs? Yes, you have the right phone number. How much? Well, the highest bid, I guess.” Then a pause, and… “What did you say your name was? Ruth? You want them for your son? Oh, Ruth, this is Ida Hoffman. You should have them for free!”

Who was this Ruth? Although Harry had no children, he did have a younger brother or sister, and that brother or sister had a daughter, who eventually had a son. Ruth was that daughter! Some 100,000 people lived in my city. What are the odds that on that very night, one of the people looking at ads for golf clubs to give to her son would be Harry’s only niece? So the golfclubs returned to their family of origin. Maybe I never really owned them; maybe I was just their custodian, an unknowing guardian of the goods until such time as Harry’s great nephew was old enough to inherit them. 

I have wondered since whether we actually own anything. Doesn’t everything simply pass through our hands for a while? I don’t mean just the obvious things, like pots and pans and clothes and car, or the artwork on the wall. I mean also life’s intangibles: the way my mother made colored cookies, and brought some to my next-door neighbor Mr. Hearne, who couldn’t work because he had been gassed in World War One. Memories too are not our own, so much as they are ours to curate and bequeath to others. 

At Costco today, the man who pushes the shopping carts onto the ramp greeted me with, “Hello young man! How are you?” “Fine, thanks,” I responded. “But I’m not young. I’m older than you.” “Maybe,” he said, “But think how old the universe is. We’re all young by comparison.” 

Yes, we are all very young, I now think. We hardly have time to make anything our own. The midrash is right (Ecc. Rab. 5:21): “We enter the world with hands clenched, as if to say, ‘The world is mine.’ We leave it, hands wide open, as if to say, ‘We can’t take anything with us.’” Even our bodies are just on loan. They will be remembered in pictures on other people’s desks. 

The point of life isn’t to own things but to make them part of the story of who we are; and to pass them on with love and a spot of wisdom to the custodians of memories who come after us. When they remember us, after we have died, they will tell those stories: the food we made, the candles we lit, the books we loved. You wouldn’t even know the name of Harry Levine, had he not owned some golf clubs and passed them along to me — a story that I now tell you. 

So we don’t really own anything, except as temporary stuff of life which inevitably wears out, gets recycled, or, at best, gets passed along for a generation or two, and only then gets lost in the reaches of time. Our bodies are no exception. But for the fact that we are more intimately attached to them, to the point where they die when we do, we don’t really own them either. 

But then, I wonder, who is the “we” whose possessions were never “ours” to begin with, and whose body comes and goes as well?  Philosophical materialists insist that there is no “we”; that the “self” is a fiction of our imagination; that the imagination is just a product of the brain, which itself is part of the body, a thing among things.

But I am no philosophical materialist. I am a rabbi who is pretty sure my tradition has it right when it thinks there is a self beyond the permutations of the brain, beyond all the stuff that eventually wears out, decomposes, and dissipates into dust. The real “me,” the real “you,” is a deeper self that preceded our being born and that lasts beyond our death: the self we call a soul.

Life is the mystery of a soul, born into the world within a body and with things for it to manage temporarily. The record of how we manage it all lives on in stories: stories, we hope, of kindness that never dies; a keren kayemet (the Rabbis would say), a “lasting capital accumulation” of goodness that increases through time. Our real selves, our souls, then retire to the beyond, their work completed. 

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Open Letter to My Students 45: Rethinking the Diaspora

[First, many thanks to all of you responded so generously to my last letter. Your support means the world to me.]

And now: Letter 45, “Rethinking the Diaspora”

Credit Marx and Engels. The world has always had workers, but they had no consciousness of themselves as such until Marx and Engels told them so, most famously in their Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, unite!” Now they knew: they were “workers,” and “of the world,” no less. Communism was a dead-end disaster, but collective consciousness armed workers worldwide to unionize and change history. 

Apply that Marx/Engels insight to women, and you get feminism. Apply it to the Black experience in America and you get Black Lives Matter. What if we apply it to Jews?

Jewish peoplehood has been likened to an ellipse, not a circle, because it has two centers: the Land (now the State) of Israel; and the diaspora. With the Roman destruction of the former, the latter predominated: the Babylonian Talmud, a golden age in Spain, and so forth. Nevertheless, in the Jewish imagination, diasporan life was perceived as a sorry state of exile, a temporary condition until we get back home to Zion. Three times a day, we prayed for that return. “I am in the uttermost west,” sang our 12th-century Spanish poet Judah Halevi, “but my heart is in the east.”   

We never did all move back to Zion, however. Instead, the diaspora continued producing ever more golden ages: Rashi and his school of biblical/Talmudic interpreters in 11th/12th-century France and Germany; Maimonides in 12th-century Egypt; the flowering of Talmudic study in 16th/17th-century Poland and Lithuania; Hasidism a century later; all our modern movements, from Reform to Orthodoxy – a product of 19th-century Germany and America. 

We have inherited all this, but without the diasporan pride that it deserves. The trifecta of Czarist persecution, Nazi nightmare, and Stalin’s purges cast doubt on the entire diasporan enterprise. Then came deliverance, the realization of the Zionist dream, and our adoption of a secular version of the rabbinic return-to-Zion story. We preached moving to Israel (aliyah) as a virtue, celebrated anyone who undertook it, and sent our children to Israel to see what real Jewish life looks like: the Land of the Bible, even a biblical zoo, modern Hebrew in the streets, a Hebrew University, a genuine Jewish state, a Jewish army even! 

By contrast, we treated the diaspora, even here in America, as the leftover dregs of ersatz Jewish life awaiting outright assimilation. Never mind the host of Jewish Nobel-prize winners (J. Robert Oppenheimer, Jonas Salk, Richard Feynman, Milton Friedman, for starters); or composers (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein); and writers (Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Miller). Never mind, as well, today’s impressive list of Jewish scientists, writers, journalists, philanthropists, university scholars, and executive CEOs. Never mind, finally, our own cultural efflorescence of Jewish creativity:  concerts, novels, theatre, movies, departments of Jewish Studies at universities across the country. Interest in Judaism is widespread, even among non-Jews. Jewish numbers are rising. Far from destroying us, intermarriage is showing signs of actually adding to our ranks. We are far from assimilating. 

The disparagement of diasporan Judaism is a false projection of the older generation’s experience onto the future. Younger generations of Jews don’t walk around in despair over what Judaism has to offer outside of Israel. If we want Judaism to persist among them, the last thing we should do is tell them that if they want Jewish meaning they have to go to Israel to get it.   

Let me be clear: I still revel in Israel’s successes. I just want to revel equally in ours, because a flourishing Jewish People demands constructive creativity not just in Israel, but outside of it as well. And I don’t mean just in the United States. I mean the diaspora worldwide which should see itself as an interconnected web of diasporan consciousness that transcends geographical specificity and is independent of the size of any particular community within it. 

Accurate appraisals of size are hard to come by, because estimates depend on who and how you count, and because both the “who” and the “how” have political and ideological consequences. American Jews number between 6 and 8 million. France (442,000?), Canada (394,000?) and the UK (292,000?) follow next. But the issue is not just raw numbers; with proper intentionality and self-confidence even smaller Jewish communities can achieve distinction. 

Take Australia, for example. Compared to the United States, its Jewish population of 118,000 may seem paltry, but the greatest detriment to Australian Jewish achievement is the damaging sense that diasporan life is, by definition, a losing proposition; that it is, therefore, hardly worth all-out investing in; and that the best that diasporas can expect is to hold the line against assimilation while sending their best and brightest to Israel. In reality, Australia’s 118,000 Jews – like Mexico’s 40,000, Belgium’s 29,000, and Chile’s 18,000 – are not inherently incapacitated. They are just unfocused on a vision of their own potential, which would increase geometrically, were they to become conscious of themselves as part of a worldwide diasporan network. Isn’t it time we echoed the Marx/Engels challenge: “Diasporan Jews of the world, unite!”

Because the idea of raising to prominence the entire world diaspora contradicts all we have been conditioned to believe, there are bound to be passionate objections.  But a moment’s thought is sufficient to dispel them.

Do we thereby minimize needed support for Israel? Not at all. A healthy, active, and thoughtful Jewish diaspora is just what Israel needs right now, as a world partner for the Jewish voice in our time.

Is diasporan self-esteem just a rerun of a bankrupt 19th-century fantasy that Jews outside of Israel even have a future?  Anti-Semitism never dies, does it? Isn’t it on the rise, even right here in America? Admittedly, we need always to be on guard against anti-Semitism. And thank God for Israel and its Law of Return for Jews who may need it. But prejudice need not fester into persecution. A return of the Hitlerian horror with a passive world order that let Jews die is not an eternally necessary outcome. And in any case, as long as there is a diaspora, it might as well be self-consciously proud, united across the world, and partnering with Israel for the sake of a purpose-driven Jewish People, responsive to our God-given mission to be a force for good.

Open Letter to My Students 44: This One’s Personal

All day, every day, octogenarian Bernard Cottle sits on the same park bench, as if keeping guard over the cemetery opposite. He used to sit there with his wife, a friend explains, and when she died, he more or less took up sentry duty on it. One night, when no one was looking, he even spread her ashes on the earth below, so that (again, when no one is looking), he could still converse with her.

Bernard is a character in The Thursday Murder Club which I was reading as a break from more weighty matters. But there I was, one of the characters, or, more accurately, many of the characters, because the Thursday Murder Club is a set of aging people in and around an assisted-living home. What I share with most of them is that, like Bernard, we have lost our life’s partner, who, however, still inhabits the places where we used to sit, eat, walk, and love together. 

Like Bernard, we eventually think about perpetuating the presence of the person we have lost: establishing what Isaiah calls a Yad Vashem, “a memorial and a name.” The term was borrowed to name the Jewish People’s Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, but Isaiah used it to describe God’s promise that those who lead the good life will receive “an everlasting name that shall not perish” (Isaiah 56:5).

So Bernard sits dutifully on the bench where his wife once sat as well, and sure enough, people who see him remember her. I imagine he must worry that when he too dies, people will forget them both; had he the means, he would surely endow the bench, emblazoning upon it a plaque with his wife’s name for all to see even after he is gone. We all know people who have perpetuated a yad vashem that way: if not on a park bench, then as part of a synagogue memorial wall that lights up at appropriate occasions.

Those who can, go farther still. They choose some praiseworthy passion of the person who died and fund that passion for the benefit of others. That’s what I am doing now, in this second year of Gayle’s death. And I am writing this because I hope you will help me. 

Gayle was a Jew in a small-town Canadian synagogue. She converted there, learned Judaism there, and paid dues there until she died, even after moving to New York to be with me. But hers is just one of many tiny to medium-sized congregations spread widely across the miles, overall under-appreciated for their enormous contribution to Jewish life, despite meagre resources and insufficient clergy who must often work alone, responsible for everything. I wish to honor Gayle’s memory, by honoring those congregations and those rabbis. 

Toward that end, I am establishing the Gayle A. Hoover Memorial Fund For Adult Learning, a comprehensive system to provide quality offerings for adults like Gayle, using Zoom technology to link small and medium-sized congregations across the miles as an ongoing community of communities. We will encompass, as well, the handfuls of Jews in even smaller Jewish communities, where no synagogue exists at all. The program is just for Canada, but it is a prototype that, once up running, will be replicable anywhere. 

Imagine a faculty of all the rabbis and cantors in the system, as well as professors from universities, and experts in everything from Kabbalah to cooking, in a virtual Academy of Jewish Study. Large congregations who can afford quality programming have agreed to stream selective programs to the smaller and mid-size synagogues where people can gather for the offerings, along with a follow-up conversation with their local rabbi or cantor. 

The fund will also mount an annual or biennial weekend retreat for members of participating communities to gather in person and meet the friends they have made on zoom, thereby creating a “community of communities.” 

Importantly, the program has been enthusiastically welcomed by rabbis and adopted by the Reform Jewish Community of Canada, which guarantees its continuity. 

But as you can imagine, the endowment funds I need just to administer it all are significant; and so, I hope you won’t mind as I ask for your help. If you have resources to share, please contribute what you can. If you know others who might help, please pass the word to them. Your support honors Gayle’s memory and is a gift to me. It is also, after all, a great cause, a model for quality Jewish education even for the smallest synagogues that need feel isolated no more. I cannot thank you enough.

To contribute:

In the United States, https://urj.org/GayleHoover

In Canada, https://www.therjcc.ca/donate

 For contributing foundations: 

Recipient Name: Gayle A Hoover Fund for Adult Learning

Organization Name: UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM

Organization Address 633 Third Ave, 7th floor, New York, NY. 10017 ATTN:  Development Department

Organization Telephone Number 212-650-4140

Organization Contact Person: Felicia Schuessler — FSchuessler@urj.org

Organization Tax ID 13-1663143

Open Letter to My Students 43: Hanukah for Adults

How is an adult like me to celebrate Hanukah? I am far too old for presents, as are my children, and even, pretty soon, my grandchildren, who live, in any event, too far away to light the candles with me. Yet I light them, mostly alone – but with an adult message of Hanukah spirituality in mind.

It starts with a single line of an 8th-century Hanukah prayer — largely forgotten today, but still around and sung by many who, however, are probably unaware of its spiritual implications. 

“These Lights are holy,” it says. 

Now, holiness has many connotations. As the primary value in Jewish tradition, it has accumulated many meanings over the 3,000 years of Jewish experience on this planet. But none is more surprising than this one.

“These lights are holy,” constitutes just the first half of the line. An explanation follows: “These lights are holy: we may not use them.”

Contrast the lights of Hanukah with those of Shabbat. Suppose, one Shabbat evening before bed, you are engrossed in a brilliant mystery novel. Just as you are about to discover “whodunit,” a freak December snowstorm shuts down your electricity. It’s Friday night, however, so you can finish your book by the light of the Shabbat candles. No problem. But suppose it is an extraordinarily large Hanukah candle glowing in the dark. Sorry: you are out of luck. “These lights are holy: we may not use them.” Unlike Shabbat lights, Hanukah lights are not utilitarian. 

That is not to say they do not have a purpose. There is a difference between the use we make of something for our own ends, and the inherent purpose that a thing has in and of itself. The distinction is sometimes used in thinking about art. To appreciate something artistically is to see it for its own sake, not for ours. We cannot, for example, look at the Mona Lisa with the view of figuring out whether we can buy copies of it for the hotel chain we are managing. Great art has, as it were, its own message for us, its own way of speaking to us. We properly appreciate it only when we engage with it on its own terms.  

Judaism’s word for “its own terms” is the Hebrew lishma, meaning, roughly, “for its own sake.” We describe Torah study, especially, as being lishma: studied for its own sake, not because, say, we can get a better job if we learn it. But Torah study is not without purpose; making us better people, perhaps, or surprising us with spiritual insight. 

So too with the holy lights of Hanukah. Their inherent purpose, says the Talmud is to shine the news of God’s miracle of light, recalling the days of the Maccabees; that’s all. We light them so that they may fulfil their purpose, lishma. Simply by looking at them we acknowledge the possibility of miracles. 

But we are to look at them disinterestedly: without our own interests in mind. We cannot read by their light, do the dishes by them, or carry them around the house to light our way. That would be a misuse of holiness. We might even say that holiness is wholly useless. To use the holy is inevitably to misuse it. 

The nonutilitarian nature of the holy has many applications. On Shabbat, for example, that weekly 7th-day outpost of holiness, we may not work, not because work is inevitably laborious, but because working on Shabbat the way we work on every other day would be to use Sabbat for our own ends. It is precisely by not using it that we gain benefit from it. When we try to use it, we lose that benefit.

Or consider Torah, which, as we saw, is to be studied lishma, for its own sake. The Rabbis warn us not “to use Torah as a spade to dig with” (Avot 4:5) – not to use it for our own ends. Technically, it is even forbidden to get paid for teaching it, because the teacher would then be using Torah to earn a living. Still, for Torah to be taught, we need Torah teachers, so in practice, Judaism allows us to pay them, but only for the work that they would otherwise be doing.

The synagogue too is holy, or, at least the sanctuary is.  Once upon a time, synagogues were single-room structures, not multi-purpose buildings with everything from board rooms to gymnasia. That single-room synagogue was likened to the central room of the Temple where sacrifices once took place (instead of sacrifices, we have prayers, “the offerings of our lips,” in rabbinic understanding). So the Rabbis rule, for example, that we may not use the synagogue as a shortcut (M. Meg. 3:3), going in one entrance and out the other to avoid going around the block in the driving rain. Synagogues are holy; we may enjoy their inherent purposes but we may not make extraneous use of them. 

Last, and finally, human beings are holy. The Rabbis discuss Temple priests who had to walk up a stone ramp to reach the altar where sacrifices occurred. As part of the altar structure, the ramp is holy, so the priests are advised to take tiny steps along it rather than great strides, lest the stones on which they walk are exposed to a view of the priestly underwear. There then follows a remarkable observation about the holiness of human beings (Mekhilta d’ Rabbi Yishma’el, Yitro 11). 

“Now, if God said, ‘Do not act disgracefully in the case of stones, which cannot intend good or evil,’ then all the more so, we should not act disgracefully in the case of other human beings, who are made in the image of the One who spoke and the world came into being.” In other words, we human beings who can intend good or evil are holier than the Temple itself, because we are made in the image of God. Human beings are holy: we are not permitted to use one another. .

What a Hanukah lesson for us, who regularly make the mistake of defining our worth in terms of what we achieve, how much we accomplish, how useful we have been! Hanukah lights remind us that there is a higher order of value than our achievements. Our true value lies in our holiness:  just being, not accomplishing. And, because we, like God, are able to devise good or evil, we are to “be” the kind of person who, also like God, chooses to be good. 

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.  

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).