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The State of Grief

When my father died, my mother died too, but a little bit at a time, the victim of unremitting grief that I never understood. My father had been a dedicated podiatrist, who (way back in the 1950s) was pioneering “inlays,” his early word for what later became known as orthotics. But he knew nothing about running a practice, and he began making ends meet only when my mother became his receptionist, bookkeeper, and all-around business head. Yet when he died, she inexplicably descended into relative incompetence. Three years later, she died too. 

I was in graduate school at the time, and my mother came regularly for extended stays to see her grandchildren: I could almost chart her decline from one visit to the next. “How could this be happening?” I wondered. Here was a woman of the world; a woman, moreover, whose natural warmth and kindness had won her countless friends; a woman finally, with a sister and sisters-in-law who lavished empathy, love, and care upon her. How could she have taken the slow and steady path to her own dying, as everyone around her was quite certain she did?

Gayle, my wife of only nine years, passed away a little over six weeks ago, and I now understand my mother better. I do not intend to follow her example, but I newly comprehend her despair. Over my fifty some-odd years of being a rabbi and a scholar, I have read countless tracts on death and dying;  world literature on mourning; and, as you can imagine, whole collections of Jewish wisdom on the subject. But now, as an actual mourner — and still early on, as mourning goes — I know first-hand what had eluded me before. I am not yet on the fabled balcony from which one achieves total perspective on what is transpiring below, but even a few steps up the ladder to the balcony, I can say something about grief that I think will resonate with very many people, who (like my mother) might still elect to die, or who (like me) is choosing somehow to live.

Many years ago, I wrote an article on the subject of illness, drawing on essayist Susan Sontag’s trenchant claim that when we are born, we are issued two passports, one to the Land of the Well and the other to the Land of the Sick. We pocket the first and put aside the second, determined never to use it. But the day comes, for some of us earlier than others, when we exchange passports, and (inexplicably and against our will) are transported across a river to a land and culture not our own. To this spectacular metaphor, I added the liturgical concept of “inculturation,” the way religion can be transported into another culture but only with full acceptance of its indeed being another culture. Pastoral care is a sort of inculturation, where well-meaning people make boat trips across the river to the sick, but without realizing how meaningless their normal religious language may sound to residents there. How do we speak meaningfully, I asked, to people for whom ordinary sentences, even well-intentioned ones, may seem hollow?  

I believe now that the two “lands” are better understood as “states”: the State of Wellbeing and the State of Sickness, because wellbeing and sickness are existential states of being. The State of Wellbeing feels so normal, that as long as you are in it, you hardly notice it. Not so the State of Sickness, where you notice almost nothing else. When you enter the State of Sickness with a serious, chronic, and maybe even fatal disease, you are forced to admit that you have a  passport to remain in that state, from which nothing looks the same anymore.

Having attended the horror of my wife’s final stages of cancer, even holding her hand here at home as she breathed her last, I finally understood my own article. I know now that it is one thing to read – and even to write – the truths of illness or of death; and another to experience them. As Gayle’s condition worsened, as our days were filled with chemotherapy, doctors’ visits, MRIs, and endless pills, salves and supplements to counteract the cancer and its treatments, it dawned on me that I was not just visiting across the river; I was living there; if I hadn’t actually accessed my passport to the State of Sickness, I was at least in possession of a Green Card.  

Now that Gayle is gone, I am trying to get back home to the other side. From where I sit, I see my friends in the State of Wellbeing waving welcome balloons from the riverbank, in anticipation of my return. Increasingly, I have been spending whole days in a canoe  that I have fashioned, paddling furiously to reach them, only to find that by nightfall, the current carries me back to an area adjacent to the State of Sickness, but its own independent state, a breakoff, apparently, from it, a state of deep-down sadness called “Grief”; and what I want to say is that grief is more than just a feeling, an emptiness, and an indescribably terrible heartache. It is its own existential state of being, the State of Grief, just a short walk away from that part of the State of Sickness where the people you loved have died. It is a state that quarantines its victims in loneliness (even when people visit) and in memories that are painful rather than comforting (however much people say they will be comforting, someday). 

When Gayle died, my Green Card to the State of Sickness was automatically cancelled; but the announcement of its cancellation came along with an unexpected passport to The State of Grief. Some small print on my passport says that most people quite properly take up residence there for a while, but then sail back home to the Land of Wellbeing again. The print is not just tiny, however, but lighter as well, and it carries the warning that it fades with time. Some people, like my mother, never was able to operationalize the escape clause. She kept that passport to the end: it expired when she did. It was not her fault. Living in the State of Grief myself, I have seen how hard it is to leave. 

They say it is healthy to live here for a while, as long as I don’t actually settle in so long that the small print fades utterly away. But I am anxious now to trade in my Grief Passport for the Wellbeing one that I left behind somewhere across the river. On a clear day, I can see every detail of its shoreline, even the tiny wharf from which I once sailed away. It is also where my new little boat will land. But I cannot yet fully imagine reaching it. The State of Grief is a marshland. The trails are barely marked; it is easy to get lost in the jungle of despair. Worse yet, at some point the marsh becomes quicksand. Look away, for even a second, from the promise of deliverance on the opposite bank, and you risk stepping into the quicksand, and then sinking into deeper and deeper desperation, rather than holding out hope for dry land again. I suspect my mother died there. 

I am among the luckier ones. Hundreds of people have wished me well just on Facebook alone, never mind the emails and handwritten cards. I am enormously indebted to all of you reading this posting, because I took great comfort in your virtual presence. In addition, I have received many visitors who let me share my condition with them. But when they phone me, after their visit, it is a long-distance call to where I sit: across the river, still.

I am muddling through, however, thanks to wonderful friends and family who have not abandoned me, but mostly through some unknown factor having nothing to do with what I deserve – call it the grace of God. Why, after all, do I suspect I will someday cross the river, whereas my mother, who had friends and family also, let the  quicksand have its way? 

Did I just say “let”? I apologize, Mom. No one “lets” the quicksand swallow her up; no one “chooses” to sink deeper within it. For you, however, Mom, I see that life without Dad had become overwhelming, intolerable. You did your best. It was all you could do at the time. 

God willing, I, however, will make it across the river. Through all the tears, and despite the insistent memories of Gayle worsening and then dying before my eyes, through all of this, I see my strength increasing to the point where I will paddle successfully beyond the current that impedes my repatriation. I am packing my canoe with memories of course – they won’t go away anyway – but whereas now they are painful, they will look more consoling in the Land of Wellbeing. 

Meanwhile, I think, endlessly, taking mental notes on my condition – that’s what scholars do, I guess. And I continue to learn. I may have more to say in future posts.  

A Horse Named Hebrew

As a cheder child, I learned to gallop on a horse named Hebrew.

Sitting backwards, mind you – Hebrew ran the wrong way.

I won all the races.

Bah beh buh, buh beh bah beh buh:

The first line of my Hebrew primer.

I remember it to this day.

Ah, the joy of it!

Reaching the finishing post at line’s end

Before the other kids in class,
who never were very good at it,

Whereas I,

I was to become a prize-winning jockey 

In the Triple Crown

Of Hebrew riders.

I abandoned Saturday morning TV and pickup sports with friends,

To enter the Shabbat shul Sweepstakes.

No more simple bah buh beh.

I was adopted by the best,

Gristled daveners all,

Veteran riders who’d trained since birth

For all I knew. 

They looked alike.

They were all old men.

Their first name was Mister.

They jockeyed for position from the time they donned their tallis,

Then ambled round the track through the first 70 pages,

Just to get their bearing,

Before moving to the starting post,

For

Borkhu!

And they were off!

They raced through whole clumps of pages,

Sitting, standing, standing, sitting.

Shacharis that came and went,

An entire k’riyah faster than a speeding bullet —

Superman-like alacrity.

They rounded the final turn with a bruising Haftorah,

Then a Musaf Amidah at lightning speed,

Alenu as they crossed the wire,

And some Kaddishes of praise for the winners.

A veritable Belmont Hebrew Stakes, 

One and half miles, 

The Test of Champions.

                               *

One day 

The rabbi let me in on a secret:

Hebrew spoke in a language I could learn to comprehend.

I could be more than a daredevil rider;

I could be a horse whisperer, 

Bound for a winners’ circle with garlands of roses:

I was still a long shot: 30, 40, even 50 to 1,

But the smart money was already coming my way. 

That’s how I went to rabbinic school:

To ride atop Hebrew into racing glory.

God help me, 

Belmont is for three-year olds, 

Whereas Hebrew, I found out,

Had been running for centuries,

It’s every utterance, it seemed, had been captured and saved

For horse whisperers like me to understand.

And worse…

I discovered that

Over time,

My horse had curiously played around

With different sorts 

of neighs and snorts 

That they called Aramaic.

Of Hillel, it was said

Af hu ra’ah gulgolet achat shetsafah al p’nei hamayim, amar ….

I got that: the familiar Hebrew horse talk, after all: 

“When he saw a skull floating on the face of the water, he said…”

But then:

Al d’ateift atifukh v’sof mtahy’fayikh y’tufun.

“Because you drowned others, others have now drowned you,

And those who drowned you will someday be drowned by others.”

I had to look it up. 

My trusty Hebrew only takes me so far,

But I manage.

And managing is itself an accomplishment.

I’ve given up winning the race.

Because

Winners of races just inherit more races,

Until eventually, they lose.

Let no latter-day Hillel come along one day and say of me,

“Because you beat others in races, others have now beat you,

And those who beat you will someday be beat by others.”

Far off the race course,

I now take deep breaths, 

And linger with Hebrew,

Still my horse of choice,

Enjoying the landscape it has seen and heard and felt,

And whispering in its ear,

“You know more than I do.

Tell me where to tarry along the route that you have taken.

Teach me how to see what it all might mean to me,

That I may pass the gift of meaning to others.

Let Hillel say of me,

“Because you are a blessing to others, others will be a blessing to you.

And they who are blessings to you will have others as blessings to them.

No races; no laurels; no winners; no losers.

Like the myth about turtles…

The good life is blessings all the way down. 

The Genealogy of “More”

Genealogy is not just family history. It can also be as “a fictional narrative, an imagined developmental story, which helps to explain a concept or value or institution, by showing ways in which it could [have] come about” (Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness, 2002, p. 31).

So here is a genealogy of “More.” It starts, of course, with “Once upon a time….”

Once upon a time, with the human race just dawning, we discovered there was “more,” in ways that other animals did not. Our contemplative consciousness of time and space revealed the universe as more than just a place to satisfy our needs. Ruminating on relationships with other tribal members, we said, “There is more than just myself.” When exploring the terrain and never running out of space, we thought, “There is more out there than we will ever get to.” One simple glance at the heavens told us that however much we imagined more, there would always be more than even that. When people died, we wondered if there was a kind of “more” beyond our earthly lives as well.   

So important was the “more,” that we appointed priests to be in charge of it. They explained the heavens, pronounced moral rules for tribal relationships, told us there was more to us than meets the eye, assured us that we matter even after we are dead, and used music and ritual to elevate our imagination. These kinds of “more,” they explained, exemplify the “More of Being”: the marvel of life itself, the miracle of loving and being loved, the spaciousness of the human mind, the depth of the human soul, and the wonderment of being part of eternity. They described it, sometimes, as “sacred,” our intimations of the Divine.

We were hunter-gatherers then, in small bands that hardly ever encountered other tribes like ourselves. Our needs were few: we lived in caves or moved around wherever water was handy and food plentiful. We had no need of possessions. 

With the dawn of agriculture, however, we settled down to farm and became aware of property. As our numbers grew, we needed more land, and when our expansion ran into similar expansion by other tribes, we decided to appoint kings to protect “our” more from “theirs.” With royal power came the right to palaces and riches. But the kings also organized a government, won wars, and minted coinage, thereby creating something called the “economy,” and bringing us wealth beyond our basic needs. When we saw what the coins could buy, we wanted more of them. 

Thus was born a second kind of more: not the “More of Being,” but the “More of Having.” 

Over the centuries, this More of Having accelerated exponentially, especially with the marriage of science to technology, and the invention of more things to own than we had ever imagined. To facilitate buying, trading, selling, and saving those things, we created advanced economies with a financial sector in which even money could make money. The range of goods and services, treats and toys, that money could buy seemed as infinite as the heavens that once had captured our imagination; and, ironically, the air pollution that came with the production and use of our things prevented our seeing the heavens anymore anyway. 

At first, the priests had done pretty much everything: they were also our doctors, lawyers, scientists, and teachers. Because evolution proceeds with ever-great complexity, however, the non-priestly roles were absorbed by other specialists. Priestly healers bourgeoned into corporate medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance mazes so convoluted that no one completely understood them. Priestly judges gave way to an equally tortuous judicial system, and priestly educators morphed into a labyrinth of institutions that mostly served the vast infrastructure of “having,” and the lucky few who were the biggest “havers.” 

The final blow to the old-time priesthood had been the demise of bloody sacrifice. The ancient Jewish Temple mutated into synagogues, where expert “religionists” (rabbis, cantors, educators, executive directors, and so on) sought valiantly to fight our intoxication with the More of Having by remembering the More of Being. 

Help came from (of all places) philosopher Emanuel Kant, who famously declared, “Two things filled the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” But religionists were not alone in claiming expertise in these two fields. Astronomers mapped the heavens with planets and stars that physicists explained with mathematical equations; psychologists reduced Kant’s moral law to an unconscious that psychotherapy sought to uncover.

As scientists successfully claimed ownership of both “the starry skies above” and “the moral law within,” the liberal religionists, at least (those who most appreciated science), began wondering what was left for them to do. By the late 20thcentury, lots of them kept busy as ritual functionaries, running through worship books on calendrical occasions and maintaining a monopoly on life-cycle ceremonies. Others specialized in the somewhat inchoate art of healing, relationship-building, small-group formation, and meaning-making. Still others threw themselves into social-justice causes. All three solutions were meritorious.

But the More of Having proved addictive. The computer era promised not just things but ever-updated versions of them. Even bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings became experiences we might “have.” Soon synagogue membership declined, because religionists who promised the More of Having could always be outclassed by others who offered the same sort of things and experiences for less. The market for self-help books, meditation classes, and destination weddings boomed. 

Then came the game-changer: a thing called covid. With so many dying daily, we remembered that life is tenuous. Why had we been running so hard to get more and more of the More of Having? It had all worked well when we could keep on running, because the More of Having depended on constantly having more of it. But when we found ourselves locked away in our homes, with the fun places boarded up and the economy shut down, the More of Having failed us. Life, we saw, is a state of being not of having. 

With all that carbon-spewing production and transportation shut down by Covid, we could actually see the stars again. The zoomed faces from around the globe brought recognition of human continuity beyond our own tribe. Once again, we took seriously the More of Being: the miracle of being alive; the challenge in raising our children — differently, perhaps, than we were raised — with more appreciation for God’s universe, more time for family and friends, and the desire to perfect the soul through thinking and conversing, artistry and imagination. Instead of counting our possessions, we would count our days — and make our days count. We would affirm human dignity, save the planet, and grow the world’s kindness and comfort.

As these thoughts dawned on us during Covid, we began attending synagogues again (albeit virtually), and by late 2021, we were told we could return in person. More and more people did: not just the regulars, that is, the people who had always attended whatever the synagogue offered, but new faces, people who had never given synagogues a thought, some of them not even Jewish. They wanted to find out if synagogues had something to say about the More of Being. 

Here ends the Genealogy of More, up to Sunday April 25, 2021, the 13th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, 5781. There is more to the story of More, but alas, genealogies are retrospective, not predictive. 

As of this writing, most synagogues are focused on the technical business of opening up safely, and of producing High Holy Day worship both in person and on zoom screens. But everyone knows the real questions lie beyond all that. Once we know how to open, we will have to demonstrate why it is worth our opening. And that raises the question of whether we are wise, willing, and bold enough to restructure our synagogues as tomorrow’s Jewish wellsprings for the More of Being. 

The Secret of This Year’s Seder

The old “Baskin” Haggadah, advertised the Passover message as “From Degradation to Dignity,” a brilliant alliteration by Editor Herb Bronstein (it should really be called the “Bronstein” Haggadah). The idea came from a close reading of the Mishnah (circa 200 CE) the earliest rabbinic account of the seder. It is the most basic summary of the seder’s message: namely, matchil big’nut um’sayem b’shevach —  in Bronstein’s terms, “begin with degradation and conclude with dignity.” 

The alliteration took some poetic license, however. A more faithful translation would be, “begin with degradation and conclude with praise.” The seder begins with Israel’s degradation and concludes with praise [to God] for delivering us from it. And there is more to it than that!

The Hebrew style of the verbs and their objects, matchil … um’sayem (literally, “The [the seder leader] begins with X and concludes with Y”) is telling. Several paragraphs later, the advice continues: v’chotem big’ullah, “and he [still the seder leader] seals [the whole thing] with redemption.”  “Degradation” and “praise” are just two-thirds of the recipe for seder success. There is “redemption” as well. 

Once you put them all together, you see the parallelism. In Hebrew: 1. matchil big’nut 2. um’sayem b’shevach3. v’chotem big’ullah. And in English: 1. We begin by remembering Israel’s degradation. 2. We then praise God for delivering us from it. 3. And we sum up the evening’s message by naming the miracle involved: Redemption. 

Redemption is a fancy theological word that encompasses deliverance from disaster, freedom from plague, new-found liberty, a new beginning, a fresh start. It is the love and nurture, the dignity and integrity, for which human beings naturally yearn, but then despair of finding, only to find they are possible after all.

The Talmud discusses “degradation.” In one opinion, degradation came from slavery in Egypt: it was externally enforced. There are degrees of enslavement however: not just actual slavery, as in America until the Civil War, but a modified form of terror under Jim Crow afterward – and still going on today. People worldwide are oppressed from without, victimized by the color of their skin, by their gender, their tribe, their immigrant status, their caste, their religion. Others are externally oppressed by disease that weighs them down; and, for mental illness, say, they are further oppressed by society’s attitude toward them. 

But there is also the second opinion: degradation from self-imposed attachment to idolatry: degradation, that is, that we bring upon ourselves. Even those of us who are externally free, may be internally enslaved: by addictions, unhealthy relationships, wanting always to please others, and uncritically believing of ourselves whatever others say about us. 

The point of redemption is that we all need it, from one thing or another, and the older I get, the more I recognize this escape from degradation (external and internal) is what we mean by the word “miracle.” The odds that America will come to grips with its inherent racism are not very high; the chances that society will embrace those who are mentally ill are not much better. How many people celebrating a seder feel the crush of old age or chronic illness, as if they will open the door for Elijah and admit the angel of death instead. Overcoming poverty, racism, prejudice, illness, addiction, traumatic relationships, or the bleakness of a life that seems to be going nowhere, are not run-of-the-mill probabilities. When, in fact, we do rise above such circumstances, it is a miracle. And the point of Passover is that such miracles do happen.

Miracles are not exceptions to nature’s certainties; they are unusual combinations of those certainties that somehow work for us rather than against us. A crippling disease suddenly turns around; out of nowhere, we discover a way out of financial crisis; we end an abusive marriage; find a new job, wake up one fresh morning and feel empowered rather than beaten down. 

It is the possibility of redemption that ultimately prompts hope when all seems hopeless. That is why we need to reclaim the last third of the rabbinic recipe for a successful seder: Yes, start with degradation, Israel’s of old, and your own and others’ today; let your lips form the natural response to seeing freedom’s possibilities, praiseful gratitude; and sum it all up with the acknowledgement that redemption is possible. It happened once; it can happen again.

This year, especially, don’t feel you have to say every last prayer in a Haggadah that is already too long: that would be enslavement to the very ritual that celebrates freedom. Don’t obsess over when you wash, how you break the matzah, how much wine you need, whether to sit or stand. These are minutiae. And don’t lose your own opportunity to find the seder’s hope because you feel obliged to entertain little children every spare moment while you are on the screen. Focus instead on the message of redemptive miracles; and when little children ask what you are doing, give them a hug and a smile, and tell them you are celebrating the most important miracle in the world: the miracle of hope. The best Seder gift you can give them is the model of the adults they love most taking redemption’s promise seriously; and knowing that they can aspire to be like you.

Open Letter to My Students # 14: Seder Plates, Cufflinks, and Ashtrays

In my last letter, I applauded Jewish food as a symbolic route to Jewish values. “But what makes it Jewish?” people asked. “You yourself say Jewish food is just food that Jews once used alongside everyone else – remember the Romanian woman who converted because of the food?” 

Good question; and it leads us to broader questions of Jewish symbolism. 

Among the many ways to look at symbols is the highly creative approach by psychologist C.G. Jung. 

Jung differentiated symbols from signs. He read off a list of words, and asked people to respond to each of them with another word, the first one that came to mind. Unknown to his subjects, he was less interested in the association they offered than the time it took to offer it. When subjects took an inordinate amount of time responding, Jung suspected that the word in question carried unconscious emotional baggage that was preventing a quick response. “Red,” for example, might easily evoke “stop” or “rose,” but someone who regularly frequented the city’s red-light district might hesitate, as his defense mechanism struggled to prevent his saying “prostitute.” Similarly, “Bible” might evoke “book,” but strong believers might struggle for just the right word to convey the depth of their Protestant faith.

These highly charged items (positive or negative) Jung labelled symbols. Everything else, he called signs.

Religion depends on such emotionally laden symbols, which then attract rational explanations of what they “mean.” These are their sign values: meanings that are culturally available as convenient ways to explain the symbols’ importance. Symbols, then, depend on direct emotional appeal, usually by stimulating our senses: touch, taste, smell, and so on. If our sensory reaction is neutral, we make no special note of the experience. If it is strongly positive or negative, we associate it with the situation that gave rise to it. If the situation is Jewish (Shabbat dinner, for example), something about the dinner (Shabbat candle-lighting, perhaps) is likely to become a Jewish symbol. Eventually, we ask what the candles mean, an explanation that we memorize to justify our strong feelings about them.  

A woman once told me proudly that she had faithfully kindled Shabbat lights every week for over 50 years, because “Light is the symbol of the divine.” That’s the last thing I would have thought of, but she had read it in the old Union Prayer Book (p. 7). Wanting something to explain her love of lighting candles, she latched onto what the prayer book said. 

Imagine two immigrant women arriving in America and attending 4th of July fireworks. One woman came just to marry her American fiancé. The fireworks are nice but have no emotional claim on her. She may or may not attend next year. The other woman fled across the border to escape persistent rape in her home country. As the fireworks brighten the sky, she is overwhelmed by the pure sheer joy of American freedom. She will attend July-4th fireworks ever after without fail. For her, fireworks really symbolize. 

If asked what the fireworks symbolize, both women will say something like, “America,” or “independence.” For the first woman, that is just the culturally assigned meaning that she has internalized as part of American lore. Fireworks are just fireworks. For the second, these fireworks are like no others. They symbolize for her. “Symbolize” is an intransitive verb. Symbols don’t symbolize anything, at first. They just resonate deeply within us. We then attach culturally assigned meanings to explain our feelings.

Years ago, I asked people in focus groups to bring (or bring pictures of) their favorite Jewish symbols. Most people brought the usual stuff: Shabbat candlesticks, an old tallit, a Jewish recipe book, and so on. One man surprised us by bringing ordinary cufflinks, and explained, “My grandfather gave these to me on my bar mitzvah.” He owned a kiddush cup too, I discovered, but it had only sign value for him. He didn’t bring it because he knew instinctively that it wasn’t really symbolic. 

Traditions devise highly complex treatments of these assigned meanings — the Magen David, the “Star of David,” for example. A six-point star is just a six-point star, but sometime in the Middle Ages, Jews starting using it on their tombstones (as did Muslims, actually, who called it a Star of Solomon). Kabbalists enhanced the star’s Jewish association because its six points tallied nicely with the way they counted the six lower-level divine emanations (the sefirot) that carried blessing from the three upper-level ones to the final tenth one, the feminine emanation whence blessings flow to us. When modern synagogues were built, architects wanted a simple Jewish design to etch into the stone exterior – like the cross on churches. The older, more authentic, symbol, the seven-branch candelabra, was too hard to chisel in, so they chose the Star of David. 

This Magen David eventually impacted Seder plates. Some plates are designed to hold five seder foods, and some six, because the bitter herbs (maror) were sometimes called chazeret and it wasn’t clear whether you needed separate entities for each one. The six-food version won because it corresponded to the six points of the star, allowing kabbalists to count the three pieces of matzah as the upper three sefirot; and then label the seder plate (from which we take the symbolic food) the tenth sefirah, the feminine nourishing one.

You don’t, however, have to know all this sefirah stuff for the seder plate to mean something symbolically to you. You might just like eating the sweet charoset and be happy remembering how your mother used to feed it to you before you fell asleep in her lap. 

The compelling quality of my colleague, Ron Wolfson’s, pioneer work in relational Judaism is the fact that positive emotions are likely to arise from warm relationships of belonging. Judaism rooted in relationships provides the emotional ground for attachment, out of which symbols are born.

Here’s a story I told many years ago: it’s about a man named Harry. 

Harry was an older man who had worked all his life as a storekeeper on New York’s Lower East Side – in the days when it was still largely Jewish. It became his habit, day after day, year after year, to have lunch with other store owners. It became a ritual: same restaurant, same surly Jewish waiter, and so on.

Eventually, the area was gentrified. Under new ownership, the old restaurant was slated to undergo construction. There would be harsher neon lighting to get people in and out more quickly; and rectangular tables crowded together, instead of the old inefficient round ones. The old waiters were quitting. Harry’s friends, already beginning to retire anyway, met one last time. 

On his way out, Harry pocketed one of the old beat-up ashtrays. 

“Why did you take the ashtray?” people asked. “You don’t smoke.”

“No,” said Harry, “but those lunches were the best times of my life. I wanted something to remember them by.” When Harry downsized to a small retiree apartment in Miami, he took the ashtray with him, his beloved symbol of years gone by.

The day people leave our synagogues to retire elsewhere, and pocket prayer books to take with them, we will know we have succeeded. 

Let’s Hear It For Jewish Food.

This Purim, I remembered my Aunt Susie, a spectacular woman, who died somewhere in her nineties, her facilities horribly impaired by multiple strokes. She retained her lucidity by locating herself in the seasonal flow of Jewish holidays.  My last visit with her was the week after Purim. She was blind by then, as I recall, and couldn’t follow much of what people were saying. But out of nowhere, somehow, she managed to remind her daughter, “Purim is over; start planning the Seder.” 

Most rabbis and cantors, I suspect, measure time by prayers. “New month falls this Wednesday; must say new-moon prayer this Shabbat.” “Rosh Hashanah starts Monday evening this year, so Selichot service is two Saturdays back, not just one.”

Other people don’t do that; they measure time in other ways – if they are lucky, by the food. I grew up loving the Jewish year because I ate my way through it: Rosh-Hashanah honey cake, Simchat-Torah apples, Hanukah latkes, Purim hamentaschen, my mother’s Passover meringues (a family tradition), and Shavuot cheese blintzes. Yom Kippur was the day you couldn’t eat at all, except for the break-fast which was great for kids who got to eat it without having to fast first. 

When I grew up, I discovered sefardi foods as well, not to mention other excuses to eat differently (like Tu Bishvat, which no one in our little town observed). 

Either Napoleon or Frederick the Great is said to have left us with the caution that “an army marches on its stomach.” I don’t know from armies, but I am an expert on religions, and let me tell you, with just its liturgy but no ritualized eating to go with it, the Jewish People does not march very well at all.

Gastronomic Judaism (as it is usually known) has been often, and cruelly, maligned – in part by me, a sin for which I readily repent, and probably would have repented sooner if there had been a repentance food to remind me to do it. I didn’t actually mean the holidays, mind you. I had in mind Sunday-morning lox and bagels; not to mention Chinese food on Christmas, neither of which is Jewish at all. Probably the best bagels I ever had came from a Cincinnati bagelry owned and operated by an Irish Catholic, and serving people on their way home from Sunday mass. The Christmas-eve diners at your local China Lion or Lichee Gardens are there because it’s the only place open, not because they are necessarily Jewish. 

I repeat: I didn’t mean authentically Jewish holiday fare; my repentance a moment ago was probably an overreaction.

A woman once dared me to ask her why she had converted to Judaism, and then, without waiting, answered her own question. “For the food!” she said. 

“You converted for the food?” I asked, trying not to sound amazed.

“Yes,” she assured me. “My parents were Roumanian and I missed my mother’s cooking, but then found that Jews still eat it.” 

So I know that most Jewish food was never Jewish to begin with. We borrowed ethnic foods from the peoples among whom we lived, usually the poorest food, because we were all poor together and had to make do with what we all, equally, didn’t have enough of. 

“For the food” may not be the most sophisticated response, I grant you, but I heard the story in the first place only because the woman giving it was attending my visiting lecture at her synagogue. She converted for the food, but she eats it with appropriate ritual, it turns out, and attends synagogue as well.

What I was (and still am) opposed to was empty ethnicity – for three reasons. 

First, it deteriorates into nostalgia, which is not lasting: it is hardly compelling for people who did not grow up with it. 

Second, writer Svetlana Boym describes two versions of nostalgia. The warmly “reflective” nostalgia that I am describing may be harmless – no one in my family ever wanted to return to the “good old days” in Polish shtetls. But it easily becomes “restorative” nostalgia, the romanticization of those “good old days” and the attempt to recapture them at the expense of the people they victimized; like the Polish Law and Justice Party that glorifies Polish nationalism, and its anti-Semitism; like those southerners who yearn for Old Dixie – not just its Southern Cross battle flag but the burning cross of the KKK restored. 

Third, even reflective nostalgia isn’t altogether harmless. If Judaism is nostalgia, it locks out anyone who wants to join it but who has no nostalgic memories to qualify. 

For those three reasons, I have steadfastly opposed a Judaism of pure ethnicity, a long-held conviction I neither recant nor repudiate. 

Equally, when I call for something deeper, I by no means belittle the sensory enjoyment under which all that depth lies buried, and without which, none of it may ever be unearthed. How shallow would be a seder with my mother’s meringues, but no mention of freedom from slavery; or her honey cake but no prayer for a good and sweet year. 

And how headily worthless would be the opposite: just preachy sermons on slavery and learned truisms on how a new year with joy is better than one without it.  

The point is, holiday food comes with ritual: it is symbolic. Symbolic food that loses its symbolism becomes just food. But theology unsymbolized devolves into academic sterility. Traditional food without theological underpinning is the flesh of religion without its bones — you finish the meal (literally) with nothing left behind to chew on (metaphorically). Theological principles with no culinary traditions to hold them are the bones of religion without the flesh: solid academic argument with nothing to sink your teeth into. 

Have I mentioned the fact that last week we celebrated Purim? Aunt Susie would have told you to finish up your hamantaschen and start planning your charoset. I actually preferred my mother’s meringues. But you get the idea.

A Word On Tribalism and Jewish Peoplehood

A word on tribalism and Jewish Peoplehood.
The issue emerges from the exceptionally healthy discussion of my last post. Thank you all for joining in the dialogue, some of it on this blog page, some of it in letters to me elsewhere!
“Tribalism” comes up in the question of what will happen to the Jewish People if we encourage spiritual seekers to experience “The Jewish Way.” “Won’t that dilute Jewish Peoplehood?” people ask. Others echo the hesitance of Jews whose “tribalism” is suspicious of all those potential newcomers.
I care deeply about Jewish Peoplehood. It is central to my understanding of our mission in the world. It is a strength that most other religions lack. But it comes in various forms, one of which is tribal.
I differentiate Peoplehood (a theological category played out on the world stage) from tribalism (a form of primal ethnicity). Peoplehood is positive, outward looking, intent on a universalist theological purpose, and welcoming of others who share that purpose. Tribalism is protective, inward looking, motivated by mere continuity of the People with no larger purpose at all, and suspicious of anyone who is not “of our tribe.”
Some years back, an impressionistic study was made of church members who had converted from Judaism; and of synagogue members who had converted from Christianity. The converts out of Judaism said they had lots of peoplehood, but only the tribal/ethnic variety, with no thoughtful purpose behind it. They missed theology, which, they said, rarely (or never) received deeply serious attention from their rabbis and fellow congregants. Despite their conversion, they still felt (and wanted to feel) part of the Jewish People. They hadn’t converted out of that. Christianity gave them purpose for their Jewish Peoplehood.
Those who converted into Judaism said they missed community. They had their local church community, but loved the idea of something more concrete and wider in scope: a global community dedicated to God’s purposes. The Jews had Peoplehood and joined Christianity to get theological purpose. The Christians already thought theologically; and readily embraced Jewish theological purpose regarding the Jewish People that they were joining. Peoplehood did not suffer by admitting them. On the contrary. It gained a deeper perspective, a theological one, that rabbis generally fail to discuss with their ethnic Jewish members.
Tribalism is cheapened Peoplehood, an approach that is elemental, rooted in my tribe vs yours. We should do away with it. Peoplehood beyond tribalism is profound. It calls us to value the Jewish People as a precious thing with a mission to advance God’s goodness in the world — and to welcome all who share that mission and want to pursue it through The Jewish Way.

My Big Mistake!

“Tell you what, Rabbi,” he said, “I’ll give you a million dollars to start a mega-synagogue!” The “he,” in this case, was an evangelical church-going Christian, who, however, was the manager of a Jewish philanthropic fund. I will call him Brian (not his real name).

            It was the 1990s, and I was fundraising for Synagogue 2000. For readers who don’t remember those days, Synagogue 2000 was an initiative I cofounded with Conservative Jewish educator, Ron Wolfson, to transform synagogues into “spiritual and moral centers for the 21st century.” We were funded by wonderful people and foundations, but we were always seeking other funding partners, and that is what brought me to Brian.

            “Why would I support synagogues?” Brian asked. “They are a lost cause, like most churches. What you want is a Jewish renaissance, which is what we Christians have, but only in the novel form of megachurches. I belong to one myself – with 12,000 attendees! Give up on synagogues as they exist today. Think big. Start a megasynagogue, a Jewish version of my megachurch, and I’ll fund it handsomely.”

            I already knew a lot about megachurches — Ron and I had visited and studied them, as examples of entrepreneurial religion with much to teach us. More than just big churches, the megas are big ideas – doing church differently. “You don’t have to be mega or church,” we told the synagogues with whom we worked, “but the megas know something about American spiritual yearning that we can apply authentically to ourselves.”  I therefore appreciated Brian’s touting of megachurches. But start a Jewish version myself? That seemed altogether absurd. 

            The next day, I looked up the overall population in Brian’s city, then the number of attendees at his megachurch and figured out the ratio between the two. I then applied that     ration to the same city’s Jewish population. If my hypothetical megasynagogue were to attract the same percentage of Jews as Brian’s megachurch did Christians, I calculated, I would have 39 members. Of course, a megasynagogue was a silly idea.

            And that was my mistake. 

Here’s why.

            I have come to see that Judaism has a universal message, born of Jewish principles, informed by Jewish texts, nurtured by Jewish culture, grounded in Jewish religion, and continuous with the Jewish experience with history – an experience that speaks profoundly to the human . 

By Jewish principles, I mean the obvious ones, like justice and compassion, but also the Jewish love of learning, our trust in truth, our faith not just in God but in science, the Talmudic insistence on dialogue to arrive at insight, our balanced view of human nature, Jewish optimism (not for nothing is Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah — “The Hope” ). I like also our belief that there is nothing wrong with making money (ethically), as long as you give lots of it away. There is also Jewish Peoplehood: at its best, a global endeavor to perfect a broken world; but anyone can join it, and we respect other religious traditions as having their own unique and precious covenants with God. 

By Jewish texts, I mean the whole gamut, from Bible and talmudic literature (and even pilpul, which I think of as Jewish poetry); to Yehudah Amichai, Philip Roth, Marcia Falk, and Anzia Yezierska (if you haven’t read her Bread Givers, you should).

By Jewish religion, I include the best of what we have, but shorn of the worst. No religious tradition can claim honestly to include the entirety of the past — nor should it. I mean evolving religion: worship that touches the soul; healthy home ceremonial to strengthen loving families and friends. And don’t forget a religious calendar that rehearses the values that make us human: High Holiday moral consciousness; Sukkot thanksgiving; a weekly day off from work and worry; Yom Hashoah lament but the Joy of Simchat Torah.  

By Jewish culture, I mean the richness of Jewish music, but also Jewish scholarship; Hasidic insights into human nature; classical Reform’s reminder of the prophetic heritage; the best of Israeli creativity; our welcoming of heretical wonder (we get to question and even argue with God); our insistence on living life to its fullness (L’chaim); and even Jewish humor, the way we laugh at ourselves. 

Finally, there is the Jewish experience with history. We know (better than most) the pain of suffering, but also the promise of being the eternally rejuvenated Phoenix who sees things through to a better time. We are a people outfitted with a memory that gives us veritable centuries of perspective, and virtual eons of hope. 

But we’ve never managed to think big. We are like the poor but righteous protagonist in Y.L. Peretz’s classic tale, Bontsche Schweig, whom God rewards with anything his heart desires. He could have brought the messiah, but the best he can imagine having is a warm roll.

Brian was asking me to think big; and I didn’t. 

            Our world today is increasingly filled with laypeople who think bigger than religious leaders do. We have mistakenly concentrated on our “Jewish message” for Jews alone, rather than a “Jewish way” that speaks to spiritual seekers of all kinds.  We should reconceptualize Judaism as a conversation through time, touching upon everything that is precious to the human mind and heart. I spoke recently to Rabbi Karyn Kedar, who does think big, and who wondered, “Why do we settle for the same 100 people at services, or 50 people at a class?” Double it, triple it, quadruple it, if you like. It’s still a pittance, if you are a successful large synagogue with maybe 1000 family units. And most synagogues I know would be thrilled to have 100 people every Friday night, not to mention 50 in a class. 

So I wonder, “Why didn’t I jump on the chance to start a megasynagogue that would reach out to everyone, not just Jews, with the message of a Jewish Way?” Why did I assume that my megasynagogue “market” was just the Jews?

            I have no desire to convert people, no yearning to capture anyone who finds meaning in traditions other than my own. But every single day sees more and more people leaving religion entirely because they find no meaning there. 

            I don’t have Brian’s million dollars, but I do have a million-dollar idea: megasynagogues which may not even have to be big, but that do synagogue differently. They will open their doors and feature the Jewish conversation – Jewish principles, text, religion, culture and historical consciousness, all of them fully Jewish but fully human as well, an invitation to all who wish to find their way to human meaning by exploring the Jewish Way of being in the world. 

Kol dikhfin yeitei vyeikhul, we say at seder time, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Let us open wide our doors, so that all who want their humanity to have meaning, all who want purpose, hope, progress, love, and joy can see what the Jewish Way has to offer.   

Being a Jew At Christmas Time

[I wrote this article in 1992, fully 28 years ago, but just came across it again, and decided to reproduce it here, just as it was written. I offer it as a not-too-heavy, not-too-long, and really-rather-enjoyable, piece of reading for this season – one of the better things that I have done. I do have a few afterthoughts that I have appended at the end, although, overall, I was amazed at how little things have changed.] 

Thank my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Schneider, for my introduction to Christmas. As public-school teachers go, she was, I gather, something of a religious fanatic. Among other things, she held gospel-study classes in students’ homes every Wednesday after school (this was Canada in the 1950s, when it was genuinely a Christian country). I will never forget the day I sat on my front porch watching some 20 or so of my classmates following Miss Schneider into the home of my neighbor and best friend, just two doors down from me. Joining the class was the thing to do and I couldn’t do it; I was Jewish. To be sure, with what can only be described as conversionary zeal, Miss Schneider tried regularly to remedy my religious status, a project that prompted my parents to remove me from her classroom by February. But in December, I was still a Schneider ward. And that is where I encountered Christmas.

            I was later to find out, however, that when it came to Christmas, all my teachers were more or less Miss-Schneider clones. Every year, as Autumn slipped steadily into winter, even the most humanly sensitive and open-minded teachers became carried away by the spirit of what we now call, euphemistically, “the Holiday Season.” By early November, the classroom had already been turned into a swiftly accelerating vehicle for welcoming Christmas. By late November, we had heard the Christmas story several times over. Red and green decorations floated lazily down from ceilings and doorways. A large decorated tree outfitted the main hall, and a smaller one greeted visitors entering the principal’s office. In art class, you painted Christmas scenes; in English class, you composed Christmas stories; in music, you sang Christmas carols. A huge schoolwide Christmas assembly, followed by a gala Christmas party, marked the end of the first semester, but everybody returned at night when the school’s crack choir presented its annual Christmas concert.

            As welcome as I was in my country, there were certain times when I suspected that as a Jew, I didn’t quite fully belong. Heading up the list of such times was the annual Christmas fever that swept through almost everyone else, but passed me by. None of the Jews in my town kept any Christmas customs in those days. The close-knit Jewish community, tiny enough to know everybody else’s business, would have looked askance at such a thing. A Christmas tree, for instance, would have been viewed as one step short of apostasy. In larger communities though, a small minority of Jews did decorate their own trees, hang stockings and give gifts. It seemed the Canadian, if not the Jewish, thing to do.

            It was, and still is, no picnic explaining to your children that we Jews don’t keep Christmas. They stare at you in disbelief. Everyone keeps Christmas, they plead. It is the topic of every television program, the display in every store window. Here in New York, The Radio City Music Hall features its annual Christmas spectacle and the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Christmas artifacts. What do you mean, “We don’t celebrate Christmas”? Does that make us the Grinch? Maybe Scrooge?     

            Once, when my children were young, a well-meaning babysitter, looking to be creative, helped each child assemble a tiny Christmas tree, made of colored paper, cellophane, and fallen branches collected from the wintry outdoors. The children beamed at us with glee when we came home. What does a Rabbi’s family do with their children’s ready-made, personally constructed Christmas trees? Certainly not call them Hanukkah bushes and compound the sin of syncretism, doing injustice is both Judaism and Christianity at the same time. Patiently, quietly, and with all the love we could muster, we explained to our children that as much as we adored the work of their hands, the trees had to go. We were Jews; Christmas trees were for Christians; it would be wrong for us to have them – – wrong because it was false to Judaism, and wrong because it made light of Christmas. Hanukkah was important for Jews; Christmas was sacred for Christians. 

            Another year, Nick, our neighbor across the way, came to the door to announce his plans to show up in everybody’s living room on Christmas eve dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Did we want to be included in his list of stops? The kids would love it, he assured us. We thanked him, but reminded him we were Jews. He knew that, but explained how lots of Jews would be on his list. What does a religious commitment of Judaism have to do with keeping or not keeping Christmas? For that matter, what does Christmas have to do with Christianity? For Nick, as for his Jewish takers, Christmas is just a fun time with music, parties, and wishes for world peace. Go argue with that. Scrooge indeed!    

            For Jews like me who take Judaism seriously, however, that is not what Christmas is. It is a feast on the Christian calendar celebrating the incarnation of the son of God. I take seriously the religious significance Christmas has (or should have) for Christians. Since I’m not a Christian, it is self-evident to me that I cannot observe the occasion in my home– not in good conscience, anyway –even though life would be a lot simpler if I could.

            Historians tell us that Christmas was not always the cultural fulcrum that balances Christian life. There was a time when Christians knew that the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection was the center of Christian faith. It was Easter that really mattered, not Christmas. Only in the consumer-conscious nineteenth and twentieth centuries did Christmas fully become the centerpiece of popular piety. Madison Avenue marketed the change and then colluded with the entertainment industry to boost Christmas to its current calendrical prominence.

            My Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which falls about the same time as Christmas, is now being hyped as a sort of Jewish equivalent – – as in “Hanukkah bushes.” It doesn’t matter when Hanukkah falls. Since it is pegged to the Hebrew calendar, it may occur anytime from late November to late December. Regardless of which it is, people wish me a happy holiday around December 25, as if all real holidays ought to happen then.

            I have kindled Hanukkah candles happily and beautifully all my life. Some of my fondest family memories consist of standing with my arms around my children as we sang Hanukkah songs in the flickering candlelight. But the religious part of me regrets the fact that fewer and fewer Jews observe the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and even Passover (which used to weigh in as everyone’s favorite), while more and more identify Judaism as a gift-giving cult centered on Hanukkah. In any event, the Hanukkah hype won’t work. It may sell merchandise, and even inspire Peter Paul and Mary to write “Light One Candle” – – a terrific song by the way – – but it won’t make Hanukkah into a Jewish version of Christmas, and it won’t address the alienation of so many Jews who genuinely like the Christmas they see and feel all around them, the Christmas that they cannot fully share.

            Where I live now, Christmas starts officially at the end of November, with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cities outside of New York schedule their own parades then, but Macy’s version typifies the genre. It takes no semiotic genius to get the message. The parade route winds down Broadway following its own yellow brick road to the shopping Mecca on Herald Square. Bringing up the rear, but leading the way for the folk who follow the official parade route, is Santa Claus, who will soon reappear daily at malls around the country promising goodies to good little children.

            I am no Scrooge. I like Santa Claus too. I like the Christmas music – – even the bad music – – that surrounds the Santa ritual; I like the crisp winter weather, and the bell ringers, and all the rest of the paraphernalia that make most people look forward to December 25. I like my neighbors’ wreaths and the mistletoe, and above all, the genuinely religious Christmas carols that you can hardly hear anymore because they have been replaced by soppy songs that melt down the Christian message of this holy day as quickly as snow in a heat wave. Great music is great music, after all. I enjoy it.

            It is, in fact, my liking (or not liking) of Christmas that constitutes the key to the role of Christmas in American culture. By contrast, I neither like nor dislike Easter, just as I have no opinion of, say, Ramadan. As a Jew I naturally evaluate my own holidays, but I feel no compulsion to appraise the sacred calendars of others. Christmas is an exception to this rule. American mores expect me, even as a non-Christian, to welcome Christmas as a positive good in my life. Not to appreciate the Christmas spirit is considered a cultural sin. Why is that?

            I have in mind three manifestations of Christmas in popular culture. The first two are modern-day fairy tales depicting the ultimate triumph of good over evil: the Broadway hit, Annie, and what was billed (when it came out) as “the summer movie of all time,” Batman Returns. To say that both have been box-office bonanzas is to be guilty of understatement. They obviously touch something very deep in our collective cultural psyche.

            In both, Christmas appears as a symbol of the myth of American virtue. The Batman theme is simple and direct: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil. Unlike real life, however, from beginning to end, and no matter how bad things appear in the middle, not a soul in the movie theater has any doubt about who the final victor will be. It is only a matter of time until Batman wins and Penguin loses. And at the end, the protagonist lives happily ever after. That is the nature of fairy tales. They portray things as we wish they were, not as they are. They may be absolutely ghoulish in the hideous trials to which the heroes are exposed, but in the end, Cinderella marries the Prince, Little Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf, Hansel and Gretel don’t get baked in the oven, and Batman restores order to Gotham city.

            What makes Batman interesting, for our purposes, is the fact that the hero is portrayed against the backdrop of Christmas. The entire movie is set in the Christmas season. In his last line of the film, Batman links his own success at foiling the Penguin with the underlying theme of Christmas. “Merry Christmas,” he says, “and goodwill toward men – – and women.” Christmas thus functions as a cultural trope for the way we wish things were, or, better yet, the way we like to pretend things already are. In the actual world, bad things really do happen to good people; real life Penguins do prowl our land. The goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries is rather low right now. But the myth of Christmas allows us to put aside untidy evidence from newspaper headlines and to believe instead that all is right in Gotham. Christmas stands symbolically for a secular version of redemption: Jesus doesn’t save, Batman does. If evil has been eradicated, it must be Christmas, goes the logic, as in fact it is in Batman Returns.

            The evidence from Annie is even more transparent. Annie is an orphan who is adopted by Daddy Warbucks. Along the way, evil raises its ugly head in the shape of the manager of the orphanage and her brother, who, in effect, kidnap Annie by posing as her parents. But in the end, their scheme fails, and Annie returns to her wealthy benefactor. As in BatmanAnnie too has been written so that it culminates in Christmas. In the very last scene, not only Annie, but all the other orphans too celebrate a lavish party in Daddy Warbucks’s mansion. If Batman is the message of good conquering evil in general, Annie is the application of that message to American values in particular. Daddy Warbucks is a self-made man, a shining example of what hard work and business enterprise will get you. Never mind the fact that he made his money as a war profiteer – – the play passes silently over the significance of his name, “Warbucks.” The point is that Daddy made it on his own. He hobnobs with FDR and the White House crowd, gets J. Edgar Hoover to unleash the FBI in the search for Annie, and lives the life of luxury that is the stuff of the American dream. But the message of Annie is precisely that those dreams can come true, if only we are hard-working and virtuous. Annie, after all, escapes the orphanage.

            Again, we are dealing with pure myth. In real life, almost no one is self-made anymore. When Anniecame out, it is true, Wall street millionaires abounded and law firms were hiring first-year graduates at astronomical salaries. But most of America was getting poorer, not richer. Homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm for millions. Nonetheless, Annie told us confidently that even the poorest orphan could become a Warbucks heir. American capitalism triumphed once again. 

            In Annie, Christmas functions artistically not simply as the embodiment of moral victory but as a potent symbol for material success. The last scene focuses on munificent gift-giving. There is absolutely nothing spiritual about the day. No one sings Silent Night, let alone Adeste Fideles; the birth of the Savior is the farthest thought from anyone’s mind. Christmas, pure and simple, is nothing but the myth of endless American wealth born of capitalist entrepreneurship. The myth of secular redemption has reached its pinnacle.

            To Batman and Annie, add the third piece of evidence: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote his masterpiece precisely at the time that Christmas was becoming the cultural focus of the secular year. England had prospered from the Industrial Revolution, where, once again, the myth of capitalism was wrapped up in the tinsel of Christmas packaging. In reality, the terrors of the time are readily apparent from almost every page of every book that Dickens wrote. But not here. The capitalist myth merges with Christmas, as secular redemption allows Tiny Tim and his family to be saved from poverty (not from sin) and celebrate (a secular feast, not a sacred one) with Christmas plenty donated by none other than Scrooge himself. In his pre-repentant days, Scrooge is the very antithesis of the benevolent capitalist ideal. He is a rich man like Daddy Warbucks, but he hordes his wealth and despises the poor. Naturally, he despises Christmas too. But in the end, he is converted. Christmas is the symbol of good will in general, gift-giving in particular, and the triumph of the nineteenth-century pure capitalist ethic as a general good for one and all.

            I now understand my own Christmas dilemma. Christmas has been secularized, capitalized, and mythologized. As most people keep it, and certainly as popular culture presents it, it is the myth of the America we all pretend we inhabit: a place where Penguins are foiled, Annies are adopted, and even the poorest among us celebrate the wealth that comes from good old-fashioned hard-working industry. Not to observe Christmas is to blow the whistle on the myth, to expose such naked realities as a trickle-down economy where nothing trickles down, in a country rife with social ills and economic deprivation.

            The problem is that even in its secularized form, Christmas is not religiously neutral. It is still Christian. So as a Jew, I am in a bind. I am naturally attracted to Christmas as mythic wish fulfillment, marked by smiling Santas, festive parties, and gifts for everyone. At its secular best, it is at least one day in the year when we remember what we still might be: peaceful people infused with goodwill toward all; and a generous country, where everyone has a dinner to sit down to: heady stuff! But my conscience rebels against adopting what is still, for me, a Christian feast with a Christian message. There may be two Christmases here, the age-old religious celebration and the modern secular one. But they are not easily separated. Religious Christians may well be uneasy about the triumph of the secular variety, but at least they don’t have to worry about toggling back-and-forth between the secular and religious landscapes. They can enjoy the American myth that the secular holiday presents and, simultaneously, observe the religious event for which Christmas was formulated in the first place. That is a luxury I cannot afford.

Fortunately, along with most other Jews I know, I’ve come to terms with our Christmas dilemma. By no means do I yearn to celebrate Christmas. As the public pomp and ceremony becomes somewhat overwhelming, I slip into the role of a visitor to a foreign culture. I appreciate, even enjoy, much of the Christmas ambience; I share my Christian neighbors’ happiness, as they share mine when my holidays roll around. The academic part of me wonders how the religious message of Christmas got so overwhelmed by a secular mythology, and the religious part of me feels a little sorry that it happened that way. There are Jews who keep a Passover Seder, but with no idea that the event has any spiritual significance beyond families getting together. There is nothing wrong with family gatherings, but the life of faith is impoverished if the Passover meal is no longer rooted in the religious verities that have animated it through the centuries. I imagine the same must be true of Christmas for Christians. There is nothing wrong with sleighbells, Bing Crosby, and Christmas pudding, but I should hope Christians would want more than just that, and as Christmas comes more and more secularized, I am not sure they get it.

            In the end, the problem of Christmas is not mine, any more than Christmas itself is. The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians: how to take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back to the religious sphere once again.

Afterward: Looking back from 2020

1.  I am amazed at how the economic problems of 1992 have only worsened with time. Back then, “millionaires abounded on Wall Street” while “homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm.” Now, “millionaires” are “billionaires”; homelessness in 1992 was nothing compared to 2020. In 1992, I described “the goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries“ as “rather low.” That “goodwill quotient” is a thousand times worse today. I regret, especially, that I failed to specify racism, in particular, as an evil that devastates America. 

2. I fear the original wrongly paints me as an opponent of capitalism. I actually applaud capitalism, as an economic system. The problem lies with the selfish ethic that can accompany it, buttressed by a sort of “Ayn Rand” philosophy that says we all get what we deserve, so that those with privilege need take no responsibility for those without it. 

3.  I did not adequately express my actual ambivalence with the “cultural” Christmas round about me. On the one hand, I deplore the false promise of the secular myth where everything works out and everyone is saved by the likes of Daddy Warbucks, Batman, and a repentant Scrooge. On the other hand, I enjoy very much even the secularized spirit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get better. 

4.  Over time, I have come more and more to enjoy being a visitor in homes where Christmas is celebrated, and not just religiously. I remain convinced of the tragic loss entailed by religious holidays so fully secularized that they lose their religious depth. But I made too light of the secularized version which itself is not necessarily without spiritual value. 

Open Letter to My Students 11: True East

I sometimes compare my own seminary education with what today’s students receive – not as an exercise in nostalgia, but to learn something important about being clergy in our world. I speak only for the NY campus which I attended; Cincinnati graduates may have their own story; there were no LA graduates yet. 

HUC of the 1960s was not even remotely the same school as it is now, roughly half a century later. There was, for example, no Israel program, so unless we knew Hebrew already (or took a year off to go to Israel on our own) our modern Hebrew competence was pretty much non-existent. Our five-year-long lockstep curriculum was heavy in text, but the only Hebrew grammar most of us knew upon entering was whatever we had picked up from a single summer preparatory course. We spent the next five years “deciphering” texts, word for word, with minimal success.

Part of the problem was the text teachers, giants in knowledge, but a generation for whom modern pedagogy was not so much a lost art as it was an art not yet discovered. I can only imagine their own frustration, having to put up with students like us. I recall one professor struggling to coach one of my classmates through just a few lines of Talmud; and then plunking some coins down on the table with the sardonic request, “Please go to the payphone; phone Bellevue Hospital; reserve a room for me in their mental ward.”  Nowadays, he might be reprimanded for a microagression, but we took his remark in stride. Given the chance, we might have booked rooms for ourselves. 

What I didn’t learn in text, I more than made up in history and theology because of two outstanding teachers who changed my life forever: Eugene Borowitz, zikhrono livrachah, and Martin Cohen, yibadel l’chaim. They made massive reading assignments and held us responsible for them. For roughly one semester a year (and for five years!) Dr. Cohen assigned up to a book or article a week – and tested us on it every Friday morning. Dr. Borowitz assigned Baeck, Buber, Kaplan, Rosenzweig and more – incessantly; in just the introductory course alone, we wrote three lengthy papers, redoing them if we did not live up to his formidable standards of acceptability. Both professors lectured back then – an era when we appreciated great lectures from which we filled our notebooks and our minds with organized synopses of data we could never get in any other way. I was ordained immensely knowledgeable in Jewish history and thought.

More significant, however, is something else that I learned from these two teachers – and from others too, whom I have not mentioned: what we nowadays call “formation.” All the history and theology – and even the text skills that I did not learn until later – are beside the point if they are not guided by “formation.”

Formation is a combination of character, vision, depth and commitment. It is the seminary equivalent to what Bill George, the noted Harvard Business School professor from 2004 to 2014, called our “true north.”

“True North” he writes, “is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track …. It is derived from your most deeply held beliefs, your values…. It is your internal compass, unique to you, that represents who you are at your deepest level.”

Formation is the way seminary education helps us locate our “true north.” It is the internalization of a deep and lasting sense of “mission”: not the details of “what we do” (teaching, counseling, preaching, etc.) but the big picture of “what we are doing in the first place” and “why it matters that we do it.” It confirms our linkage to something necessary and profound. Once internalized, it fortifies us for life.

Given Judaism’s traditional preference for facing East (as if Jerusalem, Jewish history, and even God, inhabit some metaphysical east, no matter where on the globe we actually live), we might call it our “True East.” 

Formation of the Jewish True East happens around the edges: not just in formal lectures, but in hallway conversations, in communal prayer, and in meetings (planned or unplanned) with professors. It comes from observing the commitment and calling of our teachers, seeing in them the character and passion that we then emulate. 

Looking back, I see more clearly what I attained from my student years at HUC, certainly from Rabbis Borowitz and Cohen, but also from others: my exceptional thesis advisor, Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, and even some of the professors whose absence of pedagogical skills I have lamented. HUC cemented within me the foundation for my true-east formation: honesty and compassion, faith and fortitude, empathy and truth; love of Jewish learning and of Jewish peoplehood; respect for other paths to God (not just the Jewish way); a certain selflessness in pursuit of the common good; and the certainty that Judaism has a mission in the world – that the world would be impoverished were Jews not in it to make it matter.  

These remain today. At moments of vocational confusion, doubt, or despair, these have rescued me. 

Two particular components of this True East need special mention, because I consider them critical, and they are under attack.

First is my commitment to the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment, the faithful pursuit of goodness, nobility, progress, beauty and truth. As much as we immersed ourselves in Jewish classics, we had teachers who were equally at home in what 19th-century critic Matthew Arnold called “the study of [human] perfection…. the best that has been thought and said.” My Talmud teacher, Dr. Atlas, was also a formidable interpreter of Kant. Dr. Henry Slonimsky – a magisterial classroom presence, if ever there was one — taught an elective in Nietzsche, to help us confront the scourge of nihilism. Dr. Fritz Bamberger taught 19th-century idealist philosophy as the intellectual milieu in which Reform Judaism had emerged. To be sure, we now expand the Enlightenment “canon” to include women and cultures whom Matthew Arnold did not recognize, but the goal has not changed. I was formed to see Judaism working hand in hand with the richness of the human spirit. That intellectual, ethical, artistic and spiritual partnership remains part of my True East, and I am richer for it.

Second was my teachers’ commitment to Reform Judaism as that form of Judaism that has historically, and most clearly, articulated the Jewish partnership with universal wisdom. To be sure, especially in New York (where our founder, Stephen S. Wise, had instilled the love for Clal Yisrael), we valued modern Judaism of all stamps: the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements too, of course, but secular Zionism also. 

I saw my place, however, as a proud interpreter of Reform. The Second Temple’s fall had not doomed us to exile; it had raised the curtain on a world stage where we could pursue a role that was the whole point of Judaism, its unique contribution to human betterment. Ethics mattered most; I could not escape my conscience. Reform had worked in the trenches (so to speak) of modern life: it was the first to embrace the need for change, sometimes radical change: worship reform; authentic but non-halachic Judaism; full inclusion of women and then LGBTQ+ identities; expanding our musical canon; inventing the modern cantorate as clergy partners with rabbis; insisting on an American religious presence in Jerusalem. 

The record is not all successes; we have had our failures as well; and the details of Reform as we understood it would change with time, but that we had a historical mission and a historic role in history I have never doubted. I have regularly seen myself standing on the frontiers of history, developing Judaism for every new tomorrow, but always in line with my Jewish wisdom and conscience wed to universalist values, and motivated by the divine purpose of human endeavor in the first place.

In this era of radical choice, we need strong Jewish addresses all along the Jewish spectrum – who knows where seekers of Jewish wisdom will find their home? But no single person can live everywhere; so we must each take our own personal stand somewhere on that spectrum. I study with, work with, and value equally all who labor for their own responsible Jewish address, whatever that address may be. I need them, and they need me; we need one another; it is my job to offer the best Jewish depth and insight that my Jewish address allows me to see. If I fail in that, I let everyone down. If I succeed, I become a partner with Jewish teachers everywhere, all of us striving for our elusive, but real, true east.