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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

None of that is true. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is Chicken Little.

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

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

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

Here’s my rabbinic job-description:

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

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

And in the meantime, the sky is not falling.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Judaism have a position in this debate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Open Letter to My Students 32: A Cautionary Passover Message – The Dreyfus Case and Us

[Yes, #32. I went through the old letters and discovered no end of faulty numbering. This is legitimately #32]

Passover starts tomorrow night, but instead of preparing for it, I am writing this letter. I cannot help it, because ever since the week began, I’ve been obsessed with a remarkable coincidence. Pesach always falls on Nisan 15, but starting the night before, which is April 15 as well. No big deal, that. But on Nisan 10, the Israelites slaughtered the paschal lamb to ensure that the angel of death “passed over” their homes; and this year, the eve of Nisan 10 fell on April 10, which is the day (in 1894) when Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish Captain in the French army, was found guilty of treason and banished to Devil’s Island.

The twists and turns of the Dreyfus Affair are well known – they read more like fiction than history – but it is worth recalling some of them as a precautionary Passover message this year. 

Devil’s Island is a jungle off the coast of French Guiana, where inmates were subjected to hard labor, a tropical climate, and filthy conditions that would probably kill them. The mortality rate reached 75%. Even the authorities who accused Dreyfus knew that he was innocent. But he was Jewish, a convenient scapegoat. 

He was eventually released but until then, France was polarized into warring factions that attracted observers from all over Europe: most notably, Theodor Herzl, who was so shaken by the anti-Semitic protests in the streets that he returned to his native Vienna intent on founding a Jewish state where Jews would always find a safe harbor. 

One obvious lesson for this Passover is the one that Herzl drew: even in Republican France, the land of “Liberty, Equality Fraternity,” Jews are never completely safe. That is also a lesson of the Passover Haggadah, where we read that “in every generation” our enemies “arise against us to make an end of us.” 

That lesson was added to the Haggadah somewhere in the Middle Ages by Jews who were so convinced of its validity that they inserted it into the original Seder account in the Mishnah (c. 200) as if our ancestors had put it there from the very beginning. It is not the lesson I choose to emphasize when I sit down to our Passover table, but I would be an idiot to ignore it. Take just one image that is not easily forgotten: the torchlight parade in Charlottesville and its chant, “The Jews will not replace us.” Still, my seder table seeks a broader vision of tomorrow, a hopeful one, even if also a cautionary one, and toward that end, I return to the Dreyfus Case for a more nuanced lesson of the Haggadah’s warning. 

The background to the Dreyfus case is the Franco-Prussian war, when Germany routed French forces, overran Paris itself, and ended the brief emperorship of Napoleon III. For two months a populist Paris Commune called for a socialist redistribution of wealth and an end to the domination of the retrogressive Catholic Church. Its excesses brought about its own demise, but the era that succeeded it (the Third Republic) continued to give Jews equality — hence Dreyfus, himself, becoming a captain, but also, a symbol of the new era where the ideals of the Enlightenment and science replaced the traditional order where old wealth, upper class, and the church establishment dictated privilege. Dreyfus had the misfortune of being a lightning rod for the old guard seeking to reinstate an actual monarchy, aided and abetted by the equally old-guard church which bemoaned its loss of power.

All of which returns us to Charlottesville and our current state of discontent. Here too, radical conservative voices want to return us to yesterday when America was great – Make America Great Again. Not incidentally, they also deny the validity of science and of basic civil liberties. Fueling that discontent is once again a religious voice, not the Catholic Church this time – we are not 19th-century France – but a collection of evangelical white supremacists who want to overturn the liberal freedoms that Americans enjoy. I do not fault all evangelicals, many of whom I know and admire. Nor do I dismiss all conservatives: I believe we benefit from thoughtfulness all along the political spectrum; and liberals too can be stridently radical. But the Dreyfus case teaches me that militant conservative religion paired with aggrieved conservative warnings about our heritage going off the rails is likely to end up implicating Jews as some imagined secret power behind the cabal: Jews today risk being cast again as so many Captain Dreyfuses. 

It is not just Charlottesville. It is also the reiterated white supremacists and their myth of “the Great Replacement”; the QAnon supporters in congress; the outright war on hard-won civic liberties that Jews have supported overwhelmingly (same-sex marriage, for example); the big lies that right-wing media are mainstreaming (that the January 6 insurrection was just a peaceful demonstration); and more. In addition, we have a kind of reactive fundamentalism on the other side, which only exacerbates the country’s moral cleavage and drives us farther into the hands of totalitarian demagoguery. At the rate we are going, the future is bleak. 

But I am not a fatalist. The Haggadah’s warning takes hatred of Jews as just a given, whereas we know now that history’s givens can also be given back; not everything that history offers need be accepted. We know now, also, that Jews are not the only victims of right-wing religious revivalism, which will initially target women who rightly need an abortion, same-sex couples, immigrants, and anyone who is not white, most especially anyone who is obviously black. 

Now that we have a Jewish state, it turns out that Jews too can be the problem. In Israel, as well, right-wing religion allied to power is a scourge. Revanchist Catholics in France; militant white Protestantism in America; ultra-Orthodox fanatics in Israel: they all advocate a regime of religious fundamentalism, at the expense of personal freedom.

The problem is endemic to modern democracies, which arose in place of monarchies allied to state religions; and took pains, therefore, to prevent the return of both. Liberal religion, which accepts separation of church and state as a positive good, is content to operate by moral suasion. Conservative religion, which never accepted separation of church and state in the first place, and which feels wrongfully disempowered as a result, allies with demagogues who will reinstitute religious control of ordinary people’s lives. With Rabbi Gilad Kariv’s election to the Knesset, Israeli Reform Judaism has entered the power game. Whether American liberal religion can succeed at that is questionable, and I am not sure I even advocate it. 

But moral suasion can itself be leveraged, and the current moment demands that we leverage it with every ounce of our being. Religion itself is not the enemy; reactionary fundamentalism in league with revanchist nostalgia is. And illiberal liberalism doesn’t help us any.

This Passover, we should recognize the need for our own religious alternative to have a say; we can no longer abandon the public square to the other side. We should commit as well to financing organizations that do the political influencing that we cannot manage, individually. And we should double down in support of congressional candidates who will fight for us. The alternative, waiting in the wings, is a twenty-first century theocracy, with Dreyfus-like victims – Jews and non-Jews — and with enclaves of suffering all over America that look increasingly like Devil’s Island revisited. 

Open Letter to My Students 27: More on Sin — Not Original But Primal

I am intrigued by the number of people who have commented on my use of the word “sin.” My friend and colleague, Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman is particularly eloquent, when she recalls:

“I, and I’m sure so many of our colleagues, have worked so hard over the years to explain to our people (and especially our kids) that for Jews, ‘sin’ is not an inherent state of being, but rather a ‘missing of the mark,’ what we do, not what we are. But as we all know, there have been individuals in human history who can only be characterized …by the most primitive impulses within them – raw, horrifying evil. I am viscerally uncomfortable even using that vocabulary, because it smacks of fundamentalist preachers, and hellfire and brimstone.”

Rabbi Goodman speaks for many; I too was taught that for Jews, sin is “missing the mark” — a claim that relies on such biblical passages as Judges 20:16, where we read about a Benjaminite army with 700 people who “could sling a stone at a hair and not miss the mark” (chata, the Hebrew for “miss the mark,” is related to chet, the word for “sin,” as well). 

To conclude, however, that Judaism (!) identifies sin merely as “missing the mark” is just plain wrong. To start with, the Bible has other terms for “sin” that don’t mean that at all. And as Marc Brettler points out (“Sin Sanction and Confession in the Bible,” in my book, We Have Sinned, Jewish Lights, p. 32) any given biblical word for “sin” may indeed have its own metaphorical resonance, “but once the words are formed, they take on their own meanings not necessarily related to their metaphoric origins.” It is a mistake – the etymological fallacy, as it is known – to think we know what a word means just because we know what some version of it meant originally. Finally, Jews today are by no means biblical anyway.

Why then, were so many of us taught that in Judaism, sin is “missing the mark.” 

In part, the answer is the generation of professors who set the Jewish academic agenda for the latter half of the 20th century. They had reached maturity in the 1930s and ‘40s when church-sponsored anti-Semitism was very real, and when the love of Jesus was regularly contrasted with the “Pharisaic legalism” of  the Jews. As late as the 1950s, my high-school introduction to Shakespeare was TheMerchant of Venice, and his punitive pound of flesh. Rabbinic-school teachers were quick to counter these insidious lessons of our culture by pointing out ways in which Christianity was harsher than Judaism. 

The sensitivities of these professors had been heightened by their experience in academia. Departments of Jewish Studies are ubiquitous today, but until the 1960s and ’70s, they were few and far between. University courses in Judaica were usually limited to the Hebrew and history of the “Old Testament.” These were embedded in departments of Near Eastern Studies, whose faculty saw Judaism through a Protestant lens religiously and an Arabist lens politically. 

In addition, until the post-war years, the great universities had acknowledged Jewish quotas. In 1939, when literary critic Lionel Trilling received tenure at Columbia, the department head announced, “We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Trilling.” The great Marshal Sklare, who founded American Jewish sociology, received his doctorate in 1953, but then worked for the American Jewish Committee because universities did not consider the sociological study of Jews a legitimate academic field. Our professors grew up in that era. It left its mark. 

It is wrong to imagine either Judaism or Christianity as preaching any single and unnuanced doctrine of sin, but still, overall, sin is far more central to Christianity than to Judaism, especially here in America, where strict Reformed theology was so formative. Think of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) preaching sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and hammering home the message of human beings born into “depravity,” our very “carnal nature” being “the foundation for the torments of hell.” Our teachers seized on that sort of Christianity as a far cry from whatever Jews have to say about sin. 

But more was involved as well: the American embrace of psychology in post-war America – not the Freudian kind that would have had no trouble recognizing evil as deeply embedded within the human psyche, but a more domesticated variety, like Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946) – a runaway New York Times best-seller that was read by everyone — and Abraham Maslow’s Humanist Psychology of the 1950s. Both Liebman and Maslow were Jewish, as were many others teaching liberal views of human nature at the time. It was a very simple step to combine the orthodox Freudian view of human nature (against which they were in revolt) with the Christian doctrine of depraved humanity; and to oppose both. 

On a TV program introducing the High Holy Days in the 1970s, a prominent psychiatrist of the time, with whom I was in dialogue, urged me to give up the word “sin” on the grounds that it smacked of religious fundamentalism. Our teachers were doing just that: effectively eliminating sin from our theological vocabulary by demoting it to a human error in judgement, an attempt to do better, but missing the mark. Here was a view that was compatible with humanistic psychology, while also a demonstration (contrary to Christian claims of the time) that the “Old Testament” Jewish understanding of sin was more enlightened than the “New Testament” Christian one

I told the psychiatrist then, and believe even more strongly today, that regardless of the psychological explanations for human evil, we still need a word to underscore the specially repugnant nature of at least the most hideous of those acts, and I think the time-honored word “sin” does just that.

I do think we need to differentiate Jewish and Christian views on the subject. Jews never accepted the classical Christian view of sin as “original,” a term derived from Augustine of Hippo, 354-430, but rooted in the teachings of Paul himself (Romans 5:12-21), who saw it going back to Adam and Eve. 

But even if sin is not “original” it can still be “primal”; not a permanent part of our DNA, that is, but a primal mode of behavior to which some people, some of the time, actually do sink. Putin’s brutal and wholesale murdering of civilians is no mere missing the mark; it is a sin.

Open Letter to My Students 26: A Religious Response to War

With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I am newly obsessed with war. War is like chess, I once thought, but a better analogy would be chess with neither board nor rules; not just pieces captured but their human players maimed and killed, with collateral damage along the way: “White (Player A) takes Black (Player B’s) bishop, and bombs Player B’s home; Black (Player B) threatens White (Player A’s) queen, and slaughters Player A’s family. Chess is a game; war is not. 

Experts have their own explanations. Former diplomats supply the geopolitical logic; retired generals map military tactics; pithy columnists give it their own spin. I find myself devouring it all, hoping that someone will make sense of it. 

I have learned a lot. Putin is either rational or mad. A thermobaric (or vacuum) bomb is a clever device that uses not just one but two detonations, so as to maximize the blast-wave to the point where it can even vaporize human bodies. The little arrows showing Russian incursions into Ukraine are called salients. I can pronounce Kharkiv and spell Kyiv. How does any of that help me? 

What, I wonder, would a religious response look like. I do not mean the anodyne sort that declares war evil, life sacred, and peace desirable; nor platitudinous prayers for the victims (which won’t help) or for Putin to discover a conscience (which won’t happen); and not a facile treatise on the ethics of war from sacred sources, as if ethics and war are words that somehow go together.  

A serious religious response would have to admit the existence of sin. Liberals abandoned the word “sin,” as an outmoded throwback to religious fundamentalism. And they were wrong. Surely we need some word for a Hitler, a Stalin, and now, a Putin; for the mobile killing units (the Einsatzgruppen), who followed Nazi troops into Eastern Europe to massacre helpless civilians, mostly Jews, but others also, the Roma, for example; and the people who tortured and lynched so many black men and women, sometimes selling sordid picture postcards of the event as souvenirs: “Wish you were here!” 

Sin, an “outmoded throwback”? Hardly. 

I remain a philosophical liberal in other ways, however (some would say, against all odds). After all, the wars that we thought were over have returned. So too has nationalist and religious tribalism: white supremacy, here; anti-Semitism, everywhere; and creeping global totalitarianism. But I persist as a card-carrying believer in long-term human progress, most recently evident in global connectedness; a worldwide web of commerce and communication; and international collaboration in science, medicine, and art. 

I call it liberal, but classic 19th-century liberalism was more like contemporary republicanism, and in that sense, the dream is not at all a political-party matter. It arose with modernity; celebrated reason; drew hope from science; opposed slavery; applauded a free- market economy, and staked the future on personal freedom. I’m not blind to the shortfalls of the dream’s realization in practice — it has taken a couple of centuries to care a whole lot about anyone other than white, mostly Protestant, landowning men – but that’s the thing about a dream: it is precisely about the future and the faith we ought to have in it. I have conceded the reality of sin. What I will not concede is the futility of the liberal dream. 

Despite what it seems, there is no evidence whatever that the evils of our time, capped off so horridly by Putin, are predictors of what we can expect in fifty years, or a hundred, much less a thousand. When terrible events make us doubt the plausibility of a rosy human future, but when, as well, we recognize that those events, however vile, cannot predict the long term,  we ought, as a matter of strategy, to believe in a better human future anyway. For that choice, religion provides another word that liberals mistakenly gave up and shouldn’t have, “faith”: not defiant faith in the face of reason, but reasonable faith in the face of disappointment. And only in the long run. In Judaism it is forbidden to rush the messiah. 

I sometimes think that the more we increase our life span, the more we decrease our imaginative capacity to see beyond it. The life expectancy for someone born in 1893, the year of Chicago’s world fair, was 48.5 years. Eric Larson, the fair’s historian (The White City), recalls how the fair’s planners had decided to hire Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York’s Central Park, to plan its gardens. “I’ll be going to New York in a few months,” someone volunteered, “I’ll talk to him about it.” What? A few months to pose the question; and a few months more before returning to share the answer? Compare that to an Apple smartwatch buzzing with an instant txt and an answer due now. No wonder we cannot imagine the long run. 

We are not the first generation tempted to give up hope. A particularly poignant passage in the Talmud (Sotah 49a) pictures a world where “One day’s curse is worse than the next. Each morning people pray for evening to arrive; each evening, they pray for morning to come.” How can such a world continue? On what does such a world depend? The Talmud cites two prayers as the answer: one that begins, “A redeemer shall come to Zion” – part of a long-term prophecy by Isaiah; the other, the Kaddish, with its affirmation, “God’s kingdom will dawn” (v’yamlikh malkhuteih) – akin, not by chance, to the Christian Lord’s Prayer, from the same era, promising “Thy Kingdom come.” Not now, of course, but someday: in Christian language, the eschaton (“the last, or final, things”), equivalent to the Jewish “end of days.” “May it come,” Jews have prayed, “speedily and in our time,” but they never really believed it would arrive so soon. Misplaced hope in immediacy only spawned false prophets and dashed expectations. So they settled for “in the end,” the secular version of which is the evolution of human history, and the liberal dream that we are on our way, and part of something much larger than ourselves.  

I know nothing about war. I don’t even play chess. I cannot save Ukraine. I send money for relief; I retain my moral outrage; I rally others to do the same – I do, that is, what little I can, remembering that all the people through history about whom I like telling stories did the same. 

The story is told of a stonemason in a medieval town, who is asked on his death bed what he has accomplished in his life. “See that?” he exclaims, looking at a half-built cathedral in the distance, “I built the base of that large window over the arch that my father finished building, the same arch that his grandfather began; my children will finish my window; and their children will begin a new one above that.”

I too am building a tiny part of a window above an arch that my parents and their parents constructed: a window through which I can see both past and future. Looking back into the past, I see how incomparably better off we actually are than, say, the Roman empire’s gladiator games to the death; the Spanish Inquisition’s incinerating live heretics at the stake; and the public dismembering of political enemies, after torturing them on a rack in the Tower of London. These atrocities and the like occurred every day for centuries, with no widespread moral outrage at all. At least today, such horrors take place with much less frequency; when they do, we are surprised; and moral outrage is increasingly universal. 

When I look through the window in the other direction, so as to see the future, I cannot make out as much detail. But I stake my faith on the far-off distance when all the good we have been constructing over time will add up: but only someday.  

Open Letter To My Students 25: Home Sweet Home

When the going gets tough, who doesn’t yearn for the comfort of home? Well, a lot of people, actually, for whom “home” was not so wonderful; but the image of a home worth returning to may be the most powerful image ever devised. “Homefree” in tag; “stealing home” in baseball. Home is “Father, Mother, safety, hugs, and hot milk,” says novelist John Braine (Room at the Top). Elvis Presley sang “Home is where the heart is” a line first coined in 1829, or maybe even (some people insist, without evidence) 1st-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. “Home sweet home” goes back to a British cleric, Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699), who meant it, however, as the place we go to when we die; it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that transformed it into as a slice of perfection here on earth, albeit a Protestant slice: “a belief in God and trust in Providence” that “encircles the heart as with a golden cloud of protection and confidence.” The Jewish version is chadesh yameinu k’kedem, “Renew our days as of old,” from Lamentations, and then, a concluding line to the synagogue ritual of returning the Torah to the ark.

Who wouldn’t want to go back to that kind of home again! How awful of Thomas Wolfe to name a book You Can’t go Home Again, especially when you want it most, when you “come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else.”

This is the sort of thing I have been pondering as I consider my wife Gayle’s death exactly 6 months ago today. You may recall my writing then of the difficulty rowing home from the State of Grief and finding landing in the State of Wellbeing, albeit not exactly at the spot where I had left. But I am feeling more “at home” finally. I have indeed returnedhome, I now know, but paradoxically, Wolfe was right as well. Having “come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else,” I can’t altogether go home again, and much as I can “renew my days,” I cannot do so “as before.”

I am still surrounded by residues of that “before,” the leftovers of a life unraveling and the traces of dying: the vials of pills; the piles of adult diapers that Gayle resisted until the end; the buckets and the mouth swabs. What I could, I gave away or recycled; the rest, I threw out. 

Anthropologist Mary Douglas would have called it all “dirt.” What counts as dirt, she pointed out, varies from culture to culture. But everywhere, dirt is “matter out of place.” We either find it a place (so it is no longer dirt) or we get rid of it — or even hide it at the back of a closet (like sweeping it under the carpet) — so our place is “clean.”

But mostly what Gayle left behind are the traces of a life once lived, a sort of upscale “dirt,” in that with Gayle gone, there is no rightful place for it all: her clothes, in general; the hats she loved to wear; the books she read or never finished; the pretty tea cups that she loved; even her car that she kept in tiptop shape and watched over like a hawk.

There are also all those gizmos, doodads, tchatchkes, and whatchamacallits to which we become attached or that attach themselves to us, in the ordinary course of a lifetime, especially if we have enough means to buy or to be given stuff we don’t really need in the first place. To prevent it all becoming ordinary dirt (matter out of place) that must be thrown out, we give it a place (the garage, attic, or basement). The best of the stuff gets labeled “family heirlooms” (great-great grandpa’s medal from World War I), “antiques” (some Vintage Old-Lock Bronze Steampunk Skeleton Keys), or even “art” (grandma’s cross-stitched tablecloth) — in which case, it gets a place where everyone can still see it. 

We all die eventually, leaving traces of our life behind. Someone will surely want this, we say: my daughter, my son, my someone, will want Aunt Yetta’s brooch, the antique vase on the table, the leather-bound works of William Shakespeare. But the thing is, nobody does want most of it. Our heirs trundle off with what appeals to them or what they haven’t the heart to trash. But they throw a lot away and bundle the rest for Goodwill. 


What is left of us, I wonder, when we die, when all the things that symbolized who we were belong to someone else, or even to no one at all? That was the question of Ecclesiastes, who ups the ante to include accomplishments as well: not just the books we owned but the books we wrote; even, maybe, the families we raised – they too will grow up and old and be gone. If we’re not Plato or Einstein, William Shakespeare or Jane Austen, how long will any of us be remembered? I don’t mean as an alphabetized name on a memorial list, mechanically intoned and possibly mispronounced with no one knowing it. I mean really remembered. Everything disappears eventually, doesn’t it? 

I have come to believe that we do get to go back home again: to the “home sweet home” of Joseph Beaumont, actually; or, in Jewish tradition, the bet almin (eternal home) or bet olam [haba] (“home of the world to come”), as we call our final resting place, not just of a perishable body, but an imperishable soul. Yes, “soul,” an entity that is indefinable because it isn’t really an “entity”; it’s a word that we use by default, to affirm a certain “moreness” to life — more, that is, than just its physicality. It is a verbal “placeholder” for a concept that no other word seems up to the task of describing. Religion specializes in these placeholders – “God” being the most important. We do not know exactly what God is, but we do not on that account give up the word, because it too points us toward the moreness that we intuit beyond the merely material — a pointer toward ultimacy. 

We are well familiar with the metaphor of “footprint.” Some people leave a heavy footprint in their wake; others do not. Our carbon footprint will impact the planet for centuries. I think there is also a “soulprint” of what the soul bequeathes to future generations. There are old souls, known for their wisdom; evil souls too, alas, who spew hatred and violence; but loving, kind and helpful souls as well, whose soulprint of goodness lasts far beyond the death of the person whose soul it was. The soulprint of the good only grows in luster. The material traces of our lives are quickly forgotten: but not the quality of our soulprint, the deep and impactful way that we were in the world.

So, here I am, back home, six months after. The collected traces of the life Gayle lived will be given away, claimed by others, or remain resident on my shelves as tangible reminders of her. But it is the intangible that sustains me: her soulprint that is everywhere. As the days go by, I sometimes feel alone and saddled with the solitary task of having to break new ground; but equally, sometimes, my soul meets hers as I slip softly into the soulprint that she left behind for me. 

Open Letter to My Students 24: F for “Freud,” R for “Religion”

I discovered Freud and Peyton Place at about the same time. Peyton Place was a runaway best-seller because it was the first sexually explicit novel that featured teenagers like me. Libraries wouldn’t carry it and by the time I heard about it, censors had banned it, so my friends and I shared a single contraband copy that someone had smuggled into class. It was 1957, and I was 15. Need I say more?  

Freud was not as juicy, but at least he wasn’t banned, and he explained so much about the world – not just our own sexual awakening but the foibles of the adults against whom we were in temporary rebellion anyway. I read one book after another. Eventually, however, I encountered his claim that as a boy, I suffered from an Oedipal Complex that originated in prehistoric primal herds where sons rivalled their father for the sexual favor of their mother. That was too much for me. I filed my Freud books under “F” for “Fiction.” 

Years later, as a rabbi, I came to see that even when geniuses are wrong, they can be wrong profoundly, and in that more appreciative frame of mind, I returned to Freud, this time refiling him under “F” for “Freud.” His claim that religion is an “illusion” (The Future of an Illusion, 1927) gave me pause: was I selling people an illusion? My fears increased when I came to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), where he called religion a “delusion” (Wahn in German), which seemed to me a whole lot worse.

Delusion is altogether negative. Illusion is not. We have delusions, not illusions, of grandeur. You can be deluded, not illuded. “Illusionism” is a label proudly used by historians of western art to describe painting from the Renaissance until modern times – a centuries-long experiment in rendering three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas, by using techniques like foreshortening, light, and shadows to make the painting looks like the real thing. Surrealist Rene Magritte plays with illusion when he paints a perfect pipe but tells us, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” (“This isn’t a pipe”). Expressionist artist, Edvard Munch, paints The Scream to give us the illusion of seeing into the screamer’s tortured soul. 

All of this is illusion, not delusion. Philosophers too use the word “illusion” positively. Knowing that our eyes can fool us (we see tables and chairs, not the atoms that make them up), they label the naive trust in our perceptions as an illusion, but not as something to give up; it works quite well to sit down for breakfast every morning.

So maybe Freud is right: religion is an illusion. The important question is what it is an illusion of, and that is where Freud and I part ways. Freud called religion an illusion because he thought it was infantile projection to help us face life’s inevitable suffering, the accidents of fate over which we have no control; and for some people, it may be that. But artistic illusions provide compelling two-dimensional impressions of what cannot be captured in all their three-dimensional reality. Religion captures spiritual realities the way painting captures three-dimensional ones. They are both illusions, but not the infantile kind.

An incredibly realistic still-life painting looks exactly like the fruit bowl on our kitchen table. Similarly, the impressionists teach us to see how light changes the way an object appears: Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, for example, where, sure enough, were we in France, we could watch the real thing changing with the sunlight. But there is this important difference. Realist painting reproduces an object that we already know. Monet teaches us to see what we otherwise had never noticed. Sometimes illusions are revelatory. Even if they never quite picture what is unpicturable, they reveal reality in ways we never noticed. 

What if religion is that sort of illusion? Not a projection of infantile fear; not even just a spiritual rendering of what we already know; but a revelation of what we otherwise would have missed.

But here’s the rub! If we otherwise would have missed it, how do we know it is real? That is what must have gone through Freud’s head. He relabeled religion the way I relabeled him – but went the other way around. Religion as illusion might still be filed under R for “Religion”; religion as delusion suggests filing under R for “Ridiculous.” How indeed do we go about proving that a purpose to life or a transcendent meaning of any sort, say, are as real as the fruit bowl and the cathedral?

That is where theology comes in. Theology makes statements about God, history, human nature, and the cosmos in a way that asks our assent to what those sentences say. But it always comes after the experiential fact: the moments in life that stop us in our tracks from time to time and challenge us to ponder what they mean. I’ll never know what it is like for my own body to house what will someday be a baby, but it’s hardly something a new mother takes for granted. I do know what it was like to fall in love, and to lose the partner whom I fell in love with. I know also the fear of Covid, and the loneliness of attending weddings and funerals on a zoom screen. These are peak or nadir experiences — highs of amazement and joy or lows of heartache and loss — that evoke thoughtfulness, in, I suspect, pretty much everyone. Theology is a particular kind of after-the-fact thoughtfulness.

Religion is not all that different from art, philosophy and science, in that those who nurture a love for any of these find themselves getting stopped in their tracks more regularly — not just at highs and lows, but at the usual stuff that other people count as ordinary. A gorgeous downy woodpecker visited me the other day; the sun is setting noticeably later now; my parents died at 60, while I am 79 and still going strong. Our solar system is apparently traveling in the middle of a “bubble” of emptiness because 14,000,000 years ago, exploding stars cleared a pathway of stellar dust and gas that is 1,000 light years wide. Some of these things I experience directly; some of them I read or hear about and integrate into who I am.

Religion is its own illusionist attempt to grasp realities that stare me in the face, in a revelatory sort of way.

Open Letter to My Students 23: The Jewish Gold Standard

We all know the word “capital”: a synonym, roughly, for our assets, usually the financial kind, what we calculate to decide our economic worth. But there are many kinds of capital, the way there are many kinds of worth. Social capital, for example, comes from influential social standing; cultural capital depends on whatever a culture values as educational accomplishments, artistic standing, and social class.

So too, there is “Jewish capital,” what we take to be our Jewish “worth.” For some 2,000 years, Jewish capital has been measured by “Talmudism”: knowledge of the Talmud and the literature it has spawned (like commentaries, responsa, and codes); and a halachic lifestyle derived from that literature. More than anything else, these two things, Talmudic knowledge and halachic practice, have functioned over time as the measure of Jewish worth, a determiner of Jewish status and what counts as Jewish authenticity.

The proper economic analogy would be gold: Talmudism is the historical Jewish gold standard. 

Under the gold standard, a country is worth whatever gold it has. Paper money, by itself worthless, accrues value only insofar as the country issuing it can back it up with gold. Alternatively, governments can determine the value of their currency by legal fiat: the British pound, the American dollar, the Japanese yen and so on, now rise or fall relative to one another, without regard to how much gold a country stockpiles. 

Just as most countries today no longer feel obliged to measure their economic wealth by gold, most Jews today need no longer measure their Jewish worth by Talmudism. To be sure, gold is not a bad thing to own, and Talmudism is not a bad thing to master, but knowledge of Talmud and fealty to halachah are not the only ways to measure Jewish worth. 

There were always other forms of Jewish capital: philosophical or kabbalistic expertise in the Middle Ages, for example, but under the prevailing gold standard of Talmudism, these were always secondary to Talmudic/halachic loyalty, without which, regardless of intellectual acumen or personal piety, one was religiously bankrupt. 

All that changed in the 19th century, when an explosion of alternative Jewish capital occurred: academic Jewish scholarship, Zionism, and religious (but not halachic) Judaism. That explosion continues, with creative Jewish ritual for example: feminist rosh chodesh groups and novel life-cycle events, where those creating them do not worry overly much about what — or even whether — Talmudism has anything to say about them.  

When ultra-traditionalists insist that a Jewish state be halachically based, they are arguing, in effect, to retain the Jewish gold standard, without conceding that we are in an age of fiat capital. Governments proclaim their euros or yuan as legal tender, and as long as we agree to honor them, they function as actual wealth. So too with Jewish culture, Judaism as religion, and even Talmudism itself: these are all forms of fiat capital nowadays, for those who decide to honor them.  

But old ideas of capital die hard. Jews who say they are not “religious” (i.e., “they do not use the currency of Talmudism”) may be devotees of other Jewish capital instead. The negative consequence of denying authenticity to them is staggering. No matter how frequently people visit Jewish museums, travel to Israel, read Jewish books, and zoom Jewish programming, they will get the message that they lack “real” Jewish worth.

When the gold standard came under attack in the late nineteenth century, it was the eastern banking establishment with mastery of old-school capital who insisted that gold alone was real wealth. So too, it is the Jewish religious establishment – rabbis and halachah-keepers, by and large – who are most likely to argue that Talmudism is the only real form of Jewish wealth. They have spent lifetimes mastering it, after all. They, as it were, own big chunks of it.  

When I say “they,” I also mean “me,” because I too was raised to value Talmudism as the only real Jewish capital. To be sure, I am Reform, and never was halachic, but for my doctorate, I almost majored in Talmud; I still read it avidly; if I had to choose a single “book” to take with me to a desert island, it would be The Babylonian Talmud. But I have come to admire other forms of Judaism as valid capital too. I am not unique in this realization; this is not news to most of the serious Jews I know. 

But still, I worry: because not just anything goes. The purchase value of fiat currency fluctuates with the underlying health of the economy for which it stands. Take Talmudism itself. Supporting an argument by cherry-picking Talmudic snippets taken out of context doesn’t count for very much. If such “convenience quoting” is Talmudism’s currency, it is debased currency, a kind of Talmudic inflation that drives the worth of talmudism down. So too with other forms of Jewish currency. They too must mirror enough Jewish depth to guarantee their worth. Worship services in Reform synagogues, for example, must be more than rote reading of prayers and a pleasant guitar sing-along.  If services are not just a case of following the Talmudic standard of what has to get done (these prayers, that Torah reading, and so on), then what are they, if not an artistry of their own, which has yet to receive very much attention? 

We Jews have no “Fed” to oversee our fiat currency. We largely still trust rabbis and cantors to do it. But laypeople too bear responsibility for making sure that our offerings do not flood the market with counterfeits. Economies are supply and demand. Let synagogue boards demand only the best, and give their clergy the mandate, budget, and time to produce it. Shallow Judaism may still attract some people, but in the end, counterfeit is counterfeit. Serious people will go elsewhere. And the world will be bereft of a messianic Jewish presence.

This messianic Jewish presence (for lack of a better metaphor) is what ultimately makes Jewish capital more than monopoly money or pokemon finds. In one way or another, Judaism has always promised a transcendent purpose for human life, and dispatched Jews into the world to fulfil it. In the gold standard of Talmudism, mastering Talmud pages and mitzvot are the means to bring the messiah. Every alternative Jewish capital — religious reform, Zionism, even Jewish socialism — substituted its own preferred currency, but remained true to Judaism’s messianic purpose. In their own way, Ahad Ha’am’s Jewish state and Reform Judaism’s “Mission of Israel” are equally redemptive. Their forms of capital were new, but the final resolve was not. Authentic Jewish capital provides the currency for the Jewish People to address the human condition and attain a better world.