Cracow, Auschwitz, and Egypt: Lest Memory Fail

Cracow is a city where Jewish grandmothers used to sit and drink their “glass of tea.” When I visited Cracow’s Jewish quarter, twenty-five years ago, the only Jews drinking tea were visitors like me “coming home” to sip the taste of life as our grandmothers had described it. When I visited again last year, the quarter was rebuilt and reenergized: instead of grandmothers in kitchens drinking tea, young people on street corners ordering lattes.

Twenty-five years ago, the ghostly remains of Cracow synagogues silhouetted huddles of elderly men — memory brokers selling painful recollections to pilgrims like me. They are gone today, as are their first-hand memories of the way it really was. This time round, my bright and bouncy guide duly walked me past the corner where Jews were rounded up for deportation, but all she had was distant history: what researchers  uncovered and then wrote down for her to read and then tell me. How easily memory fossilizes into history.

We need real memory, this week’s Torah portion insists, for the Haggadah’s “four sons” who ask “why?” – not just of Egypt but of Cracow too: as it says, “When your children ask you, tell them….”

Tell them what? How God took us out of Egypt? No problem. But also, “What happened to the Jewish grandmothers who once smiled over glasses of Cracow tea?” What do you tell them when memory becomes history and history is just not good enough?

For a while, memorials keep memories fresh: as at Auschwitz.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first walked the rusting Auschwitz railroad tracks that once brought cattle cars of Jews to die, I felt it in my bones. It was winter, very cold, with darkening skies scowling down on the barren grounds; and I, the only visitor on that late December afternoon. The chill was everywhere, as was the horror of the place as if it were still up and running and smoking with the stench of Jewish bodies.

This time round, Auschwitz the memorial had become Auschwitz the museum, but not a good one. It was more like a theme park, where visitors are herded through with earphones tuned to robotic explanations intoned by guides whom they can barely see. The young man behind me shuffled past the glass-encased exhibits of suitcases, shoes, and hair — drinking a Coke. Did he even vaguely comprehend the final ignominy? All that’s left of all those Jews, under glass!

What happens when guides know only the history they studied in “guide” school; and memorials become semi-autonomous guided tours?

I now appreciate the Torah’s admonition that we set aside as sacred a day of memory (Ex. 12:14) and a night of watching (12:42), to recollect what we can for our “four sons” – as if we really had been there.

To foolish children, we can do no more than summarize our story in a single simple line, and hope for the best.

Worse are evil children who think Hitler happened to someone else. Auschwitz is just one more museum, like the one downtown with old Greek sculpture. Cracow is just one more city with bars and night life.

The wise, thank God, insist on knowing it all, getting it straight, and maybe (with effort) dredging up some distant memory and making it their own.

But I like best the child who “knows not what to ask.” I have come to admire that child as no simpleton at all, for what can you ask, if you begin to grasp what Auschwitz really was? And how can we respond, except to do the impossible: to convey the Auschwitz story as if we still remember it, the way we remember the Exodus, as if we ourselves had been there?

The seder is not just fun and food. It is for children to know that in Egypt, Jews went free; and in Auschwitz they did not. And then to move on, but with a memory in mind not a Coca Cola in hand.



The Jacob-Joseph Generation

[I didn’t get this posted on time; but here it is, just a bit late]

Repeatedly, the Torah highlights toldot, “generations.” Only three weeks ago, our sedra went by that name, and now we see it again. The Joseph story begins by announcing, “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph was 17 years old.” The introduction of Joseph is apt, but why include Jacob’s toldot?

Ibn Ezra translates toldot as “events,” not “generations,” as if to say, “So far we have chronicled the events of Jacob’s life. Now we get the events that Joseph had to face.” The “generation” we are in, apparently, is not so much about our age, as it is about the events that make us who we are.

But still, “These are the generations of Jacob” should have been placed two chapters back, where those generations are actually listed. The appearance of the sentence here remains a puzzle.

M’nachem Mendel of Rimenov explains it by reading Jacob-Joseph as a single hyphenated name. “We cannot be satisfied” he says,” with what we have done in the past. We must ever strive for more.” Jacob, that is, must become Joseph.

We can go even further. If we put a period after “Joseph,” the cryptic line can mean, “These are generations: Jacob-Joseph!” – as if two generations become linked as one: the generation of Jacob’s youth, now past; and the generation of his old age, the generation of Joseph, which Jacob chooses to join.

Whatever our age, we can elect to leave one generation and join another just by addressing the problems of today rather than those of yesterday. The alternative is to watch history happen from the sidelines while living less and less comfortably in the irrelevant past. We can live off our memories and remain just Jacob; or we can be part of the future as Jacob-Joseph.

Over the years, we have known many generational challenges, each one requiring the elders of the past to face a novel future.

The first Jews to arrive here had to prove they belonged. Governor Peter Stuyvesant tried to keep the first Sefardi settlers out of New York (New Amsterdam, then); during the civil war, General Grant tried to ban German Jewish traders from the front, because he suspected their loyalty.

We prevailed and became part of America, but had little time to enjoy the privilege, before Jews from eastern Europe began flooding our cities, requiring Jews already here to see to their care. And those Jews had barely settled in when Hitler arrived with World War II and the Holocaust, bringing the altogether new challenge of guaranteeing Jewish survival after losing 6,000,000. We established a Jewish State; saw it through the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars; built up UJA; saved Soviet “Refuseniks”; and invested in Jewish education, lest Jewish ignorance give Hitler a posthumous victory.

But that’s all history: all just Jacob. The next generation is asking a question that can sound like heresy to its elders. Why be Jewish altogether? Why does Judaism matter in the first place? That’s the voice of the new generation: the voice of Joseph.

If you’re Jacob, you either hunker down in nostalgia for yesterday, while berating Joseph for not caring; or you join Joseph in search of an answer – you become Jacob-Joseph.

If you choose the latter, then you ask, with Joseph, “Why be Jewish?” Is Judaism merely “tribal” or can it speak to the human condition in general and the current moment in particular? Can it offer spiritual and moral sustenance in an era that seems increasingly to lack both?

Can Judaism provide hope for aging baby-boomers who struggle with mortality? Guidance for college graduates who lack direction? Passion for millennials who find established Jewish life sterile? A Jewish state that speaks meaningfully to a generation for whom Zionism is ancient history?

Once just Jacob, meeting challenges of the past, we are charged now to be Jacob-Joseph, to join the new generation and remake Judaism all over again: as a compelling moral and spiritual legacy for our time.



“Careers” or What’s Worth Living For

Way back in 1955, for just $2.97, you could purchase Careers, a game like Monopoly, but instead of buying up real estate, players designed a personalized formula for career satisfaction, and moved around the board collecting points toward achieving it. Their formula could be any combination they wished of “money fame and happiness.”

Not surprisingly, Judaism has its own triads to conjure with: “The world stands on Torah, worship, and good deeds”; or (alternatively) “on truth, justice, and peace” (Avot  1:2, 1:18). These, however, dictate what we contribute to the world, not what we receive back from it. Does Judaism provide a recipe for personal satisfaction, the way Careers  does?

The Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev provides exactly that, by applying kabbalah to Abraham, the first of the three biblical patriarchs, who is charged, Lekh l’kha, “Go out”  into the world to work. He identifies Abraham with love; Isaac with power; and Jacob with glory. Like the “money, fame, and happiness” of Careers, “love, power, and glory” are Levi Yitzchak’s set of what life offers.

Why, then, he asks, does the Amidah, Judaism’s most important daily prayer, begin by praising “God of Abraham” (love) while omitting “God of Isaac and Jacob” (power and glory)? Because, he replies, power and glory are valuable only when they lead to love.

The least desirable option may be power. It derives from many things — money, social standing, and political intrigue, for example — the attainment of which may entail dealings that are morally repugnant. And once we have the power, we may use it equally despicably. There is nothing inherently wrong with power, however, if it is exercised for human betterment, a value in itself, and the means toward winning the love of those whom that power benefits.

Glory too is well worth having, but not for its own sake. Glory alone is ephemeral. People glorify us with praise and honors when we are at our height, but we inevitably age while others occupy the spotlight. When we die, people need reminding about how famous we once were; we don’t even get to enjoy our own eulogies. Like power, however, glory has the potential to attract love, since the glory we enjoy positions us to influence the course of the world, and to be loved for the good we accomplish.

Both power and glory succeed only if exercised in ways that demonstrate our love for others, and earn the love of others in return. Any way you look at it, says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, success in the end is love: love offered and love received.

Looking back on Careers, I wonder now why players sometimes chose money and fame without happiness. The answer lies in the era itself, the 1950s and ‘60s, the decades after World War II when the booming American economy focused on boys becoming men (not yet girls becoming women), and men (not yet women) achieving money and fame. We now include women also, and seeing how many men of that “men-only” era died “successfully” rich and famous but not happy, we have collapsed “money, fame, and happiness” into “happiness” alone as the sole be-all and end-all.

Find your passion; do what makes you happy. This is today’s mantra for success in our careers.

By contrast, Levi Yitzchak advocates love as the only thing worth having; and his concern is not just the careers we choose but the lives we lead. Also, the love he advocates is more than romantic love that may or may not come our way. He means the love we earn from family, friends, and neighbors – but strangers too, even people far away who benefit unknowingly from what we do and never know our name.

Love, after all, is Abraham, who, God promised, would be a “blessing to all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:2-3). Forget Careers. Practice Lekh l’kha. “Go out” into the world to be a blessing, to love and to be loved. That’s all that matters.

Thinking “Analog”

These middle days of Sukkot are called chol hamo’ed, literally, “the ordinary [part] of the sacred.” We never use the English because without an explanation, it makes no sense.

A better “translation” might be “Not completely sacred, but not completely ordinary either; instead, a mixture of both”: sacred, because these days are part of Sukkot; but ordinary, because only the first and last days of Sukkot week are altogether holy.

All of which raises the problem of how to treat things that are “both/and” rather than “one or the other.”

Take the issue of funerals, for example. Jewish law advocates burial as quickly as possible, lest we have to watch bodily decomposition (common in hot climates during Talmudic times) and look away in disgust (a violation of the Jewish value of respecting the dead). Holidays, however, entail a countervailing obligation to rejoice.  So burials on Sukkot are postponed a day. Immediate relatives will probably be saddened anyway, but Jewish law obligates everyone familiar with the deceased to attend the funeral (again, to respect the dead), and they should not have their joy ruined by a funeral on a holiday.

So far, so good; but chol hamo’ed is partly sacred (funerals are prohibited) and partly ordinary (funerals are required). So on chol hamo’ed, we compromise. We do the funeral to respect the dead; but we shorten the service, to minimize the lessening of holiday joy.

At stake is the larger philosophical question of whether to measure experience digitally or by analog. We prefer digital readouts that measure things with convenient precision. But life is really more like old-time analog devices: mercury thermometers and clocks with sweep hands — sliding from one exact temperature, time and distance to the next one. Digital measurements convert messy analog imprecision into satisfying (but unreal) certainty. As our culture goes increasingly digital, we risk thinking that life is digital too – a set of clear-cut choices between one certainty and another. In truth, however, life is like chol hamo’ed — a messy mixture.

Rabbinic thinking, generally (not just for chol hamo’ed), recognizes this messiness. Talmudic debate often cites contrary opinions, and then applies them both — not universally, but for different circumstances, because “one size” never “fits all.” In matters of unclarity, it asks, b’mai askinan (“What are we dealing with here?”), a request for the conditions where the rule applies. Rules need not hold universally. Rules regularly conflict. Very few answers apply across the board.

Fanaticism is the faulty assumption that the world is “digital” like our readouts, altogether black or white, no complexity allowed. Take criminality: Criminals are criminals, and should be punished; but they may also be first offenders, juveniles, mentally impaired, or Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. Thinking digitally, his single-minded pursuer, Inspector Javert, applies justice absolutely, missing the intricacies of the case. So too in politics: good people who differ on principal ought to see that real life demands sometimes one position, sometimes the other, and oftentimes, mixtures of both.

We even picture God (on these High Holidays just past) as a mixture of justice and mercy, not just one or the other. Beware of extremists who simplify a world as if they know more than God.

The next time you attend an important meeting, watch how people vote. Some of the people sitting around the table will pause reflectively to weigh the issues, and then thoughtfully raise their hand. Others will raise their hand so ferociously that they risk disconnecting their arm from its socket. Here’s a rule of thumb: mental health varies inversely with the ferocity behind the way people throw up their hand to vote.

Life’s serious issues are usually dilemmas: the meeting place of two opposite and potentially valid positions – cases, that is, of chol hamo’ed  messiness: not a misleading digital readout making it one thing or another, but an analog mixture of them both. To be sure, we need to vote our conscience in the end, but, generally speaking, with at least a little humility.



Not Knowledge But Wisdom

We confuse knowledge with wisdom. “Knowledge” derives from demonstrable facts: the facts of science, for example, which no serious and informed person can reasonably reject. We may debate alternative interpretations, but the debate will be demonstrably knowledgeable.

Some knowledge arrives less scientifically: how we know someone loves us, or the way a brilliant portrait catches the essence of its subject. These things too are “knowledge.”

Wisdom is something else altogether. It is insight into living deeply and well. All the knowledge in the world need not add up to wisdom, and wisdom can come from someone with no formal education whatever – “out of the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes (from Psalms 8:2, actually).

Religion converts knowledge into wisdom. A scholar may be exceptionally knowledgeable about the Talmud. The same scholar becomes your rabbi , however, only if that knowledge supplies wisdom also.

The S’lichot  service, this Saturday night, anticipates the High Holidays that begin just a few days later. We label them “high” because of the wisdom, not the knowledge, they provide. Take sermons, for example. Packed only with knowledge, they fail. What we want from sermons is wisdom, that we may live better.

So too, High Holiday prayers offer wisdom, rather than knowledge. Sh’ma koleinu  (“[God], hear our voice”), for example, is a central S’lichot  prayer. The searcher after knowledge questions scientifically if God can really hear, and, if so, how God does the hearing. “Renew our days, as of old,” the prayer continues. The seeker after knowledge is skeptical: Can we really recover the days of our youth?

As knowledge, these prayers fail.  God is not a super-human being with extra-sharp hearing; and the past is really “passed” – it is unrecoverable.

Yet the prayer remains “true” as wisdom. “God,” said theologian Henry Slonimsky (1884-1970), “is the Friend we suppose to exist behind the phenomena.” Behind the phenomena, note! Beyond what science studies. God is, alternatively, a “power making for righteousness,” according to Matthew Arnold, whom Slonimsky liked to cite, and who influenced Mordecai Kaplan to define God as “the power that makes for salvation.”

Wisdom relies on proverb, poetry and metaphor: language that is evocative more than it is descriptive. That God should “hear our voice,” Slonimsky insisted, expresses “the demand of the human heart” that our voices of pain and aspiration deserve being heard.

“How tragically inadequate the response,” he conceded, knowing full well that prayers may not be “answered.” But nonetheless, “we are so convinced of their utter righteousness, we will not take no for an answer.”

Here lies the wisdom of the High Holidays: the insistent cry of the human spirit. We are not so constructed as to be slavishly accepting of anything less than what this spirit instinctively demands: righteousness and justice, truth and goodness; we will fight to the end that these may prevail.

That same human spirit, however, is part and parcel of the universe, part of evolution itself, as if something about the universe is supportive of the spirit’s insistence. That “something” is the “Friend behind the phenomena” in Slonimsky’s words, the “power making for righteousness” for Matthew Arnold: what we normally call God.

The seemingly endless praying on these Days of Awe add up to more than the meaning of any given prayer. The experience as a whole reaffirms not just what God wants from us but what we demand of God: Yes, “righteousness” above all! Yes, “justice” and “truth” too. The human heart is certain of these certainties. It is our very nature to live with purpose derived from the promise that these will triumph.

We acknowledge (“knowledge,” that is) that our trials and tribulations may persist even after the prayers are over. But the wisdom of prayer is no less certain. Our lives are not for naught; we are part of something greater than whatever it is that pains us. We have a voice that demands being “heard”; and yes, we can feel ourselves renewed “as of old.”

Government of Checks and Balances: But With an Interesting Twist!

Americans are not the first to devise a constitution calling for the separation of powers. The Torah too legislated institutionalized checks and balances – but with an “interesting twist.”

In keeping with antiquity, the executive branch was a monarchy, but in Israel’s case, a limited monarchy, a king who was subject to the rule of law, and chosen from among the people (Deut. 17:15)  — lest he rule with no empathy for the ruled. Also, he could not use his position to amass excessive wealth, especially horses – what we would call his own private militia, a natural proclivity of kings, says Ramban. Kings had to maintain their own written reminder of these limitations (17:18-19), which, says the Talmud (San. 21a), they were to carry with them wherever they went.

Ancient Israel had yet to envision a democratically elected legislature, but its priestly class was a legislature of sorts; it could not actually vote in new laws (as we do) because the Torah was assumed to have all the laws the people needed. But priests could “interpret” old laws to get new ones, a practice the Rabbis extended, with their doctrine of an “oral Torah” that supplemented the written one.  Like the king, priests too were hemmed in by limitations: having no landed patrimony of their own, they were supported by, and dependent on, the Temple offerings brought by the people (18:1).

The Torah also demands an independent judiciary with the necessary complement of law-enforcing officials, including police with punitive authority to enforce the law (Rashi, 16:18). Hence this portion’s name (16:18), Shoftim (“Judges”) but, more properly, Shoftim v’shotrim, “Judges and Officials” — what the celebrated TV series called “law and order.”

In matters of punishment, however, the people are to appeal to the “judge,” not the “police” (17:9). The judge decides what the police can do – a principle important enough for the Torah to demand it explicitly in every generation (17:9). Worrying about romantics who might bypass the judiciary of their time as being inferior to the judges of “the good old days,” the Torah expressly empowers judges of every era. “They are all we have,” says Rashi; “We must obey them.”

So there you have it, all in this week’s portion: an executive (a king, but chosen from the people, for the people); a legislature (a priesthood, dependent on support from the people they serve); and a judiciary (with attendant police power, but no independent police force that might abuse its power).

Still, even a good system of checks and balances can break down, so we get this “interesting twist”: a fourth element called “prophets.” All ancient people had prophets, but not like Israel’s, individuals who operated outside the system to bring conscience to bear on everyone else. Institutionalized power abhors conscience, however; it prefers the predictability of routinized bureaucracy. So in time, prophecy came to an end: in the commonwealth established after the return from Babylonian exile, the priests and monarch simply declared prophecy over and done with.

The Rabbis too distrusted individuals claiming direct revelation from God.  But anticipating history’s need for independent conscience, the Rabbis gave us an alternative to prophets: every single citizen, you and me. They then demanded that the citizenry be informed: hence the centrality of study in Jewish culture.

And finally, the Rabbis demanded responsible exercise of that informed conscience by every single person. When the Torah says, “Establish law and order,” it adds “at your gates” and “for yourself  [singular]” (16:18) – leading Sefer Yetsirah to identify “the gates” as the gateways to every person’s senses, our eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The ultimate gatekeepers of justice are informed citizens, who monitor what is said, heard, seen, and even smelled.

The biblical prophets are gone, leaving every single one of us to take their place. Even the best of governments fail if we do not attune our senses to catch the telltale signs of moral rot right in our own back yard.


For the Love of God!

A Protestant pastor remembers preaching a sermon on loving God and being interrupted by a congregant who blurted out, “Love God? Look at the problems God causes: devastating illness, hurricanes. earthquakes. And look at the problems God doesn’t prevent: wars, cruelty, persecution. Sure, this is stuff human beings bring about, but God just lets them happen. Love God you say?”

Jews don’t talk about loving God as much as Christians do, but it is our problem too, because the Sh’ma itself (Deuteronomy 6:5) commands us: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.”

How indeed can you love a God who allows such human suffering? I once worked with a woman who wore a T shirt saying “Life is a bitch and then you die.”

Traditional commentaries, like the Malbim, answer the objection by comparing God to a physician who causes a little pain now to avoid worse pain later – either in this life or the world to come.

But you have to believe in two things for that to work: a God who can and does reward the righteous; and an afterlife for the reward to happen. And nowadays, most people disbelieve both.

Yet these very same people may still wallow in the equally medieval notion of an all-powerful super-deity who ought to micro-manage our everyday affairs but doesn’t. If you still picture God that way, then you are stuck with the problem, and I don’t know any way around it except to remind you that almost 1000 years ago, Maimonides urged us to stop imaging God as a human being like ourselves, and adopt a more sophisticated idea of the divine.

But more sophisticated views of God come with more sophisticated questions – like the fact that love is an emotion, and you can’t command emotions the way you do behavior. That’s why Judaism deals in deeds. You can be expected to do what is right, whether you like it or not, but how can you be asked to dredge up love that just isn’t there?

S’fas emes provides the classical answer here: Love really is  there, he says — hardwired deep inside us; we just have to work at finding it. His answer follows classic Hasidic cosmology of a universe where sparks of divine light are trying to escape the morass of darkness that infiltrated the universe at the moment of creation. Finding love of God within us is like releasing the light from its darkened jail cell.

Still, suspecting I have love buried deep within me is not the same as being able to find it, and then to identify with it enough to overcome the insistent feeling that “Life is a bitch and then you die.” You can command behavior; but not emotions.

So Torah commands behavior, but Torah is more than commandments alone; it is also stories and poetry and just plain deep-down wisdom from an age-old tradition. What makes little sense as a command may still be great advice. “You shall,” here, may mean, “You really ought to,” as in, “You really ought to love God, you know, because, otherwise, you end up wearing the ‘Life is a bitch’ T shirt, and that’s a terrible way to greet each day.”

Maimonides, on one hand, and Einstein, on the other, gave up on God as a puppet master pulling the strings of our everyday lives. God is not even a “someone” at all. God is the cause of all causes, the ultimate sustainer of the natural order, an integral part of the universe. To love God is to appreciate that universe: to admire its beautiful sunsets, find the good in others, and marvel at equations that describe the laws of nature.

A positive outlook cannot be commanded, but it is really good advice: and it comes with its own T shirt: “Someday we will die, but appreciating the world meanwhile is a gift worth living for.”