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. 

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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. 

Open Letter To My Students 22: “Imagine That”

Jack London’s famous short story (“To Build a Fire”) tells the chilling tale of a solitary hiker traversing the Yukon at fifty degrees below zero. He is an experienced guide, knows all the tricks of survival, has trekked the freezing wilderness again and again; but this time, he miscalculates, runs out of matches, cannot light a fire, and dies. “He was,” says London, “quick and alert in the things of life but only in the things, and not in the significances…. He had no imagination.” He knew how cold it was. But he did not then “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon human frailty in general… and from there, to the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe.”

Here are two levels of imagination. Elemental self-preservation requires the first: to meditate on our “frailty as a creature of temperature.” Religion raises the second: “human frailty in general… and the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe.”

Religion is a sort of imagination. It is the study of significances. It is a flight of fancy, but not fantasy. It is the positing of a connective tissue behind and beyond phenomena, what used to be called metaphysics – which is why religion fell out of favor altogether, when science came into being. In London’s story, human “frailty as creatures of temperature” is physics; “the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe” is metaphysics. It is precisely metaphysical significance that religion stops to ponder. 

Take the quintessentially Jewish field of Halakhah for example. On the surface, it is just a set of rules for life.  But it is much more. When a halakhic mind encounters a mountain, says the Rav [Joseph B. Soloveitchik], it calculates “the measurements which determine a private domain: a sloping mound that retains a height of 10 handbreadths within a distance of 4 cubits.” At stake is the Shabbat regulation against carrying things — a form of “work.” We may carry within a private domain, our home. But we may also (for example) link together lampposts with a wire, as an imaginary artificial wall surrounding a larger space that contains our home, and in theory extends it. A mountain cliff as part of that surrounding wall will do as well, but when does a hill with a slope become a mountain with a cliff? 

The athletic imagination sees the slope as a potential ski run: that’s physics. But carrying from private to public domains as forbidden Shabbat work? A mountainside but not a hilly slope as a valid boundary to the private? Pure metaphysics. 

Once you get the idea, examples proliferate. Food is not just healthy or unhealthy, but also permitted or forbidden. And time is not empty. It comes loaded with responsibilities: when to pray or light candles; when funerals can be held but not with eulogies; when marriages are permitted or forbidden.

I have always had a high regard for this. I have loved the idea of a world filled with divine secrets, both the scientific kind, and the parallel track, if you like, for Jews to calculate. But I could not convince myself of the metaphysical truth behind the halakhic system and I was unwilling to live by it just because it is “tradition.” 

That is precisely how Reform started some 200 years ago. Science and reason had stripped away the believability of the halakhic metaphysic. In sociologist Max Weber’s famous terms, the world became “disenchanted.”

But those very same founders retained – indeed , they insisted on — another kind of metaphysics, the matters of ultimate meaning: Why are we born? What is the point of life? How do we confront tragedy? What can we say about God? Do we have a soul? Without the Halakhic metaphysic, they doubled down on the Theological one — whereas our generation has thrown out metaphysics altogether. Our congregants are becoming like London’s hiker: out loud, at least, and in public, they fail to meditate on “human frailty in general… and from there … to the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe” – but only because their synagogues are places where such questions are rarely entertained. 

Yes, a handful of people take a course in God or ethics. But you can attend services a very long time, without ever encountering the Jewish metaphysical substratum upon which Reform Judaism is built; and without it, being Reform is just a matter of taste: you like the music; the people are nice; you have fun Friday night. I worry that we have domesticated Reform Judaism; it’s a nice pet to have around. 

It should be clear by now that the metaphysic I am talking about *is Theology (with a capital T), by which I mean three things. 

1. theology (with a small t):  what we think about God — what Protestant theologian Paul Tillich nicely labelled, our “ultimate concern” 

2. religious anthropology: human nature. 

3. religious cosmology: the kind of world in which we find ourselves and in which we must make our way. 

Are there moments in life when we have experienced something we might call the presence of God (theology)? Are people good or bad? Does life have a purpose, or are we just accidents of nature (anthropology)? Is the world friendly to our aspirations? Are the laws of ethics absolute like the laws of nature? Do the Jewish People have a role in human history? Does history even matter? Is there such a thing as progress (cosmology)?

I do not delude myself into thinking that everyone we meet walks around with heavy Theological questions driving their day. They want a Judaism that is joyous and synagogues that embrace them. And to our credit, we have spent almost forty years developing both: joyous services where greeters welcome newcomers; the clergy smile; the band plays klezmer; people yell out mazal tov moments. We are a healing community too; we pray for the sick and suffering. This is all to the good. People want and deserve all this: at a minimum. 

But the synagogue must be more than minimum: more than a good time on select Friday nights, more even than classes for which few people have the time or patience. It must reflect religion’s promise of “moreness”: the reality of transcendence, the centrality of history, a purpose behind Jewish Peoplehood; an ethic to guide and sustain us; the imperative of hope (even, and especially, when reasons are scarce); and a way to meet death when it comes (as it most assuredly will), with tranquility of mind. 

Our synagogues must engender, and our clergy must personify, the Jewish Theological imagination — not as dogma, but as depth. We do need a caring community; but a caring community that cares enough to invite and to embody questions of ultimacy. 

Open Letter to My Students 21:  “Announcements, Announcements, Announcements” – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

You’ve surely seen those movies of Victorian households where daily life is punctuated by the butler’s announcements of guests. Without the benefit of phones, people regularly made social calls, although never informally, and never before 3:00 in the afternoon, to give the hosts plenty of time to finish their work and dress properly to receive the callers. The point of calling was, in part, simply that you could, a confirmation that your own status was such that the hosts would admit you. Calling cards were left to pile up on a silver calling-tray, as an iconic display of status, yours and theirs. Everyone who dropped by was announced, and if invited for dinner, you were announced twice: once, upon arrival, and then again on your way into the dining room, so that you could be conveniently informed of who was who – and of Who’s Who, in which just being there made you happily included.

These Victorian announcements were an extension of medieval court etiquette. Nobles visited back and forth among one another, but only some of them got to visit the royal court, in which case, they were announced before entering. Without an extraordinarily good reason, rulers did not visit back — hence their several massive palaces, space enough to pursue their royal lives, without having to leave home. When extraordinary reasons did present themselves, rulers arrived at their subjects’ castles, fiefdoms, and cities with an equally extraordinary announcement of who they were – not just another noble, but the king or queen to whom all the nobles owed allegiance.  

Announcing royal visits goes back farther still, at least to 1st-century Rome, with the rise of the all-powerful emperors, from Caesar Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) on. These emperors were increasingly deified (augustus is an added appellation meaning “revered” – frequently used in opposition to humanus). Throughout the empire, there grew up an imperial cult, replete with holiday processions featuring statuary of the emperor-gods being carried into ritual religious spaces. Choirs called “hymnodes” sang hymns of praise that announced the imperial presence.  Our own ritual processions as we march down the aisle for one reason or another (weddings? ordinations? academic convocations?) are descended from the imperial ones. 

By the end of the first century, the Roman empire had seen several exceptional emperor-gods, some of them competent, all of them cruel. In the year 96, a certain John of Patmos (a city in Asia Minor), a Jew who had joined the Jesus movement in a time when religious identity was fluid, lashed out at the imperial world around him by writing a treatise that became the last book in the Christian Bible, Revelation. Perfectly familiar with the way emperor-gods were greeted in cities like his own, he envisioned the God of the Bible as the patron deity of another city, Jerusalem. As God appeared, the city elders, playing the role of hymnodes, announced God’s arrival. What they sang (Revelation 4:8) was the angelic praise of Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy” – an announcement, originally, of Isaiah’s vision, “the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne, with the train of his robe filling the temple.” 

We now understand the prominence of “Holy, holy, holy” in our Jewish liturgy, the form of which is much indebted to Greco-Roman sensibilities. The very word “liturgy” (from the Greek leitourgia) meant, originally, an office, or duty, discharged for the public good; including the “public work” of sacrificing to curry favor with the gods. The Hebrew equivalent for our Temple cult — avodah – meant the same thing. When prayer replaced sacrifice, the word avodahtravelled with it, and is still the name of the 17th blessing in the Amidah, where we ask God to accept our “public service” – meaning the Amidah we are just concluding, the prayer where we stand, as one would, when in the presence of a monarchWe still bow at the beginning and end, taking three steps back and forth, as if symbolically approaching and then taking leave of God’s throne.

That blessing follows thirteen others, the petitionary prayers, that presuppose the Roman system of patronage, whereby people relied on powerful patrons to grant their wishes. Even patrons had patrons more powerful than themselves, culminating in the highest patron of all, the emperor, who was not just a king of some petty kingdom, but the king of kings. Our divine patron is more powerful still – not just the king of kings, but the king of kings of kings (melekh malkhei ham’lakhim). Patronage was inheritable, in that children of those who had enjoyed access to a patron’s grace could claim the right to continue it. So before the thirteen petitions (in case our Divine patron does not recognize us), we announce who we are: descendants of ancestors who concluded a covenant of patronage with God at the very beginning. There then follows acknowledgement of the patron’s power to grant our requests. Other patrons, even the emperor, are powerful enough even to kill at whim. Our patron can go one better – resurrect the dead.

And then we offer the hymnodic praise that we saw in Isaiah and (more contemporaneously to our liturgy’s early years) in Revelation: “Holy, Holy, holy” — Our God is not just powerful like the emperors, but holy as well.

All of which is interesting, but it is more than that, because the Roman model of a procession carrying statuary of an emperor-god (and of hymnodes announcing their arrival in song) is echoed profoundly in a midrash (Deut. Rab.4:5), which envisions each human being as the statuary of the divine. The midrash begins with a Hebrew word, okoniah (a variant of ikoniah) from the Greek eikonion, “statuary”; more specifically, the statuary of the emperors carried in procession; but by extension, just the procession itself. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: A procession (okoniah) goes before a human being, and what does the procession say? ‘Make way for the image of the holy blessed one,” for what is each and every human being, if not the image of God. And who are in the procession? They are the angels, reenvisioned as hymnodes, the same ones who announced God with “Holy, Holy, Holy” and now announce us as well. 

We are unlikely to have God call upon us directly down here, but we do get calling cards that are worth saving in our memories the way Victorians saved calling cards in their silver tray. Walt Whitman rhapsodized over them: “In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass, I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name.” From the midrash, we learn too, that we carriers of God’s image are announced by angels. All those Victorians, those kings and queens, and even the Roman emperors have nothing on us. 

Open Letter to My Students 20: A Hanukah Lesson — “These lights are holy….”

Perhaps the most distinctive core value in Judaism is holiness. It is everywhere you look: God is holy, so we should be (Lev. 19:1); “Holy holy holy,” the angels sing out to God (Isaiah 6:3). We have holy time (Shabbat), holy space (the Temple of old), and holy people (the priests, the kohanim). The opposite of holy (kodesh) is the everyday or ordinary (chol).

The Rabbis see holiness as sometimes rippling out, in concentric circles from a source, and lessening in intensity with each ripple, until eventually, it dissipates and becomes the everyday: from the Temple to the Temple Mount, for example, then to Jerusalem, and to the Land of Israel altogether, but becoming “ordinary” outside of the Land’s borders.  

It is also envisioned as being transferable by analogy: Not just the Temple, but the synagogue; not just the priests who conducted sacrifice, but the rabbis and cantors who lead prayer, the k’lei kodesh, “vessels of holiness,” as they are called.

Classical Christianity too featured holiness (although not quite as centrally) and as Christianity permeated western culture, holiness infused literature in general, but at the expense of losing its core meaning.  John Donne (1572-1631) composed nineteen Holy Sonnets in which “holy” describes “discontent,” “mourning,’ and “dropsie,” by which he means love sickness. In 1955, beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) said “everything” is holy – “jazzbands”; ”cafeterias”; his friends, lovers and other beat writers (Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs); anatomical body parts that I refrain from mentioning here; but also, “the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” From a 1787 poem of Robert Burns, we get “Holy Willie,” meaning “hypocrite.” An 1883 story by G. W. Peck gave us a mischievous child as a “Holy terror.” J.D. Salinger thinks a preacher is a “Holy Joe.” After Napoleon’s defeat, Russia, Austria and Prussia became the Holy Alliance. We also get holy cow, holy Moly (originally, “Holy Moses”), holy mackerel, and holy smoke. We admire people who are holy, as long as they are not “holier than thou.” 

When a word means everything, it ceases meaning anything; but we ought to wonder what “holy” meant when it still meant something.

The usual way out is etymological, asking what the Hebrew root for holy (k.d.sh) connoted. Seminary students often learn, therefore, that “holy” means “set aside for special use.” Hekdesh is anything set aside to be given to the Temple, in service of God. Kiddushin, the ceremony of betrothal (and first step in marriage) must mean “setting aside” one particular person for an exclusive love relationship. There is some truth to that of course, but etymology is not always reliable. Joel Hoffman, my son whose doctorate is in linguistics, directs me to the Oxford English Dictionary, to see that glamour comes from the word grammar; grammar denoted (in part) language formed perfectly enough to cast sacred spells – which were an instance of glamour. But how many people who studied grammar, Joel asks, think it was glamorous?

Three modern thinkers made holiness a favored topic in the scholarly study of religion. The first was Emil Durkheim (1858-1917), a Jew. Coming from a rabbinic family (his grandfather was a chief rabbi) he was conditioned to see holiness as important.  He preferred the word “sacred,” from the Latin, sacrum, meaning that which belonged to the gods, like the ancient temples and their sacred rites; he contrasted “sacred” with “profane,” from the Latin profanum, meaning the space outside the Temple precincts. Profanare was the act of bringing the offerings to the Temple site — before, that is, they became sacred. But Durkheim was a scientist, so he explained the sacred sociologically as the way groups underwrite their morality by projecting it onto the divine. 

Durkheim wrote in 1915; just two years later, a German Lutheran, Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), made history by composing The Idea of the Holy, where (unlike Durkheim) he claimed that the holy is a category of actual experience, no projection at all. He described it in Latin: the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery before which we tremble, yet to which we are attracted because we find it fascinating. The Latin loses something in translation. Just murmur the Latin out loud a few times and you get a pretty good inkling of the feeling provided by traditional Lutheran worship, and, for that matter, classical Reform Judaism as well. 

The last great pioneer of the sacred is Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who was raised in the Romanian Orthodox Church, but who studied practically everything thereafter and is often considered the founder of the discipline called History of Religions. Eliade threaded the needle between Durkheim (the sacred is a human construct) and Otto (the sacred is real). He saw it as both. The reality of the sacred can be seen in anything: a humanly made object (a cross); an ancient text (Torah), a rock (the one in the Dome of the Rock), and not just famous things and places, but ordinary things as well. The sacred presents itself by bursting forth in what he called a hierophany (from the Greek hiero-, “sacred,” and phainein, “to show”). But it takes human readiness to recognize it. It is as if we actualize its existence by our own capacity to appreciate it.

Ah yes, maybe, but what is it?

Here is where Hanukah candles come in handy.

To this day, many Jews light candles and sing Hanerot hallalu kodesh hem… (“These lights are holy….”), which is cited in an 8th-century work (Massekhet Sofrim), where it is not a song but a proclamation. “These lights are holy; we may not use them. “Not using” does not mean “having no function.” They have their own function: we are to put them in the window “to proclaim the miracle” of Hanukah. 

But they are non-utilitarian; we may not otherwise use them for anything. We may not, for example, read by their light, or use their light to find lost objects. We cannot light one Hanukah candle and then use that one to light the others (we need an extra non-holy candle to do that). The holy, then, is the non-utilitarian, the opposite of “the ordinary” which we spend our lifetimes dreaming up how to use.

A whole host of other Jewish laws now make sense. Because Shabbat is holy, we cannot work on it. Because Torah is holy, we cannot “use it as a spade to dig with.” Rabbis may not get paid for teaching Torah. They do have to earn a living, however, so we use a legal fiction: rabbis get paid for what they would be doing, if they weren’t teaching Torah. An early law about synagogues forbids making a shortcut through them. They are holy, like the Temple, so you cannot traipse through them to save time.

Ultimate holiness resides in God; so prayer is permitted, but not magic, because that would be using God. Kiddushin (the first step in marriage, remember) is holy, because we cannot use the people to whom we are in relationship. But so too of other relationships: all relationships are holy – we call each one a brit, a sacred contract. They may have a function (I pay you for what you sell me) but I cannot use that understanding for my own benefit beyond what the contract allows: I cannot cheat you by using the small print against you. For that matter, we cannot use other human beings altogether. Human beings are made in the image of God. That makes them holy. We cannot just “use” them.

Holy things have their own intrinsic purposes. Shabbat reminds us of creation; we live by Torah; kiddushinenables marriage; the synagogue is for prayer and study; Hanukah lights proclaim the miraculous. But none of them are utilitarian, mere opportunities for us to bend the holy to our own ends: to make use of them. 

That’s not a bad lesson for our time, when people inevitably wonder, “What’s in it for me?” The answer, sometimes, is “Nothing.” We are capable, at our best, of being God-like, appreciating holy things simply as what they are. 

With a sparkle in her eye and a smile on her face, my grandmother used to chide me when I was mischievousby calling me “a good for nothing.” Maybe she was onto something.

Open Letter to My Students 19: How’s Your Faith?

“How’s your faith,” a woman asked me just before my daughter underwent her first brain surgery for epilepsy. She was the mother of the patient down the hall, a hulking teenager, multiply disabled beyond his epilepsy, who spent each day watching cartoons and repetitively stuffing a nerf ball into a basketball net affixed to the foot of his bed. “If I didn’t have faith that he will someday sit at the right hand of God, I don’t know how I could get through each day,” the mother explained. “But I figure, if he is good enough for God to love, then I can love him too.” 

“That’s real faith,” I thought to myself. “I wish I had it.” But I didn’t. I didn’t know any Jews who did. In five years of rabbinical school, faith was rarely discussed, never expected, and frequently disparaged. 

Faith had been a major topic in medieval Jewish philosophy, however. Maimonides himself (1138-1204) established thirteen principles of faith; Joseph Albo (1380-1444) emphasized three. But modern scholarship tended to dismiss their efforts, as if faith was just for Christians, not for Jews. Back when I went to school, for example, we were assigned two turgid philosophical textbooks, one by Isaac Husik (from 1916) and one by Julius Guttmann (from 1933). Both authors went out of their way to downplay faith: Maimonides (they pointed out) never included his principles in his philosophy; Albo was portrayed as a dogmatic anti-intellectual. Husik’s Index, does not even list “Faith” as a topic. 

To this day, that modern scholarly bias has hampered Jewish discussions of faith. Faith has indeed been more central to Christians than to Jews, but it is not as if Jews never had it or do not want it. 

 We are so deeply biased against it that discussions of faith are awkward, unproductive, and rare. Do you believe in God? In prayer? In an afterlife? If we answer “Yes,” we risk being judged as people of faith, but quaintly antediluvian, like the Cheshire cat of Alice in Wonderland, who practiced believing six impossible things before breakfast.  

Faith need not imply dogmatic belief, however. The word “faith” has many other meanings as well. We can putour faith in someone; we can have faith that something will happen; we can show good faith of our own. “In faith” says Shakespeare (Sonnet 141), meaning just “In truth.” We can be “faithful” and believe nothing whatever. If our conversations about faith are to get us anywhere, we need a new way of talking about it.

When I say, therefore, that my journey home to the State of Wellbeing was helped along by faith, you should properly ask me what in the world I am talking about. That, at least, is what I have been asking myself, and I have come to the following conclusion. Faith is not something you have; it is a strategy you follow. 

Life vacillates between hardship and comfort, disappointment and elation, trauma and healing. Mostly, it is none of the above, neither highs nor lows. It is usually just suiting up and showing up: to work, to family, to responsibility, to exercise, to dinner with friends. None of this happens without strategies in place, usually those we adopt unconsciously as children, and then modify as adults. Faith is such a strategy, a counter-strategy to the less helpful ones, a strategy we can elect, if we wish. 

The “election” process is more complicated than it looks, however, because it is not the case that I see a strategy out there called faith, and then decide to adopt it. It is the other way around. Having experimented with various strategies for life, I look at the one that has proved to be most promising, and then I decide what to name it. I find optimism better than pessimism; trust better than suspicion; truth better than falsity; kindness better than cruelty. The world is a glass, half full and half empty, but I customarily do better when I live with the half-full part. “Faith” seems to me an eminently apt name for all of this. 

Among the many accepted meanings of “faith,” the Oxford English Dictionary lists these: “The quality of fulfilling one’s trust or promise; fidelity, loyalty, trustworthiness; the duty of fulfilling one’s trust; firm trust or belief in or reliance upon something; a set of firmly held principles, ideals, or beliefs; in truth, really, truly.” All of that is a pretty apt description of how I try to manage my way through life. 

More importantly, perhaps, it is how I want to manage my way through life. Like everyone, I have tried other strategies too: anger at the world, despair at feeling powerless to fix it; distrust of others, when too many people fail me; guardedness when vulnerability proves hurtful. But overall, I have found those strategies disastrous. When I descend into them, I try to remember the benefit of faith. 

I have been guided by William James, who says words have cash value; Thomas Dewey, who thinks words are utilitarian; and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who likens words to tools in a toolbox. The name I adopt for my strategy must have value and utility as a tool to help me lead a better life.  

I have rejected the more secular word “hope,” for example, because as a tool for handling the world, it is too modest, hardly the same cash value as “faith.” The Judaism of the Rabbis is hopeful, of course, just as I am hopeful, but rabbinic hope, and my own, are rooted in the much richer approach that is better captured by the word “faith.” Faith is more robust; it points me toward a greater possibility of certainty; it opens the door for my Jewish heritage in ways that mere hope does not. And it allows me to name the things of my experience with religious language that elevates the conversation and myself, as I do the conversing. I name things “godly.” I look at friendship, beauty, love, and kindness, and say, “That’s what I mean by God.” I love what Elizabeth Barrett Browning says in Aurora Leigh

                Earth’s crammed with heaven;

and every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

So many States in the existential Map of Being (the State of Grief, the State of Despair, the State of Anger, and more) depend ultimately on whether you think we are alone on the narrow bridge of life. Through pure, sheer, regularized use, I have memorized Psalm 23:4, “Even while walking through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me”; and from Adon Olam, “In God’s hand I put my soul, when I’m awake and when I sleep; and with my soul, my body too. God is with me. I need not fear.” I pray each night (from Hashkiveinu): “May God lay me down in peace and wake me up to life,” — a full life; in my case now, a life renewed. I wait each year for Yom Kippur’s concluding service (N’ilah) and its most important prayer: “You [God] reach out your hand to sinners.” 

And if to sinners, then all the more so, to sufferers, those against whom the world and its ways have sinned. The premature death of my wife Gayle, by a rare cancer that we do not as yet know how to cure, was a sin committed by nature. In my State of Grief, I walked through that valley of deep darkness, but somehow remembered an outstretched hand of God, the image our prayerbook offers for the assurance that we are never alone. Without that helping hand, I would never have picked up the oars to start rowing home to Wellbeing in the first place. I almost never believe literally in the stuff that popular culture considers matters of faith. But the strategy of faith has invariably saved me.