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 ( 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.

The State of Grief 2 (Angels, Oars, Visas, and a Little Theology)

Thanks to so many who wrote me with consoling words of hope – no, not just hope; faith is more like it, faith that I would eventually find my way back home to Wellbeing. Faith and patience, actually, because the word “eventually” looms large.           

The mind is an amazing thing. Out of nowhere, I found myself remembering a tenth- century rabbinic responsum I used to teach — would you believe it? For those who did not go to rabbinic or cantorial school, let me say that a responsum is just a rabbinic answer to a legal question. This one is about pidyon haben, “redemption of the first-born boy,” a ritual that (for several reasons), is not universally observed nowadays, so some readers may not have been at one. No matter. The section of the responsum that I somehow conjured up is no longer part of the official ritual anyway. 


1. Angels:

In medieval times, the ritual gave thanks for the healthy baby by including a statement of rabbinic embryology. It is a poetic fiction of course, an imaginative attempt to capture the miracle of embryonic formation and a baby coming successfully into the world. With no medical science on which to rely, the prayer draws instead on quotations from the Book of Job (Chap 10), where Job looks back on his embryonic existence, and says (among other things), “You [God] granted me life and loving-kindness” (chayim vachesed). From this, the prayer deduces, “God appoints angels to watch over the foetus in the mother’s womb.”

The “proof text” (Job 10:12) is itself rich with implications. Reasonably enough, Job recalls being granted life throughout his gestation, but why loving-kindness? 

The lesson I draw is that to be human, you need two things: not just life but the capacity for loving-kindness as well. An embryo that does not develop into life is an anomaly that (we say) “is miscarried”; a baby born with life but not loving-kindness is equally an anomaly, a type of person about whom we wonder, “How can someone be so unfeeling, even cruel?” Think of Jaubert in Les Miserables, for example. Jaubert is alive; he is human — but not humane, not the way people are meant to be. 

What amazes me equally, however, is something else: the play on words, by which the prayer interprets “life and loving-kindness” as the names of the angels, as if God summoned two angels named Chayim (Life) and Chesed (Loving Kindness), to watch over the proper development of the foetus. Naming is a concrete way of bringing lofty ideas down to earth.


2. Oars: 

“Don’t even try to comfort the bereaved while their dead still lie before them,” the Rabbis say. Good advice. When loved ones die, they lie before you long after the funeral. Only eventually, do you heal sufficiently to hear what people say, and only then do you begin paddling back across the river that divides the State of Grief from the State of Wellbeing. What I have learned since my last letter is this: what you need most for that journey are faith and patience: faith that you will someday get there; and patience until you do. 

If a foetus could write a blog, I suppose it too might urge “faith and patience,” to get through the nine months until birth. It strikes me, then, that the in-betweenness of floating between Grief and Wellbeing is womb-like: I am in the process of being born again; this gestation of mourning will not quickly end, just because I wish it would. I should never have imagined that I could just jump into a canoe and paddle home without being repeatedly turned back by the tide. The Rabbis think that waiting for the Messiah is another period of gestation, and they say of it, “You cannot force the end.” So too with mourning. Canoes are sleek and speedy, but speed is not my friend at the moment. 

So I ditched my canoe and paddle and traded them in for a rowboat and oars — two oars, mind you, which I have named: not “Life and Lovingkindness,” but “Faith and “Patience.” 


3. Visas

What I like about my clunky rowboat is that, unlike a canoe, it must be rowed slowly, just a bit at a time. When the effort exhausts me, I sit on the gentle waves for a day or two, before rowing some more. On one of those periods, quite close to Wellbeing’s shore, I observed that whenever I got this close, the current would draw my little rowboat back into the river’s depths again. Now, patience is a fine thing to help one wait, but waiting is itself an opportunity, not just to vegetate but to look around and see things differently, so I pondered the problem and discovered my mistake. I was fixated on the jetty from which I had left the State of Wellbeing in the first place. I had forgotten the advice of a friend who had gone through this before me: “When you return, you will find yourself landing on a different stretch of beachfront.” 

Sure enough, by expanding my horizon, I could see several jetties along the beach. The State of Wellbeing, it turns out, is not a single thing. It is divided into provinces, each with its own beachfront. The beach from which I left has no landing jetty at all; you can leave from there, but you must return to some other province, which requires its own visa. These provincial visas come with asterisked caveats in small print, “Wellbeing, even though….” I am rowing once again, still patiently of course, but this time, I am heading toward the province set aside for returnees to Wellbeing (*Even Though They Have Suffered a Devastating Loss). 

Everyone copes with something or other, eventually – several somethings or other over the course of a lifetime. If we flip through the pages of our passports, we will see them stamped with stages of our life that we have visited, and a record of the various visas we have had to obtain along the way: each major disappointment, each terrible sadness, each character flaw that made us do something of which we are not proud – each of these has its own jetty for return; each one demands a visa. Wellbeing, then, is not just “wellbeing because”; it is equally “*wellbeing even though….”  


4. A Little Theology

I hate to quote truisms, but some truisms deserve attention, and this is one of them: You can’t go home again. Each step we take disappears into eternity, never to be trod again. Theologically, we might say that it disappears from us, but not from the mind of God, that sole point of view that sees time the way we see space (time and space being, as we know, a single continuum). We think of eternity linearly, as if it is just that part of a straight line that goes on without any end. But eternity isn’t linear. It is cumulative. It contains all that will happen as well as all that has already come to pass. 

Imagine our expanding map of space. Human mapping began with just our neighborhood; then bits and pieces of the globe until we had explored all around the world; and now we are extending it, endlessly actually, to include however far we go into the ever-expanding universe. Take a spacecraft out to Jupiter, and you no longer see the earth; but the earth is there. So too, with time. What happened long ago is still “there,” but only God can see it; because only God sees time the way we see space. God sees “everything” (space) all the timesub specie aeternitatis, “from the aspect of eternity,” as Spinoza phrased it. 


So much for patience, my first oar. It’s taken some patience for you (and for me) to get this far into the story.  But then there is faith, my second oar, which is its own chapter, and will have to await another posting.

The State of Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Horse Named Hebrew

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

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

I won all the races.

Bah beh buh, buh beh bah beh buh:

The first line of my Hebrew primer.

I remember it to this day.

Ah, the joy of it!

Reaching the finishing post at line’s end

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

Whereas I,

I was to become a prize-winning jockey 

In the Triple Crown

Of Hebrew riders.

I abandoned Saturday morning TV and pickup sports with friends,

To enter the Shabbat shul Sweepstakes.

No more simple bah buh beh.

I was adopted by the best,

Gristled daveners all,

Veteran riders who’d trained since birth

For all I knew. 

They looked alike.

They were all old men.

Their first name was Mister.

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

Then ambled round the track through the first 70 pages,

Just to get their bearing,

Before moving to the starting post,



And they were off!

They raced through whole clumps of pages,

Sitting, standing, standing, sitting.

Shacharis that came and went,

An entire k’riyah faster than a speeding bullet —

Superman-like alacrity.

They rounded the final turn with a bruising Haftorah,

Then a Musaf Amidah at lightning speed,

Alenu as they crossed the wire,

And some Kaddishes of praise for the winners.

A veritable Belmont Hebrew Stakes, 

One and half miles, 

The Test of Champions.


One day 

The rabbi let me in on a secret:

Hebrew spoke in a language I could learn to comprehend.

I could be more than a daredevil rider;

I could be a horse whisperer, 

Bound for a winners’ circle with garlands of roses:

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

But the smart money was already coming my way. 

That’s how I went to rabbinic school:

To ride atop Hebrew into racing glory.

God help me, 

Belmont is for three-year olds, 

Whereas Hebrew, I found out,

Had been running for centuries,

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

For horse whisperers like me to understand.

And worse…

I discovered that

Over time,

My horse had curiously played around

With different sorts 

of neighs and snorts 

That they called Aramaic.

Of Hillel, it was said

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

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

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

But then:

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

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

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

I had to look it up. 

My trusty Hebrew only takes me so far,

But I manage.

And managing is itself an accomplishment.

I’ve given up winning the race.


Winners of races just inherit more races,

Until eventually, they lose.

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

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

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

Far off the race course,

I now take deep breaths, 

And linger with Hebrew,

Still my horse of choice,

Enjoying the landscape it has seen and heard and felt,

And whispering in its ear,

“You know more than I do.

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

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

That I may pass the gift of meaning to others.

Let Hillel say of me,

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

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

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

Like the myth about turtles…

The good life is blessings all the way down. 

The Genealogy of “More”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret of This Year’s Seder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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