“Wormwood” at Pete’s Candy Store New York, New York
Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page
Well, this kind of says it all. After revisiting my youth via the Coen Brothers distorted lens of sociology, I wonder about the future of the synagogue in America. For years, very large buildings have been subsidized by those who darken their doorstep a handful of days a year. Never has so much been paid for so little benefit.
These days of short dollars and rearranged priorities bring an end to the sense that synagogue membership is important regardless whether one attends regularly or not. These days, belonging, paying membership, to a shule exacts the scrutiny of a cost benefit analysis not unlike joining a gym, or a golf club. The shule competes for recreational hours as well as dollars, and the shule seems to be losing.
This is a tragedy because no Jewish environment is as self-evidently and unambiguously Jewish for young and old as a synagogue. Stephen M. Cohen and Gary Tobin, with their statistical keen sense of the obvious, will tell you that “spirituality” is the hook for the next generation, but of course, they can’t define it. It’s just obvious that it seems not to be found in the synagogue.
I would define spirituality in terms of what I hear from young people all the time. Here are some buzzwords: intimacy, community, engagement, fellowship, security that comes from being together focused on mutual wellbeing. For them, this is what the Jewish context is supposed to serve and this cannot be realized in places perceived as large and impersonal–regardless of denomination.
Most communities now have too much square footage for too few Jews. The solution seems to be obvious. While merging synagogue cultures is fraught with difficulty, sharing space may not be. Let small communities flourish and proliferate, but let’s give them a room instead of spending fortunes for buildings and their expensive maintenance.
Let heir be a Rav Shechunah (neighborhood rabbi) as they have in Israel, one Rav could serve multiple communities, making periodic appearances while members of these autonomous communities would run the day to day services for their particular minyan. A community would only be considered viable if it were self sustaining–i.e. that they had a number of people who could lead services, read Torah, or had the capability to pay for it.
There would be opportunities for cooperative celebration for times when it suits the needs of the communities. Each minyan could still decorate their own space or suite pending on their pocketbooks, but people would not be spending money on spaces that remain empty for large parts of the day or year. People would not be lost among a sea of well healed parishioners, and people would feel that they are needed to step up and contribute as a necessary member of the community.
In Kansas City two congregations attempted to merge. Many outsiders saw this as a positive move, but for reasons known primarily to the insiders, the merger failed. There obviously was a clash of synagogue cultures, but with the model I have described, the cultures stay separate and in tact, only the bills are shared. What is lost in autonomy is gained in efficiency, intimacy, and what people have chosen to define as spirituality.
These new communities should be centers where learning is a validated spiritual activity equal to, if not eclipsing, prayer. They should be centers of Jewish celebration for their members and members of their (literally) next door neighbors. Everyone is in this together, but still has his unique voice preserved within the joyous noise of the collective.
If the Federations would subsidize this effort by helping with the rent for the buildings that would provide the space for these communities, some of the functions of the community centers could be realized there as well.
No doubt, there will always be large synagogues, but these days there are way too many of them and they are destined to remain empty most of the time.
In order to grow, it’s time to think small.
The dramatic narrative of Jacob and Esau can’t help but grab the attention of the western reader. The story is so incredibly layered with subterfuge, betrayal, prophecy, deceit, exile, a father’s blind love, a mother’s devotion, and the dark underbelly of twins. So much packed into just a few pages–and in Hebrew, it’s even shorter!
It is no wonder that so much stuffed in so little begs for atomistic readings to expand the narrative–even when the gaps are not apparent. The prose of the Torah and the paucity of Her words demands the close reading that is normally reserved for poetry.
The Hezekuni, Rabbi Hezekiah Ben Manoach, a 13th century French exegete of the Rashi school, examines the beginning verses of the Parsha and like Rashi picks up on the apparent redundant language of the Parsha’s opening lines.
And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham gave birth to Isaac…
If the verse teaches that Abraham is Isaac’s father, why do we need the subsequent verse repeating the relationship? If the narrative is so stingy with language, why waste precious words on the repetition of a fact that we already know?
Many explanations are offered, and the Hezekuni, along with the solutions of others, brings one of his own. He says:
Did Avraham only sire Isaac? Rather, the verse is teaching that Isaac was the one whom Avraham reared. As evidenced in the verse (from Proverbs) ”The crown of the elders are grandchildren, and the glory of children are their fathers.”
Already the Hezekuni is foreshadowing a continuing pattern, teaching a fundamental unpleasant truth about fathers, mothers and sons. It takes more than DNA to make someone ones true child. The nurture and embodiment of values is how fathers “give birth” to sons. Avraham gave birth to Isaac because Isaac was reared under Avraham’s watchful eye. Ishmael was reared without a father. Elders wear their grandchildren like a crown, only if the crown fits on their head–sons who deny their parents values have no glory. The biological connection may or may not be helpful, but it is certainly not necessary.
It is clear why Sarah rejects Ishmael–he’s not her son, but what of Rivka? Esav was her first born. When did she choose to write him off, to reject him? From what we know of mothers, they would not be the first to reject a child, but Rivka had visceral knowledge with Divine confirmation. She felt something was wrong in her womb, and God warned her:
Two nations are in your womb
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.
God had already told her what had to be done. It was up to her, however, to figure out the plan’s implementation. Maternal instincts were thwarted by Divine intervention.
According to the Hezekuni‘s analysis of these verses, he might read the famous story of Solomon where the two women come to him each claiming that a baby was hers. The King suggests that they split the child and when he sees which mother is happy to give up the child rather than have him die, he decides that she is the real mother.
This was not a poor substitute for a DNA test, but an accurate means of assessing who would be the better parent. According to the Hezekuni, it’s nurture that counts. All this from a seemingly redundant elucidation of an already well known fact.
Throughout the years a Coen brothers film has brought me out on cold rainy nights to enjoy a guilty pleasure. I felt a deep pit in my stomach, though, when I heard that they had made a surreal Jewish biopic of Conservative Jewish life in the Twin Cities. There was much to admire in this film, and as a slice of what Hebrew school was like in the sixties, I can testify that except for the excessive pot smoking, it was an accurate portrayal of Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvahs, even the faces were of people I could have known.
The synagogue “Bnei Abraham” or “Bnei Abe” as friends from the frozen north used to call it, was a lot like the conservative synagogue I grew up in. It is within this backdrop of Jewish suburbia that the Brothers Coen explore the ancient question of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to decent people?
Larry Gopnik, a math professor, is a somewhat passive, but honest and decent man whose life has taken a turn for the worse. His wife is leaving. He has a freeloading brother living with him for an indefinite term. He has financial pressures and that’s only the beginning.
So, why does this serious man have such tzuris? For this question, Judaism ceases to be the reference point. Instead, it is Gracie Slick of the “Jefferson Airplane”. When the inaccessible sage of the movie– who is now retired and will not meet with Larry because he does not engage in pastoral counseling– has his brief meeting with Larry’s son after his Bar Mitzvah, the rabbi returns a confiscated transistor radio offering an ominous warning:
When the truth is found to be lies, and when all of the joy within you dies–now what? Be a good boy.
The boy has an expression of wonder at this old Jew quoting a rock song. The utter incongruity is funny, but what does it mean? Does it mean that the old man transcends his time and context to reach out to a disaffected adolescent? Certainly, a pithy aphorism from Pirkei Avot would not serve the bill–or would it? This is portrayed as the wisest moment of the movie, and it is. It’s a profound question that actually hints at an answer. “Why me?” is not going to help you, so you better figure out what you are going to do, and only you can do that. But the question is given to the wrong person–this is what his father needs, not him! He is not in despair, he’s thirteen.
The movie is broken into three parts introduced by three different rabbis. The old wise rabbi is the last one. The first rabbi is a young, idealistic buffoon. The second rabbi is a slick, empty, snake oil salesman, and of course the sage is too busy thinking to deal with a man in despair.
The Judaism portrayed is one without sense. The rabbis speak of God, but are not moored in Jewish tradition in any meaningful way. The Bar Mitzvah Torah portion is learned from a recording–the meaning of the words still a mystery–and, other than the Bar Mitzvah no Jewish ritual life is in evidence. Judaism is based on rites of passage, vague mystical references to Hebrew letters, vain rabbinic leadership. xenophobia and contempt for “the goyim”, and learning the modern Hebrew language. Hashem is invoked often, the Zohar is mentioned and gentiles are pervasively reviled. It is an ugly caricature of a tribe with cultural connections based on long forgotten values.
Unfortunately, on some days, it’s one I recognize.
“Involve the public in the pain caused by the deficiency in need of remedy.” (Ronald Gottesman introduction to The Jungle.)
In TNR, Halbertal, a self-described leftist, not only articulates the biases contained in the report, he courageously mourns the fact that such distortions give Israel an excuse not to examine any shortcomings. While others tout Mr. Goldstone’s Zionist bonafides, Halbertal, in classic Dragnet fashion, gives us “just the facts”. His conclusion points to the error of the two extreme positions common to the left and the right.
Faced with this unprecedented and deeply perplexing situation, two extreme positions have emerged in Israel. The radical left claims that, since such a struggle necessarily involves the killing of innocent civilians, there is no justifiable way of fighting it. Soldiers ought to refuse to engage in such a war, and the government has only one option, which is to end the occupation. This view is wrong, since Israel has the right and the obligation to protect its citizens, and without providing real security, it will fail also to achieve peace and to put an end to the occupation. The radical right claims that, since Hamas and Hezbollah initiated the targeting of Israeli civilians, and since they take refuge among their own civilians, the responsibility for harming Palestinian civilians during Israel’s attempt to defend itself falls upon the Palestinians exclusively. This approach is also wrong. The killing of our civilians does not justify the killing of their civilians. Civilians do not lose their right to life when they are used as shields by Hamas and Hezbollah. In fighting the militants, Israel must do as much as it possibly can do to avoid and minimize harm to civilian life and property.
While others imagine that there were commands from the highest quarters for Israeli soldiers to “take the gloves off”, Halbertal puts the civilian casualties in the context of NATO bombings, Pakistan, and others. He doesn’t mention Somalia where the proportion of civilian casualties was obscenely high.
In asymmetrical war, the problem is that every soldier must make very complicated assessments of who is a civilian, who is making a legitimate threat and who is not. This is not like a higher up decision to bomb Hiroshima or Dresden, this is a complex situation decided on the ground, sometimes in seconds, by citizen soldiers of the rank and file.
This is a fair analysis which yearns to hold Israel accountable for what it actually did, and not for what others imagine. It also seems to me that the J Streeters who booed Rabbi Yoffe’s criticism of the Goldstone Report, hadn’t read it–after all it is 452 pages of Palestinian testimony.
Now that, by design, rag tag insurgents hide among civilians, we need new rules of engagement. Halbertal begins the conversation that Goldstone could have started.
Halbertal is a Professor of Law who is immersed in ethical issues of war in general and the new kind of war Israel faces now. He incredibly suggests that these complex moral equations be part of an Israeli soldiers training so that he won’t be paralyzed to act on the battlefield. I agree, but only a Jewish army would require such concern from her rank and file. But even if we didn’t, the rest of the world would.
For those without the time to read the extraordinarily long Goldstone report, at least do yourself a favor, and read Halbertal’s analysis.
Now, that’s a helluva title. Recently, Ralph Stanley the unparalleled mountain music singer and banjo player published a memoir, The Man of Constant Sorrow. He is 82 years old and still performs about one hundred concerts a year. Anyone who saw the film, “O Brother Where art thou”, will recognize Ralph’s pipes singing to the grim reaper in his chilling rendition of “O Death”. Stanley eschewed electric instruments and anything else that was not traditionally used to play mountain music. He, nevertheless, was incredibly innovative within this limitation. His claw hammer banjo style was path breaking, and he claimed that although he learned from his predecessors, he always had to do things his own way. Still, he adhered to the perceived strictures of the genre, and was very critical of those “ignorant hippies playin’ with their electric banjos”.
Levon Helm, once the drummer and vocalist for The Band, has had an amazing comeback at age 71, Recovering from throat cancer, his miraculously unimpaired voice has given us two magnificent solo albums. One, “Dirt Farmer” and the other, “Electric Dirt”. Levon has taken a different path than Ralph. He is rooted in the same place, but has produced more eclectic offerings. His, and Ralph’s voice are cut of the same cloth. The power of which is in the feeling, the experience, the pain and the joy they bring to each vocal. Levon, however, is happy to sing the blues, invite horn arrangements and play rock and roll, not as a concession to a fickle public, but because he is at home in all these musical settings.
Ralph attributes his long career to his fidelity to what he feels the music required. Whose to argue with him? Levon, I suppose, would say that his long career is a product of his love for many kinds of music and the unique impression his voice brings to each song.
When interviewed on Diane Rehm, Ralph was asked what he listened to. Incredibly, he answered that truthfully, he just liked to listen to Ralph Stanley. Even if his mother taught him a lick, he was more impressed by how he changed it than he was by the fact that she taught him. I’m sure that Levon would have a long list of musicians who had inspired him from several genres.
Dan Senor and Saul Singer have written a book about Israel’s hi-tech industry called Start Up Nation that chronicles Israel’s stunning contributions to everything from computer chips to cell phones. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Dan Senor makes a distinction between innovation and entrepreneurship. Innovation means coming up with something new, whereas an entrepreneur will figure out how to market it. Many countries are entrepreneurial, but they lack innovators. Israel, on the other hand, has both. That is what sets her apart.
The Talmud teaches that: It is impossible for a Beit Midrash [to exist] without innovative thinking. (Hagiga 3a) In keeping with Ralph Stanley, it means within the rigors and structure of an articulated framework, we are nevertheless commanded to come up with our own “fingerpicking styles”, our own voice, but it must be from within the system itself. Every innovation must be filtered through that which has preceded it. It is from there that we reap the rewards of authenticity and longevity. It is also true, that others will find sustenance from being more fluid and experimental, but what cannot be claimed, is that such a path will have the staying power of a tradition that feels the profound tension between fidelity to what was and innovation for what needs to be.
Ralph Stanley, and Levon Helm know this, but they interpret it very differently. Their authenticity hinges on the fact that they see this tension as essential to their mission as musicians who represent more than the sound of their own voices.
One of the great websites for Jewish legal arcana is seforim.blogspot.com. This is primarily a place for observant academic types to bemoan the perceived dishonesty of their very right-wing confreres. The latest missive from Marc Shapiro regales us of tales of Brandeis where reconciling the ethos of the university with halachic Judaism can be a challenge. I love this website, and I admire the energy people put into the articles that appear there.
I read these engaging tidbits with mild interest since I was an Orthodox Rabbinic Advisor (not even a Rabbi does more than advise at the big H) at Havard Hillel many years ago. Orthodox communities at universities might have been a testing ground for halachic innovation for adult communities in the future, but it was not to be. Not only because of the mindless, fascistic musings of the “right-wing”, but primarily it is the so-called enlightened Orthodox who are to blame. When congregations that have hundreds of members struggle to have a daily minyan, why would the cogent arguments of perceived marginally committed Orthodox Jews be taken seriously?
One of the major disappointments for adherents to Jewish egalitarianism is that there has not been a great proliferation of shomer shabbos egal. communities. If there had been, this would have presented a formidable challenge to the Modern Orthodox community, but, in fact, there aren’t, and it hasn’t. Beyond the “sins” of inequality, and perceived discrimination, there seems to be a disquieting and unavoidable conclusion. Most liberal temperaments find it very difficult to submit themselves to the dictates of a Book. The synthesis of taking the Law and western culture equally seriously is an eccentricity from which a serious movement has not truly emerged.
To a lesser degree this is also true regarding Modern Orthodox as well. There is a reason that its thinkers and leaders are self-perceived outsiders bemoaning their lack of influence, and mollifying themselves with critical, self-congratulatory insights. Taking its cue from its right shoulder, one Modern Orthodox University looks askance at its upstart rival on “principle” inhibiting “true followers” from hiring rabbis from said institution.
I am certain that one can find much diversity within the community of the hirsute/chapeau crowd–even if it is muted. Certainly, there would be those who would vilify regardless, but it would be different. I remember being a witness at a wedding in Jerusalem where Prof. Shaul Lieberman, the rector of JTS was the m’sader Kiddushin. At that time Rabbi Jolte z”l was Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and had cracked down on who was allowed to perform weddings in Jerusalem. Many a YU Rabbi was denied because Rabbi Jolte had a low opinion of the American rabbinate. Somehow, Rabbi Jolte’s opinion of the Conservative movement didn’t influence his decision whether to allow Professor Lieberman to perform the ceremony. After all, he was footnoted in Lieberman’s monumental work, Tosefta KiPeshuta.
If we had a vibrant learning community that could engage with others and where our commitments to both learning and practice were similar, we might bridge the credibility gap, but until that time, it’s the same old whine.
Some things people just knew and now the New York Times corroborates what the Talmud understood millenia ago. Daniel Goleman reports of his friend who has defied prediction of his demise for over a decade. He attributes his longevity to the fact that he was loving and as a result was also loved:
Though no one could ever prove it, I suspect that one of many ingredients in his longevity has been this flow of people who love him.
Neurologists can measure how affection and connection have a measurable impact on the well-being of the recipient. The converse is also true. In the Talmud, it says that one who visits the sick removes one sixtieth of the illness. (Nedarim 39b) One time I was visiting an elderly rabbi with a couple of my teachers. One of them quipped, “We’ve come to remove a 60th of your illness!”
“In that case,” he said, “You shouldn’t have come together!”
The Talmud anticipates this conclusion and teaches that one can remove a sixtieth of what remains, so that there is still something for physicians to do.
He was right about one thing though. The more time spent, the merrier. The more time alone, the worse it is. Good thoughts, pure intentions, actually enter another person’s head.
The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.
Maimonides teaches that the more visits to the sick, the better it is, as long as one does not make a bother of ones self. (Hilchot Avelim 14:4)
A sixtieth is understood to be the smallest measure that can alter a substance. One sixtieth of a forbidden food, can make a casserole unkosher. This small measure is the tipping point between something that is forbidden and something that is permitted. Similarly, a visit to someone who is seriously ill can be the tipping point between demise and recovery.
Your visit could be the one that saves.