Off the Pulpit


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A Typical Jew?

The sinew of paradox runs through Jewish history. Were Jews and gentiles separate in the Middle Ages? Well yes, but there are also rules about hiring a gentile wet nurse on the sabbath which suggests a degree of intimacy between the two that would shock casual assumptions. Were Jews pious? Well yes, except that from ancient times until today we find innumerable examples of assimilation and indifference and heresy. Jews are often thought of as powerless in their history, but in many cases they exerted great power, and spanned the range from unfathomable persecution to acceptance and security.

To speak of “the Jews” is as misleading as to declare “Judaism says” when one can almost always find authoritative Jewish sources that say the opposite. We are caught in the normal human condition of ambiguity and ambivalence, with instances of love and betrayal throughout times of faith and times of failure.

I have known many poor Jews, many wealthy Jews, many Jews surrounded with family, many Jews who were almost entirely alone. What I have never known is a typical Jew. Our tradition tries hard to inculcate traits of goodness, industry, scholarship and family, but we still come in all varieties of the human rainbow. Praise God.

Why I Love Mystery Novels

From the moment I read my first Agatha Christie and my mother gave me a John MacDonald, I’ve been hooked on mysteries. From Holmes to Bosch, I read classic, golden age mysteries, international mysteries, noir, psychological puzzles, police procedurals, spy novels. I’ve even contributed an essay or two to compendiums about mystery literature. There are established reasons of course: such books have a clear plot and strongly defined characters; they suggest there are solutions in the world and there is ultimate justice (at least, most of them do.) But lately I’ve come to believe there is another reason why I, and so many others, love mystery novels.

The best mysteries emphasize the essential unpredictability of life. No one expects the murder(s), even if the detective makes some dark remark about foreboding. And the solution is inevitably surprising, or the mystery is not a success. It is a literature of contingency; of possibility; of dark and light in unlikely and unpredictable combinations. It is a literature of life.

A mystery is a promise of improbable occurrences: in a remote town called Ur, a man named Abraham hears a voice. You’ll never guess what happens next.


Breaking the Glass

Before the groom steps on a glass to conclude the wedding ceremony, there is a tradition of reciting part of the 137th Psalm, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem…”

The most immediate explanation of this is that stepping on the glass commemorates the tragedies of Jewish history, particularly the destruction of the Temple. So as we mark the destruction and exile, we promise not to forget.

On a more subtle level is the reality that to fall in love is not only to fall in love with the person, but to love things in the world together. Even as they intensify their concern for another, couples must learn to transcend the duality of love and embrace the world, to share as one that which matters to them both. They must stand face to face and shoulder to shoulder at the same time.

To affirm the memory of Jerusalem is to declare— we will not forget and we will ever love this place, this idea, as a couple. It is an affirmation and a promise as they build a home among the Jewish people.

Reason and Passion

The Spanish existentialist philosopher Miguel De Unamuno once explained the difference between conventional philosophy and existentialism by reworking the classical syllogism. Students in logic are taught that Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal. But the existentialist says: I am a man; all men are mortal. Therefore, I will die.

The first is a conclusion of logic. The second is of ultimate concern to me.

Of course how we reason is not separate from how we feel. Yet the abstract analysis of problems does not always address the single, haunted cry of the individual in all her anguish, need and passion. The Torah teaches that the human being was created singly; each of us sees the world through our own eyes. We can use logic and technology to do remarkable things, to go to space and fashion machines that transform the world. But we would do well to remember Unamuno’s caution and the Torah’s teaching — the wizardry of the mind will not save us if we forsake the urgencies of the heart.

Toothpaste and Travel

In my house growing up we only used used Crest toothpaste. That may seem a negligible datum, but in fact it shaped my childhood. I learned that no other toothpaste was used by smart, responsible people. When I visited another child’s house and saw Colgate, or one of the unserious toothpastes like Ultrabright (the very name suggests frivolity) I knew those parents were not as wise as my own.

The day I realized that one could be as kind and as smart as my mother and use Pepsodent, my world changed. And that, my friends, is the point of travel. It is not only to see magnificent sites, although that is glorious. It is to recognize the variety of legitimate and even wonderful ways in which human beings arrange their lives, so different from one’s own.

To travel well is to be humbled: To recognize how little one knows of the vast world, and how many assumptions about life one has not thought through until experiencing another way of doing things. We still love and value home, but in a wider frame and with deeper understanding. You cannot properly treasure your own country if you never see it from afar. I still use Crest although now and again I grab a brand from another country, where apparently, they too have teeth.

Laughter and Love

In years of interviewing Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, a few patterns have recurred. One of the questions I ask is — if your best friend were sitting here, what would she or he say about you? And by far the most common single answer, surprisingly, is, “I’m funny.”

Now we have to assume that not every 13 year old is a budding Seinfeld. But the deeper implication of that answer is that laughter is often the glue that binds people together, and shows them they share a sensibility. It is a genuine indication of friendship when people laugh about the same things.

The poet W.H. Auden once said, “Among those whom I like or admire I can find no common quality; but among those I love, I can — all of them make me laugh.”

The Jewish people have developed a talent for humor over centuries of coping with a wide variety of experiences. It is not only a release of pressure, but it also has bound communities together. When we laugh, anger dissipates and joy increases. From childhood onward, we treasure those who make us laugh.

Unkind Thoughts

In decades of serving as a Rabbi, I cannot tell you for sure which phenomenon in the synagogue is most commonly helpful, but I can tell you which is the most commonly destructive – the assumption of ill-will.

Disagreements are expected. Even arguments can be salutary. God knows the Jewish people have a decided tendency to argue. But the belief that the other person is advancing a position because they are driven by nefarious motives contributes to the deep divisions within communities.

The issue can be about masks or about minyan; it can be about staffing or about schooling; it can be about Jewish law or parking spaces. No matter the seriousness of the question, if you believe the person opposing you has the best of intentions, it changes the argument and often, the outcome. If on the other hand, you are convinced that any decent person would think as you do, and you will be unable to overcome the divisions that any community inevitably faces. I’m not asking you to agree with me; I just want you to believe that I am not evil for disagreeing with you.


Heart Shells

When my brother and I were kids, we would go into the front yard and play egg toss. The idea of the game was to move farther and farther from one another and toss the egg so that the other could catch it without allowing the shell to break. My mother did not approve of this game.

The key to success was to move your hands with the egg as it arrived. If you caught it with your hands fixed the egg would almost certainly break. If you could move with it, however, you had a chance of keeping it intact.

That simple action is true with relationships as well. Inflexibility breaks, movement preserves. As the Talmud instructs, “one should be flexible as a reed and not unyielding as a cedar” (Ta’anit 20b). Hearts can be broken against a wall; but softness and kindness can cradle them, as the egg in one’s hand, and keep them whole.

Why Jew Hatred is Different

In the history of most group hatred, there is a limit – geographical, economic or cultural. Some people may express hatred of Asians, but they do not wish to wipe China and Japan off the map. Some people may hate African Americans, but they don’t wish the world to be rid of all people of color, even if they wish their corner of the world to be so purged. Generally, hatred has the limit of one’s personal experience – if the hater need not be in contact with or have his life changed by a certain group, that is sufficient. The knowledge that they exist somewhere else does not disturb his sleep.

Yet Jews have repeatedly discovered the totalizing nature of Jew hatred. For centuries Jews were for Christian’s evidence of a fundamental rebellion against their faith who had to be converted or destroyed. For Muslims, Jews represented a rejection of Muhammed, and so the conversion of the Jews, and the affirmation of Islam, was a constant goal. For the Nazis, Jews were a threat to the fascist hegemony and had to be wiped out.

When Jews hear strains of hatred, they do not hear a skirmish, they hear a massacre. In 1979 Habib Elghanian, who had served as President of the Tehran Jewish society, was executed for friendship with “enemies of God.” The Iranian Jewish community did not assume that organizing protests would be the most effective response. Instead, they left Iran en masse, losing billions of dollars in assets, homes and businesses, because Jewish history had taught them that the execution of leader for anti-Semitic reasons leads to one end. Even for a community that was relatively untouched by the holocaust, its lessons were not lost: the hostility of a government expressed against Jews is a harbinger of genocide.

Today when Jews hear about the spike in attacks, here, in Latin America and in Europe, they cannot ignore the potential for catastrophe. When the ADL reports an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric and action, it is more than a blip on the radar. Although it is true that America is a patchwork of many groups, and there is broad sympathy for Jews in this country, once one has had a heart attack every chest pain is a warning. Hatred of Jews, a virus that has infected humanity for millennia, is a different sort of hatred. Jews are seen as superhuman, controlling the world, and subhuman, vermin who are less than people. As the Jews of Germany learned, no amount of patriotism or influence can dissuade the haters. The only vaccine is the strength of people of goodwill and conscience. Do not be silent.

The Failure of Success

People often speak about the lessons one can learn from failure. We know that failure can teach you humility, resilience and a certain acceptance of the inequities of life. There are also lessons to learn from early success, both good and bad.

Dostoevsky had a gambling problem. The great novelist was often in debt and yet could not prevent himself from losing still more at the gambling tables. His compulsion has often been attributed to the fact that the first time he gambled, he succeeded spectacularly. That success in the end, proved a failure.

The same happened with some nations who were early successes in containing COVID. Confident in their procedures, they discovered, to their dismay, that the virus was waiting for them to relax, and then it struck with a vengeance.

Beware instant and early success. It has proved the opposite of a blessing for childhood film stars and prodigies in a variety of fields. John Stuart Mill learned Greek at 3 and Latin at 8 and had a breakdown at 20. Sometimes failing, struggling, renewing and grit are surer paths than the dazzle of triumph.