Bob Schwartz

Category: Judaism

Rosh Hashanah

If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix.
If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

Shana Tova! (A Good Year)

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Selichot, Angels and Heschel

I lit a candle
For the care of those
In the storm’s way
The light answered:
It is up to you.

The Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on Wednesday evening, September 20. In preparation for that, on Saturday night, September 16, are the prayers and contemplation of Selichot.

I’ve written before about a controversial Selichot prayer, Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyers of Compassion):

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

The controversy is theological and has gone on for centuries, with the prayer being redacted and even deleted among some Jewish communities and traditions. Machnisei Rachamim asks angels to serve as intermediaries for prayer, and some claim that this is wholly inconsistent with the Jewish theology of an unintermediated and direct line between Jews and God. One contemporary rabbi who opposes it claims that its continued recitation is a symptom of Judaism becoming “too spiritual.”

Rather than weighing in on this dispute, and being a Jew who is probably “too spiritual” for some (that is, whether it is angels, saints or bodhisattvas, humankind needs all the spiritual help it can get), I turned to the greatest of modern Jewish theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, for some thoughts on angels. I found this story he told, which is not only about angels, but about the Torah portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the akeda, the binding of Isaac.

At a Vietnam War protest in 1967, Heschel talked about being a child in Poland, learning about the akeda from his rabbi. Heschel said:

“Isaac was on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. There he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat very fast. I actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife and how my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard, ‘Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad for now I know that thou fearest God.’ And here I broke into tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked my rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ I said to him, still weeping, ‘But rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late!’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot ever come too late.”

And then Heschel said: “An angel cannot come too late, my friends, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late”

The Furniture of Religion

When I look at the religions I practice or have a studied interest in—Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity among them—I see empty houses and furniture.

Some religions seem to begin with emptying the previously stuffed house, or at least minimizing the furniture. Buddhism and Christianity look like this, at least in the beginning. But the nature of religious evolution is to buy, borrow or build furnishings to fill the rooms, because it seems an improvement and because it is what people seem to like in their homes. And so, thousands of years later, you find plenty of variety in the Buddhist and Christian neighborhoods—some very grand constructions spiritually, intellectually, and physically, that seem a long way from the original simple houses.

Judaism, which like Hinduism harks back to a more ancient world where more is more, begins overstuffed (or in the Yiddish expression, ongeshtopt, meaning overstuffed). There have been continuing movements to strip down the Jewish furniture to basics and barer floors and walls, the most powerful of which has been the Hasidic stream, flowing from the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century. (But in the spirit of exponential furnishing, the Hasidic movement became more and more overstuffed over the next few hundred years, leaving the Besht’s house barely recognizable.)

Regular readers know my appreciation for religion and my practice of Zen, which for me remains the best (but not only) way to clear out the furniture, or at least see through it to the basic house, or even to see through the house itself to where it sits in the universe. Once there, you can bring in the furniture you really need, whatever the period or the style.

 

The Heart of Shabbat

The Heart of Shabbat

On Shabbat
The mountains walk away
Gone beyond
Not to distract
With grandeur in space
Reminders of time
In their absence

Further reading:

The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Mountain and Waters Sutra, Dogen (“The green mountains are always walking”)

The Heart Sutra, translated by Red Pine (“Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha”)

 

Shonda fur di goyim (A shame in front of the non-Jews)

“I want a leader like Trump but more racist, who won’t give his daughter to a Jew…I don’t think you can feel about race the way I do and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl, okay?”
Charlottesville white supremacist leader Chris Cantwell

Expectations have never been lower for moral courage. Not just for Trump, who has no morality or courage, but for politicos and operatives who seem to believe that keeping silent in the face of horror is the only way to keep power and their jobs.

This is a narrow message about the Jews in Trump’s inner circle, such as chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Minuchin, son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump, and others (including, I suppose, Trump’s Jewish grandchildren).

I repeat that expectations are low. But if there is a case where you might expect more or better, it is for Jews at the center of this moment to speak up about a (neo) Nazi attack, such as Cantwell’s targeted screed, or about the crowd in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!”

There is a Yiddish expression, “shonda fur di goyim,” roughly meaning a shame that is embarrassing in front of the non-Jews. I don’t suppose it is any more embarrassing to hear the silence of Cohn, Minuchin, Kushner and Ivanka than it is to observe the diffidence of most elected Republicans. Other Jews can imagine the self-serving rationalizations rolling around in the heads of these high-profile Jews who seem convinced that it is best not to say or do anything, such as denouncing Trump or quitting their posts.

Jews—along with every other besieged and reviled minority—have had to learn the very hard way that when things get this explicit, you not only have to pay attention. You have to take a stand. Why these particular Jews have not done that yet is unfortunate. And a little embarrassing.

The Book of Ruth: Ivanka and Jared, Donald and Charles

It was reported that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shavuot this week, though without much other detail given. It would be interesting to know more, given the connection between the holiday and their own current situation.

Shavuot began as an agricultural festival, celebrating the “first fruits” of the harvest season. It evolved into the holiday marking the giving of the Torah. Among the traditions associated with Shavuot is reading the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is considered one of the literary treasures of the Bible. It is often referred to and analyzed as a short story or novella. What a story it is. A woman and her daughter-in-law are separated by culture and religion but bound together—forever—by family. When their men die, what connects them is stronger than any force that might tear them apart. It is about loyalty, love and faith above all else, through the hardest times. These strong women are not an ancillary sideshow; they are the main event. They alone assure continuity and the future. No wonder it is thought possible that among the biblical books, this one might have been written by a woman.

We expect that Ivanka and Jared, as faithful Jews, read the Book of Ruth this week, but we can’t know what they make of it. Do they also feel that unbreakable obligation that overcomes the greatest adversity and testing? Before the current events, each of them probably faced some difficulties with their respective fathers. Now the stories of Donald Trump and Charles Kushner are entangled through their children. Those children, Ivanka and Jared, might well believe and say to those fathers, as Ruth said to Naomi, “wherever you go, I go.”

For more about Shavuot and the Book of Ruth, see this earlier post.

Barely Audible

Barely Audible

קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

A still small voice
1 Kings 19:12

Hurricanes earthquakes
Fires in the brain
Awed but unable
To follow a thought
Or lose one.
Hear O hear
Minute stillness
Soft murmuring
Gentle whisper
Still small.

Note: “God will reveal himself not in storm or fire or the shaking of the mountain but in a small, barely audible sound. On Mount Carmel, God spoke through fire; here at Horeb, he speaks [to Elijah] in a more subtle language, for the deity is by no means limited to seismic manifestations.”
Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, translation with commentary by Robert Alter

© Bob Schwartz 2017

A Day for Job

In the Orthodox Church, today is officially a day for the marvelous and mysterious biblical character Job, who is called by that church Righteous Job the Long-Suffering. While the Book of Job is certainly read, used and debated in other Jewish and Christian traditions, this is the only official recognition he gets.

I’ve written before about Job (Yom Kippur and Job, The Radical Book of Job) because there is nothing like it in the Bible, not even close. Robert Alter writes in his enlightening translation and commentary:

The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon. Theologically, as a radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers—a dissent compounded by its equally radical rejection of the anthropocentric conception of creation that is expressed in biblical texts from Genesis onward. Its astounding poetry eclipses all other biblical poetry, working in the same formal system but in a style that is often distinct both lexically and imagistically from its biblical counterparts.

“The patience of Job” is the way the story is frequently summarized, suggesting that even in the face of undeserved suffering, Job is a model of how unwavering faith will carry us through the worst times. Once you have read the Book of Job carefully, along with some of the many excellent interpretations, you find that this is not the case. The Book of Job does not solve any mysteries or answer any questions. All it does is deepen mysteries and ask more questions. This isn’t what we might want, but if you’ve lived a life, you know that is what you get. Which is precisely what makes the Book of Job so irreplaceably essential, even if not particularly comforting.

U.S. Days of Remembrance, Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Babi Yar

These are the official Holocaust Days of Remembrance in the U.S., coinciding with Yom Hashoah, the Day of Remembrance. The U.S. Congress established the Days of Remembrance as the nation’s week-long annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

In looking for a poem to include, I discovered that the great poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died this month at the age of 84. This news did not receive the sort of coverage it deserved. If ever a poet lived the life of poetry as insurgent art, he did.

Yevtushenko also wrote one of the definitive poems about the Holocaust. From the Guardian:

Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his 20s, with poetry denouncing Joseph Stalin. He gained international acclaim as a young revolutionary with Babi Yar, an unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the antisemitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.

Until Babi Yar was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the cold war….

Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site of the mass killings in Kiev, Ukraine, and searching for something memorializing what happened there – a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker – but finding nothing.

“I was so shocked,” he said. “I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it.”

It took him two hours to write the poem that begins: “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”

Babi Yar
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
Dreyfus.
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
Hounded,
spat on,
slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people!
I know
you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
transparent
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!

More poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

The Mountain and the Cross

The Mountain and the Cross

How is the view
From up there?

Can you see
How you got there?
Others look
At every act you took
Word you spoke
Song you sang
Pull them apart
Put them together
A journey
That never seems to end.

For you it ends here
For a time
On the mountain and the cross.

A privileged child
A prince
A prodigy
A champion of the people
An enemy
A wise man
A miracle worker embarrassing mere magicians
A leader
A rebel
How did that rebellion go
How is it now?

One mistake after another
Has cost you everything
Won you something
But what in the end
Did it all mean?

(Jesus wonders
If he might have lived longer
Not one hundred twenty
But more than thirty three.
Moses has no complaint
About the number
And would not trade places
Sitting on a mountain
Not hanging from a cross
But regrets having to survey
An unreachable destination.)

You were just infants
Too young to remember
How it began.
Leave it to others
To imagine that past
And future.
You have no choice
But to let them see and speak for you
As you saw and spoke for others.
Now your eyes and mouth are closed
In dark silence from a height.

© Bob Schwartz 2017