The two greatest Jewish moments of my life, part II
Oh, I have been taking some crap lately. And I understand this. There is in the world a stigma attached to religion. And, forgetting he ridiculous notion of the immense and enormous popularity of the opium of the masses, I think that this has every last possible thing to do with the fact that belief, in the religious sense, seems to be the polar opposite of reason. And I can fully understand this as well.
And what is more, I have been probably as great a practitioner of non-observance as there has ever been. This is not to say, oh my fallen brethren, that I am declaring myself a lifelong sinner, far from it. In fact, over all, and I am sure there are arguments, I think I have worked pretty well with what I have had to work with and occasional stupidity aside, I think I have been reasonably thoughtful. Again, I am not going to win any contests but conscientiousness counts for something and refusal to “sell out” does as well.
But why does agreeing to attend temple for the Shabbas and for the high holy days have to mean that I have joined the stupids? Why does agreeing to wear a yarmulke (in temple), having the day off on Saturday, consciously excluding a couple of food stuffs that I had already consciously excluded for other reasons and taking the time to read up on a few things I am interested in, again something I already do, mean that I have defected away from the realists? My friend Chris wrote me the most direct letter of our entire 8-year relationship telling me, screaming at me, imploring me, admonishing me and otherwise demanding that I agree with him in his stance that there is no, was no and will be no G-d. I wrote him back and explained to him that the reason I never declared myself an atheist was because I never wanted to be involved in such arguments that would include these kinds of absolutes. He also though took the trouble to hack down agnosticism as well, though I think that was just for good measure.
My G-d, what had I done? I had forgotten that people go crazy for this sort of thing. Religion and politics are supposed to be the two things that peaceful people are never supposed to talk about. And I know this is true because my political friends will never talk religion with me (this is one of the reasons they never liked the UCPB, who demand to be associated with the Polish Orthodox Church. - I of course don’t like them just because they are Polish), and My rabbi tells me he will throw me out of his house if I try talking politics.
But here I am, doing almost nothing but talking Politics on the new NEWS site and gabbing about my Talmudic revelations on my blog. What in hell was I thinking?
Well this is what I was thinking insofar as talking about going to temple was concerned: It felt good. I liked what I was doing; doing it felt as though it added something that may have been missing, I was touched by it emotionally and, you know, spiritually and so I wrote about it. So what? I didn’t ask anything of anybody. Wasn’t the reading interesting? Did you like the flow of the words? Wasn’t it an interesting little puzzle to have to deal with? Or couldn’t you have just saw the humor in the ending or and this was the point, the subtleties of the whole thing? I mean this is what I do these days, this writing thing, and I am trying to do my best. Why was writing about remembering my heritage and participating in it for the first time in three decades wrong? Would you rather have me screaming that such practices should be done away with entirely and all those who follow rounded up, tattooed, imprisoned, starved, tortured, gassed, shot, cremated and thrown into mass graves? Should I be ashamed?
Listen folks: I am Jewish. Let me say it again: I am Jewish. I am Jewish because my mother was Jewish, as was her mother and her mother’s mother. I am also Jewish simply because I accept the fact that I am. It is a fact. And if you look through the million or so words I have posted here on this site, I defy you to find one place where I have ever denied it. No, I have never made a big deal about it, no I have never said that I am better or worse than any man other that those creeps in Poland, and yes I have said that I have not practiced. And all of this is absolutely true. But what is also true and what is probably at the heart of what has been behind what has happened to get me back into it was that over the last while, I found that I happen to like the rabbi in our synagogue. I mean, I know that this may seem kind of stupid, but that is really what started it. I like him a lot actually. And after thinking about it, I decided that I also liked what he was doing here in Pinsk and sort of identified with him insofar as a lot of his difficulties were concerned. And this is all it was; I just wanted to help out because I thought that what he was doing with the school and all was a good thing.
Of course however I understood that I would probably need to agree to actually be Jewish and to participate in the temple to be involved. And this has always been the end of the road for me and usually it was because I refused to be a hypocrite: If I didn’t believe, there was no reason to support it. But for some reason, this time when I thought about it, the answer came up differently. I don’t know why, but it did. Perhaps it was because this time when the question of hypocrisy came up, this in regards to my three-decade non-participation in my Jewish-ness, I decided that it might just be more hypocritical or maybe even just lazier not to just go over to the temple for Shabbas. Do you see what I am saying? I just thought that in this particular case, as long as I liked the rabbi and liked what he was doing, that I wanted to help and that selfishly because I liked the energy I have received from the association quite a lot as well, that spanning the gap and agreeing to open myself up to participation and taking on the responsibility for the concurrent acts of devotion were not something I wanted to fight. And so I went. So this is all that it is. And as far as being hypocritical is concerned, my current feeling is that I had in fact been taking pride in my heritage forever, but had never done much of anything to help it along. And that, of course, seems to me to be even more hypocritical.
And as far as any born again righteousness is concerned, I think I am pretty much exactly the same person I was last week. Well, probably I know a few more things about Jewish stuff than I did then. And, and this is the most important, though there was a rather crazy moment that first Saturday morning (The second greatest Jewish moment of my life) I believe that there has not been any real spiritual change that has occurred on the inside. Wait a minute Moishe, before you get angry, it is the truth: Though I find that what I am doing now makes more sense insofar as concerns my pride at being Jewish than I felt when I was refusing out of deference to my agnosticism, and regardless of how unbelievably beautiful I found some of the moments in Rosh Hashanah, I have not been in any way swept away. Perhaps this is because the before and the after both come from the same identical spot. And it is that very spot in my soul, or consciousness or heart or intellect, or wherever you feel comfortable seeing it, that has been what I have been so proud to have inherited. Can you understand this? I just decided my pride of heritage was better served trying to keep it alive, or to use a garden phrase, to help nurture it, to help it live and grow than to just stand by and take credit for someone else’s work.
Judaism is about the Torah and the torah is the word. And the word is read, and followed, listened to, argued over, fought over, died for and lived for. No, better, it is supposed to be loved. I guess it has simply occurred to me that I am exactly who I am because of the word. So why fight it? And in fact, it also seems that because I fought it for all those years, I might be able to bring in something fresh from all of that time away. And this of course could be something helpful which again, is exactly who I am.
So this is the story except for one more thing:
On that first Saturday morning, only my third trip to schul in 28 years, my rabbi for some reason thought that I should be called to read the prayers over the reading of the torah. And I hope you can understand exactly how mind-blowing this moment was. Forget the potential social humiliation, forget that I was almost paralyzed with the internal arguments over my above mentioned hypocrisies, my beliefs or even that I hadn’t a clue what anyone was saying or doing around me; how could the man trust that I would not make a fool of him for having opened the door for me?
But there it was, the torah was open, it was being read, and then the rabbi is saying the prayer, I think, but he was also waving his hand at me. What? What do you want from me? What are you doing?
“Adam ben…” He was waiting for me to fill in my father’s name. This I understood. But why do you want to know? “What is your father’s name?” he added in English.
I stammered, “Its Leonard. Adam ben Leonard in my name” Right, that is my name. Its actually different, but I understood the point. And then he was waving me towards the torah. I was numb. I had tunnel vision. I felt like I was drunk and that the room was spinning. One of the councilors who speaks a little English was talking to me. There was a plasticized page with Russian words on them.
“I’m sorry; we only have this in phonetic Russian.” On the card was printed the prayers that needed to be said before and after reading from the torah. I focused my eyes on them. I read the first word. And then, and I am sorry Chris, but aside from any logical attributing of what happened next, the spontaneous recognition and complete remembrance of the words, to the fact that these words were learned by me by rote and set into a musical context some 28 years ago and that their returning clearly to my consciousness in that moment was less some kind of miracle than about my having never stopped playing music; this theory being that these words were there for me in this moment because they were attached to music and therefore were fixed into the same part of my consciousness as all my other music and were simply and only by coincidence kept alive and fresh by constant practice of the guitar for about the same period of time; something big realy did happen. Or maybe it was just because I may have a really good memory, although this of course might also have come from music as well. Or maybe it was from my being Jewish. But from whichever side of the argument you want to look at it, the fact remains that in that rather spectacular moment, though I had not uttered nor even thought consiously of them for over 28 years, I KNEW THOSE WORDS AND DID EXACTLY WHAT I DID WHICH WAS TO SING THEM OUT, CLEARLY, RIGHT THERE ON THE SPOT:
Baruch et Ado-nai humevorach …
And they all followed: Baruch Ado-nai humavorach laolam voed…
Baruch Ado-nai humavorach laolam voed. Baruch ata Ado-nai, eluhainu melch haolam, ashaer barcha barnu mekol haomim. Venatan lanu es toraso. Baruch ata adonai, notain hatorah….
And everybody there, regardless that I sung the words to a different melody, in a different accent and at a different pace, and that I did so clearly without really knowing at the moment what I was doing, said: Amen
So, you know, argue with me all you want, but that moment was imposible and special and my thinking is that there might just also have to have been at least a fragment of a microgram of something spiritual attached to it. And, even if you want to buy into the guitar player argument, can’t you see that if preservation of a talent comes only from practice that this means that I am obliged to practice something I might like to see preserved?