Your piece provoked me to write a note I called On ďOnÖĒ; in writing that piece, I found myself putting some words in your blogmouth that really shook me. Iím rattling them around now, and Iíd like to explain what I mean, and why they are shaking up my worldview, and why if I adopt those words, it will be a big deal to me. Whether I do or not, I am grateful for being shaken up by the words (even if the words themselves are not yours, and if you disavow them after reading all this). So. In order to explain all this stuff, Iím first going to have to lay out a good deal of my own personal philosophy, which I will do as briefly as I am capable. Which wonít be very brief, Iím afraid, because Iím that way. In an attempt to keep it a little briefer than it might have been, please take in my perception and it seems to me as qualifiers for pretty much any sentences following; Iím not claiming Universal Truth but describing the view from here.
How I perceive the universe
First of all, the universe is tremendously complicated, and each bit of it is so complicated that itís beyond human capacity to encompass. Just as the plane is infinitely large, and any finite subset of the plane, however small, still contains infinitely many points, so is the universe both too large for our comprehension and too small. Yet we muddle through anyway, for which gift alone all creatures with breath should praise the Creator (as they understand the Creator, which is also incompletely).
The human ability to muddle through is primarily due to our extraordinary talent for pattern-matching and modeling, which we do (and train ourselves to do) by telling and listening to stories. Stories tell us what the universe is like, and then, when weíre trying to figure out what the universe is like, we use the stories to match patterns, and when we find out what story we are in, we can use that to make decisions about how to act. This helps us both reduce the universe to the bits of it we can use, but fill in the gaps in what we can perceive. In other words, it helps us muddle through.
What do I do now
A couple of years ago, I wrote
If I may be allowed to pontificate, Iíll say the basic human question is ďWhat do I do now?Ē To put it more pedantically, ďGiven the state of the universe as I perceive it, what should my goals be, and what actions should I take to achieve those goals?Ē Thatís three questions, now: How should I best perceive the universe? What should my goals be? How do I work towards them? All of those are tough; ethics, metaphysics, psychology, history, politics, physics, all that stuff comes into it. But thereís moreÖ
If I want to know how to behave, I need to know something about the universe. The more I study it, and the more other people study it and tell me about it, the better Iím able to choose which stories are central, which stories really do tell me something about the universe, which stories I am really in (All of this presupposes that the universe actually exists, which I believe is the case. The existence of the universe, or at any rate my faith in the existence of the universe is another magnificent gift of the Creator, halílu Yah). Ultimately, when I choose what I should do now, Iíll make better choices if I draw on better stories, and draw on them with some knowledge of how I go about drawing on them (which is another story, and one Iím telling you now). There are, of course, infinitely many stories; the universe of stories is like the universe, there is more there than we can use.
The Story of Religion
To me, religion is the core story, the story we cling to that provides the frame for everything else. That story is what the world is really like, and even if it isnít like that in some places or times, itís the real story that we eventually come back to. The big story is the one that all the others have to fit into, somehow. Thereís some sense in which we get to pick that story, but for many people, that story, like all the best ones, is a story we canít remember ever first hearing. We canít remember a universe that wasnít perceived through that story, and weíre not really sure there ever was such a universe, because after all, the story usually tells us there wasnít.
For Christians, for most Christians at any rate, the core story of the universe is that the Lord so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Thatís quite a nice story, although honestly it doesnít do much for me, which frankly I wouldnít expect it to, since I didnít hear it until I was twenty. And, of course, there are different versions of this story, including the one that ends ďand They killed himĒ and the one that ends with the bit about the thief in the night. If you perceive the universe one way, well, itís big enough to confirm that, and if you perceive it another way, well, that story is contained in it, too. Particularly when the story you think you are in influences your actions to the point where you create that story around yourself, and particularly when itís a story everybody shares to some extent.
For me, the core story that tells me what the universe is like is that we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Again, this story has several different versions, but in the one I have held in my head, part of it is that we were not particularly deserving of either slavery or redemption. We are grateful for what the Lord did for us, of course, and part of that gratitude includes acknowledging that the Lord didnít do it because we were particularly good, or kind, or ethical, or powerful, or tall, or musical, or clever. Not that any of that is the point of the story, you understand, just that the story implies that (a) slave arenít slaves because they are in any particular way slavey, but rather because of social and economic forces beyond their control, and (2) liberation, Gd-given or otherwise, is not dependent upon deserts (or deserts) but droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven, upon the just and unjust alike.
Of course, the story is also that we are Different, we are Chosen (vaddevah dat means), and that we shouldnít trust outsiders. A good deal of my adult fiddling with the story has been to break that down (Jethro!) but still, that story is how I see the world. As I pass the story on to my daughter, I try to pass it on with the good and not so much the bad, and I have no idea how much I will succeed, or if she will ultimately simply reject the story altogether. Well, thatís for time to tell.
Fighting for my Judaism
It seems to me that many if not most Jews of our generation (and Iím assuming you are more or less of my generation, that is, post-Boom) grew up with a different core story. That story is that the Nazis killed six million of us in the gas chambers, and nobody did a damn thing about it. This is a tremendously powerful story, and at least most of it is true, and it, too, is part of the universe. On the other hand, what an awful story to have as the central story of what the universe is really like. I understand how it happened, and I have sympathy with my Hebrew School teachers, but I think that it was Bad for Jews. Since I came to this opinion (and all of this thinking, about stories, and the universe, and religion, and so on is the product of the last dozen years or so, begun really in my late twenties), I have been thinking, lazily, of ways to combat the tendency to replace Exodus with the Holocaust. Mostly, as I am insufficiently energetic or ambitious to do much more than chat about things in shul, I have been keeping this struggle in mind as I raise my daughter.
This, of course, goes back to asking what do I do now. Because I care about Jews and Judaism, I want to do something that will be Good for Jews, and within a very limited set, one of the things that I can do is to raise my family Jewish, and not just Jewish, but Jewish in a way that is Good for Jews. And because I want to raise my daughter as a Jew, and I want what is best for her, the Judaism I want to raise her in is a Judaism that is in itself Good for Jews. I think (with Douglas Rushkoff, though I disagree with almost everything else he says) that Judaism has in large measure lost sight of itself. If Iíve got the description right, and the goal right, and I still donít see an action, perhaps I need to start again, yes?
A Different Story
In writing about your essay, I found myself writing this:
Iíve whinged before about how my fundamental understanding of the Jews boils down to we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And I will still say that, because itís true, and itís true to myself the way I understand it. And that story is part of both Judaism and Christianity. But itís also true, as Mr. Rosenbaum points out, that you could boil the story of the Jews down to the Temple was destroyed, so we wrote the siddur.
What has been rattling around for me since than is whether that story, the story of the siddur, is really what the world is like. Or, taken from another point of view, when my daughter asks me what the universe is like (not that she will ask like that, but when she asks what it means that she is Jewish, as she does ask), which one do I want to tell her? Because, honestly, I think that is what I want the universe to be like. What I want her world to be like. Because, letís face it, the Temple is being destroyed (as it is in every generation, as it always is for everybody), and sheíll need a good siddur.
Where is the Lord in all this? Because when I say that all living things should praise the Creator, I mean it. That, too, is part of the story, that the Lord made the world in seven days (vaddevah dat means, because if itís like building a house in a week, than that story is not the universe I perceive, but if it means that what we have is a gift, a tremendous gift that implies a Giver, and a Giver and a gift that we canít completely comprehend, then that is the universe I perceive). And the Lord didnít give us the siddur. Itís not even like the mishkan, where yes we put the thing together, but to his specs. The siddur is a magnificent thing of constant creation and redaction (which is why the story appeals to me in the first place) but why bother? And the answer to why bother is that we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
The easy answer, finally, is of course to reject the idea that any of it boils down to a single sentence. And I accept that, yes. But my most powerful religious ritual is the Passover meal, for which we turn our house upside-down, and at which we feast like kings, and at which we say we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And the more we tell the story of the departure from Egypt, the more are we to be praised. And, really, the more somebody tells of the departure from Egypt, the more I praise them. And we donít do that for the story of Jacobís ladder, or for Ezra ďfindingĒ Deuteronomy, or for the Binding of Isaac. Yes, we have holidays and rituals for all thatówe have at least two for the gift of Torah, and we celebrate the Creation once a weekóbut itís not the same. And, more crucially, we donít have a Yom ha-Mishnah or whatever we would call it. We have tisha bíav.
And I donít want to take away from tisha bíav; I, too, mourn the Temple, even as I donít want it rebuilt. And I donít think we need to stop grieving over the Temple, even as we celebrate the siddur. I donít want to lose any of our stories. But they arenít all the core story, they arenít all how the universe really is.
Ultimately, thereís tremendous power in single sentences, in the moral at the end of the story, in reduction. Ultimately, thereís tremendous power in being able to say, briefly and simply, who you are. It will be more complicated than thatóeverything always is, and it will be more complicated than any lengthy and nuanced answer as well. Thereís a reason the guy with the fright wig has a John 3:16 sign. And a fright wig. Thereís a reason why the Hagaddah is the way it is. Thereís a reason why weíve been fighting for fifty years over the Pledge of Allegiance. And thereís a reason why childrenís books have only a few words.
At this point, then, itís all still rattling around. Iíve written a lot of words to clarify, and probably also to muddy, what may be to you utterly pointless. And it certainly doesnít have much to do with the Stain of Sin. I didnít have anything to add to that, anyway; the universe he perceives is in that area not much like the one I do. But in explaining to Mr. Duncan what the Judaism you perceive is really like, you brought me to question my own perception of the Judaism, and since itís all your fault, you bastard, Iím kicking it back to you.
chazak, chazak, vínitchazek,