Betraying My Soul
My father’s brother was a rabbi a little off the beaten track – a rabbi for the colorful people in Judaism – the ne’er do wells, the newly fervent, the cast-outs, the people on their way in and those on their way out, and those who moved back and forth: a bachelor at 50, someone on his third marriage, a graying round-faced alte moyd who prayed regularly in the women’s section, a man who would bring his German shepherd to services. Then there were the spiritualists, the broken of spirit and of heart, the ones whose grip on Judaism and even life itself was tenuous. There was an air of desperation that hung thickly around this motley crew that gathered in the heart of Brooklyn for services and comfort.
It was in this crowd that my uncle, the rabbi, felt at home. It’s not that he wasn’t learned, my uncle, but he gravitated toward the unsure and the restless of spirit, and they in turn, gravitated toward him. My uncle lived through their journeys. He had a sense of the “other,” which, quite frankly, many rabbis do not have — certainly not my father, a rov’s rov, who was at home in the endless comings and goings of the committed.
As deft as my father was in the subtlest nuances of the Talmud and Shulkhan Arukh – he knew the Pri Megadim and some of the Ketzos Hachoshen by heart – when it came to politics and other things he was somewhat uncultivated. He lived and prided himself on provinciality. He harbored various anachronisms that bobbed up and down, floating in the harbor of his mind like decommissioned Navy battleships. You could say that my father lived in an America that spanned from 1940 to 1950 – an America that consisted of people, who, like Ronald Reagan, breathed patriotism and faith. It was an uncomplicated, generous America; Civil discourse, good citizenship, American cars, clapboard houses (for those who lived outside of Brooklyn). In his mind, gentiles spent their Saturdays waxing their Buicks and Chevys in wide open spaces. They carefully added oil to their engines in gas stations framed by cornfields. These were the hallmarks of an America he imagined still thrived. One recoiled at his out-of-touch-ness the way you instinctively move away from a man whose pants are hiked up high above his ankles.
My uncle was hip to my father’s square and I alternated between them. This was back when I was younger and finding my own way in religion and life. I used to spend a lot of time in my uncle’s study where he would receive visitors. Though in plain sight, I was an eavesdropper on all but the most intimate of consultations. Visitors would glance at me once or twice before beginning to speak, then they would talk at great length never acknowledging that I was there. Of course I was silent, but being a teenager I was fascinated, and my internal tape recorder was on.
It happened once that a person came to him – I remember it was some time before Rosh HaShana – the holy season of repentance.
He looked to be in his twenties – intelligent, average-looking. He neither sparked nor repelled with his brownish blond hair. His face creased this way and that and betrayed, what was essentially, a house divided.
“I came to speak to you about a personal problem… It’s about belief. Or not really belief, it’s about feeling. Well, not a feeling really, it’s about, I confess… it is about a certain feeling of, well — there’s no other way to say it – boredom. I am bored with my life, with yiddishkeit, the endless cyclical march of festivals throughout the calendar year, the customs, the repetition of it all. Particularly, the prayers and the mindless piety. God forgive me for saying this, but the mind numbs as the lips move! And I think God Himself may be bored by this… Woe is me that I have said this, but…”
“You are bored,” my uncle broke in, half to show he understood, that it was okay to talk such, and partly out of a compulsion he had to clarify things.
“You are quite right, but you don’t even know the half of it,” the young man continued. “Don’t misunderstand me rabbi. My entire life has been laid wreck by this ‘piety’ – these requirements bouncing around my head like a ping pong ball – the ‘proper amount to drink, the proper time for prayer.’ I am weighted down by minutiae. And I must tell you something else,” he began a little quieter. “My wife and I got married young, but I feel buried in me a desire to experience the world, to be involved, to know what it’s like to experience life beyond what it is that I have known. Is this so terrible? My marriage feels like a tomb now. It’s all over-regulated, see – is there a God, does our God see and know this – this kind of suffering, the suffering of a life lived, but not lived – or does our God know only sickness and poverty?”
“To be a Jew is excruciatingly demanding,” my uncle soothed him.
“No, Rabbi. That’s not the worst of it – every law, every custom weighs on me. I feel as if I am always making preparations for the Sabbath every week for what – to march off gallantly somewhere into the twelfth century? Lighting the candles, washing the dishes, setting the table, it is a sentimental production that happens every week, every week that we are alive. In other times in our history there were wars and plagues to break up the monotony, but not anymore. God forgive me for what I have been saying…but I feel in raising my children this way I am bringing them to a place of misery.”
“’Heaven forbid,’ you say? That’s what I thought until I began to see how much life there is outside the community! The other week I took a walk just on the fringes of Flatbush in Prospect Park – on a Saturday. I saw something quite different than what we are used to. And it was beautiful. The vitality, the energy — men, women families, people, running, playing, riding bicycles, for them it is chol hamoed every Saturday of the year. They wake up in the morning and they do whatever they want. And the women!” Here the man took a dramatic pause and leaned back in his chair, only to come forward rapidly.
“Not like our women,” he continued. “They wear whatever they please. Just around the corner right outside of Flatbush it is the twenty-first century, but by us it’s still the nineteenth – with people still living their little lives. Women married off at nineteen – our little superstitions and preoccupations, our daily and nightly trudging off to synagogues, the men walking like metronomes, back and forth, back and forth, a devotion that is automatic, if not downright forced, following the drumbeats of generations past. Boring you say? No, it is worse than boring. It injures my very soul!
“A friend of mine, pious as the next one, found himself away from his family stuck in Hawaii for Shabbos on the way to the Orient. On Saturday morning with the weather as perfect as it could ever be, he had in front of him some jarred gefilte fish, a small prayer book and a talis. He tried to summon himself to say the prayers, but how could he, when within a short car ride was a visit to the volcano, one of the biggest natural wonders? He threw off his talis, jumped into a car and had one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life!”
My uncle stroked his beard. “The ways of the yetzer hora are infinitely clever. And yet a man is not a man for nothing. A man’s needs are great. This is not such a terrible thing. It is a fact. A fact of life.”
“Yes rabbi, a man’s needs are great. And I have always regulated these needs by the sacred laws, but–”
My uncle took a deep breath and interrupted: “You can follow your heart, but whatever you decide, however you live, you must remember that you have a neshama. A guteh neshama. You can move her here,” my uncle said, gesturing with his arms to one corner, “and you can move her there,” again gesturing to the other corner, “but she is like an elegant woman – she cannot be brought to low places.”
“You are right, Rabbi,” the young man said. “You use the word neshama and it affects me something deep even to the point that I feel tears in my eyes. But,” and here the man stiffened just a little, “my neshama has to live with the rest of me too. The body, my body will not live just for the soul.”
“The soul and body must live for each other,” my uncle said.
“You rabbis,” the young man said. “You rabbis,” he said again, breaking into a smile that was at once tender and mocking.
“What’s that?” my uncle asked.
“No offense, but I admire you and despise you at the same time!”
“Why do you admire? Why do you despise?” My uncle stopped stroking his beard.
“Rabbis always find a way to agree only to disagree later. This is part of a dance, a genius strategy: we will all tanz together until we plotz. In the meantime, there will be Shabbos, there will be Yom Tov, there’ll be Yom Kippur and Sukkos, Chanukah, Pesach, Purim and Shavous! And the Jewish people will continue! Very clever! But let me tell you what you rabbis haven’t figured out: years ago, I was tempted in a serious way. I went to a hotel by myself to be far from family, friends and community. I had always loved baseball especially, the New York Yankees. They were playing a twi-night doubleheader on the most beautiful late Saturday afternoon that there ever was. It was at Anaheim stadium in California. I bought the tickets and was all prepared. Time came for me to go and I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I sat in my hotel room unable to move. My head was bent over and I was sitting on the floor eating a stale piece of matzo for the third meal. Over and over it my mind went—how deeply I wanted to get into my rented car and drive to that game. But I felt it would be a betrayal — a betrayal of my soul and the soul of the Jewish people for which I would be punished. Does not the Torah prescribe death to the one who went out and collected wood on the Sabbath? What’s a man to do? Again, I was paralyzed, frozen. And I tell you, rabbi, I swayed back and forth, back and forth. I had shut everything out of my mind except for noticing the slow, beautiful dying of the outside light until it was twilight. And then the stars came out. I felt worse than terrible. Even though I had done the “right” thing I felt I harmed myself. This may sound to the rabbis like an excuse, but I realized afterward, that when the body loses, the soul loses too.”
For a long time, the man looked at my uncle and my uncle looked back at him. I cannot say exactly what transpired between these two men. I thought I could notice a glistening of my uncle’s eyes, but this would have been out of character
The young man got up in a way that made him seem a little bit taller than he actually was. He shook uncle’s hand and walked out.
I left the room shortly after. When I returned, I found my uncle with his head drooped over his knees, rocking back and forth, ever so gently nodding his head up and down and in all four heavenly directions, lost to everything else.Printable Version