I was googling “There’s someone bigger than Bernie,” the old Mel Brooks’ bit in the 2000 Year-Old Man, and I was directed to the site of your synagogue in Denver. It was “someone bigger than Phil,” wasn’t it. Well, even if my name is Baruch, at 69, I’m not blessed with a perfect memory.
Then I was drawn into your Phil-based sermon. Do you call it a sermon? I don’t know from Judaism. I was not once in a synagogue. I never wore a yarmulke or experienced a bar mitzvah. I was even denied the Brooklyn Dodgers, because after I was born in 1945 on the day after Hitler died (I had cut a deal: I wouldn’t check in until the shmuck had checked out) my family fled Flatbush for California. I was raised there by my Dutch father and New York mother in Christian Science. I abandoned this at 18 when the universal joint of our minister’s 1947 Chevy fell on my head and he treated my wound with prayer and a kerosene-soaked cloth, leaving a small purple scar. In 1968 after five years at Berkeley I joined the Church of the Reefer for a couple decades, until I was directed by fate to Japan, where I now reside. I’ve had only a few Jewish friends: Bryan Kravitz, a loveable Jewish Willy Loman, and Peter Frankel, a manic guitarist/pop composer who at 64 still can’t finish a song.
But I am a Jew, make no mistake. Rabbi, much of your sermon is admirable, but like the old Jewish man in hell (I assume you know the joke) I want to make a little trouble.
You quote this:
“It is good to thank you, Adonai, to sing of your great Name. To speak of
Your love each morning, and Your faithful [care] at night.”
OK, here it comes, and I know you’ve heard this before: the Nazis fried my grandparents. And as you’ve heard, there were several others. So I’ve always wanted to ask: how does, “Your faithful care at night” not stick in your throat? I want to know. By the way, don’t get me wrong, I miss the Lord. A lot. I’m an old, if vital, man with a young wife and six year-old son and not much in the bank. I fear the pestilence that walketh in darkness and the unemployment that wasteth at noonday. I have also a little pain near my groin, and that’s been a few months now. Someone to watch over me? It would be a pleasure. I even pray at night, muttering the Lord’s Prayer (you should excuse me) or the 23rd Psalm. But it tends to echo in my brain especially when I reach, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death…” Next thing I know, “Godwackers” is ringing in my head. (Donald Fagen. There’s a militant atheist Jew with songwriting chops to die for.)
Excuse the musical references but really, Rabbi, I don’t envy you! After all, didn’t evil win? Weren’t the gentle promises of the Torah rendered ludicrous? Isn’t 1942 a historical moment that transcends the Exodus in importance? – the latter supposedly a journey across the desert by 3 million people totally untraceable by archaeologists. How can Jews, how can you personally, disregard the greatest divine betrayal of all time and just go on davening? This is a real mystery. Isn’t worshipping the God of Abraham after 1945 sort of like a beaten wife returning to a cruel husband, hoping he’ll get better? Isn’t it worse than that? Don’t you sometimes get the feeling the Jews need, well…some new material?
OK, let’s calm down. You’re a lovely man, a mensch. Jews come to you. You listen, you give them moral guidance and extend compassion. Besides, you probably suffer from the same bitter doubt I do but have to hide it from your congregation! Your father was possibly an acid-head against whom you rebelled into Jewish orthodoxy – I mean orthodoxy compared to your dad, who smoked weed 24/7 and played bass in a folk-rock band and still has hair like Howard Stern.
Or not. Maybe you were compelled into rabbinical school by a severe, fear-stricken Jew like the dentist-father of the protagonist in my novel, 1961:
Joshua: crying softly. “I’m sorry I forgot to floss, Papa. I won’t…”
Father: Shh! Don’t you see? They say we are dirty! They hate us when we do well. We have to be clean! Not just our teeth – our hands and clothes and shoes, everything. Or they’re going to kill us all again!”
If it’s not God it’s the gentiles. And then, it’s God again. (Don’t forget, He gave us the only place in the whole Mideast with no oil, surrounded by millions of sworn enemies! What’s that about?)
I don’t know, here I am writing to you, a total stranger! Why am I doing this? Because I’m still not a fucking atheist. I was imprinted in my youth with the mystical. Christian Science, which gave my father a place to hide from what happened to his parents, tells us nothing is real except Divine Mind. Perfect. Hitler, the ovens, it was all an illusion of “mortal mind.” This solved everything for Dad, even later, when his life fell apart in ways I won’t even go into. After that he focused on the Book of Job and eventually found a nice shiksa wife. You might say the Lord had covered up his sins.
Me, I wound up a mystic. I saw signs. I lean in ways perhaps similar to you, Rabbi, into the mystic – along with Van Morrison. Actually, what finally triggered this very essay…well, it’s a long story, but in 1973 I was working in a little record shop in San Francisco for a manager who looked just like Meher Baba, you know, the legendary Indian Avatar of the Age who declared himself God incarnate but kept getting banged up in automobile crashes. “Don’t worry, be happy?” Bobby McFerrin stole that from Meher Baba. Anyway, I tripped out very heavily on MB in those days, felt Baba was looking right through me every day in the record shop trying to compel me back into a marriage I didn’t want. He looked to my addled eyes like a photo of the young Meher Baba, like a wide-eyed acid freak. Of course, by the time Baba died in ’69 he looked like your Jewish uncle Max who works in the garment district. But for me what remained as a symbol/sign of him was his moustache! Big funny Jerry Colonna brush. At a few critical moments in my life since then, a man bearing The Moustache would appear to me, on a subway, posed on a park bench, enigmatic and inscrutable. But not for many years now. So today I’m sitting on a big rock after my afternoon jog, puffing hard, pondering the universe and what I should write to you, and I sense a man strolling in from the periphery, down University Avenue here in the beautiful Kunitachi district of Tokyo. Don’t look at him, I think, inexplicably. But as he passes by, a slim professorial type, he’s got the Moustache! In the last instant before his face is no longer visible, he glances at me…and winks! So I went inside and began writing this. Once every couple of decades…a wink I get.
The mind of man has discovered galaxies without end, wondrous subatomic structures, mathematics of oceanic depth. Meanwhile, the evil within men slaughters millions and maims the planet that bore them. It’s all too much. The extent of the beauty plus the limitless pain we create leaves us speechless. Where is God in all this, Rabbi? This patriarchal force that did Phil, but also wanted Isaac’s neck slashed and relegated women to centuries of second-class status. This invisible being that you have the unmitigated audacity here in 2014 to call “the one true God.” How, Rabbi, can you expect people to embrace a theological system rife with cruelty and stained by inconceivable betrayal? What, in the words of Marvin Gaye, is going on?
You need the eggs, maybe?
Then there’s my heart. My sister the Christian Scientist (still!) gave my young son a little book about Joseph and his brothers. He brings it to me to read him to sleep. By the time the brothers get sent home to Canaan without Simeon, he’s out like a light, but I keep reading. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, I choke up in the darkened room. “I am the brother you sold into Egypt,” he says. How can I be angry at you, he says: God had a plan. Otherwise we would have all starved. Wait on the Lord, he says. Like a knife in the heart it feels, the shadowy acceptances of my youth, long before I could discern fact from myth. How I ache for the safety of belief! Don’t you too, Rabbi? Isn’t Jehovah a reach for you sometimes?
(Incidentally, here’s a possibility I often consider: God – and His Wife – exist, but are not almighty. They just do what they can do. We live in a world of dualities, as the Buddhists hold, and Satan hits it out of the park plenty. He scores runs in bunches. Boy, does he.)
No, this doesn’t work. Too anthropomorphic. What was it you said?
“Understanding the ‘what’ of God…is less important than our response to God…We come to know God not through intellectual speculation, but rather by responding to that sense that… there is something ‘bigger than Phil.’”
Yeah, intellectual speculation is a no-win. Try doing a workshop with Richard Dawkins. But responding, doing the right thing, as far as we can see it. Living with a measure of humility. Witnessing little miracles. You’ll get no argument from me. But please don’t talk about “faithful care at night,” don’t wax eloquent about divine protection unless a train is bearing down on your Taurus and the motor won’t start. Then, don’t talk, just yell “Oy gevalt!”
Basically, it’s all thought experiments – like Einstein used to do – who, I believe, argued that everything is lighting. Or did he say everything is timing? I have to Google it.
The irony in all my fulminating about divine impotence and evil and the Holocaust is that time and again in my life they’ve cut me breaks. I always hesitate to use the word, given my name, (the exact same as thousands who never made it out of Europe) but I’ve been blessed. I’m a wizened old saxophonist/English teacher with a beautiful Japanese wife who might as well be Jewish she’s so funny, and a six year-old angel of a boy. Is he Jewish? Of course! It’s in there! He does already a good Russian accent. My older son does five. My real hope is that they will gravitate toward the philosophies of the East, where no people are Chosen and there is no past or future, only a quiescent humility of spirit. My dream is that someday someone will ask one of them about his religion and he’ll say, in a perfect Jewish accent he learned from me,
“I’m Buddhist, already. Don’t make a federal case.”