Redemption

Redemption

by

Howard Adelman

In the days leading up to the High Holy Days in Judaism, Rabbi Splansky last evening ran a seminar to discuss the Um’taneh Tokef, the central poem in the High Holy Days liturgy that begins, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water…” By way of introduction, Yael began with a short story called, “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” taken from the 1966 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Shai Agnon, from his Days of Awe.

Agnon in “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” claims to have found a manuscript by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Mainz who in turn claimed to have discovered how Rabbi Amnon of Mainz composed this liturgical poem, a claim as fictional as Agnon’s tale for its core is found in the much earlier Cairo Geniza. Rabbi Amnon is introduced in superlatives — great, rich, of good family, handsome, and, to top it off, “well-formed.” Thus, the loss of his extremities will be even a greater loss. Though the story reads like a horror tale, anyone familiar with the efforts of forced conversion of Jews by Christians in the Middle Ages will find that, in its details, Shai Agnon’s story resonates with actual historical truth.

The Archbishop of Regensburg, along with the lords of the realm, demanded that Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. Under constant pressure, Rabbi Amnon finally conceded that he needed three days to reflect on the matter and take the proposal under advisement. Why did he say this? To buy time. And that was his sin, which he quickly recognized. The issue was not his fear of what might happen to him if he failed to take the demand of the Archbishop seriously. His sin, according to the story, was conceding that he had to think about it when, according to his Jewish faith, there was nothing to think about.

For Jews lived in awe of a “living God.” Christians worshipped at the feet of a god who had died and been resurrected as a sacrifice for human sins. Having asked for time to think about the choice was to admit there was possibly a real choice and that, in itself, was not a matter of making room for reason for his faith, but an act undermining his faith altogether.

He stopped eating and drinking. He became dreadfully sick. Like Job, he refused consolation. “‘I shall go down to the grave mourning, because of what I have said.’ And he wept and was sad of heart.” When the archbishop summoned him on the third day, Rabbi Amnon refused to go. The archbishop sent a force that compelled Amnon to appear before him. In answer to the question about an explanation for his non-appearance, Amnon did not begin with the discussion of his failure, but with his punishment. “Let the tongue that spoke and lied to you be cut out.”

However, the archbishop imposed his own punishment, for the sin was not in what Amnon had agreed to, but in Amnon failing to come before him. So instead of lopping off his tongue, Amnon’s feet were severed. And then each finger in turn. Before having each chopped off, Amnon was given a chance to repent. At each point that he refused, another finger was severed. Amnon’s dismembered but still living body was sent home on a shield with his severed members at his side.

As the Days of Awe approached, Rabbi Amnon asked his relatives to carry him exactly in the state that he had been returned to his family and laid beside the reader reciting the High Holy Day prayers. The climax came when the reader came to the Kedushah, the prayer sanctifying God. Amnon sanctified God’s name then and there, sanctified the Day of Awe then and there, by dying and, in dying that way, offering testimony for the truth of God’s sovereignty, for the sake of God’s unity – in contrast to the Christian theology of the Trinity – to honour God as Judge, to honour history as the ultimate arbiter.

And what rose up from the dying rabbi? Not the resurrection of the rabbi’s body, but the ascent of Rabbi’s severed feet and fingers. Why feet and hands? To justify the verdict. To demonstrate that “the seal of every man’s hand” is on the verdict of history. It is in this sense, that his fate was decreed — not foretold — on Rosh Hashanah. That is how Rabbi Amnon expressed “the powerful sanctity of the day.”

How and why does this tale express the meaning of the Um’taneh Tokef, the powerful poem at the centre of the High Holy Days liturgy?

First, it is irrelevant whether this story was historically true and whether a Rabbi Amnon had ever lived and been martyred in this way, or, alternatively, whether the story is apocryphal and a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz never existed. In the latter version, Amnon is an anagram, a rearrangement of the letters of the Hebrew, “Ne’eMaN” meaning faithful. Amnon does not ask on his deathbed why God has forsaken him, but expresses, to the fullest extent possible, his faith in a “living God,” a god that lived in him when he was alive. Why hands? Why feet? Because they had been severed from his body yet he was still alive. He still lived to give testimony to his faith. Even laying on the shield on the bima beside the reader on Rosh Hashanah, he could give testimony to his faith. That faith determined what it meant to lead a Jewish life, what it meant to express the sanctity of the day, what it meant to pass on the memory of an incident, whether historically true or apocryphal. Further, Rabbi Amnon was not alone with that responsibility, for everyone’s hands contributed to seal Rabbi Amnon’s fate. In turn, it was Rabbi Amnon who was atoning, not only for his own error, but for everyone’s, including the hands of the legal and religious authorities who had severed his limbs.

Did Rabbi Amnon live ever after in heaven after he vanished from the earth?  There is no such suggestion in the story. Rather it is the story itself that, re-told, testifies to God’s goodness. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the story. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the tongue the Archbishop decided not to sever.

The fuller meaning of the tale comes forth when it is juxtaposed with the Um’taneh Tokef part of the High Holy Day liturgy chanted when the Torah ark is open in words allegedly composed by Rabbi Amnon himself which I have appended. Note the essence of the tale. Amnon was a handsome and rich “well-formed” man. He enjoyed a tremendous reputation for his good works and his inspiring words. But, in his own light, he sinned. He said he would think about the proposal of the archbishop asking him to consider conversion. The sin was a sin of speech and not deeds. Like Job’s, the punishment seemed totally disproportionate to the presumed sin.

But the story is not about punishment. It is about redemption, that even the life of a good, of a rich, of an honourable and handsome man can culminate in error, however slight, and that error must be corrected even at the cost of one’s own life. The awe and frightening quality of the High Holy Days is not contained in the ghoulish severing of the rabbi’s extremities, but in the slip of even considering the renunciation of the living God in favour of the worship of a god who died and was resurrected. No, not even actually considering. Merely making a statement to buy time signaling that such a consideration might be possible.

How is the redemption manifest? By exalting God as the one true sovereign and, by logical implication, insisting that neither the lords of the realm nor the highest spiritual authority of Christianity in that realm could dint that divine sovereignty even by making one accede even possibly to reconsidering one’s faith in a living God. How is the kindness of God’s sovereign authority exalted? By being firmed up with “kindness,” with deeds that testify to History, of the living God of revelation, not men, as the embodiment of Truth and Goodness. Time will tell. History will judge, attest and give witness. History will set the seal about one’s fate. History will remember what has been forgotten.

In our remembrance of Rabbi Amnon’s story, in our retelling that story, even if apocryphal, we give witness to that which exemplifies Truth and Goodness. Most importantly, each person’s signature, however faint, will, in the end, sign off on the Book of Remembrance so that the thin and still voice of one who went before will still be heard. God is not heard in the mighty winds of nature of Hurricane Irma that split mountains and shattered bricks, nor in the water that both rained down and rose up in the surge that followed that wind, nor in the Mexican earthquake that shattered the lives of so many, and not even in the devastating fires raging in Alberta and British Columbia.  Rather, the angels stand in awe of the “soft thin murmuring voice” amidst all that calamity.

This interpretation turns the polarization and dichotomy between those who are righteous and those who are not into a spectrum. The righteous may be immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, the very wicked relegated to the ashbin of the revelation of the living God, but we all die in the end. Everyone, no matter how unworthy, contributes his or her signature, no matter how faint, to that book.

Why then will angels be seized with fear and trembling? Not because they witness calamities, not because they witness atrocities, not because they watch extremities being cut off, but because these messengers of the unfolding of time remain in awe of humans made of flesh and blood who in their lives can and do contribute or detract from the cumulative truth and goodness that is the expression of the living God of revelation. Even such a great one as Rabbi Amnon will not be guiltless in the eyes of judgement.

That History is rewritten each and every year, not just for the year that passed, but for all of history, for the awe-inspiring profundity of creation itself comes up again before a tribunal of judgement and everyone’s fate, NOT his or her final determination in life, but the value of everyone’s contribution to revelation will be weighed and re-assessed and re-inscribed or inscribed for the first time in the Book of Chronicles. The greatest fear is that one’s name will be blotted out for all eternity, some immediately for their loathsome and foul sins will be so heinous. Though we are all born of dust and to dust we must return, we are obliged to drink from the well of goodness.

What is written on Rosh Hashanah is sealed on Yom Kippur for another year, who shall rest and who shall still wander, and who shall be redeemed through repentance, prayer and charity, through rescuing the sheep lost and scattered by calamities either natural or human on days of cloud and gloom. For all, whether the wicked or the righteous, die. That is why each human is “a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.” Job’s life was but wind, his days a breath.

לשׁנה טוֹבה תּכּתב (Leshana tovah tikatev); “May you be inscribed for a good year.”

Appendix

Um’taneh Tokef

“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself — and each person’s signature is there. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin voice will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’ — for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.”

“All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep.[24]Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed — how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval [25] and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree.”

“For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

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The Divine is in the Details

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 – 40:38) 

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening at our synagogue, we were treated to a dialogical discussion about specific biblical texts and commentaries – eight were offered and four were actually discussed – between Rabbi Mark Fishman from Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Montreal, an orthodox rabbi, and Rabbi Yael Splansky, our Reform rabbi. They have been having these dialogues once a month in the Canadian Jewish News and Yoni Goldstein, the editor of the paper, chaired yesterday evening’s session. Fishman is a very personable rabbi and feels quite relaxed addressing any Jewish audience. He does not seem to have any trouble or qualms about addressing a Reform congregation. He even went further in an angular response to a congregant who wanted the differences between Orthodox and Reform brought into sharp focus and discussion. As Fishman responded, he was interpreting text as a rabbi, not as a representative of orthodoxy. He presumed that and respected Rabbi Splansky for doing precisely the same thing. I hope I can offer due respect for what they said since I did not take notes and have had to rely on my memory.

One of the texts discussed last night was Genesis 43:29-33 and, more specifically, verse 32 that reads, “They served him separately and the Egyptian who usually ate with him separately.” The verse occurs in the context of the return of his brothers to Egypt for the second time, this time with Benjamin in tow as commanded. The brothers still do not recognize Joseph, the top government official in Egypt.

26 When Joseph came home, they presented to him the gifts they had brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the ground.27 He asked them how they were, and then he said, “How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?”

28 They replied, “Your servant our father is still alive and well.” And they bowed down, prostrating themselves before him.

29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.

31 After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, “Serve the food.”

32 They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. 33 The men had been seated before him in the order of their ages, from the firstborn to the youngest; and they looked at each other in astonishment. 34 When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him.

What did it mean that Joseph ate alone? Rabbi Splansky suggested that it meant that, although Joseph had reached the heights of success in the Diaspora, without being amongst his own people as well, he was utterly alone. Without explicitly referring to E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, she cited a dominant expression from that text – “only connect.”

Rabbi Fishman, if I remember correctly, focused more on the fact that the passage described how Joseph, who usually ate together with the Egyptians, then chose to eat alone. And we are told that, for the Egyptians, eating with the Hebrews was an abomination. The implication was that he was caught betwixt and between, for he could not eat with his brothers or the Egyptians would have been appalled. But if he ate with them, he would have effectively joined the group that Egyptians found it vile to eat with, the Hebrews, and then what would happen to the esteem in which they held him? In that sense, loneliness, just when you are supposed to break bread together, was his only option. One interpretation focused on Joseph’s emotional state while the other focused on the politics of the situation.

I myself had a third interpretation, more in line with Fishman’s, but with a twist. Joseph chose to eat alone because he wanted to send a clue to his brothers that he was not an Egyptian. It was not simply that he was being forced between two unacceptable choices and choosing a third as the least bad of the three options. The choice he made was a positive one consistent with his playing with his brothers prior to revealing himself, as he clearly longed to do as indicated when he went off alone to weep profusely at the sight of his younger brother, Benjamin. The issue was not primarily about incompatible political and moral choices nor about an existential crisis of loneliness, but about playful politics.

Now none of these three positions are incompatible with one another. Unlike the possibilities of Joseph eating with his brothers, eating with the Egyptians or eating alone, which are mutually exclusive choices, the above three interpretations are all possibly true at one and the same time, but the emphasis shifts from existential angst, to moral politics to manipulative politics.

A second passage for discussion was offered by Rabbi Fishman, the famous passage in which Adam and Eve had just eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God goes looking for Adam who has gone into hiding. When God come across him, Adam explains that he hid because he was naked and afraid. The passage given to us followed: “And He [God] said, ‘Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’ And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.’”

In Fishman’s interpretation, God was testing Adam and Adam failed the test. Instead of accepting responsibility for what he had done, he blamed what he had done on Eve and, indirectly on God Himself for it was God’s idea to give Eve to him as a helpmeet. I tried to remember whether Rabbi Splansky had a different take on this, but I could not recall. I do recall one person in the audience raising the question of the counterfactual – what if Adam had passed the test and owned up to what he had done? Fishman offered an interesting answer. There were two possibilities. In one, Adam and Eve in the company of God could have returned to enjoy the pleasures of paradise. But he suggested that this was unlikely, because God wanted them to leave the garden.

I confess that I found the discussion disappointing. For this is one of the most iconic and important portions of Torah text and is about something even more fundamental than the message about accepting responsibility and not projecting blame onto another, though it is surely about that. What was the original command? Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil for if you do you will surely die. Note the following:

  • Neither Adam nor Eve dies, though they certainly now know they are mortal; just because he was made in the image of God, Adam has now come to recognize that he cannot be God whose essential character was that He was disembodied and could not die
  • The command was not a categorical moral commandment but a conditional one – If you do x, y will follow.
  • As Fishman said, the other tree was the Tree of Life; why was there a fear that Adam and Eve could have eaten of it and achieved immortality? Why did they not eat of that tree?
  • Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil meant Adam and Eve had sex and sex introduced both to a radically different kind of knowledge than knowing and naming objects; it was about coming to know another person and, in the process, thereby coming to know oneself, seeing oneself in a mirror as it were and seeing oneself as embodied.

The issue was not that Adam felt ashamed because he had no clothes on, but that he now clearly and unequivocally saw himself as embodied and thereby knew that eating of the Tree of Life was a fantasy. In effect, psychologically and intellectually, he was no longer in the garden of innocence and now had to go on the voyage of discovery of learning what it meant to be an embodied creature, what it meant to make moral choices, what it meant to now really experience the knowledge of what was good and evil. If the first lesson of that voyage of discovery was accepting one’s embodied and non-divine form, the second lesson had to entail assuming responsibility for your actions and not displacing them onto another.

My dissatisfaction was not with the lesson Fishman took out of the passage, but how the form of the discussion had impoverished the potential metaphysical richness beyond it. The divine and the devil are both in the details.

Fishman had offered another passage, Genesis 37:21. “And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his [Joseph’s] life.’” According to Fishman, this is the only time that the Torah tells a clear lie. For the brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit to be left to die. Travelers came by, heard his cries, rescued him and took him off to Egypt. Reuben, having felt guilty, went back to save Joseph’s life and sell him into slavery. But Joseph was no longer in the pit. So he retroactively made up a story and rewrote history in terms of his intentions and not in terms of what actually took place.

What unites all three passages is that they are each about accepting responsibility – the first being about Joseph accepting responsibility, not only for the well-being of his brothers, but for himself as a Hebrew with responsibilities for and to his people.

Before I turn to this week’s parsha. I want to discuss the fourth passage of commentary discussed last evening from Genesis Rabbah about a man traveling from place to place who saw a palace aglow/in flames (birah doleket). Did the passage mean that the travelers were appalled that the palace was on fire and the world that is God’s glory was on the verge of extinction, or is it a vision of fireworks, of a celebration of the palace that is God’s world in all its glory? These are two very opposed meanings, but again, they are both possible.

Perhaps trivializing the passage too much, it is seeing the glass half full  –  the fireworks from the palace of God celebrating the glories of this world – or, on the other hand, the glass half empty as we contemplate radical climate change because of human hands and the potential destruction of the world as we know it.

What has all this to do with this week’s parsha? First of all, it is about my own dissatisfaction with the discussion that skipped from one item to another without probing anyone of them in much greater depth. That is probably just my problem. But it is definitely related to this week’s text which is about details and depth.

We all know the expression that the devil is in the details. It has a mirror expression. In Gustave Flaubert’s words, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.” (The good God is in the detail.) Is it God or the devil in the detail – or is it details? Surely, it cannot be both. But why not? Don’t the two versions express the same thing, just as the term “detail” can both be a singular and a plural? The divine is in the detail because attention to particulars is critical to the success of any project. If one is to do something right, it has to be done thoroughly with meticulous attention to every detail. For if not, the devil is in the details. Miss out on one crucial item and, instead of the construction of a building of exquisite beauty and engineering, we get a balagan.

Do the divine and the devil both being in the detail point out two sides of the same homily? – if you want something exquisite, pay attention to the detail. If you do not, one detail left out can cause devilish destruction. Aspiration and caution are two sides of the same message. Attending to every small item is critical in accomplishing an important task. Of course, the same expression is cited when offered as an excuse for a delay. ‘It took longer than I thought because I had to pay so much attention to each step of the way.’

But the uses of the expression and the expression itself may be varied, but the meaning is constant. Attention to detail matters. So in this week’s portion we now have the accountant’s summary to add to the architectural and design detail of the mikshan. For accountability means not only taking responsibility for one’s action, but entails transparency and auditing of what took place. The world needs accountants as well as architects, engineers, and set designers. Further, after the architects, after the accountants, then the political leaders have to follow the exact details of their divine instructions. Only then, the Book of Exodus ends with the following:

When Moses had finished the work, 34 the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 36 When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. 38 For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

We return to the depiction of the divine as a cloud where the divine presence so fills the mishkan that there is no room for Moses. But when the cloud lifted, once again the Israelites could continue their journey, a journey that must have continued at night led by a torch for “a cloud of the Lord rested (on the mishkan) by day.” If there is anything where it is virtually impossible to grasp details, it is in a cloud or in fire. So we are faced with a paradox – a section of the Torah that has been all about details of architectural detail and the refined design of the artefacts, about construction details and detailed rules about usage, we are back to an old theme, God as a cloud by day and a fire by night, of resting by day and moving by night.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the details of Jewish ritual, particularly on shabat when we are commanded to rest, to be near the Tabernacle – not in it – when it is filled with the cloud of divine presence. Each of us, as Heschel said, is called to accept responsibility for being the architect of sacred time while the divine fills up sacred space. So when the detailed work was done, when the accounting was all completed, when the instructions on use were followed in all their detail, God as a cloud gets to occupy the space and there is not even room for Moses, the leader of the people. How can that be? How is it that the community is brought together as one nation, not in a space shared with God, with God’s presence being felt and experienced, but when the divine cloud takes up all of sacred space and the Israelites are left to cope with sacred time?

Often we are told that Judaism encourages communal more than individual worship, such as when we recite the kaddish. But I would attend to the other aspect of this depiction of the divine in the midst of His people, a depiction of the people outside the Tabernacle when it is filled with the cloud of the divine presence – the message of exclusion rather than inclusion, the vision of Joseph sitting and eating by himself while his brothers eat at another table, and his Egyptian friends and companions eat at a third.

God in the Torah is a God of frozen ice and fiery lightning that reigns down on the Egyptians. (Exodus 9:23-24). When the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21-22) Once the mishkan is constructed, the pillar of cloud no longer leads the Israelites, but fills the Tabernacle so that the Israelites cannot move forward. In my interpretation, they must probe through the haze and confusion and figure out their next step and who they want to become. They must decide who should be the next president of the United States. That, only they can do, not God.

Of the items included in the mishkan, including rare gems and fine linens, the most important may be the mirrors of copper, at once artefacts of vanity and narcissism of self-obsession, of self-confidence and self-consciousness – among birds, only magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. As Rabbi Fishman told us last night, when we read the Torah, we are holding a mirror up to our own souls. For the Torah is not just a text about history but a sacred text about who we are now and where we should be going, about our taking responsibility for oneself, but doing so in communion with others, about seeking and following a pillar of fire. As palace of sparkling fireworks with the glorious future beckoning and a palace on fire in which we face an apocalypse, about reconciling our best of intentions with our actual behaviour as we go forth from our land in search of a better world.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Welcoming Strangers and Ethnic Cleansing

Welcoming Strangers and Ethnic Cleansing: Parshat Mishpatim Exodus 21-27

by

Howard Adelman

What does the dictum to welcome the stranger have to do with ethnic cleansing?

Chapter 22:20 of Exodus reads: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Chapter 23:9 reads: “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Rabbi Gunther Plaut used to remind me that the commandment mentioned most frequently in the Torah is the injunction to welcome the stranger. Rabbi Yael Splansky reminded us this past September, when our congregation initiated both a joint recollection with the Vietnamese community about the role Jews played in 1979 and subsequently in welcoming the Boat People to Canada, and when the congregation also launched its campaign to bring to Canada Syrian refugees, of Rabbi Plaut’s 221-page report on “Refugee Determination in Canada,” commissioned by the Government of Canada to propose changes to Canada’s refugee determination system. That Report began with a personal introduction:

“I was a refugee once, having fled from Hitler under whose rule I had lived for more than two years. I came to the New World exactly 50 years ago, after finishing law school in Germany and having been deprived of pursuing my chosen profession because I was a Jew. In a miniscule fashion my own life rehearses the story of my people who have been refugees all too often. I know the heart of the refugee, a person who desperately seeks for a place to stand, for the opportunity to be accepted as an equal amongst fellow humans….  I belong to the fortunate ones whose quest has been generously answered. My personal experience and my own religious tradition have moved me to put on Canada’s national agenda the larger issues that arise from a consideration of refugees and their problems.”

Rabbi Splansky went on to say that, “Every single member of our congregation has his and her own story of migration. None of our family lines is indigenous to Canada. Against the backdrop of Jewish history, we are relative newcomers to this good country. Therefore, we Jews easily identify with the asylum seeker, the migrant, the refugee who searches for a better life and a place to call home. No matter his religion, no matter her country of origin, the empathy comes easily to us.” Rabbi Splansky cited that week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (the text study was dedicated in memory of three year old, Alan Kurdi, a refugee child from Syria found drowned on a beach in Turkey). Splansky reminded us that, “Moses instructs the people to share the land’s bounty with the vulnerable – the orphan and the widow as well as the foreigner, that is, ‘the stranger’,” and to do so joyfully.

At the same time, in this week’s Torah portion, the text promises to execute a few of the most vulnerable and to turn most of the inhabitants of the land into the vulnerable by forcing most off the land.

The text commands the Israelites to execute witches. You shall not allow a sorceress to live.” (22:17) This commandment alone can be cited as a major source of persecution of women from the Biblical period through the Salem witch trials to current uses of text to demean women, whether in Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

More significantly, for today’s purposes, to force out the inhabitants, the Torah portion for this week promises that God will send the tzir’ah [insects like hornets, but they blind and make the person whom they bite impotent; perhaps the word is prophetic and the Israeli IDF is about to acquire CF-18 Hornet fighter planes to do the job.] The tzir’ah will “drive out the Hivvites, the Canaanites and the Hittites,” but by a process of stealth and gradualism “little by little” until such time as the Israelites have increased and can occupy the land.” (23:27-30) Reading this does it not remind us of the settlers in Israel in the West Bank?

According to Joshua 14, it took six years to overcome the military might of the Canaanites “to subjugate their portion of land and remove the defeated people.” But of the twelve possible tribes of Canaanites – the Canaanites themselves, the Perizzites, Gittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Jebusites, Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hivites, Hittites and the tribe of Raphaim – why are only three mentioned here for ethnic cleansing? After all, Leviticus (18:25) said that the land vomited up its inhabitants. And Deuteronomy (7:1) mentions seven, not three, though not all twelve. The Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Gittites and the tribe of Rephaim are omitted.

The omission of the latter five and the inclusion of seven could be explained because the five did not occupy land promised to the Israelites. Perhaps only three are mentioned here because they were the fiercest and the strongest and were in possession of the most strategic portions of the land. But why were the Philistines not included as well as the Canaanites?  In any case, whatever the number and the group, ethnic cleansing is ordained. How does one reconcile that with empathy for the stranger?

Only, I believe, by distinguishing between enemies versus strangers. Enemies are those who would do you in if they have the chance. Strangers are Others who are no threat. But how do you distinguish the two? After all, in today’s world, some would target all Muslims for exclusion and not just Daesh or al-Qaeda. One burlesque madman would even exclude Mexicans. Are Israelis to define all Palestinians as their enemies, including their own citizens, or only those determined to drive Israel into the sea?

It seems there will always be a political debate about whether the definition of enemy, on ethnic, religious or ideological grounds, should be drawn widely, moderately or narrowly. Some would not target any group at all, even determined exterminators – unless they are a direct existential challenges to one’s own people. I, myself, believe that some – like Nazis and members of Daesh – need to be targeted, but the targeting should be narrow and neither made moderate to allow a margin of safety and certainly not drawn broadly. The latter results in McCarthyism and fear- mongering of the worst order.

So welcome the stranger. Be reasonably cautious but do not exaggerate a danger.

Yom Kippur and the Iran Deal

Yom Kippur and the Iran Deal

by

Howard Adelman

After my last two blogs, some readers may have come to the conclusion that I have lost my critical faculties. I have not. This blog is not written to demonstrate that, but it is written to encourage Rabbi Yael Splansky either to stick to religion, for she is truly a rabbi of faith, or to use directly accessible expert advisers like David Dewitt and Stephen Toope when she strays into international relations strewn with landmines.

On Yom Kippur, after the three hour morning service in synagogue, there is a break. Before the afternoon, evening and remembrance services between 3:30 and 7:30, the after-morning break is followed by an assortment of events which congregants can attend if they do not wish to go home and get a nap. The events vary from participating in Yiddish singing to listening to learned talks on theology and politics.

I attended the most popular event of all, one that almost filled the Eisendrath auditorium. Stephen Toope, the new director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, spoke about the Iran nuclear deal. Stephen is a noted international scholar with a very impressive academic record. He received his PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge (1987) after obtaining degrees in common law (LL.B.) and civil law (B.C.L.) with honours from McGill University (1983), and an undergraduate degree in History and Literature from Harvard University (1979) where he graduated magna cum laude. He served as Law Clerk to the Rt. Hon. Chief Justice Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada in the late eighties and was dean of the McGill Law School in the nineties. He came to the Munk School after a very successful four year role as President of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and a nine year stint as the President of the University of British Columbia. In addition to his very weighty scholarly output on issues of continuity and change in international law and the origins of international obligation in international society (with Jutta Brunnée, Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: An Interactional Account), he has been involved in the practice of diplomacy, such as representing Western Europe and North America on the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances from 2002-2007.

In his talk, he also made clear that he had attended Yom Kippur services. I assume that is because his wife is Paula Rosen and they have three children who, I believe, are being raised as Jews. I do not know if this son of an Anglican minister ever converted, but I suspect not. He gave no indication that he knew of Rabbi Yael Splansky’s talk on the subject of the nuclear arms deal on 25 July 2015, Tish B’Av.

That Jewish holiday is akin to Yom Kippur in many ways (fasting not wearing leather shoes, abstaining from sex), though, unlike Yom Kippur, it is not observed by the majority of Jews. Perhaps that is because it has some extra obligations – refraining from laughing or even smiling, for it is a day when Jews lament and pray as they remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem and other historical calamities that have befallen the Jewish people, including the expulsion of the Jewish people from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.

In July, Rabbi Splansky offered a lament, but could not help but add a number of hopeful possibilities given her sunny disposition. On Yom Kippur, Toope offered the opposite, a very reserved and very qualified celebration of the deal. Though the two evaluations were clearly at odds, neither had taken an extreme position. Toope’s presentation was both very informed and yet very clear and precise, both comprehensive without losing the audience in a thicket of detail. Splansky’s analysis on that day of mourning was even more terse and concentrated, but not on any of the details of the agreement – for she admitted she was neither an expert on international affairs nor a scholar of science who understood the difference between uranium and plutonium. She focused on the intent of the agreement.

She began with two starting points. The first was a reference to the novelist, Jonathan Safer Foer. Splansky offered a summary or a quote on the theme that Jews have a sixth sense. In Everything Is Illuminated, Foer wrote: “Jews have six senses – touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins…when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it…when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”

She could have quoted from his book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the effect that a Jew’s sense of hope and belief in the future countered the propensity to read the contemporary world in terms of the past. Depending on your outlook, maintaining hope and keeping despair at bay may be a delusion. “Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.” On the other hand, Splamsky could have quoted another passage from Everything Is Illuminated that suggested that living with an acute sense of memory, as if the past were integral to experiencing the present, reduced one to extreme loneliness and melancholy.

He awoke each morning with the desire to do right, to be a good and meaningful person, to be, as simple as it sounded and as impossible as it actually was, happy. And during the course of each day his heart would descend from his chest into his stomach. By early afternoon he was overcome by the feeling that nothing was right, or nothing was right for him, and by the desire to be alone. By evening he was fulfilled: alone in the magnitude of his grief, alone in his aimless guilt, alone even in his loneliness. I am not sad, he would repeat to himself over and over, I am not sad.

For Splansky, through remembering a Jew knows why it hurts. She could also have written that, through memory, “I think and think and think, I‘ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”  If a Jew through remembering knows why it hurts, it may also mean that through memory, the Jew is unable to see how one can escape that pain. Living so deeply in that memory of pain may not yield knowledge – even of pain – but results in what Foer called “ignorance bliss,”  “the cancer of never letting go.” The pain comes from too much thinking about the past, not so much from sensibility, as an immersion in the ignorant bliss of sorrow. “I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”

Splansky’s second introductory springboard was to refer Lamentations, a requisite on Tish B’Av. How solitary sits the city that has become like a widow. Bitterly does she weep at night. “Among all her lovers, she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.” The pain, the lamentation about the possibility of the past repeating itself, may not arise from a sixth acute sensibility, but an overload of thinking which ends up reading the past into the present

Splansky claimed that in the Iranian negotiations, things had gone, not from bad to worse, but from “good to bad.” The result for Splansky: the deal was really a terrible one. Toope argued that in the case of Iran, with the deal things had gone from worse to bad and, therefore, the deal was better for us. Was it better to look at the Iran deal through a lens of Jewish memory, as Splansky had done, or through a lens of empirical and detailed knowledge and analysis? One of the questions asked after Toope gave his talk was from a friend sitting next to me who informed me that his gut, not his knowledge, told him that it was a bad deal. He quoted selectively from the service that morning where it referred to the evil of appeasement and asked Toope whether the Iran deal was such a case.

Toope replied that there were virtually no similarities between Munich in 1938 and the Iran deal. The 1938 Munich deal advertised itself as “Peace in our Time.” The Iran deal, on the other hand, was based on continuing distrust and a tough regimen of inspections. There were neither monitoring or inspection measures set forth in the Munich agreement. Further, the Munich deal gave away part of another country. The Iran deal covered only the issue of the capability of Iran to produce nuclear weapons. The deal itself provides for the most extensive and intrusive inspection and monitoring regime ever in international diplomatic history. The two examples could not seem to be further apart. So the question is why anyone would conflate them.

One explanation attributes the error to poor and illogical thought. It is one thing to make the error of inferring from some similarities between two situations to a basis for deducing a further similarity. It is quite another to presume two things are even similar when they are clearly and distinctly different. A second explanation attributes the mistake, not to illogical reasoning, but to a misguided effort to score points, but as we know from any study of spin, if you can associate one characteristic often enough with a particular event or person, no matter how inappropriate, there is a stick factor having nothing to do with any justification for the characterization. I myself think that although both of these kinds of exercises in illogic were probably at work, the deeper explanation belongs to what Rabbi Splansky referred to as a Jewish sixth sense. The problem is that such a sense, if it exists at all, can be, and often is, misleading. It may yield illusions, and frightening ones, because the result is often mindblindness, an unwillingness, even inability, to countenance another explanation and account of what is being characterized.

Thus, when Rabbi Splansky, even though she admittedly was not an expert on the deal or on international diplomacy, said that the result was based on poor negotiations and was full of dangerous loopholes, one can see where reliance on a sensibility that often produces illusions and delusions is not a reliable source. Most – though admittedly not all – scholars who study and have worked on international diplomacy, do not consider that the deal was a result of poor negotiations. So why would someone who is not familiar with the intricacies of international diplomacy as she confessed, venture to characterize the deal as a result of poor negotiations? How could she conclude that the agreement was full of dangerous loopholes. I cannot test her conclusions because Rabbi Splansky offered no examples of either poor diplomacy in this case or of dangerous loopholes.

Anyone familiar with the deal can tell you that Iran can abuse the intentions and terms. Given Iran’s past record, there is a strong suspicion by many that Iran may try. But that is not a loophole. That is the premise of the deal. That is why all the provisions have been made for monitoring and making sure the IAEA has enough funds to undertake the job of inspections. The presumption is made that Iran may try to cheat and the whole regime created by the treaty is designed to detect precisely that and to prepare allies which are part of this agreement for an appropriate response. There is no guarantee that states will respond to their commitments about any deal. One can only provide as good conditions as possible for ensuring such a response and proving the best conditions for reacting responsibly.

Viewing the deal through Jewish memory is not only dangerous, leading to misleading conclusions about the Iran nuclear deal, but can and has lead to dangerous behaviour. It need not. In the case of Rabbi Splansky’s talk, that danger was mitigated somewhat by her admonition to focus on how to use leverage to minimize the damage. However, when the portrait painted of the situation is very poorly done and the deal is characterized as resulting in “a very bad, grave situation,” there is a clear risk that some of the steps proposed will be poorly thought out.

First, Splansky was correct that the scope of the negotiations was narrow. They focused only on considerably reducing Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons, which, as I will argue in subsequent blogs, the agreement did achieve. The “Framework for Cooperation Agreement” (FCA) commits all parties to cooperation “aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme through the resolution of all outstanding issues that have not already been resolved by the IAEA.” The negotiations were not intended nor did they cover the issues of Iran’s extensive and horrible record of human rights violations, of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, of Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel. This was the list Rabbi Splansky offered. It could have been longer and included characterizing Israel as the little Satan as a satrap to the U.S., the big Satan, by expressing a determination to eliminate Israel from the map of the Middle East and by predicting that in the not too distant future, Israel would exist no more.

Rabbi Splansky asked the question: “Will the proposed deal protect the security of Israel and her allies?” She answered “No.” What she left out was that the deal was not designed to do any such thing. The deal was designed to significantly reduce the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear threat. That it did. Rabbi Splansky not only misrepresented the goals of the deal but the permitted outcome. She said there was relatively little relief from the danger since the deal “entitled Iran to have nuclear arms in 15 years.” This, as I will show, is categorically false. As Professor Toome noted, the deal does buy 15 years of intense monitoring and inspections, but nowhere indicates that Iran is permitted to acquire nuclear arms after that date. As I will show, the opposite is the case.

Rabbi Splansky indicated that the worst part of the deal was an “acceptance of Iran’s evil ways.” Nonsense! That is not part of the deal at all. In fact a small aspect of Iran’s bad behaviour, though far from its worst, is the secrecy, deceit and trickery practiced for almost a decade as Iran developed its nuclear program. The nuclear deal no more indicates an acceptance of Iran’s support of terrorism and determination to wipe out Israel than the recognition that the U.S. gave to China in the ping pong diplomacy and Nixon’s trip suggested any support for China’s wicked ways, or the international nuclear treaty with the U.S.S.R. mitigated at all the cruelty of the Soviet dictatorship. In each case, it could be argued that those deals helped to contribute to the moderation of those two enemies, but in the case of Iran, I personally would not count on it.

And the deal does not. After all, immediately after the deal was signed, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, published a 416 page book, Palestine. “The book carries one central message: the urge to annihilate the state of Israel and establish the state of Palestine in its stead” using three key words: “nabudi” (annihilation),” “imha” (wiping), and “zaval” (effacement). Abraham Joshua Heschel is certainly correct that, “We are tired of expulsions and of extermination threats.” But the object is to ensure they cannot be carried out. Reducing Iran’s capacity to make military nuclear weapons does just that. It does not eliminate or even reduce Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. In fact, just over two weeks ago on 9 September, Khamenei explicitly disabused anyone’s expectations that the nuclear talks could be a first step towards a broader peace agenda. Khamenei asserted, “We agreed to hold talks with the Americans only on the nuclear issue.” In other areas, “I have not authorized negotiations and [we] will not hold talks with them.”

As for the $50-150 billion dollars Splansky alleged would be released to Iran by the deal

  • The amount of total assets held in foreign banks by Iran is estimated to be $150 billion, but only $50 billion was impounded through the sanctions regime
  • Of Iranian assets abroad, most are owed to creditors, like China, to pay debts that were delayed by the sanctions
  • The money belongs to Iran from Iranian sales of oil and other goods and is not a signing bonus
  • The money was impounded until such time as Iran complied with the requirement of proving the nuclear development was and remains peaceful
  • The latter is important because if there is any evidence of Iran straying from that commitment, the impounding of Iranian dollars in foreign banks kicks in automatically
  • Any release of the money will take time
  • The condition for release comes only after Iran has demonstrated compliance with the terms of the deal
  • It is true that Iran could use the money to foster even more terrorism, but there is a huge pent-up demand for infrastructure and other domestic uses that suggests that only a small part will be diverted in that direction, especially since the party currently in power under President Hassan Rouhani ran on a platform of improving the dismal state of the Iranian economy

Splansky was much stronger when she shifted from the deal itself and its implications to the issue of how to exert leverage through the wise use of the next fifteen years, through the access gained and through the necessity to develop increasing solidarity among the parties that signed the deal with Iran.

So how valid is Splansky’s or a Jewish sixth sense? Any analysis suggests that you not rely on your kishkas or some imagined sixth sense. In the case of Rabbi Yael Splansky, it is a serious distraction of her power as a truly religious figure who leads with her heart, with her head and her soul.

How do we answer the question she asked of what can we do and what must we do? First, we must get the context and our facts right – see the remainder of this week’s blogs. We ought not to support CIJA’s plea to sign their petition to put pressure on Iran and enhance support for Netanyahu. He is the biggest example of using hyperbole, to missing any opportunity he had to get things right, and using the most inopportune times to sabotage Israel’s crucial alliance with the U.S. Urging Canada to keep sanctions is a joke. U.S. sanctions alone would not work without the cooperation of its partners in the deal. Splansky suggested we use leverage. Canada has absolutely no leverage – and that is another story.

Share solidarity with Israelis. Certainly! But not by helping enhance their fears and pricking their bad memories – they have more than sufficient resources to do that on their own. Do NOT share fear. Do not use Tish Ba’av to go in absolutely the wrong direction. Share analyses. Share hope. Share support. There is so much we can really share that will be invaluable. Solidarity is not a unity of views, as Rabbi Splansky herself indicated in her erev Yom Kippur sermon.

Tomorrow I will begin to demonstrate that by writing about the historical context.

A Rabbi Who Believes in God

Introduction to a Rabbi Who Believes in God

by

Howard Adelman

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yael Splansky spoke at Holy Blossom Temple. I was there. Because of the courtesy of the internet, you too can be partially there. You can hear her words, but you cannot and will not be able to experience the spirituality of the congregation as they rose to their feet at the end to applaud. I have never before heard applause during a religious service in a synagogue – or in any other sacred temple for that matter. But you can at least hear her.

http://www.holyblossom.org/2015/09/sermon-rabbi-yael-splansky-second-day-rosh-hashanah-5776/

Rabbis, like ministers and priests, like Imams and Sikh or Hindu clergy, offer sermons on the holy days of their faith. I have attended many, and from many religions. In my second year of university, every Sunday I went to a different church service of the many different branches and expressions of Christianity in order to try to understand various versions of that faith. In all my time in sacred services, I have never heard a sermon like the one I heard on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776 at Holy Blossom Temple as delivered by Rabbi Splansky.

I was going to write about it the next day. But I did not. Not because I did not have time. Not because I did not know what to say. I often start writing without being very clear what I would be writing about. I do not know why. It was not because what Yael said was so upsetting. Though emotional, her talk was not disturbing at all in the ordinary sense. She did not rattle the congregation like the stereotype of a Torah or Old Testament prophet. But the address was certainly moving.

Yael Splansky did not deliver a fiery or even a terribly memorable oration (terrible in both opposite meanings of the word), where you walked away with a sentence that you could not get out of your head. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For her talk was not really an oration. It was not even a lesson. It was just a talk. And it was not a talk based on a passage from the Torah or one theme discussed in the Torah. She weaved together many themes, contrary to the advice Rabbi Gunther Plaut once gave me as a critique of my lectures; he said they were too crowded with ideas. Splansky’s talk was crowded with a myriad of experiences and responses. For she gave a talk based, not on a biblical text, but on the text of her own life, particularly over the last year as she went through treatment for her cancer.

One quip I heard about the overwhelming positive response to her talk was: “Isn’t it strange and unusual that the only time Jewish congregants love their rabbi is when they are sick.” But the solidarity of the congregation on that day, the applause at the end, was not for her courage and strength in facing cancer, not for her suffering and pain that she endured, but for the spiritual, for the religious message she offered. It was not a message about the interpretation of text or about the source and meaning of a Talmudic law. It was not even about being a moral person in a specific way. It certainly was not about theology. But it was about faith.

After the service, I offered my own quip as I struggled with the overwhelming effect of her talk. [My wife knew it was overwhelming because, in my own trivial bow to its power, and the specific message that we have a duty to care for our bodies so that we can serve others, I started on a strict diet right after I came home.] I told my wife that was the first time I had heard a talk by a religious leader, by a rabbi, where I was absolutely convinced that the individual on the bima believed in God.

I think I did not write about my reaction right away because I could not yet sort out my thoughts. Further, it could have been a One Trick Pony. So I waited. On erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Splansky again delivered a talk. This time, her text was not on herself as Torah, nor on a specific passage of Torah – she cited many prayers based on various passages and many other thinkers. It was a talk on religion in general. No, not exactly. More on being religious in general. Once again it was a five star sermon, though not with the power to arouse a congregation to its feet and applaud. On Yom Kippur, that would have not just been surprising. It would have been shocking.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Splanky set aside the Yiddish proverb, “If God lived on this earth, we would shatter His windows,” and instead began with another:  “If things are not as you wish, wish them as they are.” Was she being a fatalist? Stoics were fatalists. Pythagoras had written: “Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us, bear, whatever may strike you with patience unmurmuring. To relive it, so far as you can, is permitted, but reflect that not much misfortune has fate given to the good.”

This was not Splansky’s perspective. She is not a fatalist. For one, she did not depict her experience over the last year as simply accepting what happened with “patience unmurmuring.”  Instead, after she had experienced the exhilaration of carrying through the transition of the congregation to a new stage the previous year, an effort she had previously considered the hardest thing she had ever done, after she gave last year’s address in the afterglow of that experience, she learned she had cancer. Fighting that cancer became the hardest thing she had ever done. Instead of remaining unmurmuring about that experience, in spite of her being a very private person, she shared that experience with us.

It could have been a maudlin performance, full of sentiment, even if genuine. But it was not. Not at all! Further, she was not a fatalist because her message was not that we have to surrender quietly to the cards delivered to us. The issue was how you play with the cards God gives you. Not only was her talk not “unmurmuring,” but she never claimed that her condition even ranked high in the world of comparative suffering. She knew too many of her congregants whose life of hard knocks was far more arduous than her own. They had suffered much more and for a much longer time.

Nor had she suffered in patience. Shocked but not surprised at her diagnosis, she greeted the verdict, not as fated, but as both lucky for what she might and could learn from it, and unlucky for no one wants their body ravaged in that way. As a rabbi who had ministered to the unwell, she was prepared. But she was also unprepared for what she faced and had to go through. She felt both unlucky to have been stricken and lucky to have the prayers of her congregants to uplift her. She sustained her hope that all would go well, but felt extremely vulnerable. She hated the machines that examined her and the needles they stuck into her, but, in and through her hatred, she was totally grateful they were there. But most of all, she was not a patient stoic who greeted such a disaster with equanimity even if entirely alone. For though she ended each day fully aware that she alone inhabited her particular skin, nevertheless, she had a husband, her boys, and she was surrounded by her congregation. So when she felt crushed under the weight of her illness, she had a source of strength to reinforce her resolve to emerge triumphant.

Like a fatalist, she recognized that you do not get to choose what happens to you. But unlike a stoic, she could choose how to respond, whether with patience unmurmuring or with impatience that both shouted at the disease and heard the echo of her family and friends. Nor did she buy into the Stoic belief that, “not much misfortune has fate given to the good.” For misfortune struck both the good and the bad with NO sense of proportion to the behaviour. Instead, Rabbi Splansky focused on the importance of a sacred community, and this was the message she followed up with in her erev Yom Kippur talk about the nature and character of a sacred community. In its daily acts of goodness, that community becomes a holy order.

But most of all, the talk was about the power of prayer. In the end, she advised people that when they met someone who was suffering from an illness or a loss, do not ask how they are feeling let alone what they are thinking and experiencing. Simply say, “We are praying for you.” For Rabbi Splansky believes not only in prayers, but in the power of prayers. In my head, I responded: how could I ever say such a thing when I share no such conviction about the power of prayer?

Her message did not mean she is or ever was either a mystic or a Jewish version of a Holy Roller. Because faith for her was not about belief that was and is indubitable. Rather, faith occupies the no-man’s land between what is known and what is mysterious. For God is the knower of secrets. In this narrow piece of terra firma, Rabbi Splansky not only experienced God through her body, through its white cells and the tendrils of her nervous system. She not only experienced the wonder and mystery of God’s world. She conveyed that experience to us. She communicated that this had been an authentic and real experience. She – broken shard that she is, a piece of withering grass, a wilted flower – was attached at the hip nevertheless to God, determined to offer herself in a life of meaning and purpose.

As such, she was determined to do all she could to protect herself so she could continue to be of service to her family and community, determined to move on but also upward like a bird on a mission. For the first time, I had heard a rabbi who believed, and I believed that she believed, a rabbi full of trust in God’s spirit convinced that God’s love would never leave her, a God who gave strength to her body as well as her soul, but more than that, a rabbi who convinced me that she truly believed.

I write this, not because I share Yael’s experience or her conception of God. For I participate in worship full of criticism and scepticism. My God does not sustain me. I spend my time arguing with God. Not just arguing, but determined to set Him straight.  God follows us. God shadows us. Contrary to the very text I read in synagogue, I am convinced we do not live in God’s shadow.

This is not the time and place to write about the God of my experience, only to say that I was not convinced by Rabbi Splansky’s performance because she confirmed my experience of God. I sat in awe of Rabbi Splansky’s talk because it was nothing I had ever experienced in myself or in any other. I not only had never trusted a person of faith because they believed. I just never ceased to doubt whether they were really believers. This is not, of course, to say that they were not believers, men and women who expressed a life of faith. But I had never glimpsed that faith. In people like Sister Mary Jo Leddy, I was convinced that it was there. But I had never touched it, never really sensed that faith. It is probably my obtuseness, my stubborn conviction that God exists only to have a partner in one’s struggle and fight for meaning. But that meaning comes to me, not as a gift, but as a residue of the battle.

On Rosh Hashanah, I met a woman who not only had faith, but could communicate that faith to me even as I lacked it.

Tomorrow: Yom Kippur.