By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—The umbrella agency of San Diego’s Jewish community celebrated its 75th anniversary with a new name, new logo, new board chairperson and a newly-defined six-part mission.
All this became clear Thursday evening, June 10, when the agency formerly known as the United Jewish Federation announced its board had changed its name to the Jewish Federation of San Diego County and had redesigned its logo to reflect this change.
After the new board chair Jan Tuttleman and other board members were installed by Congregation Beth El Rabbi Philip Graubart, who serves as this year’s president of the San Diego Rabbinical Association, and after outgoing board chair Andrea Oster and other lay leadership were recognized with various awards, Steve Morris, the Jewish Federation’s president and CEO, told of the symbolic and substantive changes the organization has decided to make.
Morris said the new logo “places us clearly in sync with the brand and logo that the Jewish Federations of North America, our national system, has adopted and will help articulate our role as part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness, connect communities and raise financial resources to support Jewish life.”
He added that “the name change is an opportunity to launch a new era of coordination of planning and practice in our community in the pursuit of our mission.”
The Jewish Federation’s chief executive avoided the podium in front of the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre of the Lawrence Family JCC, and instead walked back and forth in front of theatre with a slide clicker in his hand. “Our goal is to go beyond philanthropy and engage the community in all aspects of Jewish life,” he said.
He enumerated six conceptual areas in which the Jewish Federation plans to be active: 1) Jewish Philanthropy; 2) Israel and Overseas Jewry; 3) Community Engagement and Leadership Development; 4) Community Planning and Innovation; 5) Community Finance and Administration, and 6)Jewish Community Relations.
These six overlapping “centers of excellence,” Morris said, will “allow us to be a partner in Jewish giving, optimize planning for the future, connect Jews in San Diego to Israel and all of the worldwide Jewish community, connect Jews in San Diego to each other, and provide a voice for the Jewish community in the public sphere.”
Jewish Philanthropy—In the last two decades, “Federation and its donors have provided over $180 million of support for Jewish causes,” Morris said. “”But during that time, the number of individuals supporting Federation has declined by 50 percent.
He said Federation needs to preserve “the strength of the traditional annual campaign while attracting new donors through new donor engagement.” The latter will require “new opportunities to address the needs of younger generations of donors.” Additionally, said Morris, “partnering with the San Diego Jewish Community Foundation and other local and global partners” will help “assure that donors have the highest quality team, resources and opportunities possible.”
Israel and Overseas Center–The Jewish Federation currently operates an Israel Center which encourages Jewish group travel to Israel, often in conjunction with trips to Jewish communities in other parts of the world. Morris said to this function Federation plans to find ways to “allow San Diegans to actualize their support of Israel in new and increasingly more effective ways.” In addition to advocating for Israel and Jewish communities around the world, the center “will identify specific funding opportunities for our donors and will continue to make travel to Israel, as well as education, cornerstones.”
Community Engagement and Leadership – Morris said this initiative will focus on promoting volunteerism, connecting Jewish community institutions with young adults, developing future leadership and “partnering with other community institutions to create and implement a community leadership development strategy.”
Community Planning & Innovation—Comprehensive community planning will “help our communal institutions and organizations understand, predict and plan for the Jewish community’s needs and develop plans to strategically meet those needs,” Morris said.
Community Finance & Administration—Working with San Diego State University, the Jewish Federation plans to utilize students in master’s of business administration (MBA) programs to help Jewish community institutions such as synagogues, agencies, and volunteer associations, professionalize their approaches to finance, human relations, information technologies, purchasing, and facilities management.
Jewish Community Relations Council – This organization will utilize “a consensus based approach to advance the Jewish community’s goals,” Morris said. It will serve as coordinator of the Jewish Federation’s public affairs agenda; “encourage ties between the Jewish community and other ethnic groups/ religions”; serve as a “Jewish voice and advocate in the media and government;” and be an “organizer and convener of Jewish community-wide events.”
Both the outgoing and incoming board chairs –Andrea Oster and Jan Tuttleman—also spoke at the well attended meeting, at which the normal theatre-style seating of the Garfield Theatre was replaced by tables permitting some snacking during the proceedings emceed by theatre critic Pat Launer.
Oster told the assembled guests that over her two-year-term, Federation had responded to the national economic crisis by cutting its staff by one third and bringing in as executive director Steve Morris. The new chief executive officer, she said, “is a great fit for San Diego and is leading our innovative, exciting and inspiring transformation process. ‘Business as usual’ is not an option.”
Furthemore, she said, Dave Sigal, the new chief financial officer, helped Morris to ensure that “the federation is operating at peak efficiency.”
The Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation created a Joint Economic Crisis Relief Fund which collaborated to assess the community’s needs due to the economic downturn, and design a plan and fundraise “to help those Jews with the greatest needs.” Oster said. “Together we raised almost $1 million… for economic crisis relief programs, scholarships and additions to rabbi’ discretionary funds.”
In addition to Federation’s annual campaign, Oster reported, $927,000 has been raised toward the $1.3 million goal “to build a safe, bomb-resistant arts center on the campus of the educational village in our sister city, Sha’ar Hanegev.”
Sha’ar Hanegev lies along Israel’s border with Gaza in the northern Negev Desert. The center will be in an educational complex that includes the municipality’s elementary and high schools and which adjoins the Sapir College campus in Sderot.
Oster presented presidential awards on Gary Kornfeld,a board member who helped with the administration of the Federation during its search for an executive, and to Betty Byrnes, a longtime community activist, who spearheaded the “On the Go” program to provide transportation services to Jewish senior citizens.
Before Tuttleman came to the podium, Jessica Effress, a past recipient of Federation’s Pauline and Stanley Foster Young Leadership Award, also presented awards to this year’s recipients: Danielle Shulman, Robert Fink, and her husband Rich Effress.
Tuttleman was touchingly introduced by her husband Craig Lambert, who heads up the senior services division of Jewish Family Service, and by her daughter, Emma, a graduating student at San Diego Jewish Academy who has been active in the Hand Up pantry program through which students collect, store, and distribute food to needy families in the county. Lambert told of Tuttleman’s constantly active involvement in the Jewish community—regardless of where in the world they might go—and daughter Emma told of how her own extensive Jewish community involvement was modeled after her mother’s.
Trained as a scientific researcher, with a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Pennsylvania, Tuttleman has more recently turned her attention to business, earning an MBA at the Rady School of Business at UCSD. She has served as the founding chair of the San Diego Women’s Foundation and a co-founder of the Women Give San Diego in addition to such responsibilities within the Jewish community as president of the women’s division of United Jewish Federation and vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation.
Tuttleman said her involvement in the Jewish community began when she enrolled her daughter Sophie in a Jewish kindergarten program and decided to take an Introduction to Judaism class herself. That prompted her to become involved with the Women’s Division of Federation and to travel to Israel the first time to learn about the works of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee.
After her husband died, leaving her with two small children, Tuttleman said such members of the Jewish community as Barbara Sherman, Becky Newman and Mary Ann Scher offered comfort and support, further cementing her sense of belonging in the community.
Tuttleman said her administration will be “all about action,” stressing what is called the “be” campaign – ‘be connected, be together, believe, belong, be caring, be proud, be Jewish in San Diego.”
To those in and outside the room, Tuttleman said: “I encourage you to bring your energies and expertise to the Federation. Get involved by participating on a committee, attend our programs, travel on our missions, and help us to raise the needed funds to keep our community vibrant while we show Israel and Jews around the world that we care. Embrace this time as an opportunity to make your personal impact on our global Jewish community.”
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California — Not long ago a well-known Jewish female singer performed in my synagogue on a Saturday night. She was staying in town over Shabbat. In making the arrangements, she requested that she be put in a hotel in walking distance to an Orthodox synagogue. I was surprised because I’d known her and her family for years, and they were anything but Orthodox. Also, the last time she’d performed at my synagogue – a different one – she openly disdained the fact that Orthodox Judaism would not count her in a minyan, or allow her to approach the Torah, or become a cantor or rabbi, or, in some cases, allow her to sing in public. Many Orthodox rabbis, she pointed out to me back then, forbid their congregants from purchasing her recordings, or attending her concerts. They prevent her from making a living.
So why, I asked, now, a few years later, did she insist on attending an Orthodox synagogue? Why not my Conservative synagogue? After all, we were bringing her, selling her CDs, generating business, treating her as a respected Jewish artist, with as much integrity and worth as a man. No Conservative (or Reform) rabbi would forbid anyone from buying her music. We would be proud to call her to the Torah; we would be thrilled to ask her to lead us in prayer, or to teach us from the bimah. She answered that yes, all that was true, but, in her experience, Orthodox synagogues offered deeper spiritual experiences. Not wanting to debate her, I made the arrangements. But I thought it was a shame that she was sacrificing her full integrity as a human being for what she felt was “a deeper spiritual experience.”
I think about this incident often when I ask myself an extremely uncomfortable question. How many Jewish women – how many Jews – still care about egalitarianism? When I was coming of age as a Jew in the 1970’s, egalitarianism – the struggle to endow Jewish women with full ritual equality – was among most important and vital issues facing the Jewish world. I entered rabbinical school with the second class of future female Conservative rabbis. These – some of them became close friends – were pioneers, inspiring leaders in the struggle for Jewish women to be counted, to fully participate in Jewish ritual life, to become leaders. They cared passionately about the struggle for ritual equality because they saw it as both an issue of basic human dignity, but also as the crucial step for ensuring American Judaism’s viability. Our culture, they reminded us, after much struggle, now accepts women doctors, and lawyers, and professors, and politicians. How can we then teach our daughters that they can strive for full dignity in every American endeavor, except Judaism?
Sadly, in my own admittedly limited experience, I see evidence all around that this issue has stopped being important to many Jewish women. An Orthodox synagogue near my house contains many woman doctors and lawyers and other professionals – women who would never put up with secondary status in their professional lives, but don’t seem to mind it at all in their religious lives. Other young Jewish professional women I know send their children to Orthodox schools, where they will learn that, when it comes to basic rituals, women are not equal to men. But more alarming, I know many, many strong, professional Jewish women who agree in theory that men and women should be equal in Jewish ritual life, but participate rarely, or not at all in synagogue rituals, leaving them to men. So, I wonder. Does anyone care about this issue anymore?
I do. For me, it’s not just a question of basic human dignity, it’s the best and most correct reading of classic, historic Jewish sources. But my point is not to argue that now. The women pioneers before me – along with many Jewish men – argued it so well, with great erudition, eloquence and passion. My point now is to wonder where that passion went, how much of it actually filtered down to contemporary American Jewish practice, and not just in certain New York, Boston, and Los Angeles neighborhoods, but all over. Why, to put it bluntly, are the women who seem to care most about Judaism choosing the Jewish movement which least respects their full individuality?
Certainly non-Orthodox Judaism has failed in many respects. The singer who performed at my synagogue was correct that Orthodox synagogues often (but not always) offer livelier spiritual experiences. And the early egalitarian innovations may have moved us in slightly wrong directions. Most women, for whatever reasons, simply don’t like wearing tefilin, and it’s probably not necessary. And there may be some wisdom in separating men and women in prayer (but equally, not with women struggling to see over a balcony mechitzah). But whatever flaws we may find in non-Orthodox Judaism, it’s still the only form of Jewish spirituality that recognizes the full soul equality of Jewish women, the only form of Judaism where women can be religious leaders, where they can enjoy full ritual access, where they can count. As everyone knows, non-Orthodox Judaism is suffering profound attrition lately, with only a bleak future ahead. If Jewish women don’t support it – if we all don’t support it – that would be bad for everyone, but it would, in my opinion, be most tragic for Jewish women.
Graubart is rabbi at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla.
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California–Last night at dinner, my son commented, “Don’t you think it’s time we forgave Haman?” We all nodded, yes, absolutely. Talk about keeping a grudge! It was all some good pre-Purim fun, but it made me ponder that concept of eternal, mythic enemies, and the challenges the idea throws on any culture. Christians, for example, have to deal with the New Testament naming Jews as their eternal enemy. James Carroll, a scholar and former Catholic priest – author of the well-known Constantine’s Sword – recently spoke at my synagogue about the tragic consequences of seeing a living community as a mythic adversary.
For Jews, at least, the eternal enemy – the Amalekites, Haman’s people – have disappeared. We don’t persecute contemporary Amalekites; we shake graggers when we hear Haman’s name. There are no Amalekites. But the concept still presents serious problems. There’s always the temptation to label contemporary enemies as Amalekites – and therefore condemn them as eternally cruel and wicked, people we should destroy, not engage. I’ve heard Palestinians called Amalekites, but also Russians, Iranians, Saudis, and even the French.
But the deeper concern, it seems to me, is how this notion of an eternal enemy influences how we see ourselves. The Torah commands us to “Remember what Amalek did to you,” and the Passover Haggadah warns that “In every generation they rise up against us to wipe us out.” If eternal, mythic enemies surround us in every generation, that makes us eternal victims – eternally harassed, persecuted, threatened. If we’re always victims, always chased by implacable enemies, then our best responses are either to hide, or lash out – and neither is a healthy way to live.
In fact, the modern Zionism movement came into being to counter our deeply internalized feelings of victimhood. We’re not victims, the early Zionists proclaimed; we’re in control of our destiny. We don’t need to hide or lash out, we can build, strategize, negotiate, and also fight, but strategically, and only when necessary. And, of course, the early Zionists didn’t see themselves as surrounded by mythic, implacable enemies. The Turks, British, and Arabs were all challenges to confront, sometimes by fighting, sometimes by negotiating, sometimes by embracing in friendship – but they were never Amalek, the eternal enemy who rises up in every generation to wipe us out. I came of age during this Zionist time, this great experiment with pragmatism, this rejection of ancient myths. I’ve given sermons and written articles along these lines – challenging the Jewish predilection for victimization, for finding mythic enemies in ordinary adversaries.
But, starting a few years ago, each time I wrote disparagingly about the demons of the Jewish psyche, a particular demonic image popped into my mind: the gates of Auschwitz. I’ll never forget the first time I saw those perfectly preserved gates in person on a trip to Poland, how they seemed to escape full-bodied from my nightmares, and materialize in front of me, like the devil himself. It’s Amalek, I whispered to myself, staring at the infernal German words Arbeit Macht Frei. Is it true? I wondered. Does Amalek try to destroy us in every generation? Think of our bloody history: expulsions, Crusades, Inquisitions – or just the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin. And this is real history, not myth.
And what about today? Ahmedinajad, like Haman, a Persian, is not a figment of our paranoid imagination. Our most respected Jewish organizations don’t warn against an Iranian nuclear holocaust because of our psychic demons. We oppose him – we fear him – because he explicitly threatens to destroy us, and he’s building a bomb. Is Ahmedinijad another manifestation of Amalek? Is he another implacable enemy, proving the Haggadah correct?
My short answer is no, but I’m not as confident as I used to be. Nowadays two inner voices compete for attention when I contemplate Israeli’s enemies: the Zionist pragmatist; and the mythic, traditional. It’s Amalek, one whispers, when I think of Hamas, or Hezbollah, or Iran. No, the other says, they’re not demons, they’re just human beings, responsive as anyone to incentives, to threats and promises. I never fully harmonize the two voices, but I’ve cobbled together a rough synthesis, that, for what it’s worth, goes something like this. There will always be evil people trying to destroy the work good people do. These evil people are not merely adversaries, they are enemies, committed to malicious destruction. We can call these people Amalek. But they’re not a specific group; there’s no demonic genetic thread that ties them together. Nevertheless, like infernal weeds, they pop up in every generation.
Rabbi Graubart is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla.
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California –If you grew up in circumstances similar to mine (American, suburban, public high school), and with a similar sensibility, then a few weeks ago you felt a sharp pang of loss, with the death of J.D. Salinger. Many of us (actually, millions of us) had our first experience finding ourselves in a work of literature while reading Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye.
In the book, as I’m sure you recall, Holden Caulfield embodies adolescent alienation, wandering around New York, while dividing the world into two types: phonies (95% of the population), and saints, the pure, elect few – the people who “get it” – symbolized, for Holden, by his younger sister Phoebe, and his late brother. From a religious perspective, Holden is rejecting the coarse muck of the physical world, and embracing the pure, the good, the spiritual. Millions of teenagers devoured Holden’s adventures, while nodding along, understanding his feelings exactly. I certainly did.
That’s why I was astonished when I re-read the novel last week and discovered that Holden’s famous alienation doesn’t flow from his adolescence, it comes from his grief over just losing his older brother. Throughout the book, Holden is in mourning; he’s pining for his dead brother. And it’s the grieving which produces his unhealthy division of all humans into phonies and saints, and the entire Universe into physical and spiritual.
But, I realized, drawing on my own rabbinic experience, that’s precisely what acute loss does to us. For awhile, in the heat of mourning, it makes us divide our acquaintances into good guys and bad guys – the few good folks who “get it,” who sympathize with our grief and help us; and the great majority who inexplicably and crudely go on with their silly, striving, material lives, despite our immense loss. The Catcher in the Rye portrays Holden going through a stage of grief – the alienation stage. By the end of the book, though, he’s getting over it. He’s recovering. Salinger, in other words, isn’t recommending teenage alienation. On the contrary, he’s identifying it as pathology, something to treat, and then transcend.
But, why should I care? It’s been over thirty years since my teenage alienation, and despite some forays into literature, I’m a rabbi, not a critic. Well, for one thing, Salinger’s father was Jewish, and it’s interesting to wonder if Jewish ideas influenced him, or if, for that matter, we could claim him as a Jewish thinker and writer. And, in fact, Jewishness does pop up in a few of his stories (email me, and I’ll tell you where). But, to be honest, it’s never a serious theme. By then end of his writing life, Salinger seemed much more drawn to Buddhism and Christianity then Judaism.
And yet, there’s something Jewish about Holden Caulfield’s recovery from alienation, the way Salinger, in the novel, ultimately rejects dividing the world into phonies and saints. Unlike Buddhism and some forms of Christianity, Judaism doesn’t reject or disparage the material world. The Talmudic tradition – for me, the finest and most representative Jewish tradition – embraces the muck and the struggle of the material world, while injecting it with the light of Torah – of God’s light. So the world as we experience it is not purely physical or spiritual, it’s a harmonious combination of the two, an intertwining. People are neither pure phonies, nor saints, they are both, in combination, saints and phonies, angelic and bestial.
This, I believe, was Salinger’s view, and I’m not just relying on Cather in the Rye. I find further evidence of a kind of Jewish sensibility in his novella “Zooey,” part of the book Franny and Zooey. In the story. Franny, like Holden, a precocious adolescent, is withdrawing from the world and having a Holden-like breakdown. She drops out of college, sits in her room all day, and mumbles Christian prayers to herself. Her brother Zooey attempts to heal her, and reminds her that their late older brother Seymour used to encourage them to perform at their best (they were child radio performers) because of an imaginary, hypothetical “fat lady.” Franny responds yes, she remembers, she always tried hard for “the fat lady.” But Zooey adds this wisdom; he says that everyone is “the fat lady.” In fact, the fat lady is “Christ Himself.” This comment not only cures Franny of her malaise, it redeems the equally troubled Zooey.
It’s a fascinating moment, for two reasons. On the one hand, Franny clearly saw the “fat lady” as one of the elect few, a saint, not a phony, someone who “gets it,” who intuitively understood her performances. So Zooey reminds her that everyone has elements of sainthood, just as everyone has element of phoniness. At the same time, the term “fat lady,” makes us think of gross physicality. Franny even comments that she imagined her as a cancer patient with thick, veiny legs. So in claiming that everyone is the fat lady, Zooey – the spiritual hero of the story – reminds us that all humans are grossly physical, but nevertheless we should value them, and see in them the spark of God.
Despite Zooey’s Christ reference, Salinger’s parable of the fat lady reminds me of many Hasidic stories where unpleasant beggars turn out to be Elijah the prophet. The lesson in these stories seems to be the same as Salinger’s in “Zooey.” No one is too gross, or too good. We’re all beggars, we’re all the fat lady, just as we’re all phonies and saints. Interestingly, in his personal life, Salinger imitated the pre-cure Zooey and Holden; he retreated from the world, abandoning the hustle and bustle of publishing, and fled to Cornish, New Hampshire. But he left behind a body of work which urges us to engage the world, not flee. May his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Graubart is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla.
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California–Did God write the Torah? The question came up in my son’s Jewish high school last week provoking some surprisingly heated discussions. I say “surprisingly” because I wouldn’t have expected eleventh graders to care so passionately about a theological issue. Also, this is a community Jewish school, a pluralistic, multi-denominational institution, which studiously and skillfully avoids religious controversy – out of necessity. Yet there it was: theological claims, emotional responses, and not a few hurt feelings, enough that the principal felt obliged to email the parents. A few days later some of the same students in the class put the question to me: Did God write the Torah? I answered what I always answer. Yes, we can agree that God wrote the Torah. But we may not agree on what the words “God,” “wrote,” and “Torah” mean.
Why does it matter? Why do modern, sophisticated, super-intelligent (forgive me, I’m thinking of my son), college-bound students – not to mention their equally sophisticated parents – quarrel over this mostly non-rational issue? For one thing, most of us have an innate need to think of our most fundamental moral principles as grounded in something more solid than human reason. And religious rituals provide shape and meaning to most of our lives, so – again – we’d like to think of them as coming from God, and not from some primitive human committee. All of us, in one way or another, crave authority in a rapidly changing world. So we are inclined to believe that God wrote the Torah for the same reason we are inclined to believe in God: this faith provides our human actions with infinite purpose. Questioning either proposition – that there is a God, or that God is responsible for our most important code of behavior – robs us of meaning.
Yet, modern times have brought numerous challenges to the idea that God wrote the Torah. Biblical academics now identify at least four human authors, writing in various times and places and for various reasons, for the Pentateuch – the book traditional Jews revere as the “Chumash,” or more simply “The Torah of Moses.” University archeologists regularly unearth evidence that directly contradicts biblical claims. Also, some Jews study certain morally troubling passages in the Torah – like the commandments to stone Homosexuals, or slaughter Amalekites, or execute stubborn and rebellious children – and conclude that these passages cannot possibly have been written by God.
I’m not sure we’re fully aware of the crises these challenges have generated. In an old Star Trek episode, Kirk and company encounter a planetary culture that follows all the customs and mores of 1930’s gangland Chicago. Why? Because a previous space ship had left behind a book that scrupulously described the old Chicago crime mobs. The natives – a uniquely impressionable lot – studied the book from the sky, and adopted it as their holy text. They called it “’Da Book.” Inevitably, the planetary mobsters capture the Enterprise crew. The only way Kirk can escape is by debunking “’Da Book.”
It’s not “’Da Book,” Kirk argues, it’s just a book, authored by fallible humans. He succeeds in escaping, but he leaves behind a deflated culture, suddenly bereft of meaning.
The Star Trek episode is played for laughs, but I still see elements of this disillusioned reality in our culture – and not just Jewish culture. Challenges to our book have created division, confusion, and sometimes serious conflict. The battle between Darwinists and Creationists (or the followers of Intelligent Design), which continues despite supposedly definitive court cases, is largely a fight between those who believe that God wrote the Bible, and those who don’t. The Creationist’s fundamental complaint about Darwinism is that it conflicts with the creation account in the book of Genesis. This never ending battle reveals an incoherence near the center of our culture. Despite court rulings, many high school biology teachers, including several in San Diego county, don’t know what they can or cannot teach about evolution. But more fundamentally, this controversy calls into question what we as a culture really think about science. Darwin’s theories form the basis of modern biology, and continue to spark important innovations in medical technology, from which everyone benefits, including Creationists. But how can we enjoy the science even as we deny its fundamental claims? Or, how can we support the science – with all its theological implications – and still retain our full faith in the Torah? And, how can we address these touchy questions, without insults, lawsuits, culture wars?
I wish I knew. But clearly we need a broader understanding of what it means when we claim, as I do, that God wrote the Torah. And I can only offer my own system, culled from traditional Jewish texts, and several of my teachers. There’s a wonderful Talmudic story, where Moses finds God decorating the letters of the Torah with crowns. Moses asks why, and God answers that future generations will discover deep, hidden meanings in the crowns. So, when I say God wrote the Torah, I understand that there are numerous hidden messages embedded in, and between the lines of the text. God’s authorship – by definition – makes the Torah an infinite source of meaning, infinitely interpretable. My idea of a divine Torah makes me the opposite of a fundamentalist. The plain meaning of the text – whether it’s a law, or a story, or an ethical principle – is never the last word. It can’t be, if God wrote it.
So, like Rav Kook, the ultra-Orthodox first chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, I have no problem with Darwinism because the Torah’s early stories are flexible enough to accommodate any scientific truth. Similarly, the conflicts and contradictions that modern academics find don’t disturb me, since I’m used to finding creative interpretations of our book. For me, the spiritual experience of seeking endless knowledge trumps my need for easy, black and white authority.
I understand that this system doesn’t work for everyone. I remember once trying to explain to an Orthodox rabbi that I believed in gay marriage precisely because I believed God wrote the Torah. It’s in the crowns, I said, even if it’s not in the text. He didn’t get it, he told me, and I wasn’t surprised.
But we all will need to start “getting” each other’s perspective on the authority of our sacred texts – the texts that still bind our culture together, believers and non-believers. I hope they keep talking about this subject at my son’s school.
Rabbi Graubart is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California –Last month I saw the Coen Brothers new movie A Serious Man. I was curious because I’d heard both Coens’ claim that the movie was their take on the biblical story of Job – and I, I must admit, am a Job fanatic – a follower of all things Job.
And there is some resemblance between Job and A Serious Man. Both stories concern a series of misfortunes that afflict an innocent person. Job – “blameless,” righteous – loses his wealth, health and family all in one very bad day. Larry, the main character in the film, loses his wife to an extra-marital affair; struggles with sudden health issues; suffers from job insecurity; and wrestles with a series of comically depressing family issues, from a wacky, self-destructive brother, to a sullen, un-loving teenage daughter, to a rebellious, obnoxious bar-mitzvah boy son. Both stories feature ambiguous endings. Job concludes with God’s mysterious appearance “out of the whirlwind,” which resolves none of the spiritual issues – suggesting that yes, God is responsible for evil, but that we can never really know why. A Serious Man concludes with a tornado which may or may not destroy the town; a serious diagnosis that may or may not be deadly; and a sense that supernatural forces may be responsible for our suffering, but then again, maybe not – maybe it’s all blind fate.
On the other hand, there are significant differences between the stories. The character Job really is blameless – even Satan admits it. But Larry’s a neglectful husband and a clueless dad, so he brings on at least some of his misfortunes (one critic re-titled the movie “When Annoying Things Happen to Annoying People.”).
Also, the endings do diverge greatly. While the Coen Brothers message of “who knows?” is, in fact, a serious approach to an unfathomable problem, and I admire their attempt to grapple with metaphysical issues (though, it must be said, much of the movies seems to be their cruel, frankly unfunny attempts to get back at some boring Hebrew School teachers), from a spiritual perspective, the movie leaves us cold. Job also teaches “who knows?” but at the same time offers a glimpse of transcendent possibilities. We finish Job not understanding why God does what God does, but still feeling the power of God’s infinitely complex word. We finish watching A Serious Man without the slightest hint that there’s anything significant out there at all beyond our petty lives, and annoying concerns. A Serious Man is really more Sartre than Job – but not even a particularly interesting exploration of Sartre.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I actually caught another movie which does a much better job at recreating Job, but in a fully comic vein: Bruce Almighty,starring Jim Carrey. The set-up is similar: a simple guy – Bruce, a newscaster – suddenly afflicted with serious problems. But, like Job – and unlike Larry – Bruce explicitly complains to God. And, as in Job, God shows up to defend Himself (God’s a He in the film – Morgan Freeman). And here the resemblance to Job is so remarkable, I have to imagine that the writers at least thought about the biblical story, though they didn’t brag about it to the press. Because God’s defense in the film is that He’s very, very busy. You trying being God, Morgan Freeman demands of Jim Carrey. Which is very similar to God’s challenge to Job at the end of the biblical book: “Where were you when I created the world?”
But the best part of Bruce Almighty is the message that comes at the end. After numerous madcap scenes of a comically overwhelmed Jim Carrey, dealing with billions of prayers, petty and grand, God reappears and gives away the true moral of the film, and still the best response to suffering. “I’ve given you world,” Morgan Freeman intones, with a wry twinkle in his eye, “it’s your responsibility to make the best of it.” And while this line has the creaky sound of a Hollywood cliché, it’s not so far from the actual message of the Book of Job.
The key to understanding this strange book, it seems to me, is realizing that God never answers Job’s questions, or responds to his challenges. Instead God, like Morgan Freeman at the end of the movie, changes the subject. You ask about suffering, God says, and you wonder why I allow it, but I prefer to discuss this grand world I created, with stars and planets; wondrous wildlife, like eagles and lions; and truly terrifying, supernatural creatures like Behemoth and The Sea Monster. You, God says, direct my attention to your suffering, but I direct your attention to the broad and terrifying Universe, too gigantic for the human mind to comprehend. Ultimately what we learn is that there’s more to the world then we can imagine, and therefore more power within us that we previously thought. Job wants answers, but God gives him what he really needs: a glimpse of infinity, and therefore the possibility of transcendence. And with that possibility, we can respond to suffering – either our own, or to others – with concrete actions, courage and generosity. As Morgan Freeman’s God might say, I gave you a world with infinite possibilities. It’s your job to dig down deep and find something to relieve the suffering.
This is not only a more inspirational message than A Serious Man’s,it’s also truer to life. The film ends (spoiler alert!) with a cancer diagnosis. But as any cancer survivor knows, in the real world, the diagnosis is just the beginning of the story. The rest contains pain and suffering, but also caring, intelligent doctors, generous friends, loving families, brilliant scientists searching for cures, moments of bliss and ease, communities offering prayers, unexpected acts of lovingkindness. More good, and more power, in other words, than we ever knew existed, no matter what the outcome. The Coen Brothers void actually strikes me as more fictitious, less believable, than Morgan Freeman’s promise, or Job’s transcendent glimpse. Something is out there for sure, Job reminds us, strong and great, even if it’s only our striving, imperfect generosity, and the love of those around us.
Rabbi Graubart is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El. His ongoing column will explore God’s role in our lives and in our world.