Monday, November 02, 1998

A Murder in Buffalo: On the Assasination of Dr. Bart Slepian

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am,
Williamsville (Buffalo), New York

Dear Friends and Readers: This past Rosh Hashanah, here, in this column, and in remarks addressed to my congregation, I wrote the following words:

“What is the difference, what is the gap, between celebrities and famous people, betweeen a Rosa Parks or Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela, and you, and me? Is it real power? Is it the scale and stage on which their lives unfold?

It is neither. The gap is unreal, the difference illusion. It is only the accidental focusing of the lens of history. All that separates your daily routine from a history book of the future is chance, and opportunity. So be prepared. A moment may come. A building may burn. A phone may ring. A movement may start from a casual comment. For better or for worse, your time, your turn may come with no warning at all."

I wish I had not been so prophetic. For the lights that go with that lens can glare brightly indeed. And this past week, the lens of history has been focused with great intensity on my community, on my congregation, and, in particular, on a grieving family in my synagogue.

I open with excruciatingly painful irony: on the very day that would later see a good man shot dead, I received a phone call from another congregant. Her daughter is eighteen weeks pregnant. She is a diabetic, so it was a high risk pregnancy to boot. The fetus has now developed a very large tumor. Some treatments that might have been possible are precluded by her diabetes. The fetus stands little chance of surviving. The pregnancy may pose a danger to her life. Her Catholic ob/gyn, in personal agony, is advising her to terminate her pregnancy.

That was a week ago Friday, during the day. Then came Friday night.

Yes, Bart Slepian and his family were members of Temple Beth Am of Williamsville. But they were relatively recent members, having come over from Temple Beth El (Conservative) around two and a half years ago. (The synagogue they attended that night was Beth El... because his father's name was read for yahrtzeit this shabbat at that synagogue). In addition, I am fairly new in the Buffalo area, having come to Beth Am only in August of 1997. So, although I officiated at Brian's (the second oldest of the four boys) bar mitzvah last year, I did not know the family too well. The family remains personal friends of their former rabbi, Rabbi Robert Eisen. I officiated at the funeral along with our Cantor, Barbara Ostfeld; Bob did the eulogy. The most powerful words at the funeral came from Dr. Slepian's niece, Amanda Robb, who lost her own father when she was very young, who was cared for as a daughter by her uncle Bart Slepian, and who addressed herself to Dr. Slepian's four boys, ages 15, 13, 10 and 8. When she was done speaking, I was, simply, sobbing. I am glad I did not have to stand up to follow her; no sound would have come out of my mouth. She spoke of the boys' father as the last star they would see at night. But I can not -- and should not -- convey more of what she said.

What I do know about Bart Slepian is this: to portray him as an "abortionist" is an added obscenity on top of a nightmare. He was not "pro-abortion," he was pro-health care. I am told that he was troubled by a complex moral issue, that his greatest joy was bringing babies into the world -- he was a fertility specialist, for God's sake -- one of Rabbi Eisen's comments was that he cared for women, "he delivered their babies, and he saved their lives." My friends who were his patients tell me that he was caring in a rare and old fashioned kind of way -- showing up to be with them when they had unrelated procedures performed by other physicians, spending whatever time was needed and not making you feel part of a medical factory. Abortions were probably five percent of his work. Maybe less.

To say this has been a big story would be to call Niagara Falls large rapids. I have never before witnessed press harassment to this degree. There is no other word for it, except, perhaps, exploitation. When the media could not speak directly with the family, they went anywhere else they could. My wife Julie had to have received sixty calls at home, at all hours of day and night, and we received an equal or greater number at the congregation. Cameras and reporters showed up on Sunday morning, Religious School was disrupted, reporters walked into our offices and sat down to use our phones. That is minor, compared to the casing out of the family's home, the long distance lenses used at burial, and the gauntlet of satellite dishes and cameras the mourner's had to run in order to reach the funeral home.

In the meantime, in the midst of tragedy comes a bandwagon effect of another kind... of people feeling a need to express something, and being unsure how to do so, or what to do. Being with the family here, I see a fine line between the undeniable... I hate to use this word... but "opportunity" that this singular moment, this window in time offers those who believe in a cause -- and the fact that the family doesn't give a hoot about causes at the moment, and needs their space. Call it the prophetic versus the pastoral, if you will; I have never felt that conflict so keenly before.

And so, "events" are happening all around us, as different groups a) feel the need or b) seize the opportunity to express themselves. Many organizations in Buffalo have learned about the concept of shivah (the traditional seven day period of intense mourning) this week -- don't plan a community memorial service until the family can be involved, and leave them alone for right now. Of course, this flies in the face of everyone's desire to get something down on their calendars and move forward fast, while the emotion is high and the wound is fresh. I have heard about three different dates for events, scheduled by God knows whom for God knows what purpose.

On the communal front, can we come to some common understanding with other religious communities? Rabbinic colleagues of mine met late last week with a representative of the Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries. They clearly conveyed the balance between the needs of the family and the needs of the community to do... something. They have planned a Vigil Against Violence, as some kind of communal response that would not necessarily involve the family's input. But it will be a silent vigil. For what words could be said that someone would not disagree with? To be blunt: could other faith communities come forward and condemn this violence, without also attacking what they consider to be violence in a different form, the performance of abortions? Sadly, perhaps not. And would we stand for any statement that equated the murder of a real human being with a medical procedure? Of course not. We want to come together as a whole community. And so only silence stakes out our common ground.

I did make one mistake this past week -- at least, one that I am presently aware of. A woman called our congregation, and identified herself only be her first name. She said she was a member of a local Catholic church. She asked about the Jewish position on abortion. Foolishly, putting our own community at risk, I answered her. (And I will address this subject in an upcoming column as well. It is actually a complex question, but I will make two comments now. First, Judaism does not consider abortion to be the equivalent of murder. And secondly, there are times where all branches of Judaism would agree that an abortion is not a choice, but is required. But more on this later.) I am fairly certain that no harm will come of answering her questions; still, what I should have done was demand her last name, call her priest, and assure myself that she was, indeed, who she said she was. For we live in a world of madness. And you never know where danger lurks.

A family grieves. And everyone around them has an agenda.

It is hard not to walk a little taller, to stand a little straighter when the lens of history focuses on you. Exploitation meets temptation. But cursed be the one -- whoever it is, the friend, the neighbor, the activist, the politician, the colleague, the clergy person -- cursed be the one who forgets that the family comes first.

The question remains, and many have asked: what can we do? Well, a cause survives. The family has asked that donations be made to the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, P.O. Box 461, Buffalo, New York, 14209.

There is so much more to say, and there are no words adequate to the moment. All I will add for now is this: may each one of us go home every day and say to those around us three simple words that cannot be said enough, nor heard enough. "I love you." For we never know what tomorrow may bring.

L'Shalom (in peace)

Rabbi Michael Feshbach

Sunday, November 01, 1998

Life is Beautiful: A Clown Goes to the Camps

Life is Beautiful:
A Clown Goes to the Camps

Rabbi Michael L Feshbach
Temple Beth Am, Williamsville, NY

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives... saying: ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool if it is a boy, kill him if it is a girl let her live."

The edict came down from on high. It wasn't meant as advice. It wasn't a suggestion, like, for instance, the city of Boston kindly suggests that you at least slow down and look before hurling through that red light. No, this was an order, a command, right from the mouth of the man whose word was law.

And yet, incredibly, in sparse words that speak volumes, we read: vatirena hamyaldot et haElohim, v'lo asu k'asher dibber aleiheim melech Mitzrayim, vat'chayenah et hay'ladim. The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had told them They let the boys live."

Here we have, in a single sentence, the first recorded act of civil disobedience, the first time in world literature when someone stood up to a great leader and said, simply, no. These words have moved and inspired a Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky; they have been a source of hope and solace for victims of Apartheid and Prisoners of Conscience.

But the defiance in what these women did is even more powerful than a political statement.  It’s a lesson for all of us, at every juncture in our lives.  It is a reminder that we don't have to live by the rules that other people set for us. Even laws -but not only laws, rather, each and every situation in which we find ourselves requires our consent to move forward, to affirm its hold over our lives. And have it in our hands to withhold that consent.  Ultimately, existentially, we make, we shape our own reality.  In the end we are, indeed, the authors of ourselves.

This pretty serious idea is the central premise of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, a recently released Italian comedy about the Holocaust.

The film was a surprise, coming from Benigni who, at 45, is probably Europe’s best known comic actor, a modem­ day disciple of Charlie Chaplin. But the film is all his: he is the inspiration, co-author, and star, and he pulls off an almost miraculous cinematic balancing act.

The movie opens in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, in Fascist Italy, in the 1930s. Daniel Kotzin, in The Jerusalem Report, describes the main character, Guido, as a ''happy go lucky fellow apparently oblivious to the major events unfolding around him," who arrives from the country, works as a waiter in his Uncle's restaurant, and dreams of opening a book store. He meets, enchants and finally wins the heart of Dora, a non-Jewish school teacher played by Benigni's wife, Nicolleta Braschi The first section of the movie is... truly funny. Just on this side of slapstick, evoking laughter but stopping short of scorn, the events in the night following Guido's "rescuing" of Dora from her own engagement party are amongst the fumiest five minutes I have ever seen in on the screen.

Time turns, and so, we would have expected, would the mood. Years later, and Guido and Dora prepare for their son, Giosue (Joshua)'s, fifth birthday party. The celebration is inte1rnpted by the deportation of rather and son. Dora, told to go back home and forget about her family, demands to climb on the same train, and willingly travels to the unnamed death camp that is their destination.

And it is here, on the train ride that the film travels to brilliant but dangerous ground. For Guido had always tried to make his son happy, and he seems to believe it his mission in life to continue to do so Joshua asks what is going on. The bewildered son looks to a rather with those eyes that say, "Papa, I know you know everything in the world. Make sense of this for me..."

Guido, rather than succumbing to his own despair, rather than racing that moment that every parent must, of letting their children know that they are not, after all, omnipotent and omniscient, Guido improvises ...and tells Joshua that it was all planned part of his birthday celebration. He builds on the charade as he goes, describing the entire experience as a game and, when a Nazi officer bursts into a barracks and asks for a translator, Guido, knowing absolutely no German, volunteers, imitating the soldier's style but making up the content as he goes along -- outlining the rules of this very elaborate game to a wide-eyed and incredulous five year old boy... and a bemused but exhausted barracks full of other adult men. The prize at the end is a tank. You need so many points. You gain points by staying quiet and hidden. You lose points for crying. And so on.

Now, even with a bare bones summary, I know what you are thinking: a comedy about the Holocaust! How... tacky is the mildest word I can think of It brings to mind visions of The Great Dictator, Jack Benny's To Be or Not To Be, even Mel Brook's :film about a comedy about the Holocaust, The Producers. (Who can forget "Springtime for Hitler in Germany?'  It even, God help us, calls to mind Hogan's Heroes.
As offensive as all of these previous efforts were to some, however, even they were about the Nazis... as Germans among Germans. They were comedies, they were often inappropriate, but even they were not about the death camps! How could anyone make such a film? How dare touch hell with humor?

And the objections have been loud, indeed. Pressure mounted on Benigni in Europe not to make the :film at all; at the Jerusalem premiere, one member of the audience ''bitterly accused Benigni of being more dangerous than the Holocaust denier -- for daring to bring laughter into a death camp, prompting modem audiences to ridicule Jews and downplay Nazi genocide."(Kotzin)

In addition: Roberto Benigni? Tackling a serious subject? Here is a man who jumped into the arms of and kissed the presenter as Life is Beautiful won the runner-up Grand Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival who told his Jerusalem audience that he wanted to make love to each and every one of them, but that, sadly, time constraints prevented it (Kotzin).

The well-known actor's answer to the critics is poignant. ''I received a lot of letters from children," he said. ''I am really Benigni in the film, and children identified with me. They ask their parents: 'Why did they take Benigni? The parents can only answer by saying that he is Jewish [the character, that is]. So, the children ask, 'What does it mean to be Jewish?"'

I agree. This is one of the most powerful films about the Holocaust I have ever seen. It was, perhaps, one of the most powerful :films I have ever seen. I hesitate to say that, because I know that when you build something up too much, it's often a disappointment. But, hey, I haven't gotten to see too many movies at all since my children were born this one and, of course, the new Star Trek movie, so you can put my comments in perspective. But that was my reaction on leaving the theater.

Throughout, Life is Beautiful walks a tightrope, risking falling into farce. My wife thought the translation scene with the Nazi officer crossed the line, but we later learned this was a tribute to a scene from The Great Dictator (which, by the way, Chaplin later said he would never have made had he known what he knew after the war).

To use a colloquial expression, Life is Beautiful blew me away, and on several levels.  First, as a father of two boys. You know, we say that we don't have to be in a situation to understand it, to "relate." People can help each other even through things they have not themselves experienced. I have met Catholic priests who are pretty good marriage counselors.

I really believe that. But I still don't think I would have reacted the same way before my boys were born This is a story about a father and a son. And when I shook with silent sobs, it was not this fictional Joshua, but a real-Life Benjamin and Daniel in my heart.

Second, as a Jew I was amazed at how sensitively a non-Jewish author portrayed a Jewish experience (thus proving my initial inclination above). Benigni said he was inspired to make this movie because of his own father’s time in a Nazi labor camp -- but then went on to make it clear that he absolutely understood the distinction between a concentration camp where death was accidental and a death camp, where it was the main product.

Too few non-Jews know that distinction; too few really understand the difference between what Jews went through and, for example, Polish prisoners of war or other political prisoners. As a Jew, I was moved by how Guido, outwardly assimilated, who thought of himself as Italian, was seen as a Jew first by his Italian neighbors... a chilling and entirely accurate reminder that we are bound together in past, present and future in ways we often seek to evade but, well cannot. And as a Jew, I was touched by the portrayal of one man who rocked the fascists and Nazis, but who was swept up in their hatred... a reminder that ridicule may be a right response ... since those who are puffed up with themselves really are ridiculous... this ridicule of our enemies may be true, but it is not always that effective.

And finally, as a human being The most bone-chilling encounter in the entire film, for me, was when Guido recognizes a German doctor in the camp, with whom he had so recently spent time sharing and solving mind-teaser puzzles.  I can't tell you what happens here without spoiling it, but I thought Benigni had a lot to say about human nature, about... compartmentalizing Life... and about the way we want what we want when we want it... in his portrayal of this relationship.

What is art?  It is the act of holding a part of the human experience up to a lens, or beneath a microscope.  It is examination, and exposure.  Of looking at something in a new way Life is Beautiful is a powerful, indeed, a profolll1d piece of art.  It says, most of all, that even hell is a choice that there can be laughter, even there.

It is a fable.  It was not meant to be literal but it tells a tale both worth it and well go see it, before it's gone.

In this week's Torah portion, Pharaoh speaks to the 'm'yaldot ha'ivriyot,' to ''the Hebrew midwives." Who are they?  Are these Egyptian women, who work amongst the Jews?  Or are they Hebrews themselves, as our later tradition claim;, who Pharaoh somehow thought would have obeyed such an order?  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  And the effect is incredible.

For who are you? And who are we? With whom do we identify -- and why? And how?

During the High Holy Days a year ago, I quoted Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's observations about a computer game called Myst. The players are dropped in the middle of a world, with no explanations, no guidance, and no rules. You have to figure out what is going on.

We are dropped into the middle of a game. There is plenty of guidance, and plenty of explanations and plenty of rules.  They all come from other people.

No one tells you that you have a choice No one tells you that the goal of the game is to decide much rules to embrace, and call your own and that in doing so, you will define...who you are.

Do that in a movie theater. And you mu remember... that the choice is yours.  And that that is what you can do... through Jewish life as -well.

Wednesday, September 02, 1998

Low Brush With Fame

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

Friends of mine are fond of the phrase "a low brush with fame." I have never been sure exactly what they meant by it, but here is what I think it means: you have some kind of encounter with someone which, through their merit and not through yours, is somehow catapulted into fame. Or infamy.

Maybe it doesn't mean that. Maybe it just means boarding a plane and passing Ed Koch and Pete Rose, sitting next to each other in First Class. But I'll take my definition. That's because, by my definition, my wife and I had not one, but two low brushes with fame of the same sort in a single week.

Both involve a story of sadness, although one, as it turns out, was temporary, and the other might not be. But they are of the same type. For last week, this AOL columnist learned that remarks we had made or encounters we have had were referred to in two published columns in other places.

Both incidents had to do with our long journey towards fertility. Both references were completely incidental to the columnists point. But we learned of them in the same week. A bizarre coincidence? Or a profound lesson for the coming Days of Awe? You be the judge. (Well, God is the Judge, although I think Kenneth Starr thinks that he is, but you get the idea.)

The first: at the Reform movement's annual rabbinic convention this past June, we wound up sitting at a breakfast table next to the terrific comedian Rabbi Bob Alper ("the only clergy person in America doing stand up comedy -- intentionally.") The opportunity was too good to pass up. My wife, as politely as possible, asked if she could share something with him. He was very gracious about being interrupted. She then told him that when she had had her first miscarriage, unexpectedly (of course) when she was visiting her sister in Chicago several days before Rosh Hashanah while we lived in Erie, was not immediately allowed to travel, and had to return home, alone, on Rosh Hashanah itself, during this incredibly difficult time, on a long drive from the Cleveland airport where she had gotten a cheap fare to Chicago, back to Erie, crying and miserable, she had popped his tape into the tape deck. And she had, miraculously, actually laughed. She has waited through another miscarriage, and two beautiful boys, to have the chance to tell Bob Alper what he meant to her at that moment. And she wasn't going to miss the opportunity to tell him.

Who could not be moved by such a compliment. I had a different occasion to speak with Rabbi Alper last week. He called me about something. And he read me a copy of an interview he had just done with the Jerusalem Post, in which he mentioned my wife's comment. Low Brush With Fame Number One.

The second was under sadder circumstances, but remarkably similar nonetheless. A close friend of mine, a quite liberal Protestant minister in his mid- 60's, was recently diagnosed with ALS -- Lou Gehrig's Disease. It is a mild form, slow progressing, and all that is affected -- and all that should be affected for many years to come -- is his speech. When I spoke with him recently, he told me that he had written an in depth column detailing his experiences with the diagnosis, treatment, and reaction to the disease. His words are truly moving, a great testimony to the human spirit. My friend lives in Connecticut. His primary care is now managed through the University of Connecticut Medical Center north of Hartford. And in his article, he writes "My only [prior] contact with the facility was the parking lot. I once picked up friends from Pennsylvania there. They were having difficulty conceiving a baby and were told that for their particular problem there was only one doctor who could help them, and she was at the UConn Medical Center. That was three years ago, and they now have two children..."

Actually, we went there to check out something that might have been contributing to the miscarriages, but turned out not to be, but the exact point isn't important. We're fine. And I am concerned about my friend, moved by his column but shaken by his news. Nevertheless, coming in the same week, that was Low Brush with Fame Number Two.

It's odd to think that chance encounters and comments over breakfast came make their way into some kind of permanent, published record. It's odd, that is, unless you are a Jew in September. With the High Holy Days looming over the horizon.

For is this not the very theme of these coming Days of Awe? That everything we say, everything we do, every move you make... somehow, somewhere, someone (read: some One) is watching you. In some karma-like connection with Eternity, our mortal acts and words are, if not published in a column, then recorded in a Book. Entered into our (do you remember this from Kindergarten?) Permanent Record.

Be careful, if you are a friend of mine. Maybe I will write about you in one of my columns. When you have forgotten what you have said. When you least expect it.

Be careful, if you are a human being. There is One who writes Columns in the Sky. And that One doesn't miss deadlines like I do. That One makes the Deadlines (so to speak). And the Lifelines. "You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims the signature... of every human being."

Forget whether the Secret Service agents can testify. Forget the fact that you are sure you can get away with something. Even all alone, God is watching you.

So be careful out there. And be careful in here. Have a healthy, happy year. And if someone does put your name in the news -- may it only be for good things!

Tuesday, September 01, 1998

Every Move You Make

Every Move You Make ...
(Providence is a place in Rhode Island)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach

"Every step you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you ..." My first substantive paper when I was in graduate school at Brandeis University in the field of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies was about the book Of Deuteronomy. The paper was called, "Motive Clauses in Deuteronomy." (It was also the first paper I had typed on a word processor, on my father’s now Long-retired original Apple. When I was done with the paper , a mischievous friend of mine , who "knew about " computers and their capabilities, did a "Search and Replace " function , removing the word "motive " and replacing it with "Santa. " Fortunately, I caught it prior to the final draft. )

What is a motive clause? It is the exhortation we occasionally find following a commandment , giving us encouragement to obey the law, telling us what will happen if we do (or if we don 't). "Honor your father and your mother ... in order that you may have a long life on the land that the Lord your God is giving you." Do this, and your crops will come. Does that or your enemies will dance on your city streets?

These incentives are inextricably linked with the Biblical notion of Divine Providence, the doctrine of Reward and Punishment (given its fullest force, perhaps, in the book of Deuteronomy). If you obey, good things will happen. If not, you’ll get hit by a crazed camel.

What is most interesting about these motive clauses is that they reveal, through the proffered rewards and the threatened punishments, the highest hopes and deepest fears of the average ancient Israelite target audience. Blessings, bumper crops and healthy children. War, famine and exile. All premised on the notion that our fate follows from the kind of life we lead.

But there were some commandments with a "different” motive clause. "Have honest weights and measures," we are told, "do not curse the deaf," we are told, "because I am the Lord your God." It seems that the sins you could get away with, the kind of things that only you would know if you were doing Them ... a followed by a sharp reminder that, no, you are not the only one who knows. There is another One. When you commit a crime and cover your tracks (even if you don’t leave a bloody glove behind), you know. And God knows.

Like the song says, "every move you make, every step you take ..." The entire system of Divine Providence is based on the notion that you know, and God knows, and God knows that you know, and you know that God knows. (Work it out. You need all four.)

The thinking behind the Biblical tradition, taken to its logical extreme, is that every schlub whose numbers are called out right, every "innocent" child who gets sick is feeling the hand of an ever watching, ever knowing, Puppet -pulling God. And when the Biblical writers realized that not every nice farmer has a good harvest, they invented(alright, excuse me, borrowed) the notion of life after death. There is a place; they said ... there is a time, they said, when it will work out in the end. Where every good deed will be tallied and weighed against every sin, where the balance of our lives will be placed in judgment by an external power. I don’t buy it. Not the part about God causing everything, anyway. To me, Providence ... is a place in Rhode Island. Sometimes, you know bad things happen. And hoping and wishing and wanting won’t change them. They did not happen because you deserved them. And they won’t go away with even the most heart-felt prayer.

In our High Holy Day machzor , during the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, we read the following words : "If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown , but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease ..." Why? I always wanted to ask. Why link the two? Why can’t we have, birth and creation, growth and change ... and eternal life? What does the one have to do with the other?

But they are linked together, birth and death, and this prayer has a compelling logic of its own. Personally , I believe that bad things happen because death is part of the universe , that in order to have growth we must inevitably have decay , that to have new things come to be you must also have old things transform , change form, make room, take root, to return anew as something else . Over time we cannot have the growth of the new without the moving aside of the old.

Indeed, if you think about it, any time we change, any time we grow, there is that instant, that paradoxical transformative moment: before we can be what we are to become, we must surrender what we have been. The yet-to-be cannot overlap the once-was.

Rabbi Daniel Matt notes that the Hasidic rabbi Dov Baer , the Maggid of Mezritch noticed that the Hebrew letters in the word "ani", meaning "I, " "myself ," are the very same letters as in the word "ain, " meaning "nothingness ." It is only when we pass through the nothingness that the once was can become the yet-to-be . Death, then, is the ultimate nothingness through which we pass . It is thus a part of life, a requirement for life .

But once it is here , no one and no thing, not you, not me , not the best doctors in the world , not the Doctor of the World can fully control it. We try . We strive . We make progress . But we cannot control it all, not fully . Even God cannot . Death and disease need to be part of the picture of life . But once in the frame, they function , perhaps , at least partly at random . So even God, in my belief , cannot change the outcome of events . But is God watching? Is God (or a Democratic president with a Republican Congress) still relevant?

Elie Wiesel tells the chilling story of a man who cries out in anger in Auschwitz : "Where is God? God has abandoned us ." And another man responds . He points at the guards, at the smokestack and says : "This is not the work of God . This is the work of human beings. " Then he points at a man hanging on the gallows , swinging in the wind . "There," he says . "There is God ."

Did he mean that God was dead, that the tradition is over and done? Or could it be that it is time to transform the tradition . To stop looking for a God who pulls our strings . To realize that God was there . Even there . A shoulder . A touch . A push . A nudge . Crying . Weeping with us at a tragedy that should not have been .

I believe that God is not a puppeteer. But God is there . Watching . Wanting . Waiting for us ... to do the right thing . Not for any reward . But because it is the right thing to do. So the song is wrong . It’s not : "I'll be watching you ." It’s the theme song from Friends . "I 'll be there for you ." No matter what happens . No matter how much you hurt .

That is a song I can sing . And a tradition I can embrace.

Thursday, August 13, 1998

The Amen Kid

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

I really have no idea how the whole thing got started. Was it a Friday night reaction to a candle blessing? A random prayer when I least suspected he was listening?

Well, however it happened, the concept seems firmly entrenched now. For about the past five months, one of my 21-month old son Benjamin's first truly surprising and consistent displays of vocabulary has been the word "Amen." At first, he said it whenever he saw a candle. Then, he started saying in the synagogue, running into the Sanctuary, up to the bimah, and squealing "Amen" with delight. Now he says it on seeing a shofar, a yarmulke, or on even driving by the shul. When Julie tells him I am going to work, he now as often as not will say: "Daddy, bye-bye, amen." I'm sorry. I know I'm biased. But I still think it's pretty adorable.

What Benjamin probably doesn't get yet -- and many other people do not realize, either -- is that the word "amen" means, basically, "I agree." It comes from the same Hebrew root as the word "emunah," which means faith. It s exact meaning, in the context of prayer, is as follows: "someone has done or said something for you that you were also obligated to do; they have done so in public and on behalf of a group of people; they are allowed to do so because they were also bound by the same obligation; they have said the prayer or performed the act correctly, and you have faith both that the deed was done right, and that the doer of the deed is fit to represent you. You are therefore not obligated to recite the entire prayer or perform the act yourself; the other person has served as your surrogate."

All that... from one little word.

But, alas, whenever two or more people interact, there is power at work somehow. And where there is power involved, there is politics at play.

So what are the politics of the word "amen." It comes in two forms. First, the whole notion of women's equality in Judaism. And second, the issue of the authenticity of non-Orthodox Judaism.

In traditional Judaism, the question of leading certain acts on behalf of the community depends on a sense of mutual obligation. The reason that women cannot lead most prayers (or at least, cannot do so when men are present) is that for women, the recitation of the daily prayer service is allowed. It is even, perhaps, desirable. What it is not, however, is obligatory.

For women are exempt from (almost) all mitzvot (commandments) that have to be performed at a certain time -- and the prayer service is such a commandment. They had other (the rationalization was "higher") duties. They took care of children. And, of course, as I know all too well now, it is hard to stick to a schedule when dealing with young kids.

The logic, then, seems simple. Women are allowed to pray, but not required to do so. Men are obligated to do so, in specific ways. Since only one who is bound by the same level of obligation can exempt others, can lead others who, in saying "amen," will then be exempt from their obligations, that is why women cannot lead prayers in traditional Judaism.

So, you would argue, if there were a prayer that women were bound by, in the same way as men, then they could lead that prayer. In public. And men could say "amen." Right?

Wrong. As it happens, there is such a prayer. It is called the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine on Friday nights. Traditional Judaism has determined that men and women are equally bound by the obligation to recite this blessing. But. While acknowledging that, in theory, women could lead the kiddush, traditional commentators have said that it brings shame on a community if this happens. And so I at, least, come to the conclusion that the traditional argument fails its own test case.

In the end, I believe that all the fancy footwork and seemingly logical arguments about why men can't say "amen" to a prayer led by a women are just excuses. The secondary status of women came first. The "amen" explanation came later.

On to the second item. The issue of the ritual role of women is only one item in the creative (in the best sense) although agonizing (in that it leads to so much tension) dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism. There are other disagreements, the largest of which is about the very legitimacy and authenticity of the non-Orthodox movements. And in this issue, as well, our simple word plays a rather large role.

Slightly more than a decade ago, while a rabbinical student in New York, visiting the Lower East Side of Manhattan trying to find a particular Jewish bookstore that had not yet moved uptown, I stumbled across the largest group of traditional Jews I had ever encountered. As soon as I saw the crowds, I knew what I must be witnessing. I had come across the funeral of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

Rabbi Feinstein was one of the greatest Torah sages of our time. His stature was almost unequaled among Orthodox Jews of either the centrist or traditionalist camps. He found brilliant and creative answers to many issues. His loss left a gaping hole in Jewish scholarship and life.

And yet, I cannot help but recall a single one of his rulings. It was this. That for those who followed his rulings... it was forbidden for a traditional Jew to say "amen" after a prayer recited by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.

This stunning statement, in one, single sentence, is an attack on the very foundation of non-Orthodox Judaism. While I respected Rabbi Feinstein for his knowledge and his depth, I find it hard to get passed his delegitimization of everything that I write, or think, or pray, or say.

Part of what "amen" means is that we share an equal level of obligation. But the other part... is that we have faith in the person we are with, who does something for us. And, apparently, Rabbi Feinstein took on faith that he could not have faith is anything done by a non-Orthodox colleague.

Struggles, to figure out what it is that God wants of us. That, to me, is the essence of the dispute between different branches of Judaism. We share the same goal. We stand in the same place. We are bound together by a common past and what is still likely to be a shared fate in this world. I have faith in the honesty, in the integrity, in the spirituality and essential authenticity of other branches of Judaism, even where I disagree with particular practices (such as the secondary status of women). I only wish it were easier... to say "amen" to one another.

Faith. Trust. And a sense that we share not only a moment, an obligation, a burden. But a history. A way of looking at the world. A deep and profound connection. All this is found in the utterance of a single word, when felt from the heart. All this, in the word "amen."

As I look at both of my sons, as I watch them grow and try to figure out the world and their place in it... all I can do is utter a prayer in my heart. For their growth. For their health. For their safety, and happiness. For fulfillment in their quest to find wonder, and delight, and meaning in life. For theirs, and for ours.

Amen. And amen.