What I’ve Learned
by David Hartley Mark
There is no blowhard politician so outrageous in his actions, speeches, or beliefs, that he cannot attract people dumber than he is, to support him.
The difference between Heaven and Hell:
In Heaven, they assign you an angel to fill out the paperwork and other forms.
In Hell, you must do it yourself.
Nowadays—perhaps for the last thirty years—people, when asked, will reply, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.”
“I’m not religious either,” I answer, which often gets raised eyebrows.
Although I believe in God—and such a belief is neither logical nor consistent, just as God is—I am not always comfortable with the forms that Judaism requires to symbolize or express that belief. If they don’t work for me, I don’t do them: better a sincere belief than the practice of empty forms.
I am happiest when I am teaching. There is something highly satisfactory in showing willing students how to write and how to understand literature. In the temple as rabbi, I teach how Judaism can be self-fulfilling and contradictory, all at once.
All my life, I have been gaining and losing the same forty pounds. I have a closetful of too-thin clothing to show for it. And the diets! After a certain point, one must accept that weight is the product of genetics, environment, how much movement one does at work, and the ability (or lack thereof) to resist temptation.
I grew up amid rabbis who were God’s police, and I didn’t like them, even as I obeyed their strictures and prohibitions.
It remains a vast cosmic mystery to me as to why I became a rabbi. After a young lifetime of running away from them, I ran in the bosom of the synagogue—not for those gimcrack “spiritual reasons” other rabbis may give; I was well-educated, in spite of myself, and enjoyed the teaching part—not the politics, the sucking up, the enormous competition between rabbis (“How many scalps on your belt?”—that is, how many members do you have? How big is your shul? etc.), and the total lack of privacy or professional distance. (I once knew a rabbi who came all the way home from a trip to Israel to bury one of his big donors.)
There is also the complex and complicated relationship that people have, or feel they should have, with rabbis. Suppose a rabbi no one knows, who has been hired to perform a funeral or wedding, comes into a roomful of attendees.
“Oh, there’s the rabbi,” someone says.
I daresay that half the people there love her, and half despise her, all because they are doing a psychological transference from rabbis they knew in the past.
I have also met rabbis who became so because their fathers were rabbis: next generation into the God Business. This, to me, always seemed ludicrous and unnecessary.
Finally, as for placement, or joining rabbinical organizations—I met a Methodist minister who told me, “They always take the biggest SOB they can find, and make him the Bishop—the one who decides where we ministers move to, every five years. Such is the case with placement directors in the larger rabbinical organizations.
This is not to say that I have not met rabbis who were hard-working and admirable in both intellect and soul. One of my favorite rabbis from rabbinical school had two Ph.Ds, and most of the Talmud by heart—he taught us Practical Rabbinics with both feeling and wit. He never got the favor he deserved—he served small congregations all of his life. Still, he looms large in my memory; not as a role model, but a mensch.
When I was fulltime, I had an older congregant who had built submarines all of his career: Mike Levy. I was young, idealistic, and naive. I asked my daily minyanaire attendees, Mike among them,
“Which is more preferable : youth with its worries and cares, or old age, with its serenity?”
Mike stared at me for a beat before answering: “Rabbi, old age is not serene.”
On another occasion, Mike told me some of the secrets of submarine construction: “When we built submarines during WWII,” he said, “We would put pieces of zinc in the propeller housing. The prop spun so fast, that it might have vibrated itself to bits, had the zinc not absorbed the vibrations.”
“Rabbi,” Mike finished, “In this congregation, you’re the zinc.”
In his spare time, Mike also volunteered for several civic organizations: he was partly responsible for fixing up one of the river islands, and turning it into a picnic area, with a large field in the middle, suitable for playing catch or frisbee.
I was proud to officiate at his funeral.