Thursday, February 27, 2014

Notes from a Backsliding Jew: When Your Childhood Rabbi Calls You a "Kofer Ba'Eekar," or Denier of the Essence


            “If you become a Conservative rabbi,” said Rabbi N, leaning back against the pillows of his sofa, “you will be a kofer ba’eekar—a Denier of the Essence [of Torah and God].”
            This was not the way the evening had been supposed to go. Ostensibly, I had come to Rabbi N’s apartment for premarital counseling—all was in place; I was marrying a beautiful Jewish girl; we were to be married in a temple with a Glatt Kosher catering hall attached (or, contrariwise, a catering hall with a Glatt Kosher temple attached) in Brooklyn. Our parents were footing the bill, and there was the rub: for, instead of one of my friendly, amenable AJR rabbi-professors conducting the ceremony, we were to be married by my Childhood Rabbi, the formidable and uncompromising Rabbi N.
            As I had outgrown, outpaced, and outlearned the Orthodoxy of my youth, so had I left Rabbi N behind: but there he was before me, unchanged and unbending as ever. Any suggestion or proposal we made to him regarding the marriage ceremony, any innovation or personalization—I will say this for him: he listened carefully; he even nodded once or twice, before saying, “No.”
            Finally, knowing full well my plans to attend a non-Orthodox rabbinical school, the Academy for Jewish Religion (although, in point of fact, there have been Orthodox rabbis at AJR, both as teachers and graduates), he took the opportunity to let me know his opinion of my deserting the Orthodox camp. I might as well have been joining a different faith, as far as Rabbi N was concerned. And, truthfully, I was not surprised: it was just that I had never expected to be called such by such a bitter label: it was like a curse, and bore the anathema of a curse.
            As I say, I was not surprised. During the 1960s, my high school years, there had been whispers, in class and outside, of the Conservatives. We boys knew nothing of Them personally, but we knew, even if we did not fully understand, the Threat they posed to our right little, tight little Island of Orthodoxy, there in Washington Heights, or in Teaneck, NJ, or my own little enclave of the Lower East Side—where, rumor had it, a small group of pioneering Jews had gone so far as to attempt to establish a Conservative congregation of their own. They had quietly approached a local Jewish landlord and asked to rent space in one of his properties to establish such a congregation.
            When the Lower East Side Orthodox rabbis got wind of this heretical development, they wasted no time: they immediately contacted the Jewish property owner, discreetly and directly, informing him that, if he proceeded to deal with “that Conservative group,” he, his family, and their businesses would be thoroughly blackballed and shunned by all the “decent and loyal” Orthodox neighbors and friends; they would have to pull up stakes and move elsewhere, perhaps under an assumed name. The plan died a-borning, and was never again attempted. Indeed, the failure to establish a non-Orthodox alternative to the various synagogues and shtieblach (little brownstone shuls) in the neighborhood probably hastened its demise as a religious Jewish enclave: younger, less traditional Jewish families hesitated to move to the Lower East Side, knowing that the closest Conservative, let alone Reform, temples were only as close as Greenwich Village.
            My own encounter with Conservatism consisted of two events: in the early 1960s, New York newspapers were filled with the news of a near-tragedy: a fire at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary was successfully doused by the swift action of several fire companies, but the resultant moisture threatened the Rare Jewish Books Collection held in their library. Jewish students from all over the city hastened to JTS to assist in putting blotting paper and other absorbent material between the pages of the books.
            It was a great surprise—a shock, really—when Yeshiva University students answered the summons, and joined Conservative, Reform, and secular Jewish students in assuring the rescue of the rare books and manuscripts; supposedly, one of the higher-ups on the YU rabbinical faculty gave them some sort of dispensation to assist.
            But this was a small thing for me, personally. What happened in my sophomore year of high school was not life-changing, but certainly opened my eyes. I was assigned some sort of Hebrew research paper that required me to visit the JTS Library. I remember feeling a certain amount of trepidation prior to my journey—this was, after all, the seat of Conservative Judaism in America, and I was a loyal, young, and highly impressionable Orthodox Jew. I wore no payess (side curls) and my tsitsit (ritual fringes) did not show through between my shirt and slacks, but I certainly davened three times daily, and the food I ate was strictly kosher. How would I fare in the Satan’s Den I had been led to believe was the Jewish Theological Seminary? Even the name “Seminary” sounded ominous, while the more familiar word, “Yeshiva,” sounded homey and comforting.
            Nothing daunted, I took the subway—even the IRT seemed strange, and the station names and numbers were different—YU was a stop on the IND line. Though a native New Yorker, the subway was always a trial for me, with my non-existent sense of direction.
            Leaving the subway, I set out in an eastern direction. I truly did not know what to expect. As I came ‘round the corner and beheld the main JTS building, I was, frankly, disappointed. I don’t really know what I had been expecting—a Gnostic Dragon? The Whore of Babylon? But the Main Center, a tall red-brick tower with a granite entrance, was bland beyond my expectations. There did not even seem to be a Jewish Star, the familiar six-sided Mogen David, in sight.
            Sighing, I pushed open the metal front door: here again was strangely-familiar blandness. An ancient book was displayed in a showcase. A large, modernistic chandelier hung from the ceiling. The interior did not even have that exotic red-stone-and-coppery-brass-Scheherezade-Ali-Baba-tone that my own, personal Yeshiva lobby did. Shaking my head in disbelief, I mounted the stairs; a middle-aged secretary with an odd resemblance to a YU secretary—did Jewish women administrators come in only one size, shape, and style?—directed me to the Library. I did my research, returned to the books on the shelves, sneaked a few, furtive glances at the other students in the library—they appeared boringly ordinary; not a sorcerer or heretic among them—gathered my papers and pens, and left.
            Years later, when I was uncertain what Sort of Jew I Wanted to Become, and knew only that I no longer wished to be Orthodox, I found the encouragement, warmth, and strong support of Rabbi Stephen Leon and—yeebadel baChaim—Rabbi Dr. Robert Aronowitz—so, so crucial to me, at that crossroads in my life, and welcoming beyond measure. I had had enough of Unreasoning Authority, meaningless forms to fill out, sitting on benches in waiting rooms, and visiting megatemples throughout New York City. I did know that, in spite of myself, YU had given me an excellent education, for which I am forever grateful, but I also knew that, as a scholar, a sensitive spirit, and a Jew, I could no longer, in good conscience, be Orthodox. I was too full of questions, and tired of the answers the Rabbis of my past had been giving me: “We do this because—because Jews have always done this!”
            I knew then, and still know today, that Judaism is the product of many hands and minds, that there are anthropological as well as religious, cultural, superstitious, Talmudic, sociological, soteriological, and other reasons for how, and why, we do things. I like to say that I became a rabbi because I was asking questions and I wasn’t getting answers—and, somewhere along the road to seeking answers, I found that I had become a rabbi. Another aspect of my search has been my contrarian nature—in Jewish circles, I found an English literary aspect; in English classes, I would offer a Jewish insight. I like to believe that I strive to live the YU motto, “Torah oo’Mada”—Torah and Secular Learning, with no contradictions. And I love to teach; God, how I love it. Just stand me up and point me, and I will teach. (In honor of my wife, in memory of my mother a’h; as well as my sister and my sister-in-law; we are all, all teachers.)
            But there I was, on Rabbi N’s tufted and luxurious couch, being told that I denied the Essence—of what? God? Torah? It might be that I denied God’s giving the entire Torah (except the last few verses, which speak of Moses’s death, and no prophet, not even one as great as Moshe Rabeinu, who spoke with God panim el panim, face-to-face, can, or should, know the date of his own death—that would be altogether too depressing, and, certainly, Moses already had enough to be depressed about), but a small portion of my brain still accepted that—no.
            What disturbed me was being judged by Rabbi N. Judaism has no Inquisition. Judaism has no Set of Absolute Beliefs. Yes, Maimonides came up with the “13 Principles,” but I like to say that, on any given day, I can disagree with six or eight or even thirteen of them, and that does not make me any less of a Jew.
            What did I say to Rabbi N’s—accusation? Assessment?
            I was able to look at it in context. Orthodox rabbis, I understood in the 1960s, disliked and suspected Conservative rabbis worse than they did the Reform. While the Reform were beyond the Pale—no kippote while davening, no tallitote (excuse me, talleisim), many English readings, and so on—the Conservative rabbis davened, preached, learned, and usually practiced like the Orthodox; it was just that “they let their congregations get away with murder”—that is, driving on Shabbos, eating tuna in trafe restaurants, and the like. Yes, indeed: as if the rabbi could stop them….
            In other words, Rabbi N was accusing me, not of personally becoming a backslider, but of Joining the Enemy. Backsliding was a charge, but not the Main Charge.
            So: what did I do? I thanked him. He did go on to perform the ceremony at our wedding: the only one who enjoyed it was my father a’h, who was able to preen before his shul cronies (“My wedding, my rabbi”—his exact words—I still love him, but that was not his finest hour). Ah, what one does for family….

            And I am happy to say that I have had, thank God and Israel, a lively, rewarding, and educational career as a rabbi. One lives; one learns.