Chinning the Bar

2002.04.15
By

One of the reasons why I love my wife so much is that our conversations range from the silly to the serious.

On the silly end are our discussions about the secret lives of animals: their tea-parties, nutritional choices, and the songs they sing to their children. But these are mysteries which cannot be discussed here.

At the other side of the spectrum are the serious conversations about life, perception, Judaism, socialization, etc. Many of these latter talks will no doubt leak onto this website, since they provide me with an endless pool of inspiration for my future rabbinate. Thus:

Last night, we attended a concert in Marin County featuring our favorite female a capella group. Their performance was preceded by a talk by a woman who has made it her life’s work to translate Biblical and liturgical works into more lively and gender-inclusive forms.

I thoroughly enjoy her translations, and support her thesis that tradition holds a place for creativity, but took mild exception to her statement that the ancient liturgy doesn’t speak to modern Jews. As modern Jews who love ancient liturgy, my wife and I couldn’t help discussing this on the way back to Sonoma.

What we came up with was this: Almost by definition, there will always be a tension between a religious tradition and the individual practitioner thereof. Essentially, in many ways, the tradition will both challenge and validate the individual practitioner.

There seems to be a tendency among modern spiritual types to reject challenge in favor of validation — whether because of bad childhood religious experiences, or perceived “patriarchal” theologies, or self-centeredness, or something else.

Challenge is what makes us grow as individuals — forcing us to live outside our heads and predilections. Validation is what tells us that we’re doing okay. In (what I define as) a “true” spiritual path, one cannot exist without the other — unalloyed challenge is restrictive, while unalloyed validation can foster delusions.

I personally love the challenge of ancient liturgy as much as I love the challenge (read: the “ugly and difficult parts”) of Torah — because life is often ugly and difficult, too. The challenge for me in seeing “kedusha Torah” (sanctity of Torah) is the same as seeing “kedusha chayyim” (the sanctity of life). As a good and holy friend of mine says whenever anything awful happens to him, “It’s all part of the training.” (Which once prompted another friend of mine to reply, “I don’t know what kind of ungodly catastrophe Mark’s in training for, but I’m going to his house when it happens.”) But not everybody wants or welcomes a challenge — many prefer to ignore the ugly parts and focus on the “good.” But that’s bubbe meise (nonsense) — if we don’t recognize the ugly, how can we transform it to the beautiful? And isn’t that what partnering with Hashem really entails?

Of course, I realize that I am generalizing somewhat, even though I’m basing the above on direct observation. But I think that one challenge in building a 21st Century rabbinate is going to be the ability to validate while challenging — to use Reb Shakespeare’s words, “Trick into learning, with a laugh.”

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