Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column
Published in The Jewish Standard
I play golf often with my friend Charlie, who is a secular Jew. We generally are sent out by the starter to play the round along with another twosome. After a few holes, Charlie inevitably inconspicuously asks me if I think the guys we are playing with are “members of the tribe.” I can’t understand why Charlie is so concerned about his and other people’s Jewishness if he does not himself follow any religious practices.
You raise an issue about our genetic or tribal identification as Jews that is core to our self-understanding as a people. I used to teach that in modern times there can be a clear distinction between Jews, who connect to our people by descent only, and Judaists, who are Jews and also practice the religion of Judaism. I have come of late to recognize that genealogy and theology are intertwined in a more involved fashion.
I now recognize that when someone like Charlie identifies as a member of the tribe and seeks to identify if others are also, that’s not for the purpose of scientific classification. It’s a religious act. His belief is that Jews are a special ethnic division of humankind, and his fervent devout activity is to seek out his fellow tribesmen whenever the opportunity presents itself.
We Jews, religious or not, have believed in the special character of Jews, the chosenness of our people, ever since that legacy was chronicled in the Tanach. There are two perspectives on that conviction that may help you better understand the importance of our tribalism, and why Charlie deems it so notable.
Some evolutionary biologists believe that the strong drive people have towards tribal affiliation is an innate genetic trait, not just a social preference. Over many generations, people who firmly banded together proved to be fitter and more prone to survive and propagate. Accordingly, the tribal impulse became a potent part of our human genetic makeup.
Another perspective on the tribal nature of us Jews comes from prominent theologians who spoke approvingly in their works of the special character of the Jewish people. In the middle ages, for example, in his book the Kuzari, Judah HaLevi proposed that we Jews as a people possess a special intrinsic mystical quality that he called Inyan Elohi, a divine substance or power that is transmitted from generation to generation. That substance makes us more receptive to divine revelation and sets us apart in the world.
Your friend may not keep the Sabbath or kashrut. But you should understand and respect that a deeply religious set of motives drives his interest in his own Jewish identification and motivates him to seek continually, on the golf course and elsewhere, to clarify whether or not others are fellow members of the Jewish nation.
I’m having trouble enjoying our local synagogue. The rabbi relentlessly grandstands on political issues and conjures up petty harangues about this or that shul behavior that he seeks to regulate. Aside from my group of friends, who are affable, other congregants act coldly toward me no matter how hard I try to reach out to them.
My wife says I am too sensitive, and that I should accept things as they are, and be glad that I can attend a well-kept building and spend some time with a few of my comrades. But the palpable tension that I feel utterly distracts me from the services. It turns me off. I cling to the notion that there is a more unspoiled ideal that I can find in Jewish synagogue culture.
Who is right, me or my wife?
Since this is a talmudic advice column I have the right to say to you that the answer is that you are both right. You should seek the ideal, but you should not expect to find it easily. To help you better recognize the intricacy of your query, I’ll share with you some of my own experiences in the form of a midrash-like personal narrative.
In 1978, I was on a leave from my teaching for six months and went to live in Jerusalem. I decided on an ambitious program — to try to pray at least one time in every one of the synagogues in Jerusalem, the most sacred city in Judaism — to find the perfect religious experience.
In a fanciful way, I saw my search as a parallel to the one Bruce Brown catalogued in the great 1966 film “Endless Summer.” That documentary film followed two young surfers, on a quest to find the perfect wave, the mark of simple perfection in their quasi-mystical sport. The basic narrative of “The Endless Summer” helped me to form a valid metaphor for what I was seeking in my travels, my search for the flawless spiritual wave — the ideal davening at the perfect synagogue.
And during a chapter of my own quest, like the surfers in the film who found their unspoiled wave at an out-of-the-way beach at Cape St. Francis in South Africa, I found a single, impeccable, mystical place of worship at a small, off-the-beaten-path synagogue in Jerusalem. It was a compact little synagogue called Har-El, around the corner from where I was living on Hapalmach Street in Jerusalem.
This was a simple one-room shul-house structure. Its exterior was Jerusalem stone like most of the buildings in the area. Inside, the little synagogue had a one-wire electric heater affixed to the wall at the front of the room and no fancy fixtures or trimmings anywhere to be found. The pews were simple fold-down hardwood seats. Each place to sit had a cubby in front of it, hanging from the back of the next pew forward. On top of that cubby was a wood stand on which you could rest your prayer book. A plain eternal lamp, with a flickering bulb to simulate a candle, hung above a basic light-hued wooden ark that housed the Torah at the front of the sanctuary.
At Har-El, the few windows along the sides of the room were made of frosted jalousie glass slats that were opened and closed by rotating their small handles. In the center of the shul, the bimah platform for reading the Torah and reciting the prayers was modest in size and undecorated. All-in-all, the place had a kind of Amish or Puritan simplicity.
Most of the members of that minyan were established Israeli Orthodox Jews whose parents or grandparents originally derived from Western European roots. With few exceptions, these worshippers were not recent Anglo or French immigrants, not Sephardic, and not chasidic. They knew each other from the neighborhood and respected each other with a formal civility that you had to see to appreciate.
Back then, it hit me that this was the right mix, the perfect minyan for me. These were my analogs to Bruce Brown’s gang of surfers and to the colorful local characters he found at the surfing beach. They were people of different histories and stories but all with shared religious propensities, skills, and needs. In this brief moment of time and place, clerks and professors, accountants and bankers, business owners, contractors, rabbis and craftspeople joined every day in their counterpart activity to surfing.
They came together to recite and sing their familiar prayers. This flock of like-minded peers prayed in the same way, with just the right measure of fervor and with staunch confidence in their mastery of the ins and outs of the liturgy. These people showed no overt interest in political divisions or quarrels. They were sincere believers and pure practitioners of Judaism.
Day after day, I’d go to this little shul to pray, and it never varied. I was never disappointed. I imagined in retrospect that it was as if I had found a beach where I went out into the surf and, every day the waves were ideal.
That one season of mystical satisfaction proved to me that, yes, the faultless prayer does exist; it was serene and smooth and seamless. The equilibrium and numinous quality of Har-El was still there for me for a while; and then I had to go back home to the United States.
Alas, when I returned and visited a few years later in 1986, I could not recover the special quality at the synagogue. The shul building was still there — and is there now — and many of the same characters were still davening there. But other congregants had joined the mix, and a few improvements had been made to the small sanctuary. A bigger heating element had been installed, and worst of all, they had put an air conditioning unit into the wall.
So after my arrival back in Jerusalem in the hot summer of 1986, I went to Har-El to pray. I wanted so much to ride again the perfect wave of davening that I knew from the past. The service started out as I remembered, and all the spiritual and mystical feelings started welling up within me. And then I watched as one, two, and three people politely got up during our first few minutes of prayers to adjust the plastic A/C cooling ducts.
First, a familiar-looking person whom I knew from the bank got up to point the ducts one way, and then another synagogue member who lived in my building arose and moved them to blow the air in another route. It unnerved me; I imagined surfers who did not like the way the waves were breaking on that legendary beach in South Africa paddling out to try to move some rocks in the jetty to redirect the curl of an unspoiled wave.
One after another after another, the same simple surfers in the shul tried to adjust the context of the wave to their preferences. Because of their persistent tinkering with an insignificant air flow, I saw the harmony that I imagined in the congregation dissipate. A simple technicality had disrupted my spirituality. The magic spell was broken, the tides had shifted, and the well-formed wave could not be recovered. In my quest for an exceptional spiritual pursuit, I needed to move on to try to find another venue.
My answer to you then, via my brief figurative narrative, is that your quest definitely is worth the while. If you are patient and if you are persistent in the face of great and petty obstacles, from time to time you will find more of the fulfillment that you seek.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com
Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University.