03 January 2010

Losing Ourselves to Something Greater

I'll get to the point.

While running in the freezing cold air in Prospect Park this morning, I kept thinking about the totally unambiguous nature of the experience.

I was freezing.
I was weighted down with extra layers of running gear.
The wind was unpredictable and strong.
Oh, and the sight of frozen manure and rocks on the horse path brought Andy Goldsworthy to mind.

For some inexplicable reason, in attempting to integrate these impressions, I thought to myself, "The politics of synagogue life suffer from too much passive aggression."

I've had that thought before. It's not like God decided in the roar of wind at the treetops to instill this insight into me at this particular moment during an attempted "escape from it all" (which is what these runs often are.) Rather, I think that the visceral plowing through the obstacles of nature's force with sheer will on this mornings five miles had me reflecting on the opposite experience: the small comment, the clipped tone, the oblique reference to things--often couched in ambiguity when, I believe, direct communication would be best.

It's not quite a talmudic attention to detail that drives these reactions--in other words, sometimes I feel "less" is at stake. Or, at best, the snippy comments masks a deeper idea that one is hesitant to explore. I believe this tension lies in the discomforting ambiguity of faith and identity that many Jews live with. A feeling of uncertainty in the face of it all; an avoidant stance with the profoundness of Judaism's radical message of Torah and Service and Humility. America, in all its great gifts of freedom, allows us to call ourselves whatever we want, to be whomever we want. Judaism, demands something of us, essentially arguing against our nature that within that very nature of our human essentialness is an obligated person yearning to be free.

At the recommendation of my friend Alana Newhouse, I am reading Chaim Grade's brilliant Rabbis and Wives. Following Grade's very Jewish prose about Polish rabbinical court intrigue before the war, I am enjoying the bitter exchanges, the outrageous competition, the directness of it all. For these Jews, anything but free like we in America, everything was at stake. And the unabashed exhilaration of that is a pleasure to read.

Yes, yes, I am aware of the propensity to romanticize this lost world. So I introduce it to make a broader point about different kinds of Jewish dialogue (at least for me in synagogue life) and a certain pattern I have come to see. Namely, the more one is steeped in the naturally humbling experience of learning, the more direct one is in one's Jewish encounters. And you know, it's not even learning per se--it's whatever one does in one's life to live humbly and thereby, perhaps ironically, liberating oneself to a more direct encounter with others. In other words, the least threatened are the least passive aggressive. It's ironic and maybe counter-intuitive but I find it to be true. And it reflects an aspect of Jewish spirituality that is often, tragically, ignored by Liberal Jews: doing something לשם שמים--for the Sake of Heaven, and not for yourself. It's the ultimate expression of service to God. And requires activity not passivity.

For a good bourgeois like myself, finishing a run represents a sense of physical accomplishment that is satisfyingly non-intellectual. And profoundly, spiritually humbling all the same. The only things I can compare it to are breaking my head against a text, the occasional high from prayer, performing an act of kindness for another person. I think it means that God is present when we are capable of losing ourselves to something greater.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Well thought out & well written piece...You are spot on about "the least threatened are the least passive aggressive." You certainly understand people, and more importantly, you are unafraid to understand yourself.