02 March 2016

My Sack of Duties and Comforts

After a long break, I'm back.

For ten years, this blog has been a mechanism for sharing my thoughts and teaching in a transparent way as possible while setting out to build community.

It started when we founded Brooklyn Jews; continued for the nearly ten years that I served CBE as their senior rabbi; and then I decided to go dark.  Hunker down.  Do some deep thinking.  I've read a lot and am learning to relax by reading the meditations of Thich Nhat Hanh.  He sure seems like a righteous fellow.

Part of that process has been looking back on the journey--not just the meanderings and achievements in Brooklyn but to explore my thinking and development as a college student in Madison; on my first trip to Israel; in graduate school at NYU; and then rabbinic school.

I've learned a lot about myself:  my restlessness; my impatience; my earnest moral voice; my righteous anger, good humor, and pathological need to be honest, even when it gets me in trouble.

On balance, I learned I'm not a bad guy.  But clearly, I could be better:  a better husband; a better dad; a better brother; a better friend; even a better citizen of our troubled, confused and angry land.

Anyway, easing back in here, I thought I'd share an exchange from the spring of 1994.  Twenty one years ago if you do the math.  It's an excerpt from a theology class I took at Hebrew Union College as part of my rabbinic training, taught by the late Eugene Borowitz.  Dr. Borowitz, as he was reverently called, died recently.  He was the last standing giant of liberal Jewish thought in the United States and in an era of DIY and Indie Minyans, we're not likely to see another systematic thinker in quite some time.  He was a daring writer and famously, with many other rabbis, put his life on the line in June 1964, jailed with other clergy for protesting abuses toward Black Americans during the Civil Rights protest era.  You can read his moving letter from St. Augustine here.

Anyway, Dr. Borowitz's class required of us our reading the assigned material and writing a response, to which he would respond in turn.
I found the following exchange from April 14, 1994 to be particularly illustrative of this unique teacher-student relationship, noted by many for its vigor and candor.

A rabbinic student writes:
"I sometimes feel like a monkey in a jungle, swinging back and forth between branches of mercy and despair.  The readings on the Holocaust have made me climb those ropes (sic); the climb itself testing my strength, challenging my optimism, shaking the foundations of my faith.  Mercy:  there is pain in life, injustice, cruelty.  That I know such things, from experience and observation, can often necessitate for me the imperative that I act morally and ethically and that I ground my faith and actions in God.

And then, on the opposite side of the spectrum, is the continued existence of evil--evil of every imaginable variety.  And I begin in waver.  Despair:  never really seeing change or knowing change. But sensing that headlines melt into one another, life itself becomes murky, redundant, too accepting of the "banality of evil."

And finally, maybe the problem is the the very paradigm I have employed:  Maybe it's not a spectrum I should consider but a whole--LIFE'S WHOLE--and in so doing accept mercy and despair as two elements seemingly opposite but part of the whole of life.  Distinct, separate elements held together loosely.  Here Rosenzweig is helpful in maintaining the separate realms via channels.

And here also Cohen is ultimately not satisfactory, somehow not allowing for radical evil, since ethical striving is an infinite enterprise.  Or is that despair in its truth?  Do I object because I fear it? Do I despair the potential admission that the ethical strivings infinite enterprise forces me to face a different, less comfortable, more difficult reality--where suffering may have a place if it comes as the consequence of one's ethical striving missing the mark?

In bouncing between mercy for and despair in myself, I postpone deciding to say what I really think. Help."

Borowitz responds:
"I must fail you here.  I know no theoretical, therapeutic or practical way to end the dialectic of facing life openly--idealistically & realistically at the same time.  I agree with you on Cohen, for he had such confidence in human capacity that he felt we could handle an infinite truth and even make progress.  I am quite a chastened liberal on that issue, enough so to say that my sense of hope ultimately derives from there being a good God in the universe.  And that is the source of my messianism.  And like all such believers I must find a resolute way not to turn my eye (&hand) away from the multitude of sickening and evil-doing that is so often part of our every day news.  Yet try as I do, I often find the ubiquity of sin outstrips my will to realism.  So I am caught, for the moment, in the same dialectic you know.  And then I pick up my sack of duties and comforts & try to move on."

A find piece of wisdom then.  And an even better one today.  Thank you, Dr. Borowitz.  May your rest with the wise be rich in comfort and ever more learning.

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