The Jewish Street
Many years ago I remember trying to describe Yakar in the following way.
"Imagine," I said, "a room with four corners. In one corner sits a Talmudist, and because he's a broad-minded Talmudist, he's prepared to learn Talmud with anyone who wants to learn."
"In the second corner sits the Mystic. ‘How can finite man make contact with the Infinite source in this world?' He, too, welcomes all who are prepared to travel the spiritual path."
"In the third corner, sits the Historian. For him, history is means of self-understanding. Unless, one is prepared to be self-critical and objective about oneself, there can be no real development. Without history, one can neither understand oneself, nor the world around."
"In the final corner, sits the Halachist. He knows that only the discipline of halacha has the power to influence and change human nature. Halacha is the divine gift, and only to its authority must man respond."
"One walks into the room and veers into wherever one's heart, mind or soul takes one."
The four corners image was good. It conveyed the idea, not just of variety, but also of non-threatening space. The Talmudist, Mystic, Historian, Halachist were all assured of their own integrity and independence. They were safe. Today, however, in Jerusalem, I feel that there are many more than just four corners.
Our aspiration is to get the many corners to touch each other.
There is a quality of being, for both an individual and an institution born of integration. To be an integrated person means to be aware of both the shadow of evil in oneself while yet able to hear the echo of the Divine. It means to acknowledge weaknesses in oneself and hope therefore to be more able to cope when we see them in each other.
The quest for Jewish integration cannot any longer be satisfied, for a person living in the 20th century, by some compartmentalized existence. The challenge for Yakar is really to create a world in which we, in our totality, with intellectual and critical openness can live a spiritual renaissance.
- Rabbi Michael Rosen
Rosh Hashana - Gurglings from the Beard
The closer one comes to the Divine the more one senses the distance. This is true of any value, religious or not. Kreisler the violinist once said that Heifetz starts from the point where he (Kreisler) stops. But you have to be a Fritz Kreisler to be able to say that. This paradox is part of the religious experience. It is the one who draws near - the one who has a glimpse, a taste- such a person has a sense that he stands before Enormity. It is such a person who becomes aware of his utter inadequacy to respond to the demands implied by being in His presence.
A frum Jew is comforted by the rites of passage- of rituals for thousands of years that provide security, healing and closure. But R. Hanoch Heinich of Alexander, a pupil of R. Bunim, said "one can't be a faithful servant without total commitment" - and who can say that with any sense of integrity.
It is this sense of being unable to fulfill the role that one knows one ought to, that one wants to fulfill- that causes this inadequacy. It is not a genetic disposition to depression but a sense of being unable to adequately respond (which is part of the human condition). And at that point one needs a deep sense of belief. This inadequacy does not plague the frum Jew, but it does the one who has peeked inside.
A musicologist commentating on the phrase "shackles of tradition" remarked that nowadays the majority of people wouldn't recognize a tradition or shackles even if it came walking down the street towards them. One has to be sufficiently close to sense greatness.
The closer you are, therefore, the greater the sense of distance- of what could be. In other words, the real awareness of distance is created by one beginning to be in the inside.
The closer one comes, the more the desire to just want to be there; to say to the Divine "thank you for allowing me to be in Your presence", it is the one who strives, who is so aware of grace.
- Rabbi Michael Rosen
I Wouldn’t Have Started from Here
Every journalist has his source of information - usually the local taxi driver. One wants to touch the pulse of a place. What better way than to schmooze with the salt of the earth. For me, I have my dentist. One doesn’t argue with a dentist - it’s a one way traffic as one lays helpless on one’s back with something stuck in one’s mouth praying for Divine intervention.
So there I was discussing Obama. And my source of information starting talking about McCaine. Did I know that McCaine worked for Scoop Jackson? “Ahhh, there was a good friend of Israel". My dentist rose to his own occasion and waxed eloquent. With my mouth highly vulnerable, I asked with some temerity what it meant to be a good friend of Israel. To which my American dentist retorted immediately, “to be a good friend of Israel means my country is right or wrong”. I wondered if a dentist in Teheran might have said the same thing about Iran - but I shut up.
Two things occurred to me now that I’m not in my dentist’s chair. Firstly, how the western world despises Bush and how Israel loves him. Bush had a clarity of vision. As my late father used to say, “there are two opinions; the wrong opinion and my opinion”. Bush a la John Wayne, has no time for grays, mambi pambi human rights, respecting the environment. No, no not he. He rides out into the sunset fighting the good fight. I would have some compassion for the Americans but they voted him in a second time, and as Oscar Wilde once said, “to lose one parent is a tragedy, but to lose two is negligence”.
Secondly, I well know that the whole world hates us; a bunch of anti-Semites; what can one expect from the goyim. But actually, we are very much like everybody else - just more so. We exhibit all the characteristics of say, present day Serbia; the sense of betrayal; of being misunderstood; of the west not understanding. In short we project the problem outside, rather than taking responsibility. It doesn’t occur to us to ask how the rest of the world sees the situation.
I well remember Yezid Sayidg giving a talk in which he criticized his fellow Palestinians for always feeling that they were the victims and never taking responsibility for the situation in any way. The left wing Israelis present didn’t like what he said.
The story is told of someone who lost his way in Dublin and asked an Irishman for directions. To which the Irishman replied, “If I was you I wouldn’t have started from here”. Was it really so clever to have humiliated Arafat; to have destroyed Fatah (which we now have to build up again as a balance against Hamas)? Instead of reacting, can we think ahead how we want to get to where we want to get to, so that we don’t always feel, “I wouldn’t have started from here”.
- Rabbi Michael Rosen
The Olive Tree
My mother used to wear plastic gloves when she potted around in the garden. We lived on an estate and some of my earliest memories are of rolling rich grass, rhododendron bushes, and lush trees. The only thing I couldn’t understand in life was why my father couldn’t get rid of the mosquitoes. So when the opportunity arose, I started planning a garden. Would there be a central path with roses reaching over the pergola? What different trees would go where, and can one buy an oak tree in Israel? Imagine therefore my excitement when I was rung up by the local garden center to be told that they had just received an old olive tree.
The olive tree was impressive; it had grandeur. It didn’t shout, it was as if it were saying, “I’ve been around, I’ve seen a lot, go through life with modesty”. The olive tree was clearly my teacher. We replanted it and for some months I would befriend it every day, asking only that it be.
And then Achmed turned up. One morning I noticed that there was an Arab sitting next to the tree. Apparently the olive tree was part of an orchard that had been requisitioned by the army. When the army vacated the area, a road was built through the orchard, so the tree was uprooted and sold to a garden center. How did he know where the tree was? Achmed showed me how he had tended the tree, the marks on its bark, indicating its growth; the different sides of its trunk and how that affected the taste of the olives. It seemed to me that this olive tree and Achmed were pretty close- closer than the other olive trees in his divided garden- closer than people. Achmed would come everyday, as if there was nothing left for him in the world except this olive tree (his wife had died and his two sons were now professionals in the States). We talked about how he might open up a little cottage industry- an olive press, teaching us to tend trees and plant herbs.
Then one day, the police arrived. A neighbor had complained that an Arab was sitting all day in the garden and was that safe? The police explained that since Achmed didn’t have a residency permit he would have to go back to the village.
And I’ll be damned if I don’t uproot that olive tree again and replant it in Achmed’s village where it belongs.
- Rabbi Michael Rosen