Wednesday, October 20, 2004


One of my ravs once told me that the reason that Americans are rediscovering Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is because there's something about his struggle with depression that appeals to the modern American Jewish experience. I don't know if that's actually true, but it does seem to me that there is something about Reb Nachman that seems to be missing from modern American Jewish life. Reb N. himself clearly did struggle with depression, it should thus come as no surprise to us that the עקר (core) of his philosophy is that one should work to be joyful always.

There is, however, something a little counterintuitive about having to work to be joyful. Not that joy is so easy to come by; certainly, while many of us are content, or even happy, I wonder how often the average Jew experiences joy. Joy seems to me to be of a rather different order than these other things. It seems to me to be not just satisfaction and lack of negative feelings, but a certain unselfconsciousness in which happiness is expressed physically - especially in song, but also sometimes with just a powerful radiating feeling tht is comes out in gesture and speech, and sometimes dance, even if dance is just an extra little skip while walking.

American Judaism often feels to me mired in all kinds of much that prevents us from feeling the joy that is our heritage. First of all, there's the pseudo-religion of Holocaust. I've seen religious school curricula where the kids are started in elementary school, and the Holocaust is treated as the defining moment of Jewish history. I can't help but be appalled at this for any number of reasons: first becasue it assumes that the feelings of despair and pain have been unequalled by anyone anywhere, but also have been unequalled by our own history - and yet this isn't true. Judaism has struggled with tragedy many times before, not least in the destruction of the Temple. We struggled and wept and prayed and begged for God to return to us, or felt that there was no God - all the feelings that we had during the Holocaust, we have had before, and we triumphed over them, developed philosophies to deal with them, survived, and remained Jews. Eventually we returned to a religion that included God and joy, even while in exile. THe relentlessness of the Holocaustism, though, leaves many people with little reason to be Jewish than "not to give Hitler a victory." But if that's the only reason we have, we'd better pack up and move on, because a Judaism defined by Nazis is no longer Judaism.

One of the more unfortunate results of this kind of thinking was expressed by someone I know that anyone whom the Nazis called a Jew, we, too should consider a Jew, whether or not their mother is Jewish or they converted. But how is giving over to the Nazis the power to define us a victory? It does nothing other than deny that we had a history prior to their existence. It denies that we have something to give to the world, it denies our partnership with God, and replaces all those things with a kind of numb defiance. Judaism is not just surviving genocide -it is a powerful connection with the God who created all, and a unique love that molds every minute of our lives.

Part of the problem is that most of us don't know our own traditions - it is difficult to rejoice in a tradition that one only knows a very little part of - particularly when that tradition is one best experienced holistically. Kashrut doesn't make much sense without shabbat; shabbat is tough if you only light candles and say kiddush but don't refrain from work; Rosh Hashanah is bereft without Sukkot. But that's not it. That isn't the entire explanation: part of the problem is that Americans expect joy to come to us. We want to be transported with rapture without having to work for it. We want to go to the New Age store and buy some crystals and take them home and set up a little altar, and have the power of the universe come to us without having to do anything more about it. But that's not how it works, any more than I could win a gold in the Olympics without spending every day for years stretching and training, and cross-training and prcticing and failing, and trying again, and again, and again. With people watching. And taking the risk that when I fail someone will see it and laugh.

And that brings me to oatmeal. I know this isn't a very profound insght. I'm sure everyone who has ever had a child has had it, but this is my first, so what the heck. In watching my son take his first bits of solid food (such as it is, anyhow) I am reminded of how very hard he works. Babies seem to be very simple little creatures, and their smiles and giggles (or in the case of my son, their snorts and guffaws) seem like the purest most untutored joy. But I think that that's underestimating what babies really are. I watch him try to do things which for me are very simple, and for him very difficult, over and over, and get frustrated, and then try again until he manages to finally grab the little bird, or whatever. And it isn't that success makes him joyful. It's that he hasn't learned how to defend himself against the payoffs of hard work yet. I'm busy planning my next task when I finish the first one. He isn't. He doesn't know that he's going to have to do the same task over and over again, because he only got it by luck this time, but it doesn't matter. He can dance before the ark like King David, only there's no Michal to mock him - at least not yet- so he can be joyful whenever he isn't busy being involved in his task - or frustated as heck. And that's why getting oatmeal all over his face is so cute. Not because it's simple. Because it's hard.

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