You knew that I loved stories, so you left me this one:
When the angels of heaven learned of God’s plan to create the human being b’tzelem elohim, in the divine image, they were aghast.
“How can God plant something as pure and holy as the tzelem, the divine image, in a create as deceitful, base and corrupt as the human being?” So they conspired to steal it and hide it from the human. But where, where to hide the holy tzelem? The angels met in urgent council to decide.
“Hide it on the top of the highest mountain,” suggested one angel. But no, “one day he will climb that mountain and find it.”
“Hide it beneath the deepest sea,” suggested another. But no, “some day he will plumb those depths and find it.
“Put it at the farthest edge of the most forbidding wilderness,” another offered. But no, “he will learn to traverse the wilderness some day and will find it.
Finally, the shrewdest of the angels stepped forward. “We will place it deep in his heart. He will never look for it there.”
This, Harold, was your truth. Divinity, you taught, is not far away. It is not up there, or out there. God is not far away. God abides here, hidden within us. Only we don’t know that. We don’t recognize the divinity within us. So you held up a mirror, that we could see the truth.
So I added a postscript to your story.
God always follows the counsel of God’s angels. So God created the human being, and planted the tzelem deep within the human heart. Deeper than anyone can find it. But not so deep that one who loves us can’t find it for us.
In the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses offers one of his last teachings to the People Israel. He implores them –
This truth is not too difficult for you. It is not beyond you.
Lo ba’shamayim hi – It is not in heaven, that you should say, who can go up and get it for us, and teach us to do it. It is not beyond the sea, that you should say who can cross the sea and get it for us, and teach us to do it
No. It is very close to you, this truth. Ki karov alecha ha-davar.
B’fee’cha ul’vav’cha la’astoah. It is in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it.
This is what you meant by predicate theology: God is not up there, or out there. God is not far away. God is here, with us, in us. God is b’fee’cha ul’vav’cha la’astoah, in our acts, in our words, in our dreams and ideals.
God, you taught us, is known in moments of self-transcendence – in loving, caring, healing, giving. God speaks in the voice of conscience drawing us upward be better, drawing us outward to be loving, drawing us forward to be giving. It protects us from hopelessness, helplessness and despair.
You were a prophet of this God, ever demanding that we acknowledge and recognize that our lives matter, our actions matter, our voices matter. You would not allow us to sink into triviality, into small thinking, or self-absorption, into helplessness, or hopelessness or despair.
The mirror you held up was Torah. Torah is a mirror to see the divinity within. In Judaism, you found an exquisite language of self-transcendence. You were embarrassed by the smallness of spirit and hollow superficiality of so much of Jewish life. You were enraged by a Judaism self-absorbed and morally oblivious. You were offended by a Judaism resentful of the world, afraid of the world. You were offended by rabbis who had nothing to say. You were offended by prayer that was superficial and learning that was trivial.
The Hasidic master once asked his students, “What is the most important moment in all of Jewish history?” And the students answered readily –
“The moment God gave us Torah on Mt Sinai!”
“The day the Holy Temple was erected!”
“When great Maimonides sat down to write the Code of Jewish Law!”
“No,” my children,” responded the Rebbe. “The greatest moment in Jewish history is now. This moment. All of these moments are great. But they mean nothing if they have no place in this moment. This moment, right now, is the greatest moment in Jewish history.”
You, Harold, insisted on the importance of this moment. You insisted that Torah be read in the present tense. Not about yesterday, but about today and tomorrow. The essential question, you argued, is not what was or what is, but what ought to be. The question is not what the synagogue is, but what ought it to be? Not what the world is, but what it ought to be. Not who we are, but who aspire to become.
You worshipped a God you called Adonai. God’s name Adonai, you pointed out, is first pronounced only when the human being enters the world. Adonai is the name for the human capacity for self-transcendence; for the human capacity to transform and reshape and heal the given world. Adonai – the power of human being to create the world of God’s dreams. You taught us to find Adonai by reaching across the loneliness and alienation of suburban life to build Havurot. You taught us to find Adonai by reaching beyond the isolation and privatism, beyond the individualism and share life’s moments as para-rabbinics and para-professional counselors, helping one another. You taught us to find Adonai by opening the synagogue to those once excluded – children and adults with special needs, gays and lesbians and their families, the hungry and indigent and homeless, people of all faiths seeking truth. The synagogue, you taught us, is a center for self-transcendence. Its doors must never be closed, its windows never opaque. That’s what we mean when we say God lives here, Shechina dwells in the synagogue. This must be the place of self-transcendence.
In self-transcendence, you taught, is a life that is purposeful, significant, important.
You taught us that we matter. Every place you went, mattered. At every meeting, every committee, every class, every lecture, you taught us that this moment is important and significant, and it matters. It made it impossible to make small talk with you. I remember sitting and lunch, trying to make small talk, about sports, or politics, or the weather. You looked at me and asked, “Have you read Buber?”
The midrash taught that the Burning Bush did not just appear on the day Moses ascended the mountain. The Burning Bush was there since Creation. Thousand of people passed by but never noticed it. Only Moses stopped, only Moses recognized the wonder. Moses saw, he saw within. You insisted that every moment was laden with responsibility and significance. Every moment was historic. In every moment held the potential to be revelatory. Moment matters, there is nothing trivial in the world. We matter.
You took on the greatest challenge in all of Jewish history, how to believe and stand up after the Holocaust. If God is known in self-transcendence, where is God in the silent, cold darkness, in the immeasurable evil of the Shoah? Then, you found a man named Hermann Graber, working as a janitor in a San Francisco hotel, and you discovered that when he lived in Germany, he saved hundreds of Jews. You met a mathematics student at the university named Jacob Roslin who was rescued, together with his brothers, by a Polish Christian family. You discovered the Japanese diplomat, Sempo Sugihara who saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews, and the French village of Le Chambon, and the Bulgarian prince. You brought them here so that we could meet them.
You remember the Danish policeman, now living in retirement in Orange County. He told us how he worked as a policemen in Copenhagen by day, and by night, he smuggled Jewish families down to the port and bribed the fisherman to ferry them to safety in Sweden. We asked him, why? Why did you do this? Why? And he shook his head humbly, as if we’d asked a silly question, and answered quietly, “It is was right. It was the right thing to do. ” And we cried. Because Adonai did not die in Auschwitz. Because goodness did not disappear into the darkness. Through these extraordinary men and women, willing to risk everything to save people they didn’t know, you found a rebirth of Adonai.
They rescued Jews, Harold. You rescued God from the clutches of the darkness and the evil. You revived God. You resuscitated God. Even in the coldest darkness, you found Adonai. Even there, amidst the deepest of evil, the God of self-transcendence, the God of conscience, a God of life. Adonai Hu Ha-Elohim. God lives.
You were not satisfied. You were never satisfied. “Never Again,” you proclaimed, cannot mean only “Never Again” just for us. We are a global people living in a global era. And ours is a global God. We worship Melech Ha-Olam, not Melech Yisrael. Our genocide, so horrid and dark, has been duplicated – in Cambodia, Bosnia, Ruwanda. And where were we? Where was our voice of protest? Where was the voice of our conscience? And now in Darfur and the Congo? Where are we? And so, in your last decade, you founded Jewish World Watch, so that you would have an answer when your grandchildren asked, Where were you, Zeyde?
You taught us – Ours are the hands of God. Ours are eyes of God. Ours is the voice of God. God lives, only so long as conscience lives in us.
I heard you for the first time in 1970. It was your first sermon on this pulpit at Selichot. It was my first date with Nina. I took her to a lovely dinner, and then a late summer concert at the Hollywood Bowl. And then I put my arm around her and asked, What shall we do now? She replied, Let’s go to Shul. I admit, that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. But we went. We sat in the very back corner, in corduroy jeans and work shirts and desert boots, together with hundreds of other kids in jeans, work shirts and boots.
I fell in love twice that night.
I had never heard a Torah like yours, expressed with so much passion, so much urgency – a Torah spoken in the present tense. I never heard a rabbi tell me that God live if I live Godly. I never heard a Torah that demanded so much of me, as a response, a responsibility, a real life.
I wanted to know that Torah, to hold it and teach it. But I had too many questions. So many questions. You said to me – questions are sacred. You only question that which you love. Questions are sacred, for questions are the seeds of self-transcendence. Questions are the tools for rebuilding and reinterpreting the tradition. Questions keep God alive in the world. God loves those questions.
We have been sharing questions ever since. Since the day I came to work here, you’d come into my office with your coffee, sit yourself down, and ask me a question. We’ve spend the last 20 years searching, debating, arguing, struggling with those questions. I am not finished yet. I will continue to ask. Come tomorrow morning, Monday morning, I will wait to hear another question. That question brings God back into the world.
In an interview, I once asked you what the name “Schulweis” means. You said it was an acronym for a Hebrew phrase – “Sheh-yichyeh v’yizkeh leerot b’nechmat tzion.”
May we have life and merit to see the restoration of Zion.
Schulweis, you name is a prayer.
Your Torah rescued God, and a whole generation of Jews, raised up thousands of students, rabbis and teachers, raised up the hearts of the Jewish people. Until such time as we merit to see the restoration of Zion, we will ask your questions.
Thank you, Harold.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein