Complaining the Jewish Way

Who are these men perpetually hovering outside the doors of the yeshiva? Who are these children, this gaggle of goslings, and these women, seemingly dutiful and unfazed as they stroll toward their place of prayer? Who are they?

Sometimes, when the light on the corner of La Brea Avenue is red, I stop long enough for us to gaze at each other through my car’s tinted window. I wonder if they wonder who I am in my black, velvet kippah. Are they used to my kind, or does it strike them as odd that I drive on Shabbos but wear the same team hat? Do they dismiss me as I often do them — as an anomaly, a mystery, an example of an era that is only remotely Jewish.

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi with a doctorate from Harvard, once said, jokingly, that Jews choose their denomination of Judaism based on the one they hate the least. To which a rabbi friend of mine replied, “I don’t care what movement you’re a part of as long as you’re ashamed of it!” The simple truth is that there has never been a movement in Judaism without its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. Any choice might seem odd or mistaken to those who do not make the same choice or even to those who do.

Three thousand years ago, you could choose to become a Nazarite, not cut your hair or shave, live in a cave and refrain from wine. You could be born into a family that destined you for the priesthood or slavery. You could even choose to remain a slave when your master was prepared to set you free. Jacob was a scholar, his brother, Esau, a hunter. Moses married out of the faith and was the greatest Jewish leader of all time. In one of the Torah’s chapters, Pinchas, a religious zealot, winds up murdering a fellow Jew. The Maccabees did the same thing.

Centuries after the Torah was written, the Talmudic schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed on almost every point of Jewish law. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides’ books were burned for his radical departure from “traditional” Jewish beliefs. Now, for many Orthodox Jews, his views define “normative” Judaism. More than three centuries ago, Chassidim arose as a reaction against the hyper-legalism and severe rigidity of the Mitnagdim in Eastern Europe. Today, there are Chassidim in Brooklyn because they follow a different rebbe.

There is so much disagreement in the Reform rabbinate about certain issues that they cannot even be brought to the floor at our conventions. My Uncle Mort, who davens with the Lubavitchers, told me that he was offended by the guitar-playing rabbis at my wedding. I told him that King David played the harp. He said that he was still offended.

Speaking of music, there’s a curious thing about the musical poem in this week’s Torah portion. Our ancestors sang this poem after successfully escaping Pharaoh by crossing the Sea of Reeds. The fact that we chant it this week from the Torah gives this Shabbat the special name “Shabbat Shira,” “The Sabbath of Song.” Here’s the curious part: Although people sing it together, the song is written in the first person — many voices, all proclaiming, “I.” That is, after all, what music is about, right? Many different notes played together to form a more complex and richer whole. Could it be that’s what Judaism is about too?

Consider this beautiful story about the famous Chassid Reb Mendel of Kotsk. When he was 13 years old, his father (who was opposed to Chassidism) rebuked Mendel for forsaking the old ways. Mendel then quoted one seemingly ordinary verse in the “Song at the Sea” from this week’s Torah portion. The verse simply proclaims: “This is my God — I honor Him.” It was the Torah’s way of telling Mendel, and Mendel’s way of telling his father, that he had to find his own path to God and Judaism.

Mendel was right. Whether we like it or not, each Jew has the freedom to find God in his or her own way. We play our note on whatever instrument and in whatever key we choose. There will always be schisms and uncomfortable, curious stares at red lights on La Brea. Yes, we’re both on our way to shul, but I don’t want to pray in theirs, and they don’t want to pray in mine. Sure, we read from the same Torah, but we understand it in totally different ways. No, we can’t all get along — never have and never will. So what?

Let’s wise up as Mendel’s father should have, and embrace every “I” in our song, every voice singing out to God in notes sharp and flat, harmonious and discordant. Somehow together, we manage to make a glorious sound.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.