Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
May 27, 2016 / 19 Iyyar, 5776
Fourteen hours on the road and another few in front of me, but it’s the final leg of my journey home. After a week in Manhattan at the Rabbinical Assembly convention, I am anxious to get back home to Portland. Walking entire blocks without a trace of green, I miss my family, my home and all of you. Although gone only five days, it feels much longer.
There’s a recent book out by mathematician Joseph Mazur entitled Fluke. Mazur purports to explain the statistic probability of improbable events, thus showing how likely the unlikely really is. Mazur’s premise came to mind after a week full of encounters with friends old and new.
I was reminded of how many worlds we each can embody, and how fully we can become immersed in them. Just this evening, during a three hour lay over in the Denver party, I met George over a glass of wine. George is part Apache, part Hispanic (or Chicano as they referred to themselves when I lived in New Mexico). A Vietnam vet, he came back to work as a mail carrier until he retired. What got him through the massacres he witnessed and participated in–what let him overcome his intense trauma, was discovering faith. For George, that was becoming a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and serving as a missionary in Bolivia. He had been stationed for the past four years in a remote territory that to this day doesn’t show up on the maps. When a village doesn’t appear on a map, you can be pretty certain it’s not on the radar of most politicians either.
I caught him en route back from his old home of Southern Colorado where he recently sold his home. Here was a man who reinvented himself, but without any of the emotional brittleness one sometimes detects in the born again missionary. We sat for an hour, this unlikely encounter of a rabbi and an evangelical enjoying one another’s company. Then he continued on his way first to Florida, and then back to Bolivia.
Chance meetings can touch us. Some enter our lives for a few moments, others travel along our path for years. At one of the rabbinical assembly prayer services, we recited the malei rachamim memorial prayer for those peers who had died over the past year. One of those was my occasional teacher, Benzi Bergman. Benzi was a founding member of the Joint Beit Din, a professor at Loyola law school and a leading designer of kosher mikvaot, ritual immersion baths. Benzi was also one of the handful of Jewish scholars who could perform the “pin test.” Take a stick pin, place it on any word of the 7000 complicated pages of the Talmud, and he could tell you what the pin was sticking into on the opposite page. More importantly, he could make the most complicated discussions crystal clear. For all that rare mastery, Benzi was a man of good humor, humility and kindness. His death was a great loss to the Conservative movement.
Last Tuesday evening, I was walking from the convention back to my hotel. It had been a long day, and I was looking forward to relaxing and catching up on some emails. There on the street, however, I bumped into Andy. Certainly, there was nothing statistically improbable about meeting another rabbi half a mile from the convention. Still, a couple of minutes either way and we would not have run into one another that evening. Andy invited me to a small gathering of rabbis who were meeting to discuss intermarriage. This was not an official topic at convention.
Apart from Chuck Simon, the rabbi who heads the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, I was the oldest person present. That’s a new experience. Here was a group of younger colleagues eager to discuss the still taboo topic of intermarriage. Several hours later I left with much to ponder.
Some of the group felt stifled by the official Code of Conduct rules which forbid Conservative rabbis to officiate or attend a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. Others are seeking grass roots change because as they look around, they understand that in our accepting American culture, Jews and non-Jews are going to continue to fall in love and build homes together. They find the movement’s reluctance to address the matter unproductive. A third group was wrestling with the unintended and unanticipated consequences that sanctifying such unions might create. Still another subgroup was imagining what sort of marriage might be possible to officiate at. Halakhically speaking, no one there believed that kiddushin, the traditional legal act under the chuppah wedding canopy that unites husband and wife, can be applied to the new unions we are seeing.
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once penned, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” How we best embrace change in our constantly churning world is a question open for debate. The one thing I am certain of is that we can’t bury our heads in the sand. Indeed, if there was one theme that seemed to connect the many topics at convention this year, it is our movement’s efforts at reinvention and clarification in a time of massive societal upheaval.
Given how common the chance encounter is, and how certain the shifting horizon is for all of us, let me end by the words of another great colleague who died just as convention was ending. Jack Bloom was a rabbi’s rabbi. He used to send out new year’s cards. On one, he quoted Mickey Rivers:
Ain’t no sense in worrying about things you got control over,
’cause if you got control over them, ain’t no sense worrying.
And there ain’t no sense worrying about thing you got no control over,
’cause if you got no control over them, ain’t no sense in worrying about them.
Knowing the difference, Jack continued, makes a difference in how we each live our lives. May we each be blessed to figure that out.