Shabbat Shalom

Being Jewishby By Ari GoldmanSimon & Schuster. 286p $25

Ari Goldman and I worked side by side some 20 years ago at The New York Times. We admired each other, I think, for a perceived seriousness in the way we went about covering the religion beat. It wasn’t just a job; it was a vocationto get the story right, not just get it written.

But we were not close.

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I never seemed to have enough time to talk to Goldman about his Orthodox Judaism, as he never needed to talk to me about my liberal Catholicism. We both knew that we stood out in a sea of reporters (many of whom were nominally Catholics or Jews) who didn’t much give a damn about religion. Goldman and I cared, and that perception created an unspoken bond between us as we went about mining the world for stories we thought significant, and writing them in the restrained, terribly detached prose dictated by the Times’ s copy desk.

Now, after reading Goldman’s latest, I am sorry I didn’t get to know him better, sooner. He could have given me some new, solid reasons for my bias (learned from Pope John XXIII during my years in Rome at the Second Vatican Council) that Jews and Catholics have far more in common than many Catholics ever dreamed. But it is never too late to learn, and I thank Goldman for bringing me up to date about his Jews.

As a preconciliar Catholic, I had imagined that Jews were into ritualand little else. Now I learn from Goldman’s admirably unassuming work how Jews use the rituals that mark life’s milestones of birth, coming of age, marriage and death to help ease the modern sense of isolation and loneliness, to provide a sense of belonging in the present and a sense of connection with the past.

I believe this is religion’s only raison d’etre in the 21st century. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger says our Catholic rituals are for God. I disagree. We can’t change God; God doesn’t need anything from us. Rather, we need Godto remind us of who and what we are.

Ari Goldman is an Orthodox pluralist, who can embrace and appreciate the truth of other religions and even embrace the truth of other Jews who practice the faith of their fathers (and mothers) in the most diverse ways. For many Orthodox Jews, God is father. Reform Jews tend to see God as mother. Conservatives see him as lover. And Goldman tells us about a small group called Reconstructionists, who do not see God as a noun at all, but as a verb. God is the catalyst that enables them to actualize who they are as a people and as a nation.

Goldman believes they are all good Jews, all of them quite within a Jewish tradition. Like many postconciliar Catholics, he is no fundamentalist; he argues with a Conservative Jewish leader who warns his people they are headed to anarchy and extinction if they embrace a variety of new ritual choices and practices that make them feel good.

Writes Goldman: I’m not advocating extinction, but I do think a little anarchy can be healthy. Being Jewish is about feeling good. It is about finding meaning. In fact, like the good reporter he is, he thinks that his account of modern Judaism should include not only what tradition demands but what people actually do with their lives.

His observations on the Jewish Sabbath tell me that Jews have their own aggiornamento. The laws of Shabbat (one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to humankind) set down 39 official don’ts (each with subcategories that add hundreds more). Strictly speaking, Jews cannot mow the lawn, hunt for food, light a fire, plant a seed or bake a cake on Saturday. Nor can they drive a car, turn on a computer or a light switch, talk on the phone or watch television.

Orthodox Jews tend to follow these rules. Reform rabbis, for the most part, find them no longer binding. Goldman’s reporting also reveals that modern Jews have intelligent ways of dealing with outmoded rules, often through a Talmudic tool called midrash. They quote Lev. 18:5: You shall therefore keep my statutes and ordinances, by doing these a man shall live. Midrash, says Goldman, takes the words shall live and avers that one should live by the rules and not die by them. Thus, Jews can break the Sabbath (or almost any other law) to keep a person alive.

They can also invent the strangest...most inconsistent ways of keeping Sabbath. A stockbroker uses the telephone to make outgoing calls on the Sabbath, but he never takes incoming calls; one day a week, he wants to set the telephone agenda. A college professor who has a mother in a nursing home will answer the phone (it might be mother) but he doesn’t call out. An Orthodox college student who sleeps with his girlfriend on Friday nights tears open his condom packages early in the day so he doesn’t violate the Sabbath by tearing unnecessarily. And Goldman reports on an Orthodox college friend who followed the Grateful Dead around the country some years ago, getting high on pot. But he couldn’t bring himself to smoke marijuana on Saturday. So he baked hash brownies on Friday and ate them the next day for a special Sabbath high.

Goldman’s updated Judaism allows him to put a new spin on ancient rituals, translating them into action as he believes he must:

We pray so that we can hear others pray. Prayer opens our hearts to the needs of others.

We eat kosher foods so that we are sensitive to animals and all of God’s creation.

We observe the holidays so that we remember God’s historic kindness to the Jewish people.

We observe the Sabbath as a day of rest as a way of recognizing that others must rest too.

Goldman believes there is no one way to interpret Judaism. There is no one way to live the Jewish life. There is a tradition that came before us, but there are also many versions that lie ahead. There are an infinite number of variations on the theme of being Jewish. I have tried to lay out the foundations, and, from there, each of us can create our own Jewish future.

And what are these foundations? Goldman says Judaism’s rationale is being connectedto history, to humankind, and to the world around us. But I can only gasp and say that, why, that is what being Catholic means to me (and, I suspect, what being a Muslim, Hindu or a Buddhist means to Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists). All religions help us make connections. So, in a way, almost everyone (except perhaps devout secularists) can find value in Goldman’s work, which is really a treatise on love, freedom and being human.

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