After a summer of simchas and a festive fall, we move into the deep, darkness of winter and Chanukah nights. I’m writing this note at my brother’s home in southern Vermont where I’ve been communing with my childhood chickadees, birch and maples, watching the season turn in a blaze of red, orange and yellow foliage. Now the days are chilly and the trees are shedding their leaves. My brother and his family live quite close to the local synagogue – a two-story Colonial-style house, converted – so to speak – into a charming, very haimishe (homelike) shul. The congregation is called Shir HeHarim (Song of the Mountains), and I can sense the heavy hand of the glaciers that sculpted these rolling hills.This community feels like an East Coast cousin to our own in Eureka, people drawn here by the beauty of the landscape. I think I feel a closer kinship to these folks than I do to our friends in Berkeley and San Francisco; I have much in common with those who identify as Jewish and rural. Of course Boston is only two hours away; it feels like a ball from Fenway Park could land in our backyard! As I write, the Red Sox are traveling home for the final two games in the World Series. Watching the games with my brother I’ve been waxing nostalgic for the San Francisco Giants (Nefilim), and the Temple Beth El softball Meshugenas and Machers.
I’ve heard a wide range of singers tackle the national anthem, “America The Beautiful,” and “God Bless America,” the latter composed by Irving Berlin, born Israel Beilin in Imperia Russia in 1888. Son of an impoverished cantor with eight children, the future King of Tin Pan Alley saw his childhood village burnt to the ground by Cossacks, before escaping with his family to Das Goldene Land – America. In the performance in the 7th inning stretch, I keep wondering: What Irving Berlin would think of the longevity and impact of his song?During the commercials my brother is sorting his abundant collection of books covering a wide range of human endeavor with an emphasis on history, science and music, and including best-sellers with titles like The God Delusion and The End of Faith. These are weighty tomes; perhaps I’ll have time to peruse the introductions. I’ve been reading my niece Hannah’s copy of Radical Judaism: Rethinking God & Tradition by Rabbi Arthur Green, Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion and head of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in nearby Newton, Massachusetts – which feels so close that I could toss a baseball into his backyard. In this slim volume published three years ago, Art Green describes a contemporary Jewish theology that reframes Judaism in the light of current science and critical Biblical scholarship. In the Introduction, he tells the tale of growing up in an atheist household, but being drawn to the music and ritual of the Synagogue at an early age, and taking on strict observance as an adolescent – much to the dismay of his parents. In his college years his regimen of practice “came crashing down…when I accepted that its theological underpinnings had been rooted in fantasy and denial of reality.”
Rabbi Green suffered the loss of his mother at a young age, and learned of the atrocities of the Holocaust as the news arrived in America and Jews desperately sought lost relatives. He writes, “These experiences, both personal and collective, made it clear to me that I could affirm neither a particular providence nor a God who governed history. The God of childhood dreams, the One who could ‘make it all better’ and show that life was indeed fair after all, was gone. My initiation into adulthood meant full acceptance of the arbitrariness of fate, including the finality of death…At about the same time, I was exposed to Jewish scholarship, including the critical reading of the Hebrew Bible and its history…I was no longer a believer, in the usual sense of that term, but I learned rather quickly that I was still a religious person, struggling with issues faith.”
Rabbi Green then read works by the philosophers of existentialism and absurdisim: “From Camus and Nikos Kazantzakis came the noble call to make meaning on my own, to defy meaninglessness with creativity and moral action. But the more I sought to create a framework of meaning, picking up the shattered tablets of my onetime Jewish life, the more I came to realize that I was in fact only rediscovering patterns that were there to be seen, and had indeed been seen and articulated by countless generations before me…The question seemed to be whether we post-naïve seekers dare use the word ‘God’ any more, and what we might – or might not – mean by it, while remaining personally and intellectually honest.”
Tomorrow or the next day the World Series will be decided. Once or twice more I’ll join millions of others to watch that spinning ball whiz through the air. I’ll listen as a pop singer belts out the Star Spangled Banner and I’ll think, “May all the bombs burst in the air and not on the ground!” I’ll watch as the multi-millionaire players, including immigrants from Central and South America and Japan, stand reverently with hats in hand to hear “God Bless America!” I’ll imagine Irving Berlin as a homeless, terrified young boy and I’ll think, “Yes, God bless America! God bless Vermont! God bless Humboldt County!” But to remain personally and intellectually honest like Rabbi Green, I need to sing, “God bless the planet Earth, orb, that I love! Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above – (starlight, moonlight, and energy efficient-LEDs!) From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, God bless the planet Earth, my home sweet home!