FELLOW HERETICS: I AM ACTUALLY GOING TO SEND THIS LETTER (OR SOME VARIATION OF IT) TO THE RABBI IN MY MOTHER’S (AND MY FORMER) HOME TOWN. COMMENTS WELCOME.
Oct. 5, 2014
Dear Rabbi Rosin,
Thanks so much for visiting my Mother today. I know you’re really busy with the High Holidays. As in my youth, it’s still the only time everybody shows up, as if God doesn’t notice their non-observance the rest of the year, so you have to make the most of it. I do appreciate the time you spent with Belle, and I hope that she felt better when you left.
Either today or yesterday (sloppy record keeping) is her 96th. What a milestone. I believe her astonishing longevity is mainly genetic. She’s done nothing in the way of diet or exercise, and her father, the immigrant Hymie Schwartz, lived to 82, at a time when life expectancy for men was around 50.
Also, Belle lived by a relentless don’t-depress-me philosophy. Keeping everything superficial and avoiding bad news or unpleasant conversations probably saved her a lot of stress.
But now she faces the end, and she is afraid and lonely. She wants Jewish-flavored comfort, because that’s what she’s used to. I trust that you told her whatever confabulations about God, life, and death that Judaism purveys.
You will have great credibility: She is a weak-minded, incurious woman who has inordinate respect for all authority figures – rabbis, doctors, God, the government, and the experts. Not that she ever cared about Judaism, except to drive me crazy (and to be somewhat less obnoxious to my brother) at the prospect of her son marrying a shiksa. She readily admitted to me, years later, that she doesn’t care about intermarriage anymore. I think she saw how religion breaks up families, and she didn’t want any more of it – that’s my interpretation, anyway.
Belle raised hell over a religion which she didn’t practice. But then my brother’s son and Belle’s niece were allowed to marry non-Jews, no problem. Belle doesn’t realize that according to her cockamamie genetic beliefs, my brother’s whole family is not Jewish, because they all sprung from a gentile womb.
Well, you might argue that Jewish is as Jewish does. But by that criterion, my brother’s family is not Jewish either. Neither is Belle. They don’t observe the Sabbath, the dietary laws, or any of the Torah’s countless commandments. To the Orthodox, they don’t even count as Jews.
I know these things for two reasons. One is that my wife’s father became progressively more Orthodox and inflicted his rigidity on the family. He has since moved to Israel, where he can stand on the rooftops at sunrise to celebrate the day the world was supposedly created. Through her, I got a look at the Jewish enclaves in NY and NJ. I browsed Orthodox websites and found out about tznius (try that in West Chester) and much else. I learned about the vicious insularity and about what happens to people who “go off the derekh.”
The other reason I know what truly observant Jews believe is that I am one of the few secular Jews who has read the Torah, beginning to end (Jewish Publication Society translation). Nobody can tell me what’s in it (though a lot of people think they know). And nobody can whitewash all the gore, violence, and barbarism. Death for disrespecting your parents! Or try Deuteronomy 25:11-12. Do your congregants know what their holy scroll contains?
I self-published a book about what I had found. Belle says she gave it to you, but I don’t think she had the courage.
After a period with Humanist Rabbi Sherwin Wine, I moved to the Chicago area, joined the Humanistic Temple there, and found the rabbi (formerly conservative) to be much too Torah-oriented. Rabbi Wine had taught me the truth about the history of the Jews.
I later left Humanistic Judaism; I felt it was a failed compromise that was drifting backwards.
I have actually abandoned the whole enterprise. My religion is truth, my synagogue is the world, my fellow congregants are all human beings (if only they would stop fighting over religion and realize it).
Which brings me to the central purpose of this letter: to let you know how I plan to behave at Belle’s funeral. Please note that she has agreed to these conditions: I will not pray, stand on cue, or wear any religious garments, including yarmulke, or engage in any religious behavior whatsoever.
Please understand: I do not do this to provoke. Rather, at 71, I simply can no longer fake it to accommodate other people’s comfort level. Your congregants may think this is a big deal, but in truth it is not. They can ignore me – and may well do so.
But they cannot eject me from my mother’s funeral, because Belle agreed to these conditions, and because once again religion will have trumped family, and we cannot let this happen. If they try, I will call them out as hypocrites – religion matters to them three days a year; what devotion! -- and openly dare God to do something about it, if he doesn’t want me there.
Neither of us wants that little drama. But again: I cannot fake it anymore. So I leave it up to you to help it go smoothly and to prepare the appropriate people when the time comes.
With thanks and best regards,