So what I really want to write about are the political party conventions. However, I’m trying to sort my way through the issues around clergy and politics, what it means to be ‘partisan’ and not, and what are the practical how’s, when’s and where’s of it.
So today I’ll distract myself by writing about a forbidden pleasure: the contemplative life.
This week (my first back at rabbinical school after summer break), we learned from Mishnah Avot 2:2: Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi says, “The study of Torah is beautiful (combined) with a gainful occupation; one who toils at both forgets sin. But any study of Torah which is not accompanied by work, ends in frivolity and it brings sin.”
The school I attend, the Academy for Jewish Religion CA, certainly lives this ethic. All programs are structured for working adults. Our school week is short, because most students have jobs and families, and many have a very long commute. Most of us hope for gainful jobs within the Jewish community when we graduate. Of course, we also learn in Avot 4:7 not to use the Torah as a spade to dig with (as a means to enrich ourselves). Our Teacher Rabbi Eli Schochet teaches that what congregations pay for is what the rabbi doesn’t do—she is compensated for the hours she doesn’t spend earning money in the secular world. The point here is that Torah scholars and rabbis are expected to live the life of the people we serve. There are no Jewish monasteries or convents, no Jewish hermitage. Jewish wisdom is meant for everyday life. It teaches us to deal with prosaic tasks and challenges, not to run from them.
But, with regard to time and space for Torah study in particular, there is a separate luminous strand within Jewish tradition. Torah study is so important that our rabbis even exempt diligent students from certain prayers. Torah study, like prayer, puts us in direct dialogue with the Holy One and with one another—that is, with embodiments of the Holy image. We don’t just do Judaism with our kishkas. We bring in our minds along with our heart and guts. Judaism is a holistic way of way of life that offers centuries of accumulated wisdom. To practice and share it, we need to be trained.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai asks, “If one plows in plowing season, and sows in sowing season, and reaps in reaping season, and threshes in threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah?” (Brachot 35b) Key tendencies in Jewish mysticism trace their intellectual and spiritual lineage to this rabbi, who gave up everything for Torah and led a fiercely ascetic life. In the Yiddish Pale, Torah study was valued so highly that it became a signal honor for Jewish families to host a Torah student at their table for regular essen teg (eating days). Today’s controversy over the stipend that Orthodox Israeli men receive for Torah study is as much about abuse—people with little aptitude or heart for study accepting the money and declining military service just because it makes their lives easier—as it is about a rejection of study as a legitimate focus for a Jew.
Jewish study takes time, not only for the reading itself, but for dialogue with friends about what the text means, for reflection, for chasing references that make the text explode into debates that cross generations. For considering how this reading might change the way we live. If immersion in the wisdom of Torah is not to devolve into a class privilege, Jewish scholars need, at minimum, ways to earn a living that do not exhaust their capacities to the point where they cannot learn. Therefore, I thank God for organizations like Jewish Vocational Services, which has helped me and others to study thoroughly so we can fulfill potential and make the contributions of which we’re capable.
This summer, I felt the tug of that tension between study, prayer and the broader communal life. After my study of the Holocaust abroad, I spent a week in retreat on some friends’ farm in upstate New York. It was green and tranquil, and my phone didn’t always work. The house is on retreat schedule: in silence most of the day, with internet access for about an hour every 48 hours or so. My hosts laid out breakfast on a sideboard in the morning and rang bells for lunch and supper. There was some visiting in the evening, one movie and then everyone retires for the night. They cook for you, they do your laundry and, God bless them, they leave you alone.
On my first full day there, I realized how tired I was. I did nothing much but sit in an Adirondack chair under the shade tree (elm, maple…? Something Eastern) and observe the complex traffic of the birds (there were redwing blackbirds, the first I’d ever seen and swallows and my red breasted namesakes). I saw a fawn on the lawn.
The next day was Shabbat, a more active kind of not-doing. A whole day and night devoted to study, praise and pleasure; Torah, food, the outdoors and good company.
On the day after that, feelings triggered by my trip to Germany and Auschwitz began to surface. I had resolved, while in Europe, not to dissolve into lugubriousness, I was there to think the Shoah. That’s a hard resolve to keep when faced with a room full of human hair. As it happens, I was a big brave girl who didn’t cry too much at Auschwitz. I did, however, break into loud immoderate laughter over a mordant joke right outside the death camp, and I did almost dissolve into tears over a seat belt that didn’t seem to work (it did) and the fear that Air Berlin had broken a piece of my luggage (they hadn’t, only misplaced it for a bit). So: rage, sorrow and a bit of shame under the blue New England sky.
On the next day, my routine emerged. Shachrit in the meditation room where I kept my tfillin, tallis and siddur. Breakfast and then a long walk up and down the twisty country roads. A shower, some journaling and then lunch. Writing on the laptop with no internet to distract me—no interruptions at all except for Minchah. I had set up the little desk in ‘my’ room the way Ii liked it. There was all the time in the world to study. A light supper, some provocative film and a little more writing before nighttime prayers.
Four days on retreat, and my world resolved into nothing but what I love—except community and home. Now I’m back to the people and city I love and back in school and earning a living. Back to the world of missed sleep and trying to move in five directions at once. My challenge, of course, is to deal; to receive back some of the spiritual calm and focus I achieved in that time of suspension and bring it to my daily life.