A fireside chat
When Rabbi Jeffrey Myers flashed up on our screens, it was unfortunate it was in front of a graphic of a fireplace. So giant was his imaginary fire with its licking flames and its exaggerated orange hue, that it looked like the Rabbi was smiling at us on his passage to Hell.
Instead, he was offering sober reflections on spiritual questions as part of a Zoom discussion for the Limmud programme, a movement that encourages Jewish cultural exchange. His interlocutor was a wispy UK-based Rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, whose Zoom surroundings were no less memorable, if a little less dramatic. He was talking to us from his bedroom (I’ve never been inside a Rabbi’s bedroom before and I’m not sure I ever intend to be in one again). It seemed bare except for a paralytic dog lying prostrate on his bed.
This was only a momentary distraction as the two Rabbis soon took opportunities to discuss the spiritual significance of the extended lockdown. ‘Were there any Psalms that could offer comfort at this time‘, they asked?
The main draw, and there was a grim cinematic draw to seeing Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, was Myers’ turn marshalling our inner resources to weather this Coronavirus crisis. He’s had to weather his own existential crises in the past. He is Rabbi and Chazan for the Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was the scene of unimagined terror on October 27th2018. Unimagined because as most in Pittsburgh attested in the days and weeks after that tragic day when congregants of his were murdered, this wasn’t a city known for harbouring anti-Semitic hatred.
Pittsburgh was a hard-working city in a hard-working state, in the eastern-lying part of the Mid-West. There was a sizable Jewish community; there still is.
75 short years
But in the eighteen months since the shootings the city’s been imprinted with this unwanted memory: of a Neo-Nazi storming into a temple when a faith service is underway. And I reflect on all this the week we mark 75 short years since the end of the Second World War – well, the ceasefire in Europe at least.
My father was born just three weeks after Hitler killed himself (don’t worry, I’m not a believer in telepathy).
My grandparents were all in their thirties or twenties. Except for my paternal grandfather, who like my maternal great-grandparents (his parents-in-law) was in his forties. They hated one another.
All of them were busy in various sorts of ways, but none of them fought: the one Jewish military hero in our family brigade was my paternal great-grandfather, Reuben Crystol, who didn’t fight in World War One, but thanks to his fluent French, went ahead of armoured divisions in the low-lying Ardennes and Walloons to scout: for what exactly, I don’t know.
My paternal grand-father, who died before I was born – Israel Kaufmann was born in the late 19thcentury – did well out of the war by all accounts, selling women’s stockings. Or maybe I’ve got my stories mixed up, and that was what my other Grandfather did, or then again, maybe they both sold women’s stockings.
Great Aunt Cissie was based in Stockholm, and was married to Zimmy, a British spy. That was in 1943, or 1944 – I forget. Before she could reach him, in June 1940, she was holed in Bournemouth with her new baby, surveying Spitfires in the sky warring over the South Downs. It was the most dissonant summer, full of expansive blue skies and promising sunshine. Cissie didn’t sell women’s stockings on the black-market.
Anyway, the point is – these are relatives I knew and loved, or didn’t know, but who nevertheless loom large – and they were all alive when Nazis threatened to occupy Britain, which had they been successful, almost certainly would have resulted in Jews being transported and killed. It’s most unlikely I’d be writing any of this today. So –
To hear from a States-based Rabbi reflecting not on the events of October 27th2018 (he couldn’t, it’s still raw), but on his life purpose since a neo-Nazi murdered Jews in his hitherto safe community, was especially poignant. Poignant not least because of the timing, the week we mark this 75-year milestone since Nazism was – we at least assumed – exterminated.
Nazis – everywhere?
It was humbling hearing Myers recall the questions he asked himself after those hard days. They were unspeakably tough days for his congregation; but also for Jewry worldwide, since we were hearing with alarming frequency how Jews could be cut down with so little protection. In this past decade, a fair length of time since World War Two ended, but not very long in fact, Jews have been shot and attacked in the Jewish museum in Brussels, in a school in Toulouse, in synagogues in San Diego, and New Jersey and in Halle, Germany; and in kosher supermarkets in Paris. The list goes on.
And it dates back further; to murders of Jews in their dozens in Buenos Aires in 1994, and of Jews in Casablanca in the early 2000s, and further back than that. It wasn’t always the forces of Nazism that were unleashed, but in every instance there was a grotesque and distorted world ideology at play that demonized Jews and turned them into targets.
In the period since October 2018, Rabbi Myers has asked not what meaning he can individually derive from terror, but what might animate him in response to that terror. He reflected, ‘how praiseworthy it would be to provide some value in some way,’ to his grieving congregants. And to the wider Pittsburgh community and beyond.
The psychology of displacement
What Rabbi Myers sees happening now with worldwide lockdowns is some form of displacement, psychologically speaking, but for many, physically too. And this was a phenomenon he had to deal with in 2018. For his community at The Tree of Life, the displacement after 2018 has meant the attacked shul has remained closed ever since, although there are plans for it to open again one day.
They now pray and form minyan and celebrate festivals in another synagogue a mile-and-a-half down the road. He recognizes how any community that thrives isn’t just ‘building-based’, but ‘socially-based’. And this too must be true in 2020, with Covid-19.
Rabbi Wittenberg talked about learning to live with ‘aloneness’, which he took from the work of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, whose pithy offerings colour Jews’ Siddurs and prayer books. Penance wasn’t quite the aim; rather, an oneiric state of self-sufficiency, being alone with one’s imaginings and silence. That’s a noble place to be.
Rabbi Wittenberg encouraged us to see this period of lockdown as an opportunity to create a ‘community of heart and values, despite physical places of prayer being out of bounds’, and he did admit to Zoom being useful in that regard. Questions of halachic practice now comprise new interpretations regarding when it’s acceptable for Jews to form a Minyan through Zoom, or for people to say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) without a Minyan being in place. Don’t worry if you’re not Jewish and puzzled by all of this; as a secular Jew, so am I.
Beyond Good and Evil
To my knowledge Jeffrey Myers isn’t a scholar of Friedrich Nietzsche, but another Rabbi who participated in the Limmud programme who is, is Michael Harris.
I was absorbed by his lecture, drawing parallels between certain strains of Jewish Orthodox thought and the work of Nietzsche, particularly when it comes to rejecting Theodicy. There can be no justifying God in the face of evil, nor any divine attempt to explain why for example Covid-19 has been unleashed, let alone why Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and all mass suffering occurred before and since.
What normative principle arises out of human afflictions? From suffering, this strain of thinking suggests, comes human accomplishment. That doesn’t mean any of us invites suffering to take place, it’s not an end we want, but the means surely exists. It’s as inevitable as blue skies or rainy days; they occur in nature.
One could riff on Rousseauian political philosophy and how we’re not born with any evil in our hearts, or perhaps more accurately, any innate desire to cause chaos. This isn’t a philosophical tract. I’m not totally sure I agree with Nietzsche’s take: that the discipline of suffering, of great suffering, is the sole cause of every enhancement in humanity so far. Or perhaps I’m repelled by its logic and don’t want to ponder over it much.
What I do see, however, is how suffering can lead to creativity and heightened spiritual states, even from these weeks of uncertainty, and certainly seventy-five years ago, when we liberated Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.
Suffering has extrinsic, not intrinsic value, Nietzsche argued, and so too did Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, an Orthodox man of great learning. In other words, while both acknowledged suffering can’t be abolished (it exists in nature and God has little, or arguably nothing to do with it), there are duties of the heart and the soul that can be formed as a response to suffering.
Don’t let a good crisis go to waste
‘Don’t waste your passional experiences; utilize them; exploit them, to become the biggest version of yourselves,’ wrote Aharon Liechenstein in ‘The Duties of the Heart and Response to Suffering’ in Leaves of Faith 11.
The point here being, whether you have ideas of Heaven or not, the key thing any of us can do to respond to suffering is to act, not to dream, or turn to anger, but to take concrete and positive action to improve the human condition. My coaching teaching, Stephen Gilligan, reminded us of a man who survived the Holocaust who asked, when confronted with terror and camps and the prospect every day of death, ‘what is life asking from me right now? What can I bring it?‘
I hope this is one lesson we can all learn not just in the midst of this pandemic, but 75 years after Hitler died and 75 short years after (we thought) Nazism did too.