I can’t help but think that as it burns, Notre Dame de Paris is teaching us an important lesson. This fire is surely a tragedy, and I don’t mean to detract from that. But something special is also taking place on social media right now. A wide range of people are expressing the deep impact this structure has had on them in a remarkably unified way. Over and over, I’ve seen people use the word “awe” in reference to their experiences of Notre Dame. From Dan Rather to a pop star I probably should have heard of named Camila Cabello, I’ve seen people from very different perspectives offer strikingly similar responses:
It’s special to see people from such varied backgrounds talk about this universal human experience — especially on Twitter, which seldom affords the earnestness and space to breathe necessary for encounters of awe.
It’s as if this 13th-century church is dramatically letting us know it has something to say to us today. Behold, it tells us. I am a colossal relic of a time when people were less jaded and were more aware of numinous mysteriousness. I am a towering monument to awe, and I am reminding you as loudly as I can that you can apprehend the same radical amazement as the people who toiled for two centuries to construct me.
We must move beyond loose spirituality that is afraid to identify itself with millennia of religious wisdom and religion. Traditional religion has become so stale in the popular consciousness that its essence is remembered only on days when its cathedrals burn. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sun shines today also. Today, Notre Dame de Paris beseeches us to remember that.
When I arrived in Israel last summer to study to become a rabbi, I knew I had arrived in one of the most complex regions of the world, but I was prepared for outrage.
I’m a millennial who grew up in liberal circles in San Francisco, and like many people with my background, I have been convinced for a long time that Israel treats the people of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unfairly.
I believed it was important to hold onto the simplicity of the injustice of the conflict, for the approach of civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis had made a deep impression on me.
In a 2017 podcast, Lewis explained his motivation for risking his life for the civil rights movement in a straightforward, relatable way. After he described segregation in the South, including “whites only” waiting rooms and segregated seating on public transportation, he said plainly that he had “tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and he didn’t like it.” Lewis’ explanation of his motivation seemed to illustrate how moral clarity can propel great historic change.
Soon after I arrived in Israel in July to begin my studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, I saw plenty of obvious examples of the injustices Israel perpetrates against Palestinians.
On one occasion, I watched a televised World Cup game in the community center of Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian village that was slated to be bulldozed by Israeli authorities because it was built without permits that are almost impossible to obtain. (The Israeli government later backed down from its plans, but Khan al-Ahmar’s long-term status remains uncertain.)
Another time, I went with a few classmates to Umm al-Khair, a Palestinian village south of Hebron. As we got off a bus, we saw a curious collection of mangled pieces of corrugated metal and various other debris scattered around the village’s community center. Despite possessing documentation that they bought their land legally decades ago, the villagers found that every time they built permanent structures on their land, Israeli authorities demolished them. We learned from one of the courageous leaders of the village, Awdah al-Hathalean, that we were looking at what was left of bulldozed homes.
And yet during my time in Israel — and particularly through my studies at HUC — I have been struck by how Israeli perspectives can complicate basic narratives about the conflict. By learning more about the history, I have come to better understand the common view held many Israelis that their country is surrounded by hostile neighboring states.
The California Honeydrops don’t usually sing about death. The band plays upbeat blues-ish music featuring happy brass. Their most memorable line is “I liked you better when it was wrong,” and their lyrics are about love, singin’ all day, and pumpkin pie.
When I went to a show of theirs last week, it was therefore interesting to encounter a song about death.
“Cry For Me” is a heavy-on-the-horns New Orleans-blues-informed song about not wanting to be mourned in sadness:
Video by yours truly
As I’ve written before, I’m often struck by the gall people can display to quite literally shake their hips in the face of death. It’s worth marveling at our capacity to look death in its eyes and spread out a picnic blanket or in this case launch into a trumpet solo.
Perhaps my favorite artistic expression of this attitude is Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Freight Train.” With her distinctive acoustic guitar picking style, she sings in her hoarse voice:
In our contemporary American society, singing about death so openly and fearlessly jolts one to attention. From our obsession with keeping bugs out of our houses to our telling our children that they can do anything they want, we remove ourselves from nature and generally seem to operate on the assumption that we will live forever.
I just finished reading the Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann’s spectacular book The Prophetic Imagination. In it, he makes the case for a prophetic (as in the biblical book of The Prophets) outlook on life. This outlook is not only rabble-rousing in the way that social justice liberals tend to read The Prophets. Instead, Brueggemann also argues that a true prophetic outlook means countering the dominant ideology of our society.
Brueggemann writes that the dominant consumer capitalist ideology of selfishness and oppression suppresses any conversation about death. He explains that accepting death “would suggest that we are not in charge, that things will not forever stay the manageable way they are, and that things will not finally all work out.” This sense of things not being okay undermines the dominant way of seeing the world, which wants us to act as though that we are essentially immortal and have nothing existential to worry about.
For Brueggemann, coming to terms with death is part of the larger prophetic project of removing our “numbness.” He argues that facing our own death can open us up to caring about our neighbor’s situation — which can lead to a radical, transformative outlook.
To be clear, Brueggemann doesn’t have hip shaking in mind when he discusses how we should come to terms with death. He describes prophetic “pathos” and the need for mourning. But it still seems like there is a connection to be made between prophetic imagination and the California Honeydrops. When they sang “Cry For Me” last week, it felt like they pierced through the stale ideology that surrounds us. Something radical happens when you riff on your trumpet after singing about your death.
A few years ago, I lived in a poor community in Haiti. One thing that often stood out to me about my friends in Haiti was that they seemed to have a better understanding of the fragility of life than most privileged Americans like myself. The Haitians I got to know saw illness and death more often than people from my background, and some of them regularly experienced hunger. It seemed that because of their understanding of the precariousness of life, they were more open to turning to God than Americans I know. This was apparent in everyday conversation — they would say si bon dieu vle (“if God wills it to be so”) whenever they spoke about the future, and they were eager to learn about my religious background and to discuss God.
I thought back to my Haitian friends a few years ago when I was confronted by a difficult situation in my personal life. When I sought the counsel of a rabbi I trust, he wanted to know if I had asked God for help. I said that I have been praying, but that no, I hadn’t asked God for help. For one I don’t believe in a God who can answer me in human language and I also don’t believe in a God who can intervene in the material world. I asked him what he thought would happen if I asked God for help.
He responded by telling a story from his own life. He was going through a very difficult time and when he was at the end of his rope, he asked for God’s help. Surrendering to the fact that he needed God was a turning point in his life.
Even if we generally don’t believe in a God who can intervene in our material lives, the humble act of admitting how much we can’t control can be hugely relieving. By opening ourselves to how much we are not masters of our own destiny, we can come to the realization that it is not only us who shape our lives. Perhaps this is what the people I knew in Haiti understood. Because of the trials of their lives, they knew to turn to God.
In addition to being psychologically helpful, accepting how much we don’t control seems to be empirically accurate. It is a fact that we don’t determine when we come into the world and when we leave it. It is a fact that many of the trials of life — such as the relatively inconsequential one I was in a few years ago — are out of our control. It is a fact that we are almost powerless when compared to the immensity of the universe.
This leads us to a paradox that I believe creates a tremendous creative energy. Despite the fact that we are puny in the grand scheme of things, our lives and our actions are deeply consequential. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about how our lives have moral significance, whether we want them to or not.
Accepting this paradox is a never ending practice. Soon after I feel powerful, I am reminded of how little I control. When I feel small and meaningless, I am reminded of the huge ethical obligation on me as a human. In the seconds that I am able to hold both of these truths at once, time moves forward and this understanding disappears.
This struggle to understand our place in the universe leads me back to my friends in Haiti. As a privileged American of our generation, I have been largely shielded from the fragility of life. I have experienced death and sickness so much less than the people I knew in Haiti, and I have been told from a young age that I can become whomever I want to be. My time in Haiti reminds me of how little I control, and of the fundamental truth that I am subject to the whims of the universe. Read more
Before I began rabbinical school in Jerusalem this summer, I did something my tradition generally frowns on — I read the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses or the Torah) from cover to cover, without commentary.
At the time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was quoting scripture to justify separating families at the Southern border. This served as a grotesque reminder of why the Jewish tradition generally frowns on reading the Torah alone and without context. There is so much one misses reading the Bible this way — on a what Jews would call the pshat or surface level, in terms of the richness of the text and also in terms of morality.
Still, I had never read the Pentateuch straight through, and I wanted to familiarize myself with the parts of it I knew less about and to get a sense of its sweep. So I dove into my project, unsure of where it would take me.
As I began reading, I stumbled on a tweet that changed the way I thought about the Pentateuch:
While I don’t want to say the Pentateuch is one thing, the perspective offered by Rabbi Regan provides a unified way of understanding the complicated and sometimes confusing narrative from Genesis to Deuteronomy. God and the people Israel are bound up in a changing, fragile and impassioned relationship.
I found it wondrous to read the Bible this way: by reading the Pentateuch, one encounters the changing way people long ago conceived of God. Of course the writers of the Pentateuch thousands of years ago lived in a patriarchal and slave-owning society that was flawed in a myriad of ways — and that is reflected in how these people saw God. But above all else, as the tweet suggests, the Pentateuch tells the story of an ancient step in an ongoing struggle to understand and to be in relationship with God.
The Pentateuch contains many surface-level examples of this struggle between various characters and God: there’s Abraham trying to convince God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Sarah laughing at God, Jacob wrestling with the angel, and Moses pleading with God on behalf of the people Israel. Although the conception of God seems to change within the Pentateuch, God is consistently an entity with whom the characters of the Bible can struggle and grow.
But more importantly, the broad sweep of the Pentateuch tells the story of a relationship between God and the people Israel in which the two parties yearn for a stable and productive relationship, but struggle and have trouble relating to one another.
Heschel makes it clear in his writing that he believes God needs humanity (or “man” in his language) just as much as humanity needs God. “This is the mysterious paradox of Biblical faith: God is pursuing man,” he writes in God In Search of Man. “It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and he had chosen man to serve Him.” In The Prophets Heschel adds to this the idea that God is deeply implicated in humanity’s welfare — Heschel uses the word “pathos” to describe how God cares deeply for humanity.
Heschel’s description of a God who is deeply implicated in human morality and well-being resonates with me deeply. But regardless of whether it describes most contemporary people’s relationship with God, it seems that people in the twenty-first century can connect to this biblical theme of wrestling with God. Many people today experience some kind of spirituality, but aren’t sure how it connects to organized religion or theological belief — and people’s connection to the divine often changes over the course of their lives.
After reading the Pentateuch cover to cover, it seems that for a very long time humans have felt the presence of something bigger than them, something like God, and they’ve struggled to make sense of what exactly that thing is, and what it means for them to be in relationship with it. Read more
In 2015, I took a class on the Enlightenment at American University. For my final project, I spent hours scrolling through the digital archives of the Affiches Américaines, the newspaper that existed in colonial Saint Domingue (Haiti before the revolution). In the Affiches Américaines I clicked through lists of escaped slaves, classified ads for horses, news items from around the world, arrival logs of ships and event listings for the privileged of the island. The newspaper was at once fascinating and horrifying. Classified ads for horses appeared next to a seemingly routine announcement of an escaped mother and her five-year-old.
The writing of a doctor named Charles Arthaud stood out. In addition to a spiteful rivalry he had with another doctor on the island that played out week by week in the newspaper, Arthaud caught my eye because he was very clearly an intellectual. He cited Rousseau, he insisted on using the scientific method and he played a pivotal role in creating the island’s learned society. As I clicked my way through the newspaper and read his other writings, a picture of Arthaud began to form: He was a doctor who moved to the colony from France in the early 1770s. He owned a plantation and slaves near the town of Limbé. His writing was juicy, and very eighteenth-century. Topics include the nasty tropical disease yaws, large phallic monuments the Taino indigenous people had built years before (they were all massacred before Arthaud arrived on the island) and the mystery of the skeletal remains of a group of indigenous people who all had flattened skulls.
Arthaud also wrote beautifully about natural religion and the proclivity of all humans to experience divinity. In explaining why the natives built their phallic monuments, Arthaud’s prose came alive with enthusiasm for natural, and seemingly universalizable, religion (the translation below is mine):
l’homme […] est conduit à l’idée d’une cause supérieure, au sentiment d’un Etre suprême, par la séduction de tout ce qui le frappe et l’étonné, lorsqu’il ouvre les yeux sur la nature et lorsque tous ses sens sont émus par toutes les merveilles qu’elle produit
A higher power guides man to the apprehension of a supreme Being; he is guided by the seduction of everything that strikes him and astonishes him when he opens his eyes in nature, and all his senses are overwhelmed by the marvelous things that nature produces.
And yet at the same time, Arthaud owned, and presumably brutalized, human beings.
At its heart, the Enlightenment — and Arthaud’s thought — embraced empiricism. When Arthaud sought to demonstrate that natives with flattened skills belonged to a different human species (it didn’t occur to him that they were strapping their babies to boards that flattened their heads), he incorrectly and painstakingly applied the scientific method through a medical examination of skulls. When Arthaud criticized Charlevoix, a French Jesuit Priest, who wrote about the laziness and idolatry of ingenuous people, he criticized Charlevoix for not being more empirical.
Arthaud’s affinity for empiricism and science also extended to his views on race. During a brief stint back in France, he was one of many doctors who conducted a “scientific” examination of an African albino. In his pamphlet on yaws, he mentions that the slaves’ black color was caused by a “mucous tissue.” Arthaud took part in the beginnings of the hardened, scientific racism that became pervasive in the nineteenth century and eventually evolved into eugenics.
(I won’t get into some of the other stuff I researched, like Buffon and views on race before Arthaud, but it’s worth noting that Thomas Jefferson also participated during this time in the growth of more “scientific” racism.)
In a research paper I wrote for my class, I tried to wrestle with how someone who was so intellectually curious and who wrote about universal human religion could be so dead wrong about race and could presumably have behaved horribly toward his slaves. Ultimately, as I immersed myself in Arthaud’s writing, I came to the conclusion that his racism and his intellectual greatness came from a similar part of himself, and more importantly, a similar part of his era. Arthaud, this Enlightenment thinker par excellence, believed above all else in his power to reason and his power to apprehend truth. He believed in his logic, and tragically, his logic became, among other things, the horrible logic of racism and white supremacy. This I believe is the ironic flaw at the heart of the Enlightenment, the ironic and tragic flaw we’re still grappling with today. The Enlightenment empowers us to upend our previous ways of thinking and to think for ourselves. Unfortunately when we think for ourselves and when we construct our own morality, we can be so tragically wrong. Read more
Sometimes I have this feeling that is part angst and part inspiration that leads me to want to get a little more out of a given day. I have lived a long and full day, but I want a little more connection, a little more vitality, a little more beauty, before I go to sleep. This happened a few weeks ago, and so I googled Hudson River Valley School paintings and looked through the search results.
After clicking through images of spectacular sunsets, cliffs, waterfalls and arctic explorations, some of them familiar to me, I was struck by a painting I had never seen before. Charles Hill’s “Picnic by the Sea” shows a small group of people calmly picnicking in the bottom right corner of the painting while the rest of the painting shows the ocean loudly crashing into rocks and cliffs right next to them.
The audacity, I thought. These people are calmly going about everyday human recreation as this awesome and raging sea dominates the landscape. I don’t know if I have ever seen a work of art of any type so evocatively capture this fundamental reality of being human. Here we are in this mighty and chaotic universe, and in this small corner of the painting, there are the humans, picnicking.
I often think about how in the American society I grew up in and inhabit, we hide from ourselves the extent to which the universe is out of control, chaotic and more powerful than us. We cloister death outside of what we encounter in our everyday life, and from the clean linoleum floors of our chain restaurants to our engrossing TV shows, worrying about the chaotic nature of the universe would generally come across as…odd.
That night two weeks ago, after I first found a low resolution version of the image, I googled furiously to try to get a better look at the painting. I soon discovered that it isn’t actually a Hudson River Valley school painting — Charles Hill came later, mostly painted the West, and this painting is obscure and only available in high resolution on stock image websites that charge a handsome fee.
But never mind that; two weeks ago as I wanted a little more out of my day, and now as I reflect on this beautiful painting, I am reminded that despite the terror and complexity of the world, sometimes we get it, and we humans have the gall to just spread out our blanket, and picnic.
When I was working as a journalist, I had the privilege of interviewing a Georgetown University scholar who had recently completed a 600-page tome of a book on the history of Jewish art from antiquity to the twenty-first century. More than a year later, I keep thinking back to that interview.
As I mentioned in my eventual Washington Jewish Week article, the scholar told me that his life’s work is to ask questions. He said that when he first read Socrates in college, the endless questioning of the Greek philosopher initially left him feeling dissatisfied. But gradually, as he matured, he learned to accept what he called a “sensibility” of questioning. Now his mission as a teacher and a scholar is to ask questions without seeking definitive answers.
As I listened on the phone, I felt a strong reaction against what the scholar was saying. My gut feeling is that endless questioning amounts to something like an epistemological ponzi scheme; if our goal is to endlessly ask questions, do we ever get anywhere? How do we find meaning when one question simply leads to another, and so on?
When looking into matters like these, the correct response, naturally, is to turn to Heschel. Reading over Heschel’s God In Search of Man, I realized that I am coming up against a distinction Heschel makes between religion and philosophy. “Philosophy,” Heschel writes, “is a kind of thinking that has a beginning and no end. In it, an awareness of the problem outlives all solutions. Its answers are questions in disguise; every new answer giving rise to new questions.”
As the 600-page book the scholar produced demonstrates, this type of inquiry can be useful. By asking again and again “What is Jewish art?” he produced a lot of thought provoking information and analysis.
It seems then that the philosophical approach is useful certainly for philosophy, and also for certain modes of scholarship like this one. But if we use only the philosophical mode of inquiry, I believe we will be fundamentally unsatisfied. And very often, it seems like intellectuals in the secular world are content to keep questioning without ever arriving at answers.
Recently, while reading a New Yorker article on Paul Simon, I stumbled on a description that applies what the scholar called the “sensibility of questioning” to life more generally. In an article on Paul Simon’s most recent album, critic Kelefa Sanneh concluded that in asking questions, Paul Simon “doesn’t sound as if he expects an answer. In fact, he seems to feel that if he keeps asking questions, following his curiosity wherever it leads, he may never have to find out.”
Heschel contrasts philosophy — and this endless questioning — with religion. “Religion,” he writes “is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” For me at least, there is something very appealing in how religion provides answers. But it is important to say from the outset that robust contemporary religion doesn’t provide easy answers. As Heschel writes, “The fundamentalists claim that all ultimate questions have been answered; the logical positivists maintain that all ultimate questions are meaningless.”
So what then are the answers that robust, modernity-embracing religions provide? Read more
In the last minutes of thelast public interview he ever gave, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that people have an inherent need to celebrate.
“Man cannot live such a shallow life,” he said, referring to the crisis of drug addiction. “He needs exultation, he needs moments of celebration.”
In the United States today, it seems that more often than not this latent desire to celebrate surfaces outside of religious contexts: people communally express celebration at sporting events, through alcoholic revelry, at joyous occasions like weddings and by going to concerts.
But when I recently listened to Macklemore’s relatively new hit song“Glorious,” it occurred to me that very often Americans today experience celebration alone with the help of music.
“Glorious” is fundamentally celebratory in both content and form. The beat, piano riff and horns are jubilant. The backup vocals add an uplifting spiritual feel to the song, and the lyrics of the hook speak for themselves:
A few years ago, a friend of mine from college, Andrew Forsthoefel, walked across the country. I had the privilege of being there at the Pacific Ocean when he finished his 5,000-mile journey and jumped into the Pacific Ocean.
Andrew wrote a brilliant book about his experience, Walking to Listen, and although I read the book nearly two years ago, one passage in particular has stuck with me. Andrew writes:
I sat down, my reflection staring back at me [in the mirror], and for a few seconds, before the self-consciousness of my ego scrambled up the purity of the message–Don’t look at yourself in the mirror, you fucking narcissist!–I understood what Archie was saying. It was simple: I was what I was looking for, not someone else, some teacher or lover or friend, some epic epiphany. Not some other version of myself, either. Just me, exactly as I was seeing myself now. There was nothing inside me to fix or get rid of. Nothing to add. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” Whitman wrote.
As I see it, Andrew’s big epiphany in his book is that there would be no epiphany. Instead, he needed to accept himself for what he is.
I believe there is deep wisdom in this. As I’ve grown older, I have come to realize that I won’t undergo some radical transformation that comes with adulthood; instead I strive to accept myself for who I am. I want to linger for a moment on just how important this message of self-acceptance is — I believe it is one of the most important things I have to work on. As I go about my days, I find myself repeating the purest articulation of this idea — which naturally comes from Popeye The Sailor: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”
And yet, particularly in mainstream American culture, this aspiration for self-acceptance can be dangerous. This message of self-acceptance can lead to too much of a focus on the self at the expense of one’s obligation to others. It is easy to think of Americans, particularly affluent ones, who focus on themselves at the expense of what should be there obligation to others. And besides, a singular focus on the self seems to be a recipe for unhappiness.
But on a deeper level, I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s neo-Orthodox belief that sin is an inherent part of human nature. In this view of humanity, there is a problem with becoming our true selves because are true selves are in part fundamentally defective. I am also reminded of one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ insights that I have quoted before; Coates believes that we should look at the horrors of history not as examples of other people doing terrible things, but instead as examples of the horrible things we could do. Together, Niebuhr and Coates could come up with plenty of examples of the horror humans can perpetuate in the name of what they think is right.
And so I think Andrew is absolutely right about the need for self acceptance — but this need for self-acceptance brings up a fundamental paradox (dare I call it Popeye’s paradox?). We should strive to accept ourselves for what we are, but at the same time we should be eternally vigilant about who we are and the injustices we are capable of.