One of our Rabbi’s students had just become engaged. Forgetting himself in his joy, the young man asked the Rabbi about his own marriage.
“My marriage? All I know is that I’m a lucky man.”
“What is a lucky man, Rabbi?”
“A lucky man. He is one who’s resigned himself to the idea that between him and the world stand a thousand walls and perhaps just a single door and, though he isn’t even sure that door exists, yet that’s the very one he stumbles on.”
A journalist came to interview one of the former students of our rabbi. The man was now a rabbi himself with a large congregation and a big family, but in his youth he had been nearly destitute.
“When you came to the rabbi asking to study with him, what did he say to you?”
The man laughed. “I didn’t ask; I begged. And I was dumbfounded by the way he received me.”
“I’d come from far away and arrived at dusk. At first he showed me into the parlor. He asked my name, about my family, the town I’d come from, the things I had observed on the journey. Then he invited me to follow him into the kitchen. His wife was preparing the evening meal. ‘My dear, could you leave us alone for a few minutes?’ he asked her. When she had gone he told me to peel a bunch of carrots that she had left in the sink.”
“It was a long time ago. It could have been parsnips.”
“But why the peeling?”
“Exactly what I asked myself. You understand, I was terrified so I just obeyed. I took up the knife the rabbi’s wife had left on the counter. He stood behind me, looking over my shoulder. I worked slowly and carefully, bewildered but wishing to please the rabbi. During the ten hours on the bus I had been thinking of how the rabbi would examine me on the Talmud, test my Hebrew, or ask me to resolve some baffling ethical dilemma. But all he wanted was that I should peel these carrots—or parsnips. When I had finished the whole bunch, he took up each vegetable and inspected it closely, turning it in his hand. Only then did he say, ‘Very well, you can stay.’”
“What did it mean?”
“I was too relieved to ask. Of course, I admit I was also a little disappointed. An obscure midrash I expected, but not root vegetables. I thought if I were able to distinguish myself a little he might tell me about the carrots, or the parsnips. And this I set myself to do.”
“So you asked later? I mean about the carrots.”
“Or the parsnips. No. For one thing, I didn’t succeed in distinguishing myself. On the contrary, and that, in fact, is how I found out about the vegetables.”
“How was that?”
“In those days the rabbi had a half-dozen of us studying with him. One morning he set us to discussing the meaning of Jacob’s supplanting of Esau. Since I had suspected he would ask about this story, I had prepared myself. I wanted to shine. I longed to surpass the others in his eyes, to show myself more incisive, more subtle. The three who spoke before me stuck to the most conventional interpretations. When it was my turn to speak, I picked the story apart as if with tweezers. I diced the text like a radish and twisted it like a challah. I took up eight interpretations and cited authorities for this or that view of the story. All the while I was anxious about being interrupted, for the rabbi seldom let us go on for very long without posing a question and, when that happened, we were lost. But no, like a runner who leads a race, the way before me remained clear. The longer I spoke the more confident I grew. I must have spoken for half an hour. At last, having exhausted my all my crammed knowledge, I concluded with what I thought was a particularly elegant exegetical flourish.”
“And what about the carrots, or parsnips?”
“I’m coming to them. When I finally fell silent the rabbi politely asked if I were done. ‘Yes,’ I said, expecting praise to rain down on my head. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘can you recall those carrots I asked you to peel the night you arrived?’ As I say, they might have been parsnips.”
“Yes, yes. Carrots or parsnips.”
“So I told him I remembered. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘You peeled them properly. So perhaps you can tell us the most important point in peeling.’ I was still fixed on my speech and didn’t know what to say. ‘Come now,’ he said to me. ‘You know perfectly well what it is.’ I felt my face grow hot. I looked at my feet. There was this terrible silence and then he asked the next student what he made of how Jacob had tricked his brother Esau.”
“I don’t understand.”
“But it’s quite simple and it was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.”
“What was the lesson?”
“First of all, he was teaching me the difference between really knowing and merely showing off; he was making me see that virtuosity is unseemly when it comes to scholarship. And not only that. You see, the important thing about peeling carrots—or parsnips—is knowing when to stop. You have to scrape away everything that’s dirty or inedible and leave all that’s good and nourishing. If you go on because you want people to admire your peeling, then you’ll be left with nothing at all. Neither carrot nor parsnip."
Our rabbi was an athlete in his youth. He played basketball, baseball, volleyball, soccer—anything with a ball and a team. When he took to study, however, his work made him solitary and he soon felt his double loss, of comradeship and exercise. He resolved to find some physical activity he could do on his own but that would lead him into contact with others. This is how our rabbi became an inveterate walker.
On one Sunday, Professor Teitelbaum, who taught philosophy at the university and specialized in German Idealism, was surprised to see our rabbi seated alone on a bench across from Aeropostale and Williams Sonoma. When Teitelbaum’s daughter Leah was young he and his wife used to attend services dutifully and they sent her to Hebrew school. Now that the girl was in high school, the Teitelbaums came just on High Holy days. They still came because when he was a little boy Teitelblaum’s mother had said to him, “If we don’t go, the Goyim won’t respect us.” Nothing else his mother said to him had left so deep an impression.
“Teitelbaum?” said the rabbi.
The professor was surprised to see the rabbi and embarrassed that he had not been to services for months. He decided to be disarming. “Oh, Rabbi. It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.” He hoped the use of the plural pronoun would make it appear that the responsibility was mutual. “So, what brings you to the mall?” he added quickly.
The rabbi extended his hand. “It’s nice to see you, Teitelbaum. Everyone well? Your lovely wife and charming daughter?”
Teitelbaum relaxed and sat down next to the rabbi. “They’re fine. Leah was elected president of the Honor Society. We’re pretty sure she’ll make valedictorian. She’s going to be in a ballet recital next week. A scene from Coppelia. Just now we’re waiting for the scores on her SATs and the APs.”
“That’s good, Teitelbaum. Nice you should be proud of your daughter.”
The professor smiled complacently. “So, Rabbi, what brings you to the mall?”
“Two itches. One in my legs and another to learn.”
By now all the professor’s embarrassment had evaporated. He had been right to put his absences on the table right away. He chuckled to himself. Itchiness. He thought the rabbi quaintly old-world with, for example, his habit of addressing all men by their surnames. Americans use first names or titles. A lot of people called him “professor,” with a mixture of respect and irony. Who walks to a mall? Who comes there to learn?
“Then you’re not shopping, Rabbi, only taking some exercise?”
“So much I needed to sit down.”
“But it’s such a lovely day. Why stay indoors? Why the mall?”
“You’re an expert on philosophy. Wasn’t Socrates once asked a similar question?”
Teitelbaum searched his memory and came up blank. What could this man know of Socrates that he didn’t? “You got me, Rabbi.”
“Oh. Well, it seems he once fell deep in conversation with one of those young idlers who attached themselves to him. Phaedrus, I think. Anyway, it seems the pair wandered away from the marketplace and soon found themselves in the suburbs. Socrates looked around and pronounced himself lost. The young man was astounded that a man three times his age who’d spent his entire life in Athens could become lost scarcely half a mile from the center of the city. . . . But you’re humoring me, Teitelbaum. Surely you know the story?”
Teitelbaum shook his head. Was he being teased?
“Well, Socrates explained to the boy that rocks and trees taught him nothing while people in the marketplace taught him a great deal. So, isn’t this our agora?”
Teitelbaum felt obscurely that he had been insulted. But he quickly decided he was not. And then he thought it odd that the rabbi should know something about Socrates that he didn’t.
“Isn’t Plato a little out of your line?” he asked.
“Oh, Socrates was a very great rabbi, no matter how Plato tries to make use of him.”
“Really? And may I ask what you learn from Socrates, Rabbi?”
“To avoid a rabbi’s worst temptation.”
“And that is?”
“To give the conclusions without first giving the arguments.”
Teitelbaum, who prided himself on his lectures, who relished speaking in auditoriums full of students whom he didn’t know but would grade, was again vaguely troubled by what the rabbi said. He quickly excused himself and headed for Macy’s.
Our Rabbi, out for one of his walks, ducked into a used furniture store. There he found Leibowitz, the owner, arguing with a man the rabbi had not met.
“Hello, Rabbi,” said Leibowitz, looking irritated. “I’m a little busy at the moment.”
“This your rabbi?” said the other man. “Well, Rabbi, this no-good here cheated me. He sold me a chest with a cracked back. He concealed it, put paste over it so I wouldn’t notice.”
Leibowitz could hardly contain himself. “Don’t listen to him, Rabbi. He’s the one who cheated. We agreed on a price of a hundred and fifty dollars for that perfectly fine chest but after he’d hauled it away I counted out the money and there was only a hundred and twenty.”
“You, sir,” said the rabbi, pointing to the buyer. “May I ask your name?”
“Well, Mr. Borden, before you agreed to buy this chest, did you check it all over, front and back?”
“Because this crook assured me it was sound and, like an idiot, I took his word for it.”
The rabbi nodded. “Now, Leibowitz,” he said sharply. “I know you’re a good businessman. Why didn’t you count Borden’s money out before you let him take away the chest?”
“Why? Rabbi, even a businessman needs some trust. I took this thief for an honest man. We’ve done business before.” He turned to Borden. “A dining room table, genuine mahogany, plus six chairs. Remember, Borden? I gave you a terrific price. You were beside yourself with joy. So, Rabbi, when he handed me a wad of cash and said it was a hundred and fifty I believed him. I know, I know. I was an imbecile to trust him.”
The Rabbi looked from one to the other. “Would you be content let me settle the matter, Leibowitz?”
“Pfft! Why not?”
“Good. In that case, the matter’s clear. The transaction is fair. Borden, you keep Leibowitz’s chest of drawers and Leibowitz you keep Borden’s money. What this proves is how easily a person can be in the right and also in the wrong. Each of you has wronged the other and the two of you have already been punished for your sharp practices, punished by yourselves.”
“How’s that?” Borden demanded.
Leibowitz growled, “What do you mean punished?”
“You’ve both forfeited heavy fines.”
“Fine?” asked Leibowitz.
“What fine?” said Borden.
“Think it through,” the rabbi said with distaste.
“But, Rabbi, what’s the fine?” insisted Leibowitz.
“Haven’t you both already gone around telling everybody how you were cheated?”
“Well, naturally, Rabbi,” said Leibowitz. “I owe it to my colleagues.”
“It’s my duty to warn other customers,” said Borden.
“And those are your fines.”
With that the rabbi walked out of the shop.
Schumsky, a fifty-year-old insurance salesman, was unable to bear his wife’s death. The couple had been childless. Though made of only two strings, their life was a Gordian knot. Now that it had been cut, he was a loose end. He became withdrawn and bitter. Friends shied away from him, but one made Schumsky promise to visit our rabbi. He came on a Sunday morning.
“I’m glad to see you, Schumsky,” said the rabbi. “It’s a fine day. As a matter of fact, I was just about to go for a walk. Care to join me?”
“If you like,” Schumsky replied in the churlish tone he had adopted in the company of anybody who dared to appear happy.
All the way to the park the rabbi eulogized Schumsky’s wife, a charitable woman, a frequent volunteer involved in all sorts of good works. He observed that she was intelligent yet not a gossip. “That’s rare, you know,” he said. “Yes, your wife was an excellent person in every way, and so generous. She cared for others so much that I can hardly imagine how much she cared for you.”
All this praise for his wife only made Schumsky feel worse. The rabbi’s thoughtlessness astonished Schumsky. He held his tongue with difficulty and only out of respect.
When they arrived at the park the rabbi wound up his panegyric by saying, “I’m very sorry for you, Schumsky.”
No one enjoys pity that is so personal; it is too close to contempt. This was too much for Schumsky who answered resentfully. “Most people,” he said, “tell me they’re sorry that my wife’s passed away.”
The rabbi ignored this and made for a stand of birches.
“There’s something I’ve been trying to remember all morning. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Tell me, Schumsky, do you happen to know the chemical formula for table salt?”
“Yes. Didn’t you learn it in school?”
“Sodium chloride,” Schumsky snapped.
“That’s it! Thank you. Nothing’s so irritating as when something’s stuck on the tip of your tongue. By the way, have you ever made table salt?”
Thoughtlessness, pity, and now, irrelevance. “Of course I haven’t made salt, Rabbi. Who makes salt?”
“And yet you know the formula. So then, I suppose knowing a formula really doesn’t count for much all that much, does it?”
Schumsky suddenly realized that the rabbi was speaking of those who had offered him their condolences in clichés and this made him even more irritated.
“People tell me you’ve become morose, Schumsky.”
“That’s what they’re saying about me?”
“Only those who care for you would say so, you know; I mean those who want you to be part of their lives. Others, no doubt, wouldn’t mind if you became a hermit out of grief.”
Schumsky repeated this last phrase bitterly, though it also appealed to him. “A hermit out of grief.”
“People do that, you know. They pull into themselves and wither away. It’s a pity but, I think, still more, it’s a shame.”
“Why a shame above all?”
“Look at that child on the swing over there. You see her? Suppose you had a child, Schumsky, a lovely little girl like that. Would you stop feeding her and caring for her because you lost your wife? Would you refuse to play with the child because her mother died?”
Schumsky felt himself becoming furious. It was terrible of the rabbi to throw his childlessness in his face on top of his grief. There seemed no end to his callousness. “Of course not!” he replied heatedly. “The child would need me all the more.”
“And why is that, Schumsky?”
“Obviously because she no longer had a mother. Why are you playing the fool?”
The rabbi ignored Schumsky’s reproof. He stopped and put a finger to his chin. “I see,” he said pensively. “Then you would care for the little girl all the more to make up for the care she no longer received from your wife?”
“What do you think?” cried the mourner.
“Well then, Schumsky, is it any different with the poor world? Isn’t it shameful to deny it our care, no matter how little we can do for it, now that it has been deprived of your wife’s?”
A few weeks later Schumsky came a second time to see our rabbi. It was on a Tuesday night, after dinner. This time he was in a different frame of mind. The rabbi greeted him warmly and invited him into his study.
“Rabbi, you were right. I mean that it’s wrong to give up on the world. I’m making an effort to see my friends more. Also, I volunteered to tutor at the local elementary school, just as my wife used to do. I read books with the children.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“But I’m sleeping badly and I can’t stop thinking. I can’t accept that God would take Sarah away. Tell me, what’s the secret of your faith? It must be a great comfort.”
The rabbi raised his eyebrows. “Faith? I have no faith.”
“What? No faith! But, Rabbi, what can you mean? After all you’re a rabbi. Are you telling me you don’t believe?”
“Believe what, Schumsky?”
“Well, in God, of course, in the judgment, in the Torah.”
“Did I say I didn’t believe?”
“But isn’t faith believing? Isn’t believing your—well, your business?”
“Tell me, Schumsky, you sell insurance.”
“In that case, faith is your business, not mine.”
“I don’t follow.”
“And yet it’s quite simple. Suppose everyone who bought a policy from you died a week later. What would become of your company?”
“But that’s impossible.”
“Excuse me, Rabbi. Apparently you don’t understand the way insurance works. You see, we have these actuarial tables. These tell us how many out of a large group of people will die at fifty, at sixty, and so on. We know the probabilities.”
“Pardon my ignorance, Schumsky. What does it mean ‘to know the probabilities’?”
Schumsky made ready to talk shop but the rabbi forestalled him.
“Doesn’t it mean to gamble on something you don’t know for sure? Isn’t that just what card players do?”
“I suppose. But our charts are infallible.”
“Infallible? That means you haven’t any doubts. In that case you really must have faith every time you write out a life insurance policy. In fact, Schumsky, your whole business depends on faith.”
Schumsky was shocked. “Are you saying you have doubts?”
“About things I don’t know for sure? Certainly. If I believed everything then there would be no need to study, to inquire. If faith were certainty then it would indeed be a comfort.”
“But what about my wife’s death? Why did God take her?”
“Schumsky, if I were to tell you I knew what I don’t know and can’t know, that there is some grand cosmic significance to your wife’s death, that it is part of a benign plan, that I’m sure it was for the best and fulfilled some divine actuarial necessity—if I told you that, Schumsky, would you really be comforted?”
Brenda was a precocious seven year old, with a curiosity stoked by years of parental quizzing and meticulously programmed “learning experiences.” The consequence was that she asked questions in the hope of putting adults on the spot rather than because she really wished to learn anything.
One Saturday morning after the Sabbath service, while her parents were talking to some friends, Brenda marched up to our rabbi.
“Rabbi, may I ask you something?” she said with cultivated sweetness, careful to say may and not can.
“I’ve been wondering where God lives. My dad says he doesn’t live here, in the synagogue. He says that we just invite Him in. Mom says God lives in Heaven, but where’s that?” She pointed toward the ceiling. “Up there’s just space. We learned that in school. So I thought you’d probably know. Where does God live?”
The rabbi directed Brenda to a pair of chairs in the corner and asked her to sit. Settling himself opposite her, he looked at her solemnly.
“Let’s see. God’s address. That’s a difficult matter, Brenda.”
The girl was elated. When adults began like that it always meant that they didn’t know the answer. “Then you can’t tell me?”
“You really want to know where God lives?”
“Yes, please,” insisted Brenda, delighted by the rabbi’s stalling.
“And you think I know?”
“You must know. I mean, you’re the rabbi.”
“I see. And where do you think God lives, Brenda?”
Another question! “I don’t know,” said Brenda petulantly, though the truth was she had always pictured a big mansion in the clouds, something like the giant’s castle in Jack and the Beanstalk. “I already said I didn’t know.”
The rabbi looked at her calmly. “And what will you give me if I tell you where God lives?”
The conversation was not going at all the way Brenda intended. Still, this was a kind of bargaining with which she was familiar. She knew perfectly well what old people wanted from her.
“I’ll give you a kiss.”
“I see,” said the rabbi slowly. “So, if I tell you where God lives you’ll give me one kiss, right?”
“Yes,” she said doubtfully.
“It’s a tempting offer.” He nodded, then brightened. “I’ll tell you what! If you can tell me where God doesn’t live, I’ll give you two kisses!”
The rabbi had been surprised when his wife came to tell him Helen Dimant had come to see him. “She’s been humbled, that one. It scares her.”
The rabbi went to his study, where Helen was waiting, sitting with her knees tight together, a clenched fist.
“Rabbi, I can’t tell them. I won’t. You have to promise me you won’t either.”
“I don’t imagine it’s because you’re afraid of them, is it?”
“Afraid of them? Oh, they never get mad at me. I only disappoint them.” She offered up a faint smile. “You know them. I almost think they’re capable of turning it into another achievement, another trophy for the mantel. Sometimes I think it might not be so bad, disappointing them I mean.”
“You’re being spiteful. Don’t.”
Helen Dimant, for whom nothing had ever gone seriously wrong before, was emotionally wobbly, not only spiteful but by turns defiant, dismissive, and hysterical. The rabbi understood that she resented her decision to bring her problem to him and that she was challenging him to persuade her she hadn’t made a mistake. “I know,” she said. “I don’t even really have any idea what I’m doing here,” she said
“Well then, what are you doing here?” he asked with an insistence that was also gentle.
She made an exasperated, teenaged noise and suddenly sprawled in the big armchair. “What is it with you? Do you always answer a question with another question? Is it some trick you like learned in rabbi school or what?”
“When you’re ignorant you don’t need lessons in asking questions.”
“Oh, that’s profound! All right, what I want is for you to tell me how to get out of this mess. I mean I know how to get out of it but I need, well, I need to be good.”
The rabbi rubbed his palms on the desk. “Why do you say need, if you’ll excuse another question. Don’t you mean that you want to be good?”
“Want, need—what’s the difference?”
The rabbi picked up the glasses lying on his desk. “Last month I bought these reading glasses. I needed them. I didn’t want them.”
Helen rolled her eyes. “I’m not some stupid slut, you know. I’m valedictorian!”
The rabbi let that desperate boast sit in the air for a moment then folded his hands together. “There are these two leaves on a tree. It’s October but they’re still green. As they watch, a third leaf tumbles to the ground. One of the leaves turns to the other and says, ‘Look at that miserable leaf. All brown and wrinkled up. Ugh. That’s never going to happen to me.’”
“Spare me the parable, Rabbi. It already did happen to me. You think I don’t know that? What I want is some clear answers.”
“Okay. Why does God insist that people get married before they have sex?”
“Nature doesn’t care how the world gets populated. I don’t see that God does either.”
“We’re told God made Adam and then Eve. So far as I can see he left it to them to work out the details.”
“What about the Torah?”
“It has a lot of rules. Over six hundred of them.”
“Well, I violated the rules. I got myself knocked-up.”
“You want to evade that?”
“Evade it? Excuse me, but it’s too late for that.”
“Remember your Shakespeare? Hamlet and Lear and Othello are caught in their tragedies. No matter what they do, they’re ensnared. Why should we suppose we aren’t like them. . . even, if you’ll excuse me, the stupid sluts?”
“So I’m supposed to just accept it?”
“I’m very sorry to tell you it makes no difference whether you accept it or not.” The rabbi got to his feet. “Would you pardon me for just a minute?”
“I’ll be right back. Promise.”
He closed the study door behind him and went to the kitchen. Before his wife could ask anything he said:
“Quick. Have we got any oranges?”
She looked at him, puzzled. “Yes?”
“Good. Cut one up and give me the seeds. The pips. I’ll be right back.” Then he dashed out into the yard.
Moments later he was back in his study.
“Helen, can we agree to leave God out of it and just consider what’s best for all the people involved?”
“A funny thing for a rabbi to say.”
“Maybe I’m a funny rabbi. Just the people, then?”
“All of them?”
“Do you think the embryo inside you is a person?”
“That’s what I argued against in forensics last month. I don’t know if I really believe it.”
The rabbi laid four pips on the desk. “Can you squeeze any juice from these orange seeds?”
“Of course not.”
“Can you sit in the shade of this acorn?”
The girl began to cry. “But the oak’s in the acorn. I mean the acorn could become an oak.”
“You’re right, Helen. That it can become an oak is the most important thing about an acorn. We give up many futures every day, child. That’s often tragic, but it’s not unusual. It’s human enough. What is not human, what is not forgivable, is that we shouldn’t regret them.
To his distress, our rabbi was asked to participate in a university symposium. The Provost’s invitation said he would be on a panel discussing a question of doctrine before an audience. It was to be the first in a series jointly sponsored by the Religious Studies and Philosophy departments. The rabbi would have liked to decline but his wife wouldn’t hear of it.
“But, my dear, don’t you understand? I’m supposed to discuss doctrine in front of an audience and at the university. Am I an expert that I should sit on such a panel?”
His wife considered him silently before delivering one of her crisp non-sequiturs. “And how many students did Akiba have?”
“Akiba ended badly,” grumbled the rabbi.
She pointed a correcting finger at him. “Not badly. Nobly.”
The subject was idol-worship. The first expert, both a rabbi and an historian, read a prepared text. Erudite and comprehensive, he began with the Islamic tale of the child Abraham taking a hammer to the statues in his father Terah’s idol shop, then proceeded to the disgrace of the Golden Calf, through the Hellenic conversions and the Maccabees’ resistance, and wound up with sledge-wielding Protestants shattering the images of saints and martyrs.
A seminary scholar expounded next, for about twenty minutes. He began by concurring with the former speaker’s implication that idol-worship is a form of polytheism. However, he wished to stress the broader significance of idol-worship, what he called “its figurative and limitless meaning.” Money, he observed, could be an idol, or the state, heroes and even automobiles. Popularity was often an idol, indeed all the varieties of vanity. In sum, it was his view that the definitive gesture of idol-worship was the elevating of worldly goods above spiritual ones.
The third speaker was a professor from the philosophy department, a clever man who relished paradoxes. He acknowledged the contributions of his colleagues, albeit in a patronizing tone. With a donnish irony that evoked chuckles from his claque of knowing students, he said he wished only to append a few tiny insights of his own. This took more than half an hour.
One must, he said, begin by admitting that the prohibition against idol-worship is purely negative. We are told what not to worship: whatever can be touched or smelled or even understood. That is to say, the true God is unknowable; to the Hebrews even His name must never be spoken or written down. The very first commandment is the one against idolatry, not because it is the easiest to follow but precisely because it is the most difficult. All the other proscriptions—against stealing, murder, covetousness, adultery—these are merely the behaviors of people engaged in idol-worship. With a twinkling eye, the professor observed that the surest way to fulfill the first commandment might be to take care to worship nothing at all. And yet even atheists can be guilty of idol-worship. They often bow down before their own faithlessness and, still more, the reasoning that brought them to it. At last, with a smile at his fellow panelists, the professor speculated that one of the subtlest ways to err with respect to the commandment against idolatry would be to make an idol of the one true God Himself. Then he sat down, manifestly satisfied with his performance.
Applause and grumbles of displeasure rose from the audience. This was a mixed group. There were men with beards in black fedoras and the pallor of Talmudists, women in long dresses with covered heads, men in white caps, women in veils, students in blue jeans, academics with trimmed beards, priests in cassocks and habited nuns. Our rabbi recognized a few of us from his own congregation. As he looked over the crowd he realized that what unified them was not their faith, no common belief, intellectual curiosity or spiritual yearning. No, the one thing they all had in common was the certainty that they themselves were innocent of idol-worship.
After he was introduced our rabbi did not stand at the podium as the others had done. He remained seated at the long table with the water carafes and the name cards.
“I’m very sorry,” he began. “I have to apologize for not preparing as my colleagues have done and done so well. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t think of anything to say. You see, I know hardly anything about idol-worship, except that it’s not a good thing and, of course, what we’ve all learned tonight from these scholars. All I feel able to do is to ask a few questions. Perhaps if I put these to my fellow panelists, I may yet learn a little better what idol-worship is.”
The rabbi looked down the table to the first speaker.
“Rabbi, didn’t you say that idol-worship is forbidden because it’s a kind of polytheism, or at least closely linked to it?”
“But what if someone worships only a single idol?”
The rabbi-historian smiled with amusement. “Historically speaking, that has never happened.”
“Never? Excuse me, but I’m surprised you can be so sure. However, what I should like to know is whether it’s possible to worship a single idol.”
“I suppose. What of it?”
“Well then, wouldn’t such an idol-worshiper be a monotheist? Couldn’t he even have his own version of the Sh’ma?”
There was a commotion in the audience.
“That’s an outrageous proposition,” said the first speaker with a politeness not meant to conceal his displeasure.
“Why!” interrupted the indignant second speaker. “Because the Sh’ma is the Jewish people’s deepest acknowledgment of the one true God. An idolater is a pagan and to compare his superstition to the faith in the Most High is a great deal worse than odd—Rabbi.”
“Pardon me. But to our hypothetical idol-worshiper pronouncing his idolatrous Sh’ma, wouldn’t the god he worships be both one and true? Isn’t that so?”
Here the urbane professor intervened. “This is really just a quibble, though,” he allowed, “a not uninteresting one. The question presumably is whether idolatry lies in the object of worship or, so to speak, the attitude of the worshiper.”
“Ah,” said the rabbi, “thank you, Professor. That is well put. Would you give us the pleasure of hearing your answer to your own question?”
The professor leaned forward. “Certainly. It’s simple enough. Obviously it can’t, as you’ve implied, be the worshiper’s attitude, by which I mean the intensity or sincerity of his belief, that makes him an idolater, but the object to which his faith is directed.” Here he smiled slyly. “As I’m sure you’ll recall, Rabbi, the priests of Ba’al could not bring down fire from heaven while Elijah could.”
“I see. The proof’s in the pudding. But why then did you suggest that one may fall into error by making the one true God into an idol Himself?”
The professor hesitated for a moment. “I merely meant that one can imagine a case where the worshiper turns his faith into a superstition, such as when people pray to God to hit the lottery or that their team should win a football game.”
The rabbi was silent for a few moments, giving everyone time to see how a clever man can be too clever.
“Rabbi,” he said next, addressing the second speaker, “when does the Sabbath begin?”
“Shabat? What’s that got to do with idol-worship?”
“Perhaps nothing. But please, when does it begin?”
“At sundown on Friday, as everyone knows.”
“Yes, that we all know. But how do we know Friday is Friday? After all, calendars have often been corrected. One or two errors in almost six thousand years are hardly inconceivable.”
“No, there have been no such errors or corrections. And if there were, it would be terrible.”
“What would be so terrible?”
“Because if what you are perversely suggesting were true, then we have not been fulfilling the Law.”
“Yes, that’s possible, I suppose. But what does ‘Friday’ mean other than the day we all agree to call Friday—that is, the day on which Shabat begins? God lives in eternity. Do you suppose He really cares when we kindle the lights?”
“Have you forgotten that God participates in history?” declared the first speaker.
“A good point,” said the rabbi. “But then how do we know when on Friday the Sabbath begins?”
The others were silent.
Our rabbi looked toward the ceiling of the hall. “I remember an old sage says somewhere that to discover when Shabat begins a Jew should borrow a length of white thread from his wife, take it outside, face west, and hold the thread stretched before his eyes. When he can no longer see it, that’s when Shabat begins.”
“Very amusing, Rabbi,” laughed the professor. “But doesn’t that depend on how good your Jew’s eyesight is, not to mention the thickness of his wife’s thread? We wouldn’t all see the thread vanish at the same time.”
“Why does that matter?”
The second speaker interrupted angrily. “Why does it matter? What if every Jew began to decide for himself when Shabat begins? It’s no trivial matter. The Law must be fulfilled, carried out to the last letter.”
At this our rabbi fell back in his seat. “Gentlemen, thank you. I’m in your debt. Now I know better what idol-worship is.”
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, "Life in the Temperate Zone" and "The Decline of Our Neighborhood", a book of essays, "Professors at Play", and the novel "Zublinka Among Women", winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.
His work in Offcourse: "The Story", in #41, "Inter Scoti et Scuti" in #39, "Ostbrück" in #35 and "The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik " in #34.