On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Archive for September, 2015

Out of the Depths

What I will most remember about the recent multireligious gathering with Pope Francis at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is the hush that awaited and greeted him. I don’t remember anyone giving a direction for silence. Certainly no one signaled the few who applauded when the Pope entered the room that applause at that moment, in that place, for that man, was not appropriate. The audience of clergy and laity representing the many religions of New York City had been sitting patiently for 10 to 15 minutes after milling around for more than an hour. The speakers had gone to their seats on stage; the government dignitaries had quietly taken their assigned places. We awaited the Pope in the room at the very lowest level of the museum, ground zero of Ground Zero as it were, and, finally, his entourage too made its way to the podium, exactly on schedule—and in total silence.

There were many words spoken in the next few minutes, of course. The carefully choreographed procession began with Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s welcome on behalf of New York City’s religious leaders who, he said, worked well together on fostering partnership and dialogue. Next came representatives of Judaism and Islam (Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove (RS ’99) and Imam Khalid Latif, respectively) and then Francis himself. The man of the hour spoke totally without fanfare, somberly and solemnly, clearly not interested in demonstrating rhetorical power or any other kind of power, for that matter, but only in summoning something from the depths of the place and the depths of those listening to him, that would at once remember, witness, and heal. “O God of love, compassion and healing. . .We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here. . .We ask you, in your compassion, to bring healing to those who, because of their presence here 14 years ago, continue to suffer from injuries and illness. . .God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world. . .Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope. . .”

The Pope had apparently asked that this “witness to peace” be held at Ground Zero. I wondered if Psalm 130 was on his mind as he did so. “From the depths I call on you, Lord. Hear my voice. Let your ears be opened to the sounds of my pleading.” The words of the psalm rang in my ears as he spoke, as did—less than 48 hours since Yom Kippur—the Al Chet prayers “For the sin that we committed before you by doing X, and for the sin that we committed before you by not doing Y. . . For all these, Lord, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” So much responsibility could be apportioned among the political and religious leaders gathered in the room, I reflected, both for things said and done, wittingly or unwittingly, that gave sanction to intolerance or violence, and for things left unsaid or undone.

The man in white at the podium did not once raise his voice in anger, or chide the dignitaries arrayed in the first few rows for not accomplishing more in the way of justice and mercy, or give the slightest hint of judgment, either in his own name or in the name of God. I wondered if he had decided to speak his prayer in halting English, rather than in his native Spanish, in order to take on the weakness of the immigrant and of everyone else who lacks verbal facility—including the dead who, as the Bible says, must dwell forever in silence. The very last thing the pope wanted to do, it seemed, was shout. My guess was that he believes God too is not a shouter. I recalled the passage in I Kings (19:11-13) when God is revealed to the prophet Elijah. There is first a wind that seems to tear the very mountain apart, and God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, and the Lord is not there either. The same holds true of the fire. Finally there is a “sound of thin silence.”When Elijah heard it, he covered his face. That is where God can be found.

The other moment of the day that I shall not soon forget had a similar quality. Following a second series of meditations on peace by representatives of the world’s religions, and immediately before the Pope’s second address—this one on the subject of peace, and given in Spanish, no less quietly or solemnly than the first—Cantor Azi Schwartz sang a beautiful, haunting El Male Rahamimin Hebrew, followed by a rhythmic Oseh Shalom Bimromav in which the Jews in the audience joined. This is a pope who clearly wants to reach out in friendship to all the world’s religions, as Second Vatican Council did 50 years ago in the Nostra Aetate declaration. He has extended an especially warm hand to Jews. The quotation from Francis about dialogue that appears on the inside cover of the booklet that was distributed during the occasion is taken from the book he wrote with his friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka. The Pope’s picture on the fifth page shows him from behind, his arm around the shoulder of a man wearing a kippah. And here was our friend Azi, slowly and deliberately asking God’s mercy for the 9/11 victims, calling their martyrdom a sanctification of God’s name, and then implicitly inviting the many Jews scattered throughout the room, as Jews are scattered throughout the world, to sing along as he introduced the Pope with a prayer—our prayer—for peace. Cardinal Dolan seemed to sing along.

“That was a moment,” I said to the Jewish woman next to me. I ascended to ground level a few moments later, chatting with a Catholic prelate from Massachusetts about what the gathering meant to him. He was proud of Francis, for good reason. “People are coming back to church because of this pope,” he said. “I’m glad,” I replied. So much violence on TV and on the streets. So much poverty and despair. So many problems not addressed, let alone solved. So much avoidance of those problems, and of people (or peoples) who see the world differently from ourselves. And so much speech, whether by politicians or talk show hosts or on the street, that cheapens and degrades us, making it harder and harder to be raised up from the depths toward hope as Pope Francis did during his speech.

If the representatives of the world’s religions who live here in New York City cannot manage dialogue and partnership, I doubt it can be achieved anywhere on earth—which is why we New Yorkers must achieve it here. I agree with Cardinal Dolan on that point wholeheartedly. And if Jews cannot lead the way on the effort of caring for the planet and for humanity at a moment when we have unparalleled visibility, resources, and influence, and have a good friend in the Vatican to boot, when can we take the lead? When will we? The onset of 5776 is an ideal time to start.

‘Who’s God?’

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My observance of Yom Kippur this year was greatly enriched by a recent New Yorker cartoon by Harry Bliss that provided useful entrée to the serious matters that occupied Jews for the long day of fasting and prayer.

It takes a minute to get the “God” joke: part of its appeal—“Who’s God?”—has never been an easy question for Jews to answer. Indeed, according to some Jewish thinkers, the question—as posed by theologians—is not even the right one to ask.

Today I shared my thoughts with the Huffington Post on which questions (and answers) we might consider—together.

Please join the conversation.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

Forty years ago this fall, I moved into an apartment in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem and began participating in a program called Mishmar Ezrachi, or civil guard. The officials in charge instructed us on what to do if we sighted suspicious activity and trained us in the use of the old M-1 rifles with which we were supplied each time we went on patrol. My partner for guard duty was my upstairs neighbor Lilian, who was not only an excellent conversationalist but contributed the use of her bright red Volvo for some of our late-night tours of the neighborhood. It felt good to be working for the larger good of Israel so soon after my arrival and barely two years after the Yom Kippur War—though I confess I was unsure just how much of a difference our efforts actually made. I experienced great relief when each patrol passed uneventfully: the Volvo parked once more at the curb, the rifle safely stored, and the city’s slumber remaining undisturbed.

I know I am not the only one for whom a good night’s sleep does not come easily in 2015: not in Israel and not in America, not for Jews and not for others who care about the state of the world as we approach another Rosh Hashanah. The day is described by our liturgy—in the passage immediately following the blowing of the shofar—as the “the world’s birthday, the day when all its creatures are called to judgment.” This year, the call that I hear, the response for which we will be judged, has to do with stewardship of God’s creation.

Pope Francis invoked this theme eloquently in his recent encyclical on the threat climate change poses to global well-being. The power of his message, I think, lies in its call for dramatic change in the broad set of attitudes and behaviors that have led to the current crisis, and his confidence that such transformation is not only necessary but possible. The encyclical reads at many points like a commentary on the High Holidays call for thorough going teshuvah, in order that we—the “we” enlarged in this case to include “all creatures” and the planet we share—may continue to be written in the book of life. I want to dwell on four aspects of that call.

First, and most important, there is the need to discard belief that the world is ours to do with as we please, as if by right. Jewish morning prayers begin daily with thanks for a body and soul that are on loan and must not be abused; the Torah begins with creation stories that remind us, as Pope Francis put it, “that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air, and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” We owe the earth—and God—responsible stewardship of the gifts entrusted to us. Failure to provide it amounts to a sin “before God” for which the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to account.

Second, there is the insistence that we cannot separate care for the planet from care for the human beings who populate it. We’ve all met or heard about individuals who are great animal-lovers but are undisturbed by poverty and injustice. It is not uncommon to encounter people who defend the earth against despoilment but will not raise their voices to protest the degradation of human life. The Rabbis made it a rule long ago that Jews cannot ask for forgiveness from God if we have not sought—and won it from our fellow human beings. Our turn away from exploitation of the earth, if it is to be decisive and long-lasting, must be accompanied by a parallel turn away from exploitation of other human beings.

Third, our responsibilities also extend to future generations. The Jewish calendar decrees that, immediately before Rosh Hashanah each year, Jews read the Torah portion in which Moses declares that the covenant binding God and Israel is made “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with you this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13–14). I find great personal meaning in these words. They assure me that the covenant includes me as much as it had included my ancestors and will include my descendants. I am part of a larger story; I walk a path that began long before I arrived in the world and will continue long after I am gone. And with that gift, too, comes responsibility: the need to apportion the earth’s resources wisely and justly among all who share it with us now and with those who will come after us.

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