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Shame – Yom Kippur

October 08, 2011

I love ‘Keeping the Faith.’ That is a true statement, and it is also the title of a movie directed by Edward Norton, starring Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman and Norton. It’s about three people who became friends in the eighth grade in New York City. As the years progress, Stiller and Norton become best friends: Stiller as Rabbi Jacob Schram, and Norton as Father Brian Finn, referred to in the movie as ‘The God Squad.’ Elfman moved west at the end of the eighth grade, and after a twenty year absence returns to live and work in Manhattan. Schram and Finn pick her up at the airport, and the reunion is joyful. She is fascinated by their chosen ‘callings’ and, as Anna Reilly, she infatuates both of them. Their good-natured rivalry for her attention is compounded by the reality that the rabbi’s interest in her is mitigated by the fact that she is not Jewish, while the priest is constrained by his celibacy. Synagogue politics as well as Finn’s struggle with his commitment to the priesthood are also part of the story-line.

Anna Reilly is the fulcrum around which the theme of the movie revolves, and so the moment arrives when Stiller as Rabbi Schram addresses the congregation on Yom Kippur. He begins by saying, “Since Yom Kippur is kind of like the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar, most rabbis try to cram a whole year’s worth of sermons into one big, ‘best of’ sermon. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to talk about the meaning of God, or the situation in Israel, or the status of Jews around the world. I’d like to talk about something a little more personal. A wise man once told me that no rabbi can save anyone; he can only offer himself as a guide to other people. For a while now, you’ve let me be your guide. You’ve shared your lives with me. You’ve explored your faith with me. You’ve put your trust in me, but I haven’t been sharing my life with you.” Then he adds, “For a number of months, I’ve been seeing a woman who isn’t Jewish.”

I want to share something about my life with you. It is not that I am seeing a woman who isn’t Jewish, or any woman! I am very much in love with Susan. It is about something I have done that has affected the way that I see myself. I offer it as a cautionary tale.

This is the Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. For the past ten days we have sought forgiveness from those we have wronged, and we have expressed our regret in the sight of God for how far we have fallen. The descent is measured by the distance between what say and what we do. If the gap is vast, it is the difference between honor and hypocrisy.

We rarely use the word “shame,” save for occasions when one might say, “That’s a shame,” but I cannot recall the last time that I heard it said. The word usually conveys the sense of a missed opportunity rather than something dishonorable.

The Hebrew word for “shame” is boosha, and its sound conveys censure: the first syllable, boo, combined with the second syllable, sha: as if one wanted to deny or retreat from what was done, yet is fully aware that there are some things from which we cannot run and hide, least of all ourselves. While guilt is a feeling of regret and responsibility for what one did or refrained from doing, shame is a painful feeling about oneself, a feeling often associated with dishonor. This morning I speak about my dishonor for something that I did. My hope is that the lessons you might learn from what I am going to share will spare you the shame that I have carried should you find yourself in a similar situation when taking the easy way out for yourself makes it difficult, and even painful, for someone else.

All of us have been influenced by seminal moments in our lives, and one of mine arrived when I was in my sophomore year in high school. It was then that my mother introduced me to Jerry Winston. He was ten years older than I, and he worked in the library at San Francisco State University to support his career as a writer. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he moved to Los Angeles after college, and achieved success writing scripts in Hollywood. In time, he tired of living there and moved north to San Francisco. My mother was drawn to him because of his kindness and the joy that poured forth from him. My father soon became a member of his fan club as well. It was not long before I would be in the frequent company of Jerry and dog, Skipper, a Hungarian puli who was Jerry’s constant companion. Their relationship was a sight to behold: both bounded into the day and lapped up life.

Jerry had the ability to see things in ways that were breathtakingly creative. After many years suffering the ‘same old, same old’ teaching styles of almost all of my teachers in high school, he was a welcome breath of fresh air. Every few weeks I joined Jerry for long walks and talks on the beach and in Golden Gate Park, constantly enriched by his friendship, and the gifts of his wit and wisdom.

He was an important part of my life during my last three years of high school, but college brought geographic distance and our contact became infrequent. After a while, I had no idea where he was or what he was doing. The Six Day War arrived in the summer between my junior and senior year of college, an event of such importance in my life that it would position me toward compass points I had never envisioned. I yearned to learn more about my Jewish identity.

While I was considering law school, my parents told me that Jerry was in rabbinic school. You might just as well have told me that rabbits were driving cars. Jerry was so different from the rabbis of my youth that I could not fathom what had led him in that direction, or how radically he must have changed – and sadly so, I might have added – because my rabbi appeared infrequently in the religious school hallways and surfaced only a month before my Bar Mitzvah. He was respected by adults, but was distant from children and youth who would have benefitted tremendously from his presence and conversations. Mingling easily with members of the congregation, he was detached from us, even though he had children of his own.

Since it was impossible for me to fit Jerry into the image of remote rabbis, I did the only thing I could and that was to marvel about a school – in this case, a graduate school, a seminary – that would welcome him! The fact that he was a student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where candidates for the reform rabbinate study, spoke more persuasively to me about a place of which I knew absolutely nothing than did the literature they eventually sent me that described the courses of study and the faculty. My entire openness to the prospect of going there – dependent of course on the dubious prospect of gaining admission – was simply the fact that he was there. It was less about whether the school would accept me than the fact that with Jerry already there, I had accepted the school.

I wrote to him asking what he was doing there – in essence, it came down to his quest for greater meaning in his life – and to also let him know what motivated my interest in applying for admission. I told him about my desire for more knowledge about Judaism at a time in my life when the need for a greater sense of my Jewish identity felt vital. I also told him about the one positive memory I retained about my rabbi: the inspiring ways that he delivered the message of social justice from the pulpit, and how people seemed captivated when he spoke with such passion and elegance. Jerry wrote back immediately and this is what he said: “I have just received your letter and will answer it as best I can. But when you read my answer, bear in mind that I am no oracle, that I am a neophyte in my own studies, and that I am just giving you the opinions that one man is entitled to share with another, however young and cockeyed those opinions might be. And with that admonition out of the way, or perhaps I should say, in the way, here we go. You have asked me to tell you if, on the strength of your letter, you ‘have what it takes to become a rabbi,’ and this I cannot tell you. Only you can tell you, and you can only do this, not at the beginning of your schooling, but at the end…and don’t be impatient and force the answer. It will come when it is ready to come. Perhaps it already has. But I think you must seriously examine your reasons for wanting to become a rabbi. When you describe to me what it is you remember about your rabbi, and you speak of his position of respect and stature, of how he was in a wonderful position to influence people, I see the classic signs of what Jung calls ‘the will-to-power.’ I think it is wrong to study for the position of rabbi. I think it is fine to study Judaism. The man who earns my respect is not the man who inherits a position of authority and enjoys all the privileges of that position; rather, it is the man who enjoys no privilege of position, but who nevertheless works very hard to increase his knowledge and cultivate his talents so that he might contribute something to the world, no matter where he is, no matter what he is doing. If you can become a worthwhile person, you can carry that worth wherever you go, and it will affect others.”

Then he added: “Once upon a time, very long ago in Judaism, men were woodcutters, farmers, and tradesmen, and they also served as rabbis. But they weren’t even called rabbis. There was no such thing as a professional rabbinate. These men rose to their positions by their knowledge of the law; they were not appointed but ascended to their places of leadership; they were consulted, honored and respected by the community, but they earned their bread by the sweat of their hands. I wonder if there were no promises, no assurances, no guarantees, would you still wish to study for the rabbinate?”

This is how he concluded his letter, the original copy still in my possession: “I am being too hard on you, Elliot. Come on down. Come study. Then you will see if you’ve chosen the right course. Even if you decide that you made a mistake, your studies can only stand you in good stead, no matter what you do. You have been wonderfully honest with me in your letter, and to show you how much I appreciate it, I have tried to do the same. If I have at times hit too hard, forgive me, but sometimes the truth hurts. It will perhaps hurt not as hard if you remember that there is always more than one truth. Yours, perhaps in this case, may be more valid than mine…My place is yours, my friendship is yours, and whatever else of mine might be of help to you is yours. There is a grand thing in accepting things without embarrassment. Please do.”

Jerry was just a year ahead of me in rabbinic school, despite our age difference, so we were together for two years before he continued his studies leading to ordination in New York. I would leave Los Angeles, live in Israel, return to the states and be ordained. I chose the life of the congregation while he decided to write articles and books informed by his love of mystical texts. His writing, esoteric to say the least, made it difficult for him to find a market for his works and so making ends meet was always a challenge. The burden was lessened considerably when he met Pam, a real estate agent, and they married and had two sons. They lived in San Anselmo, about twenty miles north of San Francisco. Things were good when the economy was strong, but in the downturn they really struggled, and friends around the country sent them money to buy food and pay the rent. Susan and I did what we could to help, but it was such an embarrassing situation for him that whenever he and I spoke, our conversations were awkward and over time our relationship was reduced to writing letters, and then those eventually ceased.

We didn’t speak to each other for almost three years, and then, about three years ago, I picked up the phone to reconnect. Pam told me that Jerry had been going through a difficult time, and I assumed that I knew what she meant…but I didn’t. She said that he would prefer to tell me himself, and it was then that I heard his voice for the first time in years. I was stunned when he came on the phone: his words were mumbled and slow, as if he were speaking through cotton. With great effort, he told me that he had Parkinson’s Disease and he apologized in advance for having to place the handset on his desk to speak to me because he couldn’t hold it for more than a few minutes. Soon enough I heard the distinctive sound of the plastic handset dropping onto his desk, and from a greater distance he explained that he was maneuvering his wheelchair so that he could more easily bend toward the phone. I was in shock. It was an effort for him to speak, and it was also an effort for me to understand what I was hearing. I called him every other week to stay in touch, but over time the experience was defined by my saying hello and then hearing Jerry mumble for minutes on end, either oblivious to my efforts to interject a thought, or his need to laboriously complete one. I would always ask to speak to Pam, but he said that he wanted to talk to me as long as he had strength, and refused to do so. He would always answer the phone when I called, and if Pam had a mobile phone, I never knew it. My short notes of concern sent to her received only one or two replies to thank me for caring. My calls to him became monthly, then every-other month, and then I stopped calling. It had become almost impossible to understand him and difficult for me to endure, and so I just stopped. I wrote a few letters, but since he could not hold a pen to write or sit at a computer to type, it felt like a monologue rather than a dialogue, and so I stopped doing that as well. My last effort was about two years ago.

In June of last year, I received a call from a classmate of Jerry’s, someone I really liked and respected, though I had not spoken to him in 35 years. We spoke at some length about our life journeys – Phil left rabbinic school, went on to earn his Ph.D., and is a psychologist in Seattle – and he told me that he had visited Jerry several times over the past few years, but found the experiences to be difficult and disheartening. He called me two months later, this past August, after seeing Jerry again. In November, I received a message from Phil telling me that he had very sad news: Pam had died. She had cancer but had told very few people about it. It dawned on me that was probably the reason that Jerry would not let me speak with her. Jerry’s sons took him to the hospital to visit Pam, and two weeks after she entered, she died while he was with her. His sons had been looking for a place for him to live because up to that point in his life, Pam had taken care of him and all his needs. Calls were made to the Veterans Administration, though no one really thought that was the best alternative, and care facilities were also explored. In early December, Phil called and left a message asking that I return his call, and so I started thinking about what we could afford to send to help pay for the move and whatever Jerry might need. I also thought about flying out to be with him. Too much time had passed, and I had taken the easy way out for far too long. Achingly uncomfortable with our conversations that amounted to hearing him struggle to enunciate words, I bailed out. I didn’t give much thought about how incredibly difficult the ordeal was for him. I was too focused on how unpleasant it was for me, on the phone, thousands of miles away. Now I had an opportunity to do teshuvah: to turn things around, to turn my head around, and to see things differently.

I called Phil with new possibilities running through my mind, sorting out what I would do first, and when I could see Jerry and hopefully Phil as well, and then Phil answered the phone and said, “Ell, I have very sad news. Jerry died this morning.”

I have never arrived at a Yom Kippur service filled with such remorse. I am haunted by the words of our tradition that speak to the significance of this day: “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” Phil told me that Jerry was often in anguish. It must have must have been excruciating for a man who had such reverence for the written and spoken word to have been unable to express himself. I did very little to help him. Yes, we sent checks to do what we could to help cover the cost of rent and the purchase of food, but that was easy. It allowed me to maintain the illusion of connection, when what I really wanted was emotional distance. I cannot begin to imagine what my silence meant to Jerry, who struggled to make sounds.

This I do know: I violated the words in the Talmud {Mishnah Peah 1:1, Talmud Sanhedrin 127a} that are part of our Shabbat morning service: “These are things that are limitless [that cannot be overdone]: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people.” I was not compassionate, I did not visit him, I did not bring him moments of peace, and after a while, I stopped calling him. Whatever tranquility the sound of my voice might have brought him, I withheld it.

He was instrumental in my life. From the day that I met him while I was in high school, he was there for me. He was there for me when I took my first steps on the path that would define my future. When I was conflicted about proper attire for weekly chapel services in rabbinic school, he told me, “If you worry about what to wear, wear the Torah. And if it doesn’t fit, don’t worry. You’ll grow into it.” With his help, I did. My debt to him is great, and now I can only say ahl chet for keeping silent and withholding love.

Through my inaction, I have been reminded of what I always knew: the easy way is not always the honorable way.

I struggle to find some measure of redemption in the words of a Yiddish proverb: “You are who you are, not who you were.” Still, it is important for me to remember what I was, once upon a time.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin