I've often considered that story emblematic of what's so sad about certain forms of American Judaism. It's so watered down as to be tasteless pabulum, completely lacking the ability to engage the soul. Most Jews, I venture, have no clue about the depth, richness and vibrancy of authentic Judaism.
The other evening, after working at home for too many days in a row, I needed to air myself out. My husband and I went out to dinner. The meal over, I wasn't ready to return home, so we drove into Jerusalem to see if a certain Jewish bookstore was still open. It was after 10 PM when we arrived. Happily, the lights were on, the doors were open, the shelves were fully stocked and the cash register was humming.
Since we've made aliyah, I like to joke about the old days, referring to them as "back when we had money". Back when we had money, we would go into New York for a few days in June and go on a Jewish book buying spree. It's been years since I went into a Jewish bookstore with nothing specific in mind, just to see what's new that might catch my attention. My favorite thing to do in a bookstore is to scan the shelves and wait to see which books sing to me.
So we're in this Jewish book warehouse store in Jerusalem and everything I see is in Hebrew. Surely they must have some English books somewhere. I ask in Hebrew ?איפה הספרים באנגלית - where are the books in English? The clerk grunts, points and says something basically unintelligible to my ear. But he pointed, so I have a clue in which direction I ought to move.
Behold, there's a gorgeous wall full of Jewish books in English. Because I'm such a book fiend, many of the titles are familiar to me, but there are a few gems I long to own. A book titled The Soul of Jerusalem calls my name. It's the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on Jerusalem, complied by Rabbi Shlomo Katz.
I'll be honest. I don't usually understand Shlomo Carlebach. His words sound magical and his distinctive phrasing - "Open your heart to the deepest of the deep, my sweet friends, my holy brothers and sisters" - are poetic and engaging, but I never feel like I've grasped the essence of anything he said. That fact notwithstanding, Jerusalem has its own magic.
I bought the book.
And it drew me in almost immediately. Late Friday night, I was reading and enjoying, if not the specific learning, the feeling, the spirit of the book.
Then, a passage stopped me in my tracks.
Sometimes, you take a Yiddele and you tell him, "You have to keep Shabbos, put on tefillin, do a few tricks here and a few tricks there and that's all there is to it. That is all there is to Yiddishkeit." - p. 65And with this brief passage, it hit me. We have no idea. We don't know. We have been living without the Beit HaMikdash, without the Holy Temple, for 2,000 years. At best, we have a diluted practice of Judaism. We're in the same boat as my nephew's Hebrew school classmates. Even those of us who live religious lives. Even those of us who live religious lives in Israel, we only have an inkling. We don't know the true power of living in the Presence of the Divine. We don't know what it's like to live with the Beit HaMikdash at the center of Jerusalem and at the center of our Jewish lives.
We have stumbled along for 2,000 years, doing our best to preserve what we can preserve. We have bent to the will of our host countries. We have clung to what we can. But we've lost the heart of our heritage. We've lost the supremacy of being able to visit God in His palace. We don't have any idea what Jerusalem really is, what Judaism really is.
My soul bleeds over the distortions that people call Judaism today. I'm especially sensitive to the "hadrat nashim" indignities that are increasingly foisted upon women in the name of the Torah. In my weaker moments, they enrage me. But ultimately, they are lint on a satin dress. They are meaningless perversions. They are gnats, easily flicked away. They are not the ikkar, the essence, of Jewish life.
Pesach, which is just days away, is the celebration of an important geula, of a redemption, of the Jewish people. Pesach is a placeholder for the geula shalayma, for the full, complete and eternal redemption of the Jewish people. The coming of Moshaich and the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash will restore us to a true understanding of what Jerusalem really means, of what Judaism truly is.
Until then, we are engaged in a kind of playacting. We are holding a place until the real thing shows up. It's not meaningless, but it's not the whole story. No matter how strong our commitment to Jewish law, Jewish practice, Jewish life is, we need to remember that, without the Beit HaMikdash, without the presence of God in Jerusalem, we do not know, we cannot experience, Judaism in its fullest expression.
My we each be blessed to personally experience the restoration of the soul of Jerusalem, to which Reb Shlomo hints in this magnificent volume.