Nostalgia, Memory and the Building of Judaism

Yitro By :  Marc Wolf Posted On Jan 26, 2008 / 5768 | Torah Commentary

As is often the case with buildings in Lower Manhattan, 211 Pearl Street was caught in the sights of a developer seeking to level the property and replace it with a grand modern building. Its tale was told in a recent article in the New Yorker, which covered the struggle between the developer and one man seeking to protect the address by having it declared a historic landmark (Burkhard Bilger, “Mystery on Pearl Street,” January 7, 2008). When 211 Pearl Street stood, the building was one of the oldest addresses in Manhattan, a revolving storefront for all manner of goods that flowed through New York harbor for the better part of two centuries. There was ample cause to celebrate the building and protect it. However, as the article concludes,

Nostalgia is a fool’s game in New York. Every building here stands on the bones of others, often more beautiful. Every generation erases a little collective memory, convinced that it has something better with which to replace it. Had the cycle stopped . . . no skyscraper would be standing now.

The friction is obvious. Nostalgia has a tendency to impede modernization, but as the article suggests, with modernization, “sometimes we lose more than we gain.”

In Judaism, this same struggle exists. How can we make Judaism relevant when our Traditionis always spelled with a capital T? What use do we have for a religious system that hearkens back to the shtetl? Is there a place for the shtetl, or do we level its buildings and erect a Judaism that has the potential to serve a modern Jewish people?

Recently, I received an email requesting the source of a Hasidic story about a community that looks to the rituals of its ancestors for guidance. It is nothing short of a powerful lobby for our landmark status. The story, as it is frequently told, begins with the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who, when his community was faced with a period of tragedy, would go to a particular place in the forest, light a fire in a particular way, and say a particular prayer. When he returned to town he did so with a solution to bring his community through the challenging time.

The Baal Shem Tov’s successor, the Maggid of Mezrich, faced tragedy with the same formula; however, while he knew the particular place in the forest, and the particular prayer, the particulars of the fire were lost. Still, he returned with the solution. As the story goes, over the next two generations both the particular place in the forest and the particular prayer were lost, yet simply retelling the story continued to be enough to bring the community though their time of tragedy.

The story is moving, but it has never struck a chord with me. While the nod to the inherent power of Tradition is vital, it leaves us sitting in the dim light emanating from the fire of religious passion that burned generations ago.

A religion that does not value the voice of the individual has no hope of relevance. Rabbi Art Green has stated, “There is no more urgent task for Judaism today than the creation of a religious language that will speak both profoundly and honestly to Jews in our time” (“Rethinking Theology: Language, Experience, and Reality,” Spirit in Practice, September 1988). But what recourse do we have? Do we abandon our Tradition and build grand new religious structures that speak to us in our particular ways? It is precisely then that we may “lose more than we gain.” Do we believe that we can only sit at the fires of our ancestors, reciting their prayers, or can we claim Judaism as our own?

When we distill the tension, we confront a question of legitimacy. What justification do we have to change Tradition? How can we be certain that what we propose is within the pale?

This week, as we read of the theophany on Mount Sinai and imagine the fledgling children ofIsrael standing at the foot of the mountain, we see this struggle. After the Decalogue, there is a heartbreaking scene with Moses and the people:

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.” So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. (Exod. 20:15-18)

At this moment of Divine immanence, Moses recognizes it is time for the people to engage in a religious dialogue, but the people are not willing to step forward. They struggle with their own legitimacy even at this early stage. Only Moses takes the next step toward the presence of God after the revelatory moment. Whatever the people’s wonder, they are paralyzed and cannot step forward and add their voices. To them, only Moses knows the particular place, the particular fire, and the particular prayer. Nahum Sarna comments:

The encounter with the Holy universally inspires fascination; inevitably and characteristically it also arouses feelings of awe, even terror . . . The unique, transcendent, supernal holiness of the Divine Presence is felt to be beyond human endurance (JPS, 115).

The tension is real, and we recognize the enormity of the charge. We seek to make Judaism relevant but, like the children of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, we are hesitant to believe that our voices have weight.

Returning to Green, he advises that our Judaism “will have to be deeply rooted in the sources of Judaism in order to speak with a profound voice.” In his solution, we must turn to our Tradition when seeking to re-create and innovate. It is the strength of that Tradition with a capital T that empowers us to build our own fires and offer our own prayers, rooted in those of our ancestors.

The building at 211 Pearl Street no longer stands. However, its facade remains to root the neighborhood in its essential history. Our challenge is to capitalize on our collective memory and the foundations of our ancestors to build a Judaism that is profoundly relevant to us.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.