The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, May 26, 2019

“How the Foot” A Sermon on John 5: 1-9 St. Bartholomew’s Church May 26, 2019

[There are a few paragraphs that I cut from the sermon, but that I'm including as a prefatory note, to commemorate the late, great Herman Wouk, who died a little over a week ago. Wouk kept writing until shortly before his death at the age of 103. No, I’m not exaggerating. But though he’ll always best be remembered for The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, the novel I discuss in this sermon, Inside, Outside, is special to me.

It tells the story of young I. David Goodkind, whose life tracks Wouk’s own in many ways (though Goodkind becomes a lawyer specializing in tax law and free speech cases), from childhood to the threshold of old age. It’s warm, and touching, and sometimes farcical—Inside, Outside reminds us that Wouk got his start writing comedy for radio, and he’s never been funnier than in this book.

But underlying the nostalgia and the warm humor is a character arc that seems to have matched Wouk’s own: David finds himself feeling trapped in the rules-oriented traditional Jewish life of his parents and extended family, and slowly falls away from it, disappointing his father and his scholarly grandfather, only to find himself drawn back into his faith in middle age. He may not follow all the rules as closely as his parents did, but he cherishes what they mean to him.

When David is sent to study at a yeshiva, his grandfather proudly takes him to meet another student. This student is a youthful Talmudic prodigy known as the “Kotzker Iluy” which translates from the Yiddish as the “genius from Kotzk”, the town from which his family immigrated to America.

We all know what happens in verses ten through whatever, right? (OK, it’s verse 47; I looked it up for you.).

In case you haven’t worked it out, here’s the tell—today’s Gospel reading ends on “That day was a Sabbath.”

And, as usual, whenever Jesus cures someone on the Sabbath, and they carry their pallet, or even just walk away and are recognized, two things are guaranteed to happen:

First, the people who know the cured person will be awestruck. They’ll want to know how this incredible—literally—change has freed from suffering their friend, neighbor, or, in this case, the poor man they’ve seen languishing for almost forty years, unable to get into the pool in time to benefit from an angel’s stirring the water.

They’ll find out, the authorities will get wind of it all, and, of course, Jesus will come under their jaundiced eyes, and be required to account for his breaking God’s commandment to refrain from work on the Sabbath.

Just how serious this commandment is, and how rigorously it is enforced in certain aspects of the Jewish tradition is a major theme in the late Herman Wouk's last great novel, Inside, Outside (1985).

It tells the story of young David Goodkind, who finds himself feeling trapped in the rules-oriented traditional Jewish life of his parents and extended family.

David’s parents send him to study at a yeshiva, to his great discomfort. One day, David catches his sister using the wrong dishtowel to dry the meat utensils instead of the milk utensils, and she storms out when he tells her. David asks a fellow student if his sister’s breaking the rule is really so terrible. The other student says that everything will break down if you don’t follow the rules. David gets a second opinion from another student, who asks, “what kind of religion is it that you can disintegrate with a dishtowel?”

Finally, he goes to a prodigy, known as The Genius from Kotzk, who kindly asks David what he’s learning—at the yeshiva everyone is learning, not studying or teaching—and David tells him. A Talmud chapter, known by its first two or three words—in this case “How the Foot”—a section on the law of contributory negligence. The prodigy’s eyes light up, and he smiles. “How the Foot?” he says, “you’re learning a marvelous chapter like “How the Foot,” and you worry about dishtowels?”

The Genius from Kotzk reminds me of another young scholar who confounded his teachers in one way: He grasps that the rules aren’t the essence of the spiritual life. That’s not that to say that they’re trivial, or have no place in the spiritual life. Rather, rules don’t matter more than the reasons for them, and certainly not more than those for whose good they were created.

Or, as Jesus put it more simply, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” (Mk. 2:27).

It would be easy to just denounce the Pharisees as those who haven’t learned that their lives have been structured around a deeply flawed understanding of what is justice.

But that’s oversimplification. And as our former rector Robert Norwood wrote back in 1932, his last year at St. Barts, it’s just not true. As Norwood said:
The Pharisees and scribes were not bad people as we think of badness. Many of them were heroic, and we owe much to them. We do not scruple to say that even Jesus owed the Pharisees and the scribes a debt which he gladly paid on the cross. He loved them; he loved many things for which they stood. But there was one thing about them which he did not love—their dogmatism.
And then Norwood points out that this dogmatism “is still in the Church,” and that is the one thing Jesus cannot love.” Not the people who carry this dogmatism, but the dogmatism itself.

Rather, out former rector reminds us, “We must be set free from anything like ecclesiastical narrowness,” that obsession with rules is a “fetter which we must break if we would walk with Jesus.”

Norwood warns us that “there are many people in our world who are crippled and impotent at the beautiful gate of life,” and that they will always be on the outside, unless one of else helps them. He adds, “[i]f our Christianity is not helping the lame at the Beautiful Gate, it is of no value.”

No wonder they called Norwood ‘the poet of the pulpit.”

But how do we put this into practice—how do we help those who have been wounded, or, even worse, discarded by our ever faster moving society, by our ever-increasing acrimony?

How do we live with one another, when our divisions threaten to tear us apart?

It’s the question of our time, in my opinion. Look at Brexit tearing the United Kingdom apart—literally, as the Scots consider leaving the UK rather than leaving the European Union—and the major parties tearing themselves apart, and the far right possibly triumphing in the very nation that defied the Nazis. Look at our own dysfunctional politics, with the Executive Branch refusing to cooperate with the Legislative Branch unless it surrenders its oversight powers.

And look at how those battles between would be and maybe power brokers are poisoning the body politic, leeching out into the relationships between we the people who have to live with the consequences of their decisions and teaching us how to hate. How to hate each other, that is.

Having been tainted by these dark lessons, how do we live lives that are not framed by hatred?

We are living in a stormy time, my sisters and brothers. We are witnessing the rejection by large factions of the world of kindness, of forbearance. We live in a time where arrogance and triumphalism is rampant, and in which cruelty is becoming normalized, and even valorized.

But we are not just witnesses. We are not just helpless viewers of events on a screen. We are participants in the drama. I know it’s a cliché, but when I was a child, my mother taught me that every life we touch, we affect for either good or bad. We must model the virtues we profess, while standing up for the least of us.

Not the least of these, you notice. Because we are not ourselves yet healed. We are at the pool, hoping for the stirring of the waters. We can push each other out of the way, demanding “our rights,” like road-rage filled drivers, or we can help each other heal by speaking truth, but with love. By sharing experience, strength and hope. By reaching out to the stranger, and finding a sister or a brother.

I’ve been preaching about this for the past year, and I’ve quoted saints, sages, and scriptwriters. But here’s one more quotation from the poet of the pulpit, our own Robert Norwood, that puts it better than I can:
Be more concerned with your kindness than your goodness. If you will study Jesus in relation to people, you will find that he did not care much for conventional goodness. I have discovered that the people who put the emphasis on their goodness are narrow, hard, intolerant and mean. . . .I have seen “good” people in the church make the church a hissing and a by-word. There goodness was of no value. It was full of dry-rottenness.

Suspect your goodness, but be reverent toward your innate kindness. Practice it in every season. Believe in it above everything else. Be confident in your kindness. ….Do not trust even your intellectual conclusions or your religious practices. But trust your innate courtesy, that sudden softening of your heart, that ability to forget yourself, your rights and your wrongs, in pity for your neighbor, his problems, her needs.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Herman Wouk, In Memoriam

I first met Herman Wouk (in print, never in life) through Herbie Bookbinder, the fat, clever, put-upon "General Garbage," who is the hero of City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder. Set over half a century before I was reading it (1980-ish, I'll guess), it made me laugh, made me wince with familiarity, and enter into a world of New York City that was already gone, and yet which Wouk brought back to human, humane, life.

Adelle Waldman has an appreciation of the late Herman Wouk that is in fact a strong defense of just two of his books--The Winds of War (1971)and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978). She doesn't discuss his other novels, and that's just fine. Because Wouk's books, especially Winds and War, are often, as Waldman notes, dismissively "often grouped with middlebrow writers of popular historical fiction — James Michener and Leon Uris." One of my favorite literature professors, Nick Loprete, dismissed him with a glib one liner--"too much wind," he said, "and too much war."

But I'm with Waldman, especially where she writes:
Although sweeping, the novels aren’t melodramas. They are the kinds of books in which an attractive young woman in a doomed love affair comes down with a cold — and doesn’t die. She doesn’t even become seriously ill. She takes some aspirin and goes to bed early.

These are also novels in which you can’t immediately tell whether a character will turn out to be mostly admirable or mostly not. With Wouk, it takes hundreds of pages of seeing the character in action before you can decide — and even then, your verdict is liable to remain uncertain and subject to change. Even in literary fiction, this kind of authorial restraint and fidelity to human complexity is surprising.
Yes, very true--and Waldman's exegesis of Wouk's depiction of the slow corruption of people of good will through normalization of the abhorrent by its repetition, as exemplified by Rhoda Henry's slow acclimatization to Nazi Germany during her stay as an attache's wife, is especially resonant today, as long-held norms are fragmenting in law (good-bye, stare decisis) and politics (around the globe).

Waldman touches on the character of Aaron Jastrow, the scholar who found fame in America, is caught up in Fascit Italy, and, ultimately, dies in a concentration camp near where he studied as a boy. She is very good on Jastrow's glib sophistication that leads him into the trap, but I value even more the passage I have previously cited, in which a wiser Jastrow, returns to his roots as a talmudic scholar, even though heh is imprisoned in the "paradise ghetto" of Theresinstadt. Jastrow lectures on the Book of Job in contrast to the Iliad, and points that:
In Job, as in most great works of art, the main design is very simple. His comforters maintain that since one Almighty God rules the universe, it must make sense. Therefore Job must have sinned. Let him search his deeds, confess and repent. The missing piece is only what his offense was.

And in round after round of soaring argument, Job fights back. The missing piece must be with God, not with him. He is as religious as they are. He knows that the Almighty exists, that the universe must make sense. But he, poor bereft boil-covered
skeleton, knows now that it does not in fact always make sense; that there is no guarantee of good fortune for good behavior; that crazy injustice is part of the visible world, and of this life. His religion demands that he assert his innocence,otherwise he will be profaning God's name! He will be conceding that the Almighty can botch one man's life; and if God can do that, the whole universe is a botch, and He is not an Almighty God. That Job will never concede. He wants an answer.

He gets an answer! Oh, what an answer! An answer that answers nothing. God Himself speaks at last out of a roaring storm."Who are you to call me to account? Can you hope to understand why or how I do anything? Were you there at Creation? Can you comprehend the marvels of the stars, the animals, the infinite wonders of existence? You, a worm that lives a few moments and dies?

My friends, Job has won! Do you understand? God with all His roaring has conceded Job's main point that the missing piece is with Him. God claims only that His reason is beyond Job. That, Job is perfectly willing to admit. With the main point settled, Job humbles himself, is more than satisfied, falls on his face. So the drama ends. God rebukes the comforters for speaking falsely of Him, and praises Job for holding to the truth. He restores Job's wealth. Job has seven more sons and three more daughters. He lives a hundred and forty more years, sees grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and dies old, prosperous, revered.

Satisfied? A happy ending, yes? Much more Jewish than the absurd and tragic Iliad. Are you so sure? My dear Jewish friends, what about the ten children who died? Where was God's justice to them? And what about the father, the mother? Can those scars on Job's heart heal, even in a hundred and forty years? That is not the worst of it. Think! What was the missing piece that was too much for Job to understand? We understand it, and are we so very clever? Satan simply sneered God into ordering the senseless ordeal. No wonder God roars out of a storm to silence Job! Isn't He ashamed of Himself before His own creature? Hasn't Job behaved better than God?
It is a chilling indictment, and yet Jastrow has returned to his faith, despite--or because of--the insanity and horror of his situation, but he doesn't return blindly--he later says that as he must answer to God for his apostasy, God must answer to Jastrow for Auschwitz.

Wouk's later novels--with the exception of the under-appreciated Inside, Outside (1985) (both touching and wonderfully, ruefully funny. Philip Roth must have felt the burn in that one, too.) don't hit the same high point, but his fertile mind teemed with lesser novels in different genres, from science fiction to Hollywood comedy. But he never failed to interest me, to enlighten me, and to do so while thoroughly entertaining me.

Vogue la galère, O teller of tales; let your ship sail free!