I came across a wonderful story by Edgar Allan Poe that speaks to yesterday’s post regarding emerging trends among American Jews. The story is called “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”
Three brothers who regularly fish the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Norway are caught in a hurricane. One brother ties himself to the mainmast to keep from being blown overboard, but the mast breaks and carries him into the sea where he drowns. As their ship is sucked into the vortex, the second brother notices that lighter objects caught in the vortex are pushed out to safety. He explains this to the third brother, ties himself to a barrel, and abandons ship. The third brother chooses not to follow, convinced that the ship will survive the whirlpool. As the barrel carrying the second brother is flung out of harms way, the ship is crushed and the third brother dies. When the surviving brother is rescued he explains how he survived but his rescuers don’t believe him.
We American Jews are these brothers, Judaism is our ship, and the maelstrom is reality. Staying on board dooms us. Only by grabbing a barrel and trusting the chaos can we hope to survive. Most of us prefer to stay on board, either lashed to the mast of tradition or clinging to one rail or another. Not all of us will disappear, but those who remain will be the Jewish equivalent of the Amish: quaint and irrelevant. Only those who grab a barrel and brave the storm will make it.
What is the barrel? Torah broadly defined as the Jewish literature from the Bible to Chabon. With our stories intact, we can do what we have always done: create new understandings from old texts that continue to speak our timeless truth: justice and compassion as the way to and the way of holiness.
Story is at the heart of identity. Tradition is the way we live the story, but when tradition comes to replace the story the sap is gone from the tree and the tree dies. But try to tell this to people and they think you are mad. They are attached to the form and cannot imagine surviving without it. Yet that is the genius of the Jew.
There is no one form that has defined us. We adapt. We create. But whatever we create is linked back to Torah, to our story. In the Bible alone we find a host of Judaisms: Abrahamic, Priestly, Prophetic, and a Judaism of Wisdom that is almost atheistic in its iconoclasm. Which one of these is THE true Judaism? None and all. And then there is rabbinic Judaism, and kabbalistic Judaism, and Yiddish secular Judaism, and the plethora of modern Judaisms. If any one of these had to encompass all Jews for all time, there would be no Jews or Judaism at all.
We don’t need another survey telling us there is a maelstrom brewing; just stick your head out the window and you will see that is so. What we need is a barrel, some rope, and the guts to jump ship.