I’ve been back at Drew for my senior year for about a week and a half, but it already feels much longer. And some Jewy things have happened. Here they are.
I dropped Alan Nadler’s class, Major Jewish Thinkers. I’ve had him for four or five different classes at this point, which is quite enough. The real reason I dropped it was that my current schedule doesn’t include time to eat dinner on Mondays. So that plan was right out.
I told my advisor, Chris Taylor, that I was gonna drop it. I was about to ask him if he had any ideas about what I could take instead. Before I could ask, he was already off and running about a visiting professor in the Theo School (Drew’s oldest school, our United Methodist seminary, where I’ve enjoyed taking a couple of classes before). The guy’s name is Yehezkel Landau, not a name you expect to find in a protestant institution. His whole thing is interfaith work and he teaches full time at Hartford Seminary, one of those non-denominational protestant far-out lefty outfits. At Drew, he’s teaching a course this fall called Jewish Spirituality, mostly to a bunch of Methodist seminary students.
Chris said I should go and meet him, at least. He was afraid that the course might be too basic for me, but he seemed pretty sure I’d enjoy meeting Landau. Yehezkel Landau, Chris told me, is the anti-Nadler. Where Nadler is negative, and full of himself, not to mention bile, Landau, Chris said, is life-affirming and positive. But they’re friends anyway, he added. This I had to see.
So I went. It looks like the facts of some parts of the class will be very basic for me, but Landau’s perspective sounds, if not new, at least new to me. He had us all go around and introduce ourselves and say a bit about how we ended up in the class. I over-shared. I told him straight up that I’m very uncomfortable with the word spirituality. To me, I told him, it’s a word that lacks definition and smacks of an unintellectual approach to religion.
He shared a definition of spirituality from a book by someone I know of. I didn’t write down who, though. What I did write down was this: “Spirituality is religion experienced intimately…. It need not be otherworldly…. Spirituality may be our word for sacred or holy.” Yeah, OK. I’m alright with the last part of that in particular, though the editor in me wonders why we should bother with a words that had a broad and varying definition if what we mean is a sacred or holy. Perhaps it’s just discomfort with words that smack of tradition, like sacred of holy. I prefer words that have the feel of tradition and have solid definitions over words that that have the feel of new-age-iness and have broad, over-flexible definitions.
While discussing my discomfort with the word, he pointed out that there is no native Hebrew term for theology, but that spirituality is easy to translate into Hebrew–ruchaniut. I never thought about that. It’s a pretty good point.
Part of my reflection during Elul so far has been the realization that I’ve so thoroughly surrounded myself with Jewish content and community that makes me comfortable (not to mention the Nadler-esque attitude of egotism about Judaism) that college so far has filled me with more hubris about my religious practice than ever before. So I’m hoping a semester of a very different perspective, courtesy of Yehezkel Landau, will do something to knock me down a few pegs.
Some other interesting notes I took during my first class with Landau:
The house in the book “The Lemon Tree” is the house his (ex-?)wife grew up in.
He likes to begin class with a piece of “sacred music.” We ended up actually listening to some Neshama Carlebach in the middle of class. But this man is indeed the anti-Nadler.
Another student in the class, Maria, is an M.Div student, already ordained as a Baptist minister, and currently works as an asst. principal in Newark.
Someone in the class wrote a novel that has something to do with kabalah. She wants to know more about it. I’m highly suspicious. If she’s already written a book with kabalah in it, I hope she’s already done quite a bit of reading about it. There’s already enough nonsense about kabalah in pop culture.
Landau just bought a new set of tefilin, but he bought a left-handed set by accident.
He appears outwardly to be Orthodox. His home/personal observance appears to be, anyway. He called himself Conservaformadox at one point during class. He’s been going to an Orthodox shul in Hartford for many years. This year, he said he is not renewing his membership. He still values the rabbi there as a friend, but has begun attending a Reform service every Friday night. He likes the music better.
He was born into a Reform family with the name Richard Landau. His mother was the principal of a Reform religious school. He went to Harvard Divinity School, where his heroes were Martin Buber and Erik Erikson. Despite many differences between Landau and I, in tone at least, he described himself as a “faithful realist,” rather than as a pessimist or optimist. I like that, though I might say hopeful realist instead of faithful realist. Faith is another words that causes me discomfort.
Landau has been keeping a dream journal for 36 years. I’m highly suspicious of this.
Essentially, I’m very suspicious of a lot stuff going on in this course, but I’m open to listening.
I don’t think there’s anything I missed this summer more than the chavurah. I enjoyed being home this summer and getting to spend a lot of time with the congregation I grew at, but it only does so much for me. The chavurah has hardly changed. 90-something-year-old Bill still starts putting chairs away in the middle of Adon Olam, it still pisses Jonathan off, and it still doesn’t seem to phase anyone else. Russ is still leading services beautifully. And Henry still can’t hear Ruth during her divrei torah. Unfortunately, for reasons unclear to me, Bruce, our unofficial president (and total Walter stand-in, for any CBIers reading along) left the chavurah and doesn’t seem to be coming back, which has me pretty sad.
The chavurah ladies made sure that I had a tray of bagels, cake and excellent butterscotch cookies to take back with me. All is well.
Dana is one of my housemates. I’m starting my fourth year living in Spirituality House (anyone who wants to should feel free to make comments about the name of the house, given all of my hemming and hawing about that word so far in this post), though Dana is just beginning her second. Dana is from a Catholic family, but she decided a few years ago that she’s like to become a Jew.
I was initially highly suspicious of this. It seemed to me that for a person who wants to be a Jew, she didn’t do much in the way of Jewish stuff. I’ve since come to understand that Dana realizes that she can’t commit to a formal course of study for conversion because she’s in college and busy with other things and im ein kemach, ein torah etc. Because of that, I think she has felt discourage from doing anything Jewish until she can commit to doing a lot of Jewish. I’ve been trying to disabuse her of this notion. Jewish tradition vastly prefers something over nothing.
So back in the spring, she and I made matzah ball soup together, a first for both of us. She also came with me to seder at the chavurah last semester. I’ve mentioned to her before that she should come to the chavurah on Shabbat morning with me. This week, she finally came along. She had a great time and the chavurah ladies went berserk (in the good way) over her presence.
She and I also sat down with Rabbi Ruth and discussed engaging in some low-commitment, but regular Jewish study, including monthly chats between the two of them. I told Dana earlier this week we were gonna get her a rabbi. And we did, so that feels great. I also think she’ll come to the chavurah more often now that she feels kind of connected to it through Ruth (and the ladies, of course).
Remember those three years when I never went to Hillel because there were a bunch of people I didn’t like? See, there were these people I did like, but the amount of dislike I had for a few others was so great that I never went. Well, the crap people graduated. So I think I’ll go to Hillel a lot more.
Well, that was a long post. I think I’ll go be productive somewhere now.