A Blessing On Your Head

Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

By Daniel M. Jaffe

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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Rabbi Katz pats his stiff hand on a yellowing translation of the Torah. “My boy, we read this very week, in Nitzavim, that in order for us as a people to receive the Almighty’s blessings, we must obey His laws. So, what you’re requesting is obviously impossible. Nothing personal.”

“Nothing personal?” Matt — thin, 27, wavy brown hair — leans forward in his chair. “Rabbi, how can you say that refusing to perform my wedding ceremony is nothing personal?”

“I mean that rabbis must act on principle, regardless of who poses a request.”

“A Reform rabbi would help me.”

“Ethical relativism.” Rabbi Katz closes his eyes momentarily, then: “Not to speak ill of other rabbis, but the Reform are too quick to ride the tides of social fads, giving people what they want instead of what they need.”

“No disrespect, but don’t the Orthodox say that about you Conservative rabbis?”

“Nonsense. We Conservative rabbis balance strict standards against fanaticism.”

“If you’re not a fanatic, then be flexible enough to bless my union with the man I love.” Matt clenches a fist in his lap then releases, clenches then releases.

“Look, my boy,” Rabbi Katz says, rubbing fingertips across the volume of Torah as if massaging or polishing. “Such a wedding ceremony wouldn’t even make sense. In the Jewish wedding vow, one spouse takes the other ‘according to the laws of Moses.’ But the laws of Moses expressly prohibit your sort of… coupling.”

“So we’ll come up with a different vow. We can be creative.”

“It’s not up to me. The Rabbinical Assembly doesn’t permit me even to attend a marriage between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman, so it certainly doesn’t permit me to officiate at the sort of union you want, which is — you’ll pardon the expression — a perversion.”

Matt pounds fist into lap. “How convenient to hide behind the Rabbinical Assembly. Can’t you think for yourself?”

“You used to be a respectful boy.”

“You used to be a respectful man.”

“You want I should disregard the Rabbinical Assembly? Collective wisdom is greater than any one man’s. Our tradition gains its strength from learned men’s discussion and debate of Torah. That’s the Talmud, the spine of our heritage, our unity despite Diaspora. I won’t betray it.” Rabbi Katz’s eyes gleam. His chin juts.

Matt looks down at his lap. Then he stands, slides and scrapes his chair around to the side of the desk, sets it beside Rabbi Katz’s, sits. The men’s eyes meet. “I came to you because you’re the rabbi of my childhood. You bar mitzvahed me.”

Rabbi Katz pats Matt on the cheek. “All the more reason I must do right by you.”

“When I was 15 and graduating from Hebrew high school, you gave our class an inspiring lesson.”

“I did?”

“You talked about your first landlord, the one after you and Mrs. Katz got married. From a Polish shtetl. He followed every ritual, you said, attending daily minyans, laying tefillin, eating strictly kosher, spending every Shabbos with a volume of the Talmud on his lap. But if a tenant was one day late with the rent — eviction! ‘That man,’ you told us, ‘was observant, but not religious. There’s a difference.’ I never forgot that lesson, Rabbi. Compassion is fundamental to religious observance.”

Rabbi Katz tilts his head, smiles. “You’re right. For us compassion is central. Tzedakah, for example, and bikur cholim, visiting the sick. My decision to observe the Torah’s prohibitions is my way of showing compassion to all our people. You included. Matt, you shouldn’t do this thing.”

“You’re trying to save me from myself?”

“I can’t stop you, of course,” Rabbi Katz says. “The Almighty grants each of us free will. But I can refuse to condone — for your sake and for the good of our flock, so that our people as a whole may receive the Almighty’s blessing.”

Matt sits back in his chair. “I expected you to be more than just another obedient sheep.”

“The Lord is my shepherd — re-read your Psalms. There is no shame in following His guidance. Obedience, too, is exercise of free will.”

“So that’s it, then? Each of us exercises opposing free will? No compromise?”

Rabbi Katz shrugs.

Matt slowly nods and stands, heads for the office door.

Rabbi Katz raises his hand, palm facing out. “A blessing on your head.” In low tones, he begins to murmur, “Yevarechecha —”

Matt pauses for a moment — “Thanks a lot, Rabbi” — then shakes his head and leaves.

Daniel M. Jaffe, author of the novel “The Limits of Pleasure” (Haworth Press, 2001), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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