In Reverence No Senescence

by Rabbi Andy Bachman

“This series of pictures should strike a deep emotional response in the heart of every Jew.  No matter how far we have traveled from the observances that were practiced by our fathers, we have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves, and a respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion.”
[From the English translation of Dr. Leopold Stein’s Oppenheim Pictures, originally published in Frankfort, Germany in 1886]

As Richard Cohen has pointed out, in Jewish Icons, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, one of mid-nineteenth century German Jewry’s most famous artists, used his work in “Scenes from the Traditional Jewish Family Life” to merge together “values of respectability, tradition and patriotism” showing “Jews loyal to home, family and country.” In “Die Jahrzeit,” Oppenheim depicts a Shiva Minyan, a required prayer commandment gathering of 10 men in order that a Jewish soldier in service can recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. For “Scenes from the Traditional Jewish Family Life,” Oppenheim reproduced his color paintings in black and white so they could be more easily photographed for printing the books, which, in mass distribution, were meant to instill proper feelings among German Jews and their new, prideful membership in civic life.

One wouldn’t really know the men were Jews but for the tallit worn by one of them and perhaps the presence of prayerbooks in their weary hands. Two presumably Gentile children peer in from the window above the scene, bearing witness to the their neighbors’ faith tradition.

What drew me to the picture today was the echo of Dr. Stein’s words in my head as I drifted to sleep last night and awoke this morning:

“No matter how far we have traveled from the observances that were practiced by our fathers, we have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves, and a respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion.”

I think of some of my work as a rabbi in fairly non-observant community. The countless hours spent explaining the most basic of practices, over and over again. Continually teaching fundamentals – sometimes, in the rarest of circumstances, as a coach to a kid who truly grows to love the game; but more often than not, perhaps like a high school math teacher, walking distracted students through formulas that for most are the grim requirements of getting through – the dreaded bar mitzvah comes to mind. Each experience is special, to be sure. Each is treated by the kids and their families with pride, nervousness, a measure of awe. But then it’s over so fast.  The onslaught of adolescence a Super Storm of Magnificent Proportions. There’s no telling what kind of Jews these kids will be – which is why booster shots like summer camp and Israel trips are so important.

The content is less important in this latter example than is the “feeling of reverence” for what Stein called “the necessary part.” And it’s the job of the older person to immunize the younger person with that feeling of immortality, an especially difficult task when we all know that kids generally see themselves as immortal already. Try telling a kid “what really matters.” Then bang your head against a wall.

And how great is the challenge in the conveyance of that “feeling of reverence” today, with a near total saturation of image and immediacy, of memes traveling at the speed of light over corporatized air, into young minds so unfathomably impressionable, so malleable and yet so overloaded as to make it at best a crapshoot as to what will stick and what will be obliterated in time and mind by the flood of future indentations to brain matter and memory.

We trade in feelings. In pride. In connection to Peoplehood, the new buzz word of organized Jewish life, which has replaced Oppenheim’s generational concern for Citizenship or Herzl’s concern for State. But whereas mid-nineteenth century Jewry has images for the conveyance of ideas of citizenship and statehood, our own era has little to offer in any kind of (what do the kids say today, “epic”?) way.

There is too much popular culture and too much irony and satire to be able to take any image too seriously. Jewish tatoos, Jewish reggae stars, Jewish comedians, Jewish basketball players, rabbis on Harleys and surfboards, women rabbis, gay rabbis, Jews with guns, Jewish Democrats, Jewish Republicans – nothing sticks anymore. And that’s probably a good thing. Since, after all, our supposed adherence to the Second Commandment is at least moderately predicated on the idea that the medium isn’t the message – unless of course the medium is a stone with letters carved on its face.

It always comes down to carved stone. Dr. Anne Pringle, a mycologist at Harvard who studies lichens on gravestones in New England, has gradually moved toward a theory of regenerative immortality. What we know from fungi and their eternality is that fundamentally, they don’t die. “If you made me answer the question now,” she said to the Times reporter Hillary Rosner, “I’d say there can be senescence of parts of an individual. But I don’t think an individual ever senesces.” Dr. Pringle records the life of a fungus by tracing it, tracking its changes as it evolves over time. Her images, like Oppenheim’s reproductions, are captured images of timelessness.

This makes me wonder what a fungus remembers: Who dug the hole in the ground? Who laid the stone? Who came to mourn and remember? Who cuts the grass? Who plants the new flowers each spring?

Do the fungi have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves?

I have the perfect bumper sticker! OMG! “In Reverence No Senescence!” And a small picture of Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s “Die Jahrzeit” in the center. Every Jewish driver will want one. We will drive with pride! Observing traffic laws wherever we reside!  For at least the traffic law is a law. Someone’s law! And as we all know, laws come from somewhere. The source is ever-present. It’s always been there. It never dies.

It’s old. Like a fungus.

Rabbi Andy Bachmanis the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Originally posted at Water Over Rocks