Three Rabbis in Israel and Atlanta

On a warm winter evening a few weeks ago, three rabbis I am fond of—one Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform—returned to Atlanta to talk about what it’s like to be Israeli—or to try to be. Although retired from local pulpits, each has a well-earned national reputation.

Emmanuel Feldman has written many books and was for decades the editor of the distinguished Orthodox journal Tradition. Our improbable friendship began a quarter century ago when I first moved to Atlanta. After he told a group of students about the need for strict construction of Jewish law, I asked him what the ultra-Orthodox men of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem think when he walks by without payes (side-locks) or a long black coat.

His keen sense of humor about himself carried us through that and other little rough spots. He does have a huge grey beard and lowering eyebrows that can seem intimidating until you are struck by the mildness in his eyes and voice. (Once when he came to talk to a class of mine, my young blond non-Jewish secretary said, “He really looks like a rabbi!”) Passion for Torah smolders out of him. He is the eighth generation of rabbis in his family, and his son (“Feldman the Ninth”) took over his pulpit. “Feldman the Tenth is running around the aisles of the shul these days,” he used to say, “but we don’t yet know which one he is.”

He’s famous for recruiting ba-alei t’shuva—returning Jews—building a great synagogue from a base of at least five hundred of them. I once asked him the secret of his success. “People would come and say, ‘Teach me to keep the sabbath and keep kosher,’ and I would say, ‘No, choose one.’”

Yet as a young rabbi in the late 1940s he arrived at what would be his lifelong pulpit and threatened to leave with his wife the day before Rosh Hashana because the congregants had taken down the mechitza—the partition between the sexes. It went up again.

The second, Arnie Goodman, has been a friend for twenty years. I belonged to his synagogue and (a few times a year at least) heard his elegantly crafted, precise sermons that reminded me of the Jewish gift for logic, interpretation, and law. He is in fact an attorney as well as a leading rabbi, and sat for years on the Conservative movement’s law committee.

Once he consulted me because I had written (for The New York Times) about biological factors in homosexuality. He wanted to understand whether it was a choice, and I explained that it usually isn’t, although of course any of us can in theory choose celibacy. His desire to know was intense. The committee issued a sort of encyclical about sexuality—humane, not legalistic–that clarified and liberalized the Conservative Jewish view.

Arnie came to my wife’s hospital room the day after her mastectomy. An avowed atheist, she kicked all other visitors out of the room, looked him with her classic steely gaze, and said, “What do you have to offer?” Whatever it was, it was not conventionally religious, and it did indeed comfort her. He also comforted my children after her death, and he helped me to keep them Jewish. Although there were many things in Jewish law that he could not and would not bend, he never looked down from a holier height. He saw the law as a living, growing tree the ancients had planted, to come to fruition in the future in ways not even Moses could envision. No wonder his congregation had two thousand families.

Stanley Davids was the third and the one I knew least well, but my one significant encounter with him was telling. While my wife was struggling with cancer he was too, but his was thought much worse. Both were much too young. Someone sent me a series of sermons he gave on what it was like to face death; they were remarkable–genuine emotion, philosophic calm, vulnerability, resolution, and a deep sense of the value of life. Since Margie was at the time consulting many kinds of healers, I asked him to see her, and he did. Although we were strangers to him, he helped her greatly.

As life and luck would have it, he has outlived her by a decade and appeared on that stage at Atlanta’s Hebrew Academy in January with my other two rabbi-friends. The three sat in easy chairs in a “living-room” setting, having a chat moderated by Cheryl Finkel, a distinguished Jewish educator of legendary warmth who built Atlanta’s Solomon Schechter School, the Epstein School, from a handful of pre-school children into a major institution.

All agreed it was difficult but important to live in Israel. Rabbi Feldman said he was always jet-lagged and hoped he always would be, acting as a human bridge between the two great Jewish communities. But for him, the real bridge is Torah. Rabbi Goodman said it helps to be crazy to be a Zionist, but he has to be there because it is where God and the Jewish people met. Oh, and his grandchildren, who speak Hebrew so fast he has to tell them to slow down. Rabbi Davids has on the wall of his apartment the proclamation of Israel’s statehood; it reminds him that the infamous British White Paper was nullified in the same language that ill-considered vows to God are nullified in the Kol Nidre prayer on the Day of Atonement.

It was remarkable to see them together. Rabbi Davids works toward a day when Jews of all denominations, along with their rabbis, will get equal treatment in Israel. He also fervently believes in Palestinian rights; when he says “Next year in Jerusalem” in Jerusalem, it is no contradiction, because the real Jerusalem, which will be Jewish but fair and pluralistic, is not yet there. He dreams of a time when Torah will flow not just from the text but from our lives.

Feldman, on the other hand, the Orthodox guardian of Torah, disparaged the silence of Jewish Americans when Israeli soldiers dragged Jewish settlers out of Gaza. On this point Goodman had for me the last word, quoting the Conservative law committee: If you want to influence events in Israel, you have to have your feet on the ground there. Davids urged people to take their children to Israel; they can’t live off your memories, they have to make their own.

Feldman related a telling story. He got into a fender-bender the day before coming to Atlanta, and the other driver screamed at him relentlessly in Hebrew, yet he interrupted himself long enough to yell, “Come sit in the car with me, it’s cold out there.” This perhaps is the essence. The disputes are real and disturbing, but the sense of solidarity, of mutual protection and defense, is even stronger.