“Whenever someone becomes Jewish by choice,” I began in introducing the speaker, “it represents a level of commitment that is unfortunately never reached by many of us who were born Jewish. It is also a compliment to Judaism, Jewish traditions, and the Jewish people. But when someone like Dr. Laurie Patton makes that choice, it’s a compliment of staggering proportions.”
Laurie, a colleague at Emory, was about to lead a class for alumni of the Wexner Heritage Foundation seminars. The program, co-founded by Rabbi Herb Friedman, its intellectual leader and inspiration, and Leslie Wexner, the Limited/Victoria’s Secret magnate who generously funds it, picks promising Jewish leaders in their thirties and forties and for two years of biweekly four-hour sessions to give them the Jewish education many have never had.
The first wave, in 1988-90–I was a “maverick” member according to Herb, decades before McCain-Palin–so inspired the participants that in Atlanta alone it led to the establishment of the first Reform day school, the first non-Orthodox community high school,and a mammoth capital campaign. The idea was that instead of funding institutions, Les Wexner would fund generations of Jewish leaders who, inspired by their newfound appreciation for Jewish tradition, would build far more than he could, even with his billions. It worked.
Alumni of the first Atlanta wave co-funded the second, and a year ago both groups decided to get together for seminars. So the other evening us fifty- and sixty-somethings joined with the thirty- and forty-somethings to listen to an exceptionally gifted teacher.
Laurie went to Harvard and on to the University of Chicago, where she became an authority on early Indian religions and Sanskrit texts. She wrote or edited seven books, and the very day I was introducing her was the official pub date of her translation of the Bhagavad Gita, (Penguin Classics, $12) which scans beautifully as English poetry—not surprising, since she is also a poet.
Her first book of poems came out of trips to India, inspired by the religious ideas and rituals of that vast subcontinent. Her second, forthcoming, is based on the portions of the Torah read in synagogue each week, following them in their cycle around the year. Somehow she also managed to lead the Deparment of Religion at Emory to a rank among the top five in the country, and to win Emory’s highest teaching award.
The reason for that was soon evident. Her seminar was among the best I have attended in two decades of Wexner programs, a perfect blend of head, heart, and spirit. The room was full of successful people—doctors, lawyers, business and community leaders—who are often quiet because they feel they lack expertise. Laurie had them in the palm of her hand, and with a touch that seemed almost magical to me (and I teach for a living) she had everyone saying heartfelt, insightful things.
The theme was Moses as depicted in later literature. Poems by Emily Dickinson, Matthew Arnold, Longfellow, the 19th century Hindu saint Radhakrishnan, the Yiddish poet Alicia Ostrikher, and the present-day African-American poet Lucille Clifton were all inspired by the man Jews call “Moshe Rabbeinu”—Moses-our-Teacher—said as almost one word, as if inseparable.
Moses is seen by Dickinson as face to face with God, but not consumed, yet denied more than the sight of the promised land; by Arnold as finding God “near” and “flashing” as “he lay in the night by his flock/On the starlit Arabian waste;” and by Longfellow as breaking the tablets of the Law so that the fragments resemble those in the Jewish cemetery at Newport.
Radhakrishnan appeals to a Mother-goddess for all-embracing love, listing Moses along with Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Nanak (the guru of the Sikhs), and Mohamed as “lost in a rapture of pure love.” Ostrikher feels like Moses looking at God’s back as she watches her aged mother—there with her yet not there—slowly dying. And Clifton, in “To a Dark Moses,” sees herself as the burning bush, longing for “the one/I am lit for.”
In all these poems, as Laurie led us to discover, the common thread is the simultaneous presence and absence of God, and the nexus of faith lies in the discomfort zone between these two conditions. But it was her own poem about Moses, based on the parsha Devarim—the opening of Deuteronomy—that was perhaps the most evocative.
In it Moses as carries a basket of stars on his head—the Jewish people, already said to be as numerous as those heavenly jewels. But unlike Atlas, carrying the world, Moshe Rabbeinu must carry just one people:
Moses knew the value
perhaps he even knew
the calcium of our bones
was formed in a star…
he had to put
his stars down,
and put them in rows
and strange galaxies
Unlike the others, this poem is very, very Jewish, and made me remember the Midrash that says all Jews, including converts, stood with Moses at Mount Sinai. Laurie seems beautifully to remember what she saw there.
Jews have at times invited others to join them, but never tried to carry the world. Their God and their teachers are in part at least specific to them. Laurie Patton has been Jewish for less than a decade, but she has already joined the ranks of teachers among whom Moses was the greatest. She makes me wonder, with more than a little pain, what we lost by keeping women out of intellectual life for so many centuries, and, with expectant hope, what we may gain by a more inviting stance toward women and men who may want to join us.