The Metaphorphoses of Rabbi Moskowitz
By Phil Cohen
Rabbi Avshalom Moskowitz awoke one morning from uneasy dreams to find he no longer believed in God.
Uch, he thought. Better I should be turned into a giant insect. But as he lifted his arms he saw human appendages. He felt certain that he occupied the same old body. And yes, he was the same as always, he observed, as he regarded himself in the mirror above his dresser. Thinning, wavy hair. Bushy eyebrows. Same dark eyes, with small pouches beneath them. Same bulb for a nose. A pair of lips to match his nose. Same untrammeled salt and pepper beard, lately more salt than pepper. No hint of insectitude anywhere.
It’s not the Holocaust, he said to himself. Hitler did that, not God. But still. There was the Holocaust, even if Hitler with some help from his colleagues and co-conspirators did it and not God. You had to wonder. You just had to wonder.
But no. It wasn’t the Holocaust.
It wasn’t anything in particular. It wasn’t the Bible that didn’t come from God anymore. It wasn’t pollution, or tsunamis, or the Big Bang, or his neighbor who borrowed and never returned, or the Arabs. No. Not even the Arabs. It wasn’t anything. There just wasn’t God. There wasn’t room for God anymore.
“You don’t believe in God anymore,” his wife Ruchele declared and asked at the same time in her way. “It’s not because of the Holocaust, is it? Hitler did that, not God.”
“No, it’s not the Holocaust,” he answered. “That was Hitler and some other mamzerim. I’m going to have to tell the board, you know.”
“And why do you have to tell the board? Why should they know? They have to be informed of all of your moods? You get a stomachache, you tell the board? Of course not. And they just gave you a new contract, with medical and a pension. You’re not a kid anymore, you know, and neither am I.”
But believing in God would seem to be one of the necessities of the life of a rabbi, especially the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Avraham, the Sons of Abraham. For as everyone knows, his great predecessor was the beloved sage, Rabbi Hermann Liebschutz, author of the Kol Yechezkel, the Voice of Ezekiel. Yechezkel was Rabbi Liebschutz’ Hebrew name. This monumental work plumbed the very depths of the theology of the great medieval thinker Rabbi Moses ben Avraham, known affectionately as the Ramba. When Moskowitz became the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Avraham it was made clear to him that it was Liebschutz’ mammoth philosophical shoes he was expected to fill--even though Liebschutz had been dead for more than forty years and three successors of his lay between the great sage and Moskowitz. Until a successor should produce a work as great as the Kol, every successor would have to step into Liebshutz’s shoes. And those shoes grew larger by the year, even by the month, sometimes daily.
So how could a rabbi put on his tefillin in the morning if he didn’t believe in God? How could he stand up on Shabbat in front of his people and preach from the Torah and its commentaries? How could he recite the Standing Devotion at the morning service with his usual bowing up and down at the speed of light? How could he sing on key? How could be bless bar mitzvah boys and send them off into their Jewish future?
“You’re not going to eat pork, are you?” asked his wife as she put his oatmeal before him. “I don’t think I could bear it if you ate pork.”
“I have no taste for pork,” he answered, but still he wondered... bacon always smelled so good, and now that there is no God… But then there was his cholesterol.
“You’re not going to have an affair with a model like that rabbi in Great Neck are you?”
“I have no taste for models,” he answered as he sliced a banana into the oatmeal. And on this he did not wonder. Models held no appeal for him. Too skinny.
“You’re not going to steal from the shul, are you?”
“No, I’m not going to become a ganiff just because I don’t belief in God anymore. There are plenty of atheists who are not gonovim.”
“Alright . Okay. Alright. That’s okay for now. Just don’t tell the board, and certainly don’t tell that Bernie Mandelbaum. He’s got a mouth like the Holland Tunnel.”
And somehow he got through the day without telling anyone but his wife that he no longer believed in God. And his wife, who knew what side her bread was buttered on, told not a soul, not even Josefina who cleaned the house and was Ruchule’s confidant.
That night Rabbi Avshalom Moskowitz dreamt he was talking to God.
“So I hear you no longer believe in Me,” said the Master of the Universe.
“That’s right,” he answered.
“It’s not because of the Holocaust, is it? Because that was Hitler, not Me. I had nothing to do with it.”
“No, it’s not the Holocaust. Anyone with half a brain rattling around somewhere in his head knows it was Hitler and not You. No one who can spell his name even with one mistake blames you.”
“That’s good, because I didn’t do it.”
“That’s right. Hitler. Is it because I didn’t write the Torah?”
“No. Even Maimonides had his doubts that You wrote the Torah and that was a long time ago.”
There was a pause while the rabbi woke up and padded over to the toilet to pee.
“Sorry. My doctor tells me I have the prostate the size of a watermelon.”
“What then?” asked the Holy One after Moskowitz returned to his bed.
“I can’t say for sure, but I can say for sure that I can’t see it anymore. A God in the universe I mean.”
“But here we are talking to each other.”
“But I know it’s a dream. I know it’s not reality.”
“Ah,” God replied. “But what IS reality?”
And the good rabbi who knew a few things about philosophy, if not as much as his predecessor, answered, “You have a point.”
“Aha!” said God Almighty, hope in his voice.
“But in my reality you don’t exist anymore,” said the rabbi, and God vanished like so much steam from an air vent.
The next day Bernie Mandelbaum came up to Moskowitz after morning services. “You seemed a little tepid today, Rabbi. Is everything all right?”
“Sure, sure. What could be wrong?”
“I don’t know, of course, but you didn’t do your usual bowing up and down at the speed of light when you recited the Standing Devotion.”
“I’m tired. It’s been a long week.”
“Okay, Rabbi. Be well.”
That night his teacher Professor Rabbi Doctor Mendel Horowitz came to him in a dream.
“I hear you don’t believe in the Ribbono Shel Olam any more.”
“How can I? There’s no room for Him. The world’s all filled up.”
“No room for God? But God has no body. If God has no body, you can’t talk about room. It’s a mistake to talk like that. You know that, don’t you? Didn’t I teach you anything?”
“So it’s a mistake. To me, it’s still true.”
Moskowitz sighed. “I don’t care about logic. I just want to be left alone.”
“But you’re the rabbi of B’nai Avraham. That’s Liebschutz’s old place, no?”
“Yes. Yes. It’s Liebschutz’s old place. Are you suggesting that because he wrote on the Ramba that I should believe in God? What kind of logic is that?”
No one ever challenged the Professor Rabbi Doctor before, not even his former students in their dreams, and for a moment he was stunned.
“How about God as a metaphor?” Horowitz asked.
“A metaphor for what?”
“For all the goodness in the world.”
“Can’t we have all the goodness in the world without it being a metaphor for God?”
“Everything’s a metaphor for something. Why can’t all the goodness in the world be a metaphor for God?”
“If you say so. But can I pray to this metaphor? Can I bow up and down at the speed of light?”
“You can do whatever you want.”
“Nope. Don’t like it. But thanks.”
That morning over his oatmeal Ruchele said to him, “Faigi Rosenbaum called and said she saw someone who looked like you going into Ham’s Restaurant yesterday. I told her it couldn’t be you because you would never set foot in a traif restaurant. Right?”
Moskowitz stirred his coffee with a spoon. “Right,” he said.
After the morning prayers that morning, Bernie Mandelbaum came up to Rabbi Moskowitz while he was putting his tefillin away, and said, “Rabbi, I hope everything is all right.”
“Everything’s fine. Why do you ask?”
“Because you were surprisingly off key when you sang the closing hymn. I hope you’re feeling okay.”
“I’m fine, fine,” said the rabbi, who was thinking a week in Eilat would be good about now.
That night Moskowitz’s late brother Pinni came to him.
“Avele my brother,” he said. “I am hearing that you have given up Hashem.”
“True, true, though to tell the truth I wish people would stop occupying my dreams and just let me get on with things.”
“No can do. In fact, if I don’t succeed, Mama will be by tomorrow night.”
“Oh God, not Mama.”
“She’s bought a new dress just in case.”
“It’s gone, Pinni, it’s just gone. One day I could talk to Him, the next day it was like talking to a wall.”
“Don’t you feel bad?”
“You want to know the truth, not so much. I mean I wake up one morning and there it is, or isn’t, I guess I should say. And that’s all there is to it.”
“But all that education.”
“Education never goes to waste. I can always find something else to do. Maybe Ruti will take me into her business. She always said she thought I’d do well in retail.”
“She told me she was just being nice.”
“Maybe she’d consider it anyway.”
“So that’s it? What am I going to tell Mama?”
“I’d be grateful if you lied.”
“You know better. No one lies to Mama and lives.”
“But you’re already dead.”
“It’s a metaphor.”
“Everything’s a metaphor, I hear. You won’t lie, then?”
“Can’t do it.”
“Not even for your brother?”
“Especially not for my brother.”
“All right then, maybe I’ll stay up all night. She won’t be able to come.”
“You think Mama would fall for such a trick?”
“A man can hope.”
“Goodbye Avele. It was nice to see you.”
“You, too, Pinni. Give my love to Grandma and Grandpa. ”
“I will, but if you keep this up, you may get to say it to them in person.”
“Oy is right. Make sure you say something nice about the dress. ”
The next morning instead of oatmeal Ruchele prepared eggs and phony bacon made from soy. “They tell me it tastes like the real thing,” she said.
No it doesn’t, Moskowitz thought.
“Yes, I imagine so,” he said, though he missed his oatmeal and banana.
After morning services Bernie Mandelbaum came up to him and said, “Rabbi all week you’ve been davenning like a goy. Can you please tell me if anything’s wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong. I just have been a little under the weather, that’s all.”
“Good. But I have to tell you that if you go through Shabbos like this, I’m going to have to talk with the members of the board.”
That night his mother came to him in his dreams.
“Tatale,” she said. “I know all about it. I’ve heard from everyone.”
“Nice dress, Mama,” Moskowitz said.
“I got it on sale. Forty percent off of twenty-five percent off. It’s a good thing, too. I’m wearing it once.”
“Well,I like it. How’s Papa?”
“You know how he is. One day up, another down. But he’s getting along. I’ll tell him you asked after him.”
“Thanks. Tell him I miss him.”
“I will. But what about you, Avshalom. You lost your way?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Ah, but I think perhaps you have.”
“Mama, this is my life. It’s my decision.”
“I’m not here to argue theology with you. Anyway, how could I possibly debate the great Yehezkel Liebschutz’s successor?”
“That’s good, mama. I’ve had enough debating.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Because here it is. One day you believe in God, the next day you don’t. You think you’re the only one? I was talking just today about you with Liebschutz…”
“You talked to Hermann Liebschutz?”
“Up here we call him only Yehezkel. He prefers it.”
“Okay, so you were talking to Liebschutz?”
“Yes. And he’s very wise.”
“Down here they never let me forget his great wisdom, though, to tell the truth no one’s read his book since 1970. I haven’t read his book ever. Who cares about the Ramba after all?”
“He knows. He knows. And that’s the point, he told me.”
“What’s the point?”
“The point is, Tatale, one day you’re up, the next you’re down, but it’s the overall that counts. One day you eat bacon at Ham’s Restaurant, the next day you eat soy that’s supposed to taste like bacon.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“You see, Tatale, it’s like this. You live in a house. One day it’s clean, the next it’s dirty, but it’s always the same house.”
“Mama, you’re not being very clear.”
“Okay, so I’ll be clear. You live in a world. If you know what’s good for you you’ll stay in that world, because to leave it is trouble. And we have enough trouble.”
“But Mama, God didn’t write the Torah.”
“And there’s the Holocaust.”
“Again, and I mean no disrespect to the Holocaust, God forbid, so what? Because things are hard you want give up and go out into the wilderness? And you think Ruchele will go out into the desert with you?”
“I was hoping.”
“You have no hope. You go, she stays.”
“But I don’t believe.”
“Look. The great Liebschutz told me a secret. From 1962 until late 1963 he didn’t believe, either. That’s when he wrote the book.”
“So I should write a book?”
“It wouldn’t hurt. But you don’t have to. You can do whatever you want. You can take up hang gliding. No. Let me take that back. Anything but hang gliding.”
“But I feel foolish.”
“Let me tell you, Tatale. You get your sense of the greatness of things by doing, not by not doing. If things are a mess, you don’t give up, you work harder. If you’ve never listened to anything I ever told you, listen to this one thing.”
“I don’t know.”
“I do, and I’m your Mama. You really like my dress?”
The next morning Maximilian Silverberg became a bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Jacob.
At the Kiddush lunch Bernie Mandelbaum came up to him. “Wonderful! Wonderful! A beautiful service, Rabbi. Beautiful. Just look at how the boy’s parents are glowing.”
The rabbi sighed and ate a knish.
That night Yehezkel Liebschutz came to Moskowitz in his sleep.
“I wanted to meet my most recent successor,” he said.
“And I you.”
“I see you understand.”
“What’s to understand?” asked Moskowitz.
“Your mother told me what she said to you last night. A very wise woman for someone who never read my book. Me, I just wanted to meet my successor. You don’t look so bad, you know?”
“That’s it. Except to say this: the world moves in circles around the sun. It’s a big world and a bigger sun, and to make sense of it all takes work. Lots of work. I know a man like you knows that in your head, but sometimes it‘s a big effort to keep such knowledge in your heart. Right now it’s slipped out of your heart. And why not? There’s all those things.”
“Lots of things.”
“And they add up and drag you down.”
“Of course I understand. I’m Liebschutz, no?”
“That’s a joke, right.”
“Right and wrong. I’m not the great Liebschutz the congregation thinks I am. I’m Liebschutz and you’re Moskowitz, and we’re both a pair of zlubs. I know it and you know it, and if they don’t know it yet, some day they will. Give them time. Well, Rabbi, we’ve spoken. Like I said, I just wanted to meet you. Don’t forget. You’ve got friends in high places. You want, I’ll come back some day and we can drink tea. Or a nice single malt, if you prefer.”
“That would be good. Nice to meet you, Yehezkel.”
The next morning Ruchele served Moskowitz his oatmeal and placed a banana next to the bowl.
It wasn’t a perfect world, was it?
But Moskowitz knew there were these three reliable things in it: A banana to go with oatmeal, his wife, and the day after tomorrow that was sure to come.
from the March 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine