Sunday The Rabbi Converted
By Sid Hecker
Lawrence Goldman had recently completed his studies at Hebrew Union College in New York. Unable to quickly find a Reform congregation in need of an assistant rabbi, he had accepted a part time position teaching a basic course in Judaic studies at Baruch College. Within a year the president of the college invited him to lunch and asked if he would like to teach another part time course - in comparative religion. He was gratified and cheerfully accepted the challenge.
But he knew in his heart that it would indeed be a challenge. At 29 years old most of his knowledge of other religions had come from books and academics. Since he would never want to shortchange his students , he decided to spend most of the summer in a hands on quest for knowledge of religions other than his own. He also felt that this would be an opportunity for comparison and strengthening of his own beliefs. He still had questions, even doubts. And as he began his quest he couldn't help thinking that in the back or perhaps in the font of each professional clergyman's mind might be the thought of converting him.
The announcement of his new appointment at Baruch appeared in several newspapers , including the education section of the New York Times, and within days he was besieged with invitations from priests, ministers, orthodox and reconstructionist rabbis and others, all eager to discuss their respective views of faith. He even received a call from the Church of Latter Day Saints, proposing an all expense paid visit to the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. These people didn't seem to lack for funds. And last but undoubtedly least was the call from a high priestess of the Wiccan church, which to his surprise is a legally recognized religion with 503C nonprofit status. He hadn't met a witch since he played a munchkin in the Wizard of Oz.
By the fourth day he was so busy with invitations and phone discussions that his friend Max Schulman had trouble reaching him. Finally at 9:30 PM on a Wednesday Max made contact. "Boychick" he said - Max was twice Lawrence's age and treated him like a favored son as well as a true friend. They differed about their respective views of Judaism, Max with his all consuming orthodoxy and Lawrence with his acceptance of the reform path. They often discussed but seldom argued, though Max, accustomed as he was to making convincing pitches in his career as a seasoned salesman, had a week ago lightly broached the idea of what he referred to as a major decision. "Boychick, I know you're busy with all these people you're supposedly learning from., but I wanted to continue that discussion we had just started last week. Max had spoken confidently about what would be best for the family, for the children, for the future, the right thing to do. But Lawrence had by now become engaged in his new quest and had pretty much cut Max off without really listening. Max was a little offended buy he knew he would renew the discussion soon. After all, he hadn't studied Talmud for 50+ years without developing a persuasive manner.
Two days later the quest for knowledge commenced. He was about to leave for St. Vito's church to which he had been invited by Father Donovan , when he heard a knock on his front door. Two young men, neatly dressed, with badges saying "elder" on their white shirts asked if they could speak with him about the subject of marriage. "We represent the Church Of Latter Day Saints", one explained, "and our mission is to help people understand how to live a proper married life. "This is going to save me a the inconvenience of a trip to Utah" thought Lawrence and he invited the boys in. He called Father Donovan to say he'd be a little late. "Are you both named Elder?", he asked. "Oh no" the taller one answered; it's a title given to those who go on missions to preach the one true faith. "Well, if you're an elder", Lawrence thought, "I'm a zayde".
What he heard next reminded him of his own practices. Mormons were active in charitable work . community service and education. But he stopped them short when they started to try to teach him about marriage. He soon saw that all of their supposed marital wisdom came from books. He thanked them for their information but thinking fondly of his wife Miriam, sent them away suggesting that it might be a good idea to try the real thing one day.
As he entered St. Vito's church he admired the tapestries, the stained glass windows and the beautiful Statues. But all the while he couldn't help remembering the effigies in Abraham's father's shop. Father Donovan, a pleasant, soft spoken young priest, explained as much as possible about Catholicism in the brief interview, noting the centrality of the trinity - the father, the son and the holy ghost, in modern times known as the holy spirit. And all the time he listened, Lawrence kept thinking "Three, achad, achad, achad, The Lord our G-d the Lord is one". The priest, who Lawrence had trouble addressing as father, being at least five years his senior, explained beliefs including celibacy and virgin birth. "Well, that combination certainly seems logical" thought the rabbi. He was following as best he could. Once more, the values were akin to those of Judaism. Kindness, charity, generosity, forgiveness. Both men appeared respectful of each other's faith, but a real difference arose. "On your Day of Atonement" the priest noted, you spend one whole day asking for forgiveness. So you must have an awful lot of sins". "How often do good Catholics go to confession?" asked the rabbi. "At least once a week" was the reply. "Well, then you must be 52 times as sinful". Father Donavan then changed the subject to conversion and how wonderful it is to come to the one true faith.
The next Tuesday it was time to meet with the Reverend Steven Thomas at the elegant Presbyterian church in Greenwich, CT. "That beautiful spire reaches so high" Lawrence mentioned as he shook the reverend's hand, thinking all the while of Babel. If ever there was a person comfortable in his religion, this was he. Reverend Thomas, an older clergyman, spoke with the authority of years of learning and practice, backed by a large, well heeled congregation. He referred to his one true faith and beliefs and practices common to all ethical faiths, justice, charity, forgiveness. The rabbi then chose to ask about an article of Presbyterian faith that he had wondered about for some time. "Predestination" intoned the reverend, means simply that everything is predetermined by G-d and no one may change what is predestined. This is fact, though some younger, less experienced clergymen may disagree. "What about free will?" asked Lawrence. " Doesn't such a doctrine suggest for example that if and when I get to Heaven, I'll meet Al Capone and Joe Stalin? "Well yes, that's true, even though it may seem unfair to some. You have to be chosen to go to Heaven". "Hey, that sounds pretty good to me" said the rabbi.
But the reverend didn't seem to get the reference. "And doesn't that mean that you, a man of peace, can wind up in hell?" "Well, uh, not uh, can we talk a bit about Israel? Do you think the Israelis will ever give back land west of the river?" "Possibly, but as usual the U.S. will lead the way, starting with New Jersey and moving on to Arizona, California and New Mexico". We shook hands and parted, and knew that we had agreed on some issues and not on others.
The Al Fateh mosque was next, a structure whose main purpose was seemingly to express the value of water. At the entrance, in the hallway and in the main center, pools of water graced the walkways. "Water is central to our culture, "explained Imam Muhammad. "All life is derived from water. Islam was born in the harsh deserts of Arabia and the Qu'ran says that water is the primary
element that existed even before Heaven and earth and every living thing comes from water. Believers will be rewarded in paradise with rivers of pure water" The Imam exhibited a surprising sense of humor, relating the story of the Arabs at Niagara asking "when do they turn it off?" But the Imam (is everyone named Muhammad ?) spoke seriously of how one becomes a Muslim, a member of (you guessed it) the true faith. "You simply say there is no G-d apart from G-d and Muhammad is his messenger . Lawrence simply wondered about the value of this process versus many weeks of study. Of course the only way to become a Jew faster than becoming a Muslim is to try to be born from a Jewish mother.
At the Unitarian Universalist Center, Lawrence's immediate impression was that he had walked in to the United Nations building. Flags of at least 20 religions flew from the walls. The Minister, Martin Johnson greeted him effusively and was quick to explain that absolutely everyone was welcome. He explained that "UUism" as he called it is a "non-creedal, non-doctrinal religion. In other words, there is no one to worship and there are no absolute rules, although peace, liberty, justice and the democratic process are key values in Unitarianism. No argument there. He pointed out that "while Christians have Jesus to worship and Jews have Moses to worship".. Lawrence's hand gently rose as he emphasized Jewish reverence and respect for Moses, but not worship. Nice people, thought the rabbi, but thinking of his grandmother's very direct opinions, "no schmaltz".
Lawrence Goldman looked around furtively as he entered the Wicca center in New Rochelle, feeling like a rabbi entering a lobster house. Could he take this seriously? The Wiccan princess, replete with black pointed hat and cape explained that Wicca is not very different from other religions, the chief values being love, respect for nature and respect for others. But where the practice seems to fall off the deep edge was the routes taken to reach these lofty goals. Most of these seem to be available to aspiring witches through a virtual department store of devices;, some of which she actually tried to sell to Lawrence. The "Athame" is a sharp double edge dagger which for some reason is supposed to represent fire. It may not be used for cutting. Wiccan brooms re available for the express purpose of banishing negativity and are not guaranteed to fly. You can get a book of shadows in which to keep your personal spells , tarot and divination sets as well as crystal balls and fairy products. It seemed to our young rabbi that all this was just a bid for attention, to broadcast the idea of nonconformity, since none of this stuff works anyway, except to fill the pockets of the sellers. He thought of buying a wicca bumper sticker so the men in the white suits would know where to follow him.
Enough already. The next Shabbat he arrived early at the local reconstructionist synagogue and Immediately joined in the prayers, most of which were sung rather than recited. Everyone seemed to know the melodies. Reminiscences of the Shlomo Carlbach shul he had attended a year before. It was the most cheerful atmosphere he had ever encountered in a synagogue, with a congregant giving the Dvar Torah and children doing the motzi. He ultimately concluded that reconstructionism is somewhere on the scale between frum and fun. And, he got a free lunch.
The rabbi had accepted an invitation from Rabbi Morris Weinstein of Beth Hamidrosh Hagodol in Boro Park, Brooklyn. This rabbi had come from Hungary in 1939, having barely escaped the horrors of that Era. He impressed Lawrence with the need to continue his true faith. The term was quite familiar by now, but this time it seemed to have carried a deeper meaning. He noted that rabbi said "his", Lawrence's true faith, not "the" true faith. And he was well aware that Judaism was not pushed or sold to anyone but was available to those born in to it or decided to accept it.
Rabbi Weinstein spoke of the faith of our fathers, the real Judaism. And as Lawrence listened ,he saw in his mind's eye his old zayde as he sat on his knee and listened to beautiful stories of wonder workers, Macabees, voices in the desert, and the beginning of civilization when G-d made Abraham end the barbaric practice of child sacrifice. All the while the rabbi spoke, Lawrence's felt the return of old and deep memories, of the books his grandma brought along with the latkes and jelly rolls, the patience of his father as he helped him with his Bar Mitzvah studies and ultimately at 16, the trip to Israel with the March of the Living. It was then that he realized who he really was and what he should be. It didn't take five minutes after he left the shul to make his decision.
When Max called Sunday night Lawrence was in a really good mood. "Max" he said, It's been a really great experience talking to all these people and." Max broke in - "that's wonderful, so now you have time to listen to me about the idea I barely started to tell you about a while ago. "Sure Max, but can we meet tomorrow at Chabad Neshama in Brooklyn?" "Why would you want to meet there?" "To put tfillin on of course". "Why would you want to do that?" "Because I've decided to become frum, to study at Yeshiva University and eventually become an orthodox rabbi. You see, I really was listening to you Max, especially the few words I caught about the warmth, what would be best for my family, the children, the right thing to do".
Silence at the other end. "Max?"
"Larry, listen for a change., both ears please. What is my profession?"
"You're a salesman, a great salesman" "And what company do I work for?"
"What is this, 20 questions?"
"And what do I sell?"
"Electric home heating systems, like you always say, warm, comfortable...oh no!.
"Yes Boychick, what I was trying to tell you while you were so busy listening to other people was that you should get rid of that old schmata of an oil burner and convert to warm, comfortable electric heat. This time Lawrence was silent. Finally he said "But Max, aren't you glad that I'll be seeing you in your shul?"
"Of course I am I'm truly delighted, but.."
"But what Max?"
"I lost the sale!!
from the April 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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