One of the great acts of compassion that the Creator bestows upon human creatures is ignorance regarding two things: the day and manner of our deaths and what people really think of us until then.
What could possibly paralyze life more profoundly than knowledge of when and under what circumstances we will leave the world? I’m not talking about when the oncologist intones: “You’ve got three months, figure it out!”
We all know there’s plenty of wiggle-room in that sentence. So, okay, plan that vacation to Israel you’ve been putting off. You’ll get back with at least two months to spare. Plenty of time to get what’s left of your life in order, and — who knows? Chances are the oncologist with the bedside manner will have preceded you to the World to Come through some richly earned calamity.
No, I’m talking this: did you notice, amidst the other spectacularly unmerited deaths that filled last summer’s news, the disturbing report of the Seattle woman who was jostled off-balance at a bus stop and fell to her death under the bus’ wheels?
And what about that Bellevue lawyer who sat down in his living room last fall to watch a football game just as a crane smashed through his roof, crushing him to death? What would their lives have been like if, say, at the age of 12 or even 18, they had been granted a vision of the circumstances of their ultimate demise?
Most of the time, happily, divine rachmones preserves us as well from the other sort of knowledge that would also pitch us into paralytic vertigo — what our associates say about us out of earshot. Of course, Jewish tradition seeks to enforce heaven’s desire to preserve our innocence through the elaborate regulations governing lashon hara (defamation) and rechilut (tale-bearing).
But every now and then, there is a glitch in the otherwise-perfect cooperation of Providence and rabbinic legislation. Take the time I was having coffee at the UW HUB and overheard a group of students — a gaggle of not-unattractive young ladies, mind you — jawboning about their classes.
I caught the drift that the topic was Comparative Religion, so I concentrated a bit more intensely, even as I slinked behind a convenient potted plant for concealment. Suddenly, I got just what I deserved.
One piped out: “What do you think of Jaffee?”
“Which one is he?” piped another.
“You know,” answered her friend, “the bald, pudgy guy with the yarmulke who doesn’t accept Jee-zus?”
I wasn’t offended that one student had to inquire who Jaffee was. Okay, so after 20 years in the classroom here, I’m still the best-kept secret at the U. Moreover, I was quite prepared to grant them “pudgy.” After all, the scale doesn’t lie. But “bald?” Why, a mere 40 years ago I possessed the finest Jewish Afro at Syracuse University, the object of envious glares from the Panthers at the Black Student Union offices!
In all, this chance interchange over a cup of joe at the HUB turned out to be the most disabling shot to my self-image since the time, several years ago now, when I chanced to look at my doctor’s chart notes after a physical and found “the patient” described as “a slightly obese middle-aged gentleman.” But at least he was a guy!
So, licking my wounds, I ordered up a nonfat tall vanilla latte and contemplated the inscrutable designs of Providence that had brought me at just this moment to just this seat in just this coffee bar to overhear the idle chatter of those to whom I look for confirmation of my cleverness, probity and, I now discovered, my illusions of still resembling the marvelous hippie specimen of nearly 40 years and as many pounds ago.
Why had the Creator of the universe seen fit to crack open the sealed door of forbidden knowledge to let just this one beam of cruel light illumine my blissful ignorance?
And then suddenly, I saw the divine intentionality of it all. Blinded by the wounded pride of baldness exposed, I had been deaf to the larger message directed at me.
Surely, sitting among these Comparative Religion majors was the Baptist kid who, a few years ago, approached me after a lecture in my “Introduction to Western Religions” class on “Christ as Redemptive Sacrifice.”
“Prof. Jaffee?” she stammered, “Just what religion are you? How can you look like you look, be what you are, and preach my faith better than my pastor?”
At the time, I was stunned into inarticulate stammering that amounted to, “It’s a professional secret, kid. And, what makes you think you know what I am, anyway?”
Fool that I was! I didn’t see that her question meant: “How can you practice Judaism and speak so convincingly about your chief competition? Who are you really?”
A fair question, indeed. I should have been prepared for it. But, with the wisdom of hindsight, I think I know what I should have said and what I hope I’ll say the next time an inquiring young mind wants to know.
Let me scribble it down for safe-keeping: “As a serious Jew, I believe that the Creator of all has programmed every human community to craft its own ways to honor and revere the source of our common being. I am blessed to have inherited those of the Jewish people.
“The tools of comparative religion only strengthen my Judaism, for they help me understand what is universally human in the very acts by which we Jews sanctify our differences from others.”
Maybe I’ll get it right the next time, and maybe I won’t. In the meantime, I think I’ll amble on to the HUB to await the next bulletin from the Infinite Hidden One over a grande Frappucino (no cream).
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.