“All is determined, but choice is a given.” This classic paradox, transmitted in our tradition by the martyred sage, Rabbi Akiva, has been on my mind, as three events of this desolate winter percolate in my consciousness.
The events are: The controversy that resulted in squelching a plan to post an anti-Israel ad on Metro city buses; the shootings in Arizona that resulted in six deaths and the maiming of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; and the untimely death of singer-composer Debbie Friedman, whose powerful and elevating music has, second only perhaps to that of Shlomo Carlebach, changed the nature of synagogue music in American Judaism.
Each of these events has, superficially, nothing to do with the others — other than the random fact that they occurred within a brief enough time frame that they tend to cluster together in memory. But is there more to it than that? Let’s review “the facts.”
The week of Dec. 20, 2010, witnessed a massive campaign among the pro-Israel community both in Seattle and around the country to ban an ad deemed by many to be not merely controversial, but anti-Semitic. The taste of that victory, of course, will last only until the next public assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish State, which will probably have happened before you read these words.
In the Seattle Times’ coverage of the Jan. 8 attack against Gabrielle Giffords, I found no mention of one important angle. Although born of a Christian mother, Ms. Giffords regards herself as a Jew by virtue of her patrilineal line and membership in a Reform Jewish community.
Indeed, so seriously does she take her Jewishness that she made it a central part of her campaign to represent her district in Arizona’s congressional delegation. This alone makes her a public Jewish figure in the tradition of Barry Goldwater, no less, who shared with Giffords a nearly identical halachic status.
And now, we see, this publicly Jewish woman has been gunned down by a lunatic. Seattleites are reminded of Pam Waechter, who, working in the offices of the Jewish Federation, was also gunned down by a lunatic. Of course, not all lunatics gun Jews down, but it has happened enough to make us suspicious that “doing a Jew” is becoming a conventional rite of passage in American lunatic-dom.
Does the public controversy over an anti-Israel bus ad in a liberal American city have any relevance to the shooting of an American Jewish public figure in conservative Arizona? Apparently, sponsors of the bus ad, who ridiculed Jews for voicing concerns that the ad would inflame anti-Jewish feelings in the public square, would think not. Perhaps those of us with children who move through the wide world un-self-consciously displaying their Jewish identity (by wearing a kippah or, perhaps, an “I Love Israel” t-shirt) can be forgiven for having our grave doubts.
Now, as for the death of Debbie Friedman on Jan. 9 — what can that sad event possibly have to do with public anti-Semitism and the danger it poses to American Jews? Really, nothing. Except that in a “healing service” held in Congresswoman Giffords’ synagogue the day after the shooting, Debbie Friedman’s famous prayer for healing (misheberach) was played. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, that was also a kind of kaddish for Ms. Friedman, who had been in the hospital for several days and died from pneumonia that very morning.
It strikes me as amazingly appropriate that Debbie Friedman’s music was chosen to adorn the service for Congresswoman Giffords. Ms. Friedman’s music was made for all Jews, of course. But it found its natural home in the open-minded, experimental, and liberal sanctuaries of the Boomer generation. And it was a particularly effective bridge to the religious sensibilities of folks like Congresswoman Giffords, who felt themselves somehow profoundly Jewish even while consigned to an “outsider’s” status with regard to Orthodox and Conservative halachic norms.
It is perhaps in just such circles — intermarried and unconventionally Jewish — that we find an increasing number of Reform’s “rank and file;” It is probably among them that Congresswoman Giffords’ shooting is felt most painfully as “Jewish pain,” and to whom Ms. Friedman’s music offers the most solace.
So to return to the beginning — are these three events somehow bound up with each other? Are they “fated” to fall together into their own pattern of hidden meaning? Or are they random occurrences in a world bereft of meaning?
In a sense, this is a pagan way of putting the matter. Do we go, on the one hand, for Heraclitus’s world of random actions unguided by any design? Or, on the other, do we choose Stoicism’s inexorable working-out of pre-ordained patterns conceived in the mental world that alone can be called “God?”
For my buck, Rabbi Akiva’s answer cuts through the pagan debate. “All is foreseen” —the plot of our lives is built into us at birth; “but choice is a given” — our very ability to perceive our lives as patterns is the condition of breaking those patterns that harm us or enhancing those that nourish us.
As we emerge from the harshest of recent winters and anticipate the joys of the spring festivals, let us hope that there is ample cause for all of us to see in the randomness of events the patterns that make for freedom and love; and may we choose life!