Friday, December 26, 2008


Dear friends,
When I was in Vienna in 1970, I didn't have any background or understanding of Judaism. I came from California, and my Catholicism was from my Mexican grandmother's side of the family. The Irish FitzGeralds were Orangemen, but my grandfather converted to marry her. I loved the Jesuits, and Santa Clara was a perfect place for me. So I didn't have any kind of handle on Judaism, or the Holocaust, more than what we were taught in school. In 1982-87 I lived in Brooklyn, and worked at Maimonides Hospital, and was surrounded by a very vibrant Orthodox Jewish society. I suddenly realized that the rest of Vienna-- what was left after the war, was my milieu in Brooklyn. I used to sit in the doctors' lounge, and hear Yiddish, and understand a lot because so much is from German. I also learned a few words of Hebrew. I had loved doing the Passover Seder when at Santa Clara, and we had been invited to several by a Jewish neighbor when I was growing up, but they were Hollywood people, not deeply devout like the people in my Hassidic neighborhood in Brooklyn. At Maimonides, we were taught by rabbis about the need for separating milk and meat dishes, and how to not scandalize the patients who were Jewish, and many things to help us be more culturally sensitive. We had extremely kosher Passover food in the hospital-- no bread or yeasty food the whole season. And the CocaCola cans had "kosher" written on them. But some people would only consider kosher what had been personally endorsed by their particular rabbi.

'\ One of the funniest things was for women in labor-- the Orthodox women shaved their heads when they married-- similar to nuns, it was an act of humility and renunciation of the world-- but then they bought the most gorgeous and expensive wigs they could buy, for wearing in the outside world. The practice made them come in bald, in labor, and they would be frantic to get a little blue puffy head-covering before we took them into the delivery room. "Give me a hat!" they would yell, as we ran down the hall with the stretchers, pushing them and careening to try to get them to the delivery room before they started pushing! Many of the Orthodox women had 8-10 children, and were pretty physically worn-out, and their pregnancies were a response to the Holocaust, trying to replenish their people. One time I felt that a woman was going to be psychotic if she had another child, and her husband, a deeply devout rabbi, wouldn't hear of allowing her to contracept, or stop having children. In such cases, it was possible to suggest that the rabbi speak to a more senior rabbi, and often, one in Jerusalem. Several staff physicians were rabbinically educated, and knew who to recommend that the rabbi discuss the issues with, and who would support a more wholistic approach to the care of the wife. This was a deeply satisfying thing to me: that the religious authorities were able to struggle with such an issue, and try to decide where the wisdom lay, and what God's will would indicate for a particular person or couple. The other thing which fascinated me, the Jewish rules, were sometimes extremely exasperating, and sometimes marvelous. One thing was the Sabbath elevators. Because you weren't supposed to work on the Sabbath, you were not supposed to push the buttons on the elevators. So you could get in, and hope that someone would push the button for you, or you could walk up the stairs. At Maimonides, the elevator was fixed to stop on every floor going up and down, on the Sabbath. So that they could get in and get there, eventually. But for physicians, it was a terrible waste of time, to stop on every floor on the way to the 7th floor, which was where the Gyn patients were kept. There were many other such rules, and all of them were originally formed to help people think about what the will of God would be, and try to fit their lives into that pattern.
I found this very interesting, and a goad to my own faith. I really started to appreciate Jesus saying we could take the donkey out of the ditch on the Sabbath. But each Jewish person was struggling with these issues out loud and at length, just like Reb Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof. Things were not cut and dried. Things could be bent slightly, but the intentionality needed to be right. I started caring more about what had gone on in WWII and the Holocaust, and listening to people's stories. I could hardly believe that the center of academic anti-Semitism was Austria. Having not really experienced racism myself, I knew that a lot of people in California did look down on Mexicans, and especially farm labor Mexicans; but "we" weren't systematically excluding "them" from community life. And although I am a quarter Mexican, I was not accepted in "La Raza" at Santa Clara, because I was too "white".
One of the most meaningful books I have ever read was Martin Buber's "I/Thou". It is amazing that it was written in the early 30's, I think, before the war. It is a profoundly moving and poetic book, and written by a saintly person, who feels life as a conversation with God. What is not I is Thou. Every breath comes from Thou, and goes out into Thou. I know that many Catholic theologians love and respect this man and his theology. My own main source of theology was Teilhard de Chardin. I love the Divine Milieu. It resonates with Buber's I/Thou. Teilhard was a Jesuit, and a paleontologist. In WWI he worked in the trenches in France, on the French side. Then they sent him to China for a long time. They wouldn't let him teach, because the authorities were afraid that what he was saying was possibly heretical. He was thinking of the whole universe as an explosion of space and time coming from God and going to God. His time-span was in geological ages, and in scientific language. But he has the same core faith as does Martin Buber. And, because he is a Jesuit, he has St. Ignatius' spiritual exercises to ground him in the life of Christ. If you haven't read the Phenomenon of Man, it is still, to me, one of the most important books of the 20th century, and can help get past the problem of how to talk about creation, in a scientifically truthful but utterly faithful way.
There are two Jewish books that I have read and deeply respect and recommend, for anyone interested in modern Judaism. One is the book "God is a Verb" by Rabbi David Cooper. The other is "The Thirteen Petalled Rose" by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Rabbi Steinsaltz is a mystically wonderful rabbi such as I met in Brooklyn. Rabbi Cooper is a more modern sort of rabbi, and it is interesting that he studied Zen Buddhism first, in the 60's, and the Buddhist master told him to go home and learn his own tradition, and go deeper. It fits what Matthew Fox said, that there is one river, and many wells. The deep river is what we all drink from but the wells are the different spiritual traditions.
I feel very lucky to have had that time at Maimonides, and to have gotten to understand a little about Judaism. I have really loved some of my Jewish colleagues, whose ethics are grounded in that deep conversation with God, a God who is totally present and willing to argue and struggle and groan with us. I feel at home with that kind of faith, which has a lot of muscle in it.
About a year ago, there was an article in the New Yorker, by Joan Acocella, who is one of the people whose writing I love to read. She is pretty exasperated with a new book about the Moslem invasion of Spain, and the way it seems to give cultural preference to the Moslems, rather than the Franks. At the end, she talks about revisions of history, as new points of view make the previous way of looking at it seem lopsided. I recently re-read "Sophie's Choice", which is about a Holocaust survivor, who was a Catholic Polish woman, in a relationship with a mentally unstable but brilliant Jewish man in Brooklyn after WWII. And I also recently re-read Viktor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning". My mentor in medicine, Rachel Remen, MD, really loved Viktor Frankl. Rachel also started out life as a philosophy major, but in her childhood she was very influenced by her grandfather, a mystical Russian Jewish Orthodox rabbi. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist, who was Viennese. He got sent to Auschwitz, and lived through it. Because he was a doctor already before he was put in the concentration camp, his insight is amazing, into the way people behaved there. After the war it took a long time for him to come to terms with what he lived through. And he also taught at Stanford, and started seeing patients in California who were complaining of "loss of meaning". "Loss of meaning" is a philosophical disease. Rachel's answer (which is very rabbinical) is to tell stories. A great source of stories, besides Rachel's two books, is the book "The Spirituality of Imperfection". If we were in Brooklyn, I would say, after all this, "Baruch Hashem!" Praise the Lord! Gruss Gott!
I appreciate that you all are willing to let me ramble on like this. Most of my daily life is not so indulgent or forgiving. Most of the time, we are just supposed to be doing, not just being.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Advent Credo, by Daniel Berrigan

Advent Credo

by Daniel Berrigan

It is not true that creation and the human family
are doomed for destruction and loss--
This is true: For God so loved the world
that He gave his only begotten Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish,
but have everlasting life.

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity
and discrimination,
hunger and poverty, death and destruction--
This is true: I have come that they may have life,
and that, abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred shall have
the last word,
and that war and destruction rule forever--
This is true: For unto us a child is born,
And unto us a son is given,
And the government shall be upon his shoulder,
And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of Peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims
of the powers of evil,
who seek to rule the world--
This is true: To Me is given authority in heaven
and on earth,
and lo, I am with you, even unto the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are
specially gifted,
who are the prophets of the Church, before we can be peacemakers,
This is true: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young shall see visions,
and your old shall dream dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for the liberation of humanity,
for justice, human dignity, and peace
are not meant for this earth and this history--
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that true worshipers
shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope; even hope against hope.
Let us see visions of love and peace and justice.
Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage,
Jesus Christ-- the Life of the world.