“In the Tragic-Comedy of Life, O How We Need the Holy fool!” – A Guest Post by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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I never heard laughter as loud as I did (on the other side of intimacy) that Kol Nidrai on the bima in front of 1500 congregants, as when I launched into the final words of the infamous Buddy Hackett yarn about the retired rabbi caught at a Catskills Hotel by his congregants as his order of a baked pig arrives, allowing him fulfill his life-long dream of eating trayf— “This place is amazing,” retorts the rabbi. “You order a baked apple and look whatchya get!”

I have wondered (not too often) after a decade serving as rabbi in an affluent traditional-egalitarian, Conservative Jewish community in Westchester, New York, that after all the Talmud torah opportunities I afforded my congregants, why it is that time and time again, the Torah they recalled most vividly were jokes like this. It always struck me how congregants were drawn to teachings and lectures I would give on the great assimilated American Jewish writers, like Phillip Roth, or a panel discussion of a Coen brothers’ film, and yet how challenging, if not downright unappealing for this flock to delve into mystical treasures of the tradition seen through a contemporary lens.

I have learned an immense amount from the Shlemiel par excellence of this very blog as he envisioned and then solicited my essay as a contribution to his forthcoming collection on Levinas and humor—a real game changer! Perhaps, in the catharsis of laughter, every one of those thousands in the pews was able to reconcile their heartfelt dissonance in confronting their ideality of kashruth and their reality of a trayf lifestyle, or their ideality of fostering a “community of commitment” and the reality of enabling a “lifestyle enclave”. When I invited the Chancellor elect of JTSA to come and share this vision of shedding the “lifestyle enclave” and embracing a “community of commitment” what sounds from the hundreds filling the sanctuary then could be heard? Laughter, as Levinas alludes, is a moment of catharsis that opens to a deeper othering of self, allowing for a vulnerability to the other normally not present. There is something profoundly humanizing about this experience.

Shakespeare not only invented the human, according to Bloom, but he also makes us appreciate how the comic is inextricably linked to the tragic. I find myself relearning this lesson as I peruse much of the recent spate of OTD literature— at once comic and tragic. Comic— insofar as readers become voyeurs into a world most of us laugh at as outsiders and would likely never chose to enter as insiders. Tragic— because of its portrayal of heartfelt pain in “leaving the path” from which there is no return. In the ultra-orthodox world, this ultimatum works. After all, if there is only one line along which everyone’s convictions must fall into alignment with, then there are those on and those off that line.

But growing up in a nominally Conservative household, I experienced the best of heterodoxy first hand. My parents kept a kosher home with three sets of dishes as they migrated from shul to shul about every five years—continually in search of their emesdichkeyt, their authentic path of Limmud, Torah and Tefillah. From the world of heterodoxy to orthodoxy, what I find so tragic about much of OTD literature is the lack of holy fools inside of those communities who can model what it means to straddle worlds and cross boundaries. The holy fool is more than the pleasantry of a badkhan at a wedding, but a necessary carnivalesque elixir to nomian reification! What the holy fool teaches us is that there really is only one path—as Elliot Wolfson calls it—the path of no-path. Upon taking leave of our local community Jewish day school, my wife was understandably distraught, but I lamented the state of heterodoxy is alarmingly similar to what the Kotzker rebbe decried in his day: “I’d rather have shtarker mitnaggedim than pareve Hasidim!”

The other tragedy intertwined within the holy fool is now being rediscovered in the teachings of Reb Nahman of Bratzlav—outside the Bratzlav communities. After Zvi Mark’s magisterial study of the holy fool in his Mysticism and madness: The religious thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (2009) as a necessary component to Reb Nahman’s mystical quest, it is no longer feasible to merely see his journey as one of a tormented master. Madness is the signature of the holy fool and that shtut d’qedushah is what allows for a more expansive elevation of consciousness after falling into yeridat ha’mohkin. Sure the NA-NAH-NAHMAN Breslovers have that holy foolishness about them in their ecstatic dancing, but it is in Marks’ critical edition of Bratzlav Sippurai Ma’asiyot Kol sipure Rabi Naḥman mi-Braslav : ha-maʻaśiyot, ha-sipurim ha-sodiyim, ha-ḥalomot ṿeha-ḥezyonot : liḳuṭ ha-nusaḥim mi-kitve yad nedirim umi-mikhlol ha-sifrut ha-Braslavit be-tosefet pirḳe mavo ṿe-heḳshere ha-sipurim (2014) as well as numerous anthologies on the stories published by secular presses like Yediʻot aḥaronot who are interested in publishing eclectic anthologies like Roee Horen’s Ha-ḥayim Ke-Gaʻaguʻa: Ḳeriʼot Ḥadashot Be-Sipure Ha-Maʻaśiyot Shel R. Naḥman Mi-Breslev : Asupat Maʼamarim (2010) where the transgressive line between artist and academic, between the tragic and the comic is blurred. The perennial need for the holy fool remains as urgent as ever—especially in Israel, after the latest election performances! It is that seventh beggar who never appears that is the beggar with no feet. Yet it is precisely this beggar, the holiest of fools, who can show us the way to dance the path of no-path.

In a world gone mad, only a fool could think there is a future, never mind a Torah of the future!?! But that is precisely what Reb Nahman bequeathed as a holy fool to this generation. Ours is the time described in Reb Nahman’s tiny tale of the king and his viceroy who must mark their foreheads while eating the tainted grain; for in a world gone mad only the holy fool is sane. Such a Torah of the future, as I have been learning from my planetary gnostic rebbe, Miles Krassen, is one of the many fruits of the supernal overflow, one of many that makes this planet flourish. In his tall tale, “Losing the Princess”, Reb Nahman recounts the only way to free the lost princess is for the viceroy to veer off the derekh, to find a path from the side, an um-wege. Tragic-comic poets like Paul Celan see that all poetry after Auschwitz is about finding the um-wege—it is precisely from that different vantage point where I encounter the other and see myself differently.

Now in all seriousness, one of the first proposals I made to my new community in San Francisco was an urgent need to revisit the minor mystical ritual of Yom Kippur(im) Katan and transform it into Yom K’Purim Katan. Transforming that solemn fast day before each new month into a time to reconnect with the holy fool within, dressing up and distributing food and good cheer is the comedy of the hour—just because! Perhaps it is because my new synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, in San Francisco is only blocks away from the holy beggars who once lived in the House of Love and Prayer and the Dharma Bums who frequented City Lights Bookstore that this community is really willing to grab onto the Torah concealed in all the laughter and holy foolishness that I continue to share freely.

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Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. (University of Toronto) currently serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is in demand in many educational forums, from lay learning to federations, seminaries and colleges across North America, Europe and Israel where he is a passionate and challenging teacher of Jewish Mysticism, Philosophy & Hebrew poetry. Aubrey’s work is published widely in popular and academic forums, including his latest book dedicated to the spiritual renaissance of Hebrew culture in Israel called, Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013). Aubrey serves as a consultant and contributor of kavvanot and Israeli prayerful poetry to the Conservative Mahzor and Siddur Lev Shalem. Ordained by JTSA, Aubrey has also completed training courses in kashrut supervision (Rav haMakhshir), Jewish Spirituality (IJS), and Jewish Entrepreneurial Leadership (Kellogg School of Business). In his rabbinic work in diverse communal settings, Aubrey has created award winning programming like Blessing for the Animals and Phat Phriday that draw on the depths of traditional forms in creative ways to promote vibrancy and continuity in-reach and out-reach.

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