Last summer, I was privileged to attend a gathering of editors of Jewish periodicals at the American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference. This year’s conference took place in Los Angeles, and it was particularly nice to escape a sweltering east coast for a distinctly more temperate west one
I always enjoy the conferences for the opportunities they afford me – not only the professional ones but also the personal ones, the chances to meet other Jews, in particular those who are not like me. The opportunity to get to know them and to speak with them – to share my life and views and to learn about theirs – is, to me, invaluable.
But I was happy, too, to see another Orthodox rabbi in attendance, the only other one present over the three-day gathering. His name is Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, and he was there in his capacity as the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver-area Jewish weekly. At the awards ceremony that highlighted the conference, he and his paper won more awards than I could count. A modest and scholarly man, he seemed almost pained when his paper’s name was repeatedly called out and he had to make his way to the podium.
But the highlight of his trip, I know, was something else entirely.
A message from him had been waiting for me when I arrived back in my hotel room late the first night of the conference after a speaking engagement. He wanted to know where I would be attending services the next morning, and if he could come with me. I returned the call and told him what time a local rabbi had offered to pick me up
After services the next morning, Rabbi Goldberg told me about a “special project” he was working on: an elucidation of a difficult 18th century commentary (that of the Vilna Gaon) to a complicated Jewish legal text (the Shulchan Aruch on the laws of mikveh). Though the subject matter was rather beyond my own proficiency-level, I allowed him to show me a particular passage he was having difficulty with, and, when he puzzled at an abstruse word, I suggested a cognate.
Although I spent most of my time with other conference attendees, the following night found me walking alongside Rabbi Goldberg in Universal Studios’ lot. The group had just heard a presentation from an official of the Shoah Foundation – the Foundation is temporarily located at Universal Studios – followed by an interesting panel discussion about teaching the Holocaust in public schools.
We were walking to a dining hall on the premises where the awards dinner would take place. Around us were actors’ personal trailers (the more successful the actor, we were told, the larger the trailer); on the drive onto the site we had seen elaborate facades of period-piece buildings with nothing behind them, props for movies or television shows.
Rabbi Goldberg was excited, but not by the trailers or props. He had, he said, cracked the textual problem, and even claimed (probably overly generously) that my suggestion about the obscure word had played a part in his comprehension of the commentary. I listened as he explained the passage, and it did indeed seem to make new sense. As we spoke about the passage, there was no doubt in my mind that its resolution was the high point of my friend’s day, and of mine.
An uninitiated eavesdropper, no doubt, would have considered our conversation – about bends in pipes carrying rainwater to a basin for immersion to remove an invisible spiritual contamination – bizarre, to say the least. But to believing Jews, Torah is nothing less than truth, the “mind,” so to speak, of G-d Himself. The deep truths we are able to perceive in the workings of the physical universe have turned out, in our quantum physics-aware world, to live on an entirely different dimension from what was assumed for millennia. According to traditional Jewish belief, the study of our tradition’s holy texts similarly afford us a glimpse of a world that is conceptual light-years beyond the mundane.
And then an immense irony materialized in my mind. Here we were, Rabbi Goldberg and I, two Jews walking between trailers in a Hollywood studio lot, arguably the epicenter of all that is fake and phony in the world, a place where deception is the local currency and tinsel the stand-in for precious metals – having a discussion about Truth itself.
I wondered if anyone had ever studied Torah in that spot. The idea that perhaps we had been the first filled me with a curious mix of pride and trepidation.
In Chassidic thought, physical things, and places, can be “elevated” by what is done with, or in, them. When, later that night, a cab spirited me away to the airport for my flight back to New York to be with my family for Shabbat, I smiled and shivered at the thought that we might have played a small but sublime role in a unique sort of spiritual rehabilitation.