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The Contribution of the "Secular" Jew

To Modern Society

Rev. Al Carmines

The death of Allen Ginsberg gave me not only great grief, but cause for some meditation on how much I owe secular Jews of modern western society. In law, the arts, psycho-therapy, science, and medicine, the contribution of post-modern Jews far out-distances their fairly meager numbers. From Freud to Einstein to Stravinsky to Robbins, their contributions to society are unquenchable. And in my own life, they have been of paramount importance. 

I say post-modern Jews because I believe that the Jew reached a kind of place intellectually and spiritually toward which the church is moving -- that is, a place where questions are more important than answers and where speculation takes the place of dogmatism. The recent anti-gay vote of the Presbyterian Church on ordination and installation of clergy and church officers -- in fact, the anti-sexual ban on all Presbyterian human beings -- tends to create a smile-repressed three-button suited male who really does not exist any more. And the other churches, in their own ways, are caught in the same dilemma.  

But the Jew -- through poetry, music, science, and law -- has broken all the codes and certainties and may have wound up not in a place of loneliness, but in a place of honesty. I do not speak of the Orthodox Jews of Israel or New York City, who in their dogmatism are in the same boat as Protestants and Catholics, but of Jews who -- liberated from religion -- sought a different meaning for their lives and led the way to that meaning for all of us. Did they find it? I do not know, but they live in the land of questions where I believe the church in our time should be living.  

Most secular Jews found themselves disillusioned with their traditional faith and yet felt a longing for the YAWH of their fathers and mothers. Therefore, they explored the vacuum of human feeling and physical space and inner workings of science not only to find a metaphysical answer, but also to satisfy an itch that strangely enough was the same itch that had sent Abraham from the land of Ur thousands of years ago. Jerome Robbins, in his magnificent direction of Fiddler on the Roof, caught this spirit of pilgrimage. And the spirit of pilgrimage rather than any set creed has always been the spiritual home of the real Jew. 

That spirit is our home also. No matter how interesting and fascinating dogmatic truths are -- and they are particularly in what they entail -- our final home is neither Washington nor Rome nor Jerusalem. Our home, like the Jews', is an ark -- a moving tent where God chooses, or chooses not to meet us, and yet ultimately is to be found on the move. That is one of the lessons of the secular Jew to us: that life itself is not a circle of unending pain or bliss, but a road -- a road that has bumps and valleys, hills and dales and yet is leading, we say by faith, rather than to a place, to the heart of God. 

In a way, Jesus was a secular Jew in the sense of Ginsberg and Zero Mostel and Elie Wiesel and Sinn Martel. His way with the dogmatics of the law was both cavalier and reverential. And so it must be with us. There is no use saying that we can meet all the standards of righteousness. We cannot. Be we can meet some of them and perhaps the others need to be viewed in such a way as to give us the option of meeting them in a different way.

Today's remarks are partly in tribute to Allen Ginsberg -- a poet who presaged the '60s and expressed in words the exasperation and holiness of heart of a whole generation. His tenderness in his Kaddish poems to his mother and his Aunt Rose, his cry of anguish for his generation -- the Eisenhower generation -- in Howl, the dismay at hypocrisy and surface delusion which filled him with a kind of angst and even horror: these spoke for many of us who had come to see the disparity between the Brady Bunch and Roseanne and were seeking to transcend the hypocrisy of one and the selfishness and crassness of the other. 

For me, the great gift of Allen to us all was honesty. But one of the by-products of honesty was a kind of me-first ethic which jars with what we know of the ethic of Jesus. And so in a battle for my money, although often not my obedience, the Jew Jesus wins over the Jew Ginsberg. And yet we alone must celebrate their similarities. Jesus anguished cry from the cross -- "my God, my God, what hast Thou forsaken me" -- compares with Ginsberg's on-the-road anguish expressed in Howl. 

And what about us? We may remain uncommitted or we may commit. If we commit, it may be to a poetic vision, a musical transcendence, a scientific purity, or a Greek bodily aesthetic, or the family values of Hebraic tradition.  

Or we commit to One Who Promises Life and Joy, but not solely in tranquility -- rather, in tranquility in the midst of torment. That is the Jesus way. Is it your way? If it is, then let us bow our heads and ask God to help each of us and this church to learn the Way more perfectly. During this Passover season, we have experienced Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, and Low Sunday. Perhaps now it’s time to get back to the essentials of the Faith. Not only in our intellect, but in our will and in our heart.  

Come into my heart. Come into my heart. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today. Come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.