I Don’t Know What to Believe: Making Spiritual Peace With Your Religion by Rabbi Ben Kamin; Central Recovery Press, © 2016; ISBN 878-1-942094-04-3; 224 pages; $16.95.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO –Rabbi Kamin’s columns appear regularly on San Diego Jewish World. In fairness to those reading this review, it should be noted that we are colleagues and friends. We don’t agree on everything, yet I have great respect for the way the rabbi struggles so honestly and openly with moral dilemmas. Sometimes, his conclusions take him where other Jews may fear to tread. He is willing to uproot tradition in the service of humanity. Furthermore, following the examples of Abraham and Moses, he does not stand mute in the face of what he perceives as Godly injustice. If he, a mere man, feels he must sometimes stand up and contest Divine authority—whether that be manifested in our inherited ritual practices or by the words in the Bible—so, too, I assume, must Kamin desire his readers to accept nothing simply because he says so, or because he is an ordained rabbi, but only if his arguments and explanations resonate in our souls.
This latest book by a prolific author reminds me of a flywheel throwing off many sparks of light. Some will fly through the air and self-extinguish before anyone gives them serious attention; whereas other sparks may ignite troubling examinations of the differences between religious practice and purpose. There are many stories, personal anecdotes, and biblical allusions filling this volume, and if one reads the book too quickly, it all might just become a blur. Probably, one ought to read this book over a minimum of two weeks, devoting at least a day to considering each of the 14 chapters. I confess I didn’t follow my own advice; I gulped down the book in three- and four-chapter segments.
One of the stories that resonated with me, and apparently had a major impact on Kamin’s life, concerned a time when a young boy suddenly died, leaving his family traumatized. The death came late in the week. There was insufficient time for the relatives and the rabbi to gather on a Friday to bury him. The following day was a Saturday, the Sabbath. Often when these situations occur, the burial is on a Sunday. But at this particular cemetery, in this particular town, the cemetery was closed on Sundays due to labor union rules. No, said the cemetery’s management, an exception could not be made; none of the workers could be called in to dig the plot, and lower the casket, and fill in the grave. It would have to wait until Monday.
But Monday, thought the rabbi, would further traumatize the parents, whose grief knew no bounds. Some of the relatives who were coming to town for the funeral would have to leave on Monday for jobs with rules just as strict as those of the cemetery workers.
So Kamin made a decision: In order to allow the parents the comfort of having their family near them in this most terrible of moments, he would consent to officiate at the funeral on Saturday – in direct violation of the rules of Sabbath observance.
Stop and think for a moment just how consequential and scary such a decision might be for a young rabbi. He could have said simply “Jewish law forbids it” and shielded himself from the inevitable criticism he would receive from those who believe that “to keep the Sabbath holy” is a sacrosanct commandment from God up high, expressed quite forcefully in the text of the Ten Commandments. But why is the observance of Shabbat so important? As Kamin framed the matter, God wanted to deliver people from seven-days a week drudgery; on one day at least, when no one can order anyone else to spend his or her day at labor, all people stand equal, as they should be, before the Lord.
So what was more important? The rule, or the sentiment behind the rule? Does God tell us to observe Shabbat as a matter of obedience to Him—no matter what? Or does God tell us to observe Shabbat so that every one of his creations may be given respite? Kamin rebels against the idea that God simply wants to prove that He’s in charge, and suggests instead that God wants us to listen to the still, small voices in our heads that tell us to be considerate to our fellow human beings, and to alleviate suffering. So Kamin did that which before the child’s death would have been unthinkable to him. He officiated at a funeral on Shabbat. And he drew numerous lessons from the experience concerning the imperative for kindness and consideration toward others.
For example, Kamin charges God with failing to live up to His own standards when he ordered Abraham to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. Even though God knew he would not permit Abraham to actually kill the lad, He inflicted upon Abraham—and especially poor Isaac–what must have been unspeakable pain. And why didn’t Abraham argue or bargain with God, as he had when God proposed to wipe out the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah? In asking God to save the population if ten good inhabitants could be identified, Abraham had differentiated himself from Noah, who had assented in silence to God’s decision to destroy the world. Yet, when his own son’s life was endangered, suddenly Abraham became mute. One concludes that Kamin believes we must not bow before unreasonable authority—not even God’s—and no platitude such as “God’s ways are unknowable” will deter Kamin in the quest for kindness and justice.
It would appear that Kamin, although a member of the Reform rabbinate, hews fairly closely to the concept of Reconstructionist Judaism which states “to the past a vote, not a veto.” Kamin reveres the Bible, knows the quirks of foibles of its personages backwards and forwards, and draws from their stories solace in knowing that even the Patriarchs made some pretty big mistakes. They could have done better by their fellow human beings, and so must we, Kamin helps us understand.
Where do such lessons take Kamin? How would you imagine he views the issue of intermarriage? What reaction do you think he might have to biblical bias against homosexuals? Where do you think Kamin has stood concerning civil rights, feminism, and the other progressive movements of our era?
For me, the bottom line of Kamin’s latest book is that Jewish ritual–even that which we consider the most sacred — must be subordinated to the purpose of ritual, which is to instill the sense in all of us that as children of God we must serve and honor each other. If the two come into conflict, then ritual—and not human decency—must go by the wayside.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted via email@example.com.
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