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Joy Comes in the Morning – Jonathan Rosen

March 26, 2016

JCITMThe title is from Psalm 30, and the book quotes many passages from Torah, Talmud, and Jewish liturgy. But there is also a quotation from Philo: “Be kind to those you meet, for everyone is fighting a great battle.”

Deborah is a reform rabbi, whose life changes when she visits the hospital room of Henry Friedman, an older man who has attempted suicide. His parents were murdered in the Holocaust when he was a child, and all his life he’s struggled with difficult questions.

The novel, like the Torah, is divided into five books. More cleverly, some see it as a meditation on a story from the Talmud, about four sages who entered the Pardes [literally “the orchard.”]. Rashi explains that they ascended to heaven by utilizing the [Divine] Name [i.e., they achieved a spiritual elevation through intense meditation on G‑d’s Name] They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Avuya, called Acher– the other one — because of what happened to him after he entered the Pardes – he cut down the plantings [he became a heretic].] and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai gazed at the Divine Presence and died. Regarding him the verse states, “Precious in the eyes of G‑d is the death of His pious ones” (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and he lost his sanity. Regarding him the verse states, “Did you find honey? Eat only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up” (Proverbs 25:16). Acher Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.

Rosen imagines contemporary characters in place of the ancient rabbis, featuring young Reform rabbi Deborah Green and her journey to greater spiritual self-awareness. While the Talmudic story lacks a happy ending, Rosen resolves it.

Rosen tells the Talmudic story three times: when Lev and Deborah visit Neal, when Deborah recounts it to Dawn and when Deborah studies it with Neal in her apartment.

Rosen’s second telling, in Deborah’s voice: “Four men enter what’s called Pardes — it might be Paradise, or heaven, or God’s presence, or the Garden of Eden. It’s murky.

Anyway, all famous rabbis. It’s a kind of spiritual test for them. One of them goes mad. One of them dies. One of them loses his faith and becomes a convert. Only Rabbi Akiva enters in peace and leaves in peace.”

The parallels between some of Rosen’s characters and the rabbis in the Talmud story: Neal went insane, and Rabbi ben-Zoma went insane; While Neal meets a tragic ending in the story, along with his poor mother, Rosen’s other characters manage with varying degrees of success to work through their challenges.

Henry attempts suicide at the outset of the novel, and was also touched by death in his guilt over his Holocaust survivorship. His life seems defined by his brushes with death – a parallel with Rabbi ben-Azai, who died upon entering Pardes. Although Henry manages to survive the consequences of his brushes with death, unlike ben-Azai, he seems rather the worse for wear with each of his challenges. He continues to suffer from them.

Henry’s unfinished memoir Joy Comes in the Morning is a metaphor for Henry’s unfinished life. It suggests to me—in its title, and in the continuing life of its dreamer, Henry.

Deborah parallels Acher, formerly known as Rabbi Elisha ben-Abuyah, who lost his faith and became an apostate.

Unlike Henry, Deborah deals with her challenges successfully, which is to say she seems stronger rather than weaker for those experiences.

The Talmud gives two different stories explaining how Acher became an apostate, aside from the Pardes story. One of them follows right behind the Pardes story, and explains through dense theological and angelic symbolism that Acher concludes there may be two powers in Heaven . Acher’s heresy in this account is to embrace dualism, the idea that God is not fully in control of events but is instead in competition with another power; this is a serious heresy in rabbinic Judaism. The other story, appearing elsewhere in the Talmud, is much more dramatic and offers a striking similarity to Deborah’s struggle with her faith after her difficult hospital visits.

The Talmud discusses two laws for which an earthly reward seems to be promised, “that your days may be prolonged and that it may go well with you.” These are the  laws of honoring one’s parents, and of driving away a mother bird from a nest before collecting eggs. The gemara continues, “Now, in the case where a man’s father said to him, ‘Go up to the top of the building and bring me down some young birds,’ and he went up to the top of the building, let the dam go and took the young ones, and on his return he fell and was killed—where is this man’s length of days, and where is this man’s happiness?” On the same page the gemara suggests that Acher may have “witnessed such an occurrence” and rejected his faith because of it.

This story has become familiar in Jewish text-study culture, and is a prime example of the Talmud’s approach to theodicy. It is similar to Deborah’s experience seeing the dead boy. In both stories, a blameless young person loses his life; in both, a rabbi loses faith. How can an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God could let them happen?

Deborah’s difficult encounter with Mrs. Fink after her near-death experience was more central to the book’s plot than the incident with the dead boy, which was brief and involved no named characters. The lack of a clear plot reason to include the dead-boy scene suggests that Deborah’s experience with the dead boy represents Rosen’s deliberate commentary on this Talmudic story.

The Talmud resolves the theodicy question straightforwardly by referring to justice in the Afterlife  but Rosen gives no such simple solution for Deborah. Deborah’s prior visit with Mrs. Fink precludes the possibility of her belief in the afterlife, at least for the moment. Closed off, then, from the Talmud’s own resolution to theodicy, Deborah is left to wrestle with her personal faith crisis. Although she doesn’t recognize it at the time. She finds her eventual solution in Psalm 30, which she reads to Mrs. Fink at the time. The suffering is real but temporary. If we can put one foot in front of the other and carry on about our work, joy comes in the morning.

This answer is similar to process theology inasmuch as it emphasizes patience in a context of positive, present-tense, first-person action to make sense of our challenges and overcome them. Resolution is not guaranteed at all, but Rosen seems to be suggesting in his positive ending that resolution is earned through personal perseverance and resilience. In other words, the crises that we face are very much “spiritual tests,” as Deborah puts it. They challenge us, but with patience, faith, self-work and self-care, it is possible for us to transcend them and emerge stronger and wiser.

Deborah loses her faith when her distraught wonder that a good God should allow an innocent child to die proves too much to bear. Her spiritual crisis harms her, temporarily but indisputably: she finds herself unable to pray, after a period of heightening spiritual distress she feels the need to leave suddenly, which leads to her being absent from her congregant’s funeral service and to Lev’s conducting the service. As a direct result of that, Deborah loses her job at Temple Emunah (which ironically means “Faith”.

But while Acher becomes a heretic, Deborah is able to emerge from her crisis. The events are permanent—Deborah does not get her job back—but the suffering is temporary. Her successful navigation of her challenges, especially the loss of her job, position her for a better future; for example, the loss of her job makes possible her future with Lev in Israel. Just as we build muscle in our bodies by tearing what is already there, growing back stronger than we were originally as long as the injury isn’t too deep, Deborah finds herself more experienced and better able to face the inevitable further challenges of her young career for having persevered through those of the novel. Indeed, joy comes in the morning.

Who represents Rabbi Akiva in the novel? Akiva is the only one of the four rabbis who is able to “come in peace and leave in peace.” Lev?He faced his own disastrous personal failure leaving his fiancée at the altar.

Does Rosen intend Akiva to represent not a particular individual, but a possibility open to all of us? A metaphor for all who are able to surmount their challenges,  rise to the occasions to which they are called, and emerge better people. Both Deborah and Lev fit this description in the novel.

We get an answer to the problem of theodicy that drove both Acher and Deborah to lose their faith and a suggestion of a path of personal spiritual development. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning”—suffering is temporary, but spiritual growth is permanent. As Reuben said to Deborah, “In Judaism, you don’t feel to pray, you pray to feel. Or not to feel. You pray to pray.”

People get through their crises by rising to the call of their daily responsibilities, and by “praying to feel” when they don’t feel.

People get through crises with self-care. Deborah’s self-care was in talking with her sister-in-law Dawn she was able to get her problems off her chest, enabling her to return to the tasks of her life. (And is Dawn’s name alluding to the verse joy comes in the morning?)  By allowing herself to be the subject of Dawn’s counselling, Deborah is able to master her doubts. This does not mean she ceases to doubt; it does mean she learns greater self-control in the face of her feelings, and greater confidence in her ministerial role as an imperfect human being.

Deborah tells Dawn that she thought she had to be Rabbi Akiva—chosen by God for ministry because of her specialness, her lack of the human frailties displayed by the other characters in the Pardes story. But in giving up the false notion that a minister must have Rabbi Akiva’s qualities innately, Deborah is able to give herself space to be at times imperfect and frail. Deborah is thereby able to attain Rabbi Akiva’s skills, to come in peace and to go in peace, secure in the knowledge that she is as good as she needs to be, and that she has experience overcoming the challenges that are inevitable in her work.

Not all of Rosen’s characters achieve this higher level of self-awareness. Lev does; his salvation from the despair of his earlier wedding disaster to his marriage to Deborah shows how far he has come. Henry’s case is marginal; he continues living, but in a seriously injured way from which one does not imagine he will recover. Neal does not. Henry’s and Neal’s stories are cautionary counterpoints to the happy ending of Deborah and Lev. We are still not sure what Pardes is, but we know it is dangerous. Some will not be successful with its challenges, and others face disabilities that put success out of their reach.

I had to look up ‘Krav Mag’ = a form of self defence like akido.

Also ‘pupik’ = belly button

JCITM 2Quotations:

“three tiny strokes . . . carr[ied] away clarity the way persistent ants carry away a loaf of bread one crumb at a time.”

“the smoothest fakers around.”

The nursing home was hard for Deborah—much harder than the hospital, where the atmosphere of crisis kept things moving, where everything had a purpose and her spiritual interventions often ab­sorbed the urgency of medical procedures. The hospital was a sort of battlefield. Death was the dark backdrop that threw life and God and prayer and Deborah herself into sparkling relief. Nothing in the nurs­ing home was black or white. It was a gray place, however brightly lit the hallways. It was a holding pen for departing souls whose flights had been mysteriously canceled. Many seemed to have passed through death already and come our the other side, breathing only through accident, oversight.

“There was something undignified about the bag, which said ‘Like No Other Market’ on the bottom. The notion that he would somehow be advertising a store in death unsettled him, as if even his suicide had a sponsor. He had been a reluctant and unsuccessful businessman all his life. But this was America after all,”

“Jews aren’t expected to feel God’s presence. That’s why there’s the Torah.”

“In Judaism, you don’t feel to pray,” he said. “You pray to feel. Or not to feel. You pray to pray.”….

“You always put too much faith in feeling,” he said. “Too much faith in faith.”

“I’ve lost track of who’s speaking,” said Lev “Which rabbi’s speaking?” “Good question,” said Deborah. “Actually, right here”—she pointed to a line of text—”a rabbi isn’t speaking. The Talmud itself is speaking. The stammah d’Gemarah, as he’s sometimes called. He’s the editor, or one of the editors. A kind of ghostly narrator who appears from time to time. He’s like the webmaster in a chat room. He’s managing the conversation—which isn’t easy because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the participants all lived at different times. Some of them are dead but are still included.”

“They’re all dead,” said Lev.

“Not while you’re studying Talmud, mister!”

Lev’s forecast for the wedding had been: scattered tears for much of the day punctuated by emotional downpours.

The whole point of a chuppah, as she reminded herself, was that it was open to the elements, like the tents of wandering ancestors. The world beat down on you and it was only the witnesses around you, and God, and most especially the person by your side, who helped you endure the storm.

Now would be a good time to hear a voice. She would like to have been called. Deborah! Deborah! But it no longer happened that way, if it ever had. Deborah smiled at herself for a childhood fantasy that had never left her. The window glowed. She heard the flop of The New York Times against her front door. The newspaper delivery boy-actually a middle-aged black woman; Deborah had spied on her once through the peephole-stood in the open elevator and flung the papers, as if dealing a giant pack of cards. After a sleepless night Deborah found the sound reassuring, a town crier’s reminder that the world was still there. Lately, there had been a lot of sleepless nights.

The strange sensation darkened her again, an inner shadow. Someone was dying. She tried to think who it might be. William who had emphysema and couldn’t talk but whose hand she often held. The old woman on the eighth floor nobody came to see who had given her a recipe for sponge cake. Frank the trumpet player with AIDS for whom the complex cocktail no longer worked. That poor baby in the neonatal ICU, baby Emily the nurses called her, who had been born with a hole in her heart. Deborah shuddered at the memory of the tiny blue child. Angry Caroline with ovarian cancer, scarcely older than she herself was. That might explain the strange sympathetic sensation nestled in her own belly. She rested a hand there but her body told her nothing.

Somehow, she didn’t think it was any of these. Of course, someone was always dying. It didn’t have to be someone you knew. Visiting a hospital regularly you learned that pretty quickly.

She should make herself a cup of coffee and start the day. The newspaper was waiting for her. Reuben, when they had been together, all but heard the Times crying on the doorstep like an abandoned child. He would bring it into bed. Deborah could never look at the paper first thing in the morning. Though she was keenly attuned to the world’s sorrows, internal matters always concerned her more.

Deborah decided to pray. She had promised herself that she would pray more regularly. She rose and stretched. She was wearing a T-shirt and nothing else. She stepped into a pair of underpants. It didn’t seem right to stand bare-assed before God, though of course everyone was supposed to be naked before Him. Not that she thought of God as a seeing presence. Or a Him. Still, she slipped on a pair of red running shorts over the underpants. Barefoot, she padded across the wood floor and removed a large zippered velvet envelope from her top drawer. She left a smaller velvet envelope behind.

While she was up she shut off the air conditioner. It had been in the high eighties the past few days but Deborah hated the artificial cool. There was something dishonest about it, though this was the kind of observation that drove Reuben-who had bought the air conditioner for her-crazy. She always imagined that the heat was still lurking somewhere in the room, hidden behind an invisible veil of refrigerated air. If you exerted yourself only slightly you felt hot and realized that the whole thing was a kind of physical illusion. This belief was, in Reuben’s words, a pantheistic delusion. But Reuben was gone, though his machine lived on, sucking life out of the room in his absence.

Deborah’s grandfather had been surprisingly tall; she was reminded of this as she unfurled his large prayer shawl, ivory white with bold zebra stripes of black. Though she was five foot six inches tall, when she raised the shawl over her head she was completely shrouded. She loved the feeling of being wrapped, hidden away inside the soft armor of her grandfather’s tallis. In the meditation she now recited, God was described as robed in light. Deborah held the ends of the prayer shawl together above her head and felt, for a moment, blissfully cocooned.

When Reuben had seen her in her tallis for the first time he had called her a transvestite. Remembering it now, she burned with shame and indignation. He had pretended it was a joke and flashed her his gleaming, bearded smile, but she could see the disgust in his eyes. He had nothing against women praying, he told her, but why did they have to pray dressed like men?

Reuben was Orthodox. Of course he had slept with her anyway-not, she felt sure, the only one of the 613 commandments he had violated, but perhaps the one he most easily discounted. He had shown more anxiety about the state of her kitchen-the morning after, she’d found him sifting through the silverware to make sure that she indeed had a set for milk and a set for meat.

Deborah lowered the tallis so that the strip of gold embroidery lay behind her slender neck; she gathered up the extra material on either side and threw it over her shoulders, doubling the great square of striped cloth back on itself so that she wore it like a cape. The tassels hung down in front and behind.

It annoyed her to be thinking of Reuben now, in her moment of prayer, with his ortho-arrogant awkwardness, his air of entitlement and insecurity Modern Orthodox men were macho sissies. He wasn’t the first one she’d dated. They expected to inherit the earth but they had a nagging, inborn fear that they might be driven from it first. In this respect they weren’t quite American, and Deborah supposed it was this mild foreignness, coupled with her own weakness for ritual rigor, that had drawn her to them in the first place. She had met Reuben in his synagogue, not hers. She herself must have held a certain exotic appeal for him-a Reform woman rabbi. She must not have seemed quite American either, or quite Jewish.

She resented terms like Orthodox and Reform-they seemed a substitute for the inner state. Did she have a Reform soul? She didn’t feel that way, especially draped in her grandfather’s tallis. Reuben can kiss my Reform rabbinical cross-dressing ass. She hurled herself into Ma Tovu-How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob-her heart pounding, trying to recapture the tented pleasure of the moment before. But it wasn’t until she had blazed through Adon Olam and Yigdal-containing Maimonides’s thirteen principles of Judaism, beginning with the existence of God and ending with the resurrection of the dead-that she settled down.

Deborah loved the praise part of prayer. In rabbinic school there had always been students who wrestled with praise and took a what-has-he-done-for-me-lately attitude toward God, an attitude of human entitlement and anger. Deborah had never understood this.

To praise God made her feel whole and she recited Birkot Hashachar with a schoolgirl’s relish: Blessed are you God who gives sight to the blind; blessed are you God who clothes the naked; blessed are you God who did not make me a slave. She was using her grandmother’s little prayer book, which made no apologies for blessed are you God who did not make me a woman. Deborah skipped that blessing and recited the female alternative, Blessed are you God who made me according to his will.

She found her groove and raced along, fast but focused, gathering the four tassels of her tallis in her right hand when she came to the “Shema and her Blessings” so that she could kiss them every time she uttered the word tzitzit-And you shall look on them and remember the commandments, and not be seduced by the desires of the heart or of the eye

By the time she got to the Amida she had forgotten the distress of the morning and was moving smoothly along ancient verbal tracks of praise and petition. One of her liturgy professors had spoken of prayer in the language of sports. You break through the wall, he said, and you’re no longer thinking, I’m running, I’m running, you’re simply running. It’s a beautiful state. She felt that way now. She entered the Amida almost before she knew it, bowing and bending and feeling the words alive inside her.

But then the persistent whisper in her blood distracted her. Again she thought, Someone is dying. Was it the hospital getting to her at last? Her sister, Rachel, had been telling her that she spent too much time there, which, considering the fact that Rachel was a doctor, was laughable. Though she was spending more and more of her time among the sick. She’d begun visiting congregants but had found herself spending time with other patients, too, Jews and non-Jews, old people and babies alike. Rabbi Zwieback, the senior rabbi, was only too happy to give her hospital detail, and for the past two years half her salary was paid by a grant that supported ministering to the sick.

Deborah had found in the hospital an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a soldier might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war. That in the thick of battle-bullets whizzing around his head, comrades falling, death undeniable, life its brightest and most immediate and most perishable-his inner state has finally found its outer expression. In the hospital Deborah found not fear but, oddly: a kind of peace.

Not that she had abandoned her other responsibilities. This very Sunday she would be performing a wedding. Now that was scary. Deborah had met with the couple twice and it seemed clear they weren’t ready for marriage. Janet was only twenty-four and had already broken off the engagement once, during which time she had briefly returned to an earlier, non-Jewish boyfriend. Deborah felt this woman was still torn but, a pleaser by nature, she had reconciled because she could not bear to assert herself in a lasting way. Deborah had heard only a tiny piece of this story from Janet when they had spoken on the phone and had imagined she would learn more, but with her fianc? beside her the woman said almost nothing. The man, Rick, a tax attorney (Deborah tried not to hold his profession or his goatee against him) did most of the talking, and he did it in a controlling way Deborah resented.

“We’ve had some times,” Rick had said, “but we’ve worked through them. We’re ready to make the leap.”

He kept on talking without pause, about what kind of service they wanted and about his father who had died and about how Janet’s sister would be playing the flute. He left Deborah no opening so she had cut him off abruptly.

“Have the invitations already gone out?” she’d asked, more harshly than she’d intended. Tact was never her strong suit and when she was agitated or annoyed it went out the window. Man and wife-to-be had both looked at her in surprise. But she had persisted-she blushed at the memory of it. “I understand there have been some problems with … fidelity.”

At last Rick, waking from his stupor, had snapped at her, “We both have therapists. We’re not looking for another one.”

No, dickhead, Deborah thought, you want a spiritual caterer to hand you your wedding on a tray. But she retreated. Janet had given her no support, saying only, “We’re very comfortable now,” several times. Comfortable? Deborah had wanted to scream: Do you love him? What about that other guy? Don’t use religion as an excuse. Marry for love! But she had held her tongue. They did seem comfortable. It was she herself who wasn’t comfortable these days. Weddings had become difficult. As a rule she loved them, standing at the center of the white ceremony, a figure of almost magical authority, braiding two lives together. The Talmud said the world was a wedding. But was it one for her? She was thirty and single. She felt more profoundly alone than she ever had in her life.

Deborah caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror on the back of her closet, a young woman wearing an old man’s prayer shawl. Her bare legs came out the bottom. She should shave them before the wedding. Still, they were nice legs, though slightly knock-kneed. She adjusted her stance and almost turned to see her behind in the mirror but caught herself She realized to her astonishment that she was still praying, her lips on automatic. She was impressed with herself and perturbed at the same time. So she knew the Amida by heart! Or at least her lips did. This did not altogether gratify her. When she swam laps she believed that if her mind wandered too much, she wasn’t really exercising. It was one thing to break through the wall-it was another thing to leave the building. She drove her mind back to the prayers. Oh Lord, guard my lips from speaking falsehood and my tongue from speaking guile … Let my soul be as dust before you. She finished the Amida, took three steps backward, turned her body to the left and right, bowed, and stood straight again.

The room, in the absence of air-conditioning, had begun to grow warm. Deborah yawned. “Dear God, forgive my distractions,” she murmured. More and more she was given to spontaneous prayer, something she had picked up in the hospital from a Baptist minister. There was no danger of your mind wandering when you spoke directly to God. The ice broken, she added. “Please don’t let me be alone.”

Was she praying for a man now? Or was it God she wanted?

She sensed the mysterious presence again in the room. A sort of tiptoeing shadow. She often felt her father, dead now fifteen years, with her, but that was a kind of inner glow. This felt different, stranger. God? The Angel of Death? Or only her overactive imagination?

She did not really believe in God as a physical being and yet she knew, too, that if a voice called out to her she would answer, without hesitation, “Here I am!” And she felt that mysterious things were always happening, and, what is more, on the verge of happening. She was constantly encountering, if not God, then at least the outer garment of God. A few days before, she had seen an elderly man on Broadway, copper bearded and stooped but neatly dressed in a seersucker suit, swaying over his own untied shoelaces. He was wearing running shoes, an incongruous but not uncommon fashion choice for Upper West Side elderly. The laces of both shoes were untied and he seemed incapable of bending over enough to get to them or of deciding which shoe to tie first. Without asking permission, Deborah had knelt down and tied them both. The humble gesture had flooded her with joy. It was the joy of kneeling down, erasing herself for a moment in an act of kindness. She’d felt astonishingly alive at that instant, as if she had been created for just such a purpose.

Deborah was no longer praying. Her mind was merely wandering. “Sorry,” she said aloud. Her own voice startled her.

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