I spent most of this past week at the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Association, which convened this year in Washington, D.C.
I always enjoy the yearly gathering of writers and editors 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 hear about their work, lives and views is, to me, invaluable.
And, as always when I attend AJPA gatherings, I was happy to see my friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, a Jewish scholar and the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver-area Jewish weekly – one of the few other Orthodox Jews at the conference.
He always asks me to study some Torah with him at some point over the conference, and I am honored and happy to oblige. This year was no exception.
But one particular AJPA-conference study-session we had, back in 2003, will always have a special place in my heart. The gathering that year took place in Los Angeles.
That year was when 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), a project he has now completed and is publishing. We spent an hour or so analyzing one of the particular passages on which he was then working.
The next day, all the conference attendees were shuttled to a Universal Studios lot. There we heard a presentation from an official of the Shoah Foundation – which was then temporarily located at the 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 and I found myself next to Rabbi Goldberg. 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 a textual problem we had encountered the day before in the Vilna Gaon’s commentary. I listened as he addressed the passage, and we discussed the resolution. As we spoke about the text, 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.
Scientific truths once thought to be the ultimate governors of the physical universe have yielded, with time and mind, to the strangeness of quantum physics. In traditional Jewish belief, the study of our tradition’s holy texts affords us a glimpse of an even deeper world, conceptual light-years beyond the mundane.
As Rabbi Goldberg and I spoke, an immense irony materialized in my mind. Here we were, two Jews walking between trailers in a Hollywood studio lot, arguably the epicenter of all that is fake and phony in the world (although Washington’s another candidate), a place where deception is the local currency and tinsel the stand-in for precious metals – having a discussion about an aspect of 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 my friend and I might have played a small but sublime role in a unique sort of spiritual empowerment.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay is an edited version of one that was distributed in 2003]