“Shown But Not Said” by Rabbi Zemel

By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel

I am regularly asked, most often by young rabbis at other congregations, to articulate what I think an American synagogue should be. Do I have a theory that drives my actions? What has been my guiding principle as I helped to shape Temple Micah into the congregation that it is?

I have trouble answering these questions and have been known, with a certain degree of hesitancy, to refer to Ludwig Wittgenstein in formulating my response.

Wittgenstein, an early 20th-century philosopher, thought that the most important matters in human affairs could be “shown but not said.” My hesitancy does not mean I doubt the importance of synagogues. There is no more essential institution in Jewish life. Rather, I am reluctant to cite this brilliant yet impenetrable thinker with any degree of certainty about what his words mean.

Wittgenstein attempted to clarify what he meant about important matters being “shown but not said.” He wrote: “…[W]hat could we be asking for, if we said to …(an) artist, ‘we want …a picture of your way of painting things. Not an example of that way, mark you! A picture of the way itself!?’ Patently, this is a request which no artist could fulfill…an artist’s way of painting is manifest in his every picture, but it cannot (logically) be the subject matter of his pictures.” (Wittgenstein and Religious Belief, W. Donald Hudson)

Following the wisdom of Wittgenstein, I usually try to let my vision for what an American synagogue should be speak for itself. It is “shown” in how people experience Temple Micah. They either “get it” or they do not. The theory of Micah is Micah!

Why am I writing this now?

I don’t have a “synagogue theory,” yet Temple Micah is the theory in action. Instead of a theory we do, however, have a Micah roadmap. Our roadmap includes such terms as “narrative,” “human project” and “tackling tough conversations,” which together are a way of describing our inherited Jewish legacy.

What do I mean? As I am writing this, our Torah reading cycle has us in the final chapters of Genesis. I peeked ahead just to be reminded how the Book of Exodus begins: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.” Exodus begins just as Genesis ends, as a family story. The Genesis family story is one of murder, strife, violence, theft, cheating, parental favoritism and more. Genesis’s message is the difficult, sometimes deadly, tension present in the life of almost every family. With the Book of Exodus, we see what has been primarily (but not exclusively) the story of the nuclear family in Genesis expand to the extended family. “Jacob’s issue” now numbers seventy.

The emphasis at the beginning of Exodus is clearly on family. Israel itself is an extended family. Exodus provides us with the beginning of Jewish self-understanding, the source of the modern question: Are we a religion or an ethnic tribe, a faith community or a people? The answer is that we are both, and that is the source of the ever-present tensions inherent in Jewish life. Our internal quarrels are rife with the intensity of family arguments. Our differences are rooted in and even foretold by our biblical origin stories.

Our Micah roadmap guides us toward the creation of a New Jewish Narrative. We are writing the latest chapter of the Jewish story; we will decide whom and what to emphasize. The Jewish scholar Louis Newman cites the work of legal scholar Ronald Dworkin to describe how Jewish life and theology unfold. He uses Dworkin’s writings about legal precedent and judicial decision-making to illustrate how Jewish traditions and self-understanding evolve: “(Dworkin) asks us to imagine a series of authors who write a novel one chapter at a time. Each author (after the first) inherits the work of earlier writers in the series and so is given a kind of limited creative license, for the author’s literary imagination must work within boundaries (however fluid) which have been established by previous writers. The need to preserve a sense of coherence within the novel will provide a general framework within which successive novelists will do their work.”

This description of a novel written by successive authors is similar to the process we employ to create our religious life at Temple Micah. We take our inherited Jewish narrative, the sum of chapters written by earlier generations, and draft the newest chapter — the one in which we are now living. When we do not recognize this reality, and seek to repeat the previous chapter, our story becomes stale and we lose interest. If we are too radical, and veer too far from the script handed down to us, we become footnotes to the ongoing Jewish story. This was the experience of such groups as the Samarians and Karaites before us. The creation of a new and compelling narrative that links the past to the future is our ever-present challenge.

The narrative itself is a reflection of how we, Jewishly, embrace the human project, the ultimate master story begun in the opening chapters of Genesis. The narrative tells us how we see ourselves in this era. Genesis shows us the creation of the universe and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, followed by fratricide: Cain murders his brother. The human project is laid out before us. We are challenged to learn how to become human. Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In that moment, the notions of human responsibility, mercy, and conscience enter the human conversation. The human project has begun, and we see that the way to write the story is to constructively tackle the tough conversations.

Jews have been writing the story and having those difficult conversations from the start. It is our job to continue them, to push our collective story forward through the way we live, to advance the human project. This is the closest I can get to a “theory” of Temple Micah. Our story is “written” in everything that we do. Our roadmap guides us in both creating and telling the story. To enter Micah is to enter the story, as it is being written and as it is being told.

This article originally appeared in the January/March 2024 issue of the Vine.

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