The Jews and Justice Scalia

I can’t imagine the clothing being very comfortable.  Tough but rudimentary leather stitching and sizing made for you, but still somehow never really fits quite right.  The old clothes, made accurate to the specifications of 18th century technology.   Weapons that were heavy and oily.  I never learned whether she was on the British side, or the American, but the summer that my friend Heather spent in North Carolina, at a facility for Revolutionary War reenactment, was one of the highlights of her years in college.  It seemed like every other sentence that this sweet enthusiast would say, would be about this legendary place, designed to preserve and expose the goings on of that formative moment of our nation’s history.  Heather knew the history like the back of her hand, well before she stepped foot on Carolina soil.  She read voraciously on the birth of our country, the events and minutiae that brought about the revolution.  She wrote her undergraduate and graduate theses on women in the Revolutionary War and received numerous accolades for her scholarship.  I kid you not, she had every word of the musical 1776 memorized.  She would break into Benjamin Franklin soliloquies while waiting for the bus.  She showed me a picture years later of her in full revolutionary regalia.  The face was undoubtedly hers, but the rest of the photograph, the clothing, the hat, the cart she was loading, all belonged to a bygone era.

The overwhelming nostalgia for that time, a set of years that must have been filled with euphoria given that our revolution was the very first in the entire world fueled by the ideals of the enlightenment, the notion that all people are created equal, the vision of democracy, the very same ideals that bore Reform Judaism, right around the same time.  These stories are paramount to our identity, they tell us who we are, what our values are.  They remind us to stay true to what we believe and challenge us when we drift away from what we know is right either from laziness, negligence, or distraction.

My family has these same historical moments.  Events that are now apocryphal, that took maybe minutes to occur but occupy countless hours of our hearts in their retelling.  For years, my grandfather had a cabin up in Lake Arrowhead, just north of Los Angeles.  I can still smell the pine of my childhood memories there.  In truth, it was a three story house, but it was covered in rich weathered tan wooden slats around the entire structure.  My brother tells the story of sleeping in the living room before there was a roof, falling asleep to the light of the countless stars blanketing the sky.  Apparently I was there too, but I don’t remember.  What I do remember is the steps leading down to the front door.  The deck, overlooking a forested valley where we would watch the sunset with every color in God’s palette.  One tree grew up through the deck, and my grandfather carved space in the cedar slats for the tree to grow through it.  I also remember the downstairs, which was the exclusive domain of anyone under 20.  We brought down card games and guitar amplifiers, lying in sleeping bags on old creaky single beds from the 70s.  One of the late nights, I was playing an open ended game of Monopoly with my friend Sean.  I advanced to St James Place and just as I dropped the cold metal boot on the orange space a tearing roar came from my left.  Sean and I jumped straight out of our beds, upending the entire board, and all the economic progress we had made in the previous hours.  My brother Mark, had come down and in the dark, slipped through the slats of one of the unfinished walls to provide us with a split second respite from our evenings playful labors.  /

We tell this story all of the time.  It, along with all of our memories of Lake Arrowhead, are a key part of how we remind ourselves of who we are.  We are a family that are not into extravagance, we stayed in the cabin even though it was dirty and unfinished, we build our homes with our own hands, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and living on the fruits of our own labor, we are mountain people, who recharge in nature, up where the crisp air lifts our minds to reach ever higher, and most of all, we are people who value the love and company of family.

These stories of origin come to mind as we mark the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.  Justice Scalia was a proponent of Originalism, he believed that the Constitution was perfect as it was, and that any changes or additions detracted from it.  For him, that moment of creation, when the constitution was written, was a moment enshrined in history.  In fact he believed that there was Divine providence in its inception.[1]  That great moment, in which we all celebrate the actualization of the understanding that all people are created equal, was never to be repeated, a unique event in the history of the world stuck in time, that will always hold a higher truth than any we will encounter in our lifetimes.  History, rather than march forward, simply drifts further and further away from that moment.

There may be a tendency as Jews to relate to this kind of thinking, after all, we celebrate the moment of receiving the Torah from mount Sinai.  When the Earth shook with the presence of a moment that is visited year after year by our people.  But we do not understand it this way.  We read in our prayerbook the words of our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel “We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by.  The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever.  What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”  For us every moment has in it the ability for divinity, we don’t look only to the past, but also to the future, and to present for inspiration and the experience of authentic truth.  To take the Bible as a fixed document, one without the millennia of rich interpretation and exegesis, is to take it as literal, to take it the wrong way.

One of these beautiful extrapolations, one of our sacred texts inspired by our sacred text, tells the story of the rabbis Hillel and Shammai, who we see in the Talmud.  The story goes that a non-Jew is passing by the back door of a synagogue and overhears the description of the priestly vestments, that we find in our Torah portion this week, “of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.”[2]  This person decides to become a Jew in order to get to wear this elaborate clothing.  In the classic form, that is actually an extension of the famous story of teaching the Torah while standing on one foot, the non-Jew goes to Shammai.  Our curious friend asks Shammai to become a convert in order to get the flashy priestly wearings.  Knowing that this is a preposterous request, Shammai chases this questioner out of his school.  The same person goes to Hillel.  Knowing similarly how silly this request is, Hillel instead starts to teach.

What a profound moment in our textual tradition.  Hillel understands that the point of the text is not its literal meaning, but what it does to affect and change our lives for the better.  And so he takes this text, and this mundane questioning, and he turns it so that it functions to draw this stranger nearer to the community, nearer to himself.  And we have these moments by continuing to read into our texts new meaning, for this student a cry to grow nearer to a community.

Being part of a living tradition means that we continue to read new things into our texts every day and we add more to our cannon with every generation.  Our literature, all of it, tells the story of our people, and we can’t explain the Jewish people without it, because we are not a people that only rejoices in our rich memories from 3000 years ago, we have memories from every year, every era, and continue to make new ones, even now.