The Rabbi’s Revenge

The Rabbi's Revenge Jewishness

A short story by Elliot B. Gertel.                                                     

The young rabbi looked forward to the class. Fresh out of the seminary, in his first congregation, he anticipated, more than anything else, the opportunity to teach the children. After all, “And thou shalt teach them unto thy children,” is a cardinal commandment in Judaism. The teacher of the child is considered a second parent, for he who teaches a child Torah has given him or her life everlasting.

He dreamed of opening for them—and for himself—worlds of Judaism. He anticipated finding in the classroom process ways of communicating the timeless values, just as he had with great distinction and creativity delved into secrets of particle waves ultra-violet rays and managed to store and study them.

The very thought of soon reaching these youngsters dispelled any regrets about leaving the laboratory and a decade-long science career before possibly winning a Nobel Prize. He could now put to good use recent years spent at the Seminary, not to mention his childhood and teen years immersed in Jewish lore and mysticism, lovingly imparted by his grandfather. “Zeide” had remained connected to his mystical roots even while running his business. This grandson regarded study with his Zeide as the perfect training ground for the rigours and disciplines of scientific inquiry.

These seventh- and eighth-graders, who had just had bar and bar mitzvah ceremonies—he imagined them waiting expectantly at the threshold of Jewish tradition. They were becoming young men and women, ready in the eyes of tradition to assume the responsibilities of adult life, at the age when they could begin to learn to appreciate those responsibilities.

It was, he believed, the perfect age, the opportune time: the bridge between childhood and adolescence, the period of personal awakening that would prepare them to be stirred by their religious heritage. In learning about the change in their physical bodies, they would learn that they have eternal souls.

Like angels, he imagined them to be, glorious creatures in transition to greater glory. He would help to replace tentativeness and awkwardness with knowledge and integrity.

As he entered the classroom, however, he had a sense that they were lying in wait. They were watching him, but not with the kind of anticipation with which one greets a potential new friend. Rather, it was watching that was testing.

One by one they made their way to their places, thumping down in their seats, waiting, challenging, provoking. When he turned with reverence to a page of the Bible which he hoped would engage their minds and souls, a couple of the boys crumpled up papers and threw them at one another. When he tried to instil religion’s message of sincerity and integrity, a boy and a girl informed him that he was the best teacher they’d ever had, though their undisciplined manner belied that they meant the opposite. As soon as he spoke of the miraculous deliverance at sea when the Children of Israel fled Egypt, three students cried out rudely and simultaneously that they had to exit to go to the restroom. While he cited a passage from the Psalms exalting the God of creation, Whose work is firm and secure, one of the boys mockingly fell out of his chair.

And so, it continued for a few weeks—moments of clarity, moments of chaos; moments when they seemed engaged, only to lapse into the same limited repertoire of predictable stunts. How could these youngsters reared on video games find excitement in ancient stories that had to be read and re-read in order to be appreciated, in prayers and festivals mastered only by recognizing the superiority of silence over syncopated sounds, of reverence over wisecracks?

Would they grow up to find a place in the synagogue? And if they did, would the synagogue be worth finding a place in? Would those who now fight over a Venetian blind string someday contend over control of the synagogue? Would involvement in the religious community lead to politics above piety, cliques instead of compassion, fundraising over sharing?

No, he told himself after the second or third class. The same mistakes can’t be repeated all over again. The scientist in him prompted him to promote a new paradigm against outworn theories and ineffective formulas. The rabbi in him told him that people can change, that they must change before God will step in and repair a broken world.

 Even when frustrated with these teens and with their parents on the synagogue board, even when tired of the machinations and of the mischievousness of all age groups, his ego was buoyed up by his scientific track record. He had, after all, at a very early age, invented the machine that had won him acclaim in the journals, the mechanism that could preserve all sorts of ultra-violet rays and particle waves, a wonder-box now kept under lock and key by the American government. In his spare time, he had been reconstructing it in his apartment from memory, adding storage capacities to it beyond his wildest dreams, just for a sense of measurable accomplishment not always attainable while working with individuals and families and with a community.

Most of his time he gave to the congregation. The parents of the teens expected him to make their kids more polite and more Jewish, in that order. They seemed happy that the children sometimes exhausted the young rabbi, for they expected their children and their rabbi to give each other a good workout so that both would be too tired to demand religious observance from the parents.

The more the children acted up, the more unrealistic the expectations of their parents, the more disinterest they showed in the words of Torah, the sparser the attendance at services, the more he turned to the laws of physics, to his light rays and waves and the uses to which they might be put. What eventually occurred to him filled him with awe, with wonder and with dread.

The young rabbi jokingly commented to an older colleague that, since the souls of the youngsters were being wasted anyway, those souls should be used somewhere else, or at least stored. “Why that would be murder,” the colleague smiled. “Are the kids that bad nowadays? I have no problems with them. I let my assistant teach them.” “Not murder,” the young rabbi replied, forcing a smile. “Just temporary recycling.”

He thought of the legend of the Rabi of Apt. When the Rabi of Apt recited the Avodah Service of Yom Kippur, which re-enacts the service of the High Priest in the Temple, he would never say, as the Prayer Book says, “Thus said the High Priest.” Instead, he would say, “Thus I spoke.” For, as his Hasidim relate, he had not forgotten the time when his soul resided in the body of the High Priest in Jerusalem, and he had no reason to learn from the Prayer Book about the Temple Service. “Ten times have I been in this world,” said the Rabbi of Apt. “I was a High Priest, a prince, a king, an exilarch; I was ten different kinds of leader, but I never learned to love humanity perfectly, and my soul proceeded forth again and again in order to perfect my love. If I succeed this time, I shall never have to return again.”

 If the Rabbi of Apt’s soul could be recycled many times in order for him to learn love, maybe, the young rabbi thought, just maybe the souls of these teenagers ought to be recycled until they learn some respect.

He smiled. The idea was very appealing to him. But how do you recycle the soul? Each person is given one soul for at least one lifetime. To try to recycle the soul is to kill, to terminate one life span. But perhaps not, he thought. If souls were recycled, they’d have to be stored.

Had he not experimented with storing light? He was certain that the soul would rest in particle waves as it had found lodging in the body. Are not light and matter related, and is the soul not eased by both? Is it not written in Proverbs (20:27): “The soul of man is the candle of God”?

He didn’t stop to consider the human consequences. He no longer regarded the seventh- and eighth-graders as the marvellous challenge of growing human beings, but as useless distractions, too old to attract bar and bat mitzvah crowds into the empty sanctuary and too young to become dues-paying members in their own right. He no longer even tried to understand them, to teach them, to show them respect and understanding and to hope to make disciples of at least some of them.

They sensed his irritability, his disdain. At first, they reacted with cheekiness. “Hey, mister—oh, excuse us, Rabbi—what boring stories do you got today?” “Today’s story will be different.” “You’re all heart, mister rabbi.” “And you, my young friends, are all soul,” he said, smiling with a palpably ominous grin on his face. His bizarre responses and smirk induced puzzlement among the teenagers, and maybe a little fear. “He’s planning something,” a few of them whispered. “Maybe he’s been speaking to our parents.”

He pulled the machine out of his briefcase. It looked like a vintage DVD player. “Hey, the teacher brought some low tech. But, Rabbi, it looks too old even to be a DVD player? Is it something retro, like a floppy drive?” They chuckled at their own sarcasm. A student remarked to his neighbour in a stage whisper: “Nothing could help him to teach better, except maybe a real teacher in the classroom.”

Others spoke out more directly: “Some things are more boring than this class—like talking about this class on the bus and carpool.” “I’ll never forget anything I learned in this class. How can you forget—nothing!” The comments ceased. How can teenagers wisecrack without souls? Ten souls were drawn into a rather unimpressive-looking console, leaving behind ten lifeless, youthful bodies, not punching each other, not checking their stock of cosmetics, not cursing, not chewing gum, not jumping out of their seats, not talking back to the rabbi. “If you think I’m boring,” the rabbi said, “you should see yourselves now.” As he laughed hysterically and uncontrollably, he found himself thinking that maybe he had become a little diabolical, or at least a bit meshuga.

At that moment, alone in the classroom, the young rabbi shivered with fear, even in the midst of convulsions of laughter. What if the principal or a parent walked in? No matter, he thought, he could just store their souls also, until he had a chance to think things out. The machine had such a large spectrum capacity that he could store the entire congregation.

The fear that he felt most was more profound than the fear of being discovered. The most arresting fear is not of death; death is the way of all life. The real terror is tampering with birth. The deepest dread is not returning to one’s Maker but becoming a maker. What is beyond the grave is not as frightening as what precedes birth—or rebirth.

The young rabbi trembled. He had been studying both physics and Jewish mysticism long enough to perceive at that moment of keen genius and frustration the point at which these studies and factors could converge. If a PhD in physics and a stint on a top-secret project, if attending a modern seminary to learn how to upgrade his Judaism—if these qualifications were worth anything, he rationalized, then he could certainly do what the ancient Talmudic Rabbis had done. Those sages had, in their righteousness and piety, fashioned a man out of clay and brought him to life with the Divine Name after having created in like manner a third-grown calf and having eaten it for Sabbath dinner.

Like Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, who created a golem, a hollow creature, to protect the Jews of the ghetto, the young rabbi had shielded himself from those who would challenge the authority of the modern teacher of Judaism. A well-educated product of the era of recycling, he didn’t think he needed to begin with mere clay. In his indignant frustration and bruised self-esteem, he had set aside caution and qualm. He marked a letter of the Divine Name behind the ears of each of these soul-less teenage bodies, and all at once, they listened respectfully, if somewhat dully, to his every word and story.

But what to do with their souls in the machine, refrigerated, as it were, by light rays and waves? If he was not careful to preserve them, then he would indeed be guilty of murder. So, he was most scrupulous to keep the souls stored safely and undisturbed in his contraption.

The ten golems were the perfect pupils for a few weeks and then began to learn to curse, to jump out of their seats, to push each other, to pull out make-up compacts and smartphones, and to defy parents and teachers, just as when they had their given souls. The parents noticed that their sons and daughters had become even more awkward, klutzier, lazier, than before. When the teenagers were docile upon returning from Hebrew school, the parents blamed the young rabbi for destroying their initiative with passive religious thinking. When they came home more uncontrollable, their parents blamed the young rabbi for not disciplining them enough. “That rabbi has turned my son into a golem,” one father complained. “And what’s more, I don’t like his sermons. His religious talks are as inspiring as the evening news, and his analysis of world events is as up to date as the biblical genealogies. When does his contract come up for renewal, anyway?”

The young rabbi received an encrypted communication from Washington. The Government wanted him to visit his machine for a year or two in order to help out with a national defence project. All his moving expenses would be paid, plus a handsome salary. He decided to take a hiatus from Hebrew school teenagers, contract renewal and sermons, and to work in D.C. He would tweak the machine so it could generate rays for national defence. He would dismantle and delete its soul-storing capacity, lest religious fanatics in various lands try to exploit it.

During the last class, he went around the room and erased the Divine Name from behind the golem’s ears. Praying for the restoration of life, he took the machine out of his briefcase, activated it, and generated the souls back into the teenage bodies, some of which had grown markedly.

“Mister—oh, excuse me, Rabbi—you may sometimes be boring, but at least you seem to work hard for this class. You may just get broken in yet.” “Stop throwing those papers around,” boys and girls scolded one another as if momentarily melded into a chorus intent on motivating better decorum and mutual respect.

The young rabbi smiled and thought that maybe he’d return to a congregation after all. He wondered whether the machine rays had anything to do with his class growing up a little but then thought it best not to speculate ever again on how to improve on God-given souls.


Elliot B. Gertel is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He has been film and television reviewer of the "National Jewish Post and Opinion" since 1979. His books include What Jews Know About Salvation and Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television.
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