Humor and silence as paths to spirituality

Humor and silence as paths to spirituality

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks takes an ‘unorthodox’ approach in the pulpit

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks says he believes not in a fixed Jewish doctrine, but in an ever-changing path.
Rabbi Moshe Waldoks says he believes not in a fixed Jewish doctrine, but in an ever-changing path.

Humorist, religious leader, professor, and pulpit rabbi, Moshe Waldoks believes the secret to the good life is to keep reinventing yourself, and the secret to Judaism is to keep walking on an ever-changing path called Halacha.

“The path is very wide,” he explained in a phone conversation from Brookline, Mass., where he has led Temple Beth Zion, an independent synagogue, since 1998. (He received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 1996 at age 47.) 

Rebutting Orthodox and fundamentalist ideas of fixed halachic laws, he added, “It’s not as some would have you believe, their way or the highway. There’s nothing written in stone. Rather, you’re never supposed to stop moving. That’s why it’s called a path. The minute you stop, you’re in a rut.”

Once you see that it’s “an ongoing process of looking to the horizon, you realize you need to change all the time,” he said. 

Waldoks — or Reb Moshe, as he prefers to be called — spoke with NJJN in advance of his Sunday, Feb. 22, appearance at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah of Clark as part of the Sol Stern Memorial Lecture Series. In his talk, Waldoks will focus on the subject of the work for which he is perhaps best known, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, a 1981 anthology he edited with William Novak. Published by HarperCollins, it was released with a new introduction in 2006 in honor of its 25th anniversary.

A former university professor with a PhD in Jewish intellectual history, Waldoks believes Jewish humor is having a kind of renaissance that offers an intriguing embrace of Jewish knowledge, values, and culture that was noticeably absent in the past. 

“Jews no longer have hegemony on Jewish humor,” he said, pointing out that “Jewish humor became American humor.” But, he added, “there’s a new Jewish humor emerging that is much more Jewish.”

He compares this new Jewish humor to kosher food, while old Jewish humor is merely “kosher style.” From the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks to Jerry Seinfeld, “kosher-style” humor “was fast, urban, and had the sound of Judaism. But there was no Jewish content, except to distance the comedian from it and reject it.”

By contrast, “new Jewish humor” embraces rather than stigmatizes Judaism, said Waldoks. Mainstream figures like Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart are part of this phenomena, as is the proudly Catholic Stephen Colbert. Some of Colbert’s sketches, like his “Atone-a-phone” bit aired during the High Holy Days, ask of his audience a greater familiarity with Judaism than the typical Borscht Belt gag. “This is what the season is about” — that is, calling people to ask forgiveness for wrongs. “But we’re such a small percentage of the U.S. audience for this stuff to be on TV. It’s bizarre.” 

Waldoks’s talk in Clark comes just before Purim, when congregations read Megillat Esther and perform purimshpiels, a touchstone of Jewish humor and parody. In his view, parody, telling the Purim story in a topsy-turvy fashion, and Jewish humor generally serve several purposes: They puncture pomposity and defuse Jewish anxiety over outside assaults.

Waldoks’s pulpit is also a place of off-kilter humor and sudden reversals, he said. “People are always shocked that the rabbi doesn’t believe in the God they don’t believe in: the guy with the long beard sitting on a chair holding a thunderbolt. That’s Zeus!”

He credits the revival of his once moribund congregation to his rejection of rigid beliefs. “We are a synagogue of seekers, not a synagogue of believers,” he said. Too often, believers say, “This is God. If you don’t believe what we believe we will chop off your head.” Instead, he said, “God is a dynamic, ongoing process.”

Temple Beth Zion likes to call itself “unorthodox” — according to its website, a community “of people who do not comfortably fit into neat categories of Judaism, of people who have long experience with other spiritual paths.”

“I am deeply aware that Judaism is one of many paths,” Waldoks said. “I’m here to help people be Jews and make Judaism. But I am not living the Judaism of my grandfather, and my grandchildren will not live my Judaism.” 

When someone arrives at his congregation who has spent 10 years as a Buddhist, his response is, “That’s great! What can you teach me?” 

One thing he has learned from other traditions is the spiritual benefits of meditation. “The big problem is that as currently constructed, synagogues require textual competence. So people who are very successful in their secular lives feel like boobs in shul. That’s very painful. 

“Instead,” he said, “we need to be creating a place of entry through spiritual silence.” Waldoks, the founder of Nishmat Hayyim, a Jewish meditation community, was instrumental in arranging the first meeting between Jewish leaders and the Dalai Lama, an encounter described in Rodger Kamenetz’s 1994 best-seller The Jew in the Lotus.

“I believe people should reinvent themselves every eight-10 years. It keeps you sharp and keeps the fire in the belly.” Beyond that, he suggests authenticity at all times. “I try to be very real with people. That’s very important. People have to know I’m not working with an agenda. I’m the same on Monday as on Tuesday, and with rich people and not-so-rich people,” he said. 

And it doesn’t hurt to have “a tremendously wide bag of tricks,” he said. His own repertoire includes singing, telling stories, studying Torah, and giving sermons. In fact, being a rabbi “is the most integrative” of his three careers — so much so that he might refrain from a fourth reinvention.

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