Bontche and the naked emperor – a Slihot parable

The constant repetitions, night or day at Slihot or on Yom Kippur, are very hard to take. Am I alone in these thoughts?

By KARLO S. ROTHSCHILD
September 18, 2019 17:17
Bontche and the naked emperor – a Slihot parable

‘THE NAKED Emperor,’ stencil graffiti by Edward von Lõngus in Tartu, Estonia.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lo and behold, there are seven overlapping Jewish heavens. One is Sephardi, one Ashkenazi, one Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reform, one LGBTQ and one for the righteous gentiles (who process peace). The heavens vary widely in size and function, but angels change from one heaven to another as readily as Israeli ministers change portfolios and parties, or go up and down their party lists.

At the entrance to the highest heaven the gatekeeper – one of the most pious men who had ever lived, Bontche Schweig, also known as Bontche the Silent – inspected a newcomer’s credentials. Condemned to wonder (sic) in heaven and hell for his impertinence, the boy who had dared say that the emperor was naked was seeking admittance.

“It looks like everything is in order. Have you been promised a hot roll and fresh butter every day for breakfast?” Bontche asked quietly. “That is what I picked when I was told that because of my piety on Earth I could choose any reward I wanted.” 

“No,” said the newcomer. “I won’t be a permanent resident here. Originally they refused to give me a Teudat Oleh (for immigration to heaven) because they suspected I wasn’t Jewish. Jews don’t call attention to obvious nonsense as I do. They talk a lot and argue, but they don’t deal with their basic problems. At first I was given a Teudat Yored (to the other place, down below). It was only when Solomon interceded for me that they temporarily let me be reclassified as an atoning sinner. That way they let me visit here, so that I might learn better manners.”

“Excuse me,” whispered Bontche, “that’s a bit much for me to take in. I’d always thought that the best way to get here was to suffer in silence down on Earth without complaining, resisting or changing anything.”

“You’ve summed up the last 2,000 years of traditional Jewish Orthodoxy very well, Mr. Schweig,” said the newcomer.

“What did you mean by saying that Jews don’t call attention to obvious nonsense? Can you give me an example?” asked Bontche.
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll give you several. For example, Jewish Orthodoxy acts as if man had just been created and told, “Be fruitful and multiply.” It ignores that man has been on Earth for some time, so that “fill up the land” is on the way to being accomplished with tragic consequences. Secondly, the Torah states that there are four reasons for not serving in the army: having a new bride, house or vineyard, or being fainthearted. Studying is not a reason.

“Nevertheless ‘super-Orthodox’ young Jews are encouraged to stay out of the army because they are yeshiva students. The state lets them avoid the draft and few Orthodox voices are raised against this violation of the Torah. Is that not nonsense? We are commanded to work six days. Studying is not ‘work.’ It is permitted on Shabbat. In fact, it is considered so enjoyable that it is not permitted on Tish’a Beav, except for mournful subjects. The codifiers of Halacha [Jewish law] in the Mishna and Gemara did real work in addition to their discussions. They didn’t live on handouts, as yeshiva students now do. They said ‘Don’t make your Tora a spade to dig with (a moneymaking tool).’

“In fact, Shimon bar Yochai was said to have been punished for denigrating all practical occupations and insisting that people engage only in the study of Torah. Pirke Avot stresses the importance of work, and that study without work is unworthy. Most Orthodox leaders today do not proclaim that avoiding the draft for learning and avoiding work for study are against Jewish Orthodoxy! Is that not nonsense?

“Today, Ashkenazim have customs different from those practiced by Sephardim. We are told that we should maintain such differences, to do as our fathers did. What nonsense! The very fact that such differences exist proves that in the past (after Moses gave us a single set of laws) people changed what their forbears did, so that today there are many different customs that are considered as binding as laws.”

Bontche sighed. “It’s all very confusing. During my lifetime I never worried about such things. All my difficult problems were solved by my rebbi, and I did as he told me to do. Yes, he even said that Pirke Avot said to get yourself a rebbi to rely on.”

The newcomer responded, “Did your rebbi also tell you that Shemaya said in Pirke Avot to love work and to hate ruling or acting superior [rabbanut]?”

“Nu? I don’t like your saying that so many things I’m used to are nonsense,” said Bontche.

“Bontche, you really are very likable. You are right, we should love all humanity and try to bridge the differences among people. It just seems as if today many rabbis are interested in other things and not in universal harmony. Jews understand that they should love each other, and that to modernize their pre-science frozen religion they need a Sanhedrin. But they do not like each other enough to cooperate in establishing one. I must seem a troublemaker to them and to you. One should try to solve disagreements with good sense and to avoid hatred and incitement. But listen, I hear the bell calling you to your breakfast treat. Maybe I’d better let you go.”

The alarm suddenly woke me from my dream.

These Slihot days are troubling. In my teens, I felt that the repeated cycles of standing up when the ark housing the Torah scrolls was opened (which is common practice, though not required) and sitting down when the ark was closed, during night-time Slihot, as well as on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, were a unique form of Jewish calisthenics. At age 20 I told a relative that I felt odd during the High Holy Days when lists of sins were recited. I had little to do with any of them. Today, 60 years later, I feel I might be considered guilty of most of them. The real trouble is that I don’t know whether the thoughts I have in the synagogue are base or sublime, whether I should be silent as Bontche or consider myself pure-hearted enough to say that the emperor is naked.

When rituals of blood-sprinkling are described in our prayer books, I am repulsed. Do many others (other Silent Bontches) feel as I do? The beautiful piyutim prayers are said too quickly for me to enjoy. I have no doubt that I would complain if they were read slowly. I do find many synagogue inclusions, such as the parable of Jonah, uplifting. But the constant repetitions, night or day at Slihot, or on Yom Kippur, the same words repeated again and again and again, are very hard to take.

Am I alone in these thoughts? Should something be done or is this the way one should torture one’s soul (provided I could figure out what that is)? Is the Good Lord not tired of all the praise, bowing, kneeling, sacrifices and ceremonies in His honor heaped upon Him by the world’s religions? Is the world’s unfairness and injustice (including the Holocaust) not overwhelming evidence that the Creator is not involved in the day-to-day activities on Earth? We know too little but must try to learn. The Torah tells us that the answers are not hidden from us “in heaven.”

Am I “sinning” by expressing these thoughts and thus separating myself from others, or am I doing the worthwhile opposite – expressing thoughts that many others may also have? As Rosh Hashana approaches, I am grateful for having been exposed to the warmhearted genius of Pirke Avot, I.L. Peretz and H.C. Andersen. I am also grateful to my father for handing on to me the “tradition” of reading S.Y. Agnon’s Yamim Noraim (customs, explanations and stories of the High Holy Days, “Days of Awe”), when synagogue repetitions seem unbearable. May the years to come be better for all of mankind. Shana tova.

The writer, now retired in Haifa, was a research associate at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York City, before coming to Israel in 1974 to head the Safed Rivka Ziv government hospital’s biochemistry laboratory. He is author of Trivicarl Pursuits, Ten Socially Corrected Tales and Rhymes and Rothschild’s Musings, Mazo Publishers.


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