Elliott Malamet

Psalm 15: At the gates of Rome

Songs of Praise – A War Diary

God, who will sojourn in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?

The one who walks  תָּ֖מִים uprightly/innocently/perfectly, who does what is righteous,
and speaks the truth from their heart;

whose tongue utters no slander, who has done their neighbor no wrong/evil,

nor cast disgrace on those to whom he is close; in whose eyes a base person is repulsive,
but honors those who fear God;

who swears to their detriment without retracting;

who lends money without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things will never falter.

So these are the entrance requirements? To draw near the divine, to “sojourn in the tent” as it were, means to “never utter slander”? Never do a neighbor wrong? Always innocent and upright? Complete? I read your words and think about the idealized object that psychoanalysis discusses, the Other who must be seen as all Good. Is God the idealized object whom no one deserves? If God is all Good, and we must somehow echo or parallel this pristine Image, then those who dare to approach God’s presence face a bar set so high as to induce religious vertigo. What happens to those like myself who stumble constantly, half-blind and broken, and do not always speak truth from the heart?

The modern Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, in his work The Book of Life, reflects on the perils of idealization: “To know yourself, there must be the awareness, the alertness of mind in which there is freedom from all beliefs, from all idealization, because beliefs and ideals only give you a color, perverting true perception. The understanding of what you are, whatever it be – ugly or beautiful, wicked or mischievous – the understanding of what you are, without distortion, is the beginning of virtue. Virtue is essential, for it gives freedom.”

True, Krishnamurti himself became idealized, an iconic figure in “the scene” where young people hoped for sex, free love, some kind of revolution, some vision of truth. And yes, I am uncomfortable with his prescription to be “free from all beliefs” – what does that mean anyway? – but still, it is something of a relief to consider that virtue is actually opposed to perfection. I do not quarrel with God’s perfection – how can I argue with what I cannot fathom? – only if it deems me as too tainted to knock on the Temple door.

But perhaps I misread you again, David, and you are simply throwing darts at religious hypocrisy, the fatuous presumption that God is only interested in our ritual fetishes and not our consciences or concern for the other. In this you would be followed by the great prophets of Israel – Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah. This is the tradition of the gadfly – Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, Maimonides – poking holes at pretense and separating the feigned gesture from the genuine turn.

Our culture at once reveres and yet tortures the gadfly, David, often appreciating in retrospect their critique of the disparity between what we claim we are and what we in fact must strive to be. Who, among those today that we label a leader, would “swear to their own detriment,” would admit their own flaws and hurtful behaviors, not as a crafty public relations stunt or a bid to recoup lost popularity, but as an act of existential contrition? When I look at our small corner of the cosmos, in the Land we call Israel, I listen in vain for that kind of humility from the governing class.

I sometimes wonder if there is a room where certain public figures gather and, in some grotesque ceremony, formally and silently decide to shed all of the virtues that they were taught as children and then taught their own children. How else to explain this savage thrusting off of a Lincolnesque fantasy of integrity – take responsibility, be accountable, tell the truth, admit limitations, apologize for wrongdoing, do not boast about your overinflated accomplishments, but just get to the impossibly hard task of leading, and then, inevitably, “fail better.”

It’s as if saying, “I screwed up, I was arrogant and uninterested in the view of the other, I dropped the ball and didn’t pay attention, and scorned any discordant information” – that such an admission would detract for a moment from waging a war and fighting to hide a humiliation so deep…as though it has ascended, in smoke and fire, from the earth itself. My own experience is that saying “I’m sorry” takes about as long as a bullet to fly, a grenade to explode. Not long at all really, and the impact is transformational, one way or the other.

The relationship books and coaches often counsel that if you set your standards impossibly high, then it will be difficult to find someone to love or to let anyone into your life. I guess the question here, David, is whether you have wisely informed us of what is the heart of a “religious life” and a “relationship with God,” or you have ensured, in this laundry list of moral rectitude and unstinting rigor, that God will remain forever untouched and unapproached. No one wants to date a hypocrite, but perhaps the humanness of the other is just what we need in order to feel that we are all in it together, not the ephemeral unity of the flag, but one where weakness and bewilderment are what we cautiously share, brought together inescapably by trauma and love and empathy and pain.

And long ago in the future, the Talmud visualizes “a Messiah at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and wretched, changing the bindings of their wounds, one wound at the time, in order to be ready at a moment’s notice.” In our ongoing Promethean nightmare, there are wounds opened and reopened every single day, so many in and under the skin, that need binding. God’s tent may have to wait.

About the Author
Dr. Elliott Malamet is a Jewish educator living in Jerusalem. He has a doctorate in English literature and teaches Jewish Ethics and Philosophy at various Israeli institutions, including Yeshivat Machanaim, Pardes, and the Schechter Institute.