Obey


In what used to be the sisters’ laundry building, I sit in a standard-issue, burgundy, vinyl, wingback chair.

Marylhurst University’s conference center. Lake Oswego, Oregon. At the time, I am the only rabbi in the world teaching mathematics in a Catholic high school.

Both non-teaching staff and us with more direct youth interface are making lemonade out of the staff retreat, forced-comradery,  lemon we find ourselves attending.

We have just fostered our creativity by detailing to our next-birthday-in-the-year paired companion something totally random about our morning routine.

Chris Shine now knows that in the cabinet, next to the flour, I keep a bag containing a mix of hemp, flax, and chia seeds at the ready for my almost- every- morning smoothie.

Tim, the school’s Ned-Flanders (only Catholic) principal, begins the second morning session with a call to prayer.

“Let us remember,” he starts.

We mostly quiet and obediently respond, “We are in the holy presence of God.”

We La Sallian educators begin each class and meeting with this prayer opener.

The prayer always closes with “St. Jean Baptist De La Salle, pray for us.”

The prayer stuff in the middle of the sandwich varies.

Tim’s choice of filling at the moment is a list of the virtues an old French dude wrote down in 1758 as qualities all teachers should have. Tim reads each. One. Individually. Slowly.

I can’t help but find him endearing.

Some people think I, as a rabbi, might abstain from the end of the prayer—when we ask St. Jean Baptist De La Salle to pray for us—because they’ve heard we Jews don’t ask intercessionaries to help our prayers get directly to God.

This is just silly. Jews are the first to tell you “I know someone you should connect with.”

Anyhow, Tim and his L.L.Bean bow tie walk around the room of the 22 of us, handing each a piece of colored paper, folded in half.

I follow his instruction to “allow your inner voice to help you decide where you want to spend the next 20 minutes to think about the virtue you got on your paper.”

My inner voice wants to go upstairs.

My inner voice asks me if I’ve ever not been unduly influenced by my inner knowledge.

My inner voice confuses me sometimes.

A plaque on the wall explains that the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary who did the community’s laundry lived upstairs in these recreations of their simply-furnished rooms—each walls painted chalk white with large crucifix hanging.

I imagine a novice—a girl the age of my students—on her knees, confused by life, being told she is bad, believing it, praying for forgiveness.

I shudder.

Still standing atop the stairs, I unfold the goldenrod page.

My virtue: obedience.

I sit. Right there on the landing, back against the wall.

My inner voice congratulates me on painting the perfect picture: me, Portlandia rabbi, rebelliously not using a chair.

I read:

All Catholics, the church teaches, must practice obedience of faith: assent of faith to the magisterium and divine revelation (word of God), and religious submission to the Pope and other bishops. … Children obey their parents, because honouring parents is part of honouring God, and is required by God’s commandment.

Where’s the part about parents honoring children?
Where’s the part about questioning? Questioning that which insults your soul?

I continue reading:

Obedience. The moral virtue of obedience. The moral virtue that inclines the will to comply with the will of another who has the right to command.

OMG. The right to command?!?

Obedience isn’t a virtue we celebrate in the land of the Jews. The idea of blind obedience scares us.

Annually, on the high holy days, we retell a great story about the danger of obedience. The drama of Father Abraham taking his beloved child from Mother Sarah—to kill him—because he, Abraham, thought he heard God ask him to do so.

We rabbis underscore the fact that Abraham—when childless and told by God that God was going to kill the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah—argued with God.

We ask how the same man who argued with God over the lives of those who weren’t innocent could not argue when God asked him to kill his son!

(If you think those cities’ sin was homosexuality, you are quite behind in your Biblical literacy. I would suggest you start by actually reading Genesis 19 and learn about the Ancient Near Eastern sins of non-hospitality.)

Obedience gets Isaac bound on the sacrificial altar, with Abraham’s knife at his throat.

Obedience gets people killed.

We Jews don’t do so well when people don’t question—when people stand idly by.

When millions are killed, millions more are complicit.

We reconvene as a staff and share insights. I Seinfeld up my turn with this observation: “I don’t quite get this one, folks. Obedience. Every time I began to think critically about it, I thought, ‘better not.’”

It gets a laugh. But not from Tim who looks at the floor, slightly pouting his bottom lip.

Tim doesn’t find arguing with being told to obey even a little bit funny.

I know something else that’s funny.

You know that bag containing a mix of hemp, flax, and chia seeds that I keep in the cabinet next to the flour?
The one I told Chris Shine about?

Flax seeds are supposed to be refrigerated.

I delight in my inner rebelliousness.

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