The Unexpected Return

Goyische Mazel for One Yiddische Kup
By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

In 5763 I worked in an office of orthodox rabbis who quoted Talmudic tractates and ate microwaved knishes. In 5764 I’ll be spending my days with Presbyterian ministers who quote John Calvin and eat cold shrimp salads. No, I haven’t found Jesus, or tasted shrimp, but after six years on the faculty of CLAL I’ve left to become the first rabbi to direct the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Auburn has strong Presbyterian roots, and my father-in-law jokes that I am “America’s first Presbyterian Rabbi”. Ugh. During the first week of my new gig, under the watchful eyes of the gargoyles peering down at me from atop Riverside Church I hung up a print of Tzfat sculptor Mike Leaf’s masterpiece “the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Bob Dylan, and the Mosiach on Harleys”. It was my way of claiming a bit of turf. I’m not sure what they think of it.

I imagine that for most rabbis the thought of working as an agent of a Protestant seminary would sound like a bizarre and ironic career choice, but for me this position is sort of a homecoming. As a son of the South I grew up in the Presbyterian stronghold of Charlotte, North Carolina – home not only to a large and thriving Presbyterian community but a Presbyterian hospital and college as well. My best friend in junior high and high school was Dwight Thomas Bridges III, a Presbyterian.

But still, there is something uncomfortable about a being a rabbi and working within the seminary of another religious tradition. The first time that I visited Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who teaches World Religions at a Buddhist university, I was a little freaked by the Buddhist icons and idols around campus and the constant bowing, to the idols and to teachers, that marked Naropa University’s spiritual approach. I knew that for every pioneer like Reb Zalman, there were many who turned in the other direction. When my best friend from college, a Jewish guy from an affluent White suburb, became a baal t’shuvah he confided in me that he had completely broken his ties with his non-Jewish friends. His rabbi had explained that we should not be fooled by gestures of goodwill – that the entire world was still out to get us, and that the Passover Haggadah’s words “in every generation they stand against us to wipe us out” are as true today as they ever were. I was very disturbed to think that my friend had abandoned the idea that there would be peaceful relations between Jews and any of the other peoples that inhabit the planet, and I vowed that I would always maintain my deep ties of friendship to people outside the Jewish community.

I had no idea how hard it would be to keep that vow. Ever since I entered rabbinical school my world has become increasingly monocultural each year. The three friendships from college with non-Jews that I tried to maintain were stretched thin as I immersed myself in Jewish life. In their place I met many new Jewish friends and once I got my family multiplying (My sweetheart Lisa and I are blessed with three little ones) I found myself gravitating to Jewish families and forming a chavurah. In our new home we had some Christian neighbors but only once did we invite them over for a Shabbat meal. When my two oldest started Solomon Schechter Day School I had formally moved into a self-imposed shtetl – in the phone list I kept in my Palm Pilot the only non-Jews were my plumber, my carpenter, and my roofer. I had seriously broken my vow.

All that has changed in a month. Now I not only spend hours in dialogue with thoughtful Protestants, but I meet with Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, and Muslims. My new hero is a seventy-eight year-old Catholic nun who has a sharp sense of humor and speaks of the virtues of silence and contemplative practices. In my new position I also get to meet with many Jewish thinkers and scholars – and invite them in to be part of the creative religious dialogues happening at Auburn.

So this is a tale of a homecoming – and like all tales of homecoming, not only have I changed but the place has changed too. America, which once was steered under the spiritual and moral guidance of the mainline Protestant churches, has now become a diverse multifaith landscape. We are entering an era in which no one group is in the majority and where there will be new challenges for Jews. Unlike other eras in which we had to stay on the good side of the sultan, king, pope or czar, we’ll now have many relationships to maintain and bridges to build. Some of us may retreat even further into our own communities, but ultimately we will have to figure out how to thrive within an evolving system of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “religious biodiversity.” Instead of standing on the sidelines of this flowering of religious diversity, we might ask ourselves what we have to contribute to America’s next era of spiritual and moral development.

On Rosh Hashannah, we speak of teshuvah, which literally means returning. Returning to our ideals, to our responsibilities and ultimately to God. For me, reconnecting with Christians and others has been a type of teshuvah. I never would have imagined that a rabbi could do teshuvah by going off to join a Protestant seminary. But as Isaac Bashevis Singer once said: “It’s God’s novel, let him write it.”

- published in The Jewish Week


Here's the Profile The Jewish Week Did on Me...

Fanfare for The Common Man (12/20/2001)
Rabbi Daniel Brenner sanctifies the simple gifts of Judaism & America.
Jonathan Mark - Associate Editor
Did Reb Nachman, back in 18th century Europe, ever notice the sky was Tarheel Blue? Maybe not, but God always knew of North Carolina and that rebbes can come from the Piedmont as surely as from Poland. Rabbi Daniel Brenner, native son of Charlotte, N.C., is a storyteller, as surely from the Southern tradition as from the Jewish one. A southern boy, no less a scholar for that, he has none of the aristocratic and academic affect that some rabbis adorn themselves with, as if pretense were fur pelts. No, this rabbi is about as majestic as Royal Crown Cola, as unpretentious as the rotary phone on his desk — yet conscious that this rotary phone speaks of something precious: a call from the past, a sense that any child of God ought see beauty in the commonplace, in a “Chew Mail Pouch” sign on the side of a barn every bit as much as in the glass case of Judaica chotchkes in the lobby of a temple. Rabbi Brenner, 32, says, “I’m drawn to something I’ve gotten from the South; the importance of being a common man and living a simple life. I think it keeps you rooted. I take great pleasure in those things.” As he says in one of his theatrical works — for he’s also a playwright and performer — he comes from a world that’s a montage of “red earth and frozen bagels,” yarmulkes “tucked quickly into pockets ... alcoholic neighbors who smoke long brown cigarettes, eat ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread while washing their motor homes ... and red-haired girls and proms and Bojangles, fried chicken, gentility — charming and false … manicured lawns, ACC basketball, and yes, real pit barbecue.” Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says, “Daniel is among the most creative, playful and compassionate teachers and rabbis that I have ever met.” Rabbi Brenner, who teaches for Clal, is a nice fit for the think-tank. For though Clal’s original mission was premised on denominational and religious tolerance, it was always more than that. After all, tolerance evokes the word “tolerate” whereas what Clal really does is to celebrate; seeing the fingerprints of God where folks don’t think God’s been; telling the self-deprecating Clark Kent that he can have and use amazing powers by just imagining a deeper, if once secret, Jewish identity. Rabbi Brenner’s father was from New York City, says the son. “He had the rhythm of Brooklyn, so I’ve always been drawn to the city and to spend some of my life here. Clal is an extension of my hybrid identity. In New York I don’t have to negate any part of the Jew that I am or the American that I am.” Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the great rebbe-sages of the Jewish Renewal movement, says of Rabbi Brenner: “There are some people who when they ‘do Jewish’ forget American; when they ‘do American’ forget Jewish. There is such a beautiful blend, in which he brings the images of our tradition and the general culture together in an amalgam that is always inspiring and makes access easy.” Rabbi Brenner has crafted blessings and meditations to help Jews sanctify not only the Jewish holidays but every American holiday, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July among them. Ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Brenner did chaplaincy and led a small congregation in New Jersey, where he lightly saw himself as “the chief rabbi of Exit Seven.” He remembers not only the people but also the “five-and-dime shop with dusty, nearly barren shelves holding eyeglass pads and athletic supporters. ... Being a rabbi in a small town has its advantages. You get to ride in the clergy float in the Fourth of July parade.” With a love for the theater, he turned these experiences into performance, a gentle humorous shmooze akin to Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor. He’s written and performed in plays about the ghost of an old bar mitzvah tutor; about desire, discipline and a kosher butcher shop. He participated in “From Slavery to Freedom,” a collaboration of African-American and Jewish writers retelling the story of Exodus. His autobiographical musings about the sacred and the surreal have been performed on campuses and in New York’s Goldman Theater. He’ll fuse his gift for teaching, writing and the rabbinate by reimagining a translation for the Kaddish, that describes his own soul as well as reinvigorating the old English, an attempt, he says, “to put the Kaddish into “slang, street.” “Make the God-name big. Big and holy. Do it in this world, ... Do it fast, soon, in our lives, in the days ahead, in the life of the people we call home. Everybody join with me: May the name be blessed forever and ever! Yes, blessed. Blessed, whispered, sung out, shouted, honored, this holy name. The name is beyond any song, poem, or comforting words we could ever speak. Everybody say: That’s the truth! ... Make that peace in the heavens, great Peacemaker, great One who brings wholeness to our people. Stop. Everybody pray: May it be true.” There’s power in common words, power even in his daddy’s way of looking at a Torah. “We hold the Torah like a baby, gently cuddling it to our breast. We dress it carefully; we touch it lightly. We honor it like an elder, standing before it, honoring its history. We treat it like a jewel, hiding it away except for special occasions.” At his home in Montclair, N.J., he sees his toddlers play with their blue stuffed Torahs. “And at times, when they are not whopping each other over the head with them, I see them using the objects as dance partners. They hum a chasidic-like melody that often spins off into a Barney tune, or march the Torahs around the room in a big circle.” You play with something as a child, you keep it forever. He carries with him the spirit of old comics — the world of “Raw” and Art Spiegelman. His computer’s “wallpaper” features the display ads such as were found in the back pages of comic books, items like “X-Ray Specs,” or a joy buzzer. “I like looking at this every day,” he says of his screen. At long last, have we found something, like a joy buzzer or X-ray specs, that are meaningless? Perhaps not. For those ads take us back to a different and distant time of endless afternoons, imagination and a juvenile’s wonder, a spirit of wonder that leads us through the desert like the pillars of cloud and flame. The grown man carries the child within. In Carolina, Rabbi Brenner remembers, “We were one of the most traditional families down there. One of the biggest influences in my life was Chabad. My mother’s sister became a baal teshuvah when she was in college and moved to Crown Heights. So, the first Chabad shliach [emissary] in Charlotte stayed over in our basement while he was getting set-up. “Our relatives lived on President Street. We’d go to 770 [Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitcher rebbe’s shul and headquarters] whenever we could. I remember the last time I saw the rebbe daven. He looked at everyone. I mean he looked at everyone. Never in my life had I seen anything like that; the way he could look into a soul. Chabad was such an important part of my childhood because it taught me Judaism did not have to be the boring experience it was in my shul back home.” Raised in a rainbow of denominations, Rabbi Brenner has a goodly worn ArtScroll prayerbook over his desk. “I can daven out of anything. I prefer to daven out of an old siddur.” He picks up a small book of Psalms. “This here, this Tehillim? This is the best.” It was printed in Vienna, 1927, and Rabbi Brenner found in a Philadelphia thrift shop. He was drawn to its hoary old brown cover, the frills and swoops in the design, the embossed Ten Commandments. “I’m crazy about that cover. And the thing about it is this was a book that people had. Even if they owned only two or three books, they’d have this Tehillim. If I really have to say something, this is the Tehillim to say it out of.” Ritual objects have power, he says. “We invest power in ritual objects; it has a history.” Daniel Brenner thumbs through the worn pages before coming to a favorite: “Psalm 30 is where it’s at. It’s the Psalm of someone who’s naturally cynical but then recognizes that there’s something beyond, that his life comes from some place beyond,” where souls are blessed, whispered, celebrated, and secret identities are revealed.