Rabbi James Rosenberg

Rabbi James RosenbergIf all goes well, next May I will be attending the 50th reunion of the Columbia College class of ’66: half a century since my graduation! In preparation for this once-in-a-lifetime event, I have recently reread the six diaries I kept during my undergraduate years – a process of self-examination which has continued on and off to this very day.

My first journal (Jan. 13-Sept. 16, 1963) covers about eight months: the second half of my freshman year and the summer that followed. As one might expect from an 18-year-old, my writing at that time gushed with adolescent narcissism, an obsessive preoccupation with the emotions and perceived needs of that unholy trinity of me, myself and I. Nor is it at all unusual that many pages were devoted to the chaos and confusion of my immature love life; I had developed an uncanny ability repeatedly to label an increasingly unhealthy relationship “healthy” – as if calling the relationship healthy made it so.

Rabbi James RosenbergPaul Berger begins his May 5 online article for the Forward with this sentence: “Long written off by mainstream critics as an Islamophobic crackpot, Pamela Geller is winning increasing sums from financial backers with her blood-and-thunder warnings against the religion of Muhammad.”

Berger wrote this piece shortly after Garland, Texas, police shot dead two would-be jihadis – Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34 – who were attempting to carry out a Charlie Hebdo-style massacre at the Curtis Culwell Center.

Rabbi James RosenbergAt the end of January, not long after returning from viewing an exhibit of 42 black-and-white photographs by Gordon Parks (1912-2006) at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for Parks’ work with my friend, Phil Rosen.  Rosen, a professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown, suggested two books – both classics in the field – to deepen my appreciation and understanding of photography:  Susan Sontag’s “On Philosophy” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) and Roland Barthes’ “Camera Lucida” (Hill and Wang, 1982), translated from the French by Richard Howard.  Neither Sontag nor Barthes is primarily concerned with the methods of picture-taking; rather, each of them, in distinct but overlapping ways, focuses upon what the photograph means to those who view it. 


Rabbi James RosenbergMichael L. Satlow’s “How the Bible Became Holy” (Yale University Press, 2014) is an audacious book. Satlow, professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies at Brown, spells out his intentions in the introductory pages: “This book proposes a very different answer to the question of when and how the Bible gained authority.  I will argue here that Jews and Christians gave to the texts that constitute our Bible only very limited and specific kinds of authority well into the third-century and beyond. The “peoples of the book” did not know their book very well.”


Rabbi James Rosenberg“SHE: What happened to Psalm 88?  Why did you skip it?

“HE: I don’t think you could take it tonight.  I am not sure I could.  No: I am sure I could not.

“SHE: Please read it, for me ... I need that kind the most.”

This dialogue begins the preface to the second edition of Martin Marty’s “A Cry of Absence” (Harper San Francisco, 1993), which appears about 10 years after the original publication.

The HE is Martin Marty, prolific author and, until his retirement in 1998, professor of the history of  modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The SHE is Marty’s first wife, Elsa, whose battle with terminal cancer is the unspoken tragedy that runs through the pages of the first edition of “A Cry of Absence.”

Marty’s book is an extended personal commentary on selections from the 150 Biblical psalms. During the course of Elsa’s illness, she needed to take certain medications at the midnight hour, at which time husband and wife took turns reading a psalm: she would read the odd-numbered, he the even-numbered. Marty comments,  “The medicines were pain relievers, fighters against nausea, palliatives. Half the psalms were not.”

Given the circumstances that gave rise to “A Cry of Absence,” it is no surprise that the author has chosen to focus upon those dark places in our human experience; he subtitles his book “Reflections for the Winter of the Heart.” Drinking deeply from the writings of Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984), a German Jesuit priest and theologian,  Marty explores his own “wintry” spirituality; his type of religious faith puts him at a marked distance from those who express their “summery” religious postures through their ever-present upbeat smiles and their nonstop Praise-the-Lords. Marty sides with those who eschew the “ignorant immortality” of Eden and embrace the “informed mortality” that has to some degree darkened our lives ever since you and I were expelled from the Garden: