Rabbi David Wolpe’s new book (“Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World”) is a compilation of the “Musings” columns he has been writing in The Jewish Week for the past five years -- weekly 200-word essays combining biblical and rabbinic knowledge with modern insights, literature and science.
They are much more than musings. There are not too many writers who can combine, in a single essay, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, and Vera Brittan in a rabbinic reflection on youth, but that is what Wolpe did in a recent “Musings” column.
In this new collection, he discusses the Torah, the Talmud and other Jewish sources with references to D.H. Lawrence, William James, Robert Frost, Czeslaw Milosz, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Hardy, Charles Darwin, Immanuel Kant, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Isaac Asimov, Leon Wieseltier, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Kierkegaard and Emerson. This is a partial list.
Even the essays without such references combine observations and connections that reach another level. Consider this essay (unabridged):
Jewish events are notorious for starting late. The clock seems to move all too swiftly for this people whose span is measured not in minutes but in millennia. So we are leisurely about beginnings. The Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann once said, “I tried my whole life to come late to a Jewish meeting and never succeeded.”
Strangely, however, Jewish law depends on precision in the measurement of time. Sabbaths and holidays have specific starting times. Ritual observances such as mourning have definite time-bound cycles. We seem caught between the rigor of ritual and the languor of social occasions.
Perhaps each clock counterbalances the other. Centuries of wandering do not always permit a fixed and insistent attitude toward time. Flexibility and patience are virtues cultivated by our uneasy history. Still, we did not allow tribulation to override obligation. For all the uncertainty in the world, there was certainty in our souls. Our spiritual clocks remain fine-tuned. Insistent on the rhythms of our devotion, we have also made allowances for the unpredictability of circumstance.
In other words, often it is a matter of finding parking.
Finding parking. There may not have been a more beautiful concluding line of dual meaning since “miles to go before I sleep.”
Wolpe has been called by Joseph Telushkin “the poet of Jewish theology.” This is close, but not quite correct. As readers of Wolpe’s prior book (the extraordinary “Making Loss Matter”) know, Wolpe eschews theology. He is uninterested in debates on whether God exists, and unconcerned with justifying God to man. He sees God less in the fire than in the fireman.
These brief essays have a power that his own life has demonstrated. In one "Musing" in early 2003, he wrote of the Talmud's insistence that we "bless God for the bad as well as the good" -- and later that year lived it as an example to his congregation and community.
He has the head of a rabbinic scholar, the heart of a congregational clergyman, and the soul of a poet. For those seeking a book that combines ancient and modern wisdom, in essays that are often prose poems, with paragraphs that capture religious insights in the turn of a phrase, this book is a place to park.