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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 1999/16 Shevat, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Night scene, night thoughts

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) AT 10:24 ON A COLD SATURDAY NIGHT, there are 10 scattered souls in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Saint Andrew here in Little Rock. They come, they go, like souls anywhere. Sometimes there are a few more under the high gothic arches, sometimes a few less. The great, graven doors swing silently open to let us in, then close as silently behind us. Sanctuary.

It is an all-night vigil on the 26th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the decision that has made the abortion of millions legal, constitutional, unquestionable and always questionable. For Roe v. Wade is one of those decisions, like Dred Scott v. Sandford, that stands like a great divide in American life.

Some celebrate this anniversary, others mourn. Some see it as a victory for an enlightened cause, a milestone in the march of national progress. Others feel its presence as dark as night, as dark as death itself. It's what happens every time a divided court takes it upon itself to solve a deeply troubling moral issue once and for all -- with a single stroke. The wound never heals.

The rallies were already over in Washington by now. For the 26th straight year, protesters gathered in the Ellipse south of the White House for their March for Life. "Public opinion is changing,'' said one of the crowd, a dentist from Toms Rivers, N.J. "The reality of the cruelty and violence is becoming more apparent.''

Across town, Hillary Clinton had addressed an enthusiastic rally of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "We should all take heart,'' she said, "that despite many attempts to chip away at its guarantees, Roe is still the law of the land!''

The applause and cheers of those celebrating Roe, together with the hymns and prayers of the protesters in Washington, have echoed out by now. Here in Little Rock, the old cathedral on Louisiana Street is filled only with silence.

By now tomorrow's paper is about to be put to bed. It will be full of news, news, news. The day before, a series of tornadoes had torn through the state. On the same day Bishop McDonald of the Arkansas diocese, who was to have led the March for Life here in Arkansas, had needed a quintuple bypass. The impeachment trial continued. Winds and whirlwinds.

In this sanctuary, there is respite. People drift in and out, saying silently whatever people say in prayer. And there are exactly 10 of them at the moment. Just enough to make what Jews call a minyan, the number needed to hold a service, rather than pray individually. You need 10 to say the kaddish together, the prayer for the dead that doesn't mention death, but only praises the G-d of life. "Here I stand before You,'' as it says in the first prayer on arising in the morning, "O G-d of life, who delightest in life.''

I remember waiting for the 10th man in the back of my father's store when one of the neighboring merchants had a yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death in the family, and needed nine other Jews for evening prayers. That way, the kaddish could be said together. The men would show up one by one, some earlier, some later, and wait around for the others. There would always be a straggler or two. Not being bar mitzvah yet, I wasn't old enough to count toward a minyan; sometimes I'd be sent up the street to find the 10th man. ("My father says you're needed, you'll make 10.'') No one ever refused.

There was some kind of magic in the words, their sound and rhythm familiar to me long before I had any idea of what they meant or why they were being said. Weary at the end of the day, the swaying men would be energized by the ancient prayer. Grieving, the mourner would be recalled to life.

Tonight I'd made 10. But whom were we saying kaddish for? In the more formal memorial services, the names of the dead are read. But these dead have no names. Formed in the womb, fearfully and wonderfully made, as it says in the Book. But without a name. They never saw the light of day. But still people come drifting into the cathedral, each one the 10th in a way, part of this silent minyan, drawn to say a kaddish of their own. For the nameless. No one refuses.

Here there is no rhetoric, no arm-waving oratory, none of the certainty, the too-sureness that seems to characterize all sides in any only political debate. In all the cathedral's spaces, there is no room for man's righteousness, or man's judgment, not here. For guilt, yes.

One woman across the way stands with her arms lifted at her sides, palms upward, perfectly still, in the instinctive posture of supplication. And expiation. The two are not so far apart. There are things we cannot control, but that we feel responsible for. We don't ask that the burden be lifted -- that would not be just -- but shared. Isn't that what grace is? How else shall we bear it, even dare think about it?

I see others come in, walk silently down the aisle, kneel before they enter a pew. All is done, all is spoken in silence. The blessed sacrament is exposed, like a beating heart. I am a visitor here, and glad of the welcome, but I'm not homeless. Claimed since Egypt, I'd have a home even if I had no roof over my head except the starry sky. Talk about a cathedral.

I resist the urge to kneel. That's their custom, so I was taught, not ours. It is not permitted us. We may bend the knee during the triumphal prayer at the end of every service, the prayer for the unity of all when His kingdom comes, His will be done. But we may not kneel. For man is made in His image, and whatever He has done, whatever He has permitted to be done, we must respect His image, not prostrate it.

Whatever suffering He permits, even nameless suffering, He is deserving of that much respect. He had such faith in us.

No wonder, as it is written, it repented the Lord that he had made man, and grieved him at his heart. Have we repented that we create Him daily in our own image, or grieve that we no longer much care? Who has more faith, the militant unbeliever or the respectable citizen who has no strong feelings either way? At least the atheist still has enough faith to fight Him ...

Then the night thoughts cease, and give way to a blessed stillness, without the hurt of thought, without the pretension, the vanity, of thought. The light in the cathedral sifts upward. It is a night watch, but we wait in the assurance of dawn. We wait with intention. We wait, as the prophet said, in expectation. Actively.

Then it is time to go, out past the book everybody signs, as at a funeral. Others come in, drawn by whatever impels them late on a dark night. I think I know. There is something familiar about their faces.

They're here to say kaddish.


1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99:Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99:Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99:Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
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10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
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9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
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7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate