There is a medieval Jewish legend, "Gabriel and the Infants," that goes like this: In the months before a Jewish child is born, it is visited in the womb by the Angel Gabriel. There, in the warmth and Silence of the mother's body, the angel teaches the baby all of Jewish learning -- the Torah, the rituals, the holidays, the deepest truths of Jewish wisdom. The baby absorbs it all, just as it takes nourishment from its mother. But suddenly, as the baby is about to be thrust into the world to eat and breathe on its own, the angel presents it with a similar intellectual challenge. Right before birth, Gabriel strikes the Child on the upper lip, and all the teachings are instantly forgotten.
I loved hearing this story as a child. For one thing, it explained that otherwise useless indentation above my upper lip. For another, it gave me a timeless relationship with all Jewish knowledge. The process of living a Jewish life seemed to have more to do with remembering what is inherently mine rather than learning anew. As I encountered Jewish rituals and holidays, Jewish ideas and philosophies, they seemed to have a familiar ring. Sometimes the image of Gabriel flashed before my eyes.
The legend of Gabriel also provided me with something else: company, I knew that as a Jew I was not alone, From my earliest beginnings, there was someone there -- teaching, coaxing, and guiding. This notion of a Gabriel in one's life is built into virtually all of the Jewish life cycle events. At the first initiation rite, the brit, there is the sandek, the man who holds the baby during the cutting. A bar or bat mitzvah cannot take place without a teacher who passes on the ancient words and melodies to a new generation. At a wedding, the bride and groom are traditionally given shomrim, or royal guards, who escort them to the wedding canopy, And even in death, Jewish law ensures that the body is not left alone from the time of death until the moment of burial. It is customary for family members or friends to take turns standing watch at the bier.
Judaism provides community. It does so in the major life cycle events as well as in the more mundane moments of the day, the week, the month, and the year. Daily, Sabbath and festival services ring out from synagogues across America and the world in a variety of styles and beliefs. Home rituals, from Sabbath candle lighting to Passover seder meals, connect the individual with the Jewish community at large and with practices both ancient and modern.
In American society, there is no coercion to be a religious person. Freedom of religion means that we are as free to do with religion as we are to do without. Those who convert to Judaism are nowadays called Jews by choice. But, as has often been said, every Jew today is, in fact, a Jew by choice. We can go to synagogue or not go to synagogue, pray or not pray, mark the life cycle events or ignore them. Judaism is out there, something external, something we can choose to partake of -- or dismiss.
But the legend of Gabriel and the Infants provides another model. Gabriel teaches us that Jewish knowledge is not external, removed from life, but something inside: the very stuff of life that must be reckoned with and rediscovered. And, just as important, Gabriel reminds us that built into Judaism are guides, companions, and teachers who can help both those born Jewish and others who want to learn about the faith. These lessons, I believe, are ones that American Jews desperately need. Judaism can help ease the modern sense of isolation and loneliness, providing a sense of belonging in the present and a sense of connection with the past.
A third lesson I take from Gabriel is that Jewish teaching is not monolithic. What is good for one person may not be the answer for others. Gabriel visits each of us with a personalized lesson. Of course, there is Sinai, with its dramatic revelation for all the faithful, but there is also the awareness that each Jew has to forge an individual relationship with the divine.
Copyright © 2000 by Ari. L. Goldman
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