The Rabbi sitting across from me was old school. We were in his study, which was lined with old books stamped in gold, and he was seated in a leather chair. Black velvet skullcap, long, curling payot blending in with his fierce, wild beard that cascaded over a black, three-piece suit. I’d searched long and hard to find him, skipping over younger, hipper, less conservative, less orthodox rabbis to find this one. I’d even spent hours practicing my little speil in Hebrew, because I’d heard he didn’t speak English too well (and my Yiddish skills are restricted to words inappropriate to pretty much every polite situation).
“…and that is why I want to study with you,” I said, finally, in my California-accented Hebrew.
The Rabbi took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes wearily. “Look,” he said, in English, in the exact same accent I’d been hearing every minute since I came to New York City, “I’m gonna level wit’ ya. The Sages, the commentators on the Torah, say that I’m not supposed to let you in right away, but turn you away three times. I can see, though, you’re someone who would keep coming back.”
“I’d pound down the door of your shul,” I said, swelling with pride. This, indeed was a holy man! He could see into my heart, see what a serious student I was.
“Yeah. But in about four-five months, you would quit.”
“You would. You’re young, which isn’t a bad thing. You’ve got a good heart. But you’ve got a legalist streak a mile wide.”
“I– but I can change!”
The Rabbi turned from me and started looking at the bookshelf. “Of course you can. I’m certain you will, actually. But right now, you’re not in a place where you are looking for a spiritual life. Right now, you’re looking for rules on how to live your life. You’d plow through all of the commentaries you can read, make lists of things you needed to do, like come up with a favorite meal that wasn’t a cheeseburger and a suit that’s not polyester, spend all day worrying over when you were going to slip up. And when you inevitably did, because you’re human, you’d beat yourself up and promise to do it all better, but then it would happen again. And again. And you would not be able to forgive yourself, and you’d slowly stop coming to services, and then…” he shrugged and pulled a book off the shelf. With a grunt, he reached across the chair and dropped it in my lap.
I looked down at it, blinking back tears I hadn’t felt start. It was a pleather-bound copy of the NRSV.
“You know what the Noachide laws are, nu?”
“No,” I said.
“There were always geirei toshav, resident aliens in the land of Yisroel. They were not Jews, and back then they didn’t encourage conversion at all, so the ger toshav, the singular resident alien, didn’t follow the 613 laws. They could wear linen and flax woven together, okay? But the ger toshav followed the Noachide laws, do not murder, steal, worship false gods, be sexually immoral and sleep around a lot. Do not eat a limb removed from a live animal, do not curse God, and set up courts to bring offenders to justice. Seven is a lot easier than six hundred and thirteen, yes? Also harder in its own way.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Here, I’ll show you an even easier and even harder way.” He tapped on the desk. “Open it to Mark 12:28-32.”
I read it. And read it again. Then looked up at the Rabbi. “I don’t understand.”
“Go back to California,” he said, “and go back to your church. Listen to your priest the way you were going to listen to me. If you still don’t get it in a year, give me a call.”