A blog post should be a masterful short personal essay, a little narrative opening to a universal lesson. Kind of like a sugya (unit) of Talmud.
I would love to write a masterful post about my friend and teacher Judy Abrams. But, to really get it right, I would have to choose my favorite anecdote and my favorite lesson, positioning each within the other in a multi-layered metaphorical masterpiece. And that would take a long time.
So, I’ll let go of my impossible literary standard and write from the heart.
Not about Judy’s 23 books on all aspects of Jewish thought. Not about her close and beautiful family. Not about her many students, her generous tefillin exchange, her head full of projects, or her broad impact. Not about her experiences with illness, that honed her understanding of life’s most important commitments.
Just about how she – a brilliant, offbeat individual — changed my approach to life.
Before 2001, Judy was a stranger to me, a name on a fluorescent green flyer that I thought I recognized from a children’s book. Still, I phoned her and asked “Can I study with you?” She hooted with joyous enthusiasm. And for the next five years, we spoke weekly and corresponded daily.
We studied Leviticus: its system of offerings, its sketchy narrative, its archetypal psychological values. Judy was convinced that Leviticus is alive and well, in the hospital purity system, for example.
We studied Talmud. Judy loved the Talmud’s weave of allusions, hints to older texts, daring puns and creative proof-texts. She loved its multiplicity of voices, exploring Judaism’s spiritual jewels, facet by shining facet. Each time a modern reader weaves in his or her connections, Judy thought, the Talmud grows.
We studied Remazim – allegorical interpretation of Tanakh. Judy longed to understand this imaginative leap. How could deep thinkers like Philo get from peshat, the plain text, to elaborated visions of the spiritual life? And how could modern people learn to see allegorically?
Judy’s perspectives set my mind on fire. Paper after paper leapt from my printer, documenting ancient archetypes at play in contemporary life. Five different scholarly journals published my Judy-inspired takes on symbolic public sacrifice, rituals of re-entry, feminist wordplay, conscientious objection, the logic of suffering, and the ethics of speech.
We always returned to Talmud, exploring its discussions of sexuality, war, suffering, mystery and more.
For Judy, Talmud was like life, full of hidden meanings waiting to be polished into clarity through study.
As was I.
Judy hated when I second-guessed myself, undermining my own worth with snarky, self-deprecating remarks. “Stop it!” she would say. “Just don’t say it!” And she would add, “It’s more important to be nice than to be smart.”
One morning, a surprise package from Amazon arrived at my door: Judy had sent me a copy of Wit, a play about a clever, sardonic-talking academic who loses everything to cancer – and learns anew what really matters. “I’m sorry,” Judy said, “but I just couldn’t find any other way to get you to see!”
Just a few weeks later, she wrote, “I had a dream in which you turned into a beautiful butterfly.” Indeed, I had begun to change: first my speech, then my thought, then my quality of feeling.
Judy disrupted my habits of linear thought. Once, my daughter and I visited, spending a weekend with Judy and her daughters Hannah and Ruthie. (Steven was away, and Michael mostly did his own thing.) Just before dinner, Judy fed us pastries. “Eat dessert first!” she said. When the girls played on the computer for hours, Judy just laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said, “they’ll get bored.” She threw dirty clothes into the washing machine without any sorting or special treatment. “It’s just laundry!” she said.
Appalled yet intrigued by these liberties, I wrote a Talmudic spoof about the rules of laundry.
Still, Judy could sometimes be surprisingly literal, even dogmatic. When I talked about my sins, she made fun of me. “You???” she yelled, “What sins could you possibly have committed?” “Sometimes,” I said, referring to the Talmudic rule of feeding animals first, “I drink my morning coffee before I feed my cats.” Judy’s demeanor changed. “That is a very grave sin!” she said, looking meaningfully at her dog.
Judy believed that each Rosh Hashanah, God reviewed the videotape of her life and pronounced judgment. And that after death, she would ascend to Gan Eden to study with great souls. There, she would sit with Beruriah, Yalta and Imma Shalom. Back on earth, her students would forget her mundane name. Instead, we would call her – as we do all great Jewish scholars – by a nickname that summarized her ideas. She even had her nickname picked out.
I don’t know if God actually watches our video, or if there is really a library in Gan Eden. I do know that Judy’s soul is blessed with the best of whatever these metaphors mean. I do know that when I changed jobs and moved far away, I missed Judy terribly. And I do know that she will be loved and missed deeply, for a long time, by a great many people.
Image: Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams