To sit with Roger Klein is to sit with a man of eloquence, of erudition, and to sit with a very good teacher, a teacher who, when he asks you a question, does so because he expects to learn something from you. We sat with him at the Newman Center last Thursday as he led us in an exploration of creativity and imagination, bringing us into conversation with philosophers and poets and novelists. We considered how the imagination puts us in contact with our Creator, and helps us shape meaning, sometimes prophetic meaning, from our daily lives.
William Carlos Williams wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day from lack of what is found there.” Part of what is found there, Roger told us, is a deep attention to relationships. We considered the great power of interpersonal relationships as disclosed in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and the immense tragedy of political relationships, which we examined through an excerpt from Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. The excerpt told of how Shmarya Gutman, when watching the exodus of Palestinians from Lydda, understood that these Arab refugees were re-enacting the Babylonian Exile. Shavit writes: “As the military governor watches the faces of the people marching into exile, he wonders if there is a Jeremiah among them to lament their calamity and disgrace. Suddenly he feels an urge to join the marching people and to be their Jeremiah. For one long moment, he who is their Nebuchadnezzar wishes to be their Jeremiah.” This particularly struck me, the way in which we can see our own story in other people’s lives, and feel the deep empathy that this reading allows, even as we struggle against them.
I often despair over the fact that religious stories are disappearing from our culture’s consciousness – that people sometimes use religious narratives and images without knowing that they are religious, or understanding the deeper meanings that they convey. Rabbi Klein’s talk helped me to set this despair aside. Maybe it’s not so important that other people understand our stories. Maybe it’s important for us to use our stories to understand, and empathize with, other people. Will using our creativity in this way help us to act with more compassion towards those who are different from us? Will it help us to let go of the pride and fear that divides us? I left the lunch without having an answer, but feeling some of the hope expressed in the question.