Jewish Motorcycle Riding and the Art of Life

For my 50th birthday, several years ago, my beloved wife Marianne decided to try to control my impeding mid-life crisis with a special gift – giving in to a long-held desire of mine.  She was about to hand me the key to a beautiful motorcycle, when she announced, “I have three rules: 1) Your life insurance better be kept current; 2) You must attend Motorcycle Safety School (an intensive 3 day long safe riding program) and 3) Never ask me to get on the bike.”

I immediately registered for, and attended, Motorcycle Safety School.  I must admit at the outset, I am a far better and safer motorcycle rider than I am a car driver. I don’t weave in and out of traffic, I generally hew to the recommended speed limits (they are recommendations, are they not?).  I am courteous and aware. And in the past eight years of riding, though due to my injury I was only able to ride once this summer, I have learned some things about myself, and Judaism through riding.  This is not “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – perhaps it is “Jewish Motorcycle Riding and the Art of Life.”

One of the first lessons one learns on a motorcycle is to be hyper aware.  There is not a square inch of road that goes un-examined when riding on a bike.  In a car, bumps and cracks, metal plates and grooved pavement are easily handled between the four tires and suspension system.  The car driver usually scans to road for major obstacles, like stopped cars, or falling tree branches, but sticks and stones and small debris is of little moment to an automobile.  Not so for those of us on motorcycles – failing pavement, loose gravel, a small pot-hole, a metal plate, grooved pavement, sand, oil, even the first moments of light rain which lift the oil slicks from cars – are all potential threats.  And every one of them must be analyzed and processed so that the rider can deal with them.  There is never a moment that I take my eyes off of the pavement immediately before me, as well as scanning the road ahead.

This hyper awareness extends beyond the careful examination of the road.  In a car, one looks ahead, and occasionally, behind.  On a motorcycle one’s peripheral vision is always operating – one see things on the sides of the road that are usually missed.  In a car, often with the windows rolled up, the other senses are turned off to the outside world.  On a motorcycle, one can smell the pine when traveling through the forests of Connecticut and Massachusetts; one can smell the barbeques on the West Side Highway driving on Labor Day; one can smell a dairy farm in rural New York.  And even over the din of the motorcycle’s roar, one can still hear laughter at the barbeques, moo’s on the dairy farm, birds calling in the pines, all the while, one eye’s are looking for every possible hazard that might lie on the road ahead.

When I am in my car, I care about the destination – I worry how long it will take, what detours will I suffer, how fast I can get there – it is about the goal, the destination.  Not so, on a motorcycle – on a motorcycle, it is about the journey.

And every detail of the journey is taken in.  A motorcycle ride is a very Jewish event.

Last Thursday and Friday and again, on this day we recited Unetaneh Tokef.  We, like Amnon of Mayence, declare that God is Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness, writing, sealing, recording and recounting, remembering deeds long forgotten.  The sound of the Shofar is recalled,

כבקרת רועה עדרו, מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו, כן תעביר ותספר ותמנה ותפקד נפש כל-חי, ותחתך קצבה לכל-בריהותכתב את-גזר דינם.

“As the shepherd seeks out his flock, and makes the sheep pass under his staff, so do you muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny.”

And if we are created b’etzem u’vtzelem Elohim – in the likeness and image of God – should we not subject ourselves to the same scrutiny?  Should we not see that it is the details that count?

The meaning of these days is that our lives deserve – no, demand — close scrutiny.  Jewish time is cyclical and linear – it is cyclical to give us a chance to renew and refresh, review and re-learn.  We return to the beginning of the year, and we are given a chance, after close examination of the past year, to chart a journey for the year to come.  But Jewish time is also linear, it moves forward, and what is in the past remains there, and what lies before us …. is the road ahead.  How we choose to view what lies ahead determines the quality of the journey.  The central character of our Torah reading last week was Abraham. Whereas all other holidays in the month of Tishrei are communal in nature, Rosh HaShana is about the individual – And Abraham, is always the “Lonely Man of Faith.”  He is told to leave his father’s house; to “go to the Land that I will show you;” he is separated from Hagar, and from Sarah; he exiles his son and almost sacrifices the other son. He is never told WHERE he is going, his life is lived out in the unfolding of the journey.  The lessons he learns are in the examined moments.

As a young man, I dreamed of what I would become.  I thought of who I would be.  I pondered what I would attain: materially, professionally, spiritually, personally and publicly.  I contemplated what I would achieve – I worried about the destination.  That is “car” thinking.

But on the bike, I learned “motorcycle” thinking – don’t let anything escape your notice – you do so at your peril.  As I stand on the cusp of my dotage, I realize that it was the journey itself that was the most profoundly fulfilling when I took in all the details, even the tiniest details.  The achievement of recognition by the public is not nearly as gratifying as the squeeze of my hand from my beloved who is enjoying the moment.  The photo-op pales in comparison to the smile of thanks when a kindness is extended to a stranger in need.  The time doing the most mundane things with one’s children or grandchildren or spouse or friend counts more than the time spent garnering the accolades of the public.  Jewish time lets us get it right the next time – but it pushes us down the road.  Will we keep our eyes, our ears, our senses open?

The Psalmist wrote (90:12):

למנות ימינו כן הודע ונבא לבב חכמה.

“Teach us to number our days that we may grow a heart of wisdom.”

To number our days means to leave no moment unexamined.  And when the little things fall under our gaze, we learn things from unexpected places. And when the Psalmist wrote of a heart – in ancient times, the heart was not the seat of emotion – it was the seat of intellect.  Number our days – look at everything to LEARN.

As an undergraduate, I began my profound love of learning about other religious traditions. My favorite professor, Dr. Vesilin Kesich, exuded joy and excitement when we studied the Protestant Rationalism of  Paul Tillich, the Christian mysticism of Meister Eckhart, the Buddhism of Daisetz Suzuki, – he was giddy when reading the Upanashads, or Buber’s Tales of the Chasidim.  Every time we would be introduced to a different religious tradition, I would go back to my dorm-room believing that this was the faith Dr. Kesich practiced. In the end I was wrong, only after we became colleagues many years later did he reveal that he was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian.  But his joy of discovery was infectious.

That joy carried over into my graduate studies at HUC-JIR, my rabbinic thesis and even my professional expertise (as I spent several years as the Reform movement’s Director of Interreligious Affairs).  Over the years, I discovered that there were often one of two reasons that people got involved in interfaith dialogue 1) it was interesting and somewhat “edgy” or 2) to defend the “correctness” of Judaism and the State of Israel against those who would use religion to attack Israel and Zionism.  But my experience in serious dialogue has also taught me lessons that are deeply Jewish – and have made me feel a better Jew.

My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, very early in his career, was at the first formal Jewish-Catholic dialogue held at St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, PA in 1965. Shrugging off the long held Jewish fear of entering a church (and I would often tell the story that my grandfather z”l, who was a pharmacist in the Bronx and cared for each and every customer, would still cross the street rather than walk in front of a church) Rabbi Bororwitz entered the Chapel. There, Rabbi Borowitz attended a Mass with a Catholic acquaintance, who throughout the service “was devoutly praying the Mass — and that touched me to the depths of my soul. I knew then, and know now, that he was praying to the God that I, too, prayed to, that his devotion was directed to Adonai, my God and the God of my people.”

What Rabbi Borowitz understood at that moment has undergirded every encounter I have had in an interfaith setting – and it forced me to listen, and to learn.  At no time was my faith ever shaken, but many times my faith was affirmed – and even expanded.


Three years ago I was honored to be the Visiting Chair of Comparative Religion at St. Joseph’s College in NY – an affordable university sponsored by the Sisters of St, Joseph.  I taught a course on how Jews, Christians and Muslims read their sacred literature.  During my preparation, I looked critically at the New Testament and Koranic texts, but found myself at home in Hebrew Scriptures and Rabbinic commentaries.  I decided to let go a little and try to read the texts from the position of the true believer – to hear the message that a member of the faith would carry away.

One of the stories from the Christian Bible that we examined is repeated in three of the Gospels – and it concerns a woman who suffered health problems for years – and those health issues caused her to have to live on the periphery of Jewish society.  She sought out Jesus, and touching his garment – found healing.  But Jesus then turns to her and says, “Your faith healed you.”

How lucky I was to read this story and view it from my Jewish persona, as well as trying to hear the message from the perspective of the Christian faithful.  The Jewish historian in me understood that the thrice repeated story indicated a machlochet (a deeply troubling and challenging issue) that vexed the rabbis of the first and second century as well as the early Christians – where does healing come from? My understanding of the actual issue made me see that the woman was not simply touching Jesus’ garment, but rather grabbed hold of his tzitzit – the visible and tangible reminders of adherence to mitzvot. Because of her willingness to grab on to the Commandments she is told that “her faith” healed her – her willingness to live within the mitzvah system.

At the same time, I could hear the story from another perspective, with the Jewish clues again hidden.  Listening to the story from within its own tradition, a different lesson emerges. How often when confronted with illness do we scream out, “Why me?” Here is an example of someone who is willing to live within the very system that made her an outcast – and her willingness to accept her state caused her to find healing.  Instead of asking “Why me?” she asks, “What can I do about this?” (She must have heard my sermon last week)

Ben Zoma, who lived contemporaneous with the writers of the Gospels, is quoted in Pirke Avot (4:1):

איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם שנאמר מכל מלמדי השכלתי כי עדותיך שיחה לי.

“Who is wise? The one who learns from all people, as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding {Ps 119:99}’”

My wife has often quipped that I have been to more Catholic Masses than her most devout Catholic friends.  And I know every step in preparing for a mass – and I appreciate how deeply those who believe are moved.  As the great Protestant theologian Rev. Krister Stendahl once said, “We must develop a sense of ‘holy envy.’”  What did Stendahl mean by his term “holy envy?” I believe that he meant learning to appreciate another’s religious experience without giving up one’s own.  It is being fearless in witnessing, and even learning, from others.  And it must send us back to our own tradition, for Jews, to mine Torah – in the most expansive use of the term Torah – for more wisdom. We must realize that we can grow in the experience.

For a long time, I witnessed devout Muslims in prayer (and just the other night, many of us saw the movie David, and saw many scenes of Muslims in prayer) – and it never struck me that I could be as focused on prayer as they seemed to be.  I grew up in a Reform Jewish home – my faith was logical – not ecstatic.  I didn’t come from the Chasids, aside from a few NFTY Havdalah services with the lights turned out and holding hands when in my teens, my prayer was and is an on-going conversation with myself and with God.  I didn’t lose myself in niggunim – and I didn’t, like my Muslim friends, recite long prayers verbatim lying prostrate on the ground or kneeling and genuflecting.

Giving in, being willing to try and learning from others allowed me moments of deeply satisfying prayer.  It is not a style of prayer that will become part of my regular routine, but without being willing to expose myself to other styles of worship, I never would have had those experiences.

And I learned that “Truth” whatever that may be, is not just found in our tradition, but can be found in the most amazing and the most mundane places, if we open our eyes – and work to develop a lev chochma – a heart of wisdom – a willingness to learn.

Now, eight years after I was first handed the keys to my motorcycle – many things have changed.  Marianne has her own helmet, and she regularly asks when we can take another ride together (she can’t wait until I am healed and we can take another ride) – and she continues to assure friends and family that I am a very safe rider. She, too, is astounded by what can been seen, heard and smelled while on the motorcycle.

When we get in the car, Marianne asks “Where are we going? How long will it take? Is the air-conditioning working?”  When we get on the bike, she puts her arms around me and off we go.  I find contentment in looking at the little things on the road, smelling the fresh air scented with the scenery.  I find joy when she taps me on the shoulder to point out a barn with peeling paint, or a road not-yet-explored. I slow down when I see gravel ahead and feel lucky when she squeezes me just a bit harder.

And the words that I utter on a motorcycle more than any other words are:

ברוך אתה, יי אלוהינו, מלך העולם, שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who gave us life! Who sustains us! Who brought us to this stunning moment.

גמר חתימה טובה!

May each of you be inscribed in the Book of Life for blessing!

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