Ron Rosenbaum

A Moral Order in the Universe? With Special Reference to King Lear and Ron Jeremy

So late Sunday, after my Saturday “BAM Dialogue” (referenced in the post below) I saw the King Lear at the Public Theater directed by the gifted James Lapine. (I still treasure the memory of his Midsummer Night’s Dream back in the 80s). And starring Kevin Kline as the mad (or suddenly sane) King. It left me shaken.

Afterward, I had to ask myself, why does this play do this thing to me. My seat was near that of Barry Edelstein whose Shakespeare verse speaking class at the Classical Stage Company figures importantly in my examination of the controversy over Peter Hall iambic “pause”. He said something at the intermission which was undeniable-I’m paraphrasing–but it was kind of genuine profound bewilderment at how the patched-together element of the play somehow cohere and get to you.

And without being reductive, and with no disrespect to the Gloucester plot, it always comes down to the ending to the moment of pure suffering as Lear comes on stage howling with grief at the death of his daughter Cordelia, whose lifeless body he holds in his octogenarian hands. (Everybody tells this anecdote, but let that not stop me: When John Gielgud was asked for his advice on playing Lear, he said “Most important of all is to cast a very light Cordelia.)

Anyway I was glad I saw the Lapine, KlineLear for its own transcendent sake I was also glad because I was scheduled to lead a discussion group about Lear at the reading group organized by my friend David Samuels and Rabbi Weintraub at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn. I had spoken there twice before and found the group smart and intellectually stimulating.

And yes I’d done a whole chapter focussed on the scholarly debate over the two versions of Lear’s dying words and the thematic and esthetic impact of them both.

But it’s always good to get reacquainted with the power of the play, a power which I believe has less to do with whether Lear was more sinned against than sinner, but with the power of that suffering.

That suffering that has no cause. (suffering that has no effect even, in the redemptive framework in which that most religions try to place it.)

“No cause. No cause.” Cordelia’s unforgettable words of forgiveness to her father. But no cause, no cause to the suffering of the innocent, even of the partly guilty as we all are.

No cause, no cause. We live in a universe of cause and effect. We live in a universe of suffering and…recompense? Redemption, meaning, learning? Or suffering that means nothing but itself, cannot be displaced or transcended.

The argument about suffering has long begin conducted within a Christian or anti-Christian (either pagan or Machiavellian/naturalistic/about Edmund-like framework): suffering yield s redemption. We will be rewarded for the hells we go through.

Or suffering means nothing. It can not be made to mean more than the pain it is by imagining positive meanings for it, the goal of almost all religions.

And it occurred to me the morning I made my way to Kane Street synagogue, it was a play that could apply to Jewish suffering. But was the Jewish attitude toward suffering different from the Christian altogether? Do we expect redemption for suffering. Or are we supposed to?

I raised these questions in the course of a spirited discussion with the congregation’s book club members. And then at a certain point I asked Rabbi Weintraub what Jewish tradition has to say on the matter.

“You talk about the whether there’s ‘a moral order of the Universe’?” the rabbi said to me. [I’m paraphrasing him now], but in Judaism there is no moral order of the universe.

Wait, I said. No moral order? What about the Ten Commandments? I asked.

It turns out he was making an important distinction. When he said Judaism didn’t believe in a moral order, he was saying Judaism didn’t believe in a moral hierarchy? He wasn’t being relativistic. There was Good and Bad and better and infinite degrees in between, but there was a basis for making distinctions between them.

But that’ s not the same as a moral order. Judaism didn’t guarantee a moral outcome, I think one can extrapolate from what he was saying.

An important distinction I’d say. A real take away.

And oh yes, the Ron Jeremy reference. The porn-star is quoted in today’s Page Six column in the New York Post as saying, apropos his family’s attitude toward his profession: “We’re Jews and we Jews are liberal. We don’t go for that , ‘You’re going to burn in Hell’, good and evil stuff.”

Well, he may not be theologically correct–we don’t believe in a burning Hell, but we do go for “that Good and Evil stuff”. but at least he thinking about the right question, the question raised by Lear: a moral order in the universe? It’s the most urgent question of them all.