“My God, the soul you gave to me is pure,” Bellman said, gripping the podium and looking out over the congregation. Not his congregation, but perhaps his for just this moment. “We say this prayer during the shacharit service. This morning, for example. Elohai neshamah. My God, the soul you gave to me is pure. Pure. Tehorah.”
It was a congregation of middle-aged people — families, that is — and older people, like most synagogues. The broad room was fairly full. And they were mostly paying attention, even after the long Saturday morning service. He saw a family in the front row — a man, two kids younger than bar and bat mitzvah, a woman — all looking at him with generous interest. They were not wearing formal clothes. Bellman said, “And the prayer continues: ‘You have created it, you shaped it, and you breathed it into me, and you preserve it deep inside of me. And someday you will take it from me, restoring it to everlasting life.’ Because, as we know, the soul is not ours. Sometimes when we think of ourselves as important, we begin to think that all of this is ours. But it isn’t. All of this is God’s.”
There was some stirring in the congregation at this; this community was possibly uncomfortable with the mention of God. Good, Bellman thought. There’s more discomfort yet to come.
“And our Torah stresses the importance of remaining pure in our lives.” He felt his fist come up loosely at this. “Judaism is not one of the religions that denies the fact that we have bodies, that we have desires. Of course not. But if our souls are the breath of God, we need to do everything in our power to keep ourselves from corrupting those priceless souls inside us.”
He paused for effect. The people in the congregation were not sure where he was going with this. The two children there in the first row were starting to look around the room at other things. “Listen,” he said. “I’m here to talk to you about a crisis.”
He began to recite the statistics, and without looking at notes; he knew these statistics. “The pornography industry is responsible for at least 57 billion dollars of economic activity each year,” he said. “Three billion of that comes from child pornography.”
And so all eyes were locked onto him now.
His wife was not with him. Bellman’s wife was still at home.
“Will you be out of bed when I get back? Can we eat lunch together?” he had asked before he left.
Sharon kept her eyes closed on the pillow. “It’s Shabbat. I’m sleeping in,” she said. “It’s a day of rest.”
“Okay,” he had said. “It was only a question.”
After his talk, Bellman, feeling a tightness in his chest, moved through the crowd to the Kiddush table, laden with bagels and spreads for bagels. He was aware that, aside from a few polite nods, people were avoiding eye contact, avoiding greeting him. He understood this; some were embarrassed by the topic, and others were embarrassed by themselves. He understood that. But all, presumably, had been listening.
As he stood there with the food, not eating or taking anything to eat, a man came up to him. Rabbi Klein.
“Shabbat Shalom,” the rabbi said to him, and they shook hands. “Thanks for speaking today.”
Rabbi Klein was a skinny young man, clean-shaven and with glasses, probably Bellman’s junior by fifteen years. But he had been very enthusiastic about Bellman’s talk.
“Thank you for having me.”
Another man came up to them just then; it was the father from the front row. “Rabbi,” he said. “Excuse me. Was that a thing to do?” His eyes jumped to Bellman and back. “If I had known that we would come to services as a family, and that pornography was going to be the topic of conversation, I’m not sure I would have brought my children, or that we would have stayed. No disrespect to you,” he said to Bellman. “I don’t disagree with you. I just don’t know how appropriate this was, today.”
Rabbi Klein responded calmly. “I’m not sure that Mr. Bellman said anything offensive — did you think so?”
Bellman felt that same tightening in his chest. “This is exactly what families need to hear,” he said. “Young kids are setting up e-mail accounts that their parents don’t know about. They are online seeing things their parents don’t know about.”
“I understand,” the man said. He held a hand up to prevent umbrage. He looked wounded. “I’m just talking about a family coming to temple and expecting to enjoy services.”
“Do you have some particular reason,” Bellman said, his breath hot, “why you’re unwilling to face this topic?”
The man drew up stiffly, his face whitening with shock.
Rabbi Klein reached out quickly and touched the man’s arm. “Thank you, Eric, for telling me that you were bothered,” he said. “I appreciate you letting me know.”
“I can tell you right now that I’m not the only one who feels this way,” the man said, glaring at Bellman. And indeed there had been people who left during the talk, as there always were. “There are a lot of people who don’t think a temple is the place for a story like the one your guest told us today.”
“Okay, Eric,” the rabbi said. His voice was low and settling.
“Judaism is not a religion for cowards,” Bellman said. “Read your Torah.”
And now the rabbi’s hand was on his arm too — nearly the pose of a man breaking up a fight in a bar. “Mr. Bellman,” he said.
Bellman turned away abruptly, stalked away from the Kiddush table.
Statistics never bother people; Bellman had given speeches before where people actually fell asleep when he gave numbers, though those were other subjects. In a speech like the one gave today he was talking about millions of websites, the fifth of men who viewed pornographic sites even at work, the tenth admitting to addiction. Above all, about the fact that kids’ first exposure was, on average, at age eleven. A child not even in puberty, at a desk in a bedroom in a house with all the doors locked and yet still unsafe. The quiet of safety all around them, the light of the screen on their faces. And that after that they joined other teenagers as the single biggest group of pornography consumers in the country. But people never responded to the numbers. What they responded to was the story.
The story involved a local girl, thirteen years old, just past her bat mitzvah. Her parents were able to reconstruct the story after the fact: This girl had met a man online, in a chat room, and he had represented himself to be her age. They arranged to meet. The girl was not seen alive again.
Bellman’s hands were, in the telling of this story, squeezing the podium and tilting it forward. In these moments he could have found the strength to lift a podium and hurl it out over the congregation. “This is not an unpredictable event,” he said. “In our Torah — we read in our Torah about many instances when impurity leads to danger. To destruction. Even today — in today’s reading we saw the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, killed by God, because they offered up a ‘strange fire’ instead of a pure one.
“This isn’t about some criminal element. This is about us. About whether we are guilty of allowing this to happen to us,” he said. This was the part where usually he had trouble controlling himself. But he managed it this time.
“When a person, when a society loses its awe of the purity of our souls,” Bellman said, “we face destruction.”
Rabbi Klein finds Bellman by the bathroom. “I’m sorry about that,” the rabbi said.
“I’m sorry, too,” Bellman said. “I became a little too passionate, I guess. People always have different opinions about what I have to say. I just — they just don’t know.”
Bellman realized that the rabbi was looking at him closely, holding his arm. The murmur of Kiddush conversations was in the background. “No,” he said. “He didn’t know.”
“Do you think this talk had the right effect?” Bellman said.
“Do you?” the rabbi said.
In Judaism, it was always life and death that divided purity from impurity. Contact with menstrual blood. The dead. With semen. And, when the Torah was written, there was always a way to become clean again. For a time you would wait outside the camp, staring perhaps at the tents of the pure, and finally waiting for the sun to set. Then you would cross back over, return to tehorah. Return to your tent, which was home, which was pure.
It was not a long drive home, and Bellman was still preoccupied as he came through the front door. “Sharon?” he called. At this moment of entry, he always had a fear that something would be wrong, that she would not be here. “Sharon?” All the same, he tried not to rush up the stairs; his wife rarely answered him when he called from the door. He moved resolutely down the hall past the empty bedroom with the closed door, and on to the one that he shared with his wife.
Sharon was there, still in bed, but awake now. There was reading material near her in the bed, unread. Bellman stood at the door and stared at her. He wanted her to ask how his talk had gone, although that was unrealistic, and he knew that. He also wanted to tell her about it without her asking, but that was unrealistic as well.
“Have you had lunch?” he said.
“No,” she said.
“Do you want to have something now?”
“I don’t want anything,” she said. “I don’t want anything at all that I can have.”
Bellman went out into the hallway, closing the door behind him. For a moment he just stood between the two closed bedrooms, and then he went downstairs again. He ate a sandwich quietly in the living room. He wished that he had another talk to give that afternoon. He needed to tell the story again. One of these times, he would tell it, and the whole universe would change. Perhaps it would make sense. He stared across the room at another closed door, the one to his study. Inside there was the computer he used. There was a whole afternoon now, with him alone in the world, and that computer in the other room. He should have thrown that thing out right after. Bellman gripped the arms of his chair.
“My God,” he told himself out loud, “the soul you gave to me is pure.” For the moment, he refused to move from the chair.
David Ebenbach is the author of Autogeography, a chapbook of poetry (Finishing Line Press), two collections of short stories—Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press), which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award, and Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House), which won the WWPH Fiction Prize—as well as The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books), a guide to the creative process. Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. www.davidebenbach.com