When the Holidays come around I always think about one of my graduate school buddies, whom I’ll call “Michael.” He was totally estranged from Jewish life, especially anything connected to Zionism. Once, just for the pleasure of aggravating me, he claimed to believe that Israel Bonds was the lead guitar in Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog.” (Actually, as I recently learned during a visit to YouTube, it was Buddy Guy, Jimi’s future sideman).
Michael was a philosopher — a neo-Spinozist, in fact. He eventually wrote a well-received book on pantheism that included a chapter on the impossibility of miracles. Ever the ironist, Michael dedicated the book as follows:
To my Uncle Izzy,
who once claimed to see an angel
standing in an empty lot
on the corner of Flatbush Avenue
and Avenue J
That dedication, of course, was Michael’s bow to the Jewish roots of his critique of the miraculous. Next to his Noo Yawk accent and prominent shnozz, Michael’s disbelief was the most Jewish thing about him. It linked him to a long tradition of Jewish deniers of the “supernatural.”
Taking an end run around pious Uncle Izzy, his secularism had reached Michael through his parents’ membership in Brooklyn’s Yiddishe Arbitter Ring (“Jewish Workman’s Circle”), his grandparents’ allegiance to Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society of Manhattan, and beyond that to the Jewish high priests of the European secularist tradition, Marx and Freud.
But really, the whole thing goes back to Michael’s hero, Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was the first Jew to abandon Judaism without accepting a pro-forma dunking that would transform him overnight from a Jew, condemned to humiliation in this world and hellfire in the next, into yet another cynical (albeit “saved”) Christian.
Spinoza died in 1677, neither Jew nor Christian. It would take another couple of centuries before European Jews would comfortably abandon Judaism without pretending to embrace Christian faith as a kind of cultural camouflage.
Think, here, of the famous 19th century Russian linguist, Daniel Chwolson. When asked if he underwent baptism “out of conviction,” he replied: “Why, yes. I had the conviction that it was better to be a professor of Semitic philology at the University of St. Petersburg than to be a cheder-melamed in Shnipishok.”
Well, back to Michael. I haven’t seen him for years. We kind of lost touch about the time I began to surround myself with pantheistic Hassidim, who believed in miracles, rather than with pantheistic neo-Spinozists, who did not.
But I think of him every autumn in the frantic rush of socializing, random introspection and all-too-rare behavioral change that constitutes my annual failure to meet my obligation of teshuvah in accord with the halachic norms defined by Maimonides.
Why do these days bring me to memories of Michael? Because, when you come down to it, Michael and I are not so far apart. Our secularity stands at the core of who we are. The difference is that, while Michael takes this as an explanation for his liberation from Judaism, it is for me the occasion of my liberation for Judaism. My ingrained secularity is for me a constant source of religious amazement, the very foundation of what I can mean by “miracle.”
Perhaps more than a few readers of today’s ramblings see themselves in this picture. But who will write the theology of Jews like us — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or “New Age” Jews who embrace the Official Judaism Recipes about as warmly as Chwolson embraced the Trinity? Jews who enter the rites and rituals of Judaism as if they were a miraculous mikvah that purifies us, even as we clutch in our fists the impure sheretz of a barely conquered skepticism! Can anyone’s belief in the miraculous be greater than ours — the belief that the lead weight of our naturalism can be transformed into supernatural gold within the alchemical crucible of Torah?
I remember my early experience of the miracle, as my heart opened to the keening of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah until my knees grew weak. The miracle brought me to tears behind my tallis shroud from the opening notes of Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre till the last ki anu amechah (“We are Your People, You are our God”) of the Ne’ilah service the night after. It propelled me out of bed at first light on the first morning of Sukkos to wave the Four Species at the earliest possible moment. And, on Simchas Torah, it launched me into flight with the Torah in my arms!
The memory of those moments still inflames me with hope as the sequence of festivals sweeps us up into its rhythms. Will this year be the one in which the golden ancient words and rites finally overcome the solvents of the secular? How else, after all, did Michael’s Uncle Izzy get to glimpse that angel in the garbage-strewn lot of Flatbush?
Nowadays, I confess, the miracle seems a bit farther away. More often than not, I find myself sleep-walking through the dark Elul mornings of selichos (penitential prayers) that prepare us for the Ten Days of Penitence. The payback, of course, is that the tears of Kol Nidre don’t flow so easily, And as for being launched on Simchas Torah into a flight of dance with the Torah cradled in my arms — well, that would take a medical miracle of nearly Biblical proportions!
But still, our rabbis teach that “where the baal teshuvah stands, there not even the righteous of the generation can stand.”
Why so? Because the righteous progress toward holiness with the ease of those whose nature offers no resistance. But as for the rest of us avaryonim (transgressors), the distance from God that secularity carves into our souls is the very possibility of experiencing the miracle of teshuvah.
Award-winning columnist Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.