Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Up from Secularism

I love a really good teshuva (repentance) story, telling how a Jew found his way up from secularism to Judaism. One of the most fascinating I’ve read is posted on the First Things website today, by David P. Goldman (a/k/a Spengler), who passed through a period as an acolyte of cult leader Lyndon LaRouche. Goldman gives his story with tremendous honesty. It’s beautiful and illuminating — a must-read.


Another, deeper fear kept me at a distance from Judaism. My only sense of the sacred had come from classical music, the great avocation of my adolescence. The over-representation of Jews in classical music is no accident: Jews who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge God sometimes find music a safer means by which to evoke religious feelings without the fearful demands of encountering a personal God. To approach the sacred, Jewish tradition admonishes, is both exalting and dangerous, and it is less frightening to look for the sacred in Mozart’s sonatas than on Mt. Sinai. I had studied piano intensively and composed a bit while young, and I continued my studies through college. This bound me to LaRouche more closely than many of his other dupes, for he was a great aficionado of classical music, using the ill-gotten proceeds of his fund-raising machine to sponsor public as well as private concerts by first-class musicians.


Around 1985, the ugly awareness that I had spent almost a decade in a gnostic cult coincided with a dark time in my personal life. Deeply depressed, I sat at the piano one night, playing through the score of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and came to the chorale that reads: “Commend your ways and what ails your heart to the faithful care of Him who directs the heavens, who gives course and aim to the clouds, air and wind. He will also find a path that your foot can tread.” For the first time in my life, I prayed, and in that moment, I knew that my prayer was heard. That was a first step of teshuva — of return.

Goldman also has a brief, moving comment on the terror of facing up to God’s love on his own Spengler blog.
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Glen Davidson

posted May 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

It’s an interesting account, and I would not quibble with anyone who found religion to satisfy his “soul.” That’s all we really get out of it, though, he prayed and felt some sacred connection. Had he found the same experience in a shady nook of a garden, or in nature at large, this story wouldn’t have ended up at First Things, or here.
What is egregious is labeling this as “Up from Secularism,” as if he had been some normal non-believer. The fact that he sees himself as having been something of a Jew with a fear of Jewishness, a Larouchite (despite its anti-Semitic undertones), and flotsam of 60s radicalism, hardly makes his shift into one from “secularism,” except in a highly unusual sense.
David does, of course, include text and links that undercut the spin that he produces for his religion, the usual in his writings. Nevertheless, it’s still an illegitimate spin made in order to color a story that has some interesting and educational aspects having little or nothing to do with David’s spin.
Glen Davidson

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Brian Beckman

posted May 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm

As a Noachide, I experienced not Teshuvah but perhaps taglit or mimtza’ (discovery or finding). For me, the process was almost the exacty opposite of your author’s; for me, it was intellectual and not emotional. My previous religious experiences had been very heavy on the emotional side, and, as I grew, I found that appeal to be empty and learned to be suspicious of “feelings” as likely to take me away from clear understanding and truth. I am fortunate to have teachers who showed me the blazing clarity of Torah and now I’m hooked!

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posted May 6, 2009 at 6:57 pm

Glen, though there are and have been many places where I take issue with David, I think you’re being unfair here. Goldman is clear in the article that in his earlier life he was an atheist. If that’s not secular, what is?
I think non-Jews often have trouble understanding a person who describes himself as a secular Jew, or even an unbelieving Jew. It seems to make no more sense than an atheist Catholic or a square circle. Judaism is uniquely a people, a culture, and a religion. Anyone born of a Jewish woman, or converted to Judaism, is a Jew under halakhah, regardless of what beliefs they hold or the extent (if any) to which they practice. This is why a non-observant Jew who becomes observant is said to do teshuva, rather than to be converting or re-converting. He always was Jewish–he merely repents and returns to (or begins) practice.
In this context, it seems perfectly reasonable to consider Goldberg as a secularist (regardless of his Jewish status) who came to faith and left secularism. In light of this, I don’t think David is doing some devious spin at all. I take the story on its on terms, and think it is in fact very moving.

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Glen Davidson

posted May 6, 2009 at 7:34 pm

In this context, it seems perfectly reasonable to consider Goldberg as a secularist (regardless of his Jewish status) who came to faith and left secularism.

It’s “Goldman,” and you’re spinning almost as much as David was, probably because you think like he does, in terms of “Believer” vs. “Unbeliever.”
You’re changing the subject when you state that it’s perfectly reasonable to consider Goldberg [sic] as a secularist, since I never once said that it was improper to do so. You made your own strawman, then you attacked it.
I obviously allowed that he can be thought of as a secularist “in a highly unusual sense.” The fact that you don’t respond to what I wrote, rather to your own incomprehension of what was actually involved, is a problem with you, not with me.
And I have no idea why you lecture regarding “secular Jews,” since I have no problem with the concept. More delusional thinking on your part, I would think.
Goldman’s title, whether he chose it or not, is “Confessions of a Coward,” not remotely like “Up from Secularism.” He does not identify “secularism” as such to be his problem, rather he brings up other issues, like in this concluding paragraph:

In reviewing my own missteps in life, I feel that temptation to represent myself as a monster in order to cover up something even more painful: I was a coward. I was afraid of being Jewish. Everything else is rationalization. My intellectual life really began only a quarter-century ago when I reconciled myself to being Jewish. The truth is that I did not think my way into praying. I prayed my way into thinking.

“Everything else is rationalization” could apply to yours and David’s attempts to pretend that the universalist meaning of “secularism” is the problem, and not the particulars that actually affected Goldman.
I can even go beyond this, which I didn’t previously, for the sake of brevity. That is to say, one can ask if he was truly secular at all, considering that he belonged to what he now describes as “a gnostic cult under the leadership of a man named Lyndon LaRouche.” Sure, it’s not formally a religion, but if we believe Goldman, it comes to a considerable extent out of the gnostic impulse in American religion. So that even though I allowed that he could be considered secular “in a highly unusual sense,” perhaps it would be even better to view his time in Larouche’s organization as a time when he belonged to a quasi-religious organization, with definite religious overtones (as he implies, though I know far too little about Larouche’s organization to judge either way).
My complaint was not that Goldman was portrayed as a secularist, regardless, but that David is apparently trying to broaden the specific and fairly unusual problems in Goldman’s past to encompass the supposed problems of “secularism.” That he suckered you in with his spin, while you remain uncomprehending of the importance of the specifics, is a problem, though perhaps it has much to do with your religious prejudices as with David’s attempt to spin the story to fit his own animosity against secularists.
Glen Davidson

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posted May 6, 2009 at 10:42 pm

In the original post, you said, “What is egregious is labeling this as ‘Up from Secularism,’ as if he had been some normal non-believer.” It seemed reasonable to assume from this that you did not really believe it correct to consider Goldman (erravi! Mea culpa!) a secluarist, or perhaps only grudgingly as one “in a highly unusual sense.”
My complaint was not that Goldman was portrayed as a secularist, regardless, but that David is apparently trying to broaden the specific and fairly unusual problems in Goldman’s past to encompass the supposed problems of ‘secularism.’
Fair enough. I’ve read accounts of other people from different kinds of secular backgrounds who say things similar to Goldman, so I think there is a certain generalizability; on the other hand, other secularists have had totally different experiences, and some believers have become secularists. Nothing is ever completely general, is it? However, Goldman himself certainly seems to think his experience is not some unusual fluke: “Like so many leftist Jews, I came to believe that only a universal solution to humanity’s problems would solve the problems of the Jews, and the more universal the solution, the less Jewish.” (emphasis added)
In any case, note statements such as these (from this essay) of Goldman: “G K Chesterton said that if you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe in anything, and I was living proof of that as a young man,” and “[My goal is to] tell the Europeans that their post-national, secular dystopia was a death-trap whence no-one would get out alive.” (emphasis added) Given these statements, and given that Goldman is now at First Things, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he would largely agree with David’s interpretation of him.
[Goldman] prayed and felt some sacred connection. Had he found the same experience in a shady nook of a garden, or in nature at large, this story wouldn’t have ended up at First Things, or here
The point being? I assume Goldman’s post as it is wouldn’t end up on a pagan discussion board, either. That is neither here nor there as to whether there is merit in what Goldman says (or what a pagan who felt “some sacred connection” in a “shady nook of a garden” might say, for that matter).
As to the “supposed problems of ‘secularism'”, anyone, believer or secularist, is free to discuss any problems, real or feigned, of secularism; just as anyone, believer or unbeliever, is free to discuss any problems, real or feigned of any or all religions. Right? So what’s the problem? Believe it or not, there are secularists (e.g. Nat Hentoff) who are critical of aspects of secularism, just as there are believers who are critical of aspects of their own faiths. It seems to me that openness to criticism is a strength, no matter what your beliefs.
In any case, neither secularism nor any particular religion can be proved or disproved in any absolute way. Everyone of any persuasion has the right to argue, criticize, and debate regarding their positions. As long as everyone plays fair and keeps it relatively civil, that’s fine. I might point out that if you actually read some of these threads, you will see that I have disagreed sharply with David in many places, and have taken him to task, although I try to maintain an objective and civil tone and not to make things personal.
In my last post, I was merely pointing out that I thought you were being unfair to David, but I did not in anyway accuse you of bad faith or use any negative language in reference to you. By way of contrast, your last post drips with sarcasm, ad hominem name-calling (“suckered”, “delusional”, “incomprehension”), and cattiness. If you want to make your case, fine–but argumentation like this merely undercuts anything you say (and believe it or not, I actually agree with much you’ve said in many of your posts) and wins no friends nor converts any enemies.
Anyway, after this post I’m bailing out on this thread, since I see no particular point in a p&^%ing contest.

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