Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


Finding Your Own Enchantment in Torah

posted by David Klinghoffer

A reader, Sarah, wrote a poignant comment under an earlier post that pulled at my heart and that I thought deserved a more prominent response. She movingly regrets that she finds it impossible to discover enchantment in Orthodox Judaism or any other Jewish movement. There’s much in what she says that I agree with, and that made me think of the very first entry I wrote here on this blog, about the condition of our being, most of us, spiritual “widows and orphans.” Writes Sarah:

I was the kind of child who attached like a barnacle to C.S. Lewis. I had the enchantment gene. All my life I’ve been drawn to science fiction, fantasy — and science. I believe fervently in a world that demands a response of wonder. I wish I could find it in my Judaism, but I never have. To me, it’s always been a rationalist religion. Ethically correct, but emotionally arid, perhaps because it has to be, since its first opponent was paganism. Maybe that’s just the particular congregation I grew up in (Conservative, with an aging population). But I have one very strong memory — I was seven, in a cow pasture, and I saw my first rainbow on a walk with my mother. I was transfixed. I remembered a few lines of Wordsworth and knew exactly what he meant. But my mother wanted to say a brocha, and I remember being frustrated with her for ruining the moment, for wanting to take the sublime and make it dutiful. I wish I could think of God as anything but someone whom I have disappointed so often that I can’t stand to look him in the eye. Really I do. The only time that I can really feel the connection between enchantment and religion is when I’m doing mathematics, when I believe wholeheartedly in the God of the primes, the God of representation theory, who has allowed us to see the hem of his garment. And when I understand something, I feel — tentatively — that he may have a personal concern for me, that there may be wonders in store. But that seems so improbable that I usually dismiss it. I like being a Jew. I miss reading Torah (it fell by the wayside in college. A casualty of factionalism, really; the Conservative kids don’t do it, and the Orthodox or Chabad kids don’t seem to want outsiders.) But if there’s wonder there, I’m blind to it. I see a lot of strictures, some with tremendous ethical force, some that seem arbitrary, some stunning in their brutality. I see flashes of poetry in the Psalms and the Song of Songs and the Song of the Sea, which my anti-aesthetic upbringing taught me to flinch from, because it wasn’t really “Jewish” to love beauty. I wish I could see wonder in Judaism. I can see it in science, in the Enlightenment values of reason and happiness and compassion, in poetry, in tacky fantasy…but I just can’t see it in my own religion.

She describes a school setting: “the Conservative kids don’t do it [engage in contemplating Torah], and the Orthodox or Chabad kids don’t seem to want outsiders.” This was my experience too when I was at Brown. (However there was no Chabad presence that I was aware of; Chabad’s whole purpose is to welcome newcomers, and they do a fantastic job.)
What I realized for myself later in adulthood is that nowadays — and maybe this was always so, and maybe it’s true for Christians as well (please tell me, friends) — you have to discover Judaism for yourself. The widow and the orphan must find their own way. There are organized venues and communities, and these are not to be dispensed with or scorned. But they offer a very limited vision of Torah. There’s no high, simple, straight road to God in the Jewish world as currently constituted. No single teacher, organization or sub-sub-sub-movement offers such a thing. They may earnestly and sincerely claim to, but I’ve not found this to be true in practice. It’s a maze and you must search out your own way.
The materials are all there and accessible, whether obtained from teachers, books, friends, or experience. But constructing traditional, authentic Judaism is ultimately something you do for yourself, and it’s where the enchantment lies. Orthodox Judaism as a do-it-yourself project? Seems paradoxical, I know.
Sarah sounds like a very thoughtful person. (Wordsworth at seven? Geez.) She hasn’t yet found in Judaism what she seeks, but that doesn’t mean she won’t. We’re all works-in-progress, myself very much included.


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Philip Koplin

posted December 8, 2009 at 6:21 pm


With due respect, i would ask Sarah what she means when she says “I like being a Jew,” and work outward, and inward, from that.



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Hector

posted December 8, 2009 at 6:46 pm


“I saw my first rainbow on a walk with my mother. I was transfixed. … my mother wanted to say a brocha, and I remember being frustrated with her for ruining the moment, for wanting to take the sublime and make it dutiful.”
I guess what usually happens, upon seeing a rainbow, is taking the sublime and making it….go to waste. I suppose for some people — a minority — will truly express their gratitude to God without any recourse to fixed blessings. I guess that original brocha-maker centuries ago had in mind all the /rest/ of the people, like me, who would otherwise merely say “cool!” and walk on. Boy, I wish I could express my feelings as well as Sarah does!



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Phil Steinacker

posted December 8, 2009 at 9:38 pm


David, I use Google Alert to track down all new posts on the Song of Songs because of its significance to the Theology of the Body (which I am into big time), so I found your post because Sarah referenced Song of Songs in her comments that you quoted.
As a first-time Christian reader of your blog I’ll take you up on your invite but I don’t know how much I can add since I’m flying in the dark on such practices as brocha-making.
It has always seemed to so natural for me to thank G-d for such things as rainbows, sunsets, and various stunning panoramic views of nature. For me thanks for those elements of creation has always been intertwined with my gratitude for the effect the beauty of His creation has on my belief – my faith – in His existence; His presence, both in the world and in my life.
It has always been the powerful impact of the beauty and complexity in nature that prevented me from drifting for long into atheism (a month or two, in high school) or agnosticism (for the remainder of that same year, if that). Nature – and faith – won. It was too clear then, as it is now, to refute so my gratitude is always for the gift of that faith through His works.
I can’t speak for most Christians, but most that I know with whom such subjects have come up have responded similarly; that is, to praise and thank Him for the rainbow. I hope this is helpful.
But the more significant comment is reserved for your insight about having to discover Judiasm (or, in my case, Chritianity) for oneself.
My mother knew all about my Catholic faith – inside out. I knew more about it than most kids my age all through high school. However, my mother’s faith was intellectual. Brcause she didn’t ahve it to give me I never penetrated anywhere beneath my own surface in attempting to somehow connect with God in a meaningful way. In 7th grade I recall praying really “hard” which I imagined at the time to be akin to sitting on the toilet straining. If I tried hard enough something would come out – I had no idea what – and nothing ever did.
Until late adulthood (I am 60 in 3 weeks), and I returned to my Faith six years ago after a sojourn of 31 years in my own private but self-inflicted diaspora.
For me it was having lived life with enough disappointments and pain – much of my own making, to be sure – that gave me the fodder with which to work in connecting with my Faith (upper-case deliberate to signify the change it wrought within me). Persistent prayer is a huge piece of it, so that in the beginning one musn’t let go and cease because nothing comes out of it. In time it will, and as that process of practicing persistent prayer unfolds within one many things will happen in your life spiritually that you can see are authored by G-d.
This is what made my discovery of my Christianity take place. I now see my Faith as the multi-faceted, multi-layered religious gift that it is in my life. I always have a sense of wonder regarding it (although I had the sense of wonder writ small as a younger man as well, but not enough sense at the time to understand its ramifications or its source).
On an intellectual plane I like Philip Koplin’s suggestion to Sarah, and I’d add that one can imput into that approach a spiritual dimension. She may or may not have difficulty because her science orientation might lead her to stay in her head but then, we are two different people, so perhaps not. Also, she did express frustration at having her gratitude for the rainbow inhibited, so she seems to have a proclivity that might lead her to where she wants to go.
Pesistent prayer is the ticket – and the same time(s) each day really helps, too.
I enjoyed the post.
G-d bless you all.
Phil



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David Klinghoffer

posted December 8, 2009 at 9:56 pm


Phil, thanks for your wonderful comments. Welcome!



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Yirmi

posted December 9, 2009 at 12:16 am


David, you’re very right that in practice even Orthodox Judaism is a do-it-yourself project, and there are so many ways to go. So much wonderful material, much of it light-years away in philosophy, is available in English. I personally find the approach of R’ Shalom Arush to be very nice, since although it takes for granted that mitzvot are obligatory and we should study Torah, the emphasis is not on the details of this, but rather the spiritual process of gaining in faith that G-d directs everything in one’s life, and on such things as praying and correcting our faults and devoting ourselves to coming close to Hashem.



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Yirmi

posted December 9, 2009 at 12:27 am


I get the sense from Sarah’s post that she can’t quite bring herself to believe in a G-d that cares about individuals. The thing is, the wonder may begin when you do manage to bring yourself to believe — for one thing you can see wonder in G-d’s creation (see Psalms 19 and 104), and see his intervention in your life. And there are many intellectually coherent reasons to do so — from things like Astor’s Soul Searching to the eye witness accounts of Baba Sali miracles.
Judaism need not be emotionally arid — there is much emphasis in scripture, including especially Psalms, and in the more recent literature of the last few hundred years, such as in Cassidism, about the importance of love and yearning for Hashem, feeling loved by Him, feeling thankfulness, feeling joy in serving Hashem. It is probably true that Judaism as it is practiced in public often seems dry — but it’s up to the individual to pour their heart and soul into their prayers and their study, and the creative process of coming up with new Torah insights or new ways to express devotion to God.



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Yirmi

posted December 9, 2009 at 12:28 am


Whoops — Chassidism, not Cassidism!



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David Klinghoffer

posted December 9, 2009 at 1:03 am


Thanks, Yirmi, as always. I’m curious about you too! But I think you’re “reading in” a bit here.



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Your Name

posted December 9, 2009 at 2:08 am


I read with interest Sarah’s experiencing God while doing mathematics. I recall an extended period of weeks where I was totally disabled with spinal pain, and the only thing I could find to do (since I could not move) was factor integers in my mind, for weeks on end. I recovered, and shortly thereafter discovered the Hebrew language and Torah. The immediate appeal was the mathematical structure of Lashon HaKodesh, and the endless cycles of allusion and cross-reference in the Tanach via gematria and letter shifts. Aha! It seems that religion has a rational basis. The laws of Torah are no more arbitrary than the laws of Physics, and no less permanent. But, by gum, there is the emotional appeal! Dear Sarah, if there is beauty and joy in mathematics, how can there NOT be in Torah? God gave us both. Return, back to Baal HaTurim.



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Hector

posted December 9, 2009 at 5:33 am


I hate to sound like an armchair advice giver, but perhaps Sarah would really get into hashgacha pratis stories, and then she could look into her own life history and find some there as well.



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Yirmi

posted December 9, 2009 at 11:17 am


David, I now realize you’re right — my interpretation wasn’t consistent with everything she said, including her statement that she thought G-d was disappointed in her.
As for my own story, very briefly, I was raised Catholic, stopped believing in high school, flirted with Eastern religion and then became a passionate atheist, and then agnostic and perhaps spiritual-but-not-religious for several years. I never considered Judaism at all until I started dating a Jewess (whom I eventually married, after converting). Once my interest in Judaism was initially piqued I read voraciously and in time became convinced of its truth in general, and attracted to the Breslover path in particular.



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Sarah

posted December 9, 2009 at 4:13 pm


Wow, I didn’t expect all this response — comments, and advice, and everything!
You’re right, David (Mr. Klinghoffer?) it is a DIY business, and I’m sure I’ll work it out over time. I don’t want to wind up secular-by-apathy; that does seem a waste.
To clarify: I’m not sure what I do believe about God. I’ve had an atheist friend try to “convert” me, and while all the arguments seem to be on his side (and woe to anybody who tries to prove Russell wrong) I’m still a believer, if now a mixed-up one. About “love” — well, I’ve done some things wrong. Some moral and personal failures. Love seems too much to ask.
Hector: what are hashgacha pratis stories?



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David Klinghoffer

posted December 9, 2009 at 4:56 pm


Hi Sarah, Hector was referring to stories of individual divine providence operating in people’s lives.
As for love, God loves us with an “everlasting love” as the Siddur puts it. The Jewish people have gone through some pretty rough patches morally, but everlasting means everlasting. Don’t be so hard on yourself! Everyone has failures. Goodness knows, I could tell you some of mine. Why, I…no, better not.
David



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Yirmi

posted December 9, 2009 at 5:48 pm


As David says, G-d loves us all, regardless of our misdeeds. And once we do sincere teshuvah, by stopping the activity, asking for forgiveness, regretting our actions and resolving not to repeat them, G-d will forgive us (see Rambam on teshuvah). There’s no double jeopardy: once we judge ourselves, G-d no longer judges us. Also, a turn for a turn — when we forgive others, G-d forgives us (See the works of R’ Lazer Brody and Shalom Arush). What is more, according to the Talmud, when we do teshuvah from love (as opposed to fear), not only are our sins forgiven, but the sins actually become merits!
It must be quite a surprise to leave a comment on a blog and return to see your comment the subject of a post! Kudos for responding graciously.



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