Kingdom of Priests

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.
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus