Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

Dear Stephen,

Ah, finally we’re in total agreement about something! E-mail can be such a disaster. (The worst is when you’re trying to flirt with a girl by e-mail. Do not try this at home!)

Yes, I’ll back off a bit from my critique of faith. One of the best explanations of Judaism I’ve come across is G-d in Search of Man, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a great rabbi and a professor at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. It’s a book I read early on when I started thinking about Torah, and he makes the point that the religious impulse arises first in a sensation of awe at the sublimity of the world around you: people, nature, love, art. “Knowledge” sounds so coldly intellectual–not remotely the same thing as an appreciation of the mystery of the sublime.

So let me clarify what I mean by “knowledge” of G-d. It’s not facts or theological principles or dogmas. The best analogy I can think of is the way we come to know another person. That knowledge (including sexual knowledge, hence the Biblical euphemism for lovemaking) is at its deepest precisely when it can’t be expressed in words, as principles and dogmas can. Now, people who have been married for 50 years report that they still are coming to know their spouses more with each year. In practice, a woman is never fully knowable, even by the person you’d expect to know her best, her husband. That–I’m told–is one of the greatest blessings of marriage: 50 or more years, if you’re lucky, of getting to know someone who’s profoundly different from you. (Incidentally, my rabbi, Daniel Lapin, explains that this is the reason that Torah disallows same-sex unions: Another man is not going to be nearly as different from me as a woman, so there’s an element of narcissism in setting out to know a same-sex “spouse” that way.)

The point is that if it’s that challenging to know even another human being, it’s infinitely more challenging to come to know G-d. Which is why we need to understand that knowledge of Him is simply an ideal, however unreachable, toward which Torah offers us a way to strive. You raise an interesting question: Is being “good” an end in itself, or rather a means to an end? Good deeds–mitzvoth, commandments–are (so says Rabbi Heschel) definitely the way we respond to G-d, commune with His mystery, and thus move toward knowing him. My gut tells me that being good is also good for its own sake, but I wouldn’t know how to defend that proposition–except as some sort of post-modern existential “I’ll take my stand” type of thing. In any event, you won’t get any argument from me regarding the Rebbe’s remark about divine truths being “infinitely incomprehensible.”

You can be sure, however, Stephen, that what the Rebbe meant by “truths” is not what fashionable multiculturalists mean by it: that because different people believe different things, therefore nobody is right and ultimately there is no truth at all. I don’t think that’s your belief either; I’m certain you’re not a nihilist. And yet you seem to be attached to this idea of multiple truths. I would like to know why. You’re a thoughtful person–I know you don’t talk about “truths” just because that’s what we were all told to think in college. So what’s your reasoning? Since you are going up against 3,300 years’ worth of your ancestors, who did indeed believe in a Truth, I’m afraid the burden of proof is on you.

Now, regarding this single monolithic Truth, don’t get me wrong. I don’t for a minute think that Orthodox Jews have a 100 percent monopoly on right belief, right practice–or meaningful lives. I remember very fondly–and often long for–the sweet community of Reform Jews I grew up in. There definitely were things they did that were closer to the spirit of Torah than the way many Orthodox Jews do the same things. For instance, Reform rabbis, when they disagree among themselves, are much more genial about it than Orthodox rabbis sometimes are. There’s far too much pointless bickering in our community. (Just this morning I was reading a passage in the Talmud praising the way great sages in Israel treated each other. They cherished one another, even when debating, always seeking a way to interpret an opponent’s viewpoint in such a way as to minimize what they took to be the opponent’s error.) Also, Reform Jews know how to behave in shul–quietly and respectfully–while many Orthodox Jews behave abominably.

What I’m saying is this: Various aspects of the authentic Torah tradition have been preserved better by some factions among our people than by others. But that doesn’t change the bottom line fact that Jews have always believed in a single Truth–which transcends factional labels like “Orthodox” and “Reform.” The Mishnah instructs each of us to take for ourselves a rav–a spiritual master–and learn the Truth from him. It does not say choose for yourself a faction. Of course when it comes to such masters, the more intimately in touch with and grounded in our tradition they are, the more help they can be to us. By the way, stories about rude Orthodox Jews always pain me, and I regret to say I’m frequently not as genteel as I should be. But I beg you not to read any meaning into the gruff hasidic parking cop, or–worse–to use the fact that there are failed Jews in all the denominations as an excuse not to seek the Truth in your own tradition.

I’ll conclude then by asking not only why you believe in the legitimacy of multiple truths, but what discrete truth do you yourself find most personally congenial and why? Is there any particular teacher you find especially helpful in sorting out what you take to be the “truths” of Judaism? After all, one does at some point need to choose. To offer another romance-related analogy, we could surely agree that in the course of a man’s life there are legitimate opportunities to love many different sorts of women–but ultimately, if you want to be happy, you should choose one and devote yourself to her forever. If you happened to meet your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on the street tomorrow, how would you justify this notion that “there is more than one route of arrival”? I wonder what you know about life that he didn’t? Like you, he believed that acts are of “paramount” importance, but his teachers taught him a whole universe of acts, mitzvot, to employ in developing his relationship with G-d. What do you make of all those Torah acts that Reform and Conservative so casually brush aside–Sabbath, kosher laws, daily prayer, tefillin, and on and on–which have always been understood as working best as disciplines, not as the occasional experiment?