This is Chapter 5 of my Contemplative Autobiography. It is the story of how I rediscovered—and continue to rediscover—what I believe to be authentic Judaism. It is the story of a search for deep religiosity and the re-engagement with Halacha, which I view as musical notes written by the Great Maestro to be played by each one of us on the strings of our souls.
I am taking the reader through all the different stages, the ups and downs, the agony and ecstasy, and the trials and travails that marked my quest as I experienced them throughout decades of study and contemplation. I hope that this will serve as an inspiration and guide for those who find themselves in similar positions. The purpose of describing my spiritual journey is not to relate how or whether I ever arrived at a final destination, but to share vignettes of my odyssey on the “road less traveled.” I hope that this will inspire others to forge their unique spiritual path and embark on a journey to become a better and more authentic human being and Jew.
In order to get a better understanding of the nature and intention of this autobiography, I suggest that the reader should, at the very least, read through the two-part introduction to this series (Part 1 and Part 2).
Franz Rosenzweig’s Crucial Insight
In my search for authentic Judaism, there was another powerful idea that greatly influenced me. It was an insight by Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), the great German Jewish philosopher. In his earlier years, Rosenzweig had decided to be baptized, since he believed that secular Jews like himself were basically living Christian lives. Thus, the only reasonable thing to do was to draw the consequences and convert to Christianity.
Arguing his case, he wrote: “We [Jews] are Christians in everything. We live in a Christian state, attend Christian schools, read Christian books, in short, our whole culture rests entirely on Christian foundations. Therefore, if a man has nothing to hold him back, he needs only a very slight push…to make him accept Christianity.” (Quoted by Samuel Hugo Bergman in Faith and Reason: Modern Jewish Thought (NY: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 57.)
Before going through with the conversion, however, Rosenzweig decided to say a formal goodbye to Judaism by attending a Yom Kippur service in a small synagogue (shtiebel) in Berlin.
This “farewell gesture” became a far-reaching turning point in his life. It seems that he underwent a mystical experience while attending services. As a result of this encounter with the Divine, which is so well described by Rudolf Otto in his famous work, Das Heilige, The Idea of the Holy, (See chapter 1 of this series.), he not only called off his decision to become a Christian, but decided to become a religious Jew (although not mainstream Orthodox in the conventional sense of the word). Consequently, he devoted himself to the study of Judaism, wrote some remarkable works about his newfound religion, and became one of the most significant thinkers of Judaism in modern times.
In his main work, the Star of Redemption, a difficult book to read, as well as many other writings, he articulated his religious views. He was influenced by philosophers such as Hermann Cohen, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard. Rosenzweig, in turn, influenced philosophers such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Emil Fackenheim and Jacques Derrida.
Franz Rosenzweig made the point (also expressed by Chassidic thinkers) that one can understand religion and religious life only when one actually lives it. After all, it is not something that can be comprehended by the mind alone; it is something that must be experienced by the sum-total of the human being. He writes that “one hears in the doing”, meaning that only by actually living and practicing Judaism can one hear its message and internalize its values. “Only in the commandment can the voice of Him Who commands be heard.” (see Franz Rosenzweig’s essay “The Commandments: Divine or Human?” in On Jewish Learning, ed. N.N. Glatzer (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), pp. 119-124).
This made a great impression on me because it meant that if I really wanted to understand Judaism., I had to live it. If I were to be an outsider and not partake of this living tradition, it would be akin to a color-blind person describing colors.
This meant that I had to stay observant, celebrate shabbat, eat kosher and observe many more mitzvot, all while studying Judaism in depth. Only then would I hear the music, Das Ding an Sich, the “Thing Itself” and could then decide whether or not I’d “heard” enough to convince me.
“Hearing” the Torah and Another Kind of Teshuva
Rosenzweig went as far as to claim that one could only perceive the Torah as divine revelation when one does not (merely) read the text but is fully engaged in the religious act of listening to the divine voice contained in the words of Torah with one’s entire being, (see my Thoughts to Ponder 450: “Torah: Hearing the Divine Voice at Sinai Now” ).
Rosenzweig taught me something else as well. While the concept of Teshuva (repentance/return to Judaism) is conventionally interpreted to mean that one must renounce and relinquish the past, he strongly felt that this would be a mistake. Rosenzweig taught that one’s past has to be transformed and redirected toward Judaism. “In being Jewish we must not give up anything, nor renounce anything but lead everything back to Judaism.” “This,” he writes, “is a new sort of learning. A learning for which—in these days—he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien (See On Jewish Learning, pages, 98-99)”.
In other words, Teshuva is not (just) the act of turning a new page or returning to a previous stage in life, but a program for life. Teshuva is an integral component of religious life, not merely a repair mechanism to remedy spiritual pathologies. According to this conception, the essence of Teshuva is not the rectification of misdeeds but the need for constant growth, improvement, and change. Teshuva is a lifelong process, not a one-time event.
My Spiritual “Confusion”
This observation confronted me personally in a profound way which I had not anticipated.
Sometimes, religious people believe that the reason why I wanted to start all over again and reevaluate my Judaism, is because I am unable to make peace with my non-Jewish past. According to them, this led to my critical assessment of contemporary Judaism. They even claim that I am “confused” about my Jewish identity and hence cannot fit into the mainstream Jewish framework to which they belong and which, in their eyes, is obviously the only authentic Judaism! (This was never told to me straight to my face but always via a third party!)
What they do not seem to realize is that there is a great advantage to spiritual confusion. It is a healthy kind of upheaval within a person. As such it is a great blessing: it forces one to rethink what one had taken for granted. “Chaos breeds life, while order breeds habit.” (See Henry Adams: The Education of Henry Adams, (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918), p. 249) Not to be confused means that one is not alive, but just going through the motions.
What amuses me is that this is used as a defense to justify these people’s own unwillingness and fear of conducting their own investigation into Judaism. They hide behind an argument that frees them from doing so. This common form of self-deception has evolved into a highly sophisticated art-form practiced by thousands of well-meaning people! This tactic is so pervasive and persuasive that it even leads some people to become arrogant and self-righteous, by convincing them that they are above scrutiny—that there is no need to subject themselves to religious self-examination. They are set in their ways and will look down upon anybody who feels the need to engage in Jewish introspection.
My Non-Jewish Grandparents
However this does not let me off the hook! There was a time when I had totally forgotten about my non-Jewish background, probably because I was so well integrated into the Orthodox “yeshivish” world (I spoke fluent Yiddish!) that whenever people in my surroundings spoke disparagingly about converts, I never took it as personal offense. Instead I strongly objected to it on the grounds that it was a violation of Jewish ethics. Later in my life, I became more sensitive to this issue for reasons I will have to explain later, but I never had a problem with my non-Jewish (or half Jewish) background and in fact, it was and is a source of pride. I never attempted to deny it, and constantly speak openly and with pride about it, even in public gatherings (as my family can testify!).
Reflecting on Rosenzweig’s aforementioned observation: “In being Jewish we must not give up anything, nor renounce anything but lead everything back to Judaism,” I was especially struck by his next words: “he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien.” Rosenzweig shocked me with his message. It meant that not only is there no reason for me to deny my past, but that I had to lead it back to Judaism, however alien it may have been.
This brings me to my non-Jewish maternal grandparents. I never had and still do not have any feelings for them. I never met them, since they both died before I was born, and consequently, I have no recollection of them.
But there is more to the story. Rosenzweig’s demand “to bring the maximum of what is alien back” to Judaism” confronted me with a huge difficult. How was I going to take my non-Jewish “alien” background back and make it part of my Judaism and search for its authenticity?
To be continued.