The Many Faces of Faith
Finding Faith Without Fanaticism
Faith can become something that's narrow, limiting, an either/or that is rigid and unyielding. That is what happened to me in Hebron. I don't think that this faith is true faith. It fact it may be precisely faith's opposite, an extremity of doubt that boomerangs into strident belief.
The essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote, "We are, I know not how, double within ourselves, with the result that we do not believe what we believe and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn." An even clearer expression of the quixotic and paradoxical quality of faith is this brilliant insight by Reinhold Niebuhr: "Fanatic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt; it is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure."
I have been completely taken over by the intoxication of being "doubly sure." But I have come to know that the true meaning of faith is not to be found in these sureties or in a single absolute, but in competing absolutes. Faith is about a loving acceptance of the profound complexity of existence and creation. It is about abiding in mystery, in being unsure, while still being ready to act boldly.
This is how Abraham felt when he looked inside himself and left his home and country to venture forth to find what God said would be "the promised land." Abraham's journey was one of wandering, of not knowing, of discovering. He had nothing except faith--indelible, extraordinary faith.
The women in my family showed me this kind of faith. It is precisely the kind of faith that my great-grandmother had, although she was a devout atheist and the way she lived her life would be a deep disappointment--worse, an unforgivable transgression--to the orthodox Judaism which I practice. So be it. For me, it was my great-grandmother who taught me that faith has many faces.
The middle-class home in which I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago was deeply Jewish, though not conventionally religious. We didn't keep kosher. My father was agnostic, yet he asked my mother not to serve the nonkosher foods of pork and shellfish in the house, and not to mix meat and dairy at the same meal, prohibitions that are part of the laws of kashruth. Synagogue was someplace you went under duress and preferably not more than three or four times a year. Religion per se was not important. But we were deeply identified Jews joyfully engaged in the cultural life of the Jewish community, passionate about Israel, and my parents were also philanthropic. Part of their cultural DNA told them that part of being Jewish meant taking care of other human beings.
Through a strange quirk of faith, my younger brother and I were sent to a Jewish day school. My mother was spooked. My siblings, who are ten and twelve years older than I am, were in high school and the world seemed to be falling apart for people like my parents. Harvard and Princeton--the bastions of achievement and excellence on which they had staked not their lives but the lives of their children--were in the throes of the counterculture of the 1960s: drugs, rebellion, and antiwar demonstrations. Nice Jewish kids were turning on and dropping out. Children who have since become doctors, lawyers, scientists, and scholars were growing their hair long, parading around in torn jeans, smoking grass and worse, and occupying the administrative offices of the very institutions on which their futures hinged. In short, my parents thought, these kids were doing everything in their power to destroy their own lives (not to mention what my parents knew of civilization). That's why my younger brother and I were sent to a Jewish day school for the values, for stability, for tradition!
But my parents were startled when, in the seventh grade, I embraced their decision and became religiously observant. They were even more startled when I chose to go to the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, an orthodox high school in Chicago.
Why did I become an orthodox Jew? It's hard to say. I fell in love, and I can no more tell you exactly why than I can tell you why I fell in love with my wife. In both observant Judaism and my wife, I saw beauty and wisdom. I saw purpose, direction, focus, and meaning. I was euphoric, and I felt swallowed up.
I read omnivorously, trembling with excitement, on the edge of myself. I devoured every book about Judaism that I could find. I read Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great philosopher-poets of Jewish life in the twentieth century, and Samson Raphael Hirsch, a nineteenth-century German Jew and leading rabbi who tried to integrate total commitment to Jewish tradition with his desire to live fully as a German. I read the Jewish Catalogue, a 1970s guide to making your own Judaism, and To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance, an orthodox treatise by Rabbi Hayim Havely Donin. I wanted to learn everything that I could about being Jewish. Becoming an observant Jew was an expression of my passion and excitement.
I knew that my family considered itself part of the Conservative movement in Judaism (although they didn't live in a way that would pass muster with a Conservative rabbi). By becoming orthodox I was making a big leap. Orthodox Jews believe that the Bible is a direct gift from God, while Conservatives think it was inspired by God but produced by human beings. Orthodox Jews tend to be much stricter and more rigorous in Jewish ritual practice than Conservatives. This kind of devotion--this all-encompassing version of faith--was foreign to the Hirschfield home.
My parents were a bit perplexed by my desire to become ritually observant. But my great-grandmother, Sarah Plotkin, the matriarch of our family, was appalled. Sarah Plotkin lived to . . . ninety-eight? One hundred? We don't know. She was older than her husband, something we only discovered when she died, and lied about her age her whole life.
The Matriarch lived in Palm Springs. She liked it there: good climate, plenty of sun, dry. You didn't have to worry about mildew or shoveling snow. Two of her six kids lived with her. They were unmarried; they had been raised to wait on the queen.
My grandparents also lived in Palm Springs. When we visited them, after going out to dinner, we would go to bubbe's. Even in her nineties, bubbe didn't miss a trick. We all thought she was going blind and deaf, but my father used to say that if you dropped a twenty-dollar bill across the room, she could read the serial number going down and hear it hit the floor.
She sat in her special chair, a big Barcalounger with a handle on the side that operated a footrest. A diminutive woman with an iron will, she piled her white hair on top of her head to make herself look taller, and dressed in chartreuse, mauve, and apricot silk robes. She loved jewelry (rings and big gold bracelets) and male singers. She thought Tom Jones was sexy and wasn't afraid to say so into her nineties as Jones pranced around, live from Las Vegas, on her television.
One evening visit to bubbe was particularly memorable and important to me.
When I was twelve, I made the decision to wear a yarmulke (kippah) full time. The tradition of wearing a kippah in Judaism has mysterious origins. The first time that head covering is connected to piety is in a story in the Talmud (compiled from the second to the sixth centuries CE). A mother brings her errant son to a rabbi, who tells her to wrap the boy's head in a sudra, the Aramaic word for the head wrapping that rabbis wore. Then all will be well, he assures her.
What does the story mean? The rabbi may have been suggesting that if you dress like a priest or rabbi you will begin to feel like one. There is a connection between what you wear and what you feel, between how you look and who you are.
By the Middle Ages, when wearing a yarmulke was normative for male Jews, it had become a reminder of the immanence of God, keeping you aware of the sacred potential of each moment. But that's not all that it was about for me at twelve. I was declaring who I was to the world. It was an expression of the seriousness of my commitment. I was integrating the physical and spiritual, becoming on the outside who I felt like on the inside. I did it because it felt right. Now wearing a kippah has become like putting on my pants in morning. Not putting it on would be like going out into the world in my underwear.
No one else in my family wore a kippah except when they went to temple (which, again, was almost never), and I knew it would not go unnoticed by Sarah Plotkin with her hawklike eyes. I bent down to kiss her and she grabbed my hair. "I did not come to America for this foolishness!" she thundered, and tore the kippah off my head and threw it on the floor.
I had just made the commitment to become observant. I was excited about my choice, inspired, and perhaps a little bit tentative. But to my bubbe the yarmulke was ridiculous: the thundering voice of the Matriarch was calling me an idiot!
I was a deer in the headlights. My whole family, who already thought the kippah was weird, witnessed the scene. I was stunned and hurt, but mostly I was paralyzed. Speechless.
I'll never forget my mother, who stood up straight and said to her own grandmother, with a clear sense of the truth and rightness of her words, "No, bubbe. You are wrong. You came to America so that he could wear the kippah if that's what he wants to do."
That was a great moment for me, a monumental moment. I have studied with great rabbis, brilliant teachers, but at this moment my mother taught me more about the meaning of faith than any of them. She taught me the faith that can be built between a parent and child, in every parent who respects the choices of her children even if she does not agree with them. She was helping me be more like me, not a reflection of who she was. She was showing me a willingness to trust and to believe in the goodness and rightness of the person in front of her. That's a very powerful kind of faith.
My bubbe was also teaching me a different lesson. I couldn't see it at the time, of course, but I now know that the very thing she ridiculed was what her own life had been about--her own form of faith.
My great-grandparents had set off from Minsk to the United States in the 1890s. They did not do this because they were poor. My great-grandmother, an educated woman, came from a family with servants. My great-grandfather, Sam, was a cabinetmaker with a good living. He knew two things: that he wanted Sarah as his wife, and he wanted to go to America. He was successful here and eventually moved his family to Birmingham, Michigan--at the time, a restricted community. He had to buy his way into the area, paying off neighbors to make it acceptable for them to live next to a Jew. He was honored in the book Men Who Made Michigan, a dusty copy of which is still in my parents' home.
My great-grandparents betrayed all the rules of what it meant to be Jewish, and in doing so fulfilled a central commandment in the Bible: choose life!
In the Bible, Deuteronomy 30:19 says, "You should choose life in order that you should live." Jews who can't remember much about their Sunday-school education remember this: that it is permitted that you may break almost every law to save a life.
The rabbis in Minsk said to Sarah Plotkin, "Don't go to America, you will stop keeping kosher." And they were right! She did stop keeping kosher. She stopped observing Shabbat. She abandoned Jewish ritual life. But if my great-grandparents had been worried about ritual, they probably would have stayed in Minsk, and I, in all likelihood, would not be here today, having vanished in either the Holocaust or behind the Iron Curtain. Boarding that boat and setting off for a new world, as so many of our ancestors from so many countries did then (and so many people are still doing today), was living faith, choosing and committing to a better life. Which is what our traditions should do for each of us: help us imagine a better world and nurture our ability to get there.
What had possessed my great-grandparents as teenagers in Minsk, eight thousand miles from the California oasis of Palm Springs, to think that they could build a better life for themselves and their children and their children's children in a place where they couldn't even speak the language? What set them off on their long journey? It was the same voice deep inside them, intimately close and infinitely far, that said, as it once had to Abraham, "Go to the land that I will show you."
What act of faith could I engage in to match that? Faith is in its expressions, in the way we live. To live your faith is what my bubbe had done, and what I was trying to do with my kippah in my own way, and what my mother was doing when she let me make my own choices, believing in me and refusing to let my choices become a journey away from the love we shared.
The story of my deciding to become observant and wear a kippah is not a story about coming back to "real Judaism." It is the story about my great-grandparents' faith--in themselves, in the future, in the journey. Like Abraham, my great-grandparents walked away from everything they knew.
One of the many facets of true faith is the ability to wrestle with the big issues: What does my life mean? What does the future hold? It is about committing yourself passionately to the choices you make, although all too often that passion and commitment involves denigrating the choices of others. I understand that impulse. I think all of us can understand it. When you give yourself so fully to something, when you stake who you are on it, you had better be right! You feel you have found yourself and the way to live while all around you is the confusion and chaos of the world. And yet that's what life is like! It's messy and imperfect.
There are as many different kinds of faith as there are people. I learned this lesson early in my childhood.
From the Hardcover edition.