The following is a letter written by Linda, a New Haven mother, to her son after he visited with his parents to celebrate his 30th birthday. As Linda’s husband, Phillip, put it, the letter “candidly reflects the challenges that many families of observant Jews face in a secularly-minded culture.” Owing to the nature of her son’s top-security assignment, it is not possible to publish the family’s surname or otherwise identify family members, other than to say that Linda is a professional woman living and working in New Haven.
After Daddy recounted your conversations with him in the car this past Sunday – I always like to hear a “play-by-play” report so I can feel involved and vicariously participate – I wonder if you may have a partially inaccurate sense of what Judaism and religious practice is for me. (This is my Apologia Pro Vita Judaica Mia, not an attempt to change your mind; it is only an attempt to minimize any reductive misunderstandings you may have of why I live my life as I do.)
Other than with regard to the laws of daily practice, I am not a literalist in my orientation to Jewish religion. Let us take, for example, Daddy’s discussion of prophecy as exampled in the story of Joseph. I view the story from its psychological, sociological, and historic origin: who Joseph was as an intelligent personality, surrounded by other personalities (such as his family, Potiphar, the other prisoners, the pharaoh, etc.) in an historical time and place that shaped and determined the action toward its outcome. In the Chumash [Torah] narrative, however, these personalities act in relation to their sense of or inspiration by the presence of Divinity in the world. They were prior to and not heirs of what Louis Dupré calls the “ontotheological split” of the modern period. Consequently in that story, the actors understood that the forces that drove their actions were explicitly both “human, all too human” and transcendent. (This may be the same as the suggestion you made to Daddy that there is a similarity between the Joseph story and Oedipus Tyrannus, for example.)
In our day, then, must we only see the Chumash and Tanach as mere stories, relics from the God-filled world of the ancients? No. There are additional modes of understanding religion, ones that are separated from the superstitious and the “super-natural.” Prophecy, for example, does not require recourse to the nonsense of the irrational or spiritualist manifestations of speaking tongues, out-of-the body experiences, disembodied spirits, or other emotionally driven behaviors. Nor does faith require acquiescence to the irrational, the unlikely, the anti-scientific.
In our day, rather, it is through reason itself that we can find significance in transcendence and religion. Daddy’s current work on devotional intelligence as connected to transcendence is one route that engages the mind in questions of the “supra-natural” (distinct from a big version of the natural as implied in the term “supernatural”). His work is not a rationalization of religion; although it is not for everybody, it is for those who hold reason/intelligence as the defining characteristics of man’s nature.
And then there are those who see the world around us as a filled with the glory of its existence. It is at the core of Spinoza’s philosophy. And as reason, mind, intelligence are not only expressed in philosophic terms, the poets – the English Romantics, for example – understand (key word) the confluence of existence and gratitude in their engagement with life.
Furthermore, in the truths of mathematics and the discoveries of physics (as I can understand them) are that appreciation which can guide a thinking person toward reverence for the internal symmetries, forms, functions, verities that underlie mathematics and cosmology.
So, how do I look at a Jewish life in this context? I try to lead my practice in reason. For example, in prayers for the sick, I do not engage in miracle-begging because it borders on magical thinking. I do, however, feel that if the sense of prayer gives someone who is sick extra strength and comfort, then consoling that person is a mitzvah. At work, when the families of our patients ask for miracle cures, I respond (in caring, careful terms) that what may be deemed miraculous is that we have minds that can work toward curing and hearts that can work toward caring. So any prayers of mine for these persons become an appreciation for our medical knowledge and intelligence, and prayers for their wise use.
In terms of daily practice, the orientation of all our behavior toward uniquely human rational actions underlies my adherence to the laws of kosher, avoidance of ‘lashon hara’ (evil-intentioned speech), the laws of modesty, etc. Of course, in Judaism we celebrate with and welcome physical enjoyment – we are not ascetics – but the physical is understood as requiring the rational. The internal discipline of the appetitive to some higher goal, in some ways akin to the discipline of the military, raises our behavior above the mere animal. We thereby elevate our physical lives by aligning our physical acts with balance and reason, and we connect our daily existence to morality, caring, kindness, mercy, justice, charity.
Why then, do I shape my life in the language of religion, rather than just be guided by purified concepts of, for example, self-discipline and moral kindness? The religious connection comes from the appreciation of mere existence itself and the thankfulness that such appreciation inspires. This thankfulness comes, in part, from my familial, historical, and professional experiences in this, my life. I have seen pain and joy, suffering and laughter, the ugly and the beautiful, and in steering my life by the religious, the positive leads and the negative is diminished. Thankfulness for each day when I awake, orients me toward a positive relation with my existence. Raising goodness and kindness, discounting the bad and the ugly, helps me to always treat others with mercy and sympathy. And, because of the philosophic, the scientific, and the poetic understandings of our existence, this thankfulness orients itself toward a God-created world. Thankfulness is relational, and it is in this relation that “God” becomes the personal God of prayer and creates the harmony in the sanctification of daily life.
Additionally, my upbringing in a home shaped by losses from the Holocaust cultivated a duty toward the preserving of my identity as a Jew. And my father, although inconsistent in practice, was filled with his identity as a Jew in a secular age. He embraced the secular culture, but only up to a point, always insisting on cultivating the survival of Jewish culture and tradition in our family. Moreover, continued wonder at the manifold contributions of this tiny minority of Jews to the intellectual, artistic, scientific, humanitarian condition of man makes me a cheerleader for Judaism, because Judaism and Jewish culture (even in an attenuated form) is their wellspring. (I hear that you resent when I send you tidbits of Jewish achievements in many arenas. Although I do not understand why, as being proud of the work of the Jews does not diminish the greatness of the work of others, I will stop if you so wish it.)
So, here I define myself for you, on your 30th birthday. If my life is one of the melodies in your life, I hope this letter diminishes any dissonance.
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