The characters in my novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, are Israeli. Because of that, my writing will undoubtedly be considered to be Jewish fiction. Yet the truth is there are only a few instances in which Judaism as a religion is a topic in the novel. The most significant instance involves the book of Jonah.
Religious feelings, if we narrow religion to mean having something to do with God, are perhaps not a large part of my novel because they haven’t been a big part of my life. For me, being Jewish had nothing to do with God or even the bible. All of my friends at school were Jewish. Nearly all the people in my town were Jewish. I have fasted on Yom Kippur since I was in second grade and observed Passover, but never once went to temple while I was growing up. In my house, we never once discussed the existence of God, or the meaning of the bible.
At my secular school, as in all Israeli schools, Bible was a required subject. Yet our teachers never stressed theological issues, and the bible was taught just as literature was taught—the focus was on the bible as stories. The emphasis was placed on understanding what a parable meant, or on learning to understand biblical grammar and vocabulary.
Although my first book is just being published, I’ve learned from the few interviews I have already had that people love asking writers whether or not their fictional stories are based on real life experiences. I don’t know why that is. Almost none of my book is based on my own experiences. The few details that I did draw from my own life are small moments that are in service of a larger narrative that comes directly from my imagination.
The part in the book that most closely resembles a personal experience is the section in which one of my characters describes studying the book of Jonah when she was in middle school. My character, Yael, is frustrated by having to learn about the book of Jonah three times in the same year. She finds that even though she is lectured about the book repeatedly, it still doesn’t quite make sense to her.
The first Jewish debate never ceases to amaze me. I am of course referring to the great debate between Abraham and God as recorded in Chapter 18 of Genesis. While Abraham’s epic story is remarkable, there is nothing in the prior (or subsequent) biblical narrative to indicate that the patriarch will challenge so boldly the God who commands his life so thoroughly. This is the quintessential man of faith, after all, who unquestioningly sets forth to a new land and submits even to the command to sacrifice his beloved son with nary a word of objection.
So when quite suddenly “Abraham came forward” (18:23) and dares God to morally justify the collective punishment of Sodom-well that is astonishing! “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” he pointedly asks in the same verse. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” he passionately exclaims two verses later. Abraham holds his ground as the debate goes back and forth concerning the minimum number of innocent people it would take to save the city.
The abrupt and apparently truncated conclusion to the debate (see 18:33) shifts the enigma of Abraham to the enigma of God. Does the Judge of all the earth in fact act justly? Do some innocent perish with the wicked? Were the wicked beyond repentance and mercy? Were the ordinary citizens of Sodom equally evil?
Who, then, won this debate? Certainly Abraham leaves quite a legacy. Abraham could easily have looked the other way. He could have idly stood by. Instead he decides to stand up to God no less, his guide and protector. In the words of Naomi Rosenblatt, this story is about “the power of one man of integrity to be the conscience of the world.” In the words of Elie Wiesel “the Jew opts for Abraham-who questions- and for God-who is questioned…knowing that he may oppose God as long as he does so in defense of His creation.”
The Sages coined an expression for challenging God in the spirit of Abraham, “hutzpah k’lape shmaya- boldness (even nerviness) toward heaven.” This legacy of “holy hutzpah” finds expression throughout Jewish literature, but especially in Eastern European Hasidic tales like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Din Torah mit Got-Lawsuit with God,” and in another tale where he tells a simple tailor who challenged the Almighty in prayer, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to save all of Israel!”
There’s a great Seinfeld episode–and one I relate to–in which George Constanza worries that he must have cancer because his life is going well for the first time ever. “I knew God would never let me be happy,” George tells his therapist.
Like many secular Jews, I don’t believe in God, but I do fear His wrath. Whenever something good happens to me I can’t enjoy it because I’m waiting for retribution. Some of the best moments in my life have been ruined this way; achievements–both professional and personal – have been mired either by illness, or fear of illness. I’ve had the flu at every one of my birthday parties since the age of five. Whenever I’m taken to a nice restaurant, my overactive stomach won’t let me enjoy the meal. The year I was supposed to be the opening day starting pitcher for my little league team I injured my finger during pre-season and never pitched again. Like George, I don’t think God will ever let me be happy.
All my life, I have wanted to publish a novel. That dream will become a reality on Tuesday, so of course I’ve been sick in bed for the past two weeks with an unbeatable cold and a really uncomfortable throat infection. All I want is to enjoy my book party, and now it doesn’t seem like that will be possible. None of this surprises me. I don’t believe in God, but I do think he’s pre-emptively punishing me for the hubristic attitude I would have if I was healthy.
I often think of God not letting Moses into the Promised Land. Sure, maybe Moses was being a bit cocky from time to time, but didn’t he deserve to celebrate? I mean, they were in the desert for forty years! The punishment didn’t fit the crime. And then there was Job, whom God punished just to make a philosophical point.
Is this why even the secular among us fear God so much–because the Old Testament God could be cruel and vindictive?
I’d like to think it has nothing to do with God, that it’s not God punishing us for our hubris and moral shortcomings, but ourselves. I’d like to think it’s because we hold ourselves to high moral standards, and feel we must humble ourselves. We’re not being punished, so much as remembering our own humanity, our own mortality.
Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In my mind, there were people of faith, True Believers, and then there were the Doubters, like myself. A vast and impassable ocean separated these two groups. Or so I thought.
I don’t think that way anymore. After traveling the world and diving into several of the world’s major religions (and a few minor ones), I’ve concluded that doubt represents not an absence of faith, but rather, is an integral part of it. I wouldn’t say I celebrate doubt, not anymore than I celebrate that pain in my left knee telling me I need to see the doctor. But I do accept it, value it, and recognize its role in the spiritual life.
True some religious people desire certainty— and only certainty. For them, doubt represents weakness, an absence of faith, or at least an incomplete faith. In short, doubt is the enemy. But that is only one way of being religious. There are others. Psychologists have identified the “quest personality.” That is one category that I – and many others I expect– fit into perfectly. A Quester is someone who seeks knowing full well she will never find definitive answers.
Doubt can paralyze, yes, but it can also motivate. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but action, forward momentum. As E.F. Schumacher, the renegade economist put it, “Matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” In other words, matters that are beyond doubt have nothing to teach us.
In my travels, I’ve met many deeply religious people who, nonetheless, live comfortably with doubt. My friend James, for instance, is a Buddhist who still has many doubts — about reincarnation, for instance—but this does not prevent him from practicing his faith, and benefitting from it.
Nearly all religions, in varying degrees, acknowledge the role of doubt, but perhaps none more so than the Jains, the ancient faith based in India. The Jains have a term, syadvada, which literally translates as a “multiplicity of viewpoints,” but is also referred to as “maybe-ism”.
Essentially, syadvada says that for every “truth” that we hold dear there are other, equally valid, truths. For the Jains, syadvada is a way of life, and it permeates every aspect of their faith, including their doctrine of nonviolence.
The Jains know instinctively that where certainty reigns, nothing else can survive. Where there is doubt, there is also possibility. And life.
A version of this article appeared on Washingtonpost.com.
I spent several years traveling the world, trying on different faiths, seeing which one fits. At the end of my journey, I found myself in Tzfat, in northern Israel, diving headfirst into my own faith. The ground I walked in Tzfat felt familiar and foreign at the same time.
One evening, I was invited by a family of Orthodox Jews for a Sabbath at their home. One of them, an impish young man named Asaf, listened intently to my tales of whirling with the dervishes, meditating with the Tibetans. Then he told me a story.
There was this Jew, Asaf said. We’ll call him Moshe. Moshe decided one day he wanted to become Catholic, so he walks to the local church and says, “Father, I’d like to be Catholic.”
“No problem,” says the priest. He sprinkles water over Moshe and says, three times, “You’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic.” He then sends Moshe on his way but with a warning. “We Catholics only eat fish on Fridays. Okay?”
Moshe assures him that is no problem. Except a few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Moshe develops a huge craving for fish. He can’t resist so he slips off to a local restaurant. There, the priest happens to see him tucking into a huge fillet of halibut.
“Moshe! What are you doing? I told you to only eat fish on Friday.”
Moshe, without missing a beat, says, “This isn’t a fish. It’s a carrot.”
“What are you talking about, Moshe? I can plainly see it’s a fish.”
“No, it isn’t. I sprinkled water on it and said, ‘You’re not a fish, you’re carrot, you’re not a fish you’re a carrot…’”
Everyone at the table smiles. Except me. What am I to make of the joke? Am I a fish and always will be? Or am I a carrot with fish tendencies? Or some sort of carrot-fish hybrid? The obvious moral of the story: Go forth and meditate with the Buddhists, do yoga with the Hindus, pray with the Muslims, but you’ll be back. You have a nefesh, a Jewish soul, and nothing you do will ever change that.
At first, I bristled at that notion. We are free—freer than ever before—to choose our own spiritual path, and many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) are doing just that. One out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. We are, increasingly, a nation of God hoppers.
Or are we? Do we ever fully change?
I don’t think so. We imbibe of the world’s wisdom traditions, from Buddhism to Shamanism, and benefit from them, but the “conversion” is never complete. We always retain, at the very least, our cultural identity—our fishiness—and that is okay. That is good. We need solid footing, or as Archimedes said many centuries ago: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.”
Reputedly, Rachmaninoff once said: “There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.” There’s so much to like about the quote! I think maestro must have seen art – in his case, music – as something of a daily practice; certain anti-climatic quality of his pronouncement is also a promise for consistency. He would probably agree that the intentional seeking or digging isn’t called inspiration – curiosity maybe – so, just start talking. Or humming, whatever.
Working on the last stages of my new book, Jazz Talmud, I was lucky to have the mentorship of Stanley Moss, my editor/publisher, and also a really excellent poet. I’ve never agreed with anyone offering me editorial advice as much as I did with Stanley. Except for this one thing.
As we chatted and told each other stories, he kept prodding me to write down some of the stories I told him as poems. He also pointed out certain significant aspects of my life I’ve never discussed in poetry – and thought it was a mistake to keep avoiding them. He pushed hard for these pieces. In principle, I agreed; for the ten or so pieces he commissioned, I went through numerous drafts, arrived at forms that were new to me, had a lot of fun. Ultimately, it was all garbage, and to the garbage it went.
But, while laboring on the commissioned pieces, between the cracks, I wrote notes – sketches – for other pieces, completely unrelated, more distractions than compositions. Those sketches actually worked and ended up as poems; on-demand stuff probably never will. We all have our little tricks. Mine, turned out, is sitting down to do one thing and getting distracted into something else. There’s more free-associative freedom that way, more potential for play and the unexpected. I don’t know if this congeals with Rachmaninoff’s ethos, but I’d like to think that maybe sitting down to write his orchestra arrangements, he veered into solo piano works. Or vice versa.
Here’s a piece that grew out of a distraction. It’s kind of like having a kid “by mistake”. Kind of… just with a bit less at stake, I guess.
All around you
as far as the eye can see
nothing but soup.
Horizon, a dangling zipper
of some deity’s pants.
You’re in a boat on loan
from the demon of Monday mornings.
Questions – birds – it’s the fall
there’re more of them they form v’s
traverse the sky towards a shining yellow bottom
of a pot where much better stuff
is being brewed.
Earlier this week, Tom Fields-Meyer wrote about reading and thinking about books and took a look at autism and God. He has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at an event to benefit my children’s summer camp. In the midst of a lovely discussion, the rabbi who runs the camp offered a question: “What’s your book’s Jewish message?”
I stammered and stumbled a bit before I came up with an answer. But afterwards, I kept thinking about the question. I tend to come up with much more articulate responses the next morning, on my jog, than on the spot. (That’s why I’m a writer and not, say, a White House spokesman.)
Following Ezra tells the story of raising our middle son for the decade from his autism diagnosis at age three through the day of his one-of-a-kind bar mitzvah. It’s loaded with Jewish content: there’s the awkward, hilarious conversation he had with a neighbor on the walk to synagogue one Shabbat; there’s the wonderful conversation when Ezra learned about the Eighth Commandment (the hard way); and of course there’s the last chapter, detailing the days surrounding my son’s bar mitzvah celebration.
But what’s the Jewish message?
In the book of Genesis, it says God created human beings in God’s image. That means we should treat every person with dignity, respect and honor—no matter their disability, no matter what they look like, no matter how many times they remind us when the next Pixar movie is premiering (a habit of Ezra’s that can be either endearing or annoying, depending on your perspective). That also means that encountering people who are different from us—from different backgrounds, different circumstances, or facing different challenges—gives us a insight into the many aspects of the divine.
My book begins with an epigraph, a single bracha, a traditional blessing. Jewish liturgy is full of blessings recited on various occasions. Most Jews are familiar with the blessings said over wine or before eating bread. One of my favorite pages in the Artscroll prayer book lists “Blessings of Praise and Gratitude,” the brachot that are reserved for life’s unusual encounters. There’s one for seeing lightning, and one for experiencing an earthquake. There’s a particular blessing to say when you see 600,000 people in once place. (How often do you get to use that one?)
In the midst of that list, the prayer book includes a blessing to say upon seeing a person who is different. The Talmud enumerates the various kinds of people included. It praises God, mishaneh habriyot—who “creates variety among living beings.”
Blessed is God for creating all kinds of people. What better words could introduce a story about raising a child with an unusual and fascinating mind?
And what better Jewish message could there be?
I was a guest on a radio talk show last week when the interviewer offered a question that caught me off guard. In the midst of a discussion about raising my son Ezra, who has autism, she asked: “With a person who is so comfortable with things that are very concrete and predictable, how do you explain a concept like God?”
As it happens, God comes up in conversation quite a bit in our household. My wife is a rabbi who teaches Jewish texts at a Jewish community high school. We attend synagogue every Shabbat, and our family life revolves around the Jewish calendar.
Ezra, who indeed craves the predictable, has always been attracted to the more concrete aspects of Judaism: the calendar, the holiday cycles, the weekly rituals. At an early age, he memorized the ten plagues, and began acting them out—dramatically, and in order—at our seder. He has always been attracted to Bible stories pitting good against evil: Moses vs. Pharaoh, David vs. Goliath, Mordecai vs. Haman.
Understanding God was different. During prayer services at his Jewish summer camp, the kids in the special needs program sing a song called “Thank You, God,” taking turns expressing what they’re grateful for. But beyond that simple understanding, I simply didn’t know what he grasped.
In the radio interview, I recounted the time when Ezra, then 12, had been in a particularly surly mood, fixated on talking repetitively about his craving for potato chips. Partly to shake him out of it, I spontaneously began speaking in the voice of God (or the kind of booming voice Charlton Heston heard in The Ten Commandments). To my surprise, Ezra—who generally avoids extended conversations—went along, and engaged in a lengthy and revealing dialogue with God. (Miraculously, he also stopped talking about junk food.)
More recently, Ezra, now 15, has approached the subject of divinity with more resistance. On a Saturday stroll not long ago, he asked my wife and me about why we observe Shabbat. When we reminded him of the idea that God created the world in six days, he interrupted.
“I don’t think God did that,” he said. “I think it was more natural.”
I’d never heard him say anything like that.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked. “Did somebody tell you that?”
“No,” he insisted. “I just think the world was was more from nature, not from God.”
As the interviewer noted, children like Ezra can struggle with abstract concepts, but my son seems to be doing fine. The Hebrew word “Yisrael” — Israel — literally translated means “struggles with God.”
Not only was Ezra sounding like a typical, questioning teenager, he was doing so in the best tradition of the Jewish people — struggling and wrestling with God. As in so many cases, whenever I think I need to teach my son, he turns the tables and teaches me.