By Seth Maxwell
During my first year of practice with a major Chicago law firm, I applied to the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and was accepted. The fact that I had never read a single word of Talmud and did not daven regularly did not strike me at the time as any barrier to being a Conservative rabbi, nor, apparently, did it strike JTS as such.
In my application, I explained the fact that I did not then participate in any prayer on a regular basis: “Not having been raised in a particularly observant household, I really have very little idea of the prayers that comprise an observant Jew’s day. In part, too, my lack of observance is a function of the fact that I am not presently part of a community ordered around such observance.”
Though I never made it to JTS, that application was not without consequences. When I first met my wife and introduced myself as a lawyer on the verge of abandoning a lucrative law career for the rabbinate, she was suitably impressed with my idealism. (She later confessed that she would never have considered marrying a corporate lawyer.)
Of more direct relevance to my story (though not my life), my wife and I came to Jerusalem on our honeymoon the summer before I was to enter JTS for a Seminary-sponsored preparatory program. A week of the program was enough for me, and we soon began looking around for some alternative institutional setting. We eventually stumbled into Ohr Somayach and spent the rest of the summer there.
After a few weeks at Ohr Somayach, we were invited for Shabbos by one of my wife’s teachers. On the way home from Shabbos davening at Ohr Somayach, my host had arranged for me to meet Rabbi Nachman Bulman. Rabbi Bulman started asking me about my career. I was evasive, but eventually he dragged out of me that I was to start rabbinical school at JTS that fall.
Rabbi Bulman took this information in stride and began discussing Conservative theology with me. That was the moment I dreaded, since I myself had never been able to make sense of that theology, in particular its account of what happened at Sinai. One approach: Something happened at Sinai, but God didn’t exactly speak, or at least speak in words that we could understand. The Torah is just the human experience of that moment of Divine inspiration. If that doesn’t work, try this: God did speak, but sometimes He changes His mind as human beings progress and become more enlightened. Ignore the Torah’s assertion of its own immutability.
At my initial JTS interview, I had expressed the desire to be Orthodox but for my lack of background. The interviewer cringed noticeably and said that he would scream if another interviewee told him that he viewed Orthodoxy as more authentic Judaism.
In any event, I found myself unable to answer any of Rabbi Bulman’s questions. Having been a champion debater through high school and college and winner of the law school moot court competition, I concluded that if, for once in my life I could find nothing to say, it was likely the result of having a poor case to defend.
Rabbi Bulman also did something very clever: He told me to read sociologist Marshall Sklare’s Conservative Judaism, especially the last chapter, “The Question of Ideology.” Since the book is largely a paean to the phenomenal growth of the movement in the ’50s and ’60s, Rabbi Bulman was taking a chance. But his intuition was good.
In the last chapter, Sklare demolishes Conservatism’s claim to being a halachic movement. Sklare writes of the laity’s lack of interest in halachic decisions: “[R]abbis now recognize that they are not making decisions or writing responsa, but merely taking a poll of their membership.” Far from promoting religious growth, he concludes, the Conservative movement fostered its decline:
Conservatism has been an abysmal failure: there has been a steady erosion of observance among Conservative Jews….Conservatism’s defeat on the ritual front can be demonstrated in almost every area of Jewish observance.
At the end of the summer, my wife announced that if our Judaism was going to be the center of our lives we should spend at least another year around those for whom it really is the center of their lives. We did. Twenty years later, we are still in Eretz Yisrael.
Let me backtrack now to that original decision to apply to rabbinical school. That decision struck all those who knew me like a thunderbolt. Until then, it had been widely assumed that my career ambition was to be the first Jewish president. I never saw myself as a spiritual seeker nor, I suspect, did anyone who knew me.
My ignorance of Judaism was matched only by my assurance that I was well versed in its contents.
True, in law school I had written a thirty-page intellectual autobiography in the form of ruminations on Ivan’s statement in The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” I agreed with Ivan, but was unable to accept that everything is permitted. Therefore God must exist. “Perhaps I should become a rabbi and not a lawyer,” I concluded. But if such thoughts occasionally crossed my mind, they were never shared with my friends and had no visible consequences on my life.
I grew up in a highly identified, but not very observant home. We did not have pork in the house, but that was our only concession to the laws of kashrus. Friday night dinner was the center of the familial week. Requests for exemptions were frowned upon. My mother always lit candles, and my father made Kiddush. But once dinner was over, we were free to do whatever we wanted.
Religious observance tended toward symbolic assertions of Jewish pride. Thus from the age of eight or nine, I fasted on Yom Kippur, but Yom Kippur afternoon was usually spent watching the World Series on TV. I heard something once about wearing tennis shoes on Yom Kippur, and decided to do so one year. As we exited the car, one of my younger brothers started laughing hysterically.
“The rule is not that you wear tennis shoes, you fool,” he kindly informed me. “It’s that you don’t wear leather, and your shoes are pure leather.” Chagrined, I drove home and put on my regular dress shoes before returning to synagogue.
Before the Supreme Court banned school prayer, we used to recite the 23rd Psalm at school assemblies. I frequently refused to rise with the rest of class on the grounds that I was Jewish. Only 30 years later, did it finally dawn on me that the words, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” which I refused to recite out of Jewish pride, are the words of Mizmor L’David that I sing at Shalosh Seudos every week. How was I supposed to know that Psalms were written by a Jew?
When I was five, my grandfather died, and I can remember my father taking me and my younger brother onto his knees and explaining that God had taken Grandpa to live with Him. It was the last time I can recall God being mentioned in our house.
As a young child, I once told my mother that it struck me as cruel to take a calf away from its mother to be killed. My mother told me that Judaism also believed that. Her response was somehow reassuring, but it was also the last theological discussion I recall.
I started Hebrew school in second grade, and when I finished my seven years of six-hour-a-week instruction, I could read haltingly, but had no idea that Hebrew was based on three-letter roots or that verbs also could be conjugated in the past and future tenses.
My ignorance of Judaism was matched only by my assurance that I was well versed in its contents. Chief among the verities that I carried around with me and which were the source of so much of my Jewish pride was a set of distinctions between Judaism and Christianity: Judaism is a “this worldly” religion while Christianity stresses an afterlife; Judaism emphasizes action and Christianity faith.
I confidently asserted in a high school “Great Books” class that Jews are free to believe whatever they want, as long as they act correctly. Correct action, of course, meant collecting money for Biafra and tutoring inner city kids. It had nothing to do with halachic observance.
While the Conservative movement claims to be a halachic movement, I cannot remember any discussion of dinim [Jewish laws] in Hebrew school. Howard Singer, a former Conservative rabbi turned advertising executive, has described an implicit pact between Conservative rabbis and their congregations not to discuss Jewish law. That pact was certainly observed in our synagogue. I do, however, remember sermons on the nuclear freeze and other hot topics, as well as many on the theme, “Judaism thought of it first.”
I knew vaguely that there were some “frum” [observant] families in the synagogue who kept kosher (at least at home) and even a few exemplars from Camp Ramah who walked to synagogue, but this never occasioned the slightest guilt in my mind.
Why should it have? As amazing as it may seem, my family was more observant than those of any of my friends in our upper middle-class, largely Jewish, suburb. My friends jokingly nicknamed me “the rabbi” for my piety – which consisted chiefly of missing school for two days of Rosh Hashanah.
The idea of halachah as a binding system was utterly foreign to me. In my mind, I was a better Jew than my friends because I did more Jewish things, but these were all in the form of extra credit points. In retrospect, I cannot imagine how I related to all the Torah’s many injunctions and prohibitions that we read about in synagogue. Though I would often glance in my Hertz Pentateuch during the Torah reading, somehow I never made the connection that these words were addressed to me.
Nor did it occur to me that there were Jews who still lived their lives according to these commandments. Until I was in my mid-twenties, I never met an Orthodox Jew my own age or even knew that they existed outside of Meah Shearim (which I had visited once or twice as a picturesque curiosity.)
I can only marvel at the cognitive dissonance I must have experienced on Yom Kippur reciting the largely traditional liturgy and asking forgiveness for sins that I was not even aware of and would not have acknowledged as sins if I had known.
Yet my parents clearly did something right. Of their five sons, four are today Orthodox Jews living in Israel. They raised us with the attitude that being Jewish was the most important thing about us. The only time a TV was allowed near the family dinner table was during the UN debates leading up to the 1967 War, and I will never forget the tears on my mother’s face when she awakened us that June morning to tell us that Israel was at war.
My brothers and I took our parents seriously about the importance of our Judaism, and each of us came to Israel after finishing college or graduate school to explore that Judaism more deeply. I frequently tell my parents that they can hardly complain if we took them seriously, and, baruch Hashem, they don’t.
Every baal teshuvah is an individual miracle given the prevailing skepticism with which virtually all Jews are raised today. And indeed each of my brothers and I followed a different path, with different mentors, and only indirectly affected one another.
Yet my brothers and I shared something in common. There are some Jews for whom a sense of linkage to the historical continuity of the Jewish people is essential. When they realize that Jewish history is the history of a people faithful to God and His Torah, they see no alternative to becoming Torah observant. I think my brothers and I all fit that category: our actions, to some extent, preceded our faith; we did and then we understood.
Looking back at my JTS essay, I find a hint of that attitude:
For our ancestors the crucial fact about the mitzvot was that each and every one of them was God-given. To pick and choose among mitzvot on the basis of what one feels he needs to maintain his Jewish identity is to cut oneself off from the faith of our forefathers. If the mitzvot are truly God-given, then it is certainly not for us to choose which ones we will observe….
While I have not attained the simple faith of my ancestors, I do not reject it in favor of any more “modern” understanding.
My parents made us proud of being Jewish. I cannot defend the theological coherence of a Shabbos table adorned with non-kosher food or of a Shabbos meal followed by high school basketball games and parties. But the insistence on a Shabbos meal–on candles and Kiddush–clearly left their impact. Even in such attenuated form, we were fortunate to have been raised with the idea that there are some things you do because you are Jewish and that it is a privilege to do so.
Seth Maxwell is a writer living in Israel.