Thursday, April 02, 2015
I did not grow up in a religious family, but now, upon waking each morning, I whisper a little prayer called the Modeh Ani, in which I thank G-d for returning my soul to me after sleep. When I eat breakfast, I say a blessing over the food, a different one depending on what I'm having that morning, whether it's made from grain or milk, and I make sure to wash out a bowl used for yogurt with the appropriate dairy sponge. Throughout my day, I declare at least three times that G-d is G-d, that He is One being, and that I love Him. On Friday evenings, I light the ceremonial Sabbath candles and try, despite my anxieties, to rest, to think, and to ignore what I'm sure are the thousands of urgent text messages I am receiving at that very moment.
For much of his life, Shulem Deen, the author of the new memoir "All Who Go Do Not Return," did these same things. As a man and a Hasid, he in fact observed far more religious laws than I am ever likely to. He donned phylacteries during morning prayers and dedicated years of his life to studying tractates of the Talmud. He refrained from tearing off a square of toilet paper on Shabbat, since tearing qualifies as work, and he let his sidelocks grow long in accordance with the Levitical mandate not to round the corners of your head. As a member of the strict Skverer sect of Hasidism, and a resident of the sect's home base in New Square, New York, he walked on the men's side of the street, which is marked with a blue sign.
Then, as he describes in his book, it all stopped working. It wasn't a single moment of epiphany: Deen chipped away at his faith like he snipped at his sidecurls, "a few millimeters each time." He allowed outside influences—television, the Internet, books by atheists and Conservative Jews, newspapers, talk radio—into his life, and then the secular world, which he had once thought brimming with sin, began to seem like an idyll he couldn't resist. The process of unburdening himself of his religious beliefs, which he eventually renounced entirely, and extracting himself from the insular community where he lived, was devastating. He lost any semblance of a relationship with his five children. He lost the ability to forget himself in the joyous group worship integral to Hasidic faith, because he saw the desires and delusions that can lie beneath any euphoric experience. At the end of his memoir, he offers a statement of his new credo, his replacement Shema, if you will: "I now lived deeply and fundamentally suspicious of any hint of dogma or ideology, of subjective values presented as Great Truths."
Deen is my opposite in many ways, and yet I found in his memoir a story not entirely unlike my own—a conversion narrative of sorts, with secular humanism as the destination rather than Judaism. Though my course is the reverse, I too had to leave aspects of my former life, to escape the nihilism in which I felt I might drown. An atheist from childhood through my early twenties, I noticed that my motivation to find joy in life—to live at all, really—was waning year by year. Perhaps I could have found an antidote other than Judaism, but no other faith accounted so thoroughly for the questions I had, or balanced so well the priorities of an earthly as well as a spiritual life. Though the decision to convert came slowly and deliberately, it also felt, at times, like the simple and irrational process of falling in love.
The stories of such spiritual transformations have always been beguiling to me—from Leo Tolstoy, who was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church for fashioning his own brand of ascetic Christianity, to Mary Karr, a convert to Catholicism. "I feel Him holding me when I'm scared," Karr writes movingly in "Lit," "the invisible hands I mocked years before." These are the people the philosopher William James dubbed the "twice-born." In "Varieties of Religious Experience," he writes that,"in the religion of the twice-born, the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and minuses to the equation." Such people know what it means to change, to insist on beliefs that many around them find unfathomable or even ridiculous. When Deen is expelled from New Square for heresy—a severe sentence even in a place where harsh decrees are not unusual—the most galling of all his crimes is that he has ceased to believe in God. "How does one not believe in God?" a member of the rabbinical court asks him. Deen writes, "He said this as if he were genuinely curious."
In his book, Deen confronts some of the most upsetting events of his life without flinching. He retraces his intellectual path, reading atheists like Richard Dawkins and Modern Orthodox luminaries like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik—both equally taboo in New Square—and contemplating the Kuzari principle, the Big Bang, and evolution. "I looked inside my heart and discovered there was no truth, anywhere," Deen writes, "only the scalding furnace in which my beliefs were now smoldering embers." As a critic, I can say that "All Who Go Do Not Return" is not only the most lyrical but also the most searchingly spiritual of the "ex-frum" memoirs that I've read to date. As a potential Jew—conversion dates aren't set ahead of time, but mine will probably arrive in May—I find my feelings are more complicated. On some level, I feel obliged to disapprove of Deen's decision to become irreligious. In the Talmud it says, "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh," which means that all of Israel is bound up together. Some believe that if one Jew stops keeping the commandments, the coming of the Messiah could be delayed. This concept is at the heart of a tension in Judaism between the rugged individualism of the Biblical patriarchs, who went against the idol-worshipping people of their age, and the groupthink that can creep into any religious community.
But that Talmudic tenet also means that Jews are responsible for one another's quality of life. Typically, this mandate is taken to refer to the bottom tiers of Maslow's hierarchy: food, shelter, physical and financial security. But one might read in it a commandment concerning higher needs as well: a sense of self-worth, a feeling of belonging, the ability to pursue one's true vocation. Deen would never have had those things had he remained Hasidic. He felt emotionally distanced from the Skverers for many years before he left, and he would not have been able to write honestly and critically surrounded by the conformist pressures of New Square (or, in his view, had he remained religious at all). In Deen's former world, questions, particularly those put down in writing, are considered dangerous weapons. Once, when riding the bus home to New Square from New York City, a neighbor noticed him reading a book called "One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them." "I explained that I was curious to hear different views," Deen writes; his neighbor, screaming, attempted to rip the book from his hands.
Again, I think of William James, who in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" asks, "Ought it, indeed, to be assumed that the lives of all men should show identical religious elements?" His answer, and mine, is an emphatic no. "The divine can mean no single quality," he continues. "It must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions." Deen's mission and mine are different, clearly. But I hope that they are both worthy.
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