Friday, May 1, 2015

Bagels Alone

A few weeks ago I took a trip to New Haven to visit my brother. I took the Metro North back home to New York, which had its usual effect on me: I was out like a light the moment the train started rolling. When the train pulled into the last station before Grand Central, I was jolted awake by a noise from the seat in front of me: a five-year-old boy had leapt into his startled father’s lap. Groggy, I sat up and picked my book off the floor. It was Alan Kors’ Atheism in France, 1659–1729. The woman in the seat next to me, probably in her seventies, immediately turned to me.

“Do you like that book?”

“Very much. It’s the best study we have of the roots of modern atheism,” I said, holding my breath for the next question.

“Are you an atheist?”

Because I am a sinner, I resorted to the defensive impersonality that I’ve perfected on countless American airplane flights. “Well, this is just for my work as a historian. So I try not to let my personal beliefs get involved. I want to know what other people thought and wrote in the past, that’s all.”


The conversation then moved into safer waters. I told her that I had just left the University of Chicago, that I had been to New Haven, that I had grown up in New York. She told me she was from Colorado, that she had come to New York because her daughter, the mother of the little boy in front of me, had suddenly died.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “That’s terrible, and incredibly unfair.”

“That’s why I asked you earlier if you were an atheist. I don’t know whether I can believe. Last week I asked my rabbi: if there’s a loving God, why did he let this happen? Do you want to know what he said?”

I nodded.

“He said, ‘shit happens.’”

“We don’t have any real reason to mourn,” one of my Catholic friends told me the other day. “If you take our theology seriously, there’s nothing we should feel at a funeral but happiness.” He meant that the Catholic religion gives us a way of making sense of earthly suffering. We suffer on this earth for our allotted span, but our life here soon gives way to an eternal, incorrupt life. And insofar as we can live righteously for now, we can have some communion with God’s unearthly realm. That’s not to say that God’s grace is invisible on earth—in Padua last month, for instance, I saw St. Anthony’s unrotted tongue—but it is to say that the painful slog of earthly life is just a screen in front of a higher just order. (Take a break at this point to read G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.)

My kingdom is not of this world, said Jesus. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Suffering here, that is, is completely compatible with the existence of a higher just order. It makes perfect sense that the righteous go hungry: since they are of God, spiritual food is enough for them. And because it did not belong to him, God himself suffered from this world as much as any miserable human being.

The classic Jewish response is to say, with an air of superiority, that our God’s kingdom is of this world; at least of this world as it’s meant to be. The Christian solution of looking beyond the world is dismissed as an escapist rejection of any gritty responsibility for our circumstances. But I think that’s wrongheaded. The world is a slaughterhouse of the human spirit, and it is often completely out of our power to do anything about it. So if you keep your attention on this world, you will find no comfort at all for a person whose life is filled with unceasing, unfair torment. If there’s an earthquake in Nepal that kills a man’s entire family, there is nothing on heaven or earth to make it better. So a this-worldy religion is in trouble once it becomes clear that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike.

Nor does modern Judaism have any clear teaching of life beyond the grave. Not by nature, but because of history: Jews, since they are generally urban and secular, have stopped believing in the afterlife. This should not be discussed with a smirk. It poses a grave problem. God has abandoned us on earth, and he has done so below the earth too. The psalmist got it right: The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.

Some say that we’re then left with following commandments for their own sake. “I’m glad that there’s no afterlife,” I once heard a Jew say. “It means that I can be good without having to be selfish.” This is probably the thinnest fare that spiritual life can possibly be sustained on. I find it revolting and unfit for human consumption. But thankfully, few have the stomach for such intellectual asceticism.

So in sum, I do not think that very many Jews at all can share the consolation of my Catholic friend. There’s darkness below, and up here under the sun, our people have been driven like tired cattle across the earth. Last century, we were slaughtered en masse with truck exhaust, bullets, and cyanide. Later we were thrown out of every Arab country. What are we supposed to do? Praise God for his tender love? Jewish belief in heavenly comfort has withered as a result. At most shivas on the Upper West Side, it would be a misstep to comfort a mourner with a promise that he will see his mother again. The odds are that he doesn’t believe that he will, so discussing resurrection is like holding water just below Tantalus’ parched lips.

This is a religious problem, by which I mean a problem with the religion. The woman on the train’s rabbi, despite how callous he sounds, really had no alternative. There was no comforting doctrine to impart; no readily available reassurance from the modern Jewish tradition. He likely sensed that any of that would have sounded hollow and emptily pious. He could have stayed silent, of course. That might have been the only appropriate answer to my fellow passenger. But that would have meant denying this woman the only thing she had come to ask from him: an explanation. She could have had silence sitting in her living room.

My only recommendation to him is that he should not be a rabbi.

To finish up. The Jewish religion, except in some of its minority Orthodox forms, has stopped giving a comforting or even meaningful world-picture to its adherents. Few believe the myths anymore, and no one except a fringe can unironically speak about heavenly care for humankind. All of this is in principle fine: it is perfectly well to live a comfortable life without thinking of heaven. It is not perfectly well to live a painful life that way.

So it is evil—unexplained suffering—that puts weight on the integrity of the Jewish intellectual tradition, revealing the decay that has made it rotten and soft. Perhaps you’ll say that Judaism was never an intellectual religion anyway; that it focused on practice, not faith. Nonsense. Jews, just like everyone else, used to believe in angels and demons, miracles, sacred history, and resurrection. Without basic faith in these things—without faith in God himself—the practice becomes heavy, inarticulate, pointless. Judaism’s body will sit up gibbering for maybe centuries to come—we will have Jews, Jewish-inspired social justice, Medieval texts about the cleanliness of pots, Israel, klezmer. Its mind has already lost its alertness and its sensitivity to spiritual problems. The poor woman on the train saw this firsthand. Man does not live by bagels alone, which means that the Jews are liable to starve.

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