When I introduced this blog I said I’d talk about God, but I didn’t have the motivation to do it until a good friend, who once worked as a minister, challenged me.
So here goes. Me, of all people, expostulating on one of the two subjects you’re supposed to avoid at dinner parties. Give me time and I’ll be shooting my mouth off about politics, too.
The photo above is meant to be ironic, and illustrates the very messiness of the enterprise. Here I am tricked out in pious Jewish garb, surrounded by a cultural smorgasbord of spiritual books and artifacts. Ai, a shonda! There’s a statue of Mother Mary. A battered Be Here Now by Ram Dass. And my menorah! I’m all over the place. I’m Jewish, to be sure, yet the Sermon on the Mount is as precious to me as Psalm 23. The Bhagavad Gita is at my bedside.
Here’s the part that takes some guts to admit, but I believe in God.
I’m not just saying it because I go to AA meetings and they’ll throw your ass out if you don’t. What I mean is, every time I slash my way through the thicket of “I’ll never make it” and find I have prevailed, I can’t help but feel it’s not “me” so much as some fatherly force that guided me.
Teaching takes its toll emotionally. I leave a classroom after a good day and bow my head in thanks. What got me through transcends my ego.
Though I don’t consider myself strictly religious by way of set practice, I meditate often on God.
And on all the received wisdom surrounding religion, much of which I challenge.
The Jewish god is supposed to be unforgiving, “by the book”; the Christian, kinder and gentler. But is this true? This father god of my people isn’t all Sodom and Gomorrah, and denying Moses entry into Canaan because he got angry and struck the rock. Doesn’t Esau forgive Jacob for screwing him out of his birthright? Doesn’t Joseph forgive the brothers that threw him into slavery? Doesn’t God smile on Abraham for giving the preferred portion to Lot? The book brims with tales of God favoring the merciful. Ah, you need a box of Kleenex to read our stories.
I had to read Nietzsche at Columbia. He said the Old Testament was better literature than the New. The Hebrew bible boasted heroic power, that of a strong, naïve beating heart. It also had something else he found missing in the Christian book: “a nation.” The Genealogy of Morals, though at times poisonous, hit me where I live.
I grew up in a secular household. A friend of the family gave me Bible Stores for Jewish Children. I still have it, held together as it is with duct tape. Written by Ruth Samuels, color-illustrated by Laszlo Matulay, published by Ktav Publishing House in 1954, it captivated me alone of the Gitlin kids, expressing a legacy of which I was proud.
I had no bar mitzvah. My parents, radical secular humanists, remembered when “The rabbis named names” during the McCarthy era. (Enough said.) And so my brother and I, and two sisters, were spared the Hebrew school busses, and that extension of the learning day so rued by all our Jewish peers in the middle-class ghetto of my youth, in suburban Cleveland in the 1960s. Unlettered in Hebrew, I would make faces at my cousin Stevie as he strove to hold up his end of the bar mitzvah rite on the bima at Temple on the Heights. He reminded me of this some years later and I was horrified at the memory. He’d almost cracked up.
I am married to a Catholic. We have no children, haven’t had to agonize about organized religion and which one to raise them in.
By the time I was 50, I had morphed from miserable freelance writer in Cleveland to struggling high school English teacher in northwest Arizona. Feeling culturally alienated in Prescott and its environs – this despite a lifelong fascination for The West, and cowboys – I marched into Temple B’rith Shalom. Hip, erudite Rabbi William Berkowitz heard my fairly articulate belly-aching about the unexplored “birthright” and, wanting me to put my money where my mouth was, handed me the same primer he gave 11-year-old boys. Some weeks later, hearing my lusty contribution to the Friday night prayers, he said, “Watch out, we might just conscript you into the choir.”
Which came to pass. There I was – me! — in prayer shawl, on the stage during High Holy Days, singing sacred music during our celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The choir was fun for three or four years. I loved being one of three men up on stage belting out the “Chatzi Kaddish”; I experienced such a connection with an ancient mystery, felt such power, rattling the windowpanes with my impassioned if asthmatic tenor.
But Billy left and this new rabbi kicked our threesome offstage, got in this ringer of a gal who sings like Beverly Sills. It’s no doubt better now, but I got bored. Worse, I began to suspect that all this religion and choir stuff smacked of an ego trip. I quit the choir, returned to my original profane existence, merrily frying bacon every weekend, in fact blowing off temple. I go sometimes, not much. High Holy Days went by without my knowing it this year. I guess I’m not much of a Jew.
Yet I can say I’ve acquired some rudimentary Judaic experience.
When I was younger I knew nothing.
This makes all the less explicable my taking religion courses when I showed up at Columbia University in Fall of 1972. I declared a “concentration” in religion. Concentrations were for people too stoned to know what they wanted to major in. My only explanation is that I’d had psychedelic trips I regarded as mystical.
I sucked as a Columbia religion student. I was dissolute, self-indulgent, too stoned. I would, however, excel as a guy in later years studying religion and spiritual texts on his own.
I just finished a book by Elaine Pagels. In her Why Religion? she explains the enduring role of religion in our lives, and why she likes studying it. She recounts tragedies she experienced, namely the deaths of her husband and son. In the end it becomes a book about how she would not succumb to final despair but fought back, resisting the dark force through scholarship itself. She is a leading scholar on Christian history and on a special set of Christian scrolls, unearthed at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, that cast new light on religion studies. Many by now have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, an alternative to literalist dogma. Bring forth that which is within you and you will be saved. If you do not do this, if you do not search your heart, what is there will destroy you.
Elaine Pagels gave me a B+ on a paper I put some work into. Soon after that I went through foolish misadventures I would realize had been traumatizing but didn’t admit it at the time. At any rate, there went my academic discipline. I was about to drop into utter junkie-like dereliction.
I flunked her next big assignment.
She ended a lecture to 200 Barnard and Columbia students by asking to see me.
I went up.
“What happened?” She had lauded my essay on the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians. Now this. “I had to look twice to realize it was the same student!”
I couldn’t talk about it. I must have shrugged. She shook her head, and I went off.
After reading this latest book (my fourth of hers), I wrote her a letter, care of HarperCollins, in which, among other things, I recounted my little remembrance of her, my encounter with her eminence. This time, I hinted at an explanation. As if it mattered now. Somehow it was a letter I had to write. You see, I have searched my heart. I wonder if she remembers me.
Columbia kicked me out two years after that class, but I wound up reading a lot of books of and about religion, ranging from the King James Bible to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Still, there’s a part of me that stands outside it all. Maybe I’m not a joiner.
Once I told Rabbi Berkowitz, “I’m not really religious.”
He didn’t buy it. “I think you’re very serious about it,” he said. “I think you’re motivated by a deep interest in it.”
If I ever retire, maybe I’ll dust off that Hebrew primer. See if I can finally memorize “V’Ahavta.”
Note: I’d incorrectly identified the synagogue where I pulled faces at Steve Schlossberg as he tried to bull his way through his bar mitzvah service. The above represents the correction. Thanks, Danny, for straightening me out.