The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy, by David Klinghoffer, Free Press; 262 pp; $24.
We live in the Golden Age of the memoir, or so we're often told, with reference to Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's best-selling account of an Irish Catholic childhood; Mary Karr's The Liars' Club; and a host of others. I'm not so sure. Many of the widely touted contemporary autobiographies boil down to titillating confessions—Geraldo for the literati—while others, including most recently I, Rigoberta Menchu, whose author won the Nobel Peace Prize, have been proved to be fraudulent.
Still, because every human life is at once unique and like every other, autobiography—the telling of a life by the only one who can tell it from the inside—offers insights and pleasures that aren't found in any other genre. Indeed, it is this productive tension between the particular and the universal that characterizes autobiography at its best.
And autobiography at its best is what you will find in David Klinghoffer's The Lord Will Gather Me In. Klinghoffer, the literary editor of National Review, was only 33 years old when he completed this book. Isn't that rather presumptuous, to undertake a memoir at an age when many people are still trying to figure out what they are going to do with their lives? It all depends on the life, and on the teller.
Unlike many memoirs of the rich and famous (and their ghostwriters), which offer merely a string of anecdotes, Klinghoffer's book has a plot as intricate and suspenseful and ultimately satisfying as the plot of a good novel. The twists and turns of the tale should be left for the reader to follow as they unfold, rather than laid out cold by a cloddish reviewer, but it is not giving anything away to say that when he was a small boy growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, Klinghoffer's parents, a Reform Jewish couple, told him he was adopted and that his biological mother and father were Gentiles.
That revelation comes at the beginning of the book. Like those archetypal figures of myth and legend who must search for their true parentage, Klinghoffer eventually seeks out his biological parents. But his real journey is the discovery that his true parent is God, a loving father who is actively seeking him.
It takes Klinghoffer a long time fully to achieve this recognition, but a dim awareness begins early, when he grows dissatisfied with the purely cultural Judaism of his loving adoptive parents. And so by fits and starts he draws closer to the God who is gathering him in, converting first to Conservative Judaism and then to the deep piety of the Orthodox.
Klinghoffer, of course, is not alone in his pilgrim's progress. Although American Jews remain overwhelmingly secularized—and the intermarriage rate exceeds 50 percent—there are small but significant countertrends, including the ba'al teshuvah movement: "the return of secular Jews to Orthodoxy." The origin of the term, Klinghoffer explains, is to be found in rabbinic literature, where "a ba'al teshuvah is literally a 'master of return' or 'master of repentance.' At Yom Kippur each year, every Jew is expected to give up his past year's sins and become a ba'al teshuvah."
While perhaps 20 percent of American Jews do not practice Judaism at all, the majority identify themselves as Jewish in religion, but what that means is that they observe at least some of the most important Jewish rituals and place a strong emphasis on what Klinghoffer calls their "tribal" identity as Jews.
Klinghoffer is critical of these Jews who have forsaken the truth-claims of traditional Judaism:
What beliefs did the Reform movement stand for? A fog surrounds them in the minds of most Reform temple-goers, but when I visited Rabbi Dinnerstein in his study at the temple in 1995 to ask for some clarification of his views, he said something that crystallized Reform thinking for me. I asked him what he thought happened at Mt. Sinai. He answered that he wasn't sure but that he didn't think it mattered that much. From this blithe dismissal of the most crucial event in Jewish history, the rest of his religious outlook flowed naturally.
For Klinghoffer, "there is a logic internal to Judaism of which many Jews are unaware." The rules and rituals that strike many non-Jews (and many Jews today) as archaic or absurd come to seem quite different when one sees them as God's way of drawing his people closer to him. But to see in that way, one must in the first place accept the authority of the Torah:
What should we make of the Torah's claims about itself? Where, exactly, does it come from? That is the problem that today, above all others, divides Jews into rival philosophical factions. Does the Torah come from God? From man? Or, like one of those supernatural beings in Greek mythology, born of a liaison between a god and a man or woman, is it partly divine and partly human? Is the Torah—oral and written—true, or not?
Although he admits to doubts and reservations, Klinghoffer can nevertheless say to the rabbis who are examining him on his conversion to Orthodoxy that, yes, the Torah is true:
"I have come to believe," I told Rabbi Freundel and his colleagues that day, "that God wants something from the Jews, and that he wants the same thing from me. I believe that His will for us is contained in the written Torah, the oral Torah, and the rabbinic tradition. He chose the people Israel as the vehicle for His will."
Several Jewish reviewers of Klinghoffer's book have criticized him for what they regard as an uncharitable attitude toward Jews who do not share his belief in the trustworthiness of God's self-revelation. One reviewer went so far as to say that Klinghoffer was applying Christian categories to Judaism: Judaism, the reviewer said, has never been primarily about faith or belief but rather about practice and community.
One imagines how Klinghoffer might respond. Doesn't Judaism, traditional Judaism, presuppose belief in certain truths, preeminently the existence of God and the truth of the Torah?
Many Jews, like many Christians, tend to exaggerate the differences between Christians and Jews. Of course there are very significant differences! But in many ways the landscape of American Judaism as Klinghoffer describes it is analogous to the state of Christianity in the United States today.
Many Christians, Protestant and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox alike, practice a cultural faith. Ask them if the Bible is true and they're likely to cock an ironic eyebrow in your direction. Really, how vulgar, how positively fundamentalist. They believe in a Christianity, they'll tell you, that unites people rather than divides them.
But such cultural Christians, like their Jewish counterparts, are not replacing themselves in the present generation; indeed, their numbers are steadily dwindling. And so for those readers who believe that the Bible is entirely trustworthy, Klinghoffer's book is both a cautionary tale and a useful provocation. What can Christians learn from Orthodox Jewish piety? A great deal, perhaps.
But for all that it will be difficult for Christian readers not to finish Klinghoffer's book with sadness, for his story includes a near conversion to Christianity, via a devout Catholic girlfriend. Close; but close doesn't count. And yet, so powerful is his sense of the God of the Psalms, the God of the Scriptures that Jews and Christians share in common, that I cannot help hoping that he and I and our fellow believers are praying to the same Father, who gathers us in with his triumphant love.
What Time Is It?
At any given moment, a person's sense of time is a complex hierarchy. Most immediately there is an awareness of the ever-passing present. A little further up there is a sense of the time of day, the day of the week, the month (and the time within that month), the season, the year, the decade, the century. Those are the simple, common measures; any given mind has countless others. A sports fan's sense of time will be ordered in part by the overlapping seasons of various sports and the high points within those; a young couple in love will have a keen sense of how long it will be until they are together again. In 1999, the turn of the millennium approaches, and its nearness can be felt. And there is always, finally, one's sense of the curve of one's own life.
All these orienting devices seem to function without conscious effort on our part; we are rarely even aware of them. And yet the ordering of time has much to teach us about the way we apprehend the Real.
Readers looking for an exploration of the human sense of time—a phenomenology of time—may be disappointed by Igor Novikov's The River of Time (Cambridge Univ. Press), which barely even touches on that subject. What Novikov offers instead is a chatty tour of various topics in the physics of time. Despite his tendency to ramble, he is generally an enjoyable guide.
A bit closer to the mark are two books on the calendar. David Ewing Duncan's Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year (Bard/Avon Books) is one of many popular books intended to coincide with the turn of the millennium (or with the buildup to that event). Duncan is a breezy writer, not averse to the handy cliche, but he has clearly mastered an enormous amount of information, and he has the storytelling skill to cast it into a loosely narrative structure, which means that quite a few people will actually read his book and not just dip into it for tasty anecdotes.
In contrast, E. G. Richards's Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History (Oxford Univ. Press) is a topically organized survey, not a narrative, more scholarly than Duncan's book but still very readable if also rather flat. The topical approach makes it particularly useful for reference. So, for example, if you want a good summary of attempts to supplant the Christian calendar—in the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution; both failed dismally—you can turn to Richards and get just what you need. There are also a number of tables and other such aids, a glossary, and an excellent bibliography. But while there are facts aplenty here, Richards too fails to consider even superficially the meaning of the human ordering of time.
Such a consideration might include, for example, the peculiar status of units of time such as the decade. In one sense, we might describe a decade as an arbitrary unit, imposed for convenience but without any independent reality. On the other hand, as soon as people begin talking about these arbitrary units, all sorts of generalizations follow: diverse happenings from a given ten-year period are interpreted under the sign of "the fifties," say, or "the sixties." Once reified in this way, decades do take on a reality of sorts.
This process seems to be a small model of the way human beings interact with the world. Created in the Creator's image, we do not merely passively register reality; rather, we shape it in infinitely complex ways. Not just our houses and our clothes, but time itself is an artifact of culture.
- Elliott Abrams, Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in Christian America (Free Press, 237 pp.; $25).
- Stephen J. Dubner, Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family (Morrow, 320 pp.; $24).
- Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, How Firm a Foundation:
A Gift of Jewish Wisdom for Christians and Jews (269 pp.; $14.95, paper).
- Samuel C. Heilman, Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction (Transaction, 321 pp.; $24.95, paper).
- Meryl Hyman, "Who Is a Jew?" Conversations, Not Conclusions (Jewish Lights, 231 pp.; $23.95).
Why the Amalekites Matter
The modern church is impatient of history. History, we are told, is a dead thing. Let us forget about the Amalekites and fight the enemy at our doors. The true essence of the Bible is to be found in eternal ideas; history is merely the form in which those ideas are expressed. It makes no difference whether the history is real or fictitious; in either case, the ideas are the same. … In this way, religion has been made independent, as is thought, of the uncertainties of historical research. The separation of Christianity from history has been a great concern of modern theology. It has been an inspiring attempt. But it has been a failure.
Give up history, and you can retain some things. You can retain a belief in God. But philosophical theism has never been a powerful force in the world. You can retain a lofty ethical ideal. But be perfectly clear about one point—you can never retain a gospel. For gospel means "good news," tidings, information about something that has happened. In other words, it means history. A gospel independent of history is simply a contradiction in terms.
—J. Gresham Machen, "History and Faith," 1915, from
American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Library of America, 1999).
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