In a fascinating interpretation of Moby Dick in the book All Things Shining (1), Ahab is seen as a representation of a kind of Christianity that seeks closed-ness through completion, a view of the world where Truth is already known, so all other possibilities are cut off and where seeking other or more truth is foreclosed. In the story, Ahab can only see the white whale as the object of desire and of aversion, the singular truth of his universe is to avenge himself upon the whale’s body. But Ishmael represents a different orientation to the whale, upon whose head he sees a blankness, an emptiness devoid of any meaning at all, which then opens Ishmael up to a different kind of truth, joy, and meaning. Further, Dreyfus and Kelly, the two philosophers who wrote the book, read Ishmael’s relationship with the pagan Queequeg as an implicit critique of Christianity, where “Christianity goes astray not in its basic religious impulse, but rather in its totalizing turn,” where Christianity becomes all that exists, Truth itself. Ishmael represents a new kind of truth, a new orientation to being, that finds joy and beauty in an embodied, social openness to finding relationship, ritual, truth, beauty, joy in the every-day, in the mundane, in the foreign and exotic as well as the familiar. Ishmael moves easily from his Protestant worship to joining Queequeg in his pagan ritual. Ahab, on the other hand, single-mindedly and blindly pursues the whale as the only truth of his life and is destroyed by it. “Ishmael’s polytheistic view finds in the communal rituals of daily life, contradictory and polysemic and plural as they are, the meanings that can drive away the drizzly November of the soul.”
The book provoked me to seek and to name what I have found most valuable in my own spiritual path, and where I have found meaning over the past 16 years since leaving Mormonism. I found myself reflected in much of the book’s conclusions, in the way I came to redefine the sacred as immanent and joy as embodied and present rather than deferred and transcendent. I had through life’s experiences come to the same conclusions as Ishamael had, at least in Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s reading of Moby Dick. And I found that I loved that about my spiritual life and that I feel like those lessons learned have been useful and meaningful to me over the past decade. [Caveat emptor: The book is receiving some pretty scathing critiques from philosophers (2).]
I read this book at about the same time that I hit a wall in my exploration of Judaism. I find myself asking often, “Why?” Why am I doing this? Why am I exploring a spiritual community that would add yet another outsider status to my already sufficient outsiderness? Why do I need a community at all, especially a deeply traditional one? Why can’t I continue on my individual spiritual path that I’ve been walking since I left Mormonism 16 years ago? What is in Judaism that would make me want to commit to it in a way that I had given up on years ago? Is choosing Judaism a step backwards into Ahab, or can it be a further step into Ishmael?
Whereas everyone in my Choosing Judaism group is exploring conversion because they have married a JBB and are looking for spiritual harmonization and/or exploring the religion of a spouse, I come to Judaism on a rather individual path. As a single gay guy, I have come up hard against the social and communal and familial aspects of Judaism generally (not to mention the somewhat closed relationships at the shul I’ve been attending). There’s a contradiction between my search for spiritual community and the increasingly isolating experience I’ve been having on this path.
The past few days, I have (serendipitously?) stumbled upon expressions by other people of a few of the things that resonate so powerfully for me in Judaism, one in an article about Tuny Kushner and the other in a Conservative rabbi’s articulation of Jewish pluralism.
Last fall, I’d been asked by a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal to write a brief review of a book about representations of Mormons in popular culture (3); and this week, I began reading the book for that purpose. The very first essay in the collection was an engagement with Tony Kushner’s two-play cycle Angels in America, where in the conclusion of the essay, the author lists off a set of congruences between Mormon belief and practice and Jewish belief and practice that account for Kushner’s public statements of sympathy with Mormon belief (despite writing a play wherein the gay Mormon character is the only one in the play who is not redeemed in the play). The writer states:
Elsewhere, Kushner has spoken positively of certain aspects of Mormon theology, particularly those that he thinks reflect Judaism: the emphasis of practice over belief and the de-emphasis on damnation, the centrality of a text, the importance of diasporic experience in forming identity, and the positive theology of the body. (4)
Is my attraction to Judaism that simple and obvious? Of course, Mormonism is far more complex than those issues cited above (for example, the emphasis on practice over belief is far from clear, in my opinion), yet there is a kernel of truth there. And these are most of the values that I take from Mormonism that still inform my personal ethics and spirituality, so many years after leaving Mormonism behind. I do not think that I am merely seeking a surrogate or replacement for Mormonism. I’ve been through too much over the past 16 years for that. But as a sociologist who researches the social construction of perception, values, and cognition (i.e., culture), I have to stop and recognize the possible influences that Mormonism may be having on my exploration of Judaism.
Because I do not come to Judaism from a place of belief (I’ve spoken at length about my agnosticism in this blog), but rather in search of spiritual practice, I’m definitely drawn to some key practices in judaism, especially the yearly ritual calendar and the weekly shabbat. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of daily practice through what I think of as humanist prayer; but my buddhist background leads me to continued meditation practice. So far, my daily practice has remained pretty firmly buddhist. Since my favorite Conservative rabbis were also buddhist (even though I’m converting at a reform shul), and since my own teacher also relies heavily on contemporary american buddhism for her teachings, I feel pretty comfortable with that practice for the moment. That said, I find that although Mormonism is an intensely legalistic and socially surveilled system, it still emphasizes belief extensively in a way that I do not find in Judaism. In fact, my current research project at work shows that Mormonism’s efforts to control the beliefs of its adherents is very often what pushes people out, particularly questioning and seeking personalities. The lack of this kind of orthodoxy in Judaism is, for me, is a very good thing.
But the other pieces outlined in the essay about Kushner I hadn’t really connected to my Mormon past before: a positive theology of the body, de-emphasis on damnation, etc. My main concern at this point is that I’m moving through my Jewish experience on its own terms, and not out of habit from my Mormon upbringing. But I’m not sure how to do that.
The second piece that articulated a deep resonance for me was in a book about Jewish social ethics by Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff (5). In a chapter examining the multiple views and movements and ideas and contradictions within Judaism, R. Dorff explains the Jewish approach to Torah as a system of arguments that are “not only rationally but theologically necessary, for all sides bespeak “the words of the living God.'” In my early 20s, I had developed an idea that “truth” was something that emerged out of the spaces between contradictions, that paradoxes where two logically opposed ideas were both true revealed a truer kind of truth, almost like a Zen koan. In graduate school, I encountered William James’ notion of truth as a process, or an emergence out of social, human interaction. James had been studying cultural religious diversity and had come to the almost postmodern conclusion that truth was a culturally conditioned value judgment rather than an essential quality of a pre- or extra-human object. James spoke of truth as a verb, something that we do rather than the quality of something that exists. [Note: In this view, the scientific method produces truth, but it is a socially produced human truth, not an existential or ontological truth; James does not mean to devalue scientific truth, but rather to frame and account for its origins.]
Since the ages of the Pharisees, according to R. Dorff, Jews have turned away from prophecy and toward dialectical scholarly discourse for truth. This brings with it a system of ethics in the discourse, wherein those who disagree with you are accorded dignity and a respectful hearing, and wherein participants are (or should be) always willing to change their positions upon hearing a good argument. Dorff also discusses the notion of learning to read the “white fire”, the empty spaces between the words of Torah as an expansiveness and openness to creativity and novelty in interpretation and exegesis. This Jewish view of Talmudic, midrashic truth seems to be a continuation of my personal efforts to redefine and understand truth that began in my early 20s in college, and the possibilities of finding that intellectual base within a spiritual tradition is more than a little exciting for me.
And so this week, I have re-connected with the why of my Jewish path. But at the same time, those whys have reinforced the alone-ness of my particular journey. Jews and jewish communities seem to function generally more on an ethnic model, which I’ve discussed before. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it means that the highly intellectualized version of Judaism that I’m getting from my reading is not exactly the judaism that I’m encountering in face-to-face interaction with the Jews around me. Just as my academic career can be socially isolating generally, so my path to judaism feels to me like it’s going down a road that puts me yet again on the outside of an already outside group.
I cannot apologize for who I am or what makes me tick. Nor do I regret these things that are so resonant and important to me within Judaism. But it does leave me with the problem I stated up above: that for me, in distinction with everything that Judaism is socially, my Jewishness is for the moment a piece of my alone-ness.
(1) Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011).
(2) Gary Wills. “Superficial and Sublime?” in New York Review of Books. Vol. 58 No. 6 (April 7, 2011).
(3) Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010).
(4) Christine Hutchinson-Jones. “Center and Periphery: Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America” in Decker and Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010): 26.
(5) Elliot N. Dorff. To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002).