I, the grandson of devout Orthodox Jews, am watching my younger daughter being confirmed in the Lutheran Church. The minister, an affable, athletic-looking man, has his hands on my daughter’s head as he says a prayer. Afterwards, my wife takes a group picture of the smiling minister with the confirmed kids. I stand in the background—an outsider, mildly uncomfortable, looking forward to leaving this alien realm and returning to my usual Sunday morning activity: reading the New York Times. I am what so many Jewish leaders worry about—a non-Jewish Jew whose children, by virtue of my marriage to a gentile, are being raised as Christians.
Many Jewish-gentile families retain some Jewish traditions. My family is thoroughly Christian; we celebrate Christmas and Easter, not Hanukkah or Passover. No doubt, if all Jews followed in my footsteps, the Jewish people would no longer exist. My response to that highly unlikely possibility is: “So what?” I don’t feel any obligation as a Jew to preserve the Jewish people, and I find truly offensive the argument of those who speak of a “Silent Holocaust,” who argue that assimilation is a posthumous victory for Hitler. How can the slaughter of innocent people on the basis of some absurd racist theories be equated with assimilation—the latter a choice freely made?
Some people would argue that my choice is not “really” a free one—that the demon of Jewish self-hatred has compelled me to move far way from my origins. There is no arguing with those who read my character in such fashion, since whatever I say will be grist for their mill, but I should note that I have never tried to hide the fact that I was born and raised a Jew. And I don’t think I’m protesting too much when I say that I have many Jewish friends, including some who practice the rites of Judaism.
Even if self-hatred—a notoriously open-ended notion—is ruled out, there remains the question of duty. I don’t think the Holocaust confers a special obligation on me, but I do wonder if I have some obligation to the religion I was born into. The notion of obligation is very strong among Jewish intellectuals. Daniel Bell has said that obligation is at the core of Judaism; obligation, he says, “is a redemption of debt to those who have nurtured us, institutions which have fostered us, and so on.” In Commentary recently, Neal Kozodoy said of a famous Jewish writer’s lack of connection with organized Jewish life, “He had conspicuously declined to educate himself about its culture, its traditions, or its modes of self-perpetuation.” Do these strictures apply to me as well? I remember my devout grandmother: a generous, amusing, and tough-minded woman who emigrated from Romania when she was seventeen so that, among other things, she would not be persecuted for being an Orthodox Jew—or indeed a Jew, period. Did I casually relinquish what she struggled so hard to preserve? Did I walk away from Judaism too quickly?
Certainly, as a child I walked away from Judaism—even ran sometimes, disliking the Hebrew school I attended three times a week after public school. Though my grandparents on my mother’s side were devout Jews (my father’s parents died when he was a child), my parents were not devout. In fact, I don’t recall that they ever attended a holiday service, although we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover. Nevertheless, perhaps because I was the first male grandchild, my mother”in an effort to appease her Orthodox mother—enrolled me in a Orthodox Hebrew school. I was also supposed to attend synagogue on Saturday morning.
The school was depressing; the air was dank and the lighting poor. Sitting in those classrooms, I thought of all the things I could be doing at the time—playing softball, basketball, stickball, stoopball, handball, boxball, all of which I immensely enjoyed. Instead, I hunched over a desk, deciphering Hebrew letters and memorizing passages from the Pentateuch. The teacher I remember most was a gruff Israeli woman who hit her pupils on the wrists with a pointer if they screwed up. What did I learn in those five years? Not much: the basics of Hebrew, though very little in the way of solid grammar, and a rough knowledge of the first five books of the Old Testament. On Saturdays I heard a lot of prayers and some Hebrew songs, but I had no idea what this religious ceremony was about save to endlessly extol God. The only thing I knew Judaism stood for was the new state of Israel, which I was supposed to help by asking family, friends, and neighbors to drop coins into a blue and white tin can.
To say I hated Hebrew School would be an exaggeration. I liked the Hebrew script, and in college I often doodled by writing out my name in that script, but I certainly was a lot happier when, after my Bar Mitzvah, I no longer had to attend Hebrew School and could spend afternoons playing ball on the Bronx street where I lived. After my Bar Mitzvah, in fact, my connection with Judaism was minimal. My mother expected me to go to synagogue on High Holy Days, but she didn’t go herself so she didn’t know that I never attended a service, preferring to stand outside and talk to friends. Even before I was Bar Mitzvahed, I rarely sat through a complete Saturday morning service. I would usually sneak out early, heading for the movies or a nearby playground.
I don’t know if it was my five years in Hebrew School or my three years in the Cub Scouts, but something in my childhood left me with a strong distaste for any communal activity except sporting events. My connections with organizations have been few and far between—one year as a fraternity member in college, four years as a member of the Republican Party in the early 1980s. I am not a joiner, which doesn’t mean that I disapprove of voluntary associations.
In any case, the minor ordeal of Hebrew School left me not only with a distaste for Judaism but also with a strong lack of interest in religion. Yet I never became an atheist—never hated religion the way some friends did who had been raised as strict Catholics. In college, I avoided late-night metaphysical bull sessions. Talking about God, to my mind, was a waste of time, since one couldn’t prove (or disprove) his existence.
Yet in college something happened to me that eventually caused me to reassess my attitude toward religion. I had never been much of a reader in high school, but in college I became so devoted to reading that after my sophomore year I quit all my extracurricular activities and read as much as I could. It soon became obvious to me that some of the writers who meant the most to me—Donne, Herbert, Samuel Johnson, T. S. Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Flannery O’Connor come to mind—were devout Christians. Soon afterwards I discovered the sublimities of Christian music and soon after that the power of Christian art.
Nevertheless, I still remained uninterested in religious questions—and still thought that believers were generally stupider than nonbelievers. Although some of the writers, musicians, and painters I admired were devout Christians, I considered the artist’s beliefs irrelevant. Nourished on New Criticism, I thought only critical dolts paid attention to the artist’s opinions. Were not Wagner and Pound anti-Semitic? Were not Celine and Emile Nolde Nazis? The only thing that counted was the thing in itself—the work of art. Moreover, there were many writers I admired who were not Christian—or only marginally so.
But it was not always easy to tiptoe around a writer’s beliefs. There were some writers, Pascal and Samuel Johnson, whose beliefs one could not ignore because they are central to their work. And though one can certainly appreciate Dante, Bach, Giotto, or George Herbert without being a Christian, one cannot deny the centrality of Christian ideas and images to their work. If so many great musicians, painters, and writers were devout Christians, then who was I to smugly dismiss religious belief as something for lesser intellects?
A growing respect for Christian thought—or at least the thought of some Christian thinkers—stimulated my curiosity about the many currents of Christianity. What was Pascal’s Jansenism about? Or Johnson’s Protestantism? Pure theology didn’t interest me, but the history of Christianity did. Fascinated by the seemingly endless struggle between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, I began to read books that centered on periods of crisis in Christianity—especially Late Roman times and the Protestant Reformation. I remember being so struck by Peter Brown’s brilliant biography of Augustine that I reread it a year after I finished it.
Reading about these controversies and rereading some of my favorite Christian writers, I came to another conclusion: the views of some Christian thinkers were more profound that the views of some highly touted anti-Christian modern thinkers. It was not that I was persuaded by these writers to become a Christian. Rather, I was persuaded that these writers had a more profound understanding of the springs of human conduct than the four intellectual gods it was fashionable to worship when I was in college and graduate school: Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.
In all these years of reading while holding a variety of jobs in journalism and the academy, I did not give a moment’s thought to the Judaism of my childhood. My connections with Judaism were marginal—attending a Passover seder once a year—and it never occurred to me that Judaism might also offer some profound insights into the human condition. After all, I was nourished on English literature and had read widely in French and Russian literature. Where were the Jewish writers who might influence me? The Jewish-American writers I read had a lot to say about the trials and tribulations of American Jews, but very little to say about Judaism.
It was not until the birth of my first child that I gave any thought to my Jewish heritage—and it was only a passing thought. My wife, raised in a relatively unreligious family as a Hungarian Protestant (Hungarian Reformed Church), wanted to raise my daughter as a Christian. Why should I object, since I had no quarrel with Christianity? The idea of dusting off my childhood Judaism and becoming a practicing Jew for the sake of my daughter seemed absurd. Children see through such ruses easily. The only other option was raising her ecumenically—that is, exposing her to Judaism and Christianity—but that also made no sense to me. The two religions should respect each other, but at bottom they are profoundly different. To serve up both religions in order to “give my kid a choice” is to trivialize their differences.
So my first daughter, and of course my second daughter, who came along five years later, were baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church—not, by the way, because my wife was profoundly attracted to Lutheran doctrine; she liked the fact that music—for the most part very good music—was central to Lutheran worship. Both my daughters, who consider themselves Christians, have asked me why I don’t go to a synagogue on Saturday. My answer is always the same: “I’m not a believer.” Which doesn’t mean that the subject of Judaism is not discussed in my house. My kids have occasionally attended a Jewish ceremony—a Passover seder at the Jewish nursing home where my mother lives—and they have asked me about aspects of Judaism, which I’ve tried to answer to the best of my ability.
So here I stand, unapologetically, one of these Jews who, as one writer put it, is “fading into the landscape through assimilation and sheer indifference.” I have no second thoughts about becoming assimilated—whatever that means—but I’m not indifferent about the path I have taken. In fact, my rootless cosmopolitanism disturbs me for two reasons.
One is the problem of Christian anti-Semitism. If it were true that anti-Semitism was central to Christian thought, then letting my children be raised as Christians—for it was not something I would have chosen by myself—would imply that I’ve enabled them to embrace a doctrine that is inimical to Jews and Judaism. I have read widely on this question and strongly believe that anti-Semitism is not at the heart of Christianity, though there is no gainsaying the fact that anti-Semitism has been preached by many Christian thinkers, including the founder of the church my wife and children attend. Cynics may say that if I want to keep my self-respect I have no choice but to come to such a conclusion, but others with no personal stake in the matter have come to the same conclusion.
In any case, the problem of Christian anti-Semitism has to do with how I fit into a Christian household; it has nothing to do with my continuing lack of connection with Judaism. After all, I could go to synagogue even if my wife and two children attend church. In my mid-thirties I decided that I should know more about Judaism, so I read a few books on the subject. They changed my life not a whit. Though I gained a greater appreciation of the evolution of Judaic thought, and though I was horrified by the way Jews have been treated in the last 2,000 years, I did not feel any desire to become an observant Jew. In fact, something else happened: I was tempted to become a Roman Catholic, having come to regard the Roman Catholic Church as one that strove to be “above” ethnic differences. I fantasized that if the whole world became Roman Catholic, ethnic and religious strife would end.
I didn’t really believe in this fantasy, so I’m not sure why I was so drawn to the Roman Catholic Church that one day I walked into a Catholic reading center and marched up to a priest and said, my heart pounding, “I’m interested in converting to Catholicism.”
“Would you like to attend Mass?” the priest asked. “There’s a noon Mass that begins in five minutes.”
The idea of actually attending a religious ceremony caused me to panic: “No, not right now.”
He gave me a pamphlet to read: “Take a look at this,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, and rushed out.
I never did read the pamphlet, and gradually the thought of converting dimmed in my mind.
The second reason I feel uneasy about my rootless cosmopolitanism is that it doesn’t square with my political outlook. Most non-Jewish Jews, as one observer has said, do have a religion: liberalism. Many liberals subscribe to a number of notions that I disagree with—especially a belief in human perfectibility. Many liberals also tend to regard deeply religious people as neurotic or crooked—a Jimmy Swaggart rather than a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Fearing the flowering of religious belief in American life, liberals often favor a strict separation of church and state. I don’t. I think religious belief is for the most part a positive force in American life, one that enables people to withstand some of the destructive and repulsive aspects of mass culture.
If religion is a good thing, then why don’t I stop temporizing and hook up with one? After all, I’m not an atheist; I am a believer—or at least a believer to such an extent that I find myself praying at times. “Even in the life of a Christian,” Flannery O’Connor says, “faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea.” O’Connor, like Pascal, suggests that developing the habit of worship-going through the external motions of faith-fosters belief.
But perhaps because my belief is weak, I have never had the desire to go through the external motions of faith. My intellect recognizes the need for religion, but my heart rebels against being a member of a religious community. Even if I overcome that aversion, there is another problem: which religion to practice. I’m strongly attracted to Christianity, but piety—i.e., loyalty or devotion to one’s family—makes it unlikely that I ever will convert.
Constrained by familial piety, why don’t I attempt to rediscover Judaism? David Tracy has said that “you can often best rediscover your own religion . . . by discovering other religions, their differences and their truths.” Couldn’t my knowledge of Christianity lead me to a new appreciation of Judaism? Perhaps, but the will to make this rediscovery is very feeble. Though I am uneasy about having deserted the religion of my Romanian-born grandmother, I don’t see myself returning to Judaism. If I had married a Jew, I probably would have remained marginally Jewish, but I have lived in a Christian household for twenty-five years; the gulf between me and Judaism is too great.
So I do nothing. Does that mean that I have failed in my obligation to Judaism? Of course it does. I have not taken Judaism seriously enough because I have never been interested in taking Judaism seriously enough. I prefer to think about belief rather than to practice a religion. On the Sunday mornings when my wife and daughters go to church (they are not regular churchgoers, and my older daughter recently switched to a Unitarian church), I read the New York Times—happy to be alone in a silent house yet also frustrated by the Sisyphean task of trying to be reasonably well-informed about political affairs.
On some Sunday mornings, my spirit rebels. I’m uninterested in being well-informed; I want something else—something that marks off Sunday from the other days of the week. Transcendence? I am not sure what that means, but I associate it with music. I only know that some Sunday mornings I feel compelled to listen to music, which is something I rarely do during the week. Silent meditation is beyond me. I cannot do what Bonhoeffer suggested: find ten minutes “to be still and let the silence gather round . . . to stand in the presence of eternity and to let it speak. . . .”
While the music plays—usually classical but sometimes Gospel or even Indian—I sometimes daydream of a “perfect” religious experience, where custom and ceremony work their beauty: a mass held in a majestic Gothic cathedral, the service consisting of prayers in Latin, Hebrew, and the Book of Common Prayer interspersed with selections of great sacred music, from Gregorian chants to Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles—the service ending with a reading of several poems by George Herbert, especially “The Windows,” whose last stanza implies that Herbert dislikes sermonizing.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience ring.
How nice—a church of my own devising, one without sermons, one that conforms to my own aesthetic preferences.
Flannery O’Connor said that “it is much harder to believe than not to believe.” I would say it is much harder to practice a religion than to believe in God. The former requires time, effort, and—usually—money; the latter doesn’t require anything.
In The Heretical Imperative, Peter Berger says that “the modern individual is faced not just with the opportunity but with the necessity to make choices as to his beliefs.” I feel no such necessity, perhaps because the question of which religion to choose does not burn strongly in me. Sometimes I am troubled by my free-floating aesthetic religiosity—but not troubled enough to do anything about it. For reasons only my heart knows I am likely to remain a rootless cosmopolitan Jew, facing toward faith but at ease in neither the temple of my ancestors nor the church of my wife and children.
Stephen Miller has written numerous essays on political and cultural questions.