Blind Faith

Jews often live in calendar dialectics. Annually, we oscillate between two Jewish New Years (Tishrei/Nissan) and two “Judgment Days” (Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur). the Dubner Maggid, Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, perhaps the greatest Jewish storyteller of all time, was once asked: Why do we celebrate both Simchat Torah and Shavuot? Why not condense them into one grand holiday?

Characteristically, he responded with a story: A king and queen were childless for many years. Desperate, they visited a sage who conveyed a potent blessing with a cautionary clause. Shortly, the queen would successfully bear a baby girl. No man outside the family, however, must see her until her wedding day, lest she die. And so it was. When the queen gave birth to a baby girl, a secluded island was prepared for the princess. There she was raised in regal style with the finest female educators.

As the princess came of age, the king encountered a serious technical difficulty in marrying off his daughter. Each nobleman in the king’s court was thrilled to accept the princess’s hand in marriage — until it was explained that the first date and the wedding would coincide. On the verge of despair, the king approached the final nobleman, who remarkably assented to marry without as much as a peek.

As the wedding date approached, the nobleman’s repressed bridal fears shook him profoundly. He was for better, but probably for worse, stuck. On the wedding day, the whole world came to dance, except for the anxiety-stricken groom. As he peered underneath the veil, he braced for disaster — but inexplicably the princess was incredibly beautiful. A nagging nervousness persisted: “What’s the catch?” But none was coming. Everyday he unveiled yet another wondrous aspect of her personality. Not only was she stunning, she was also spunky, spirited, charming and deep.

Months later, the nobleman approached his new father-in-law to admit his delight in his new bride and confide his disappointment — that he had essentially missed out on the wedding. The king decided that a new party would be arranged. All the guests would be invited back but this time only one person, the prince himself, would dance to express his absolute delight. And so it was.

Shavuot, the Dubner Maggid explained, marks the Jew’s unshakable commitment to God’s wisdom and His Torah. Not knowing what was in the Torah, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jewish nation confidently proclaimed Na’aseh V’nishma (we will perform the mitzvot and then we will understand them). That faith remained blind until the Jew was exposed to the sweetness of the Torah. Simchat Torah celebrates, through dedication to Torah study, the Jew’s joy and ever expanding appreciation for the Torah’s pristine beauty and depth.

Is that not a metaphor for Jewish history? When we had nothing but faith — throughout the numerous darks spots, spanning from Babylonia through Rome to Medieval Europe and 20th century Germany — the Jew always celebrated deep Torah study. It was the study halls of Babylonia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Lithuania and Poland that illuminated our blackest moments. And today — as we begin the “Lexus” period of the 21st century America Jewish community — where are we?

In May 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story on “The Vanishing American Jew,” predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in this country. Since that dire prediction, Look has vanished and we remain 5 million plus. All, however, is not rosy on the American Jewish front. Sub-zero replacement rates, an aging population and a 52 percent intermarriage rate do not bode well for the future of American Jewry.

When historians will wonder what happened to all those American Jews, I believe they will reach the inescapable conclusion that many analysts of the classic 1990 National Jewish Population Survey have already reached: “Jewish day school was … the only schooling that stands against the assimilatory process indicated by intermarriage and its related behaviors” (Elimor & Katz, 1993). In other words, only a consistent commitment to serious Torah will create the joy critical to ensure Jewish survival. Of course these historians will have only been echoing the words of the sweet singer of Israel, King David, who more than 2,500 years ago penned in his Psalms the sentiment: “Had the Torah not been my constant delight, long ago, I would have long since been lost”

Amid the wild craziness and the merriment (and the unfortunate alcohol) that often accompanies Simchat Torah, we may want to reflect upon the secret of our eternity.

After that reflection, I humbly submit, we might just do ourselves and our unborn grandchildren a favor and commit to attend one of the numerous deep (and often entertaining) Torah classes that can be found year-round in our local synagogues or kollels. The Torah is quite a bride — and marriage, after all, is a beautiful thing.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.


‘Girl Meets God’ — Again and Again

“Girl Meets God: On the Path to Spiritual Life” by Lauren Winner (Algonquin Books, $23.95).

Lauren Winner’s spiritual memoir, “Girl Meets God,” is a passionate and thoroughly engaging account of a continuing spiritual journey within two profoundly different faiths.

Winner, the child of a Reform Jewish father and a “lapsed Southern Baptist” mother, was raised as a Jew in the South. Told she was not really Jewish, since Jewish law dictates that Judaism passes through the blood of the mother, she chose to convert to Orthodox Judaism at the end of high school, following her parents’ divorce. By the end of her senior year at college, she decided that while in graduate school in England she would convert again, this time to evangelical Christianity.

One of the fascinating things about “Girl Meets God,” beyond the seismic shifts in Winner’s affiliation, is the degree to which faith and practice have formed the underpinnings of her life. As a teenager, Winner immersed herself in the activities of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va. She “traded in lacrosse practice and ballet lessons and field hockey sticks, awkward dates at the movie theater and Friday night football games and many other normal teenage activities for more hours, more afternoons and weekend at the synagogue.” As a college student, now an Orthodox Jew, she was drawn to Christianity through diligent study, constant questioning and careful, nearly obsessive attention to spiritual teachings.

She explains herself in this way: “What draws me to a religion is the beliefs, the theologies, the books, the incantations, the recipes to get to God, and I like to imagine that they work in the abstract, that they are enough, that they exist, somewhere, pure and distinct from the people who enact them.”

The great strength of “Girl Meets God,” though, is not purity of theology but force of personality. Winner is insatiable, and dauntless, in her search for religious truth, at whatever personal cost. The sheer energy of her quest, combined with her refreshing honesty and flashes of wild humor, give her story its edge. The book follows the arc of a liturgical year, opening with Sukkot in the fall, and then dividing into sections named according to the ecclesiastical calendar — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Eastertide — with subchapters, some only a page or two, on varying topics. There are commentaries on subjects like “Family Reunions” and “The Bible I Use,” the author’s reading of the Book of Ruth and a discussion of the similarities between Christian and Jewish festivals. Yet, Winner’s thinking is so wide-ranging, in scope and in time, that the organizing principle seems imposed, almost too decorative.

Early on, she refers to her increasing love for Jesus in terms of marital infidelity, and compares her abandonment of Judaism to a wrenching divorce that has caused her to lose friends and distress family members. She does not deviate from her path, though, once converted to Christianity for good by a powerful dream. “I knew, as soon as I woke up, that the dream came from God and it was about the reality of Jesus,” she writes. “The truth of Him. That He was a person whose pronouns you had to capitalize. That He was God. I knew that with more certainty than I have ever known anything else.”

The book is, in fact, a curious mixture of certainty and searching, from beginning to end. Nor is it clear even at the end that Winner’s journey is over. Having given away her entire collection of Jewish books at the time of her second conversion, Lauren later finds herself buying the old familiar texts again, missing Judaism and rebuilding her library even as she works to build and sustain her Christian life. “Now I am reading Ruth again,” she writes. “I find I am reading her differently. Ruth is still my favorite. Not because she is a convert, but because she is a bridge, genealogically and literally, to Jesus.

“It is no surprise, I guess, that I read Ruth differently than I used to. All the stories look different, through Christian glasses.”

Skeptical friends have suggested that Winner may convert again, perhaps becoming a Buddhist next time. She insists that she will remain a Christian, albeit one who has been formed and trained by Judaism. “Judaism and Christianity have something to do with each other,” she writes. “Judaism and Christianity make a path.” Most readers of this thoughtful and highly entertaining book will be moved by her journey.

Reeve Lindbergh has written “No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh” (Simon & Schuster, 2001) and “On Morning Wings” (Candlewick Press, 2002) an adaptation of the 139th Psalm for children.