November 13, 2019

A Late Comer to Her Jewish Roots

Every kid who goes to Hebrew school learns the story of the man who came to Shammai and then to Hillel and asked the scholars there to teach him the whole Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Sarah Hurwitz’s “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There)” (Spiegel & Grau) is the book these two sages might have given him to read, if he came to them today.

Like many kids, Hurwitz had only a token Jewish education as a child. Not much stayed with her, and by the time she went through college and got a job as a speechwriter for former first lady Michelle Obama in the White House, whatever she knew about Judaism was only a dim memory. Then — and who can say why things like this happen — she took an interest in Judaism, making the rounds of rabbis and teachers in the Washington, D.C., area. Hurwitz found out (much to her own surprise) that the Judaism she had sloughed off in her childhood had the power to speak to her soul in adulthood.

This book is intended for fellow and sister students like her who may have learned a bit about Judaism in their childhoods, but who shopped for meaning everywhere else in the world, as she did, before she came back and discovered it in Judaism.

What makes this book effective is that Hurwitz never underestimates the intelligence of her readers or overestimates their knowledge. She carefully explains every Hebrew word and every religious term she uses and never assumes her reader knows or still remembers what these terms mean. At the same time, she explores the most significant concepts within Judaism and compares and contrasts what different teachers have taught her about them.

What makes this book effective is that Hurwitz never underestimates the intelligence of her readers or overestimates their knowledge.

For example, what — or who — do we mean by God? Hurwitz brings Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel together to discuss this question on the same page, even though they have very different answers to offer. She takes terms such as “tikkun olam,” which means one thing in Reform Judaism and something very different in kabbalah, and shows how both these understandings are rich in meaning. She tells us frankly when a teacher turns her off, as well as when a teacher opens new horizons for her. She juxtaposes the understanding of where the Torah comes from that she finds in modern biblical criticism and the understanding of where the Torah comes from that she finds within the tradition — and discovers both these perspectives speak to her.

If there is one fault in this book it is that Hurwitz overquotes. The expression “So and So says …” is in almost every paragraph. After a while, this book begins to sound like an anthology of what the best Jewish teachers believe rather than a personal statement of where Hurwitz stands and what she believes.

But this one flaw is forgivable when you read, for example, about how enchanting Shabbat has become to her — not so much because of the books of Jewish philosophy she has read about it, but from the experience of living the Shabbat for a whole day and sensing how the concept of the sacredness of time comes alive.

Her chapter “Freeing God From ‘His’ Man Shaped Cage in the Sky” is a delight to read for anyone who appreciates good, clean, crisp writing. And it makes the case for a grown-up understanding of the divine cogently and honestly.

Many of the “Introductions to Judaism” we give to students nowadays are pedestrian and boring. To have one written by a writer good enough to write speeches for Michelle Obama and talented enough that you wish she was writing scripts for some of the dull programs we sit through on television, is a pleasure.

You will smile numerous times when you read this book, and you will find yourself taking sides many times between the different understandings of Judaism Hurwitz presents.

And you will wish the man who approached Shammai and Hillel many centuries ago could have been given a book like this to read, instead of being sent away with anger by Shammai and being welcomed with just a single epigram by Hillel.

If you are a person who has either grown up and grown out of Judaism or a person considering joining the Jewish people for whatever reason, I dare you to read this book. If you do, you will find Judaism is not so much a catechism as it is a calendar, and you will learn that asking questions not only is permitted but is an essential part of the program. You will find out there always is another book to read, another experience to have and another perspective to consider. You will find that not only will your understanding of Judaism grow and change as you continue to study, your understanding of yourself also will grow and change.

You will find the idea that we are made in God’s image enlightening you about what it means to be a human being and that it is not just a phrase in the Bible. You will discover that the way Judaism demands we see ourselves as partners with the Divine transforms the way we see ourselves, and not just the way we understand some stories in the Bible. You will find Judaism is averse to dogma, and it insists we ask questions, and it is countercultural — then you will realize we should be, too.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of “Finding God in Unexpected Places” and “The Day I Met Father Isaac in the Supermarket.”