Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel TZ”L

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel TZ”L became famous as an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. during the American civil rights struggle, and I suppose I’d first heard of him — from a distance — in that context.  Orthodox and Hasidic by his Polish birth, educated in the academy of Berlin, writer, Rabbi, writer, teacher, activist, prophet.  I was interested enough, apparently, to pick up a book of his essential writings, as collected by his only child Susannah Heschel, and available as part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series from Orbis Books.  I read it over a series of weeks, a bit at a time.  On airplanes and in hotels as a travelled for work mostly.  It’s turned out to be one of those books that I suspect will stay with me for a long time … perhaps forever.  It’s a fantastic introduction to his thought and personality, and has made me want to delve even deeper into Heschel’s life and thinking by reading in full the various books that are excerpted in this collection.

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Arlington National Cemetery, 1968

The thing that upon reflection attracts me the most to Heschel’s writing and thinking is his rare combination of religious rigor and the actively holy and radical.  He was both a boy from Poland who felt most at home praying in small walk-up Hasidic Synagogues, and also an incisive prophet who demanded that all Jews, but particularly the solidifying Jewish middle class of the 60s consider whether things like nuclear weapons or the war in Vietnam were in any sense kosher.

He excelled at turning common Jewish ideas and religious tropes inside out.  He did this in a rather extra-midrashic way, quite outside the stream of usual disputation, and with a voice that spoke directly to the reader.  He turned ideas on their head because they needed to be exposed and transformed — not as an exercise, but as a necessity of justice.  In one of his reversals of perspective, he insisted that it was not humanity which sought God through religion, but God who sought humanity.   In another he noted that religiously correct prayer could be blasphemous if not supported by righteous action.  The world becomes inverted from the perspective of the Holy, in which identification with the other in the search for justice becomes the ultimate concern.

The purpose of this post is (in a somewhat ecstatic way) to share some little tidbits of his writings that I ended up reading and re-reading in this, my first encounter with Rabbi Heschel.  This was almost certainly take more than just this post, but please enjoy these first gems from my first encounter, with more to come.

On leadership and hubris:

I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom everything in the world is crystal-clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty. (Who is Man, 1965)

One of his few public statements about the Holocaust:

Ours is a Godless world.  We Jews dance around the Golden Calf.  We have forgotten that we live in a world that is treyf.  The times are dark yet we do not even light the Sabbath candles.  Six million Jews went up in smoke.  Blood will remain silent.  But our conscience is mute as a wall.  We are inebriated and distracted by the follies of this world.  The martyrs do not need our decorations of kaddish — but we need someone to recite kaddish over us, for us, because we have lost our souls.  (Unpublished, 1963)

On Vietnam:

Vietnam is a personal problem.  To speak about God and remain silent about Vietnam is blasphemous.  (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

On sin:

What is sin?  The abuse of freedom.  A failure in depth, a failure to respond to God’s challenge.
The root of sin is callousness, hardness of heart, lack of understanding what is at stake in being alive.  (Unpublished manuscript)

Knowing God:

Knowledge of God has two ingredients:  thought and feeling.  Thought without feeling is deaf, feeling without thought is blind.  (Unpublished manuscript)

On prayer:

The future of congregational prayer depends on whether Jews will learn to pray while they are alone.   (Unpublished manuscript)

On interfaith understanding [not sure if I fully agree, but interesting]:

The first and most important prerequisite of interfaith is faith.  It is only out of the depth of involvement in the unending drama that began with Abraham that we can help one another toward an understanding of our situation.  Interfaith must come out of depth, not out of avoid absence of faith.  It is not an enterprise for those who are half learned or spiritually immature.  If it is not to lead to the confusion of the many, it must remain the prerogative of the few.  (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

[to be continued]

Journal: Early rabbi surprises

This is the second in a series of journal entries corresponding to the weeks of an Introduction to Judaism class I’m taking through the Union of Reform Judaism.  Each week we are given a topic and asked to journal about that topic.  What follows is one such journal entry, possibly redacted to protect the innocent, guilty, or potentially embarrassed (which would be mostly me.)

My intro class recently cast its attention back into early rabbinic history, which is the period of the last few centuries before the common era and the first century of the same. It’s the post-exile period in which Biblical Judaism descended into controversy and emerged redefined as the rabbinic religion that is practiced to this day.   We were asked to reflect on three things that surprised us about this period, so here are are mine

Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity developed at about the same time, and are indeed sibling religions.

I guess this idea wasn’t entirely new to me, but I’d never explore it in depth.  It’s also pretty contrary to the widely held belief (among Christians) that their religion more or less supersedes Judaism.  I more or less grew up with this point of view, even though I was raised on a Christianity that was in most ways open and ecumenical.  In retrospect, this is a bit frustrating.  After all, it’s not as though signs of the turmoil preceding the destruction of the second temple are not central to all of the Christian gospels.  I recall, for example, the several rabbinic factions that Jesus was always encountering.  (He constantly battled the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he himself was likely something of a Zealot.)

All of this intra-Jewish division didn’t resolve itself until a couple of hundred years later, when both the Christian and rabbinic (Talmudic) cannons were set.  Sacrificial, temple-based Judaism was in fact a common ancestor to both traditions.  In the case of rabbinic Judaism the path was perhaps more direct and less divergent, but still, this is a pretty cool fact to ponder.

Babylon was pretty important.

Jerusalem and Judea get all of the play.  But without the safe-ish haven of Babylon as a second, and sometimes unique, center of Jewish practice and thought. Jewish history (if it had continued at all beyond ancient times) would have looked very very different.  There are many amazing facts connected to this theme, but the two that have stuck with me are the fact that the Babylonian Talmud was much bigger and more developed than the Judean one, and the fact that after the exile, it’s thought that only a minority of now-Babylonian Jews decided to move back to the area of Palestine and rebuild the temple.

To the early rabbis, the destruction of the second temple was not an unmitigated disaster

When the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 AD, it was a direct result of a series of revolts by Zealots and other Jewish sects against the ruling authorities.  The Pharisees, who by this time had begun to establish centers of learning (Synagogues) outside of the temple in Jerusalem, tended toward the philosophy of dinah d’malchuta dina — the law of the land is the law.  They were able to imagine a continued Jewish holiness in the presence of empire/occupation and apart from the sacrificial center. Meanwhile, one imagines that with each successive revolt, the Sadducees found their own crisis deepening.  They had no recourse to anything except the temple, and no philosophy or outside network like the Pharisees.  When Jerusalem was finally destroyed, their line came to a complete end, and concluded the long-running dispute between the two groups.  The Pharisees, through tragedy, had won and were soon to be free to establish what we now know as rabbinic Judaism.

Journal: Kind(s) of welcome

This is the second in a series of journal entries corresponding to the weeks of an Introduction to Judaism class I’m taking through the Union of Reform Judaism.  Each week we are given a topic and asked to journal about that topic.  What follows is one such journal entry, possibly redacted to protect the innocent, guilty, or potentially embarrassed (which would be mostly me.)

This weekly intro class has been a welcome welcome. Driving up Capitol Hill on a chilly night on Pine Street, up past fifteenth avenue, I felt nervous.  Fearful a bit.  I’d ever set foot in a Synagogue for religious purposes.  But when I walked in through the doors and into the big space of the hall of the temple, the sense of welcome was immediate.  It probably helped that a U-shaped array of diverse fellow-students were assembled in front of me.  It probably also helped that Rabbi Kate was there, a welcoming force from the beginning.  She wore a kippah in her short dark hair.  She flowed with stories.

There were other queer people — I performed the involuntary scan of the room.  It’s a habit that every marginalized group of people has in common — we scan rooms for each other.  I can and do thrive fully in rooms, houses and institutions without other queer people, but their presence in a new environment signals safety.  The room felt safe in other ways too.  Rabbi Kate led by example, starting by using language that was inclusive to various identities.  Words for G-d were not strictly gendered — though of course gendered activity is nearly impossible to avoid in Judaism in general and the TaNaKh in particular.  Regardless, the attempt was being made — a genuine one.  And I felt safe.

That said, it is not safety that am seeking on this journey.  All journeys are inherently risky.  Welcome is not the same as safety, but rather something that sometimes imparts it.  You can find welcome on and off the road, and I am certainly (for now) on it.  What I perhaps need most are traveling companions.  The Jewish way cannot be fully practiced in solitude.  After all a minyan (ten people) is required for certain religious functions, including public prayer.  There are already people from the class with whom I identify — from whom I can learn.  This has been hugely energizing and affirming.

Walking in to an unfamiliar institution — no matter how right the passage seems — can be intimidating.  But Jewish tradition provides, and even demands, that the ger (convert) be extended explicit welcome.  There exists the idea in the tradition that Jews by choice are especially beloved because of the choice — a moment of decision or calling neither required of or entirely available to Jews by brith.    There’s also the norm that it is prohibited to remind the ger of their origins if the reminder is hurtful to the one who hears or leads to any kind of marginalization.  Unreserved welcome seems to be the contemporary Jewish way (though it has not always been so for various historical reasons.)  Lucky for me too — for this is what I need:  a welcome that travels as I travel.  A welcome that can embrace all of who I have been, who I am, and who I will become.

ger toshav / Shabbas #2

One of the great things about exploring Judaism, and walking toward conversion, is that you’re generally invited to live as a Jew prior to becoming one.  In fact, there are plenty of ger who never become — either because they’ve attached themselves to an Orthodox tradition that makes actual conversion difficult, or for some internal reason.  But there’s no prohibition against, and indeed an invitation to, begin living an observant live regardless of your current status.  To do so is to become a ger toshav — a righteous person among the nations.  According to traiditon, it means you’re engaged with and bound by the Noahic Covenant … which is, according to Judaism, the first covenant entered into between God and people.

Noah and family getting that covenant.  Pretty sure he earned it.

Let’s just pause to check in on what’s actually in the covenant with Noah.  It’s a bit important, since it applies to every person in the world (Jew, Gentile, whatever) and a few of the provisions include the animals too.  So we have:

  • humans must populate the earth
  • humans are in charge of animals (this was not all that clear previously)
  • humans can eat animal meat, but not blood
  • human life is sacred and murder is always prohibited
  • the covenant applies to every living person and animal that was in the arc (fish and other sea creatures are apparently therefore exempt, as perhaps are seabirds?)
  • any animal or person who kills a human being must themselves be killed
  • God will never again destroy the earth with a flood.
  • The rainbow is the sign of the covenant

A few thoughts:

humans must populate the earth: I’m not really going to be able to help much with that one.  Love all my friends’ kids though.
humans are in charge of animals: mixed feelings.  I enjoy being in charge of my pet dog, since the alternatives are not all that attractive.  However, the humans-dominating-everything model hasn’t really worked out that well, and is an idea that tends to be abused by us humans.
humans can eat animal meat, but not blood:. not sure what to make of this one.  I love a good blood-sausage once in a while.  This prohibition obviously survived to later covenants, and indeed became part of the kosher and halal laws.  I’ll add this to my (long) list of things I want to find out more about.
human life is sacred and murder is always prohibited: pretty sure I’m down with that.
the covenant applies to every living person and animal that was in the arc:  I don’t understand why fish or dolphins would be excluded, but hey whatever.
any animal or person who kills a human being must themselves be killed: yah, no.  I’m not into capital punishment or blood feuds.
God will never again destroy the earth with a flood:  no objection.
The rainbow is the sign of the covenant: gay stamp of approval.

In about twenty minutes will begin my second-ever observance of Shabbas, the day of rest.  This is not (yet) incumbent upon me, but I already love it.  One lights beautiful candles, says some prayers, breathes deeply, greets loved ones, eats a meal.  It is the beginning of a 25 hour period where time changes, and we are invited into rest and reflection.  I’m still discovering what this idea means for me, but so far I’ve been doing little things, like avoiding my smartphone where possible, not doing any work, reading, avoiding spending money, eating meals with friends … stuff like that.  More on this in a future post I think.

Shabbas is the third of three covenants between people and God — and the second of two between God and Israel in particular.  So my participation is voluntary, or “even more voluntary” I suppose, since I am learning the Reform tradition, in which many things are voluntary.  But it would be nigh on impossible to imagine a Judaism of any kind without the day of rest, and for that I am grateful.

Seven deleted scenes from my father’s side of the family


My grandfather stands at his own father’s grave and watches as the body is lowered into the ground.  The Rabbi (young, bespectacled, over from Bloomington) tells him to add the first shovel of dirt to cover the coffin. Rushed Hebrew spills from the his thin lips, words becoming clouds of steam in the autumn air.  My great-grandmother stands nearby — uncharacteristically silent.  Her best friend glowers behind her, a disapproving pole of a woman.  My great-grandfather’s business partner and his wife are the only other mourners.  They huddle together — embarrassed, polite.  Grandpa is all of fifteen — tall and swallowed by his new suit.  He yearns to be somewhere else, anywhere other than the Hebrew Plot of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana.


My great-grandfather crosses the US border at Fort Erie, Ontario with his new wife Mary.  She’s gorgeous, pregnant and Catholic.  He’s left home the week before, his mother Leah in tears, his father Jacob warning him he’ll never be able to come back, yelling out of the window of the furniture shop down Baldwin Street into the Toronto night, cursing his own bekhor.

My great-grandfather takes Mary’s warm hand.  To hell with them, he thinks as the train clacks south. To hell with them and all their rigidity.  To hell with them and their old stories, their incomprehensible prayers, their neverending attempts to find him a nice wife, their superstitions, their darkness.


My great grandfather chooses a new last name — my last name.  The one he picks is unostentatiously goy-sihnothing too grand, nothing too special.  He tries it on for size for a while — signs hotel registers, laundry receipts.  He demotes the old family name to his middle name on forms — applies for jobs that way, registers for the draft.  When the sky doesn’t fall, he drops it altogether.  He takes a job selling furniture way out in the Pacific Northwest.  Mary and the kids stay in Buffalo.  He keeps moving, keeps traveling, keeps running.  Then he runs away from Mary too — from all of them.


My great-great grandfather Jacob is outside of his father’s furniture shop in Telz.  It’s the hottest day of the Lithuanian summer, and everyone his age is swimming in the lake.  He, on the other hand, is losing an argument with a group of drunk Russian soldiers.  The largest one grabs him by the hair and throws him against the wall of the workshop.  Another hits him across the chest with something metal and heavy.  He hears a crack, like a chair-leg snapping.  Just as the soldiers circle, smelling blood, a sergeant rounds the corner from the lane.  He sees what’s happening and stops, wiping his brow in the heat.  After a moment he barks a few words at the soldiers in pugnacious Russian.  They withdraw like disappointed dogs.

Jacob will be married in one week.  At least they didn’t hit him in the head.  If his whole body is black and blue, who cares, no one at the wedding will notice.  He thinks of Leah and their wedding night, then suddenly doubles over.  His father Bernard the carpenter comes running out of the workshop to see his son vomiting on the ground.  On his wedding day, he will give Jacob two steamer tickets.  To England first, then one day Canada.  Anywhere but here.


After my great-grandfather’s funeral in Terre Haute, after the awkward visits from friends around town, after the strange lingering afternoons of the Rabbi sitting in the parlor, after the timid instructions on how to say the kaddish —  after all of this, the uncles from Canada call.  “Here,” says my great grandmother, covering the phone receiver in the hallway as my grandpa approaches, “it’s for you.”

You should come back, they tell him.  He feels like pointing out that he’s never been in the first place.   Free university — law school at Queens.  And of course the family business — quite the furniture empire you know.  You’re bekhor yourself, they say … that means it’s your birthright, get it?  What, you think we’re calling long distance like this for our own health?  

They have accents, especially the one who calls himself Uncle Solly.  Solly’s voice is clipped and vaguely British but with a further element — something unpleasant and foreign.  He uses strange words in a  strange order and his sentences bend up at the end, or else trail off into nothing.  What’s that?  You don’t want to be a lawyer, eh.  Don’t you like ice-hockey?  They call and call, they write letters.  My great-grandmother passes the little envelopes with the Canadian stamps to her son unopened, unmentioned, until finally one day, they stop.

In Toronto, the world has flipped upside-down.  Solly comes to his father Jacob to tell him that his lost bekhor is dead in some godforsaken town in the States.  Some place called Terre Haute, meaning high ground.  Telz is on high ground too thinks Jacob — built on seven hills overlooking the lakeshore.  In his mind’s eye, Terre Haute becomes just like Telz — but with no Yeshiva, no lake, and now no Jews.  At least Telz will always have the lake.  Come to think of it, what good did high ground ever do for anybody?

Jacob closes the family furniture shop in Baldwin Street for the last time.  The next morning he sells his tools to Levi Gordon to get them out of his sight.  He donates the remaining chairs and cabinets.  Solly shows up in the door of the suddenly-empty worksop,  his face wearing a dazed expression. Dad, you should know there’s also a boy:  your grandson, my nephew.  The obligation hangs between them like a curtain.  We’ll bring him home — we’ll send him to Queens — make things right.  Jacob says nothing to his son, scanning his face and body as if attempting to recognize who he is.  At least we’ll pay for the funeral, adds Solly.   Jacob closes the workshop door in his face.  Solly hears the click of a deadbolt.

In the weeks to come, Jacob says kaddish for his firstborn — because who bloody well else will.  Leah brings his meals to the workshop where he’s taken to sitting alone reading scripture.  He reads and re-reads the Torah passage about visiting the sins of the father on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. Without thinking, he feels his chest through his shirt, his hand finding the unhealed rib.


Jacob is old.  He lies on his deathbed in Baldwin Street, in the appartment above the abandoned shop.  He’s thinking of the beautiful lake in Telz in springtime.  A strange thing to think of while dying, but he’ll take it.  He remembers how — against all odds — he’d snuck Leah out in the rowboat that spring long ago.  How he’d rowed and rowed, watching her shining face the whole time.  Leah sits next to him by the bed right now.  He can’t see her, but he knows she’s there.

There are differing opinions as to the cause of death.  Old age — worn out, says Leah whenever she’s asked.  Despair, offers Solly with a shrug.  But what’s the difference in these days of war, when Telz is burning?  As my great great grandfather’s body cools, the remaining Jews of Telz lie shot and frozen in the pits of the Rainiai Forest, just over the hill from the beautiful lake.  Christian men don kerchiefs and cover their former neighbors with a thin layer of sand.  Their wives sort through piles of winter coats, arguing over the best ones.

Leah sits shiva for Jacob in the empty workshop.  None of the kids think it suitable, but she does it anyway.  The boys bring down the parlor furniture for visitors but the Rabbi’s wife still raises an eyebrow at the spectacle of it.  The only furniture shop in Toronto with no chairs and no heat, and this is where you sit, says Solly to Leah when the first wave of guests has gone.  He returns the next day in full winter getup — heavy down coat, toque covering his kippah, massive wool gloves.   If his mother begrudges the gesture, she says nothing.


My grandfather stands day-watch on the deck of an American destroyer in the mouth of the English Channel.  The night before, they’d disabled a German U-boat with a series of depth-charges, but since then it’s been storming so badly that there’s been no sign of their kill.  The boys under his command huddle belowdecks playing poker and passing around the puke-can but my grandfather stands outside in the full blast of the sea, alternating between smoking, peering through binoculars and squinting directly into the unrelenting rain.

He will never tell anyone this, but there are times on watch when he thinks of throwing himself overboard.  It’s not suicide he has in mind, but something more akin to a test or  dare.  He leans forward over the low rail into the wind so that only the gale keeps him upright.  If the storm were to suddenly calm, he would fall in, uniform and all.

Sometimes he hears voices at moments like this.  Voices in his head, or in the howling air, it’s hard to tell which.  “Who are you?”  call the voices. “Where are your from?   How the hell did you get yourself into this mess — stuck here in a storm on a ship so far from home?  Speaking of which —  and I don’t mean to bring up a sore point here — where’s your home anyway?  Your true home I mean.”  The voices sound like Uncle Solly on a long distance call, but older and with even thicker accents.  The voices neither sing nor speak, but only something in between.

My grandfather scans the ridges of waves for any sign of the submarine that he knows is down there, a living hulk in the darkness.  Needless to say he never flings himself into the sea — would I be writing this if he had?  Needless to say the storm passes on its own — do storms pass any other way?  And needless to say the great fish of the enemy U-boat settles unseen on the bottom of the sea, another secret grave.

Journal: my religious life now

This is the first in a series of journal entries corresponding to the weeks of an Introduction to Judaism class I’m taking through the Union of Reform Judaism.  Each week we are given a topic and asked to journal about that topic.  What follows is one such journal entry, possibly redacted to protect the innocent, guilty, or potentially embarrassed (which would be mostly me.)

A door opens, a door closes.  Looking back behind me I see the expanse of forty-three years.  If not an entire half-life, then nearly so.  I see my parents back there, at the beginning.  I like to think that they did the best they could with the religious raw materials they themselves were given.  I was baptized as an infant, raised a mainline Protestant.  At times, strains of stringent Calvinism trickled down from my mother’s side.  At others a sort of silence cloaked my father.  I was confirmed in the Lutheran church at 12 or 13 by a dour if harmless pastor.  I went to a Lutheran College.

In my teens and twenties there were many aspects of Christianity that I loved.  The ritual, the community, the sacramental and justice-seeking aspects of Liturgical Christianity.  And also the idea of the communion of the saints — the universal sibling-hood of all people.  And the meal — how I loved the communal meal.  (Christianity’s founding seder.)

But other aspects where highly problematic.  Exclusivism in all of its forms desecrated the very idea of an inclusive table by drawing eschatological distinctions between the baptized and un-baptized.  Growing up as I did in a multicultural world, with friends from all parts of creation and of all faiths, I found this idea of exclusion to be intolerable.   In addition, there was a certain amount of personal trauma in play.  The 1980s and 90s were not a safe time for a young gay boy to grow up even in liberal Christian circles, and to some extent I still bear the scars of the terrible isolation of that.  But even more crucially, the realization that even my lefty-religious community — the one I grew up in embraced — that even this flavor of Christianity was predicated on a series of taboos and thought patterns that I could simply not accept as normative.

I found temporary company in Christian writers and thinkers like John Shelby Spong and Elaine Pagels and many patient and engaging friends who are Christians. I cheered when my brother began his seminary studies.  I love and admire so many many Christians.  But in the end —  I found the struggle to belong with them to be simply too difficult to continue.  Christianity became the minefield in my own backyard — a house I grew up in that was becoming uninhabitable.


I’ve had a lifelong difficulty with the idea of the supernatural — in particular whether anything supernatural can be said to exist or occur, and what the correct religious response to the question should be.  In the case of all but the very most heretical Christians, the respective responses to these questions seemed to be “yes of course the supernatural exists, and indeed it must” and “we should not talk about it not existing”  This did not work for me.  I wanted to talk about it — to struggle openly with it.  And I didn’t want to be treated as a second-class citizen because of my struggle.

Relatedly, there was the matter of the central miracle of the faith.  I questioned it, and from an early age.  I recall frighening the old German pastor as a twelve year old with my heretical questions on the subject during confirmation class.  It wasn’t just a question of whether the resurrection was historical (it was clearly not) but indeed whether we should even tolerate the continuance of the idea that it was.  The whole thing seemed to me at best a fantasy designed to soothe those who needed soothing, and at worst a triumphalist, mind-bending myth that detracted from the central ministry of whoever Jesus had been, which always seemed to have been a personality dedicated to the elevation of the poor and oppressed.  Over time, I found that the creeds became more and more unsayable.  Like many, I essentially failed to connect to the church as an adult, except for the short time in my late twenties when I lived in a leftist ecumenical community in the Cascade mountains.  But it was a last gasp.  Even there, I feared I was becoming known as someone who compromised the faith of others with “all my questions.”  But the fear quickly melted into detachment and sadness.  By the beginning of my 30s, I was done — a Christian by heritage, but no longer my practice or inclination.

I wandered, unsure of many things, including whether my faith lost me, I misplaced it, or if it ever existed in the first place.  In my twenties, the energy of the slowly dissolving bond between me and my faith-of-origin propelled me on various quests of religious discovery.   I went to India at the age of twenty-four and lived in both Hindu ashrams and a Benedictine monastery.  I sat with the local Quakers, waiting for God and admiring their fervor (which I lacked.)  But as I aged, I also mellowed, and the story of the last 10-11 years has been one of a kind of melencholy acceptance of the idea that I lack any kind of religious affiliation.  I began to see myself as a child who had been born in the wrong house.   I’ve always been able to peer into other windows, to imagine what it must feel like to belong to a tradition that fits me better.  But at the same time, the actual seeking out of another religious home began to feel like the struggle of a younger person.  Still, I never quite lost my affinity and hunger for community, practice and ritual that only religion can provide.

I’ve long identified as a someone who is constitutionally far more inclined toward religion than spirituality.  Give me some justice to do — a ritual to bind me to others — a meal to share.  That stuff I can handle.  That stuff feeds me.  My quarrel has always been with the ineffable — not the practical.  And so I learned to rather proudly wear my “religious not spiritual” label as a kind of honorific … except of course that I lacked a religion.  This occasionally raised eyebrows — for example when I’d regale a friend at a party with all of this when in a partiuclarly contrarian sort of mood.  (You can tell I go to very exciting parties.)  But I meant it, and I always longed for someone to say “hey you know what, I feel exactly the same way.  I get that.  I know what you mean.”

In truth, few ever did.  Except …

My Jewish friends and colleagues, who over the past decade have become somewhat mysteriously numerous, seemed to know more or less what I was talking about.  To many of them the difference between one’s level of observance and one’s personal philosophy or cosmology was not a strange or unnatural distinction.  Nor was it outlandish that I would find myself in struggle or dialog with tradition, the supernatural, G-d — with any of it.  Quite the contrary, these were normal and laudable things with which to struggle. Israel, after all, may mean to struggle with God.

I remember clearly a winter day in 2010.  I found myself in Tokyo, Japan, visiting my brother and his family who were living there at the time.  A somewhat-distant friend of mine named E. was also there visiting his Japanese in-laws with his wife. We spent the day walking around central Tokyo together, two tall white guys talking about all manner of things, from the personal to the political and religious.  E’s heavy cultural Jewishness stood out for me in stark relief against the backdrop of futuristic neon that is urban Japan. I think it was somewhere in the course of that day that I first fully realized how comfortable, how safe, how challenged, how at home I felt with his patterns of speech, his way of batting an idea around, his constant state of almost sacred exasperation and engagement with the world.  THAT’S ME.  I kept thinking that day.  THAT’S HOW I THINK.  On the long train ride home that day I thought about a growing number of other important relationships I’d begun to develop in my life — two generous and inspiring jewish mentors.  An observant co-worker.  Friends. Teammates.

I still felt like a child born in the wrong house.  There was still a minefield in the backyard.  But at least now there was another household on the block to which I could have imagined being born.  But throughout most of my 30s, my religious fatigue won out, and so despite many moments of introspection — on the train in Japan and elsewhere — I let the matter lie and focused on other areas of my life: relationship, career, social justice, sports, community.  I admired the house of my Jewish friends, but only from afar.


Carl Jung used the term synchronicity to describe the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.  On the rare occasions that this particular phenomenon has appeared in my life, it’s generally been the harbinger of great change — leaving the home of my parents, for example, or coming out as a gay man, or ending a relationship.   Looking back, all of these transitions were preceded by “coincidences” of one sort or another.  Something of the sort seems to be afoot with me now.  In particular, my current religious path seems to be coalescing around the synchronistic relationship between two themes in my life.  One  — my decade of growing affinity for Judaism and the Jewish people in my life — I have already mentioned.  The other is perhaps something more sudden, more unexpected and close.

A year or so ago, on a lark, I decided to take one of those home genetic tests.  And — wouldn’t you know — the test revealed that I had a significant amount of Ashkenazic DNA — enough that I would have had to have had a grandparent or great grandparent who was an Eastern European Jew.


I called my parents immediately.  What’s the deal?  No one had told me about this!  It turns out that no one had told them either — they were both surprised.  I took a second DNA test — same result (in fact, I was even more Jewish according to the second test.)


I’ll save the details of my various forms of online genetic research and family testing for some other post, and instead skip right to the results of my searching.  It turns out that my father’s ancestors on his dad’s side were Litvak Jews from the city of Telz in present-day Lithuania.  Like many others, they fled Europe in the early 1900s via England to avoid (we assume) various sorts of persecution.  My twice-great grandfather Jacob, like his own father, was a maker and seller of furniture — a profession that persists to this day down to my uncle.  So the family business survived all of those years.  The family religion, at least in the case of our branch, did not.  My paternal grandfather decided to end all traces of the family’s Jewishness, and of his own Orthodox heritage.  He had my father raised as a Presbyterian and told him almost nothing of his own father, who had died when my grandfather was fifteen.  And that … was that.

Except that it wasn’t.

Over the course of the past year I’ve realized how explanatory this new knowledge was about my father and his background.  I’ve looked back at my dad’s family — through personal memory, family stories and genealogical research (thanks Mormons!) — and seen a long line of men who are good at running and turning away, and not so good at preserving, passing down and serving as guides.  My dad’s people are excellent travelers — eager to set out on journeys, and comfortable with the idea of not knowing exactly where the road will lead.  They’re less skilled at allowing and inviting others to follow, or allowing the journey to be ruled by a sense of continuity and justice rather than a desire to escape, or reject the ways and values of the parent.  Theirs is a story of changed names, cities, religions, professions and philosophies — changes that come on a generation-by-generation basis.

But more important than any of these familial discoveries is the deep knowledge that our  newly-revealed Jewish past has somehow set fire to my previously rather cool interest in Judaism.  I find myself asking new questions:  what if in some sense I hadn’t been born in the wrong house after all?  What if my restlessness, my struggle, my disconnection — what if all of this was in service of something greater?  What if there is in some sense a reason why I’ve been comfortable around Jews and Jewishness?


Like the notion of the supernatural,  I have a great deal of difficulty with the idea of destiny.  Synchronicity, on the other hand, I can handle.  This is because Jung’s idea requires not only coincidence, but the imposition (consciously or otherwise) of a personal narrative.  Destiny is both arbitrary and imposed from the outside.  Synchronicity, on the other hand, is an act of creation.

Occasionally the fact of my dad’s partial Jewishness strikes me as nothing too much more than an interesting bit of trivia about the past. But much more often it strikes me as important, as liberating, as explanatory, as potentially life-altering.  It gives me permission — though I know that I don’t really need it — to listen with new ears to the examples and voices of my Jewish friends and influences.  And I’ve come to believe that this change in hearing is what’s really important here, rather than anything to do with DNA or family trees.  Something within me is taking stock of and passing a kind of judgement on the facts of my life, my history, my family.   And it is saying:  pay attention!  don’t look away!  Don’t run away!  There is something extraordinary here and you have to see it!

When Moses saw the bush on fire, the most remarkable thing wasn’t the fire itself, but the fact that the bush wasn’t consumed.  Being the skeptic that I am, I feel like I need to point out that bushes are always consumed when on fire — of this we can be pretty sure.  But ideas?  Intuitions?  Desires?  Stories? What happens when synchronicity comes along and torches one of those?

How would I describe my religious life right now?   Transitional?  Pivotal?  About the be born?  I’m no Moses … that’s for sure.  But I feel like I might know what it’s like to see something on fire in the distance and realize that whatever it is is coming from both within and without at the same time.  And so my religious life right now consists of not only listening but walking —  both outward and inward at the same time.  Inward to my own makeup, my own way of thinking my own intuition.  Outward to my family, to the beginnings of the mitzvoth, and through the doors of a Synagogue.  And whatever it is I’m approaching from these two directions — whatever it that I see way over there, burning in the distance — feels holy to me.  And so all I can do right now is look around at everyone in my life:  at my dad, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my brothers, my mother, my mentors, my Jewish and non-Jewish posse of friends and colleagues, my husband, my community, my people … all I can do is look around at all of them at once and say, I’m no Moses, but ….  here I am.