Friday, April 8, 2011

The Jewish Way

Reflections & Religion

“The only true non-conformists are in the asylums; the only radically free spirits are in the death house awaiting the chair. We live by patterns."
Herman Wouk, This Is My God

“I felt there’s a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance. I’d be a jerk not to take advantage of it. ”
Herman Wouk

“Some people think that all the equipment you need to discuss religion is a mouth.”
Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk’s This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life.

I have been re-reading Herman Wouk's This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, which was originally published in 1959, with later editions put out in 1970, 1974, and 1988. I have the second edition, which although more recent than the first, is now forty years old. The book is a mild appeal to fellow Jews to follow or in some cases return to the “traditions of our fathers.” In modern language, that means following orthodox Judaism in at least its most basic form.

The book is by no means an exhaustive or comprehensive work on Judaism, which the author himself says is available among scholarly sources. The book is a good basic primer for someone who is looking for some background, history and customs that mark the four-thousands-year journey of the Jewish people. The book is written in an easy-to-read style, as refreshing today as when it was first written more than fifty years ago.

Such is not surprising given the writer. Wouk, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, who is now 95, was born in New York City in May 1915, coming from a family of Jews from Russia. His grandfather was a major influence on Wouk. He now reside in Palm Springs, California. He was married for more than sixty-five years to Betty Sarah Wouk (nee Brown), a convert to Judaism, who died on March 17, 2011, aged 90. (May he be comforted.)

Wouk achieved fame in his early twenties as a writer in the world of  show business, notably as a comedy writer for Fred Allen. His novel, The Caine Mutiny (1951), went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Later works, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), historical fiction of the Second World War and its horrors, became hugely popular television minsieries.

As Wouk writes about those early years in the 1930s:
[B]ut even as I lived this conventional smart existence of inner show business, and dreamed the conventional dreams, it all seemed thin. I was not sated or revolted. But I found myself unable to believe, deep down, that hits plus random pleasure would ever add up to life. It left out my identity. (250)
Much is made of identity politics today. In some forms it is shallow, in others deeper. As much as Wouk understands the pull of secularism, assimilation or atheism, it leads in the end to the eventual erosion and destruction of the Jewish people. That thought might appeal to some, as a necessary evolution, but not to him.

For Wouk, the answer to what keeps the Jewish people alive, and not become some ancient relic, long forgotten, are the Laws of Moses, compiled in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), the Talmud, the Mishneh Torah, and other leading commentaries and ancillary practices hammered out through legal argument, interpretation and explanation by the leading sages, including Judah the Prince (Yehudah HaNasi), Moses ben-Maimon (Rambam) and Joseph Caro.

His book lays out his position calmly and rationally, which is more striking at a time where secular and haredi Jews have hardened positions. It is Judaism without dogma, judgment or animosity of those who do not follow any or some of its most basic tenets, including the dietary laws, the Sabbath and the holidays and festivals such as Rosh HaShanah (New Year's), Sukkot (Festival of Booths) and Pesach (Passover).

There is a very nice quote in the book, which takes aim at the non-religious, who accuse the religious of lacking intellect, of being weak-minded and fearful, an argument that Wouk finds specious:
Religious people tend to encounter, among those who are not, a cemented certainty that belief in God is a crutch for the weak and the fearful.
[. . .]
Now the belief in God may turn out at the last trump to be a mistake. Meantime, let us be quite clear, it is not merely the comfort of the simple—though it is that too, much to its glory—it is a formidable intellectual position with which most of the first-class minds of the human race, century in and century out, have concurred, each in his own way.
[. . .]
It is becoming all too clear that —speaking of crutches—Freud can be a crutch, Marx can be a crutch, rationalism can be a crutch, and atheism can be two canes and a pair of iron braces. We none of us have all the answers, nor are we likely to have. But in the country of the halt, the man who is surest he has no limp may be the worst-crippled. (5)
He has a point. I think it's easy and intellectually lazy to criticize religious faith if one’s understanding of it is weak or limited. It takes some humility on the part of the seeker of truth (see Finding Humility.) For those who are not cut from such a cloth, these laws will be only strictures and fetters that religion imposes, That might seem so, as is the case of Judaism in its extreme forms and practices, with laws beyond the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, or commandments, many of which cannot be practiced today, adding to thousands of additional requirements.

No doubt, these complicated laws seem without reason or purpose in a super-modern society of today. But an analogy can be made, though a simple one. Just as the universe and laws of nature follow laws, some which we understand, many which we (yet) do not, so Judaism relies on laws to order the lives of its followers. Such is the appeal and beauty of Judaism, for many. For others, not so.

Be that as it may, an intellectually honest person must ask the question of why persons turn to religion year in and year out. The answer might surprise the atheist, the unaffiliated and the assimilated Jew. I have written previously on the problems that a world without religion would face. (See A World Without Religion.).

While I might not agree with all the areas of a religious practice, including my own, I am careful to keep criticism to points that I have thought about deeply. I struggle with many of the ideas contained in Judaism and its practice, but I cannot easily dismiss them. They somehow strike a strong chord deep inside of me.

Some, including many outside Judaism, would love to see the end of its practices. This reminds me of a passage in a book I have also read a number of times: A History of the Jews (1987), by Paul Johnson, a British writer, historian and non-Jew, who wrote:
No  people has insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race, of which their own society was to be a pilot. They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it in heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering. Many of them believe it still. Others transmuted it into Promethean endeavours to raise our condition by purely human means. The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made. The Jews, therefore, stand at the right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of purpose. (2)
Such is an important role, no doubt, fraught with immense difficulty and opposition from many quarters. Many shy away, focused on other endeavours, many good. Many bristle at the suggestion, and understandably so if a nerve has been struck. Some stubbornly persist, however, keeping alive the dream of a human life full of meaning, dignity and purpose. This dream is consistent with Judaism, and halakhah, the Jewish way.


  1. Wouk understands that religious ritual is a way of keeping a culture alive--a culture "full of meaning, dignity and purpose." He doesn't ever deal with verses like Exodus 22:18, which commands us to kill witches, or Leviticus 20:13, which commands us to execute homosexuals.
    The Jewish tradition of arguing, found in the Talmud and elsewhere, has to include arguing with God.

  2. Dear Prof Jochnowitz:

    Thank you for your comments. I agree. Judaism allows arguing with God, and there are Talmudic passages that show this clearly. One of the beauties of Judaism is that it moves, albeit slowly, with the times. No serious Jewish rabbi would advocate killing witches or executing homosexuals. At least, none of which I am familiar.

  3. Insightful as always. It's ironic that such biblical passages as quoted by Professor Jochnowitz's,though not advocated by any serious Jewish rabbi today, have indeed been practiced by many outside of Judaism. The witch trials of the 17th century and the persecution of homosexuals today are evidence of that.

  4. Dear Modern Times,

    Thank you for your cogent comments. Yes, you're right to point out that it's chiefly other religions that have historically persecuted such people.


Comment Policy:

All comments will be moderated; and bear in mind that anonymous, hostile, vulgar and off-topic comments will not be published. Thoughtful, reasonable and clear comments, bearing your real name, will be. All comments must be in English.