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16. Covering all the Bases

Passover at my father’s house. I was really proud of myself at the first Seder because I managed to stay up till 12! Not easy for me to do, but I took a third Provogil and something worked.

The next morning, my father was looking for my son to walk him to synagogue. He is 92 after all. I headed him off at the pass.

“Let him sleep, Pop. I’ll take you. In fact I’ll come to schull too.”

“Really?” My father could scarcely conceal his surprise. “Great! Let’s go then…”

Of course he had every reason to be surprised. I had stopped going with him to synagogue probably five years or so before. It’s not that I hated it, exactly. It made me feel incredibly hypocritical.

You see, I’m what the Jewish community would rightly call an apikoress. It means apostate, but it means more than that. It means learned apostate. It’s what they called Spinoza, so it carries with it a proud tradition.

Spinoza is by far my favorite Western philosopher. He reaches for the same truths that Eastern philosophers reach for using rigidly Western methods. His geometric logic makes it hard to understand him sometimes, but it’s worth the work! Or so I am told, never actually bothering to try myself and settling instead for second hand treaties about his philosophy. One day. Maybe. I doubt it.

Anyway, I actually deserve to be called an apikoress rather than an am oratz which signifies ignorant violator of the Jewish law.

My father made sure in my upbringing that I would know as much as possible. Learn to Learn. In Judaism, learning about the Jewish law is the highest thing one can attain to.

He taught me himself. We went through chumash and rashi (Old Testament in Hebrew with the greatest commentator) together at least three times. He also taught me Mishna and Gemara (Historically later, very complicated and difficult discussions of Jewish Law). He sent me to a Jewish Day School for three years till I threatened to run away from home. He hired private tutors. Some wonderful. Some horrid beyond belief. Dickensian horrid.

Anyway, you get the Idea. By the time I was 16 and left home, I knew more about Judaism than everything else combined. I mean that. Think about what that says about me….

After youthful abandonment of the tradition, I tried to get back into it with a vengeance. I took my second year off from law school to go study in a yeshiva in Israel. Afterwards I went so far as to do daf yomi (daily reading of a complete page of gemara) the last two years of Law School.

After that I joined the Israeli Navy and actually managed to get into the officers course. (Not an easy thing to do by any standard). I dropped out later because I couldn’t face seven years with the kids I was with, lovely though they were. Remember, I was a Columbia Law School graduate. The intellectual vacuum that seven years as an officer would have meant was more than I could face.

It’s fair to ask, “Why didn’t you think of this before you joined?” To which I would weakly reply, “Well, you know what they say, hope springs eternal.”

The truth was, or at least part of the truth was, that I was trying to emulate my father as best as I could. He fought in the American navy in WWII. I think as a kid I was more proud of him for that than anything else. I have a battle torn 48 star flag hanging next to me in a frame in my office. I had found it, forgotten somewhere up in an attic. There was a yellowed with age note in his handwriting that I had transferred to a silver back, and which underlies it in the frame. The card reads:

October 30, 1944

This is the flag flown by USS Zane in February 1944 during the first days of the assault on Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Zane and Chandler were the first American warships to go into Eniwetok via deep entrance preceding the cruisers and battleships.

The officer of the Deck at battle stations was

Herman Wouk, then Lt.jg USNR

Anyway, it’s obvious that I’m still proud. On the other side of my office I have some nice pictures from my service when I volunteered to go back to my Israeli naval unit during the first gulf war, but that’s another story.

Wow! What a ramble. Remember I have MS, OK? I’ll read over what I wrote and get to the point soon, I promise.

OK, so I tried and tried to be a good Jew like my Dad. When I got married it was on condition that she agreed to obey the halacha (Jewish religious law) with me.

But there came a point when it all came to a crashing end. I told my father about this event in explaining to him why I no longer believed and no longer followed the Jewish tradition.

I was living in Israel with my family in the most incredible house that Suz and I were sure at the time we had “manifested”. This was in the middle of our psychedelic “magic period” that I mentioned earlier.

In the back, it had a hot tub in a room made of glass brick with plants all around it. Literally heaven. Understand that at the time there couldn’t have been more than ten hot tubs in the whole country.

Anyway, I was in the midst of an “afterglow” from a wonderful trip Suz and I had taken the night before. Sitting in the boiling tub with the steam rising around me I experienced a sudden realization unlike anything that had ever hit me before in terms of its consequences. Here is what I suddenly understood:

The ENTIRE Jewish religion and all the religions it spawned were based on justifying the first act of genocide in recorded history.

There’s absolutely no argument that can be made against that statement. Believe me, I know. I really know. My father saw to that, remember?

Not even regular genocide, like the Germans did to us or the Turks to the Armenians. No. We were “commanded by god” not only to kill the soldiers, or the men, or the men and women, or the men and women and children. No. God “commanded us” not only to kill the soldiers, the men, the women, the infants… even the domestic animals. All must be put to the sword.


“Because they worshiped idols and threw their children to Baal. They were evil and needed to be destroyed.” That’s the conventional answer.

That’s the answer? We killed their babies because they killed their babies? What have the animals to do with anything?

“The animals would have been sacrificed to Baal”.

Well I’m sure that wasn’t their idea, and once Israel captured them they were not going to be sacrificed to Baal anyway. Why kill them? Why kill anybody just because they worship the “wrong god”?

The justifier in my head continues:

“All right, maybe there were things done then that we wouldn’t do today. Don’t forget the world was different thousands of years ago. That’s an incident and has nothing to do with what Judaism is based on.”

But you see, that can’t hold water with me. I know too much.

I remember the first Rashi commentary on the first sentence in Genesis. “In the beginning god created the heavens and the earth. Rashi asks, why begin here? Who needs all this stuff? Why not just begin with Leviticus where the Jewish law is laid down?

Rashi’s no vagrant, and this is not a rhetorical question. It is based on the assumption that every word in our Torah is there for a reason.

Here’s Rashi’s answer to his question. (paraphrased)

It is because when the nations of the world accuse Israel of being brigands by stealing the land from the Canaanites, we can answer that since god created the world, he can give it to who he chooses, and he chose to give this land to the Jews.

You can’t get more basic than that. The entire superstructure of Judaism, starting with the Old Testament up till the latest commentators is built on Rashi’s answer. The genocide the Jews committed was OK, see, because god created the world and told the Jews to help themselves to Canaan. Oh, and while you’re at it, kill everything that is alive in the area you seize.

I call this realization “the flash in the hot tub” and though it may not sound like much to many of my readers, try and understand. I had built my entire life around the Jewish tradition and had just figured out that I was supporting the notion of genocide by my continued adherence to it.

These are the kind of realizations that can be brought about by psychedelics. I had never thought of this before because the “reality tunnel” I had been living in wouldn’t let the idea through. We were the good guys… The ones that everyone has picked on through history… The ones who were RIGHT!

When I told this to my Dad, he managed an ironic smile and shrugged. I knew I had broken his heart, but what could I do? That was how I now saw things. I respected him far too much than to lie to him.

Since that time, my Dad has accepted me as I am. He knows I’ll never stop loving the tradition I was steeped in. He respected my intellectual honesty and even compared me to Spinoza. Like I mentioned before, he’s as close to a renaissance man as I have ever know. He’s read Spinoza in the original.

We arrived at the Chabad synagogue shortly, and I went in to greet the Rabbi there who I really liked. We started davening (praying) and it all came back as if I had been there last week. But the 5 years away did make me pay attention to what I was saying in the prayers a bit more than usual.

We got to the Shema which is the central prayer that Jews are supposed to say three times a day, that we hang in mezuzoth on our doors and that we are supposed to say as our last dying words:

Hear O’ Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

And you should love the lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Reading that phrase, I was struck by the fact that it is an example of what Alan Watts used to call a “double bind”. A double bind occurs when you are commanded to do something which is acceptable only if it’s voluntary. Get it? It can’t be done! One cannot be “commanded” to love anything. It has to come from inside.

Think of it this way, if you asked your lover, “Do you love me?”

Would you be satisfied with the answer, “I’m trying with all my heart…”

So God was commanding us to do the impossible. Why? It didn’t make sense?

My old Talmudic training swung into action and I continued to ponder the question through the Torah reading. And then, suddenly I knew the answer. I got so excited that I asked the Rabbi if I could deliver a short drasha (comment on the Torah) after his. He graciously allowed me to do so.

Up before the congregation, I laid before them the problem I had discovered in the Shema. The answer I discovered was that the phrase “God is one” is not meant to say he isn’t two gods or a thousand for that matter. What it is saying is that God is everything. And you, and you, and you, are all apertures through which his light shines, as is everything else that exists!

Looked at that way, the second sentence was no double bind commandment. It was a continuation of the descriptive nature of the first sentence. There’s no way not to love God if you are god.

I then told them that I had lost my faith years before, but that if there were any there who felt true faith that they please say a prayer for me, as I had developed incurable multiple sclerosis. There were practically tears in my eyes, and I know I spoke very intensely.

It was time for Musaf (extra prayer said on holidays) and I reached in my pocket for a Provogil. Shit! I had forgotten them at home and was going to need one soon. I’d never make the walk home without one.

I explained to my Dad, and he waved me off. On my way out, hands reached out to shake mine, yasher coachs (well done!) from all sides. As I passed through the women’s section on the way out, one thanked me for what I had said. “Wow! Even the women heard me.” I thought.

I stumble bummed my way home. The MS is really beginning to take a toll on my balance. Ten minutes later, my Dad showed up.

“Pop! What are you doing home so soon? They can’t have finished yet…”

“Just wanted to be sure you made it. I have to daven Musaph now…”

The next day, I stayed home. My Dad was accompanied home by one of the Rabbi’s sons. Meeting me in the hallway he eagerly pumped my hand.

“I want you to know that what you did yesterday was a real Kiddush Hashem!” (Sanctification of the Lord). That’s about as high a complement that a religious Jew can give. I told him not to exaggerate, but he was insistent.

Is that what I am?

Maybe in some ways we all are.

This was just my Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes.

I wonder how many other self proclaimed apikoress’s have been told they are a Kiddush Hashem. I know one thing though…

If Spinoza was alive today, both my father and I would stand in line to tell him that with all our hearts.

June 27, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment