Friday, May 28, 2010

Revelation at shul

After praising the scene in Susan Messer’s novel Grand River and Joy in which the main character finds “release” during an accidental visit to shul, I was struck by the fact that I had enjoyed a similar scene in Zoë Heller’s remarkable novel The Believers. As I wrote in my review:

On a whim (“a mild, touristic curiosity rather than any spiritual longing”), [Rosa Litvinoff] enters an Orthodox shul and plops herself down in the men’s section, momentarily satisfied to have caused a “kerfluffle,” but when she is removed to the women’s section, she finds herself lingering and then, against all expectation, the “austere melody” of ets hayim hi (“It is a tree of life”) as the Torah scroll is restored to the ark makes her hairs stand on end: “A thought came to her, as clearly as if it had been spoken in her ear. You are connected to this. This song is your song.”Immediately I knew that I had stumbled upon a new convention in a certain type of Jewish fiction—call it the convention of “revelation at shul” in fiction of teshuvah or return to Judaism. (In Heller’s case, the return is a character’s; in Messer’s, the author’s—if only in the sense of narrowing her sights to the Jews.)

The locus classicus of the “turning” event is the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s sudden reversal of his decision to become a Christian. Nahum Glatzer explains what happened. A non-believing Jew, Rosen­zweigwished to enter Christianity as did its founders, as a Jew, not as a “pagan.” Rosenzweig attended the synagogue services of the New Year’s Days and the Day of Atonement [in 1913] in preparation for the church. Here was a Jew who did not wish to “break off,” but who deliberately aimed to “go through” Judaism to Christianity.But something happened in shul to change his mind. As Glatzer puts it, “He was stopped on his way and called back into Judaism.” Whatever happened in shul made it “no longer possible,” Rosenzweig wrote to Rudolf Ehrenberg a few days later, underlining every word, to become a Christian.[1]

Oddly, Rosenzweig never wrote about the experience. He never even discussed it with friends. His mother guessed what had happened, and told Glatzer about it years later, after her son’s death in 1929. Since Glatzer’s book on the philosopher’s life first appeared in 1953, however, Rosenzweig’s decisive turnabout has become one of the defining motifs of modern Judaism.

I expect that more and more uses of the convention will crop up in American Jewish fiction in the years to come, especially since hostility to Orthodoxy is out of fashion among younger Jews. Even so, I must admit, speaking not as a literary critic but as a practicing Jew, the revelation in shul is foreign to my experience. I might even argue, in fact, that the original and originating event in “Jewish” literature is Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.3–9).

For the regular shul-goer, like me, there are no blinding revelations. Now and then there are skin-prickling sensations of God’s presence, but for the most part, being in shul is like being in a close friend’s living room. You can relax and spread out—the capaciousness of the long Jewish worship service encourages you to spread out—in the comfortable knowledge that you are not intruding. Unlike the church’s liturgy, which means to inspire awe, the purpose of Jewish liturgy is to make conversation with God a common and familiar act. Often, in truth, it is only afterwards that the marveling arrives.

In an essay in the Sewanee Review, I criticized Michael Chabon because “[h]is characters are strangers to the synagogue, and it no longer even occurs to them to wonder if there is any warmth to be found inside.” (That last phrase is a blatant allusion to Bialik’s poem “Al Saf Bet Hamidrash,” which is discussed briefly here.) By comparison, any Jewish novelists who find any warmth at all in shul are to be welcomed like guests.

[1] Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Schocken, 1962), pp. xvii–xix. First edition was published in 1953.


Manolo said...

John Wesley called it "the heart strangely warmed."

And the Manolo would tie this trend together with the conversion experiences of Christians, so commonly recorded in American autobiographical literature, from Johnathan Edwards to the present.

Indeed, it seems to flow from the same font, freedom, namely the freedom to reject one's beginnings and self-fashion the new identity, together with the freedom to later return to one's beginnings with the greater understanding of what was initially rejected.

Claudius Vandermeer said...

I followed this to your Chabon piece--what an enjoyable, damning review.

R/T said...

Ah, if I may borrow a metaphor drawn from Christian doctrine, you've had an epiphany about epiphanies. Thanks for sharing.

ADDeRabbi said...

Nice post and thanks for the link (that was one of my first posts, 5+ years ago). I'll have to add you to my RSS feed.
Incidentally, I discuss the Jamesian "conversion experience" and how it differs from the process of giyur (and even 'haraza be-teshuva') here:

James Marcus said...

There is a not dissimilar scene in I.B. Singer's "The Magician of Lublin."

Harvey said...

Thanks for the post (which I read after leading the minyan at our Conservative shul this morning) and for your consistently thoughtful blog. I can identify strongly with your description of your experience of the Jewish worship service.

Benjamin Stein said...

Thanks for this. I just noticed: "who deliberately aimed to “go through” Christianity to Judaism" should be "who deliberately aimed to “go through” Judaism to Christianity", right?

D. G. Myers said...

You’d think. Error silently corrected, and more information and footnote added.