Commentary Magazine


Faith in the Flesh

That Saturday morning in January, I watch as the winter sun angles through the window to break upon my daughter’s hair, pulled back in a tight, neat bun. Beside my daughter stand her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother. Three generations of women come to hear a fourth, my daughter Rachel, read from the Torah scroll.

We rise as the words roll out. Vay’daber elohim et kol ha-d’varim ha-eileh leimor. Rachel’s shoulders are draped with a shimmering cloth. She has a silver pointer the size of a large pen in her hand. She is following the verses as she chants them in Hebrew, tracing out in her mind the figures of musical ornament that she has learned for singing this portion of Scripture. My parents are behind me, along with sisters and brother, nieces and nephews, and row after row of friends who fill the sanctuary.

I do not know Hebrew, but she has been practicing this recitation at home, so I know that we are standing because we have come to Exodus 20:1: “Then God spoke all these words.” The words God has spoken, the words my daughter will repeat, are the Ten Commandments. We stand to receive them as they were received in the wilderness of Sinai and as they have been received by countless generations. So I am standing, but I confess that, as with my ignorance of Hebrew, I have only little grasp of the spiritual meaning of what she is reciting.

When I was thirteen, the age of my daughter, I was confirmed in the Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, Maryland. I still remember the hands of Bishop Doll on my head. “Defend O Lord this Thy child with Thy heavenly grace.” And had I been defended? Certainly not in the way in which Bishop Doll might have hoped. Still, on this day at Beth El synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska, my daughter speaks the words God has spoken. The scroll lives. Anokhi adonai elohekha asher hotzeitikha me-eretz mitz’rayim mi-beit avadim. Lo yih’yeh l’kha elohim aherim al panai: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery: you shall have no other gods before Me.

Shortly after my confirmation, I rushed like Augustine to my Carthages and their hissing cauldrons of illicit loves. Fantasies of immortality clouded my judgment and stoked my arrogance. I sang hymns to myself, using easy Emersonian commitments as devices for spiritual adventure, savoring what I imagined to be my boldness as a mark of achievement. In the lists of love I sharpened my mind as a warrior might sharpen his sword: to rush the citadels and slay my rivals. I was eager for the bravery of seeking, but untrained and unprepared for finding, or being found. I threw myself into quests without caring for the direction. I conjured grails to which I might pledge myself.

Love may not conquer all, but it has felled many young men. At the very point in my life when faith in Christ started to take root in my heart and mind and I was forced back upon myself, I fell in love with Juliana, a Jewish woman.

Make no mistake. There was nothing about Yale University in 1985 that made such a love difficult or even noteworthy. Our lives as students were full of common experiences and common aspirations, and in that bastion of American liberalism, one could easily imagine a Jew marrying a Christian—after all, religion is a “life-style choice,” is it not?

No less than eros, American liberalism has its own power. It is like a cultural neutron bomb: the structures of ethnic and religious culture are left standing, but they are emptied of life. Far more unlikely was a young Republican to marry a Women’s Studies major than a Christian a Jew. No, for us, the complications of love were of the universally personal sort. Both of us were in bondage to a desire that was driving us toward a renunciation of alternate possibilities: I shall be yours and no other’s. In our own ways we struggled against the straitjacket, but we failed to escape the limitations of our own love, and we were joyful in our failure.

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Lo ta’aseh l’kha fesel: You shall not make for yourself an idol.

After we decided to get married, we visited Rabbi James Ponet at the Yale Hillel. He told Juliana that, as one committed to Jewish law, he was obligated to say that what she wished to do was prohibited by God. “As a man,” he said, “I wish you the best of luck.”

Jim’s response was representative. Most contemporary rabbis live in the same pluralistic world as the rest of us. They accommodate and resist; they exercise pastoral discretion and stand firm where they can. For Jews, intermarriage is an issue of fundamental importance, and as we were to discover, there were very few rabbis—even fewer in the late 1980’s than today—who would marry Jews to Christians. We had no interest in seeking out one of the few, for we had no wish to live our religious lives on the edges of our traditions. Both of us were just beginning to seek the centers, to accept the confines of orthodoxy just as we were accepting the limitations of desire in marriage.

We decided that a neutral, secular wedding between Judaism and Christianity would be the worst possible way to be married, for we had no intention of having a neutral, secular marriage. The door to the synagogue was barred, so my wife put herself and her family where they did not want to be: in front of the altar upon which Christians offer the sacrament of the sacrifice of Christ, surrounded by stained-glass windows of Jesus and his disciples. We were pronounced husband and wife in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The opposite of pallid neutrality is the real possibility of suffering. In the moment she became my wife Juliana endured the first blow of intermarriage.

Lo tissa et shem adonai elohekha la-shav: You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.

We had no more interest in a neutral child than in a neutral wedding, and we certainly did not want to tear our children in two by pretending that we could raise them as both Jews and Christians. I remember the conversation well. “The children will, of course, be raised Jewish,” remarked Juliana one day. I looked at her and said with coldness, “What do you mean, raised Jewish? You do not go to synagogue. You do not keep kosher. I am not going to keep my children from baptism just so that they can be raised as bagels-and-New-York-Times-on-Saturday-morning Jews. If you become a religious Jew, then I am willing to promise that I will support you in raising the children as religious Jews.”

I made a promise I did not think I would need to keep, but I had underestimated my wife, or maybe God. That Saturday, she marched down the street to the Hillel minyan. She announced that we were buying new plates and would keep a kosher kitchen. She was willing to marry me in a church, but she was not willing to see her children baptized. The first blow had awakened her, and she saw that the way forward in her life with me would require seriousness about what it meant to be a Jew. Now I was to learn what it meant to be a resident alien in my own kitchen, an onlooker and supporter of her determined decision to burrow into the encompassing word of God’s commandments.

Zakhor et yom ha-shabbat l-kad’sho: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

Circumcision is a ruthlessly physical act. Waves of emotion swept over me as my eight-day-old son lay screaming and the rabbi recited the prayers and the doctor wielded his scalpel. My mind was utterly disordered by the visceral reality of the event. But one thought came, and it has so lodged itself in my memory that I am very nearly consumed by it to this day.

It was a thought of self-doubt, a worry about the invisibility of my own faith. How many times had I come to the altar of my church to receive the bread and wine? How many times had I confessed my sins and received absolution? How many children had I seen baptized with water and anointed with oil? I could not count the times, and in each instance I felt the truth of Jesus’ promise: I will be with you until the end of the age. He is with us, in our hearts and on our lips.

So I had come to believe, as my own path paralleled my wife’s turn of deepened immersion in the religious life. And yet, there, in the sterile environment of an outpatient room at the hospital, I watched and saw God’s word in the flash of the knife marking my son’s flesh—so physical, so immediate, so shockingly intimate, so permanent. Christ was in my heart and on my lips, but was I unmarked in my flesh, unchanged in the brute reality of my life?

Kabed et avikha v’et imekha: Honor your father and your mother.

At the circumcision of my son, I felt the blow of intermarriage most fully, and it was more terrible than I could have imagined. It was the blow of judgment on my head. I do not mean guilt about anti-Semitism. For most American Christians, that is an easy guilt to bear, a guilt that makes one feel superior for being self-critical and progressive. No, this was a painful moment of self-recognition, for I now felt a question that I could not answer. Where had God’s commandment set me apart and marked me as Christ’s own? Did we—no, did I—make the commandments of God into empty ephemera, “spiritual” and pious commitments that the currents of culture eroded and obliterated the moment I left the church?

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Compassion is a humane sentiment. To seek justice is a noble goal. “Peace on earth and goodwill toward men”—these were watchwords of the liberal institutions that had educated me, institutions with no particular commitment to Christianity. Haverford College, my undergraduate school before Yale, was a veritable monastery of “care and concern.” Yale University was ever eager to strike the poses of social justice.

My daughter, however, could not eat cheeseburgers, and her friends found this remarkable. Her very mouth was trained and set apart, day by day. And me? Jesus teaches that what goes into the mouth is not important; what matters is what comes out. And yet what came out of my mouth seemed so generic, so easily molded into the progressive platitudes of our age.

I was afflicted with a singular worry. If Christianity—the faith of my forefathers and the basis of all my efforts to be faithful to God—was my inheritance, was it also the fuel for the neutron bomb of which American liberalism was but the trigger mechanism? Was a Christianity that accommodated interreligious marriage a religion that clothed indifference with the rhetorical dress of inclusion and tolerance?

Lo tir’tzah: You shall not murder.

A few years ago I decided to participate in a reading group at my wife’s synagogue. The rabbi was to lead a discussion of Halakhic Man by Joseph B. Soloveitchik. I had never heard of Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the great interpreter of Orthodox Judaism and especially of Jewish religious law (halakha), but I got the book and read it. It enthralled me—and not least because, ironically enough, Soloveitchik’s description of the halakhic path of concretion seemed to me a beautiful and poetic evocation of the Christian belief in the incarnation.

“When the Holy One, blessed be He, descended on Mount Sinai,” writes Soloveitchik,

He set an eternally binding precedent that it is God who descends to man, not man who ascends to God. When he said to Moses, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8), He thereby revealed the awesome mystery that God contracts His divine presence in this world.

This vision of divine kenosis captivated me. “Halakhic man, with his unique mode of understanding, declares: the higher longs and pines for the lower.” Yes, I said to myself as I read, a thousand times yes. My head was spinning with insight into how my wife’s attempts to conform to halakhic requirements had been teaching me the truth of Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Juliana, I thought, was humbling her spiritual aspirations, even to the point of taking the food that entered her mouth as a matter of spiritual significance. Soloveitchik had drawn my attention to Ecclesiastes 12:11, and the nails that fasten divine wisdom to concrete reality. (“The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails . . . which are given by one shepherd.”) She was nailing her spiritual journey to the concrete reality of life. And she was as St. Paul speaking to me: “Let no one trouble me, for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”

Yet, in these reveries of insight and convergence, the glistening knife of circumcision flashed and the blow was struck again.

Throughout his analysis, Soloveitchik juxtaposes the way of halakhic concretion with the spiritual quest of those who seek to transcend the world, those who wish to climb the ladder of being and kick it away when they reach the eternal. Soloveitchik sees how this spiritual quest creates a fissure in the religious life, one that turns all thought to the heavenly while leaving this world to its own devices: “let the dead bury the dead.” In a rare moment, he allows himself to address Christianity directly, and reveals his worry about the spiritual consequences of a faith that is interested in circumcising the heart while leaving the body unmarked:

How many noblemen bowed down before the cross in a spirit of abject submission and self-denial, confessed their sins with scalding tears and bitter cries, and in the very same breath, as soon as they left the dim precincts of the cathedral, ordered that innocent people be cruelly slain?

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It was a line written in the early 1940’s, as the Europe from which God had delivered Soloveitchik was consuming his community with a furious fire of murderous desire. How many noblemen, indeed? When I read that sentence I was overcome with the failures of Christianity. Did we imagine that Christ came to circumcise our hearts, only to leave our bodies free to indulge our lusts for power and domination?

I thought of my daughter and son. Their mother was training their hands not to mix milk with meat so that the will of the Lord might be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Hands so trained, I thought, would not so readily take up the sword to slay the innocent, even if their hearts burned with murderous desire. Their hands were being pierced with the nails of divine intention day after day. And my hands, what of them?

Lo tin’af: you shall not commit adultery.

Recently, my then-denomination, the Episcopal Church, has been in the news. We had ordained a gay bishop whose current partner, ex-wife, and daughter joined in the ceremony of consecration. As a so-called “conservative,” I was asked to participate in a Canadian radio show to discuss the whole affair with some liberal proponents of the gay bishop’s ordination.

The radio host made a good effort to address the issues, but, as with all media events, we traded sound bites and the segment ended. I left the studio and went out onto the street. In my mind’s eye I was back at my son’s circumcision. The day was warm, but I felt chilled. Had I been honest with myself about modern Christianity? Not only had my church rejected the need to mark the body with the knife of circumcision, it had rejected the very idea that God’s commandments can shape or control how we use our bodies. Nothing needs to be submitted to God other than the fine sentiments of the heart.

I despaired of an invisible Christianity. Could this possibility be what St. Augustine imagined when he wrote, “Love, and do what you will”? I recalled Soloveitchik:

A subjective religiosity cannot endure. And all those tendencies to transform the religious act into pure subjectivity, negate all corporeality and all sensation from religious life, and admit man into a pure and abstract world, where there is neither eating nor drinking, but religious individuals sitting with their crowns on their heads and enjoying their own inner experiences, their own tempestuous, heaven-storming spirits, their own hidden longings and mysterious yearnings—will in the end prove null and void.

There, on the sidewalk, I offered a prayer of petition to God. You have come to us in the human flesh of the man Jesus of Nazareth, but we have insisted upon seeking to obey you without regard to our flesh. Forgive us, O Lord, for we have rendered your word null and void.

Lo tig’nov: you shall not steal. Lo ta’aneh v’rei’akha eid sha’ker: you shall not bear false witness. Lo tah’mod: you shall not covet.

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None of these memories is consciously with me as my daughter completes the tenth commandment and we sit down to hear the rest of her recitation of Exodus 20. My daughter is a beautiful, mature, well-spoken young lady. She is slipping from my grasp and into her own adulthood. I am proud of her and the awe of God’s words mingles with my awe of her self-possession. Did I ever really hold her in the first place? From the moment my wife marched off to synagogue that first Saturday to lay the foundations for her daughter, to receive the foundation laid centuries before Rachel was even born, I was already letting her go.

Jesus teaches us that for his sake we must be able to hate our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters. My daughter loves me very much, but she is very conscious that this day of her bat mitzvah is as a hating of her father. She was bitter about the fact that I could not be with her mother at her side as she entered into an intimate fellowship with God—to be His voice to His people through the reading of Torah. She was angry, and she cried about it in the months of preparation prior to the bat mitzvah, but neither the rabbi, nor her mother, nor I could give her what she wanted.

In fact, I did not want to give her what she wanted, for her desire was that obedience to God would not require the pain of renunciation, would not require the visible marks on our bodies, the visible, public mark of distance between me in the pews and her before the congregation. And now, she is before me. She is being ravished by the concentration necessary to chant the ancient Hebrew. She is being drawn near to God. I can only witness. I cannot be by her side to hold onto the hems of her garments as she rises upward with each flourish of the canticle of recitation.

My daughter is feeling the full blow of intermarriage. Why can’t we all go together? Why can’t all the people she loves journey toward the Lord, linked arm and arm? Why is God setting a daughter against her father? I know these are her thoughts, and because I love her so much, I feel her anguish as the knife of circumcision cuts into her heart. She is entering into the narrow way of obedience and, for all the joy of that day and the rapture of her voice, into the very voice of the Ten Commandments, where I cannot join her.

My absence, which is forced upon her, is marking her. She knows I support her words with my spirit, even though I can understand none of them. But I cannot support her with my voice in the prayer before the reading. I cannot touch her gently before she reads. God is cutting me away from her as He had cut away my son’s foreskin, not to harm or destroy or denigrate, but to sanctify her as a woman called to Him as a Jew, a Jew who is set apart from the nations into which I must, of necessity, recede.

As I recede and she is drawn away, I am basked in light, for she is aglow on this day. Adorned with dawn’s dew of adulthood, she is radiant. She is a light to her father. Her voice continues to sing the ancient words. The sun’s rays drape and illumine her. Her face shines. Cut away from me, she is turning to take up a pair of tongs. She is pulling out the living coals of the divine word. She is flying toward me. My son, sitting beside me, reaches for my hand. I feel the tears on my cheek, and the liquid fire of her voice touching the lips of my unclean heart. O, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!

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