According to the prophet Malachi, before “the awesome, fearful day of the Lord” arrives, God will send Elijah to “reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.” Especially where religious belief is concerned, this messianic act of rapprochement would seem to be as distant as ever. These days, to judge by a recent spate of books, a significant number of adult children are searching for personal meaning in surprising places—above all, in places abandoned or renounced by their parents.
The search itself, involving as it often does the strenuous rediscovery of some very old traditions and some very old-fashioned verities, is profoundly illustrative of our peculiar cultural moment; but what the search yields in individual cases can be something else again. As in every dialectical process, redressing the balance turns out to be much harder than simply tilting it in the opposite direction. To illustrate, let us examine three books, two by “returning” Jews who are in revolt against their uninvolved or estranged parents, the third a dialogue between a Buddhist monk in contest with his French rationalist father.
Of the three, David Klinghoffer’s personal story is the most complex and the most tortured. Currently a senior editor at National Review and a practicing Orthodox Jew, Klinghoffer was a Gentile infant when he was adopted in 1965 by a liberal Jewish couple in Southern California. Religiously, he writes in The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy,1 his adoptive parents—“freed of the dogma and superstition my parents’ generation associated with traditional Judaism”—left much to be desired. Despite their manifest decency and sense of responsibility, and despite (or rather, as Klinghoffer would have it, because of) their nominal identification with Reform Judaism, they brought up their young son in a “spiritual desert.”
How did he escape? As a pre-adolescent, he tells us, “it was my hobby to make cruel fun of everyone I knew.” But then he opened an old gift from his grandmother, To Be a Jew, by an Orthodox rabbi named Hayim Halevy Donin:
I remember reading the chapter headed “Laws Relating to Slander, Revenge, and Deceit” as I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed, a feeling of horror growing in my stomach with each paragraph, as if by chance I had wandered into a grand-jury room and it was me they were indicting.
Even more troubling were Rabbi Donin’s comments under the heading, “Adoption of a Non-Jewish Child.” Although David had been circumcised as an infant, now, in reading the requirements of halakhah (rabbinic law), he “began to feel I might not be a Jew at all.”
Between that moment and his Orthodox conversion lay a series of false starts, moments of forgetfulness, and a general pattern of confusion and ambivalence. When he was eighteen, his mother “formed a relationship with God” during the months she lay dying from a terminal illness. The experience moved him deeply, as did his reading of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a best-seller by Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi. Around the same time, he took a razor blade and his grandfather’s prayerbook into the bathroom, performed the token cut required of a previously circumcised convert, and recited the required blessing. He then filled the tub with water and submerged himself as if in a mikveh (ritual bath). “I was now a Jew, I thought.”
But his self-effectuated Jewishness would not long suffice. Some time afterward, he entered into a romance with a devout Catholic girl in whom he caught a tantalizing glimpse of the spirituality that had eluded him in his Reform upbringing. “David, I think you’re confused about your relationship to Judaism,” Maria told him, in the understatement of the year; two pages later we find him undergoing a third ritual circumcision and entering a real mikveh, this time as a convert to Conservative Judaism. Although he now took steps to remedy his deficit in Hebrew, it was not long before Conservative Judaism, too, struck him as inauthentic.
Looking back today, Klinghoffer sees that “the realization that God has a plan for you, and that you do not know what it is, produces a kind of distress that can manifest itself in any number of ways, including somatic distress.” As an undergraduate at Brown, he spent much time at the university health services, seeking treatment for various skin disorders, hypertension, and headaches, and was finally sent for psychotherapy. What he was really suffering from, he writes, was “a definite restlessness of the soul,” and once he exhausted the medical route, he found in the Talmud the answer he thought he was looking for: “Occupy yourself with Torah.”
But his journey was not over. Bringing his Catholic girlfriend to an Orthodox synagogue—even after his conversion he had kept her in the picture—he found himself dismayed by the din of conversation during the recital of prayers as well as by the “diatribe” the rabbi was delivering against non-Jews. There followed a brief fling with Christian prayer—“I open myself to Jesus. I open myself to Jesus,” he quotes himself intoning as he sat on his bed—before deciding to give Orthodox Judaism another chance and undergoing still another ceremony of conversion (and a fourth ritual circumcision).
Orthodox Judaism, or “Torah” Judaism, is the faith he now espouses. Even so, he espouses it with a demurrer. The problem is that
all Jews who return to Torah Judaism must face the challenge of reconciling themselves to Orthodox culture—to the fact that some Orthodox Jews cling to certain aggravating folkways having nothing to do with Torah . . . . I, sharing neither the culture nor the blood of the tribe, was burdened with an additional dilemma. You can join a culture if you want to. You can’t dissolve blood.
Klinghoffer’s discovery of the “tribal nature” of Orthodox Judaism was, in fact, one of his biggest disappointments. His sense of differentness, the very condition from which he was seeking relief, was, if anything, aggravated by the experience of entering an Orthodox synagogue and feeling “a hundred pairs of eyes following me to my seat, noting the blondish color of my hair, the un-Jewish line of my nose.” That is no doubt why, after becoming an Orthodox Jew but still torn between his two irreconcilable identities, he finally set about reconnecting with his non-Jewish birth mother.
The brief narrative in which he tells this part of his story is the most moving passage in The Lord Will Gather Me In. The rapidity with which mother and son forged a bond seemed “supernatural” to him, “as if my soul had sleeping within it a need to be connected to her soul.” This feeling only increased when his mother confided that she had had a Jewish great-grandfather. In the event, she turned out to be wrong—but this brought about a philosophical revelation unto itself. To Klinghoffer, it signaled “the error at the heart of the tribal conception of Jewishness . . . the belief that blood will persevere in the absence of belief.”
Judaism, he concludes in his final chapter, “is not about blood.” It is “in our minds, our souls, not our bodies.” It is, in brief, about Torah, revealed law; and what it requires of its adherents is not Conservative Judaism’s judgment that “truth and Torah merely overlap” but the more robust conviction, which Klinghoffer identifies with Orthodoxy, “that Torah is Truth.” Having at last exchanged tribalism for Torah and Truth, he has resolved the painful ambiguity of the Jew in the Gentile body.
Unfortunately, one does not reach the end of this spiritual autobiography feeling in the company of a man who has achieved genuine peace of mind. To the contrary, the inner demons that propelled Klinghoffer from Reform to Conservative Judaism and then, after an unanswered invitation to Jesus, into Orthodoxy seem to be at work in his psyche still, long after he has come into possession of the Truth. In particular, the same cocky pre-adolescent whose hobby it was “to make cruel fun of everyone [he] knew” is alive and well in these pages, except that now he has acquired an exceptionally effective writing style and a belief system to convince him that mockery in the service of Truth is not cruel at all.
The objects of that mockery range from Harold Kushner, the rabbi whose book helped Klinghoffer through his mother’s death but whose (admittedly defective) theology he here parodies savagely in a chapter entitled “Lord of the Handkerchief,” to every form of Judaism other than the one he now espouses. The title of his book comes from the psalmist’s confession of faith: “Should my mother and father abandon me, the Lord will gather me in.” But Klinghoffer’s own life story is itself one of sequential leave-takings, as he serially tries on different forms of Judaism only to reject them in the harshest of terms.
The main object of his ire is Reform. “The Reform movement represented by your local Reform temple,” Klinghoffer sweepingly declares, “has its roots in social ambition, in this case among [19th-century] German Jews.” That some German Jews advocated a reform of Judaism so that they might assimilate more easily is hardly to be gainsaid. But social ambition has driven Jews in other directions as well, including to Christianity and to secularism. By itself, social ambition explains much too little.
As for the “roots” of Reform Judaism that Klinghoffer does not mention, one was the accurate perception among reformers (and others) that, in the wake of the European emancipation, traditional Jewish practice and institutions would have to adjust if they were to survive. Another lay in Kantian philosophy, with its focus on ethics and its dislike of moral systems based solely on obedience to commandments. This philosophical orientation, idealistic in both the technical and general senses, is quite the opposite of social ambition, and has long made its presence felt in modern Orthodoxy as well. Out of these roots—and there were others—grew a movement that sought to show how Judaism could be not only acceptable to modern man but preferable to both the religious and the secular alternatives on offer.
To acknowledge these complex historical circumstances need not necessarily imply that Reform Judaism today is a legitimate form of faithfulness to Torah, or even that it is an effective antidote to the powerful forces of assimilation in American culture. But Klinghoffer’s version of Jewish history reduces it to a crude morality play in which professing traditionalists are always good (except for their mysterious tendency to “cling to certain aggravating folkways”), while professing innovators are shallow and without honorable motivation—in a word, impostors. Is it impertinent to recall in this connection that the man who now considers God’s Truth so transparent that only fools can miss it is the same man who only yesterday, as it were, was sitting on his bed repeating the words, “I open myself to Jesus”?
The character of Klinghoffer’s present Truth remains, moreover, murky. To say that “Torah is Truth” is to raise a question very much on the minds of the founders of every modern Jewish movement, Orthodoxy emphatically included: what is the relationship of revealed law to other sources of knowledge, and especially to the knowledge that derives from such distinctly modern disciplines as linguistics, archeology, epigraphy, and the history of religion?
Writing about the authority of the “oral”—i.e., rabbinic—law, Klinghoffer asserts the traditional notion that it derives, like the written law of the Bible, from Sinai itself: “It seems unlikely that God would reveal a largely inscrutable string of words [i.e., the written Torah] and expect the Jews to order their lives according to it” without having vouchsafed, as well, the amplifications of subsequent commentary. But in its original, ancient Near Eastern context, the biblical text may not have been inscrutable at all, only becoming so to some degree as the centuries passed and cultural and linguistic contexts shifted. How do we proceed now that historical research, powerfully energized by archeological discoveries, has enabled us to recover many of the original contexts and has thus inevitably raised challenges to longstanding rabbinic interpretations?
As it happens, rabbinic literature itself occasionally shows an awareness of its own innovativeness. In the Middle Ages, moreover, Jewish biblical scholars vigorously pursued a “plain sense” of Scripture that could—without undercutting halakhah—diverge widely from the sense dominant in rabbinic commentary, even on matters of law. All this is lost upon Klinghoffer. Arriving at Orthodoxy with a ravenous appetite for authenticity and spiritual intensity but virtually unacquainted with Jewish sources, he leaves us with a dumbed-down theology that is encapsulated in his own bumper-sticker formulation, “No Oral Torah? No God.” This is not only unfair to Reform and Conservative Judaism, which he wants us to dismiss, but inadequate to the pre-modern Jewish tradition he thinks he is upholding. In this, for all his conservative (small-c) convictions, religious and otherwise, his enterprise recalls nothing so much as the forced attempts to concoct a “usable past” that we see today on the part of Afrocentrists and radical feminists.
Those strictures apply with special force to Klinghoffer’s concept of Jewish tribalism—a concept he rejects in favor of his own conclusion that “Judaism is not about blood . . . [I]t is in our minds, our souls, not our bodies.” In fact, the classical Jewish tradition refuses to dichotomize blood and mind, or body and soul.
The people Israel is indeed a tribe, a natural family. Were things otherwise, no one could ever be born a Jew, and descent would be of no account in determining Jewish identity; rather than a people, the Jews would then be a church, a voluntary association of individuals united by their common beliefs. Instead, in the classical vision, the Jews are both a tribe into which one can be born and a religious community united by belief and practice; to borrow a phrase from the late Arthur A. Cohen, they are both a natural and a supernatural people.
Tribes, as a rule, do not accept converts; religious communities do not accept nonbelievers and non-practitioners. It is pungently ironic that Klinghoffer should wish to make the Jews less a natural family and more a church, for in this he resembles no one so much as the founders of Reform Judaism, the very people he most despises. But the miracle of conversion to Judaism is that the ethnicity of the convert changes, not just his beliefs and practices. Jewish blood does now flow through David Klinghoffer’s veins, just as it flows through the veins of the born Jews—Reform, Conservative, secular, or whatever—with whom he feels so little kinship.
As it happens, a corrective to David Klinghoffer’s misreading of Jewish identity is at hand in a new book by a fellow-returnee to Judaism, Stephen Dubner. As its subtitle indicates, Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family2 is, indeed, very much a story of family—which is not to say that it is without problems of its own.
Dubner, who now works as an editor at the New York Times Magazine, was raised as a Catholic by exceptionally devout parents, both of whom happened to be Jewish by birth but each of whom had abandoned the Jewish tradition before marriage. In the case of his mother, Florence, that tradition had never formed a vibrant presence in her life. The attitude in the home in which she grew up corresponded to that of the Reform Jews David Klinghoffer describes from his childhood. All that remained was a residual Jewishness: Florence’s mother “was not religious at all, yet she would not even pronounce the word ‘Jesus’—‘That Man,’ [she] would say, if she had to say anything at all.”
The absence of an explicit belief system deprived young Florence Greenglass of the resources for addressing the great existential questions that frequently torment young adults. Under the influence of her ballet teacher, she began to explore Christianity and in time converted to Catholicism. Although this reduced her mother to “an incoherent fury of barbs and threats and shrieks,” her father was more understanding. “I wish I could believe, he said tenderly, laying his hand on hers.” Evidently he knew whereof he spoke: at least some members of his family could still believe, even if not in Judaism. A cousin, Ethel Greenglass, had traveled the route of belief all the way to Communism, and together with her husband Julius Rosenberg would one day be executed for handing atomic secrets over to the Soviets.
On Dubner’s father’s side, the story was rather different. Sol (known in childhood as Solly or by his Yiddish name Shloime, and as an adult by his Catholic name Paul) had grown up in a rigidly Orthodox home. “You could not find a more honest Jew than Shepsel Dubner,” the author writes of the grandfather he never knew, “but he lived in constant fear that God was peeking into his mind or his dinner bowl, and he wouldn’t deign to as much as share a meal with a Jew who was less vigilant.” If Shepsel’s experience of the God of Israel and His commandments really was as negative as this (his grandson’s informants are not exactly unbiased), we should perhaps not be surprised that every last one of his children abandoned his way of life, leaving him to wonder, plaintively, “what sins [he] had committed to make his sons run from the Torah.”
Contrary to David Klinghoffer’s belief that Orthodoxy has been uniquely able to hold on to its children, the case of Shepsel Dubner reminds us of the massive losses Orthodoxy itself has undergone in the modern world. Stephen’s father Sol, for one, ran not only from Torah but eventually—so great was his own need for meaning—into the welcoming arms of the Catholic Church, accepting baptism as a soldier in Hawaii during World War II. Eventually he met Florence Greenglass at a church function, and after they married, they built their family life around their shared Catholic faith. While “other children . . . were discovering the joys of television, the young Dubners”—Stephen is one of eight—“were kneeling on the living-room floor to recite the Rosary and to pray for the conversion of Russia.”
Somehow, though, Catholicism did not hold the appeal for young Stephen that it did for his parents. Taking communion, he writes, “I longed . . . to understand how my parents felt when they spoke of being filled by God. . . . But Sunday after Sunday it wouldn’t happen for me.” After his father’s death, Stephen, only ten at the time, was hardly consoled by the assurances of his parents’ friends that it was an honor to be the child of a man God wanted so badly. By the time he went away to college, Dubner’s Catholicism had become inert.
In the meantime, signs that he was still somehow a Jew kept presenting themselves, at first to his amazement and then to his delight. When he went South to study, his mother, who had not withheld from him the knowledge of his Jewish ancestry, warned him that people “might run their hands through my black curly hair . . . feeling for the nubs of Satan’s horns.” But, visiting a Jewish friend’s family, Dubner was surprised to see how welcome he found their expressed conviction that “Once a Jew, always a Jew.” “I usually feel uncomfortable with strangers,” he writes, “even with my own brothers and sisters, but [my friend] Irving and his family relaxed me.” Meeting living’s mother, a woman of his own mother’s age, he fell in love: “It was as if I were a piece of her somehow, or as if within her dwelled a piece of me that I had been searching for.”
The language is strikingly reminiscent of Klinghoffer’s report of his own reunion with his Gentile birth mother: “It was as if my soul had sleeping within it a need to be connected to her soul.” For Dubner, however, the felt bond was one neither of immediate relationship nor of belief, but rather of peoplehood, of “tribalism,” as Klinghoffer might put it. Irving’s mother was a surrogate for the Jewish mother Dubner had never had.
To his further surprise, it turned out that he did not need a surrogate mother in order to be accepted as a full Jew by other Jews. As a friend in New York reported back, his own mother would suffice: “according to halakhah, you’re a Jew, even though your mother converted.” Dubner wondered:
What did this mean? How could a religion be transmitted through the blood? By what right, by what bizarre law, had these rabbis declared me one of theirs?
The answer was not long in coming. Like Klinghoffer, Dubner went into journalism. Through an article he was doing on how to save New York City, he established contact with a close associate of the Lubavitcher rebbe. Soon he was collaborating on a collection of the rebbe’s teachings and discovering that they “began to penetrate me. I began to do what the book counseled.” Despite his mother’s predictable (and rather gentle) opposition—“To me Catholicism is the blossoming or fruition or completion of Judaism”—Dubner excitedly went about reconnecting with his Jewish family, even traveling to Poland in search of ancestral records, reconstructing the process by which his parents adopted Catholicism, and visiting Israel (“the trip felt oddly like a homecoming”).
No less predictably, the deeper his rooting in Judaism, the more troubled became his relationship with his mother. Unlike Klinghoffer, however, who disdains the religious affiliation of his adoptive parents, Dubner was eager to find a way to avoid offending his mother and the faith that had long stood at the center of her life. How to do this? A journalistic connection led to an audacious plan to “ask the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York to referee my family dispute.” This, John Cardinal O’Connor graciously did—by citing “the recent declarations of Pope John Paul II about the validity of Judaism” and “the clearly articulated teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the primacy of an informed conscience.”
And so Stephen Dubner’s story ends happily, with Catholic mother and Jewish son personally reconciled though still religiously apart. Before eating, Veronica Dubner (to use the name she took upon becoming a Catholic) makes the sign of the cross, recites the traditional Hebrew blessing over bread, and she and her Jewish son both respond, “Amen.”
What led Stephen Dubner to abandon the intense Catholicism of his parents and to embrace in its stead the Jewish identity they had left behind? Part of the answer would seem to lie in the peculiar character of their Catholicism on the one hand and, on the other, the peculiar character of his newfound Judaism.
The God of his Catholic youth, he tells us, “was finite, rigid, distant,” a God who “valued good deeds” but who also “controlled every deed, good and bad.” In contrast, Irving and his family, the Jews he met on his college trip, “relaxed” him. Here he reveals more than he perhaps intends. After all, a warm ethnicity and a welcoming family feeling are hardly uncommon among Catholics, and rigid judgmentalism and compulsiveness of religious practice have occasionally been spotted among observant Jews—see, for example, Shepsel Dubner.
As, indeed, his grandson Stephen describes it, the rigidity of Shepsel’s Orthodoxy strikingly resembles the rigidity of Stephen’s own parents’ brand of Catholicism. This suggests that however much the Church became, for them, a kind of substitute for the families they had left behind, it could not provide for their own children the warmth and love of a natural family. And if that is so, clearly the impulse that led Stephen Dubner to reconnect with the Jews was born not only of dissatisfaction with the Catholic God but of a felt need for a people, not just a church. Klinghoffer’s stumbling block was Dubner’s salvation.
What he has made of that salvation—what kind of a Jew he is or will become—is, however, another question. Though, having grown up a deracinated Catholic, he emphasizes here his recovery of peoplehood, his identity as a Jew is, he assures us, a matter of more than ethnicity alone. The Lubavitcher rebbe’s teachings left their mark; soon after encountering them, he found himself “spending my last waking moments each night considering what I’d done that day, and why; breathing a thank-you to God every morning for the new day,” and the like. In addition, he reports, “I tried, though this was most difficult, to listen to what my soul had to say.”
This is all well and good—if perhaps to be expected in an age in which religion is often confused with pop psychology. The problem is that Hasidism, of the Lubavitcher variety or any other, instructs its followers to listen to more than what their own souls have to say. It also insists that they listen to, and follow, what the classic codes of halakhah have to say, all the way down to the most inconvenient details. Without approving of the rigidity of Dubner’s grandfather, the Lubavitcher rebbe, too, might have counseled an observant Jew not to “as much as share a meal with a Jew who was less vigilant” if the latter prepared the food.
The effort to appropriate selected aspects of the spirituality of Hasidism while ignoring or jettisoning its concepts of observance and authority has become characteristic of certain forms of non-Orthodox Judaism. Whether Dubner has cast his lot with this perspective is unclear. On theological issues, his book suffers from a frustrating vagueness, and as a result the story he tells can seem merely idiosyncratic, providing little guidance to a reader curious about the distinctive truth he has found in Judaism and the practices that, whatever one’s personal story or personal preferences, necessarily come with it. In this sense, and just to complete the circle, Klinghoffer’s salvation may be Dubner’s stumbling block.
As strange as are the existential and theological turns taken by David Klinghoffer and Stephen Dubner, no less strange is the story of Matthieu Ricard, a French scientist who is the son of the distinguished secular philosopher and political commentator Jean-François Revel. Repudiating both his former life and his father’s worldview at once, the son is now a follower of Tibetan Buddhism. Strange—and yet, in the particular context of the spiritual “return” of our times, familiar enough.
To begin with the father: Jean-François Revel, who is now seventy-five, was raised in a nominally Catholic family, studied literature and philosophy, and, after teaching for several years, became a professional writer and newspaper editor. As a philosopher, he has been especially interested in the growth of scientific knowledge. His best-known work, Without Marx or Jesus (1971), was a vigorous defense of American democratic capitalism against its mostly leftist French despisers, and he is also the author of such influential works of the late-cold-war period as The Totalitarian Temptation (1977) and How Democracies Perish (an early excerpt from which appeared in the June 1984 COMMENTARY).
Then there is the son: Matthieu Ricard was born in 1946 and earned a doctorate in molecular biology under the direction of François Jacob, a Nobel-prize winner. But at some point, his father reports, he “suddenly . . . announced to his boss and myself—to our great consternation—that he had decided to abandon scientific research, go to live in Asia, and follow the teachings of Tibetan Buddhist lamas.” Today he is a monk, living in Nepal and working as a translator of Tibetan sacred literature.
In May 1996, Revel reports, these two learned men held a discussion “high up on a mountainside above Kathmandu.” What emerged was The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life, a best-seller in France and now available here.3 It is, in essence, an exposition of Tibetan Buddhism (other forms of Buddhism being mentioned only in passing), and a defense of it against common Western misperceptions.
The exposition itself is standard-issue. “Suffering,” Matthieu Ricard tells us, “is the result of ignorance,” and ignorance, “in essence, is [the fallacious] belief in a truly existing self and in the solidity of phenomena.” From this starting point, father and son delve into the affinities and contrasts between Buddhism and Western metaphysics, science, and psychoanalysis, in the process illuminating not only Buddhism but the whole course of Western thought from the pre-Socratics to our own time.
Against his son’s convictions, Revel propounds a belief in the reality of the self, defending the vast efforts the West has made through “political, economic, artistic, and cognitive action” for the sake of enhancing the “value of the self.” But Ricard, the ex-scientist turned contemplative, dismisses those advances: “Western efficiency,” he holds, is nothing but “a major contribution to minor needs,” and material progress nothing but “a sort of façade” that in the absence of spiritual values “masks the pointlessness of life.”
There may be less in these distinctions than meets the eye. Eager to dispel his father’s misimpression (if such it be) of Buddhism as passive and fatalistic, Ricard concedes that “Even if the self is only an imposture, . . . it’s perfectly legitimate to remedy suffering by all available means and to do whatever can be done to increase the well-being of all.” Apparently, those “minor needs” addressed by Western efficiency are not so minor after all. For his part, Revel laments that “in our scientific age, philosophers have abandoned the ideal of wisdom, in which the philosopher would provide his readers or listeners with recipes to help them attain such wisdom.” Apparently, the contribution of Western efficiency is not so “major” after all.
Ricard, however, is not content to relegate Buddhism to the status of just another recipe for the attainment of wisdom. He, too, is a Truth-seeker. Despite his insistence that Buddhism is a nontheistic system of thought, he is convinced that Buddhist lamas have supernatural qualities. They are, he tells us, able to read minds (“They might be having this kind of experience all the time, but they only very rarely let anyone know”), and benefit from other kinds of clairvoyance as well, derived in some cases from memories preserved from previous incarnations. As for ordinary Buddhist believers, they too partake of the miraculous. Even such pious practices as prayer-wheels, which Revel considers merely superstitious, Ricard seeks to defend as manifestations of a lofty philosophy. “Perhaps not all Tibetans know the doctrine,” he admits, “but I don’t think they turn prayer-wheels in the hope of achieving their ordinary wishes for prosperity or success. They have in mind the notion of accumulating merit, . . . purifying the stream of their consciousness.”
Ricard makes a good case for his adopted tradition. But it is also plain that a process of massive idealization is at work in these patient disquisitions to his gentle and respectful father—a man whose own learning, unfortunately, does not seem to extend into the history of religion, Western or Eastern. Indeed, however much the son has liberated himself from a belief in “the solidity of phenomena,” he himself remains an example of one very solid phenomenon that has been discussed recently by the distinguished Buddhologist Donald S. Lopez, Jr. in his book, Prisoners of Shangri-La.4 These are Westerners who
describe Tibet as everything that the materialist West wants. . . . It is Tibet that will regenerate the West by showing us, prophetically, what we can be by showing us what it had been. . . . Tibet is seen as the cure for an ever-dissolving Western civilization, restoring its spirit.
The Western romanticization of Tibet has been going on for over a century, recently gathering momentum because of the savagery of the Communist Chinese suppression of Tibetan culture and religion. What is missing in Matthieu Ricard’s thoroughgoing apologetic is an awareness that, as Lopez puts it, “traditional Tibet, like any complex society, had great inequalities, with power monopolized by an elite composed of a small aristocracy, the hierarchs of various sects (including incarnate lamas),” and marked by the subordination of “nonaristocratic laymen, non-Buddhists, and women.”
Ricard is silent not only on such social facts but on discord within Tibetan Buddhism itself. This is all the more remarkable given his association with the Dalai Lama, for whom he serves as French interpreter. For example, he does not deal with the Dalai Lama’s efforts to counteract the ritual of propitiating the wrathful deity Shugden by means of “offerings of fire from a lamp made of human fat and a wick made of human hair.” Controversy over this practice had been raging for twenty years by the time Ricard and Revel held their mountaintop dialogue in 1996. Not long afterward, according to Lopez, one of the Dalai Lama’s supporters in the anti-Shugden campaign, a seventy-year-old scholar, “was stabbed to death along with two of his students, . . . apparently by Tibetan supporters of Shugden.” This is not the sort of thing that should be happening in Shangri-La, and it is certainly not the sort of thing that is allowed to mar Ricard’s portrait of the compassionate and enlightened practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, from whom the violent, materialistic, and intolerant West has so much to learn.
Ricard’s tendency to sentimentalize his adopted religion is, of course, nothing unusual among converts. More disturbing is that his father, a tough-minded political realist and a courageous critic of utopianisms of various sorts, offers so little resistance and presses him so weakly. The reasons can be surmised from Revel’s conclusion to their dialogue. For one thing, the father writes, the territory of Western philosophy, once upon a time “not just one discipline among others” but an activity that effected “an integral metamorphosis in one’s way of living,” has now been abandoned, “left without an heir.” It is this “vacant ground,” he continues, “that Buddhism now occupies, all the more easily in the absence of any local competition.” For another thing, “the collapse of the great political Utopias that were our century’s disastrous experience” have turned more and more people “back to the quest for personal wisdom,” and specifically to Buddhism, with its teachings of tolerance.
What is extraordinary here is the dichotomy that Revel unself-critically posits: either philosophy (as a way of life) or Buddhism (as a source of personal wisdom). Almost completely missing is any awareness that the West has its own religious traditions—traditions, moreover, that are skeptical of political Utopias, critical of materialism, rich in meditative practices, and, at their best, tolerant and respectful of the informed conscience (to revert to Cardinal O’Connor’s term). “The Pope, perhaps, still has a large audience,” Revel concedes, but “people no longer go to Mass and no longer feel like applying the Christian precepts.” This does seem to be the case in Europe (though even there things may be changing). But elsewhere? Has the revitalization of Christianity in the U.S., and of traditional Judaism, too, altogether passed this veteran America-watcher by? Besides, how many people are interested in the vigorous asceticism of the Dalai Lama, or even in seriously accepting Buddhism as their way of life?
One cannot help wondering, in short, whether young Matthieu Ricard would have gone East for spiritual guidance if his parents had not long earlier given up on the Christianity in which they were raised. To put it another way, one cannot help wondering about the degree to which the “personal wisdom” of Jean-François Revel, with its admirable concern for realism, moderation, and social betterment—for a life “without Marx or Jesus”—may have itself helped turn his son’s hungry eyes elsewhere.
Toward the end of their conversation, the son asks his father the ultimate personal question:
We’ve spoken a lot of Buddhism as a way of giving meaning to life. But what is it that gives meaning to lire for you, and for the trend of dunking that you represent?
In reply, Revel speaks evasively, as if caught off-guard:
First of all, I don’t represent any trend of dunking. I do my best to understand the systems that exist or have existed in the past, and that’s already hard enough.
He then goes on to sketch briefly “the diverse directions that Western thought has taken” in religion and philosophy, again without stating a personal commitment.
Reading this reply, one recalls David Klinghoffer’s remark about his Reform Jewish parents, who could not “give any convincing rationale for the strictures they obeyed.” And one thinks also of Stephen Dubner’s maternal grandmother, who could neither practice Judaism, nor pronounce the name of Jesus, nor, for that matter, espouse Communism, the substitute faith of her Rosenberg relatives. One can indeed live one’s life without Marx or Jesus, but eventually something will fill the vacuum. Eventually a generation of children will arise and ask their parents, “What is it that gives meaning to life for you?”
Blessed are the parents who have, in word and in deed, an answer to this question.5 Blessed are the children who hearken.
1 Free Press, 262 pp., $24.00.
2 Morrow, 320 pp., $24.00.
3 Translated by John Canti, foreword by Jack Miles. Schocken, 310 pp., $24.00.
4 University of Chicago Press, 283 pp., $25.00.
5 One such parent is the respected Catholic theologian and neo-conservative political thinker Michael Novak. In Tell Me Why (Pocket Books, 321 pp., $24.00), Novak undertakes to answer questions about Catholicism posed by his skeptical daughter Jana, a writer and editor in her twenties. Though the questions seem staged and even pedestrian, the answers, delivered in an informal style, constitute a helpful, learned, and at times moving elucidation of Roman Catholic faith. (One misses, however, any serious engagement with the formidable historical-critical challenge to Catholic teaching that has grown up in modern times.) In the end, Jana Novak still has not recommitted herself to Catholicism, but one has the sense that, alone among the members of the younger generation in the books under consideration, she is likely to end up in religious harmony with her parents.