Religious Heroism

Heroism, so I have been told by real heroes, such as Medal of Honor winners, is neither planned nor done out of an excess of courage, but seems either a fluke or inevitable, people only doing what they do naturally, and so the title of “hero” is worn begrudgingly. I want to call attention to a minor form of heroism of my own, one that did not put my life but only my soul at risk, which happened when I was a teenager, and so at a time when I would be wont to take risks for no reason, only later to understand the reasons why. It was my youthful religious rebellion, which is a time honored story and my own might seem a naive one to people with better religious training than I had acquired at the time.

I was brought up in a non-observant but dutifully “believing” working class Jewish family in the Bronx. They were kosher but never went to synagogue except on the High Holy Days, and then mainly, I latter surmised, to set a good example for me. I was Bar Mitzvahed, which meant in that time, the early Fifties, that the family could have a celebration for themselves more than it was for me. They had achieved some level of financial stability in their lives and so could afford the event, even if just barely, so that they ordered no more invitations from the printer than they were sure they would need, and what I collected in cash gifts was used to offset the cost of the caterer. I went to Hebrew School, where I learned very little and was something of a cut up, though I was a good student in public school.

But I had an internal spiritual life. I prayed regularly when I lay in bed, with prayers of my own devising, until I fell asleep. I handled all books printed in Hebrew, whether they were prayerbooks or not, with care and awe, because they were in the sacred language. I felt what I later learned was what Freud called “the oceanic feeling” of a mystery which informed every element of the universe from the glistening of the sun through the trees to the endless depths of the universe to what must be the inevitable moral structure of life. After my Bar Mitzvah, I attended synagogue every week, unaccompanied by any person I knew, trying to keep up with the prayers, until a kindly old regular in the congregation took me under his wing and showed me what to read and how to dress properly for services and to whom I was very grateful even if he did smell bad.

Adolescence, however, brought disenchantment. I began to formulate for myself, as I thought any reasonable person might, the arguments that I would, in college, learn were mostly present in David Hume’s “Dialogues on Natural Religion”. If God were all powerful, than why were there so many imperfections in the world? And If the imperfections of this part of the universe were, in some sense, “compensated for” by perfections in other parts of the universe, how could we ever learn of those parts? And how can we trust in miracles when the only basis for the belief in them was the report of others, those reports not to be trusted because people can be wrong? The arguments seemed to me conclusive. How could a just God condemn people for trying to analyze the nature of God even if they came up with conclusions that were not in His interest, which was to have people worship Him? And I was learning enough science so that God having divided the Red Sea no longer seemed plausible. I lost the oceanic feeling. I stopped praying. I knew that my rising unfaith was undermining my previous sense of myself but I could see no way to resist it, attributing it to my generally disputatious nature as that was allowed to deal with a subject about which my parents knew very little, and so my apostasy would not interfere with their lives, and so would be regarded as harmless even if embarrassing should I make mention of it, which I did not.

I had an Orthodox friend from another floor in my apartment building and I told him of my misgivings, beginning with the grave assertion that I no longer believed in God and here were my reasons why. He was shocked and told me he could no longer trust me as a person even if he could still trust me to show him how to do a math problem. On my next visit, his mother confronted me because my friend thought this too important a matter not to confide in her. She told me that someone who was no longer a member of the community could not enjoy its pleasures, so I was depriving myself of raisin kugel and gefilte fish. I did not mind that though I was sorry to lose the chocolate cake she always made for me on holidays. When I got to college, I went to the Rabbi and said I had considerable doubts about God and he told me that there was a youth group that discussed such subjects and I should attend that. I never did, preferring the wisdom of the secular faculty to that of my Jewish peers, and took note of the fact that people with far more developed religious educations than mine kept up with religion, attending services with the understanding that they were upholding a regulative ideal or simply for the pleasure of remaining ensconced in a tradition, too sophisticated to care whether it was true or not.

There was a strand in my character that thought that true religion consisted of the experience of being totally subservient to the authority of God. Since there was no room for a rational religion, I might turn myself over to a totally irrational one. My external inspiration for this point of view was St. Augustine and Soren Kierkegaard. I did spend some time in graduate school at the library of the Newman Center to see how the books there might enlighten me on matters of faith and duty, at that point thinking that true religion consisted of listening to whomever shouted loudest, but I did not consult any priests because they would turn away someone who was having doubts rather than already committed to their point of view. Somehow I could not manage to go over to Rome even if the argument for religion as a matter of pure obedience to whomever claimed to the ultimate authority was appealing. That reluctance was perhaps because I did not want to entirely abandon my Jewish roots. To this day, I don’t know whether that was the truth, whether I had been only as courageous as I could be or, instead, I was following my newly formed conscience whereby I could not surrender my hard won liberty to a different religion. And so I went back to my secularism, to Spinoza, Marx and Freud, and the view that “Genesis” was the best book ever written, though it was only a book and so not supernatural in inspiration.

Billy Graham came to town while I was in college. He was preaching at Madison Square Garden. I went down to listen, aware that I was an imposter in that I was not a person looking for enlightenment but just there to observe whatever it was that gave him his hold on people. He put on quite a show for a rafters filling crowd. There was wonderful singing by George Beverly Shea and a chorus of the combined voices of numerous New York City congregations. A man sitting next to me, his face fully blissed out, pointed out where the lyrics were in the pamphlet provided so that I could also sing along. I thanked him most graciously. Then Graham gave one of his patented fire and brimstone sermons, his enunciation and rhythms just perfect. He came across as completely sincere to an audience that I also recognized as totally sincere. Then, as only Billy Graham might have been able to pull off, he asked people to come downstairs so that they could pledge themselves to Christ. They would be referred to a representative of one of the New York Churches that had taken on the responsibility of advising those who had found the faith. Then Graham added, and I think I remember his words exactly: “Don’t worry. Your friends will wait for you. And don’t rush. You can take the escalator down.” Such a combination of the up to date with old fashioned religion! What I took away from that night was not an opposition to religion but rather the sense that we had nothing to communicate to one another, that we just did not understand what the other one was about, or else, less charitably, that I understood them better than they ever understood me, a judgment that was my ultimate act of insolence.