Comparing Notes With Shulem Deen
Shulem Deen is the author of ‘All Who Go Do Not Return’, a memoir which describes how he lost his faith, and then lost contact with his still-observant wife and children, after he left the New Square community.
I have read All Who Go Do Not Return, and it seems to me one of the saddest books I have ever read, Holocaust accounts always excepted. Dostoevsky’s Idiot, which I cried over in high school, was about the same level of sadness.
In some ways I could identify with the author, though I have gone in the opposite direction from him. All those who have left their culture of origin for another have something in common. There is first a sense of constriction, and then the getting out of it – into another set of constrictions, as it always turns out. In my case, the new constrictions were out front; in becoming an Orthodox Jew, I had some idea of what I was getting into, though of course, the reality of Orthodox Jewish life does not always correspond to the poetic view of it with which an outsider (baal teshuva or convert) can fall in love. There’s always a gap, as Gustav Landauer put it, between Utopia and Topia, and we mortals only get to live in some Topia or other.
The set of constrictions Shulem Deen chose is the set I felt I had to get out of – the perhaps less obvious constraints of the “enlightened” world. My parents were both scientists. They sent us to Sunday school to “civilize” us a bit, but at adolescence we were permitted to see that they didn’t believe a word of it. That felt very liberating, until I noticed that I was now subject to the laws of a deterministic universe. Looking for an exit from the same, I found Judaism – admittedly, a “poetic,” Utopian vision thereof, and in my adventures in the Topia I have been frequently unhorsed. Still the vision keeps me happy, and I have no regrets.
But I have had some of the spiritual problems Deen speaks of. When I pray I also don’t have the feeling that anyone is listening. Maybe sometimes just a bit. I do have some belief in spiritual powers, which have manifested to me in some striking incidents of hashgachah pratit, and I think perhaps the act of prayer may help to strengthen those powers. Moreover, in praying, I am conscious of connecting with the Jewish people, making their desires my own, or recognizing their desires as mine.
Perhaps the lack of a feeling of intimacy has to do with the lack of childhood and ancestral connections. It must be very different to be the son of a father who kept the faith, and whose father kept the faith, the souls lined up like pearls on a string whose far end is anchored at the foot of Sinai; or to be the daughter of a mother who lit Shabbat candles, and whose mother lit Shabbat candles, in a relay reaching back to Sarah’s tent. Out of such a background it would be possible to ask, as did one rabbi on the court that expelled Shulem Deen from his Hasidic community, “How can anyone not believe in G-d?” Me, I don’t have memories of singing “Mah nishtanah” to the kvelling of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, or of helping to decorate the Sukkah, or of looking up at my father as he shook the lulav. I do have memories of walking with my father through the falling snow, looking for something else that we were going to decorate, but dipping into the sweetness of such memories feels transgressive now. And when I try to think of G-d as Father, the image of that natural father rises – a just, fair-minded, objective and kind man (if everyone on earth had him for a father we wouldn’t be having all those problems), but an atheist.
A round peg in a Skver hole
So when I read of Shulem Deen’s spiritual struggles, they seem to me partly the struggles of someone who suffered from a disturbance of the natural channels of religion. True, Judaism begins with a breaking of continuity – lekh lekha, get thee forth. But after that, faithfulness is associated with the chain of generations. For Shulem Deen, the chain had been broken in his grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s generation. His father, as a baal teshuvah, had tried to reforge the chain. But the adolescent Shulem found himself in a community – New Square, the upstate New York village of the Skverer Hasidim – for whose rigorous way of life he seems not to have been prepared or suited. He married and fathered five children, but he was a round peg in a Skver hole.
Deen’s Deen’s account makes New Square sound like a place where this reader, for one, would not have enjoyed living. And there are glimpses of something precious that Skver continues to foster: the love that can grow between a couple who have no choice but to make it work, the contentment of children sheltered from the Internet. Yeats, in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” wrote: “How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?” But for Deen it was not enough. He began in various ways to tunnel out of Skver’s restrictions. Eventually he discovered the Internet. One could in fact see Deen as a “casualty” of the Internet revolution, which suddenly opened up a limitless realm of knowledge and conversation, not to mention temptation. Deen seems not to have been drawn into the cruder temptations. He just found himself in chat rooms with people of all possible faiths or none, of all possible world views and “lifestyles” (a term I loathe, but it indisputably fits the way too many people today think of their lives). Soon he was blogging and sharing his discomforts with the outside world.
Inevitably, his views and actions came to the attention of the New Square authorities, and Deen was expelled. Amazingly, the marriage bond lasted a few years after that, and even the divorce was amicable at first; but the community’s fear of his influence on the children resulted in a permanent, bitter and total separation from them which was and, I gather, still is agonizingly painful. It hurts to read about it. At the end of the book he is still longing for his lost children and for the fervor that he was once able to feel while reciting such prayers as “Nishmat kol chai.”
I found myself wondering whether Deen has thought of going back to Tehillim, which are there for those in anguish of mind. But I didn’t really find that out until I’d reached a position of identification with the Jewish people’s historic struggle. Although some who make use of these poems haven’t noticed it, in Tehillim the struggles of the individual and of the community are inseparable.
And this for me is the biggest problem with All Who Go Do Not Return. For while it strikes one in most respects as a searingly honest, possibly necessary confession and uncovering of sores that really do need treatment, one is overtaken by a feeling that criticism of the haredi way of life has become Shulem Deen’s stock in trade. It’s what is expected of him now. Moreover, in the course of Internet discussions Deen, who had started out as a supporter of Israel, has learned to qualify this support with compassion for the “sufferings” of the ”Palestinians” whose land we are “occupying.” Deen has become a columnist for the staunchly critical-of-Israel” Forward.
Yes, of course. For assent to the propositions implied by the three words in quotation marks is today pretty much a requirement for membership in the community of the “enlightened” and the “free.” However we may try to deny it, our quests for truth and freedom seldom succeed in escaping the fact that we are social beings. The process of Deen’s persuasion by the anti-Israel bias of the “enlightened” community is not described. It is just mentioned in a sentence or two, leaving those who don’t overlook the matter to imagine that for one starved for human connections the repeated negative reinforcement of pro-Israel statements would have its effect.
And so I would like to say to the author of this book:
Shalom — if I may give your name a more Israeli pronunciation – you took the path you took because you did not want to live a lie, but it seems that you are now living another. Can anyone get out of living a lie? (Have you by any chance read Ibsen’s The Wild Duck?)
I’ve had my own problems with Orthodoxy. Still have. I do not like, any more than you do, to try to “believe six impossible things before breakfast.” (I hope you have read Lewis Carroll.) But I’ll tell you what finally helped me figure out what is true. It was the Gaza expulsion.
In 2005, all the gens bien pensants, the enlightened people of pure good intentions, the non-fanatics, the good guys and even the security experts, were overflowing with enthusiasm for this step in the right direction. And only the crazy right-wing Zionist fanatics were offering realistic predictions of the outcome. If the state of things in Gaza was not ideal under Israeli control – no one said it was – things can always get worse; and under Hamas it is apparently hell on earth, not to speak of the danger to Israel.
In 2005 I said to myself something like, “Hm, the people who believe Israel is the land promised by G-d to the chosen people understand what is going on, and everyone else has gone loony tunes. A proposition such that those who disbelieve it end up going crazy has a good chance of being true. Guess I’m a religious Zionist.”
The quest for truth is indeed a funny thing. “No one sees My face and lives.” The scientific quest for “truth” has led among other things to the Internet, which has proved a powerful solvent to every social structure through which humans have striven to make Earth habitable. If you think life in a sheltered haredi community limited the human potential for growth and free choice, consider the recent remark of a teacher in a secular Israeli school:
“It’s a great generation, only they’re steeped in pornography. If they spent as much time studying Torah as they do watching pornography we’d be raising a generation of Tannaim.”
That is what life without limits comes down to eventually. “Her feet take hold on Sheol.”
All this is made somewhat easier for me because I am a poet, and as such have noticed that free verse doesn’t remain dynamic for very long. Without the limits of rhyme and meter, which were gleefully discarded in the early twentieth century, the energy of poetry dissipated over just a few generations. If you declare that the universe is 5700-and-some years old and the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, you are placing a limitation on your mind. You are giving thought a form. And there is no life without form.
Morality – the giving of form to social life – is a collective act of will, and a collective act of will to sustain itself needs stories. Fictions, if you will. Lies, if you want to be unpleasant about it. But as has been pointed out, the Hebrew word for truth – emet — does not mean conformity to whatever level of pointillistic exactitude the scientific worldview has attained at a given moment in time. It could be translated “that which is reliable, that which sustains.”
When I was just being introduced to Judaism I came across a Hasidic anecdote that I’ve never been able to find again since: A son says to his father, “Father, how do we know we are not wandering on one of the worlds of illusion?” And the father answers, “We have the Torah. That’s how we know.” And I thought at the time (being a free enlightened person suffering somewhat from vertigo), “That might work, even if ‘the Torah’ was something completely arbitrary.” From what I’ve been able to glean from science, there is a certain amount of arbitrariness in the universe, even in the DNA code. It’s what got started at a certain point, and you don’t always see how it makes sense, but you tamper with it at your peril.
Your story, Shalom, seems to me a textbook case of what HaRav Kook was afraid of when he pleaded with religious conservatives to engage with the modern world, from a faith in the truth of Torah, rather than trying to slam the door on all outside influence. He wished for Torah study not to be confined to pilpul but to include philosophy and mysticism and perhaps even foreign sources, evaluated in the light of Torah principles, as well as the sciences needed for practical survival.
He saw that reality cannot be shut out, it has to be wrestled with, but from a belief in our destiny and, yes, chosenness – for everyone else’s sake as well as our own. (One could say that he takes the statement “The L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” as a call and a drive to unify all of reality.) If we don’t take the challenge, he said, we’re going to lose souls. And something not good will happen to our own souls as well.
To some extent HaRav Kook’s ideas are being realized in contemporary Israeli society. Not enough, in my opinion, this is not yet Utopia, but we’re working on it.
I remember saying to someone, at the time I began noticing such things as hashgacha pratit, that “God is an author with a heavy-handed sense of symbolism.” The world does have an Author and a plot, and Israel is at the center of it. The scientific worldview really is not the whole story. For all its impressive discoveries and verified predictions, it remains only a half-truth.
Shalom, I want to close by quoting to you some lines from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” a poem he addressed to his newly-married wife. Arnold was a religious skeptic and much of the poem is a lament for the loss of faith, but he ends with words that could be addressed to a fellow-member of Klal Yisrael:
…let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
But there is something better. Whatever trials and errors have occurred and are still occurring, we have a covenant with the Creator of the Universe. Let us be true to it.