November 8, 2007
Shalom Auslander is my failure
'Pot, pork and pater-bashing'
A review of Shalom Auslander's new memoir caught my eye -- was this author the curly-haired boy who had been my ninth-grade student at Yeshiva University High
Reading the review confirmed, first, that it was the same person, though now the curls had given way to a contemporary buzz cut, and second, that his writing was to Noah Feldman, another controversial former yeshiva student, what Junior Classics are to Shakespeare.
Then I saw his eponymous Web site, and realized that my initial estimate had been over generous. Self-promotion, biblical inaccuracies, shock value, uber alles. I have no admiration for what my former high school student has done. I can sympathize with his pain growing up, but abuse doesn't produce pseudo-philosophy of this caliber. Neither does a school.
If Feldman wants acceptance, Auslander wants a book tour and a cheeseburger without the guilt. But shorn of the elaborate gyrations that don't quite succeed in justifying a lifestyle of pot, pork and pater-bashing, Auslander has hit on a point that troubles every thinking religious person.
It's a lot easier to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God than a benevolent one. Bad things do happen to good people -- all the time -- and the believer spends a great deal of spiritual energy putting aside, and keeping aside, creeping doubts in God's goodness. When I let it, my mind wanders to my first trip to Israel in 1983, when I was accompanied by my 22-year-old sister, and seriously dated a former classmate from Ramaz. A dozen years later, both women would be dead from cancer, and I would be a rabbi, teaching people that there is a good God and a reason for everything. They would forever be connected in my memory to Effi Chovers, my sister's classmate at Ramaz, who was killed in 1982, in Operation Peace for the Galilee. But God has His reasons.
In my pastoral work, the instances of suffering are multiplied. A couple, long infertile, finally pregnant, struck with a miscarriage; a congregant's child afflicted with illness; a wrecked marriage leaving both partners savaged -- sometimes the emotional effect feels cumulative, and it is very tempting to point an accusing finger upward. I can walk into a wedding, and feel tears fill my eyes from the knowledge of the silent sorrow of so many families around me. And, of course, looming above my life is the spectre of the Holocaust, in which my father's whole family perished, and whose icy grip accompanied me growing up.
Part of me wonders: Am I blinded by self-interest to take up the cause of God simply because He is not currently aiming his bow at me? Am I dishonest to preach belief in a good God, when so many around me are suffering? When I help comfort a mourner or ease the pain of another human being, am I God's partner as I preach, and as I dearly want to believe, or am I cleaning up after Him, saving His creatures from His wrath?
But I am not the first to struggle with these questions. From Abraham to Aher, Jeremiah to Job, the Aish Kodesh to Elie Wiesel, those who have seen and understood more than I, have struggled to keep love in their lexicon. And one of the least-answerable post-Holocaust questions is how so many survivors succeeded in rebuilding not only their lives but their faith. My father (z"l) was one such survivor, but his formula was ineffable, nontransferable, to be emulated, but never duplicated, even by a son. And yet I remember the hours he spent, staring out our apartment window, murmuring niggunim, laden with unshed tears. I never asked him about the inner struggles of those moments. I didn't have to.
In this area, like dieting, you can only adopt what works for you. For Sherlock Holmes it was the aroma of the rose, wholly unnecessary from an evolutionary point of view, that "proved" the existence of a benevolent God. For others it is a personal experience of miraculous salvation. For me it was a chocolate cake.
It was 1985, and I was back in Israel, at a yeshiva. It was my birthday, and I was unutterably lonely. My mother's care package, having arrived early, was long-since dismembered, devoured and forgotten. It was my first birthday away from home, and nobody remembered. In my mind, I played the maudlin and the miserable to the hilt. I decided to visit married friends in a nearby neighborhood. Their door was open, but no one was home. On the table stood a homemade cake and a note -- "Sorry we couldn't be here in person. Happy Birthday and many happy returns." That cake did more than sate my sweet tooth. People like that convince me that God is good.
So, too, does the rabbi whom I call upon to answer questions posed to me that I can't handle myself. He has yet to tell me how inane my queries really are, or that if I cracked open a Shulchan Aruch, I could find the answers myself. And the people of my community who rallied around us when my wife was on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy, or when I sat shiva. From people like these, I extrapolate to God.
This doesn't answer my questions. It doesn't staunch my tears. I don't sleep better. I don't justify terrible things when they happen to others, and I don't know why they don't happen to me. But I know that just as surely as there is inexplicable evil in the world, there is inexplicable good, as well. It's something to put on the other side of the scale, something to attribute to a good God.
And while I am awake at night I also ask myself: Should I have baked Auslander a chocolate cake?
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., and teaches at the SAR Academy.