Dear David Brooks:
We have never met, and I do not regularly follow your work. Because you are a public intellectual of Jewish origin, though, your spiritual peregrinations are of broader interest. It may be chutzpah for me to offer you advice, but I could not help thinking of the case of Franz Rosenzweig while reading a post at Aletaia claiming that you may convert to Christianity. Rosenzweig, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, had decided to convert to Christianity. Raised in a secular family and trained in the high tradition of German critical philosophy, Rosenzweig nonetheless thought that he should do so as a Jew. He attended the Day of Atonement services at a Berlin shtuebl with Polish Jews, and liked it so much that he not only remained Jewish, but devoted the rest of his sadly short life to Judaism.
Of course, you have attended Day of Atonement services (in fact, we have done so at the same Conservative synagogue in New York, Or Zarua, albeit in different years). My experience, though, was that my conversion to Judaism began after I left “Conservative Judaism” and began observing Shabbat, eating kosher and wrapping tefillin. In retrospect, it occurred to me that the rarified Judaism I encountered in the progressive Jewish world was really a strange form of Christianity, Methodism with a yamulka. There is a word for rarified Judaism, and that is Christianity: living in an ambient Christian culture, I could not help but bring Christian sensibilities to a Judaism without the commandments. In a sense I was a Christian, despite my best intentions, and had to “convert” to Judaism. I did this while an editor at First Things, then the premier Christian intellectual magazine in the United States.
I suspect that your experience is not too different, which is why I am kibbitzing. There is the matter of the bagel that you offered to The Forward’s editor Jane Eisner, in the middle of the Passover holiday, when Jews are forbidden any matter of leavened bread. Observing Passover is the first of all commandments, given to us the night we left Egypt, before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. To eat leavened bread on Passover (and to offer it to another Jew) suggests that there is not a shred of Jewish practice in your everyday life.
I find it hard to get worked up over reports that you might convert to Christianity. In a way, you (like me) were always there. I do not judge the religious lives of others — I am the last person who should, considering that I spent the first half of my life as the most egregious sort of atheist. But you might try Judaism. It’s well and good to read Joseph Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith,” an essay written for a Christian audience, and a marvelous book, but you should also keep in mind that Rav Soloveitchik supervised kashrut in Boston.
Why is it so fundamental to eat kosher? Permit me an almost-rational argument: There are things that Torah tells us, that no prior document in the whole history of humanity told anyone else, for example, to regard every human being as an image of God, with the attendant reverence. There is no philosophical justification for this: it is beyond reason. But (as Michael Wyschogrod argues) we are not wholly different from the animals. We recognize that in refraining from eating cats and dogs, for example. Which animals may we eat? That question is above our pay grade, and we accept a divine answer to that question (ruminants but not swine, for example). Precisely because we accept a divine mandate in the matter of meat consumption, we also accept it in the requirement to view human life as sacred, and each human as an image of God.
Judaism lives in the details of everyday life, “in the pots and pans in the kosher kitchen,” as our mutual friend Rabbi Meir Soloveichik put it, in the rules of Sabbath rest and the sublime commandment to put on tefillin. One can’t intellectualize this: to describe what it’s like to live like a Jew (as opposed to theorizing about it) is like the difference between actually having sex, and reading a sex manual. You won’t make any sense of this without doing it. I am not trying to persuade you of the benefits of Jewish practice. I am daring you to try it. Read up on Rosenzweig. Don’t consider becoming a Christian until you’ve at least tried being a Jew.
I mean this respectfully. I have a couple of friends with secular Jewish backgrounds who converted to Christianity, and lead happier lives for it. My respect for Christianity and my affection for Christians is a matter of public record. Nonetheless, I cannot see how you would fail to benefit from learning what it is like to be a Jew.
David P. Goldman, Aka “Spengler”