aish.com > Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Next Year In Jerusalem, Part 1

July 12, 2017 | by Ellen Willis

A groundbreaking chronicle of spiritual search, originally published in Rolling Stone magazine, April 1977.

Click here to read Part 2 and Part 3.

Click here for a pdf version of the entire article.

In the book, "Anatomy of a Search", Rabbi Akiva Tatz tells a story of a young Jewish man searching for meaning in the East who was given an article by my sister Ellen Willis in Rolling Stone magazine. The monk who gave him the article, a Jew who had become a Buddhist, suggested that he read the article and go check out his own heritage first in Jerusalem.

I can vouch for the story, because he came first to find me in Jerusalem. And his story wasn't , because many spiritual seekers over the years found their search reflected in my sister's article. It can probably be truthfully said that no single work in English about the process of teshuva – certainly no work of journalism – has had such a profound impact on so many people since it was published in April 1977.

Since then, and until today, I have been stopped by people who remember my picture in the magazine. They tell me how that article played such a key role in their development when, starting on their path to Jewish observance, they came across or were given it. And invariably, they ask the question: what ever happened to your sister?

In fact, my sister, who passed away from cancer five months ago at 64, didn't go further into Judaism, although her article gave many logical reasons to continue. It was her ability to reflect so honestly on the struggle between a desire for the truth and a fear of change that made her article such a powerful influence on others, many of whom came to different conclusions than she did.

Sometimes, by one act, a person can attain eternity. May the merit of those people who have had their lives changed because of my sister's honest struggle (and those who even today can continue to identify with it) stay with her forever.

– Rabbi Chaim Willis,
Executive Director of Aish South Africa

I. GENESIS

In the spring of 1975, my brother Michael, then 24, was on his way home from his third trip through Asia when he arrived in Israel, planning to stay a few weeks before heading back to New York. On April 28th, he wrote to our parents: "I've been staying at, of all things, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva – when I got to Jerusalem I went to visit the Wailing Wall and got invited – they hang around there looking for unsuspecting tourists to proselytize. It's sort of a Jewish Jesus-freak type outfit – dedicated to bringing real Judaism to backsliding Jews. I haven't been especially impressed by the message, but it's been a really interesting week." On June 4th, he wrote me, "I've had my lack of faith shaken."

I appreciated the ironic turn of phrase. Then its meaning hit. I read on: "I've read and talked about it enough to realize that the arguments for the existence of G-d (a spelling which shows how superstitious I'm becoming) – and the Jewish version of it at that – are very plausible and intellectually if not emotionally convincing... It's frightening, because while I can convince myself of the possibility and even probability of the religion, I don't like it – its 613 commandments, its puritanism, its political conservatism, its Jews-first philosophy. On the other hand, if it is the truth, not to follow it means turning your back on the truth." He was postponing his return till the end of July.

I called my parents. My mother thought I was being an alarmist – Mike couldn't be serious about religion; it was too removed from the way he'd been brought up. "He's spelling God 'G-d,'" I said. There is a religious law that you cannot destroy paper on which you have spelled out "God."

Two weeks later they got another letter: "I haven't written because I'm having trouble describing what's happening. I feel more and more that I'm trapped into a religion whose truth I can't deny ... I've never given much thought to the existence of God – my LSD experiences had (same as with Ellen) left me with the idea that there was 'something' there, but I never thought it was knowable or explainable (& if it was explainable certainly more in terms of mystical experience & Buddhism than the 'God of our Fathers' of Judaism). But my time here has really forced me to come to terms with what that 'something' might be ... I'm not Jesus-freaking out – I haven't come to this through any blinding moment of illumination or desire to be part of a group – it's been an intellectual process (which I've been fighting emotionally all the way), and I'd like nothing better than to reject it – I just don't think I'll be able to.

"The final shock in this letter is that I may not leave here at the end of July. If I accept this as the truth, I have to take time to learn about it."

The "truth" Mike proposed to accept was Judaism in its most extreme, absolutist form: the God of the Old Testament exists; He has chosen the Jewish people to carry out His will; the Torah (the Five Books of Moses and the Oral Law elaborating on them) is literally the word of God, revealed to the Jews at Mt. Sinai; the creation, the miracles in Egypt, and other biblical events actually happened; the Torah's laws, which are based on 613 mitzvoth (commandments) and govern every aspect of one's existence, must be obeyed in every detail; they are eternal, unchangeable.

My parents had the same first impulse: "Let's go to Israel and bring him home." My father was already out of his chair and about to leave the house to go buy plane tickets when they looked at each other and decided they were overreacting. My own reaction was a kind of primal dread. In my universe, intelligent, sensible people who had grown up in secular homes in the second half of the 20th century did not embrace biblical fundamentalism – let alone arrive at it through an "intellectual process." My brother was highly intelligent, had always seemed sensible. What was going on?

 

* * *

 

My father is a retired police lieutenant; my mother is a housewife. They married during the Depression and now live in a house with a paid up mortgage in a modestly middle-class section of Queens, New York. They are college educated, literary-minded and politically liberal. I am the oldest of their three children; my sister, a graduate student in linguistics, is in the middle; Mike is the youngest. Mike and I were born in December, nine years apart almost to the day. The coincidence of birthdays is one of many similarities. If the prospect of Mike's becoming an Orthodox Jew was frightening, it was not simply because he was my brother, someone I loved. I felt an almost mystical identification with Mike. Our baby pictures were identical, and though Mike was now taller and thinner than I, we had the same fair skin, curly brown hair, and astigmatic, sleepy green eyes. We were (not that I really believed in that stuff – still...) cliche Sagittarians: analytical, preoccupied with words and ideas. We were inclined to repress feelings; our intellectual confidence coexisted with emotional insecurity and a tendency to depressions.

I was fascinated with the notion that Mike was what I might have become had I been a man, the lastborn instead of the first – a child of the Seventies rather than the Sixties. I wondered how much the differences between us had to do with our circumstances rather than our basic natures. For there were differences, of course. Mike was much more reserved than I; he rarely talked about his feelings, his problems or his relationships. I was more worldly, more willing to compete in and compromise with a hostile system. My friendships were central to my life; he was, or seemed to be, a loner.

The qualities we shared were more pronounced in Mike, the opposing tendencies more hidden. Next to him I always felt a bit irrational and uncool. Picture a recurrent family scene: my father and I are sitting in the kitchen, having a passionate political argument. My brother is listening, not saying a word. Suddenly I put myself in his place, become self-conscious. I hear all the half-truths and rhetorical exaggerations that in the emotion of the moment I have allowed to pass my lips. I realize, with chagrin, that my father and I have had, and my brother has listened to, the same argument at least half a dozen times before. I am sure Mike thinks we are ridiculous.

I was disturbed and mystified by what I saw as my brother's swing from a skepticism more rigorous than my own to an equally extreme credulity. How could anyone familiar with the work of a certain Viennese Jew possibly believe in God the Father? What puzzled me even more was Mike's insistence that he was being reluctantly convinced by irresistible arguments. It seemed to me that his critical intelligence could only be in the way.

 

* * *

 

I knew that connecting with Reality was the crucial business of life, the key to freedom, sanity, happiness.

On acid I had, as Mike observed, experienced the something that Westerners have most commonly called "God" – the source of all truth, beauty, goodness. Unlike Mike, I had felt that I knew what it was. "So this is what it's all about," I had marveled. "It's so simple. So obvious. And I've known it all the time. I just didn't know I knew." But when I came down it was less obvious. The ecstasy – a word that didn't quite convey a feeling as natural as a spring thaw, as comfortable as coming home – gradually slipped away. "All God is," I would try to explain, "is reality – the simple, wonderful reality behind the abstract concepts and ingrained habits of perception that keep us from ever really experiencing it." And I would sound hopelessly abstract even to myself. Soon, whatever clouded the doors of perception in ordinary life began to invade my acid trips as well. I tried to fight that process-doggedly pursuing the right mood, the right situation – and only made things worse; finally, frustrated and demoralized, I stopped tripping. The entire experience had a permanent, profound effect on the way I saw myself and the world. I knew that connecting with Reality – I couldn't call it God; to me that word meant an old man with a white beard – was the crucial business of life, the key to freedom, sanity, happiness. I knew that if I could make the connection I would think: "How silly of me to have forgotten!" But I didn't know how to proceed.

This problem was not, of course, peculiar to me. It had been plaguing spiritual seekers for thousands of years. Many had tried, far more eloquently than I, to express what they agreed was inexpressible. Recognizing the inadequacy of intellectual analysis, religions tried to evoke the crucial connection through myths, rituals, rules of conduct. But in the end religion, like language, tried to express the truth in concrete form and so inevitably distorted it. If all religions were inspired by a common Reality, each reflected the particular cultural, political and psychological limitations of the people who invented and practiced it. Which posed another problem. If you understood that your religion was only an imperfect approach to the truth, you remained outside it, an observer, a critic. If, on the other hand, you truly believed – worshipped an omnipotent God, accepted Jesus as your savior, surrendered to a guru – you were confusing a set of metaphors for reality with Reality itself. And that put you back on square one. Or did it?

On my second acid trip I had had a joyous vision of the birth of Christ. In one part of my mind I had become an early Christian, experiencing the ecstasy of grace, redemption, the washing away of sin. But on a deeper level I had remained aloof, thinking, "Remember, you are a Jew." For the first time I had had a wistful inkling of what it must be like to be committed to a powerful myth. Maybe if you had faith that Jesus would save you, He would. Maybe the point was simply to stop listening to that observer/critic inside my head, to surrender my will, to have faith, and what I had faith in didn't matter any more than whether I took a train or a bus to my destination.

"Suppose you had faith in Hitler?" my observer/critic, that irrepressible crank, could not help objecting. Still, part of what had messed up my acid trips was doubt, whispering like the serpent: What if the straight world is right, and what you think is Reality is a seductive hallucination? I couldn't assent to the experience without reservation, following wherever it led: it might lead to insanity. So I tried to compromise. I wanted to tap the ecstasy whenever I wanted and be "normal" the rest of the time. It was, I suppose, the same impulse that makes sinners go to church on Sunday, with much the same result.

I was aware of the link between my skepticism and my Jewishness. It was, after all, the Jew who was the perennial doubter, the archetypal outsider, longing for redemption while dismissing the claims of would-be redeemers as so much snake oil. But what did any of this have to do with the kind of Jewishness my brother was talking about?

 

* * *

 

Mike had grown up in the economic and cultural slough of the Seventies. Though he had always been an excellent student, he had never liked school; he had found college as boring and meaningless as high school and elementary school before that. Since graduating from the University of Michigan in 1970, with a B.A. in Chinese, he had spent nearly half his time traveling. Recurrent asthma had kept him from being drafted. Between trips he would come back to New York and drive a cab to make money for the next trip. He had never had a job he liked. During his last stay in New York he had begun writing articles about Asia, and he had gone back with the idea of doing more. He had had a few pieces in newspapers, but no major breakthrough, and one major disappointment: an article he'd worked hard on was first accepted by a magazine, then sent back.

Mike was also depressed about Cambodia and Vietnam. In 1973 he had spent almost two months in Cambodia and had come away convinced that as much as the people hated the corrupt Lon Nol government, they did not want the Americans to leave and permit a Communist takeover. As Mike saw it, they wanted to be left alone to farm while the Khmer Rouge made them take sides and shot those who chose incorrectly; they were religious Buddhists, while the Communists were anti-religious and would make young men work instead of becoming monks; in short, they wanted to return to their traditional, pre-war way of life, which the Communists would permanently destroy. Those premises had led Mike to what seemed an unavoidable conclusion: the Americans should not withdraw. For someone who had shared the American left's assumptions about the war, it was a disturbing reversal. If he had been wrong about Cambodia, he thought, perhaps he had been wrong about Vietnam. This past fall, a return trip to Cambodia and two weeks in Vietnam had reinforced his doubt.

I worried that he was succumbing to an authoritarian illusion in an attempt to solve (or escape from) his problems.

When Mike arrived in Jerusalem, he had been traveling for seven months. He was going home to uncertain writing prospects, another cab job or something similar, no close friends, isolation in a political atmosphere that took for granted the assumptions he had discarded, and a general ambiance of post counterculture aimlessness. It took no great insight to suspect that what traditional Judaism offered – absolute values to which Mike could dedicate his life; a new and exciting subject to study; a close-knit religious community; a stable, secure social structure – was considerably more attractive. Anyway, I didn't believe that people ever made profound spiritual changes for purely intellectual reasons. There had to be feelings Mike wasn't acknowledging. Not that this proved anything about the validity of Judaism. A believer could argue that Mike had been drifting because he hadn't found God, that his unhappiness was, in fact, God's way of leading him to the truth. Still, I worried that he was succumbing to an authoritarian illusion in an attempt to solve (or escape from) his problems.

 

* * *

 

In answer to my request for more details, Mike sent a seven page, single-spaced typed letter. I chewed it over, making notes in the margin. Much of it was devoted to debunking evolution. The marvelous complexity and interdependence of everything in the universe – so the argument ran – show planning and purpose and could not have come about through the random process of natural selection. Plants and animals are perfectly constructed machines; the brain has been compared to a computer. When you see a computer your obvious conclusion is that someone built it according to a plan. ("Rampant anthropomorphism" I scribbled.) Every detail of creation is purposeful. For example, ready-to-eat fruits (like apples) have tempting, bright colors; vegetables that require cooking (like potatoes) are drab. ("What about toadstools?") No one has ever seen a mutation that changed one species into another. How does evolution explain something like a poisonous snake, whose survival advantage depends on a combination of traits, each useless alone? Did its poison come first, and did it then wait around millions of years for the ability to inject or vice versa? And why did creation stop; why aren't new things constantly coming into being? ("Human chauvinism!" I wrote. "Who says creation stopped – new life forms take eons – we can't even see plants grow.")

As for the God-given nature of the Torah, when you study it in Hebrew, along with the commentaries that have been written on virtually every word, it is hard to believe that such depth and complexity could have been achieved by human beings; Judaism is such a restrictive religion that the Jews would never have accepted it if the entire people hadn't witnessed the revelation; biblical prophecies predict the Jewish exile, the return to Israel and other historical events. The prophecies were impressive, I had to admit: "Ye will be torn away from the land whither thou goest ... and God will scatter you among the nations ... thou wilt find no ease and there will be no resting place for the sole of thy foot... And then God thy God will return ... and gather thee together..." And so on. I began to get a headache.

Finally, my brother came to the subject I had been anticipating and dreading: women. Orthodox Judaism enshrined as divine law a male supremacist ideology I had been struggling against, in one way or another, all my life. It was a patriarchal religion that decreed separate functions for the sexes – man to learn, administer religious law and exercise public authority: woman to sanctify the home. For Mike to accept it would be (face it!) a betrayal. Already I had had the bitter thought: "You want to go back in time, find a community where mamma will still take care of you. You're just like the rest." Under the anger was fear that my sense of special connection with my brother was an illusion. If I were a man ... if he were a woman ... there was an unbridgeable gap in that if.

From a secular viewpoint, Mike conceded, Judaism gave men the better deal, but from a religious viewpoint it wasn't so clear. For one thing, God-fearing men, though they had the power to oppress women, would not do so. And if our purpose on earth was not to do interesting work or have a good time but to come close to God, then women had certain advantages: they had fewer commandments to perform, fewer opportunities to sin, and by having children could approach God more easily.

"Power to oppress is oppressive." I wrote in the margin. "Power corrupts the saintliest man. Exemption from responsibilities is implicit insult." Yet I realized that, after all, my objections were beside the point. This God, if He really existed, had chosen to create a hierarchy of sexes. Doubtless He had some purpose in mind, some spiritual test, perhaps a lesson in conquering pride. It might seem unfair, but it had to be for the best in the end ... and I could never believe in such a God, never, it violated my surest sense of what Reality was about. When you connected there were no hierarchies, divisions, roles; all that was part of the husk that fell away. "I am the vanguard of the revolution!" I had shouted, high on acid, climbing up a mountain trail followed by two men who were truly my equals, our battle-of-the-sexes fright masks discarded somewhere down the road. There would be misunderstandings later, but that was another story.

No, I couldn't believe in the Jewish God. He had been invented by men seeking a rationale for their privileges. He had been invented by people seeking to reduce an ineffable Reality to terms they could understand – to a quasi-human "creator" with a "plan" and a "purpose," standing outside the universe and making it the way a carpenter made a table.

 

* * *

 

In August, my parents visited Mike in Jerusalem. He was still living and studying at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah. A yeshiva is a school where Jews study Torah; this one also functioned as a small religious community. It occupied modest quarters – a communal study room, a few classrooms, a library, an office for the rabbi – in the Jewish section of the Old City; several nearby apartments served as dormitories. Aish HaTorah (the name means "Fire of the Torah") is an English speaking yeshiva headed by Noach Weinberg, a rabbi from New York. Most of its students – there were around 25 at the time – were young Americans; most had been tourists passing through. Mike was taking courses in Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), the Mishna (the written codification of the Oral Law), halacha (Jewish law), Biblical Hebrew, and "48 Ways to Gain Knowledge" (talks by the rabbi on Jewish ideas about learning). His weekday schedule began at seven in the morning, with an hour of prayer before breakfast. Ordinarily, he had classes and study hours from 9 to 1, then lunch and 20 minutes of afternoon prayer, classes and study from 3 to 7:30, dinner, evening prayer from 8:30 to 9, and more classes till 10. He usually studied till around 11:30. During mother and dad's visit, he was taking some time off in the afternoon and evening.

My parents had both, in their individual ways, been struggling to come to terms with Mike's "conversion." My mother considered herself in some sense religious; she believed in God, even believed that the Torah might be God-given. But she couldn't see that God required us to observe all those regulations. Wasn't it enough to be a good person? Characteristically, she focused on practical concerns. Was Mike happy? Would religion give him what he badly needed – something satisfying to do with his life?

My father was the son of an Orthodox rabbi, but for all his adult life he had equated rationalism and religious tolerance with enlightenment. Clarence Darrow, defending Scopes and evolution against Bryan and the fundamentalist know-nothings had been his intellectual hero. To have a child of his reject those values was a painful shock. But he had been forced by his respect for Mike's mind – and no doubt by the logic of his own belief in tolerance – to reexamine his attitudes. He went to Jerusalem prepared to listen.

In quest of truth, he was breaking with the values and assumptions of his family, his peers, American society and the entire post-Enlightenment West.

The trip was reassuring. Mike seemed happier, more relaxed, more sure of himself. He was enjoying his studies. "He was different," my father told me. "There was a step up in emotional vibration. I'd never seen him so enthusiastic before." I remained skeptical; Mike's enthusiasm might be some sort of manic facade. I was still working on my reply to his long letter, debating whether to mention my qualms about his motives. From one point of view, Mike was doing something incredibly brave, even heroic: in quest of truth as he saw it he was breaking with the values and assumptions of his family, his peers, American society and the entire post-Enlightenment West. For me to bring up psychology would be to add whatever clout I had to the enormous pressure of conventional wisdom that Mike was probably having trouble enough resisting. And then there was my old religious question: even if Judaism confused its central metaphor with absolute truth, would it work for Mike if he believed? Judaism, I reminded myself, was a spiritual discipline that had been practiced for over 3000 years; psychotherapy had existed for less than a hundred, with inconclusive results.

For three years I had been seeing a Reichian therapist. I was seeking relief from specific emotional problems, but my larger spiritual problem lurked in the back of my mind. What, after all, were emotional problems but forms of – or metaphors for – disconnection? The Reichian method is based on the premise that muscular tensions hold back repressed emotions which the therapist can elicit by attacking the bodily "armor" directly, bypassing the treacherous intellect. I believed this approach worked; it had helped me a lot. Yet I could claim no miracles, only that I had come – slowly, undramatically – to feel better, see more clearly. For all I knew, my brother would get further with Judaism.

Still – suppose Mike was really being trapped, not by arguments but by his emotions? Suppose by bringing up my worries I could help him – by which I meant save him. For despite my theoretical conviction that we all had to seek the truth in our own way, I hoped, with guilty passion, that Mike would get off this particular path, would wake up one morning, ask, "What am I doing here?" and come home. I decided to say what I had to say. For me, Freud was far closer than Darwin to the heart of the matter.

 

* * *

 

II. THE MIRROR

In America most of the time I was unhappy and bored. I couldn't find what I wanted to do or people I wanted to be with. You were supposed to be very hip and inside I wasn't. I didn't identify with hip people or enjoy being around them. I couldn't figure out where I fit in. Traveling was my escape. I would go through a lot of rottenness and boredom for the sake of some periods of happiness – experiences that really took me out of myself, like trekking in the Himalayas.

When I came to Israel from Jordan I was very tired out and I wanted to go home. I didn't have much money left. There was a girl I really wanted to go back and see though I had no reason to believe she would want to see me. I was really homesick. But I felt a responsibility to see something new. I went with the guy from the yeshiva looking for an interesting experience. Reb Noach gave me the usual pitch: "Stay here for a week. If you haven't seen a yeshiva you haven't seen Israel." We had a big political argument – I said things looked bad for Israel and the only reasonable thing to do was give back the occupied land and make peace. We had a talk about the moral imperative proof of God. Reb Noach asked where I got my concept of good. I said, "From my parents."

That week I realized Judaism was much more interesting than I'd thought. When I read Jewish philosophy I realized my mind was Jewish. I felt that for the first time I had found people who thought the way I did, who were really logical and consistent. But the idea of God was very alien to me. Then I read a pamphlet about Torah and science. I started reading the arguments about evolution. Suddenly I had a flash: "This whole theory is ridiculous!" It had a tremendous effect. I felt that my mind had been playing tricks on me. I'd been accepting this theory without really looking into it – just like Cambodia. Logically, you knock down the theory of evolution and you're stuck with – God created the world.

I left to do some traveling and went to Safed. I was sitting down looking at a map and two English guys, students of this Hassid who was up from Tel Aviv for the weekend, invited me to meet him. I went and we started talking. He had pure charisma. I related to Reb Noach as a good person, but this Hassid was someone with power. He said that people go all around the world looking into this and that and they know it's not true – then they're hit with Judaism and they leave because they're afraid it's true. It had a big effect on me because of my realization about evolution and because I'd been asking myself why I was leaving. I knew I was scared to stay and check it out.

The English guys kept telling me there are no coincidences, it wasn't an accident that I was there at the same time the Hassid happened to be visiting. I started getting scared – was all this really true? I felt lousy about myself: I had always prided myself on being open-minded. Now I had no logical reasoning for leaving, just an emotional desire to go home. I felt totally wiped out.

When I got back to the yeshiva I started reading Torah with the Hirsch commentaries. There was a daily Chumash [Five Books] class. I was learning some Hebrew and could feel the power of the Torah much more than in translation. And the prophecies – I kept trying to find arguments against the prophecies and couldn't come up with any.

After two or three weeks I was in doubt – what was I going to do? One day I was reading the prophecies at the end of Deuteronomy and I had this cold shiver – I realized that I really believed all this. My first reaction was to compromise – I would go home, read, then decide. Or I would take a few years and travel and then come back. Finally I realized my whole life would have to change.

The first time I went to Southeast Asia I had a lot of asthma trouble. I'd almost feel like I was having a heart attack. Sometimes my pills wouldn't work and I was afraid they would just stop working. When I got into religion I realized – how can I expect a pill to work? God controls what goes on. Your life can be snuffed out at any moment. That had a strong part in keeping me here. It wasn't that I started believing in God to conquer a fear of death. Intellectually believing doesn't do that anyway. But I realized I couldn't compromise and say two years from now I'll come back, because there's no assurance of anything.

I went and cancelled my plane ticket. It was painful. I was afraid my family would reject me, think I was crazy. My mind was telling me one thing. My emotions still wanted to go home.

 

* * *

 

Around Thanksgiving Mike came to New York for a month. Seeing him was a relief. His skullcap and newly grown beard made him look less boyish, but he was still wearing jeans. I felt no distance between us, no sense that he was in any way not himself. I hugged him, wondering if the Orthodox prohibition against men touching women they weren't married to applied to sisters.

Mike stayed with our parents. So that he could observe the dietary laws, mother bought him his own dishes and silverware and pots, boiled her cooking u




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