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A groundbreaking chronicle of spiritual search, originally published in Rolling Stone magazine, April 1977.
Click here for a pdf version of the entire article.
I left New York on March 22nd, 1976, on an overnight flight packed with Jewish tour groups. Here and there I saw religious men in beards and yarmulkes (skullcaps). At dawn they began getting up to form a minyan (ten-man quorum) for morning prayer. The Israeli flight attendants gave them dirty looks for blocking the aisles.
We arrived around noon. I wandered outside, past clumps of armed teenage soldiers, looking for Mike. I was beginning to wonder if we had missed each other when a tall, thin boy wearing a yarmulke approached me.
"Are you Ellen?"
Chaim was a student at my brother's yeshiva; he had come to meet me because Mike had a bad cold. He explained that we would stop first at Rabbi and Rebbetzin Weinberg's, where I would leave my bags, then go to find Mike. We took a cab into Jerusalem, talking sketchily about the experiences that had brought each of us here, and caught the bus for Kiryat Zanz, a religious neighborhood nestled in a rocky hillside. In contrast to the gorgeous landscape, the rows of identical low apartment buildings were dreary, housing project modern. Block 5 Building 2 housed the Weinbergs and their nine children.
The rebbetzin invited us into an apartment that conveyed a sense of busy warmth. It was crammed with books and artifacts – menorahs, vases of flowers, bright fabrics, pictures of wise men, a colored-glass chandelier.
Dinah Weinberg is a striking woman. Slim, fair, blue eyed, in her late 30s, she looks like a picture-postcard of the ideal Jewish matriarch – one part strength and competence, one part motherliness, one part a modest, almost austere beauty accentuated by the kerchief that covers her head. (When an Orthodox woman marries, her hair becomes private, seen only by her husband.) I immediately craved her approval without quite knowing why. We sat in the kitchen chatting about my brother while children wandered in and out. I mentioned that I wanted to find out more about women's role in Judaism.
"Good!" the rebbetzin said. "People misunderstand it."
"I don't want to devote all my time to children," I said. "I want to write."
"Suppose I don't want children," I began, "or anyway no more than one or two..."
Mrs. Weinberg's reply threw me. "If someone gave you money, would you turn it down?"
"I don't get the comparison." Money buys freedom; children take it away: the instant I had the thought it seemed unbearably crass.
"Children are a blessing," said the rebbetzin firmly. The conversation had taken a depressing turn. I could no more imagine having nine children than contemplate climbing Mt. Everest.
"I don't want to devote all my time to children," I said. "I want to write."
"You can do both. A Jewish woman shouldn't spend all her time with her children. We can do much more."
"If I had a bunch of kids I wouldn't have any time and energy to spare."
"The Almighty wants us to use our talents. He wouldn't punish you by not letting you write. You'd find the time."
Well, maybe so. I wasted so much time, after all. No doubt a disciplined person could raise half a dozen kids in the time I spent day-dreaming, reading junk, sleeping late. But I would never be that person; I knew my limitations. Or was that just an excuse for laziness?
The rebbetzin kissed me goodbye, and Chaim and I took a bus to the walled Old City. The Jewish Quarter, which had been largely destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, was still being rebuilt; the smell of dust and the sound of drilling were pervasive. Mike emerged from his dorm looking pale and tired from his cold. We walked over to Yeshivat Aish HaTorah, which was on a side street called Misgav Ladach tucked beside a huge construction site. To the northeast the yeshiva overlooked some of the most spectacular sights in Jerusalem – the Mount of Olives, the Valley of Kidron and the golden Dome of the Rock. It was a short walk from the Western Wall ("Wailing Wall"), the sacred remnant of King Solomon's Temple.
We found the rabbi in his office. Like his wife, Noach Weinberg has a compelling presence. He is in his mid-40s, but with his white beard, black suit and air of authority he seems older. He regarded me with a friendly smile and eyes that suggested he had my number but liked me anyway. I thought he looked like God the Father in His more jovial aspect. After we had been introduced he told Mike that a kid who had been staying at the yeshiva was about to leave.
"You know why they leave?" he said to me. "They leave because they're scared they'll like it." He shook his head. "Insanity! Do you how Jews define sin? Sin is temporary insanity."
For instance, he explained, he had a bad habit of wasting time; who in his right mind would want to waste time?
"What about more serious sins?" I said.
Reb Noach raised his eyebrows. "Wasting time," he said, "is very serious. It's a kind of suicide."
It was a commandment to be happy; unhappiness in effect denied God's love, dismissed His gifts.
For the first few days I stayed with one of Mike's teachers, Shimon Haskel, and his wife Chaya. I began to unwind from my trip and settle in. I was feeling close to Mike, and we talked more openly than ever before about our family, our childhoods, our fears and hang-ups. Mike told me that I seemed so confident he had always been afraid of me: I told him that I'd felt he was Mr. Cool, secretly putting me down. "But now," said Mike, "I'm not afraid of you anymore." I was pleased with the change in him. He was not only more confident but more willing to face his emotional problems – the split between intellect and feeling, the distance from other people, the lack of joy. He was obliged to face them, for they were also religious problems. It was a commandment to be happy; unhappiness in effect denied God's love, dismissed His gifts.
Mike was also absorbed in his work. He found the yeshiva completely different from all the schools he had hated. Both teachers and students were deeply involved in learning; they had no doubt that what they were doing was important. Universities, Mike felt, were dead; Aish HaTorah was alive. For several hours every morning he studied Gemara (the voluminous rabbinical commentaries on the Mishna; Mishna and Gemara together constitute the Talmud). In the afternoon and evening he studied Rambam (Maimonides). Somehow he found the time to talk with new people, listening to their problems, answering questions, and out of this had come another project: he was writing a group of papers arguing various proofs of God's existence and the Torah's divinity. His persuasiveness and intellectual skills had made him something of a star at the yeshiva.
Aish HaTorah is a yeshiva for ba'al teshuvas – delinquent Jews who have "returned." It is the fourth such yeshiva that Noach Weinberg has started in the past decade. Recently, others have picked up on Reb Noach's vision and started their own yeshivas in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In America, the most conspicuous Jewish evangelizers of Jews have been Hassidim. Hassidism, a tendency within Judaism that stresses joy, prayer and mystical experience, began in the last century as a revolt by poor and uneducated Jews against the elitist intellectualism of the yeshivas of Eastern Europe, particularly Lithuania. The ba'al teshuva yeshiva movement in Israel comes from the latter tradition, that of the misnagdim – rationalist opponents of Hassidism – who emphasize learning Torah as the highest value and chief means of approaching God. A yeshiva like Aish HaTorah operates on the premise that the best weapon against unbelief is rational argument. It follows that the crucial first step is to get people to listen. Boys are urged to come for a day, an hour a meal, a bed. (No one has to pay unless he can afford to; the school is supported mostly by contributions.) A beginner's program runs for three months and then repeats; a student can start at any point. Those who stay can advance as fast as their ability allows to study of the Talmud and biblical commentaries.
There was a major hitch in my plan to replicate Mike's experience: I could not go to Aish HaTorah. Orthodox education is sexually segregated, and opportunities for women are limited. Learning is a religious obligation only for men; among tradition-minded Jews the issue of whether women should study Torah and Talmud, and if so how much, is controversial. None of the women's schools in Jerusalem offers a comprehensive intellectual and religious experience like Aish HaTorah's. Nor do they cater to transients. [Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Ed. Note] Still, I decided to check out a couple of schools and visit a student Mike knew.
Lorie Bernstein was 19 and the product of a rich Long island suburb; her divorced parents owned clothing stores. Mike had first met her at the airport on his way back from New York. During the cab ride into Jerusalem she had told him that she had been a Hassid for a while but had reverted to existentialism; Mike had urged her to give Judaism another try. Since then she had become a fervent ba'al teshuva. When I introduced myself she hugged me excitedly. She was small and bouncy, with dark hair tucked in a bun, she wore a long-sleeved blouse, a long skirt and gold-rimmed, blue-tinted glasses.
I had found Lorie just as she was about to do some errands in Mea Shearim, an old, poor, fanatically pious community noted for its anti-Zionists (they believe there cannot he a legitimate Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah), its Hassids in medieval caftans, and its signs demanding that female tourists conform to Torah standards of modest dress. We walked there together. Lorie stopped several times to give coins to beggars, all the while keeping up a passionate monologue.
"God gives us so much, you just have to do something back. I love doing mitzvot and helping people. A few agurot mean nothing to you, but you're giving someone food, making him happy. This religion is so beautiful!" She was bubbly, breathless; energy rolled off her in waves. "Whether there's a God or not, the Torah helps you live up to your potential it's like tripping – you get an awareness of everything you do. I really have to think about food now – what's milk, what's meat, my mother-love side and beast side? Every day I have to thank God for all kinds of things. Thank God I'm awake. (Think of all the people who aren't awake.) Thank God for commanding me to wash. Whenever I wash I'm aware of my hands and how wonderful they are. Thank God for clothing the naked. How many people think every day about how they have clothes and other people don't? There's even a prayer for the bathroom – thank God for my ducts and orifices, that they're working properly."
I asked her how she felt about Judaism's view of women.
"I'm dying to get married and have children. Right now I'm doing teshuva, repentance. What could possibly be more important than having children?"
I mumbled something about wanting to write.
"Writing!" Lorie said scornfully. "I used to write, I used it to get rid of energy. What's writing compared to creating a human being, a soul?"
"It happens to be what I want to do."
"What you want! I used to be that way. The most important thing was to be authentic – to do what I really wanted to do, even if I hurt someone. My ideal was Meursault in The Stranger. Life was meaningless so why pretend it wasn't? Anyway," she said, "most things you think you want to do you don't really want to do. Other people want you to do them. The only thing I really miss is getting high. I love getting high – I love it! If there was one thing that could get me off religion it would be that."
On the other side of the street – we were now in Mea Shearim – two touristy looking girls passed by, transgressing the modesty laws by wearing jeans. "If I weren't with you," Lorie said, "I'd go over and yell at them."
"I don't think it does much good to yell at people," I said, feeling resentful about the anti-writing remarks.
"You can't tell," said Lorie. "Sometimes one little thing can change you around. What got me to join the Hassidim was that someone told me how low their divorce rate was. If I just explained about modesty – why it's not good to wear pants..." She stopped. "I'm being too heavy, aren't I? I'm sorry. I get carried away when I meet a new person."
We walked past stalls selling fruits and vegetables, down a narrow, cobbled back street, to visit a friend of Lorie's who might help place some students with families for Shabbos. Leah, a vivacious, middle-aged Hassidic housewife, insisted on serving us vegetable soup, bread and cream cheese. She supervised the washing ritual, showing me how to pour from the two-handled cup, how to cup my hands, making me do it over until I got it exactly right, while Lorie bounced up and down, protesting, "Leah! You'll discourage her! You've got to start out easy!"
I began hanging around Lorie's school, sitting in on classes – which mostly centered on Hebrew texts and made me feel as if I'd stumbled into the middle of a foreign-language movie with inadequate subtitles – and talking with Lorie and her friends. There was Frieda from Brooklyn, strong, blunt, a scrapper, a woman with a vision: she intended to start a ba'al teshuva organization in the States. There was Cindy who had identified with black people so intensely that she still spoke with a trace of a pseudo-Southern accent, who had decided to convert to Christianity and had joined a black church, but then – boruch Hashem! – praise God! – had realized where she belonged. There was Sarah, who had been born Protestant in Chicago and had converted after investigating every philosophy there was and deciding that only Judaism made sense.
But at the psychological center of my life in Jerusalem were the rabbi and the rebbetzin. Noach Weinberg, the youngest son of a Hassid, grew up on New York's Lower East Side; Dinah came from Long Island. They met and married in the late Fifties, and emigrated to Israel in 1961. Reb Noach was determined to do something to reverse the Jewish drift away from Torah. For six years he studied with his goal in mind and in 1967 he started his first yeshiva. Aish HaTorah has been going since 1973. Reb Noach runs the school, teaches, and makes periodic fundraising trips to the States. The rebbetzin mothers their children, runs their household, studies, teaches, does charity work and acts as counselor and friend to the yeshiva students and other young people who seek her out. During Aish HaTorah's first year she was also its chief administrator.
On Monday nights a group of women met at Rebbetzin Weinberg's for her class on the 613 mitzvot. The rebbetzin was currently discussing the mitzva to do good. Doing good, in Jewish terms, involves a constant struggle between the two sides of our nature: the yeitzer tov (good inclination), which arises from the soul and desires to serve God, and the yeitzer hara (evil inclination), which stems from the body and craves unlimited material, sexual and egotistical satisfactions.
"What's the difference between a war against people and the war against the yeitzer hara?" the rebbetzin asked. "A people war has an end – there's no end to the yeitzer hara war. A people war doesn't go on 24 hours a day. In a people war, you win something limited. If you win the yeitzer hara war, you have everything. And if you lose..."
It was an incongruous image for a Jewish mother of nine but I couldn't help thinking of Joan of Arc.
"You have to develop a strategy. For instance, suppose you know that when you meet a certain person you're going to talk lashon hara."
Lashon hara, slander, is an important sin, the subject of a formidable body of law. It is forbidden to say anything disparaging about someone – whether or not it is true – or to say anything that could be construed as disparaging, or to listen to such talk. It is even forbidden to praise someone in front of an enemy who might be tempted to argue. The Haskels had a sign in their kitchen that said, "Is that lashon hara?"
"You should try to avoid the person," said the rebbetzin. "But if you can't, then you should think, how can I avoid the bad conversation? Is there some other way I can make her feel good?"
"Why not take the direct approach," one of the women asked, "and just say, 'Let's not talk lashon hara'?"
"Not everyone can take that," said the rebbetzin. "You might just put her on the defensive."
To be good, Mrs. Weinberg summed up, was to emulate the Almighty, to become as perfect an image of Him as possible. To be Infinitely patient, to return insult with kindness – and without self-congratulation. How to do this? "Know the 613 mitzvot. There is no other way."
Secular enlightenment was the brew that provoketh the desire but taketh away the performance. We still craved perfection... but we had no law to guide or reassure us.
It occurred to me that if Talmudic logic had made Mike realize how Jewish his thinking was, Jewish ethics made me realize how Jewish my feelings were. I was beginning to understand Jewish guilt. Unlike Christian guilt, which assumed one's inherent depravity, it came from the idea that one could and should attain perfection. Jews who took their religion seriously had no need to feel guilty. They knew the 613 mitzvot were the way, and if they backslid they could catch themselves and carry on. For Jews like me it was different; secular enlightenment was the brew that provoketh the desire but taketh away the performance. We still craved perfection, and so we pursued utopian politics, utopian sex, utopian innocence. But we had no law to guide or reassure us. With the law, one could have patience with one's shortcomings. Without it, if we were not there we were nowhere at all "To live outside the law you must be honest" – Bob Dylan, a Jew, said that.
Since the Haskels had three little children and another guest in their crowded apartment, I moved in with Chaya's stepsister, Abby Ginsberg, and her roommate, Sharon Weitz. They shared a large apartment – inherited from Abby's parents, who had gone back to the States – on Shimoni Street in Rasco, an attractive residential neighborhood that was not predominantly religious. Like the Haskels they were from the Midwest. Abby was studying at Hebrew University, Sharon at a seminary. Both women were more religious than their families.
I felt immediately comfortable with Sharon and Abby, in part because their sense of female identity did not seem radically different from my own. They had not grown up isolated from secular life. They had gone to public high school, dated, worn pants; they had not married at 18; they were serious about learning; the man Abby was seeing pitched in with the cooking and played blues on his guitar. Unlike Lorie, they were not reacting against their past; because their religious commitment had deepened gradually rather than come through sudden conversion, they had none of the ba'al teshuva's dogmatic intensity.
"Of course I feel a conflict between Judaism and feminism," Sharon said. "It's harder to accept if you've been exposed to Western ideas than if you grew up in Mea Shearim. But if you're committed to Judaism, other principles have to adjust. To me a Jewish life offers so many satisfactions..." She smiled and shrugged. Intellectually she knew where she stood, but emotionally she was still struggling. "The thing I really care about," said Abby "is being able to learn. If I thought the halacha wouldn't allow me to learn – then I might have a problem."
Abby was ebullient; Sharon had a quieter warmth. They were ten years younger than I, but I often felt as if our ages were reversed. They projected a balance, an un-self-conscious maturity symbolized for me by the way they cooperated in maintaining their cheerful apartment. The Shimoni Street place was just an ordinary middle-class apartment, conventionally furnished by the absent parents, serving as a way station for two young, transient students. But Abby and Sharon made it feel like home. They were, for one thing, enthusiastic cooks. Almost every afternoon I would come back to find them in the kitchen discussing recipes; since Abby was experimenting with vegetarianism they were always trying new concoctions – cheese-and-spinach souffles, vegetable pies, fruit salads.
Often Abby's friend, Joshua, would be there too. He was leaving for the States in a few weeks, right after Passover; in the meantime he and Abby were trying to figure our how they felt about each other. Orthodox Jews do not play sexual games: a man and a woman are either compatible or they aren't, and if they decide they are they get married. So Josh was at Shimoni Street several nights a week. He and Abby would study and argue points of halacha, and then we would all help with the dinner and eat together, talking and joking about the events of the day, what this or that teacher said, my latest argument with Lorie. I would go to bed and read, or write in my notebook, and when I padded to the kitchen or the bathroom at 2 or 3 a.m. I would, as often as not, hear the pacific murmur of one of Josh and Abby's marathon conversations.
The first commandment," said Reb Noach, "is to know there is a God." We were resuming a conversation we had started a few days earlier. "The disease of Western thought," he had said then, "is: 'There is no absolute truth.' But it's intuitively obvious that either something is true or it isn't. Listen – 'There is no absolute truth.' 'Are you sure?' 'Yes.' 'Are you absolutely sure?" I could afford to laugh. I believed something was true or it wasn't; I just didn't think we could know for sure which was which. "They call us fanatics. But a fanatic is someone who won't listen to reason. I say, let's reason together. Let's find a premise on which we can both agree and reason from there. The purpose of reason," he had concluded, "is to get someone to the point where his intuition will say, 'Yes, you're right.'"
"Know there is a God," Reb Noach repeated. "Not 'have faith.' Understand! Reason! But reason can only tell you what you already know. It's a servant, like your hand." He held his hand out. "Hand! Come to my nose!" The hand did not move. "What's this? Revolution? Don't be silly! No, your hand acts on what you really want, not on what you say you want. Reason will tell you what you really know – what are your perceptions. Not other people's, not society's."
For the next hour or so, Reb Noach tried to persuade my intuition. If my father on his deathbed asked me to say a mourner's prayer for him, would I? Of course. If he asked me to say a bunch of nonsense syllables, would I? Probably not. Why not? What's the difference? Well, I think religious ritual is meaningful, worthy of respect; that doesn't mean it represents absolute truth. If someone ran in front of my car and I hit him, wouldn't I feel guilty, even if I couldn't possibly have stopped in time? Yes, I would. What did that tell me? "Even if it's not technically my fault, someone has suffered because of me. It's irrational, but I'd think, 'If I'd just done something different – taken the bus, stayed home...'"
"The reason you would feel guilty," Reb Noach said, "is that it really would be your fault. If you hadn't done something wrong, God wouldn't have chosen you as the instrument of someone's death."
I appreciated Reb Noach's technique. I realized that I had on occasion, used it myself. (Don't you and your husband both work? Suppose you lived with your sister, and you both worked, and she wanted you to cook dinner every night because she was tired – would you do it? Why not? Well, then, what's different about doing it for a man?) But my intuition was unconvinced. I still couldn't see the ultimate Reality as a being who cared, willed, intervened in our lives and – might as well bring it up – decreed separate functions for men and women.
"You don't think men and women are basically different?"
"Basically, no," I said. "Basically, I think we're all human beings."
"One of the craziest ideas in this crazy modern world," said Reb Noach, "is that men and women are the same. Men and women are two different species!"
I insisted that whatever the differences – and who could tell at this point which were inherent, which imposed by a patriarchal culture? – they did not require women to devote themselves to as many babies as chose to make their appearance. Reb Noach shook his head.
"Children are the greatest pleasure," he said, "but people today are so decadent they prefer their material comforts to children."
"It's not just material comfort!" I protested. "People have a right to some freedom – some time for themselves..."
"Decadence, Ellen. I'd have 50 children, a hundred. Every child is a lesson in love!"
"My parents aren't decadent! They've worked hard to bring up three children – to educate us all..."
Suddenly I found myself weeping.
"Ellen!" The rabbi's voice vibrated through me, alarmed, caring, soothing as a touch. "I'm not condemning people! Who knows who's better than who? I'm talking about actions. Mistakes, Ellen."
I wasn't sure why I was crying – except that if my middle-class family-centered parents could by any standard be accused of decadent behavior, then I was completely hopeless. My loss of control took me by surprise. I suppose it was my first overt symptom of culture shock.
How long was it since I'd landed at the airport – eight days? Nine? It felt much longer. My sense of time had changed, along with my perspective. I was, in crucial ways, an outsider – a reporter, at that – in a strange culture. Yet because I was Jewish, I was also family. Whatever anyone might think of me, whether I was religious or not, so long as I was living in the Orthodox community I was on some basic level accepted as part of it. And so I began, almost imperceptibly at first, to identify with that community and feel weirdly estranged from the secular world. I found myself thinking of non-religious people as "they." When I had an errand in downtown Jerusalem I felt assaulted by its frenetic, noisy, garish urbanness, by the crowds of Israelis who milled along Jaffa Road without a care for the subtleties of Jewish law.
Even the ever-present political tension began to seem part of that other world. A deep belief that God controls events tends to cool political fervor, and only a minority of Orthodox Israelis fit the stereotype of the militant religious nationalist; Mike and his friends were critical of the rabbinical establishment for what they saw as its readiness to bend the Torah to the demands of the state. I had arrived in Israel at a volatile time: Palestinian students had been demonstrating in the Old City; Israeli Arabs were protesting the expropriation of Arab land in the Galilee. I read about it all in the Jerusalem Post, feeling, absurdly, that Israeli politics had been much more vivid to me when I was in New York.
A religious universe enveloped me. I was surrounded by people who believed and, more important, lived that belief every minute. Conversation among Orthodox Jews never strays far from questions of ethics, points of law, one's religious activities; even small talk is inescapably religious: "I'm feeling better, boruch Hashem!"; "I ran into so-and-so on Shabbos"; "She's going to have a milchig [dairy] wedding." Orthodox life has its own special rhythm. There is the daily rhythm of prayer and the weekly rhythm of preparations for Shabbos: rushing to clean and cook before Friday sundown, when all work must be suspended; setting lights to go on and off automatically; taking turns showering, hoping the hot water won't run out; dressing up; lighting the Sabbath candles. There is Shabbos itself: making Kiddush (blessing and sharing wine); washing and breaking bread and sitting down to the traditional European-Jewish Friday night chicken dinner; the men going off to shul Saturday morning, coming home to a meal of cholent, a stew that is made before Shabbos and left simmering on the stove; studying, walking, visiting or napping in the afternoon; the light supper and finally the havdalah ("division") ceremony with which Shabbos ends.
Living with Orthodox Jews was like being straight at a party where everyone else is stoned; after a while, out of sheer social necessity, you find yourself getting a contact high.
Although the process was less dramatic, my immersion in Jewish life was having a far more potent effect on me than my confrontation with Jewish ideas. I could argue with ideas, but I could not, without being an abrasive nuisance, refuse to adapt, in important respects, to the customs of my hosts. On the most superficial level this meant not washing Abby and Sharon's dairy dishes in the meat sink, but it also meant shifting mental gears to participate in conversations that took a religious outlook for granted. Living with Orthodox Jews was like being straight at a party where everyone else is stoned; after a while, out of sheer social necessity, you find yourself getting a contact high.
There was, for instance, the afternoon I spent talking with Lorie and Frieda. Frieda had recruited Lorie for her ba'al teshuva organization; they were planning to go back to New York in July to get the project moving. I started giving advice. If they wanted young, educated women to take Judaism seriously, I argued, their organization would have to engage women's minds the way Aish HaTorah had engaged Mike's. That meant ... and then I heard myself: I was telling them how to seduce me.
I had always thought of Orthodox Judaism as a refuge for compulsives: not only did its ubiquitous requirements and prohibitions seem to preclude spontaneity, but since the halacha, like any body of law that applies basic principles to specific situations, was open to interpretation, it provided endless opportunities for what outsiders would call hairsplitting. For example, it's Shabbos and Sharon and Abby have a problem: they have, as usual, left a kettle of boiling water on a burner they lit Friday afternoon, and now the flame has gone out. Is it permitted to switch the kettle to another lit burner? If the water has cooled off, heating