> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

From Marx to Moses

May 6, 2010 | by Stanley Levenstein

Discovering a utopian world.

I grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Cape Town. Candles were lit and Kiddush was recited every Friday night, and the annual Passover Seder and Rosh Hashana dinner were important family events. On Saturday mornings, my brother and I usually went to synagogue, and then to play soccer or, being South Africa, cricket.

In university, I was on track to become a doctor when I came under the influence of radical secular thought which was in vogue in the early Sixties. Amongst these was Marxist economic and political theory, with its messianic goal of a classless society and its rejection of conventional religion as "the opium of the masses." Religion was seen not merely as antiquated and riddled with superstition, but also as undermining the worker's struggle for equality, because it supposedly dulled their senses and distracted them from their revolutionary goals.

I was determined to play my part in opposing Apartheid.

As a young, idealistic student I was particularly susceptible to this rhetoric. This was a time in South Africa where Apartheid was at its height, and Dr. Verwoerd was pursuing his racist, white supremacist agenda with determination and zeal. His policies caused untold suffering particularly to black people, and like many students at that time (and Jewish students in particular), I was determined to play my part in opposing Apartheid. In this regard, I was disappointed at the fact that, although there were some outstanding exceptions, religious leaders as a whole had done very little in the way of taking a stand against Apartheid. This caused me to regard them – and by extension, Judaism itself – as being largely irrelevant to the burning social issues of the day.

And so began a relatively swift drift away from my Jewish roots. I took up my position as a congregant in the "Church of Socialism" with energy and enthusiasm. I told myself that I could feel at home in this universalist brotherhood which was based not on accident of birth, but on shared ideas and values. There was no need for conventional religion anymore, and indeed no need for God.

I did at times feel stirrings of discomfort about this course of action, but having committed myself to this worldview I felt that there was no turning back. (How difficult to admit when one is wrong.) When confronted with flaws in my viewpoints, I would simply dig my heels in deeper and argue the point even more forcibly. In fact, I would argue so strongly that people would quite often find my arguments convincing. The trouble was that deep down, I wasn't convinced myself.

Marxism was not the only anti-religious doctrine doing the rounds at that time. Charles Darwin's theories of Evolution and his work on The Origin of Species seemed to disprove that man is a special creation, and that there is a Creator at all. Adding to the package was Sigmund Freud's theory that man's thoughts and actions are the product of unconscious thoughts which have their roots in early infancy and childhood. This deterministic approach to human behavior virtually threw the concept of free will out the window.

So between Marx, Darwin and Freud, it seemed like formal religion was destined for the dustbin of history.

Psycho-analytic Research

I continued with my chosen worldview for many years after completing my studies, getting married and having children. My wife and I brought up our children with the value system we had espoused for many years: social equality, liberally sprinkled with the cultural condiments of classical music, literature, art, theatre and so on. Without realizing it, I sought to gain spiritual succor from Beethoven piano sonatas, Mozart operas, works of literature, and secular philosophies.

But for all the rewards and gratifications, I remained inwardly, secretly aware that something major, something fundamental, was missing from my life. And despite all the intellectual rationalizations I could muster, I knew instinctively that the missing dimension was spiritual. Yet I wasn't ready to jettison everything I had embraced as gospel up to that stage, and I didn't know how to reconcile my current beliefs with others which seemed to be in direct contradiction.

Jung argued that religion was essential for healthy, psychic development.

It was then that I began to immerse in the study of psychology, particularly psycho-analysis. Apart from the fact that I have always been intensely interested in the workings of the human mind, my main motivation was in order to understand myself better. In the course of my readings, I discovered that Freud's view of religion as "the universal obsessional neurosis" was not shared by all his followers. Carl Jung, in particular, rejected this view and argued that not only was religion not neurotic; it was, on the contrary, essential for healthy, psychic development. Jung argued that "the religious part of the psyche" was a universal human reality, as powerful a drive in its own right as the drive to alleviate hunger, the sexual drive, etc. If this aspect of psychic life was absent or impaired, the mental health of the person was severely impoverished.

These ideas rang true for me, reflecting my own spiritual malaise. I was also impressed with the writings of modern Jungians, notably James Hillman (who happens to be Jewish), who wrote that just as the existence of hunger implies the existence of a stomach or stomach-like organ in the body, so too does the existence of religious fervor and stirrings imply the existence of a soul or soul-like identity in the human being.

I also started reading Eastern mysticism, especially Zen Buddhism. I was fascinated by its abstract intellectual constructs, though I never translated it into practice. I was never much given to meditation, and even less so to an ascetic lifestyle which regarded the material world as an illusion to be transcended (rather than, as Judaism sees it, as a reality to be elevated and sanctified). I was still not ready for Judaism – I had to dabble with things further afield – but the seeds of a spiritual re-awakening were being sown.

On the Way Home

It was to take a major life-event to provide the final catalyst for my return to Judaism. That event was the birth of our son, Colin, in 1977, when our two daughters were ages 8 and 5 respectively. Colin was, as the euphemism would have it, an unplanned pregnancy. We thought we had completed our family with our two lovely, creative daughters, but God had other ideas. We accepted the fact of my wife's pregnancy quite cheerfully, and hoped that the child would be a blessing for us. A blessing he was indeed to become, but not at all in the way we may have expected.

When he was born, we reluctantly agreed to a circumcision, and even then only if it was performed by a doctor (who was a Jewish friend and colleague), not by a mohel or rabbi.

When Colin was only a few years old, it became clear that he was beset with major developmental and learning difficulties. As a family, we accepted the situation as best we could, and resolved to give him all the support we could muster. With the help of God and that of many caring people – and his own extra-ordinary courage and determination – Colin made good progress with his education and other aspects of his life, despite his disabilities. Then, at age seven, a striking thing happened: He began to take a keen interest in Judaism.

There was no apparent explanation for this. Although he had had a bit of Hebrew school at his own request, he got little Jewish instruction at the special schools he went to, and he certainly didn't get any at home! Nevertheless, he insisted that he wanted to learn more about Judaism, and nagging me to go to synagogue with him. "Why do other fathers go with their sons, and I have to go alone?" he protested. I tried to play the role of the tolerant but limit-setting parent: "If you want to go for this sort of thing, Colin, you are welcome to do so, but please don't try to force me into something I don't believe in." Needless to say, this plea fell on deaf ears.

He stood at the door, longing for a mezuzah to be affixed.

He continued to badger me and in the meantime, on Saturday mornings when I went to work, Colin would go to synagogue and then to Rabbi Lazarus’ house for lunch. Colin began asking for kosher food in the house and begging us to put a mezuzah on our front door. Again I thought he was just being difficult, but one day I saw Colin (who did not know I was there) standing at the front door and longingly running his hand up and down the doorpost, wishing with all his heart that a mezuzah would be affixed there. My heart melted.

When he came inside, I told him that yes, we would put a mezuzah on the front door. Rabbi Lazarus duly arrived and did the necessary deed, and Colin's happiness was evident.

It was only a matter of time before things progressed further. There were no blinding lights, but rather a dawning realization that this is how things should be, and indeed always should have been. By this time I was going to synagogue with Colin on Friday nights and reciting Kiddush when we got home, but not much more than that.

Then one night I was sitting in my armchair reading one of James Hillman's Jungian psychology books, Insearch, when I came across the following comment:

    I believe this paradoxical attitude of consciousness toward the shadow finds an archetypal example in Jewish religious mysticism, where God has two sides: one of moral righteousness and justice and the other of mercy, forgiveness, love. The Chassidim held the paradox, and the tales of them show their deep moral piety coupled with astounding delight in life.

As I read that I said to myself, calmly and matter-of-factly, "That's it. I'm going to become an observant Jew." In that rather undramatic moment, I felt I had received a "hechsher" – a stamp of approval -- to become observant from a secular psycho-analyst.

My path to full mitzvah observance progressed relatively quickly. I experienced the warm embrace of Shabbat. Wrapping tefillin directly fuses the physical and the spiritual, indicative of Judaism's regard for the human body as having the potential to be elevated and sanctified in every way. And Torah learning captivated and enthralled me in a way that no secular reading ever could, making me realize that its source is from a place infinitely beyond the reach of human endeavor.

Judaism does not offer a “quick fix” solution.

The reaction of family and friends was mixed. Fortunately, my wife soon followed in my footsteps and became Torah observant, while my daughters have agreed to differ with me on many points without it affecting the close bond between us. Some of my friends were accepting of my change, while others reacted with shock and dismay and a sense of betrayal.

In looking back at the Marx-Darwin-Freud axis around which my youth revolved, I realize that while these disciplines have valid observations about the nature of society and the human psyche, their essential flaw is in attempting to reduce the whole of human behavior into relatively simplistic expressions of their own narrow frameworks.

Marxists would have us believe that human society is governed almost solely by economic forces and motivations, while other factors – like cultural, psychological and religious – are either ignored or squeezed into their straitjacket-like theoretical framework. Freudian Psychology, on the other hand, tends to reduce all human behavior to primal (unconscious) sexual and aggressive impulses, largely ignoring human strivings for spiritual satisfaction which is dismissed as mere “sublimation” of primitive drives and impulses.

Judaism, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of all aspects of human existence – economic, legal, materialistic, sexual, psychological, nationalistic, and of paramount importance, the spiritual. In doing so, Judaism takes into account the reality of human nature and does not advocate unrealistic, Utopian solutions that can end up with outcomes diametrically opposed to what they envisaged.

Judaism, with its realistic, holistic system, does not offer a “quick fix;” it is something that has to become part of one's being by practicing and working at it (and at oneself) continually on a daily basis throughout one's life. That is how anything real and enduring must be.

As Shavuot approaches and we prepare to receive the Torah, I am reminded of a quote from T. S. Eliot, which encapsulates the essence of my experience: "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

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