by Nathan R. Elliott
Two Jewish men stay up all night drinking and debating the existence of God. At the end of the night, they come to a conclusion: God cannot possibly exist. They tumble out into the early morning air, satisfied with their conclusion.
One of them wakes up later that morning, gets dressed, and goes about the town.
He sees his compatriot coming out of the synagogue.
“Why were you in there? We settled that question last night!”
That’s it. The ‘so’ is actually the point of the story.
The story is an odd one, one that I am almost jealous of, coming out of a fundamentalist background. My friend’s religious tradition allows her to be a part of the spiritual space that she has a right to, without demanding ceaseless allegiance to a set of epistemic propositions. She’s Jewish. Because she’s Jewish. The end. She might not be in synagogue on a regular basis, and she might not even believe in God. She never did do her bat mitzvah.
She has a right to participate in the ongoing conversation about the divine, along with everyone else.
And her religious tradition is based on conversation. The legend of the all-night debate about the existence of God isn’t just a joke; it’s actually the way the Talmud more or less works: an ongoing interpretation, reinterpretation, conversation about the interpretation, rereading, then more interpretation. The divine reveals itself through successive levels of deep reading, deep study, deep debate. To talk, to read, to interpret is to get close to the divine.
She’s the youngest person I’ve interviewed yet for this particular series. Her age really doesn’t matter, in a certain sense, but one simple story she tells me becomes more interesting when you take into account her age.
She has had, from time to time, a dream: a resurrected Adolf Hitler has returned to terrorize the planet. In a rash moment, she told some friends at school about the tormenting dream, and she was teased, and perhaps socially isolated for this bit of oddity.
As she grows older, she finds that when she reveals the dream to some Jewish friends, they tell her that they have a similar dream. All the time.
The resurrected Hitler nightmare is normal.
This odd little detail brings home to me another distinction, one that I might have recognized intellectually, but which I have never had to deal with on an emotional level: if you grow up Jewish, you grow up with the consciousness that a group of racists took over a major European country’s government and military, then came close to successfully wiping your people off of the planet.
And if they failed when it came to complete extermination, these grotesque monsters were, as Chaim Potok points out at the end of his own history of the Jews, largely successful in destroying a centuries-old Jewish culture across Europe.
Her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister escaped Austria in time.
They somehow found refuge during the war years on the Isle of Man. She can’t help but think of the contingency of it all: if her grandmother had not known people who knew people, and if those people hadn’t been willing to take her in, she wouldn’t exist.
She has three citizenships: Hungarian, American, and Canadian. She lives in a bilingual city—some even argue that it’s rapidly becoming a trilingual city: French, English, and another mother tongue. Her existence now does seem to hang, even more than most of us, on odd turns of fate in the past that involve border crossings, forced migrations, and fear. When she sees immigrants, children caged at the American border, she weeps and tries to find the money she doesn’t have to donate to legal organizations in the States. She feels guilty for not putting her body on the line in front of ICE trucks in Texas.
Later, in a social media post, referencing Montréal’s ugly history of anti-Semitism, she’ll note that the town’s Jewish population has always been regarded as outsiders.
Her Hitler nightmares are understandable: the nightmare never really ended.
She gets a bit older, and she notices an older girl wearing an anti-fascist pin: a swastika crossed out like an anti-smoking sign. She doesn’t like looking at the pin, resents it—not because of the anti-fascism—but because she has to consider the swastika. It’s over. You don’t have to be anti-fascist anymore. She doesn’t want to see a swastika, even if it’s on an anti-fascist pin.
The years go by.
Long after this relationship has ceased, she comes to appreciate the girl’s prescience. An evolving world is teaching her something, perhaps, about anti-fascism. She wears similar symbols herself now.
I met her through a play, my play to be more exact: someone asked her to act in an unknown’s play, and she was game. It was about academia, it had an all-female cast, and she was curious. Once upon a time, she thought about going to graduate school herself and even enrolled. Something about the graduate atmosphere drove her away in a matter of weeks. At the end of the final workshop, she offers good advice on the evident anger buried deep in every line of my play: she gets the anger, and despite her youth, she understands how my own anger might be warping my work.
When she tells me her story about leaving her graduate career behind almost as it started—we’re walking back to the subway station after a rehearsal—I can’t help but envy her ability to listen to something her mind, perhaps even her body, was telling her.
She regrets—at least somewhat—not doing her bat-mitvah. I’m in the odd position of wanting to question the life conclusion of one of my subjects. She made a lot of noise about Palestine, she says, justifying her refusal to do it, and that was even somewhat true. Underneath her refusal, in truth, was a paralyzing fear of public speaking. Her father urged her to do it. She resisted, and he relented.
She could still do it. You don’t have to be a certain age to do it.
She made, I can’t help but think, the right choice for her.
People usually do what’s right for them in the end.
Her father wants to know if the bullies were, at least, accurate. She’s been bullied for the Hitler dream, sure, but this is something different.
Her father asks: is she gay?
She has no idea how the bullies even knew. She has never come out to anyone.
She’s in the middle of figuring it out for herself. But somehow, they knew. And now her father wants to know if they were right, and it’s not quite the coming-out scene she might’ve hoped for, but there it is. And her father supports her.
And he might just want to sue the school for a human rights violation.
No one in her religious community cares one way or the other.
Things have not magically improved for the lives of LGTBQ+ people. But I hear a heartening change in her voice. Her coming out was painful, perhaps, but her family gave her an almost casual acceptance that seems almost unimaginable to someone of my generation.
And just as importantly, no one in her religious community cares about her orientation. She’s never faced religious homophobia from that community.
It’s not even a conversation worth having, thank God.
She gets nervous only when the subject of Palestine comes up. It’s where, interestingly, the conversation falters.
It’s something that is almost impossible to speak about in her community. Take one position, and you will be confronted. Take the other position; you will be questioned. She has a position, yes, she does. But experience has shown her time and time again that this is one conversation her community might not be willing to have.
At the beginning of the conversation, she tells me that she can’t imagine any question I might have she wouldn’t be willing to answer. But after we’ve talked about any number of highly personal issues, on the topic of Palestine, she begins to falter.
For a long time, this interview remained a digital memory captured on a smartphone. The weeks turned to months, and I couldn’t find the time to do much more than survive the onslaught of an intensely busy season of teaching, editing, and writing.
The same weekend that I finally made my way back to this interview, the American president declared that Jerusalem will always be Israeli territory, that there will be no recognition of that city’s role in a variety of cultural and religious traditions.
Last August, when I spoke to the subject of this interview, she thought the opposite: Jerusalem should be part of the two-state solution, and it should be shared. That two-state solution has been the dream for a lot of us on the left, or even in the centre, for most or all of my lifetime. It’s hardly a new thought, or even a particularly innovative one in most circles. She labeled her own tentative thoughts on the issue ‘milquetoast’ at one point. But I saw something more than political theory in her remarks, something solid and good and beautiful that informed everything she told me during the eighty minutes of our phone call.
She could hold two thoughts in her head. She was another representative, to my mind, of a generation that is trying to save us from ourselves, from solutions that are constantly presented as either/or.
Towards the very end of our conversation, when I was basically going over some details, she asked for an of editorial favor. She asks me not to refer to “Judeo-Christian” values.
Because, as she puts it, that’s not a thing. Judaism and Christianity actually have different values, a different ethical basis, a different moral drive.
Months later, as I listen to the interview repeatedly, it strikes me again and again how right she is: certain distinctions are a reoccurring motif in this conversation. There’s a different relationship—between Christianity and Judaism—to the text, a different relationship to belief, a different relationship to the divine itself. Certain variations of Christianity might want to lay claim to the older tradition, but that itself looks suspiciously like an appropriation.
One distinction that I find repeatedly fascinating, given my background: believing in God is not a prerequisite. Nor is that belief the motivation for morality. You can be Jewish, you can be an atheist, you can be a good person, you can have a spiritual connection to something that extends beyond your limited existence. In the fundamentalist Christian circles of my youth, there was—as I remember it—no analogous intellectual or spiritual freedom: refuting the existence of God put you under immediate moral suspicion, if not moral disapprobation, depending on how loudly you were refuting that existence. That tradition, in the incarnation as I knew it as a child, shut conversations down.
Her life continues conversations started thousands of years ago
This is the seventh in a series of articles about faith, progressive politics, and voices of faith from unusual perspectives. Please message Nathan on Twitter at @writeronabike if you think you know of a person, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a faith community of any creed that might be of interest.
Nathan R. Elliott grew up in Idaho, was educated in Chicagoland, worked as a professor in Georgia and Newfoundland, and now writes and lives in Montréal. He has published peer-reviewed research on the intersections of nineteenth-century British Literature and nineteenth-century science; he has published fiction and creative nonfiction in a variety of venues. He is the recipient of the 2016 NL Arts Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award.
Featured Image: “A Discussion of the Talmud” by Carl Schleicher