What is practical?

I have been unhappy this week. Peggy and I argued before her departure, and it left a cloud over my head. Then there is the ever-present arthritis…. I bought a book about chronic pain, but have not opened it because I am too infatuated with Isaac Singer. I wouldn’t believe that anyone could write so well if I had not read it with my own eyes.

I had never given Judaism much thought, having been taught as a child that it was the Old Testament minus the New and therefore but half a religion. If Singer’s Judaism is representative, it has a great deal more depth than that. In fact, it has a great deal more depth than Christianity as I have known Christianity through four churches and three years of college courses. I subjected myself to all this because I was looking for something other than superficial answers to deep questions. I was finally forced to conclude that Christianity is a religion without depth, a religion that admonishes one to believe as a child believes, and whatever good one can say about children, they are not creatures of discernment but credulity.

Jews, as Singer presents them, don’t put stock in unthinking faith. For them, religion doesn’t mean acceptance but struggle, and their behavior toward God (as compared to Christian behavior toward God) reminds me of the way the way the British treat their prime minister versus the way we Americans treat our president. The White House Press Corps approaches the president briefly and deferentially—as if they don’t want to lose the credentials that enabled them to get close enough to approach him.

By contrast, I have seen Tony Blair being questioned by Parliament, and was astounded both by the length of the proceedings and by the bluntness of the queries. The British don’t soft-pedal around their leaders as if to avoid awakening them, and neither do the Jews soft-pedal around God. If anything, they don’t seem to think he’s doing that great a job and, although he remains silent before their inquiries, at least they don’t mistake gullibility for piety.

Last night, I read “The Boy Knows the Truth.” It is about a rabbi who remained physically robust even as he grew on in years. He was prone to depression, and so overcome with sexual lust that he couldn’t find peace even in the midst of his prayers. He saw himself as unworthy to even be a rabbi, but his son was too unstable to replace him, so he did the best he could—which was great by the standards of all who knew him.

His wife was a frail hypochondriac who was repulsed by sex and interpreted her husband’s lust as proof of his impiety. She heaped contempt upon him for decades, and he responded with patience and humility, his enforced chastity causing him to be all the more careful to avoid being alone with other women. Finally, his wife became truly ill (unbeknownst to him) and, on her deathbed, asked that he swear to not remarry. Enraged, he ran to his room and prayed that she would die so that he might at last find someone with whom he could share love and pleasure. She died that very night and in the morning, “The sun emerged like a bloody head from a womb,” and he was too remorseful to carry on. He pronounced himself wicked in body and soul and stayed alone in his room for weeks, his lamp never going out. I quote with one italicized appendum by myself:

“If this was the aim of creation, cursed be creation,” Rabbi Gabriel declared. Actually, the Almighty never answered Job’s questions. All he did was boast about His wisdom and His might.

He fell asleep, and, in a dream, his departed wife appeared to him in beauty and splendor. Even her veil and gown seemed to glow with their own radiance, and her saw her as both perfect matter and perfect spirit.

Rabbi Gabriel began to cry, and he woke up trembling. His bed trembled with him. The sun had risen and a fiery chariot sailed in the sky from the west to the east…

Rabbi Gabriel got up, washed his hands, dressed, and went out into the courtyard on the way to the study house. “Where else can I go?” he said to himself. “To a tavern, to a house of ill repute?” He had awakened with a new vigor and with a hunger for learning. A cheder boy was walking toward him, his face white, his sidelocks disheveled. He carried a Pentateuch, and a paper bag of food. Rabbi Gabriel stopped him. “Do you want to earn two groschen?” he asked.

“Yes, Rabbi.”

“What should a Jew do who has lost the world to come?”

The boy seemed to ponder, “Be a Jew.”

“Even though he has lost the world to come?”


“And study Torah?”


“Since he is lost, why Torah?”

“It’s good.”

“It’s good, eh? As good as candy?”

The boy hesitated for a moment. “Yes.”

“Well, you earned the two groschen.” Rabbi Gabriel put his hand into his right pocket where he kept money for charity, and gave two groschen to the boy. He bent down to him, pinched his cheek, and kissed his forehead. “You are cleverer than all of them. Go and buy yourself some sweets.”

“The boy grabbed the coin and began to run, his sidelocks flying, his fringed garment blowing in the wind. Rabbi Gabriel went straight to the yeshiva. He was afraid that all the students had left, but fourteen or fifteen still remained. They had come to study at sunrise, which was the custom in Klintow. When they saw the rabbi, they arose in awe. The rabbi shouted, “The boy knows the truth!”

And he began to lecture on the section where he had left off weeks ago.

There are those who seek God as obsequiously as a poor man curries the favor of his benefactor, and there are those who seek God because nothing else is conceivable. The former cannot ask hard questions—cannot even entertain hard questions—because they dare not cause offense. Even Jesus, “the meek and lowly,” was angered by persistent questioners and downright infuriated by doubters. How can piety exist in a mind that is dulled by dogma, yet if one dares not question, of what can a religion consist but dogma?

It is a very odd thing—given how deeply and touched I have often been by it—that I almost never read fiction because fiction is impractical. Instead, I read about how to do things like wire a house or run a drain line, although sometimes I will indulge in a wilderness survival story (the knowledge I gain could prove practical) or, at most, a work about health or philosophy. Yet, there is that which comes from the human mind that is greater than practicality because practicality is, after all, a matter of matter rather than of spirit.

There is a depth that is excruciating not because it is sad, but because it is beautiful. All things must possess this depth to those who are awake. Because such people experience the entire universe as a temporary manifestation of an eternal and unified reality, they would make little distinction between the National Enquirer and the writings of Isaac Singer.

However, I would be most surprised if such people really exist because I well know how grievously limited we are by our senses, by our physical needs, by our brief lifespans, and by our brains themselves. A few moments without air, a few days without water, a few splinters under our fingernails, or even a little too much or too little of some hormone, and our every virtue vanishes. Our frailty is so extreme that I know little of good to say about us. Not that I speak with certainty. Quite the reverse.

I must submit that I have strong opinions about any number of things, yet in my saner moments I am utterly unable to determine whether I am right about even one of them. I literally suspect that there is no propaganda machine that is half so efficient and ruthless as my brain. If I could but rip it out and throw it away, I might then be able to think as one who had just awakened from a dream in which he was insane. If there is any certain truth for me—and, I believe, for any of us—it can only lie in death, although I do not expect death to consist of other than extinction.

I love Isaac Singer because Isaac Singer writes about me. This raises the question of whether I want to read about me. Perhaps, I will turn to Camus…a writer who comes close but not too close, a sideswipe rather than a direct hit.