Books

Sarah Hur­witz takes the reader on her jour­ney to greater Jewish lit­er­acy while re­tain­ing her crit­i­cal in­stincts

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • ABI­GAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN

What are Sarah Hur­witz’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions to write a book about Ju­daism? Cer­tainly not her Har­vard law de­gree or her decade of speech­writ­ing for Al Gore, Hil­lary Clin­ton and the Oba­mas. Th­ese im­pres­sive ac­com­plish­ments af­forded her no more fa­mil­iar­ity with her faith than did her bored child­hood af­ter­noons in re­li­gious school.

How­ever, it is pre­cisely this back­ground that makes Here All Along ap­peal­ing and ac­ces­si­ble.

As a mem­ber of Gen X with her fin­ger on the pulse of Amer­ica, as a thor­ough re­searcher with a deep un­der­stand­ing and re­spect for le­gal sys­tems, as a spir­i­tual seeker (al­beit start­ing only at age 36), and as a writer with the rare abil­ity to in­ject a per­sonal voice with­out mak­ing it all about her, Hur­witz man­ages to con­vey a vast range of facts, feel­ings and in­sights about Ju­daism culled from classes, books, syn­a­gogue ex­pe­ri­ences, re­treats and Shab­bat din­ner-ta­ble con­ver­sa­tions.

Hur­witz presents Jewish val­ues and prac­tices nei­ther from the per­spec­tive of a ba’alat teshuva (re­turnee to Ju­daism) – she is not re­li­giously ob­ser­vant – nor from the per­spec­tive of a cynic but from the per­spec­tive of one Jew try­ing to over­come what she calls “the defin­ing chal­lenge” of Jewish il­lit­er­acy. Ac­cord­ingly, ev­ery reader will find things that res­onate and things that ir­ri­tate within this book. That’s one of its strong points.

The breadth is im­pres­sive, with chap­ter head­ings such as Mitzvot and the Spir­i­tu­al­ity of Do­ing, Prayer and More: Find­ing the Pri­mal in Jewish Spir­i­tual Prac­tice, Giv­ing Shab­bat a Chance and Life Cy­cle Rit­u­als (Well, Mainly Just Death), book­ended by an in­tro­duc­tion and con­clu­sion iden­ti­cally ti­tled Why Bother with Ju­daism?

Her start­ing point was an in­tro­duc­tion to Ju­daism class at the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in Washington, DC. “What I dis­cov­ered in that class ut­terly floored me .... Seen through adult eyes, the whole sen­si­bil­ity of Ju­daism spoke to me – its in­tel­lec­tual rigor, its cre­ativ­ity and hu­man­ity, its em­pha­sis on ques­tion­ing and de­bate. This wasn’t the stale, rote Ju­daism of my child­hood. It was some­thing rel­e­vant, end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing and alive.”

As a speech­writer, her goal was “to write the book I wish I’d had five years ago, when I first started learn­ing about Ju­daism as an adult – one that teaches the ba­sics while also un­cov­er­ing some of Ju­daism’s most pro­found ideas.”

She ex­presses th­ese ideas in a highly re­lat­able way, never avoid­ing touchy top­ics. In a sec­tion sub­ti­tled Let’s All Calm Down About Cho­sen­ness, she writes, “[W] hile the God de­picted in the To­rah may have cho­sen the Is­raelites for a par­tic­u­lar covenant and mis­sion, that does not mean God cares any less for those out­side of the covenant. This came as a relief to me, be­cause the ‘cho­sen peo­ple’ idea has al­ways made me un­easy, with its whiff of Jewish su­pe­ri­or­ity.”

Like many in­tel­lec­tu­ally ori­ented Jews, Hur­witz strug­gles with the Jewish con­cep­tion of God, and ac­knowl­edges in­co­her­ence and con­tra­dic­tion in her per­sonal con­cep­tion of God. She ar­gues that “when you com­bine the Jewish em­pha­sis on think­ing for our­selves with the fact that peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence the Divine in very dif­fer­ent ways, it’s not sur­pris­ing that Jewish thinkers have come up with a mind-bog­glingly di­verse set of ideas about God. The choices are not just ‘Man-in-the-Sky-Who-Con­trols-Ev­ery­thing’ or athe­ism.”

Draw­ing from a spec­trum of Tal­mu­dic, me­dieval and mod­ern rab­bini­cal teach­ings – from (Or­tho­dox) for­mer UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to Jewish Re­newal Move­ment founder Rabbi Zal­man Schachter-Shalomi – Hur­witz dis­tills com­plex ideas into eas­ily un­der­stood and em­i­nently quotable prose. She strives to find truth and in­spi­ra­tion even in view­points she re­jects.

While Jewish ethics and morals res­onate more strongly with Hur­witz than do rit­u­als, she ac­knowl­edges that “both ethics and rit­ual are crit­i­cal for the prac­tice of Ju­daism.” In the chap­ter Be­com­ing a Great Per­son: Self-Re­straint and Self-Tran­scen­dence, Hur­witz de­clares that “I don’t need Ju­daism to teach me how to be a good per­son, or at least a good enough per­son. But I’ve come to re­al­ize that I do need it if I ever want to be­come a great per­son. It turns out that Ju­daism sets a much higher eth­i­cal bar than I ever would have thought to set for my­self.”

That chap­ter con­tains a thought­ful treat­ment of such top­ics as lashon hara (gos­sip and in­ap­pro­pri­ate speech), tzedakah (char­ity) and kashrut (the Jewish di­etary laws). Here, as in all the sec­tions of the book, she got her facts right, hav­ing asked “nu­mer­ous schol­ars and rab­bis of all de­nom­i­na­tions to re­view” the man­u­script.

Un­der­scor­ing the au­thor’s hum­ble open­ness to other view­points, the term “I think” ap­pears no less than 82 times – as in, “I think there’s real value to hav­ing an un­shak­able com­mit­ment to a rig­or­ous Shab­bat prac­tice.”

She writes, “I have no busi­ness telling any­one else how to be Jewish. In­stead, I wrote this book in the hope of in­spir­ing you to ex­plore this ques­tion for your­self.”

I cringed at some pas­sages (such as “Bless­ings tra­di­tion­ally be­gin with the words ‘Blessed are you Lord, our God, ruler of the uni­verse, who... ’ But you can play with the lan­guage if words like ‘God’ and ‘ruler’ don’t work for you”). This idea of sub­sti­tut­ing other terms for “God” is not my cup of tea. How­ever, I also ap­pre­ci­ate that Hur­witz’s ap­proach may be the per­fect door-opener for a hes­i­tantly cu­ri­ous Jew search­ing for a way to come in­side and have a look around.

(Yuri Gri­pas/Reuters)

PITCHES TO Jews in Amer­ica about their prac­tice are di­verse – Drei­del Man is es­corted by Mac­cabee-cos­tumed men be­fore the Na­tional Meno­rah cer­e­mony to mark Hanukkah near the White House, De­cem­ber 2018.

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