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