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Next Year in Jerusalem

When her brother embraced Orthodox Judaism, the author began to question her own reality and went to Israel to find some answers

Jerusalem, Israel

Jeremy Woodhouse

I. Genesis

In the spring of 1975, my brother Michael, then 24, was on his way home from his third trip through Asia when he arrived in Israel, planning to stay a few weeks before heading back to New York. On April 28th, he wrote to our parents: “I’ve been staying at, of all things, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva — when I got to Jerusalem I went to visit the Wailing Wall and got invited — they hang around there looking for unsuspecting tourists to proselytize. It’s sort of a Jewish Jesus-freak type outfit — dedicated to bringing real Judaism to backsliding Jews. I haven’t been especially impressed by the message, but it’s been a really interesting week.” On June 4th, he wrote me, “I’ve had my lack of faith shaken.”

I appreciated the ironic turn of phrase. Then its meaning hit. I read on: “I’ve read and talked about it enough to realize that the arguments for the existence of G-d (a spelling which shows how superstitious I’m becoming) — and the Jewish version of it at that — are very plausible and intellectually if not emotionally convincing . . . It’s frightening, because while I can convince myself of the possibility and even probability of the religion, I don’t like it — its 613 commandments, its puritanism, its political conservatism, its Jews-first philosophy. On the other hand, if it is the truth, not to follow it means turning your back on the truth.” He was postponing his return till the end of July.

I called my parents. My mother thought I was being an alarmist — Mike couldn’t be serious about religion; it was too removed from the way he’d been brought up. “He’s spelling God ‘G-d,’ “I said. There is a religious law that you cannot destroy paper on which you have spelled out “God.”

Two weeks later they got another letter: “I haven’t written because I’m having trouble describing what’s happening. I feel more and more that I’m trapped into a religion whose truth I can’t deny . . . .I’ve never given much thought to the existence of G-d — my LSD experiences had (same as with Ellen) left me with the idea that there was ‘something’ there, but I never thought it was knowable or explainable (& if it was explainable certainly more in terms of mystical experience & Buddhism than the ‘G-d of our Fathers’ of Judaism). But my time here has really forced me to come to terms with what that ‘something’ might be. . . . I’m not Jesus-freaking out — I haven’t come to this through any blinding moment of illumination or desire to be part of a group — it’s been an intellectual process (which I’ve been fighting emotionally all the way), and I’d like nothing better than to reject it — I just don’t think I’ll be able to.

“The final shock in this letter is that I may not leave here at the end of July. If I accept this as the truth, I have to take time to learn about it.”

The “truth” Mike proposed to accept was Judaism in its most extreme, absolutist form: the God of the Old Testament exists; He has chosen the Jewish people to carry out His will; the Torah (the Five Books of Moses and the Oral Law elaborating on them) is literally the word of God, revealed to the Jews at Mt. Sinai; the creation, the miracles in Egypt, and other biblical events actually happened; the Torah’s laws, which are based on 613 mitzvos (commandments) and govern every aspect of one’s existence, must be obeyed in every detail; they are eternal, unchangeable; Conservative, Reform and other revisionist versions of Judaism simply reflect the regrettable human tendency to shirk difficult obligations.

My parents had the same first impulse: “Let’s go to Israel and bring him home.” My father was already out of his chair and about to leave the house to go buy plane tickets when they looked at each other and decided they were overreacting. My own reaction was a kind of primal dread. In my universe, intelligent, sensible people who had grown up in secular homes in the second half of the 20th century did not embrace biblical fundamentalism — let alone arrive at it through an “intellectual process.” My brother was highly