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Friday, September 09, 2005


A Response to Shalom Auslander's "Beware of God"

I'm almost done with Shalom Auslander's "Beware of God." It's a recently published collection of short stories, all of which relate to the Jew's (and the Jews') apparently dysfunctional relationship with God and the Torah.

We've heard it all before, from doubters and heretics throughout the centuries and millennia. Philip Roth and Woody Allen filled that role admirably for our parents' generation. B- and C-list "former Orthodox" writers like Nathan Englander, Pearl Abraham, and Abby Horowitz (and filmmakers like Eitan Gorlin) have also tried to titillate and shock us with images of 'frum' people testing the wild and untamed waters of secularism after rejecting the closed-minded, repressive, and archaic mores of Orthodoxy. But the rest of the world eats this stuff up. And judging from the accolades heaped on Auslander, they're still ravenous.

One thing that sets Auslander apart, slightly, is that he's more of a yeshiva boy. He ridicules Talmudic arguments and throws pesukim (verses of scripture) and snippets of prayers around -- out of context -- to prove that we're thoroughly screwed-up, theologically and psychologically. One theme that pervades all his stories is that of guilt. Your grandparents sacrificed their lives, so you have to wear tzitzis, that sort of thing. Potentially traumatizing to a child, but really, which yeshiva kid was beaten over the head that badly? I wasn’t.

But he's a fair writer (in terms of skill) and he brings intelligence and a modest amount of insight to the table. It's always important to understand the arguments and mind-set of the 'at-risk' yeshiva student, so I gave his book a read. It's very quick and the central argument of each story is fairly easy to spot. He's beating the readers over the head with his doubts and potshots at conventional religion, though, which works for one book, but can't hold up over additional volumes, in my opinion. If you're a one-trick pony, the literati will tire of you very quickly.

Here's a quick rundown of Auslander's stories and their messages:

War of the Bernsteins: Mitzvos are strange and archaic. God’s system of accounting doesn’t make rational sense. Personal ‘redemption’ by self-actualization and assertion is equal to if not greater than the ultimate redemption of Israel, BBA.

Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp: Society rewards apelike, rote behavior and conformity instead of creativity and individual expression. Suicide is a logical option for the tortured soul. Metaphoric animal of choice: Chimpanzees. Yawn.

Somebody Up There Likes You: God is having a hard time managing the world, thus sin and repentance are equally futile.

Heimish Knows All: Brow-beating lectures and guilt won’t stop a teenage boy from exploring his body during puberty.

Holocaust Tips for Kids: Presented without appropriate context and consideration for the age of students, Holocaust-education materials can leave children confused and sometimes traumatized. [[But really, are schools and community groups that stupid? I guess I don’t want to know the answer.]]

Waiting for Joe: We’re wasting our time waiting for the Messiah and beseeching God for our daily needs. He has better things to do than worry about us. Metaphoric animal of choice: Hamsters. Yawning again.

Startling Revelations: The bible was fiction the whole time. Organized religion can’t and won’t tolerate this radical idea, so its agents snuff out any mention or reference thereto. Religion dictates reality.

One Death to Go: Humankind is stupid and violent.

The Metamorphosis: Jews are racist, pedantic, and unable to carry out home-improvement projects. Suicide is a logical option for the tortured soul.

Prophet’s Dilemma: People who say they’ve heard the word of God are kooks. Don’t listen to them. Happiness is free choice, regardless of the instructions of a so-called Higher Power.

They're All the Same: God is no different from a capricious and mean-spirited CEO, reveling in His power over and oblivious to the needs and feelings of the 'little people.' Side question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown: This was actually enjoyable and innovative, as Auslander tells the story through ‘transcripts’ of four- to six-panel Peanuts comic strips. One reviewer I read didn’t get it. But anyone who’s gobbled a Peanuts anthology book in a matter of hours will appreciate it. Oh, the theme is that humankind is stupid and violent and tends to split into warring factions that blame the other side for all their problems.

God is a Big Happy Chicken: Kinda self-explanatory. A frum Jew goes up to heaven, finds that there really is no point to all our posturing and prancing, but then can’t bring himself to reveal the truth to his family, because they’re SO ENTRENCHED in the belief system as to be mindless followers, blissful in their benighted ignorance.

It Ain’t Easy Being Supremey: God never meant for us to dissect the Torah so meticulously and read 70 interpretations into every word. Our hair-splitting and divisiveness are displeasing to Him. He has given up on us. Metaphoric creature of choice: Golems.

Are you seeing a pattern?

But one thing that strikes me, and that Auslander touches on but never confronts head-on, is that he can't grasp the idea that God is higher than we are. His thought processes, if we can use that term, and His methods, if we can use that term, aren't meant to be comprehensible to us. If we accept that certain life forms have smaller, less-sophisticated brains than those of humans, why can't we accept that we have smaller, less-sophisticated brains than God?

I realize that this is the fundamental root of the conflict. You have to be willing to make that leap of faith, and no amount of rationalizing or analysis will ever change the fact that Torah belief requires you to accept that which cannot be proven by logic and reason. If you make that choice wholeheartedly, with open eyes, and you understand the ramifications, more power to you. If you're still struggling on a day-to-day basis, but you know the ultimate truth is His path, then I'm proud to call you a brother or sister in arms. If you reject the idea, okay. You're entitled, I guess. But don't expect us to fall all over ourselves trying to demonize you or trying to win you back. I, for one, have my own problems to worry about.

But thank you, Mr. Auslander (or Holy Brother Shalom), for the intellectual exercise and for inspiring me to write this.

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