The hidden struggle

October 25, 2004|By Jonathan Rosen

NEW YORK - Twenty years ago, the Jewish Theological Seminary admitted women to its rabbinical school for the first time, reversing 2,000 years of Jewish practice.

The Reform movement had preceded the seminary by more than a decade. But the Conservative movement, to which the seminary belongs, views itself as working within the traditional framework of Jewish law handed down from Sinai, and so its decision was perhaps even more dramatic, prompting much soul-searching and several defections from the school by revered members of the faculty.

I was an undergraduate at Yale when I heard the news from a professor of English literature. I had shown up for office hours to talk about John Milton's Paradise Lost, but my professor, who had an Orthodox education but a liberal mindset, was too excited about the news. He pointed to The New York Times article spread out on his desk and said simply, "Isn't that wonderful!" The information did not really move me. I was there to talk about literature, not to swap synagogue gossip. Or so it seemed to me at the time.

Today, not only am I married to a rabbi, I have just published a novel about a female rabbi. And though the rabbi in my book isn't my wife, I'd be lying if I said that my marriage has not given me insight into what it means for women to assume the mantel of religious leadership. I'm also far more attuned than I was in college to how widespread is the struggle to integrate modern life and religious life, and how little college - or serious contemporary literature - addresses that struggle.

Deborah, the rabbi in my novel, says that rabbis are like strippers - they exhibit something in public that most people only reveal in private, which is a religious self, a spiritual self.

By the time I wrote those words, I had come to recognize how much has been lost from public discussion about religious questions, at least in what might be called "literary" circles. Religion, I sometimes feel, has become in the contemporary novel what sex was in the 19th century - a taboo subject dealt with mainly by indirection.

Deborah, who is a Reform rabbi, struggles to integrate all the parts of herself - sexual and spiritual, contemporary and traditional. This seems to me not so much a Jewish struggle as a human struggle. Though the 20th century was the heyday of Jewish American writing, most of the novels it produced chart the flight away from tradition toward mainstream, "secular" society.

Searching for models, I found myself turning to the great 19th-century novelist George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans), whose first novel, Adam Bede, is about a female Methodist preacher. Eliot had a religious childhood and lost her faith as she grew older, but she never stopped wondering about the place of religion in people's lives and in society. Her book, published in 1859 - the same year as Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species - was her way of working out those questions, which still haunt us today, about how people adapt to change and carry sustaining beliefs into a modern world.

The invocation of religion during the presidential debates seemed to some of my acquaintances like pandering on both sides. But it seemed to me to serve instead as evidence that our most wrenching questions as a society - about intervention abroad and personal liberty at home - still stem from ultimate ideas about who we are and how we were created. This was obvious in Milton's day. Milton, a deeply political man, saw his muse as being the God of Sinai and his literary purpose as "justifying the ways of God to man."

Milton's powerful combination of the secular and the sacred struck me with great force in college. It took me longer to appreciate the lesson my professor gave me when, 20 years ago, he took up The New York Times instead of Paradise Lost.

Literature may profit from a religious imagination, but religion requires a literary imagination, the ability to envision a place for itself that honors its bedrock convictions without ignoring a changing world. That is no small feat, of course, but we've all seen too much of the terrible fundamentalism that in some respects results from nothing so much as a fatal failure of imagination.

Jonathan Rosen, the editorial director of Nextbook, is the author of Joy Comes in the Morning.

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