Years ago, I was in the audience to hear a lecture by Columbia Professor of Ancient History Morton A. Smith who was discussing a verse he claimed to have discovered, anciently deleted from the gospel of Mark. In this new-found verse, Jesus is alone with a youth to whom he is teaching “the secrets of the kingdom.”
Quite naturally at the Q & A, someone asked, “What are the secrets of the kingdom?”
Smith replied, in his coolly collected manner, “There are no secrets of the kingdom. The average facts of life are fairly well known.” In other words, any such claim has to be bogus.
The unforced stylishness of Smith’s response stayed with me through all the intervening years. Personally however, I’ve never believed what he said at the Q & A.
Two very different books, read by me recently, have to do with the not-obvious “kingdom” that can sometimes be found within Jewish experience. I’ll try to convey a bit of what they teach.
The first, by Valerie Foster, is titled The Risk of Sorrow: Conversations with Holocaust Survivor Helen Handler. I’ve read lots of books on the Holocaust: courtroom testimonies, memoirs and philosophical reflections. But never anything that had the effect on me of Helen Handler’s recollections, here recorded and assembled by Valerie Foster.
Here’s why: picture yourself as someone who is fully normal. In this picture, you are not bent in one direction or another by — to name just a few of the ways to be bent — denial, overcompensation, projection, a hidden sense of inferiority, a concealed conviction of superiority, social anxiety, fear of heights or fear of abandonment. In this thought experiment, you are balanced. Not overdone or underdone. Merely a clear lens allowing experience to show through.
Now picture the human and natural landscape of your life invaded and overrun by actors motivated by malice unremitting and effective, targeting your whole life-scape. But imagine that you retain the optic that was yours before that invasion. What can you tell us when, by the workings of chance or providence, you survive?
The ideal witness is the one who sees that none of it should have happened. Not one moment of it. She is that witness.
So there’s one secret of the kingdom for you. If you can take it in. I’ve never read anything like it for vividness.
What about the second book? It’s a collection of essays by Orthodox Jews explaining to the rest of us why it’s reasonable to be a Jew who observes as many of the 613 commandments as Modern Orthodoxy deems still feasible. It’s titled Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, ed. Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein & Gil Student.
Lest you think these essays were composed by a bunch of over-stuffed shirts, let me disabuse you with this one example, taken from an essay by Moshe Koppel. He writes, after drawing an analogy from the Superman comics: “The point is perfectly clear, but let’s give it some academic gravitas by making it obscure.”
I think that’s pretty funny and not pretentious. Ostensibly the book concerns itself with a claim by political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) that Jewish Orthodoxy stands on no weaker ground than that of its greatest opponent, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677, in his Theological-Political Treatise of 1670), since these rival claims both rest on unproven assumptions. The Orthodox contributors aim to defend their commitments on more robust grounds than Strauss’ minimal one and this becomes the pretext for their essays in defense of the Orthodox worldview.
The fascination of the book for me lies in the glimpse it provides into a worldview not usually self-disclosed for comparative evaluation to outsiders. Some of the writers show a good knowledge of tough disciplines like philosophy and contemporary physics. They are deep insiders who can go outside and then come back inside — a feat of intellectual dexterity that’s rare, at least in my experience.
Is it a glimpse behind the curtain, a fleeting glance at the secrets of the kingdom? What is most arresting for me is the evidence on display here that a life devoted to
the personal worship of a personal God –
within the frame set by an argumentative conversation
stretching over the millennia
about collectively remembered
historical encounters with the divine –
can remain deep, fresh, unpretentious and interesting!