THE BOOK OF SEPARATION
By Tova Mirvis
302 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
Modern Orthodox Judaism — a loosely defined sect that adheres to the strictures of Jewish Scripture, while engaging with the broader world, intellectually and economically — has always been something of a paradox: It embraces modernity and, at the same time, lives by the dictums of an ancient system. Tova Mirvis’s memoir, “The Book of Separation,” chronicles this paradox, and many others, in an intimate tale of leaving a community that served as the literary inspiration for her first two novels, and the bulwark of her life.
Mirvis’s story is less stark than recent memoirs of leaving ultra-Orthodox sects; Modern Orthodoxy, by definition, allows more mingling with the outside world. Nonetheless, her narrative is one of deep heartache, both in the predeparture attempt to quiet her own objections to the faith, and in the self-willed abandonment of certainty that departure requires. Early in the book, Mirvis writes about a childhood objection to the biblical verse that commanded Adam to rule over Eve; her mother quieted her objections with alternative explanations. Mirvis muses about the contradictions she felt: “The text couldn’t be wrong; the rabbis couldn’t be wrong. If sexism was wrong, the text couldn’t be sexist. … The laws couldn’t change, the words couldn’t change — nothing, in fact, could change — yet you could turn the words, reframe them, and reshape them, do anything so that you could still fit inside.”
When I interviewed Tova January 30, 2005, it was clear she was no longer Orthodox, but I don’t think she realized that:
Luke: “Do you believe in God?”
Luke: “Do you believe God gave the Torah?”
Tova: “I do. I think it’s more complicated… I don’t believe in the fundamentalist notion that he wrote it down and handed it off but I believe in an evolving dynamic chain of tradition. It has formed my life. It is complicated. I would guess that I don’t believe in it in the same terms that Wendy Shalit does.”
Luke: “How about in the terms that Maimonidies formulates in his eighth of thirteen required beliefs [the Jewish prayer Yigdal, which translated into English reads: ‘I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him.’]”
Tova: “Remind me.”
Luke: “That the Torah is divine. That every word of it is divine. And if a person was to say that a single word in the Torah is not divine, that that is outside permitted belief.”
Tova: “I don’t know. That’s a good question. Part of my Orthodoxy is that you don’t have to know all the answers. I don’t know. It’s a good question.”
Luke: “This was a question that obsessed the characters of Chaim Potok novels and it obsesses me.”
Tova: “What’s interesting about Orthodoxy is does the term mean sameness of belief? There’s little sameness of belief in Orthodoxy. There are basic tenets. I don’t think one could articulate an Orthodox theology that would apply across the board. It’s complicated and I live with that complication every day.”
Luke: “Orthoprax means correct practice. Orthodox means correct belief. Sorry to hone in on this, but would it be more accurate to call you Orthoprax than Orthodox?”
Tova pauses: “I don’t even know where to begin. No, I have no idea. I don’t know what those words mean. Is someone who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and drives there [on Shabbat and festivals], is he Orthodox? I don’t know. Is one who davens three times a day but eats out [in non-kosher restaurants], is he Orthodox? I don’t do that, before that gets tagged on to me, but I don’t know. I don’t know what these terms mean. I don’t really think about them. I don’t know that there’s a need to define in that way.
“I am Modern Orthodox. I am liberal Orthodox. I am feminist Orthodox. But what does that have to do with my right to write fiction? The whole question of where writers are coming from is problematic and the least interesting way of looking at novels. I don’t know what my own personal beliefs have to do with it. Is it a credential test?
“People ask [a prominent Jewish author] if he believes in God. They want a yes or no answer. He thinks it’s not a yes-or-no answer but a discussion. To live in the Orthodox world is to be engaged in these questions and discussions and to wrestle with them and to be part of a conversation. It’s not to have all the answers. I just don’t believe that anyone does.”
Luke: “Are you familiar with Louis Jacobs?”
Luke: “He was on the way to becoming Chief Rabbi of England in the early 1960s. They found a book he wrote in 1957 called We Have Reason To Believe where he accepted what is the universally held view in academic study of sacred text that the Torah is composed of different strands composed in different centuries and woven together over centuries. Because of that, he was thrown out of Orthodox Judaism.
“I bring that up because with your vast secular education, I am sure you are familiar with literary criticism and the asking of three basic questions: When was something written? Who wrote it? For what purpose was it written? If you apply those three basic questions to sacred text, you would come up with an answer completely different from that of traditional Judaism to its sacred texts. Do you wrestle with this?”
Tova, pauses: “Sometimes, but not to where I need to have the answer, to resolve it in my head. I think the same applies to issues of Orthodoxy and science.”
Luke: “Is Jewish Orthodoxy compatible with Modernity?”
Luke: “So one can be authentically Orthodox and authentically Modern?”
Tova: “That’s what the Modern Orthodox movement is about. Modern Orthodoxy was founded on the principle that one doesn’t live in separate worlds where we do our Orthodox thing and then we do our Modern thing. We integrate them.”
Luke: “Do you think it is true?”
Tova: “Do I think that it is true?”
Luke: “Ontologically, ultimately? That you can be authentically Modern and authentically Orthodox and integrated?”
Tova: “I do.”
Luke: “I’m sure that much of what you learned at Columbia ran completely counter to your Orthodox Judaism?”
Tova: “I don’t know. It didn’t.”
Luke: “Did you ever take a class in Bible?”
Tova: “I didn’t. I regret that.
“I think these are interesting questions but they don’t have to do with fiction, with my fiction.
“I think of Wendy Shalit’s piece as a tzitzit-check, a sheitel-check. What are your credentials for writing. As a writer, I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the theological questions of Orthodoxy. I don’t pretend it in my life and I don’t pretend it in my fiction.
“I don’t think that writing from a place of certainty makes for the best fiction.
“I can discuss with you my own doubts though I don’t think that I need to. Orthodoxy is not always an easy package to hold together.
“I take issue with her argument that because characters struggle with communal norms and divine truths they are outsiders. I think she wants to do this to writers and to our characters. It is the second one that pisses me off more.”
After the interview, I exchanged some emails with Tova.
Eighty minutes after the conclusion of our interview, Tova wrote me:
“I must tell you as well, in hindsight, that I have an isssue with many of your questions. Upon thinking about it, I wondered whether questions such as whether I believe in the one of maimonides 13 principles of faith are intended for discussion and thought, or to determine whether I’m really the insider I claim to be. if the former, then I truly am interested in the conversation and the ongoing exploration. But if its the latter, then I’d make the same objection as I make to her piece. Must we believe in the 3rd principle of faith, for example, to write legitimately about the ortjodox world. What if someone only believed in numbers 1-11? Does that disqualify them? And since its so on point, I’d love to quote The Ghost Writer, which I mentioned: “Do you practice Judaism? If so, how? If not, what qualifies you to write about Judaism for national magazines?” I’m feeling a little too much of Judge Wapter in the air.”
I replied: “That was my favorite section of the Ghostwriter. I do not believe that you need to believe in anything to write on Orthodox Judaism or any topic. My questions on your beliefs were to find out where you are coming from. I realize this is a very sensitive area for many people… I had a fascinating discussion along a similar line with Alana Newhouse…in my book on Jewish journalism.”
Later, I emailed Tova: “Why have you stayed Orthodox?”
Tova wrote back: “I’ve stayed Orthodox because it’s who I am, it’s my childhood and its my family, my parents and my children, and it’s part of all my memories. I’m Orthodox because I love ritual, because I love the texts, love the idea of a chain of ideas passed down from generation to generation, each one adding one more link. Because I love Shabbos, love that the chaos of my everyday life quiets down for those hours. Because sometimes when I least expect it, a cantorial tune, a word of a prayer will catch me off guard and move me, make me feel a longing for something deeper, fuller, higher. I’ve stayed Orthodox even though so many things about it anger me, so many things feel problematic and troubling and unresolvable. And I stay because the Orthodox world is so much wider than some people believe, because one can doubt and wrestle and observe and believe and that is all part of this tradition.”