I talk the other day to a non-Jewish pal.
Pal: “I know you’ve had serious issues being accepted in Orthodox Judaism. Is it because you’re a convert?”
Luke: “No. It’s because I’ve been obnoxious. I’m an outlaw. I used to write on the p*** industry. I’ve been flagrant in my sinning and what’s worse, in my writing about my sinning. There’s an outlaw vibe to me. I tend to marginalize myself. I tend to observe rather than to participation.”
Pal: “But you sincerely long to actualize the teachings you believe in.”
Luke: “Yes. It’s accompanied by a rebellious attitude towards authority. Every traditional community puts considerable restrictions on freedom of expression. I set off alarm bells within my traditional community.”
Pal: “My wife came from a strict evangelical upbringing. She was sent to an evangelical concentration camp as a 14-year old for having a boyfriend. She has an evangelist relative who violently raped his daughters.
“In that community, to prove you’re among the elect, you’re constantly censoring yourself and you’re constantly marketing yourself as something you’re not. Simple honesty will mark you as demonic. Just admitting to urges, to being human. Is that something you’re confronting? Just because you’re honest?”
Luke: “Yeah. In part. You can be honest about different things in evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism. Judaism has much more peace about the heart and its desires, placing more premium on action rather than belief.”
Pal: “Why do you need religion? Why did you jump from one lilypad to the next? Clearly much of the tradition comes from men. Why do you choose to live under the illusion that it comes from God? Why choose it as an authoritative guide to how to live your life?”
Luke: “Because it works. It affects me profoundly when I do it, connecting me to good people. Most of the good people I know are Orthodox Jews. I like to be around them.
“In the struggle to live by the law, there’s a depth to the fight. It’s the difference between living in black and white and living in color. When I meet people who are secular, their life seems much less interesting. It has much less depth and color.
“I spoke on a panel a couple of weeks ago at Loma Linda University to a bunch of Seventh-Day Adventists. Their religion is about 160 years old. They think their religion goes back to Abraham but the way they observe their religion, their Sabbath, is not according to the Torah and to the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic tradition. They are a new creation, essentially making up things as they go along.
“When I spoke, I felt connected to 4,000 years of Jewish tradition. It felt powerful when I confronted this new religion with its new ideas about the Sabbath and what is important in life. Four thousand years of Judaism knows more about life and what is important than do I. When I speak as an authentic representative of this tradition, I’m part of an all-star team. The goyim have nothing that compares to it.
“When I get up in the morning and go to shul and say my prayers, I connect to 3,000 years of the Jewish tradition.”
Pal: “As a writer, don’t you feel that same connection when you walk into the library and look at everything from the Iliad to Shakespeare? Can’t you connect to a tradition within a secular lifestyle?”
Luke: “There are no communities based on Shakespeare or Homer or any other literary work. They don’t create ways to live in community. People don’t gather for holiday meals and join together to study the text and to live the text.”
Pal: “That’s arguable. You could point to Karl Marx.”
Luke: “The only people who believe in Karl Marx anymore are on Western university campuses and the type of communal life they create does not compare favorably with Judaism. Countries founded on Marxism have not turned out well.”
Pal: “I had a professor who was part of this worldwide community organized around the work of psychologist Wilhelm Reich. It was organized like a religious cult in its inclusiveness and tight-knitness.”
Luke: “That type of community does not compare to the depth of the traditional Jewish community found in every major city in the world. Besides, we have our own country — Israel.
“Our Friday night Shabbat dinners with the white tablecloth and the candles and the songs and the blessings, there’s no comparison. Our rituals and prayers and texts connect us to a long history of changing the world, to a particular place, Israel, to a particular moral outlook on life, the goyim have nothing that compares.”
Pal: “You find that being disembodied into the universal through these rituals is a healing thing.”
Luke: “That’s mysticism. This is the opposite. This is not dissolving oneself into the Godhead. This is about being the best you can be in all your distinctiveness and separateness while simultaneously living in community with highly accomplished, well-educated people.
“There’s no comparison of the depth and joy and meaning in sitting down to have a Shabbat meal with friends and sitting down with friends in a completely secular context. In Judaism, your every day and every week has a rhythm.”
Pal: “Every traditional group has its rituals.”
Luke: “Sure, the Amish have rituals. Jewish rituals produce brilliant, accomplished people. About one-quarter of all Nobel prize winners are Jewish.”
Pal: “So it’s networking.”
Luke: “It’s networking around a shared history and a shared outlook on life. I don’t take naturally to rituals. I was raised a Protestant. Ritual was a dirty word. I came to Jewish ritual when I saw what it produced. I’m not into ritual for ritual’s sake.”