This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Herman Wouk's classic précis of Orthodox Judaism and personal statement of his faith, This Is My God. I have just pulled my dog-eared copy, probably handed down by my grandfather or father, from the shelves, and over the past several days I have read, or possibly re-read, it. I have little recollection of having gone through it as a child, though I may well have done so.
As of this writing, Wouk is still living, having been honored by a lifetime achievement award in 2008 at age 93. There is also a follow-up volume, The Will to Live On, which saw the light of day in the year 2000, but I have not yet obtained a copy. It would be interesting to see how his views have or have not changed over the past forty years, the span of a biblical generation.
This Is My God is something of an American Jewish classic, depicting mid-20th-century orthodox Judaism as well as Wouk's own journey to orthodoxy. Always a writer, he was not always "religious," the term my Reform family tended to use of the orthodox. Wouk writes humbly and even self-effacingly, at his most engaging when explaining Jewish practices through remembrances of real-life moments. Part of the book's appeal, I suppose, lies in the fact that he is not a rabbi declaiming from a pulpit but a novelist sharing with us what his faith means to him.
By his own statements, before becoming observant, Wouk's life—which in those days included comedy writing—was incomplete, "thin," and lacking an important component: his own identity. As he tells it, his life "left out my grandfather, the most impressive man I ever knew." And his grandfather was classically orthodox. Wouk's move away from secularity was a way of acknowledging that it was important to be a Jew, and that "the classic way" was in fact the best way of doing that. (Wouk throughout refers to Reform and Conservative as "dissenters," making it clear where he thinks mainstream Judaism lies, or should lie.)
The reader will find no screeds in This Is My God, though Wouk does not mince words when it comes to the dangers of assimilation. Neither will he or she find dogmatic views on questions of metaphysical truth. Wouk's beliefs about weighty matters such as God and the afterlife follow on the heels of his observance—true to Judaism in which actions have generally, if not always, been more important than doctrines. (Medieval Judaism had its share of beliefs which to deny meant to be excluded from the world to come.) The "decision to experiment with one's life by taking up the laws of Jewry does not even now seem to me a steep or wild gamble . . . [but rather] a chance at rejoining a great mainstream of ideas and—this is the real stake—a hope for finding God" (p. 335 in my 1961 Doubleday edition.) Regarding the afterlife, Wouk's grandfather was of the opinion that "we can never be sure of the hereafter" (p. 174). Reflects Wouk: "Is my grandfather eating leviathan and drinking hidden wine in the world beyond? For all anybody can tell me, he is. I think that that is more likely, that that his spirit is dead to God."
Embracing one's Jewish identity and finding God—those twin beacons have undoubtedly guided many Jews, including the "dissenters" and those who have dissented even from them, JUBUs and Jewish Renewal folks and many more. I suppose if one starts from the Jewish people, it makes sense to embrace what the majority have embraced. One wants to connect—both with countless past generations as well as with the God of Israel himself.
It is possible too, to start from the God of Israel and then ask what it means to be Jewish, and how that affects one's daily existence. Most of us are not competent in abstruse philosophical arguments for God's existence or for the veracity of the Bible. It is easier, more natural perhaps, to work inductively, from the people to their God, rather than deductively, from grand First Principles downwards. (There, I have thrown in two terms from philosophy, and I cannot be sure that I am using them in quite the right way.)
Enter a disruption. Jews are only too well acquainted with disruption. Pogroms, expulsions, the Holocaust—what disruption have we not faced over thousands of years? The disruption I have in mind, though, is of a different kind. It is the entrance of Jesus of Nazareth onto the stage of Jewish (and ultimately world) history some 2,000 years ago. Born into a Jewish home, moving among Jewish people, monotheists at that (idolatry had been finally rooted out by the Babylonian Exile)—this Jew had the effrontery to claim Messiahship and a special relationship with God, to assert that his death would be the atonement for sin—a Yom Kippur to end all Yom Kippurs—followed by his rising from the dead—is that not reserved for the End?—and that through him—"this is the real stake"—we can find God.
No need for philosophers, though philosophy can be of enormous value. God himself, it was said, entered Jewish life in a thorough-going way, more deeply than the many times God appeared to his people in the Hebrew Bible, more deeply even than at Sinai when amidst clouds and lightning and fear, God delivered to Moses the Law whose observance would come to characterize classic Judaism.
In this way, I propose, God allowed us to start from himself and only then ask, since I am a Jew, what does it mean to be a Jew? Very possibly, if Jesus of Nazareth is all of what he said of himself, and what others said of him, the answer is bound up in him. This is not to denigrate those who observed Torah as they best knew. I too have fond memories of a grandfather. But it is to say, that something greater than the Torah may be here, and that this Way—so the first Jewish followers of Jesus referred to their faith—can teach us how to embrace both Jewish identity and the God of Israel.
Perhaps Herman Wouk will yet have something more to say. I for one would welcome his thoughts, a half-century out from This Is My God, on Jesus of Nazareth and his meaning—if he thinks there is one—for Jews today.
A 2004 video interview with Wouk can be found at here.
A brief biography is at Wikipedia, which should be used as a general orientation, not as a final authority.