A friend suggested I read The Search for God at Harvard and gave me a copy of the book a little while ago. I finally got around to reading The Search for God at Harvard and really enjoyed it. There are some very important thing that I learned from the book and I recommend reading it if you have not yet read it yourself.
The Search for God at Harvard is supposed to be the story of New York Times journalist, Ari Goldman’s year at Harvard Divinity School. While much of the book focuses on his year there, the book is really about some of Goldman’s issues with religion, issues with his parents and his rise in through the ranks at the NY Times. In other words, the backdrop for the book is Goldman’s year at the Div School, but the bulk of the storytelling in the book has nothing to do with what he learned there. I would have liked more.
But that is my only criticism of the book; wanting more can hardly be a criticism.
Ari Goldman was raised as an orthodox Jew in the 60’s. As Goldman notices, much has changed in the orthodox Jewish community in the last 50 years. Goldman remains committed to orthodox Judaism, but like everyone, is not perfect. He takes some liberties with his observance. This is an attitude that has mostly been purged from orthodox Judaism. Many people think this is a good thing. I do not. Goldman’s story is a prime illustration why.
I cried two times while reading The Search for God at Harvard.
You can’t help but notice that Goldman feels cheated by his parents who divorced when he was 5 years old. He makes it clear that he still feels the pain of that 5 year old who lost his beloved friday night Shabbos dinners with his parents. So when he has a moment where he connects with his son and realizes how lucky he is to be a father it seems to give him a bit solace. You can feel him healing. The writing is that good and the point is so poignant that I could not help but to tear up. But this was a sidebar to the book. I think the second time I cried shows how the social changes in orthodox Judaism over the last 50 years may not be for the best.
The biggest tear-jerker for me was at the end of the book. Goldman struggles to remain observant throughout the book. He struggles as single male in the big city. He struggles as a journalist who may need to work on Shabbos. He even feels Divine Intervention when his first real journalism gig at the NY Times does not require he work on Shabbos. He feels connected to orthodox Judaism. It is his Judaism.
After the year at the Div School, Goldman and his wife and son move to Westchester County. They join a modern orthodox synagogue. The rabbi hears that Goldman has quite a talent as a cantor and asks him if he would lead one of the services on the high holidays. At first Goldman is honored but he declines. Eventually he acquiesces to pressure to take the job. He feels validation that he has been able to navigate the difficulties of balancing modernity with an ancient tradition. But some members of the shul are not happy. They find some of his activities are not in consonance with Jewish law. They said he worked on Shabbos, he ate (kosher food) in non-Kosher restaurants, he read the New Testament, his son was named for a non-Jew etc. In Goldman’s mind, these were struggles. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost. In Goldman’s eyes these were battles. To his coreligionists they were seen as compromises. And they threatened the sheltered world of orthodox Judaism. That year, Goldman did not lead the services. In fact he did not even go to the synagogue because he was so hurt.
That was when I cried.
The postscript to the high holidays story was that the other synagogue members eventually apologized. They told Goldman that they too participate in many of this “objectionable” activities. But they keep them quiet. They don’t discuss them. If had kept his mouth shut he would have been just fine.
Goldman concludes his book with what I feel to be the most significant point in The Search for God at Harvard. After the ethnic pride movements of the 70’s, religions began to shift to more fundamentalist views in the 80’s. This continued through the 90’s and brings us to where we are today. Intolerance for co-coreligionists and “other-religionists” became more pronounced in the 80’s than it was prior to the 80’s. President Reagan brought religion to fore of policy and discourse in America.
In orthodox Judaism a similar phenomena happened as well. Orthodox Judaism became more narrow. Many activities, positions, policies, beliefs, modes of dress, aspirations among other things that were previously accepted in the broad spectrum of orthodox Judaism were expunged. People and communities were told to move to the right, or move on. It has not let up since. In matters of theology, practice, social and religious, the orthodox Judaism of my grandparents is long gone.
Am I crazy for trying to bring it back? Maybe. But that won’t stop me from trying.
Pick up your own copy of The Search for God at Harvard by clicking on any of the links in the post. It is a great read.