Published on December 13th, 2021 | by Jacob Sapon1
“Beyond Either/Or” — An Excerpt from The Pearl and the Flame
The Following Excerpt is from Rabbi Natan’s Upcoming Book– “The Pearl and the Flame.” This book will be a major platform for Organic Torah’s perspective and projects! Learn more here and keep up to date with the latest updates here!
PREFACE: BEYOND EITHER/OR
by Rabbi Natan Margalit
Twenty years old and wandering through Israel in search of my roots, I was the perfect bait for the ultra-religious recruiters plying the streets of Jerusalem. One day, as I waited at the Jerusalem bus station, a tall, thin man dressed in the black clothing of the very religious approached me. His striking tan contrasted with the pallor usually associated with the religious men I had been seeing in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods. I wondered if he spent many hours in the sun. I later learned that he did spend much of his time walking the streets of Jerusalem, looking for young Jews like me.
His name was Rabbi Meyer Schuster, and he worked for the new ba’al t’shuvah yeshivah – Aish HaTorah, a school of Jewish learning specially adapted for bringing secular Jews back to “Torah True Judaism,” a right-wing variety of Orthodoxy.He did his job well, with a few pick-up lines designed for different types of young seekers. For someone who looked as if they had just gotten off the plane from India, he said, “Do you want to come hear a Jewish holy man?” To me he said, “Do you want to come hear a lecture on Jewish philosophy?”
I got in a cab with him and went to the Old City through winding alleys to the yeshivah, where I heard a lecture by the head of the institution, Rabbi Noach Weinberg. Rabbi Noach was probably in his late forties, with a full, graying beard. Radiating charisma, he spoke to the class about how to find happiness and about looking for goodness in people, rather than in material things. His entertaining style and appealing message stick with me in detail to this day.
The rabbi kept returning to the evils of the Western world: its shallowness and false idols of sex, fame, and money. He presented the Torah, in contrast, as a perfect, divine gift of wisdom, revealed directly from God and carefully guarded by—you guessed it—people like him. After the class a young man greeted me. He was about my age and wore the uniform of the initiates: white shirt and black pants, jacket, and velvet yarmulke.
He guided me to another gray-bearded rabbi who invited me to join him at his table in the corner and talk. “You are at the crossroads of your life,” he said. “You owe it to yourself to stay here at least a couple of weeks. Just listen. Ask questions. You can argue as much as you want, and only accept what makes sense to you.”
I found myself in deep inner turmoil. I felt attracted, because this place offered what I had been looking for: meaning, belonging. Yet, something didn’t feel quite right. The deck seemed stacked against me. How was I, a 20-year-old kid, supposed to win an argument with these 50-year-old rabbis who have been doing this their whole lives? They were going to run circles around me and convince me to join their cult!
Fear gripped me. It shocked me that they rejected my fundamental picture of the world. Liberal values, modernity, and science were not positive notions here. In the yeshivah, people talked about evolution as a fiction—the Torah told the truth that the world was created 5,000 or so years ago. Being confronted with a completely different worldview threw my compass off. I felt dismayed, suspicious even, yet fascinated.
At one point, classes and lectures ended and everyone gathered for afternoon prayers. That’s when I really got a jolt. Up until that point in my life, I had a fuzzy sense that I believed in God: a weak mix of the wonder of nature, an ordered universe, and some ethics thrown in. When I saw these men swaying their bodies, closing their eyes, whispering, shouting, and waving their arms in fervent prayer, I saw something more. They spoke directly to God. I thought: “I’ve been fooling myself! These guys really believe.”
The world at Aish HaTorah seemed to me small, integrated, and crackling with spiritual energy. This world was only 5,000 years old, and the God who created it was right here listening to us! Watching us! That same God had revealed the divine will in the Torah given at Mount Sinai, and we Jews were the ones who needed to follow God’s commandments. I stayed the night in their dorm. In the morning I even tried to change my plane ticket home, but the airline refused. I took that as a sign that my suspicions, my fears, were well-founded, so I threw my velvet yarmulke on the bed and tore out of there. Yet, this mix of attraction, suspicion, and yearning fed an inner turmoil that consumed me for many months afterward. I was caught in an either/or that I couldn’t resolve.
It seems to me that I experienced a taste of something plaguing our world: the either/or schism between a powerful, integrated, communal, meaningful religious world and an alienated, shallow, lost modern world. Or is it a schism between an open, democratic, scientific, tolerant, progressive modern world and a fanatic, xenophobic, superstitious, backward, fundamentalist world? Take your pick.
I experienced conflict because each contains a part of the truth. And each has serious flaws. People are being pulled into extremist and fundamentalist religions—Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or other. We come to see these beliefs as the only antidote to the real problems of a world in which we live separate, desperately lonely lives. We are locked onto screens for company, working at jobs that don’t offer any meaning, mesmerized by corporate-generated entertainment, fashion, news cycles, and politics that never touch our real humanity.
Some reject all religion as empty, as separating us from one another with old dogmas, as continuing centuries-old beliefs that may bring comfort to the weak-minded but are silly and unscientific. Religions are seen as dangerous, feeding war and division.
Which side is right?
Of course, neither is right. If you and I and so many others like us hope to live an integrated life, we need to re-configure our categories so that we’re not faced with either/or choices. We need a way to look at a paradox like this and hold on to both.
Read more about the Pearl and the Flame here!