a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript - January 23, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Hi,
this is Simon Jacobson and this is a special edition of Toward a Meaningful Life. Iím
honored and itís my pleasure to have on the show with me a
close friend, but at the same time someone who has very independent
views from my own. His name is Stephen Dubner. Stephen, welcome.
Stephen Dubner: Thank
you very much Simon.
Stephen Dubner, for everyoneís information, worked with me
on my book Toward a Meaningful Life as editor. He
did extensive work in really making the book possible. Before
that, Stephen and I had actually met while Stephen was working
at New York Magazine doing a piece on education in New York,
actually what was wrong with New York, I believe.
How to save New YorkÖand we fixed it. You see, everythingís
Right. Itís not only due to Mayor Guiliani. But most of all,
which I believe heís most renowned for, Stephen has written
his own book called Turbulent Souls, which has had quite an impact all across this country.
Stephenís background is quite an interesting one. Heís the
youngest of eight children, born to two parents who converted
to Catholicism from Judaism, and Stephen grew up as a devout
Catholic. Then he went on his own journey, and I wonít speak
for him, but essentially he captures in his book his fascinating
journey, a turbulent journey, and published the book which
has received great acclaim.
thought it would be quite interesting, both for myself and
the listening audience, to speak to Stephen on the showóand
I wish I had a lot more time than we haveóbut I think that
with the time we have we can really touch upon some intriguing
experience of Stephen has always been very charged. You never
know what to expect. Heís an intelligent man who has worked
at the New York Times, and is an excellent writer. In thinking
about and preparing for what to talk about with you today,
(there are so many different angles that we can discuss),
one of the things that really struck me as I was reading in
your email communications with me today an exchange that you
had with David Klinghoffer, that appeared in Slate Magazine online.
correspondence essentially touched upon the issue of Truth
(with a capital T) vs. truths; dogma vs. independence. And
for that reason I thought we would begin by addressing the
issue of what happens if you grow up in a family that feels
they have that type of absolute belief in ďThe TruthĒ and
they educate their children that way, their lives are driven
by it, and they, in their pure conscience, feel this the way
to teach their children? Iíve grown up in a family like this,
and so have you, so we share much, though we may have diverged
in different ways.
this type of environment, is there room for the type of freedom
of expression for a child to grow into his or her own truth?
So this exchange between yourself Stephen and David Klinghoffer
was fascinating, because his position is of someone who grew
up in the secular world and he presented himself as now embracing
Orthodox Judaism. From this perspective, he makes a very absolute
statement that the Torah was given to us by G-d at Sinai,
that itís the foundation of all of Judaism, and that any other
approach to Judaism, his argument goes, is false, because
it has no basis since itís manmade and open to all kinds of
subjectivity. His tone was quite condescending, at least his
initial communications, and your response was that you felt
that there are many, many different approaches to the truth.
As you stated, you have
more difficulty embracing one ďTruth,Ē as there are many different
approaches. I want to quote one thing that really stood out
in your communication. One quote that you had written to David
was, ďI am attracted to questions and you are attracted to
answers. If you think that makes me a less valid Jew, then
you win, but if not, you also win.Ē
thought that was a powerful way of presenting the distinction
between both of your approaches. In another paragraph you
said, ďIn my own family, I have seen how the zeal of the convert
plays out. It is an astonishing thing how all that longing
and questioning one day explodes into surety. There exists
within all these people a need to prove not only that what
they have come to believe is the only truth, but that what
they used to believe is the most untrue thing of all. Thereís
a lot to be said for this kind of zeal, but even G-d, Iím
guessing here, doesnít like a sore winner.Ē
quotes very much capture at least the spirit of your communication
with him, and I think itís an excellent springboard for us
here, because this is an issue that addresses both parents
and children and all of us individually. We live in a world
where certain people who have fundamental beliefs in G-d often
feel they have the claim on what is ďtruth.Ē What do you do
with that when a person does have that feeling, and what do
we do if youíve been hurt by that?
I must say, for the record, that I did not reject my parents
beliefs, who also felt the same way, of course within Judaism,
and you, in a sense, did reject your parents beliefs.
Thatís an awfully big kettle of fish (is it kettle of fish
or can of worms?Ö I guess you could use the can of worms to
catch the kettle of fish). Iím most intrigued to begin with
the idea of a child growing up in a home where thereís a religious
over-arching answer to your question is: I donít know. And
if I did know, and if any of us did know the answers to these
questions, then obviously there wouldnít be any need for such
debates. If we knew the absolute word of G-d, if we knew for
sure how our lives would play out, including the afterlife,
which is obviously a question that drives so many peopleís
religious searches, then there wouldnít be this debate, or
this questioning and so on.
guess the first thing I should say is that the fact that my
brain and heart and mind and soul have become engaged in a
constant search to find such answers, (I would say using part
of the philosophy that we discussed in the book Toward a Meaningful Life), the first thing I should say is the recognition
that that search is connected to G-d somehow.
other words, the fact that Iíve been equipped with a mind
and a heart and soul and eyes to undergo such a search must
mean that the search itself is connected to G-d. Now, if that
search itself is connected to G-d, and that search is one
in which Iím trying to discover a route to or a portal to
G-d, why does that search exist if itís not necessary? In
other words, if there were no need for me or for any one person
to explore possibilities, to look at conventions and to accept
or discard them, or to look at possibilities and try to find
their way, we wouldnít be human and we wouldnít have that
kind of G-d-given need to connect.
the first thing Iíd say to myself is, well, I wish that I
were sure the way a lot of people seem to be sure, but I take
the fact that Iím not to be a sign of a connection to G-d.
So thatís one way that I comfort myself instead of feeling
like a dummy. I feel like, ďYou know what? Itís not that Iím
stupid, and itís not that Iím misguided, itís the fact that
my antenna are attuned, and this is part of the price you
pay for trying to find some answers that are satisfactory.Ē
big question of children growing up in a home where thereís
a real, almost fundamental belief is such a tricky one. As
someone who hopes to be a parent soon, I say to myself, well,
now that I know Iím going to raise my children within Judaism,
well, what happens if a son or daughter of mine gets to be
the age of sixteen, letís say, and says, ďHey Dad, Mom, this
Catholicism that Grandma and Grandpa Dubner practiced, that
sounds pretty interesting. I think Iíd like to explore that.Ē
I wonder how I would react to something like that. Even though
I tell myself that I would like to think that I would react
very cooly and encouragingly, Iím sure that I would be hurt
because I think that what every parent wants is to teach their
children a love for the way that theyíre bringing them up.
is a tricky, though, because you can talk about bringing your
children up to have certain moralsóthe way they treat other
peopleóand you can teach your children to have certain ideas
about education, about achievements of different sorts, but
religion is tricky because it encompasses all those things:
it encompasses morals, it encompasses ideas about education,
and so on. But it also incorporates a belief in something
much bigger and broader, which is G-d and why weíre here,
and where we go afterwards, and so on.
course you want your kids to believe the same as you do. On
the other hand, much of teaching religion to a young person
is teaching that young person, especially a child, how to
do something that they donít really understand. Youíre teaching
them to begin to believe in something that they canít yet
comprehend. And thatís why when you get to be an adult and
you start to have new questions that you couldnít even have
dreamed of when you were a child. Iíll give you an example.
I was a 10-year-old boy, my father died. My mother and father
had always been very active in the Catholic church and we
were a very devout family. When my father died, the priest
and my mother and my motherís friends all said to me, ďOh,
you must recognize how fortunate you are to have a father
who was so loved by G-d that G-d would take him from youórecognizing
how painful that would beóat such an early age.Ē
as a kid of ten, (a) this didnít make sense to me, and (b)
it was of no comfort to me whatsoever. Now I understand what
they were trying to say, and I understand the belief that
their teaching was based on.
as a child, it was wildly ineffective. So I have to ask myself,
ďHow do you want to talk to your children when it comes to
matters of belief and religion?Ē Thatís a topic that Iím obviously
not an expert in, but what I do see right now (being an adult
now and having been a child of very, very religious parents),
is that children are an awful lot more attuned to spiritual
matters than their parents give them credit for.
a lot more, I wonít say spiritually sophisticated necessarily,
but theyíre a lot more spiritually curious: they have questions
that they donít know how to articulate; they have desires
that they donít know how to meet. I think a big job for us
as adults, and therefore as adults when teaching children,
is not just to show them the rituals, not just to show them
the steps to take and the movements to make and the way to
light candles and what not, but to address within them the
reason why we do things, the reason for G-dís sake, the reason
for our sake, the reason for the familyís sake, the communityís
sake, and so on.
that is something that I donít feel weíre doing a very good
job at yet.
Well let me ask you. Do you think your parents did a good
job at that?
You know, at the risk of sounding nothing but heretical, no,
because of what was given to me. But the reason I donít want
it to sound heretical is that even though I left Catholicism
and my family remains Catholic, I harbor no ill will against
Catholicism, so I want to speak about the strategy as opposed
to the surety of it all.
I do think is this. When youíre a child and you form an idea
of what G-d is and why youíre here and what youíre meant to
do in the world, thatís a very, very strong idea and image
that is emblazoned on your mind and on your psyche. And when
your intellectual attachment to that image, or when your intellect
outgrows that image, then youíve got to deal with it. Then
youíve got to say, ďOh, the G-d that I pictured, the clichť
that weíve all heard a million times, the image of G-d sitting
up there in a chair with flowing robes and a white beardÖĒ
many of us started with that as kids, and then many of us
come to have a more nuanced or a more complicated understanding
of what G-d is or is not.
But when you start with that childlike image, and you have that kind
of drilled into you, and then you grow up and you understand
that the questions of good and evil and the questions of this
life and the afterlife are not as clear as they were when
you were six years old, your mind, if you have any kind of
mind at all, and we all do, starts to play with that and challenge
that, and then you have to do your own growing and stretching
Weíre seeing this sort of thing happening in this country, now more
than ever. Iím not a theologian and Iím not a historian, but
I think itís accurate to say that weíre witnessing in this
country something that is utterly revolutionary in that there
are more people who are exploring more religions, other than
the ones they were born into, than there ever has been at
any place or in any time in history.
number of people who are investigating different faiths or
deepening their own connection to the faith that they were
born into, but that their own parents neglected, is extraordinary.
You know thereís a Yiddish saying (I donít know it in Yiddish,
Iím sure you do) that goes something like, ďThat which the
grandfather chooses to preserve, the father chooses to forget,
and the grandson chooses to remember.Ē
a real pattern here of reaching back past one generation and
finding an attachment to something that came a generation
before you. Like many, many people in the Bible, and like
I did, it feels almost a natural thing to reject your parents
at some point along the way.
The reason I asked you was obviously not to put you on the
spot of having to make any statements about Catholicism, but
my question was really in this context: had your parents presented
and offered you religion or spirituality the way you think
it should be done, the way youíre going to attempt to pass
it on to your children, do you think it would have made any
other words, when you do realize that your parents could not
tolerate any way but their own way of seeing the truth, does
that in any way contribute to rejecting it when you come of
age and you begin to question?
Yes I think so, and hereís the reason. When youíre told that
something is 100%Ö for example, if youíre told that 5+5=10
always, every time, and then you go to a different culture
where 5+5=100 somehow, you say, wait a minute, I know thatís
wrong. And then they tell you, no, look, hereís the proof
of it, hereís the mathematical proof. The minute you begin
to understand that thereís a chink in the truth that you grew
up with, you start to question everything.
Iím not saying I have the answer to this question, because
itís a very, very tough one. How you teach your children to
believe in a way that they will want to continue within that
faith and tradition, is a question that I dearly hope I will
be able to answer for myself and my own children, but Iím
not saying itís an easy one. And the reason itís not is because
of the very paradox of raising children, which is that because
theyíre young and because their minds arenít formed to the
point where they can make their own decisions and glean their
own understanding of the world, of course we instruct them.
Thatís what we do: we teach them, we instruct them.
how do we teach them in a way that allows them to use their
own G-d-given mental abilities, even from a very early age?
Thatís what I mean when I say that children are much more
spiritually inclined then we tend to think, and have a greater
appreciation for nuance and question.
this is my theory alone, but I think that when every child
discovers that Santa Claus doesnít really exist, he or she
is a little bit relieved, you know. Itís all a little bit
too perfect. It makes a little bit too much sense. And then
thereís always those lingering doubts like, why do we always
hear Mommy and Daddy in their bedroom at 3:00am on Xmas eve
if everybody is supposed to be quiet and Santa Claus is coming
down the chimney? Shouldnít they be quiet too? Maybe theyíre wrapping presents and so on.
thereís almost a sense of relief when you find out that this
ďTruthĒ that youíve been encouraged to believe all along turns
out to be not so true in the end.
and this is a bit of a dangerous syllogism perhaps, when you
are brought up to believe in a religious truth that allows
for no questioning, then when you get old enough to question
it for yourself, where do you go from there? Do you reject
it, do you explore it on your own and try to deepen your understanding
of it? Every person is going to do a different thing. Thatís
the beautiful part about humankind; everyoneís got his or
her own brain and are all going to react in a different way.
I identify with some of what you say, because I also grew
up in a ďfundamentalistĒ home, just to give it a title (I
donít know if my parents would appreciate that), but I think
that maybe part of what youíre saying is, can you turn to
your parents when you have those questions? Will they allow
you to turn to them? Because if they donít, theyíre essentially
cutting off a channel of communication, which causes you to
lose the trust. And how would they handle questions like that?
Did you ever come to your parents with fundamental, spiritual
questions as a child or teenager?
Thatís a good question. Whoís interviewing whom here?
I donít mean to put you on the spot!
Look, as I prefaced, you and I worked all those hours on the
phone and our communicationsóbefore emailó
The bulletin board system (BBS).
Well, give and take is great. Iíll be honest with you. I didnít
feel comfortable coming to my parents with those big questions,
but Iíll tell you, I didnít feel uncomfortable to share it with them. So
I didnít really turn to them for answers. But it wasnít like
a rejection type of thing. My parents had a certain laid-back
attitude, which is completely subjective to my parents, because
thereís no question that, as was captured in David Klinghofferís
exchange with you, many religious parents have a condescending
attitude, which my parents did not have.
condescension is an independent
issue. Once thereís condescension, then youíre dealing with
arrogance, and it repulses us to be preached to. But in my
particular case condescension was not an issue. In my parents
home, I really felt a certain laid-back attitude. Though there
were clearly truths that were taught in my home, and the school I was sent
to definitely had a very absolute approach, their particular
attitude, particularly my fatherís, was more of a very laid-back
one. As a journalist, and with his particular personality,
my father is very tolerant of opinions other than his own.
And that does give, I would say, a certain confidence that
you can trust somewhat.
that you have to accept the truth: just because heís tolerant
doesnít mean his absolute truth is necessarily the right one,
but you just trust the environment more. I think that thereís
a certain senseóas you said, children are extremely spiritual
and very instinctive and sensitiveóthat if they feel thereís
a deep insecurity in their parents, and sometimes holding
on to certain beliefs is just another expression of insecurity,
than that insecurity is projected upon the children.
could see that being a major contributing factor in one's
rejection of parents beliefs (Iím not speaking about you now but about people in general) because
then, in addition to this Truth, you sense an insecurity on their part, so what are you left with?
So it becomes an issue of, am I going to become like them?
Am I going to have to close my mind? And you fear embracing
any firm beliefs.
should add that your mother just passed away a few weeks ago
(I came to a shiva call) so first of all I extend my condolences to you and your
And the juxtaposition of the two worlds was interesting to
me when I came to you for the shiva
call, because your mother passed away feeling as a Catholic,
and youíre sitting shiva as a Jew, so thatís a book of its own.
obviously very personal and emotional and I donít really want
to tread in an area unless you welcome or invite it, but it
makes me wonder, one of the things our parents give us is
nurturing, emotional balanceóforget about religion now for
a momentójust the basic comfort of a having a home. And as
you shared with me, you had that. You had a healthy home,
in the sense of functionality.
Some of your best memories were there; it was your dream life.
So when you have that, which is extremely healthy, because
thatís what parents should be giving, at the same time, this
nurturing is so woven together with their religious beliefs,
it sure creates a big issue as you grow into an adult and
you do reject what they consider to be so much connected to
their nurturing and you have to separate the two.†
I can almost see it as an impossible task, frankly.
What are your feelings on that?
I agree that it does seem not impossible but very difficult.
When I think about it, I grew up, as you said, the youngest
of eight children, and my family and our family friends were
called the ďcrazy eights,Ē because almost all the families
that we were really close with had at least eight kids (some
of them had ten and twelve and so on). There were all these
big families: the OíDonnells, the Kennedys, the McNamaras
(all these Irish Catholics) and then us, the Dubners!
we talk about the divorce rate in this country, which has
surpassed and maybe now has gone back below 50%, still they
talk about how one in every two marriages these days ends
then look at the rate of children falling away from the faith
in which they were brought up in this countryóeither falling
away from or, conversely, someone who grows up in a non-believing,
non-practicing home who becomes very religious. The incidence
of people in this country who grow up in a home with ďxĒ religion,
whatever that religion is, and end up as adults practicing
ďxĒ religion, is not very high. The ratio is not very firm
it does make you ask, and I think the question you asked is
a great one (itís a different one than the one I asked), how
do we nurture our children and create a home where a child
feels encouraged to be loved and to love back, to express
him or herself and receive expression from other people, but
also, how do you encourage open-mindedness and tolerance while
imparting morals and beliefs, be they political or religious?
Iím not a parent yet, so I havenít failed at that yet. Iím
sure I will in some part; I hope to succeed in some part too,
but I do think it says a lot about the way we approach passing
on religion in this cultureóI wonít say this country necessarilyóbut
this culture. What Iím saying is that I donít think we do
a very good job of it.
have no number in front of me (and probably a statistic like
this doesnít exist), but if you look at the incidence of the
number of people who grew up in this country who are practicing
a different faith or who practice it radically differently
from the way they were brought up, you have to say weíre not
teaching it right; weíre not talking to our children right.
But then, on the other hand, you look at a home where thereís
a more orthodox version of a religion practiced, whether itís
Orthodox Judaism, whether itís a certain form of Islam, and
you see that orthodoxy does tend to do a better job for obvious
reasons: it includes schooling as well, it makes the family
the cornerstone of the community, a community was is not necessarily
a closed one but a very insulated one, which makes a departure
from that in the end all the more painful.
looking back at these families that I grew up with, easily
more than half of them are no longer practicing Catholics.
Easily more than half of the kids I grew up with. And it just
makes me say, first of all, thank goodness it wasnít just
me. It wasnít just me who had some kind of failing with it,
and it wasnít just my parents who had some kind of failing
with itóbecause Iíd like to consider it not a failing, what
Iíd like to consider it is some kind of possibility of maturation
where your own soul finds a different place and a different
direction and pursues it.
Thereís no question. Iím not surprised that this show was
not meant to be an easy oneóyouíre dealing with absolutes.
letís take a short station break. Youíre listening to Toward
a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. Weíre here every
Sunday from 6-7pm, and you can contact us (and I will pass
along any questions you may have for Mr. Dubner) at email@example.com
(email). You can also call us at 1-800-3MEANING (1-800-363-2646)
or access our website at www.
here with Stephen Dubner, and itís very moving to hear you
speak, as always, but particularly on this topic because it
touches so many personal issues. If youíre just tuning in,
Iím here with Stephen Dubner, who just authored a year ago
the book Turbulent SoulsÖ Was it a year ago?
A year ago in hardcover.
And just recently in paperback. And Stephen has been on an
extensive book tour, and people are really moved by this book
and I definitely encourage everyone here to read it. Youíre
hearing the ďturbulent soulĒ live on air. Now frankly, when
I finished the book, it left me in some ways with more questions
than answers, but I guess youíre comfortable with that, saying
that youíre more comfortable with questions than answers.
Yes, you know itís funny. When you do a reading or a talk
somewhere, or you get mail, people want those answers. They
say, ďYou know, I read the book and you delve deeply into
your motherís life and your fatherís life and then your own
life, and all three of you made radical religious changes,
but I still donít know the words to put in my pocket to describe
why it is that your mother converted, or why you did what
you did, for instance.Ē
donít want to say it was intentionalóit certainly wasnít intentional
to leave people hanging, and I certainly told all I could
tellóbut the thing that you all have to remember is that when
it concerns a matter of the soul in particular, these are
not journeys that can be reduced to some mathematical equation.
of all, I think every religious journey is obviously unique,
and second of allÖ itís funny, Iíve been thinking about this
a lot lately because I know last week you discussed the AOL/Time
Warner merger (I guess itís a merger), and there are all kinds
of questions, not just based on that deal certainly, but in
the culture in general about privacy, and we are concerned
about people crawling into our homes through our modems, or
having too much information about us based on every time we
use our credit card and so on.
privacy has become a big issue. We wonder what will happen
when sometime in the future we will have a microchip in our
fingerprints and from that day forth, everyone will know where
everyone else has been for the preceding lifetime of that
a scary thought, obviously, in a number of ways. And itís
understandable that weíre very, very concerned with our privacy
and weíre concerned with our political feelings and our feelings
about certain issues, but when it comes to religion, it seems
as though we expect people to be able to describe in great
detail, and in language that is perfectly universal, the emotions
and feelings and so on that a person goes through in trying
to attain or maintain a relationship with G-d.
irony, or the paradox, to me is that a relationship with G-d
has got to be the most intimate relationship any of us will
ever experience or attain. And so while I think thereís great
value in speaking about it as weíre speaking now, and I think
thereís great value in speaking about it with other people,
I think that in the end, what we need to most understand about
ourselves and about each other (but probably about ourselves
most important), is that yes, there is a great deal of mystery
in our relationship with G-d. And there is a great deal of
the ineffable and the inexpressible, and I think we need to
learn to handle that as well as we handle the finite stuff.
I was researching and writing my book, I read a great deal
of conversion literature, and I must say, a lot of it left
me very cold. A lot of the stories were like, ďMy life was
going along terribly, I had problems of illness, poverty,
etc., etc., and I woke up one morning and saw a light and
everything was better.Ē
skeptical of that kind of story because I think that things
arenít usually so black and white and I think that humans
are a lot more complicated than that. But if we look at the
models for that story, the image of Saul of Tarsus being blinded
and hearing a voice from the heavens and falling off the horse.
I guess thatís why thereís a reason for that type of tradition
in our literature, but I think we need to understand, and
I guess this would apply to children as well, that when it
comes to matters of the soul, itís not math, itís not even
close to math.
thatís why I feel that, while in math, the answer is the thing
that you want to arrive at: ďShow your work,Ē as the teachers
would always say, ďshow your work in the margins, but all
I really care about is that Ďx equals what?íĒ
is the opposite. Itís not the ďx equals what?Ē itís ďwhat
is Ďxí?Ē What are you dealing with? What are you trying to
achieve here? Itís a very, very different endeavor.
So on a practical level, what would you say to parents if
they came to you for advice, obviously with a disclaimer that
youíre not a parent yet and all of that. The parent asks you
"I do feel that I know the truth, in an absolute way,"
how do I communicate it to my children, while allowing them
the freedom of self discovery? The parent is not condescending
about it, because if theyíre condescending about it, then
they are immediately invalidating themselves as models for
their children. There is no place for condescension, even
if you feel you have the truth. There are gentle ways of teaching:
with love and confidence.
this case we're talking about parents that are not condescending.
So the question the parent asks is: What shall I teach my
children? From an Orthodox point of view, I want to take them
to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Or if theyíre
Catholic, or whatever that means in the Catholic practice.
Everyone in his or her tradition.
there are very black and white things there. Itís not like
weíre going to stay home and just discuss G-d, or discuss
the mystery itself. There are traditions and rituals, and
my children will clearly be impressed and affected by these
rituals, because Iím also nurturing them with that. (Iím speaking
as that parent.) What should I do?
Youíre right: Iím not the person to answer this question because
Iím not a parent yet, but what I would say is, ďTeach that
truth with all your heart and soul, as my parents and your
parents did, but also acknowledge, when necessary, that there
are other people in the world who think very differently,
and they too were created by G-d and they might be pretty
good people too.Ē
the reason I say that is this. In the home in which I grew
up, my older sister believed that if she were to walk into
a Protestant church, forget about a synagogue, forget about
a mosque, but a Protestant church, the walls would crumble
and the ceiling would cave in on her head and she would be
there was a period where I resented, or wasnít happy about
what my parents had done, that is, converting from Judaism.
But you know what? I also came to realize that that was their lives. I wasnít even born yet. Would
I have even been born had they not converted? I donít know.
Not many Jewish families in the 50s and 60s had eight children,
and since Iím the last, I have to ask myself that question.
Well, if they were devout JewsÖ
If they were devout, maybe, but I donít think they were the
kind who would have had eight children as Jews. As Catholics
yes. But I sometimes wish that my mother or father had sat
us down and said, ďHereís the story. We were both Jewish.
We both grew up in Jewish families. At a certain point in
our lives I felt (letís pretend Iím my mother) a need, a thirst,
a great desire to understand the world in a way that Judaism
wasnít providing for me, or I didnít know anything about Judaism
and I had a mentor, and I began to study Catholicism. And
when I studied Catholicism, it struck me as my truth, as the
truth for me, and I decided that I was going to look for a
man to marry who felt the same way, and that I would raise
my children within that tradition.
you might say that thatís not that different from the story
that ended up in the book that I wrote. Youíre right. Itís
not that different except for one thing. Because that conversation
never took place, all the other people in the world, all the
other thinking in the world, all the other traditions, all
the other languages, were discounted. In other words, that
Jewish family of mine that Iíd never met, that I didnít know
aboutógrandparents, aunts, uncles, cousinsóthey were wiped
off the face of the earth to me. It was as thorough an excommunication
as the excommunication of my fatherís father, an Orthodox
Jew, who sat shiva for my father when my father converted.
one could, and many people would argue, that thatís the way
that G-d would want it; that G-d would want an Orthodox Jewish
father to sit shiva
for his son, and G-d would want a newly devout Catholic mother
not to tell her children about any other family, about any
other past. But on the other hand, if that Catholic G-d and
that Jewish G-d are one and the same, as more of us are now
starting to acknowledge and think, including the Pope himself,
then that same G-d canít want those two things. He canít want
my grandfather to have done what he did and my mother to have
done what she did. Theyíre diametrically opposed.
So letís say your parents had done what you described, and
then would have added (Iím continuing to speak as a hypothetical
parent): however, now that weíve embraced this, we believe
this to be the absolute truth, and we reject other religions.
Though they may be good people, and we should always respect
everyone, but this is the truth. You know, weíre touching
upon the issue of them really believing that this is the truth,
and therefore other truths are not as true or are completely
that line that I just added, would that be off limits? Should
that not be said?
No, I think that should be said. I think the minute you open
up the conversation as you just did, you start to treat your
child as a human being first of allÖ you know, itís a childís
natural curiosity, or anybodyís natural curiosity, that if
you see ten boxes on a table and you say, ďYou can open up
any of the boxes except the one on the end,Ē the first one
that we all want to look at is the one on the end of course.
when you grow up in an environment where youíre told that
this is the way it is, that nothing else exists outside of
this, or anything that exists outside of this is wrong, is
lesser somehow, well, of course, your mind is curious about
that. Thatís the way we work as humansónot as religious people,
not as Catholics, not as Jews, but as humans.
look, Iím not saying by a long shot that parents need to hold
back on the way that they teach their children their religion.
I think the opposite. What I do think is that we need to realize
that weíre living in a world where a lot of traditions and
religions exist and need to co-exist. And I like to believe
in a G-d that sanctions more than one faith, because if not,
then no matter what faith you belong to, the rest of the world
is wrong, which means that youíre excluding the majority of
the world from this kingdom that youíve so haughtily declared
that doesnít feel remotely right to me.
So essentially, what youíre really saying, if I may sum it
up, is that in your view, one type of truth that rejects other
truths is a problem, and the problem is this: if someone really
believes that, and there are people who believe that, and they believe it to the extent that
theyíll say, ďI wanted to protect you from other things. I
didnít want you to make the mistakes I made. I found that
truth and now Iím teaching it to you (to the children, that
is),Ē what youíre really saying now is that you donít believe
that there should be an education of that nature because you
donít think that there necessarily is one truth.
Well my response to that is that if the tradition or the truth
is so strong, why be afraid to have your child understand
it as one of several that has been chosen or one of several
that has been established within your family?
other words, if you grow up thinking that coconut milk is
the only beverage in the worldÖ
Yes, but Stephen, youíre saying that as a case for many truths.
If someone really believes that his or her truth is the absolute
truth, remember, they donít really feel that another approach
Right, but what you said a moment ago, which I think rings
true, is that ďthere are other people in the world who believe
differently. They may be good people. There are probably good
people among them, but this is what we believe and this is
why, and Iíd like to encourage within you a love for this
tradition. And hereís how Iím going to do it. By including
you in it. By nurturing it within you, and so on.Ē Thatís
a big difference from saying, ďThis is all there is. Letís
do it now.Ē
Okay. Let me ask you this question, even though I may be putting
you on the spot. Is it possible, and as I said, I read your
correspondence with David Klinghoffer and am hearing you now, that your disclaimers
about truths, that there are many truths, could be the result
of a certain insecurity of seeing what your parents did? That
the fact that they were so absolutely sure, would really not
allow you to ever embrace an absolute truth, because you donít
want to make that same mistake again?
I donít know if itís so much worrying about making a mistake.
But I do think youíre absolutely right in terms of having
a kind of innate wariness of a certain brand or level of devotion.
Having experienced within my family, both in my generation
and the generation before, where my fatherís father declared
him dead and sat shiva for him, (I was going to say it gives
me an uneasy feeling but thatís not really defined enough),
it does make me want to approach things differently. Iím giving
you a negative as opposed to the positive construction of
that, but I canít quite come up with a positive which is probably
what the search is all about in the first place, searching
for a positive way to express that wariness.
Because for me thatís the biggest question. Like when you
say that you are more comfortable with questions, that youíd
prefer questions over answers or that youíre more attracted
to questions than answers, my first question when I hear that
is maybe thatís a defense that protects you from being as
wrong as your parents were.
Wait, whoís saying ďwrongĒ? When you say, ďbeing as wrong
as my parents were,Ē or you speaking in my mind or in your
Your mind. In other words, to make that type ofÖ
But I donít think my parents were wrong.
Well, they were wrong for you.
To say they were wrong for me is kind of right, but what they
did was for themselves, and obviously to some degree for their
children. I donít think itís for me to say that what they
did was wrong, you know?
Letís put it this way. Their absolutism was something that
you cannot accept for yourself.
And therefore, one could argue that within Judaism you may
never accept it as well because you donít agree with that
One could argue that, but thatís a little bit too much of
a black and white argument for me. Hereís why. Part of the
reason that Judaism was attractive to me is that thereís room
within Judaism for more questioning and more pluralism than
there is within Catholicism, or at least Catholicism as I
knew it. In other words, I could read Jewish writers and thinkers
writing about Judaism and on Jewish expression of anything
from cultural values to political values who claim not to
believe in G-d at all. And my first reaction was, ďHow could
you be a Jew and not believe in G-d?Ē
of the many wrinkles of Judaism is that it has a tradition,
unlike the churchÖ the Talmud itself is one long argument,
and there is a winner, but the proof of the winning argument
is not always as satisfying as the proof of the losing argument,
and in a kind of post-modern way, what it does is encourage
everyone who ever takes a look at that at all to feel that
they, somehow, are part of that same argument or discussion.
that says to me on a personal level is that each of us are
responsible for and invited to have a conversation with G-d
about what our relationship with G-d is meant to be. That
is very different from the tradition in which I grew up.
But that does not allow room for someone who doesnít believe
in G-d, because then theyíre out of that entire context, because
then they donít believe in Judaism either.
Say that again?
Thereís an option when you go with that type of approach:
what about the person who says, ďWell, I donít believe in
G-d and I donít accept Judaism altogether.Ē You may say we
allow for a diversity of traditions, but is there room for
someone to not believe in G-d and still remain Jewish? Thatís
also a form of absolutism. Do you see what Iím saying?
Not quite. There are plenty of people who would argue that
they have no belief whatsoever in G-d and yet they are as
Jewish as the most Orthodox Jew in the world. Itís not the
easiest argument in the world to construct but itís certainly
constructible. I canít make the argument because I donít feel
Youíre right. I wouldnít phrase it that your parents were
wrong, I respect that, but letís put it this way. You may
never want to be as right as they were in their own minds.
Either I may not want to be or I may not be able to be. Right
My question is, is there anything that is psychological or
fear-driven by that because, should you be so convinced that,
for instance, Orthodox Judaism is absolute Truth, how do you
know that you may be doing what they did but just now you
have another form or shape of it?
Look, Iím not your child, but if your child ever asked you,
he might say, ďMaybe you never wanted to embrace something
because you had that lingering doubt or the lingering fear
of creating such an environment.Ē In other words, itís not
so much about the search for truth; itís just the search for
what you know is not good.
Well, to me itís a more nuanced argument than that, although
youíre right, Iím not looking for an absolute truth. None
of me, not my brain, my heart, my soul, none of me works that
way. What I was and am searching for is a way to exist in
the world where I feel that I can lead a productive and meaningful
And turbulent life.
Turbulent life. And have within that life a relationship with
G-d that perhaps dictates or is perhaps the underlayer of
that life. That, to me, is the route that I feel is right
for me. I would prefer to look at it as a route on a plane
as opposed to a level of Orthodoxy, because I think that once
you get into saying, ďThis person is less observant, that
person is less orthodox, or more orthodox, or more devout,
etc., etc, than the other,Ē youíre doing something that youíre
not meant to do.
think that you and I both agree that the minute you start
to judge the way another person practices his or her faith,
not only are you invading that personís private, intimate,
religious space, to be modern about it, but youíre doing G-dís
work. Itís not for us to judge, itís for G-d to judge.
I understand. But the fact is, I know that this is still ahead
of youóbut these things happen faster than you thinkóbecoming
a parent, and sending your children to some type of Jewish
education, at whatever level, to teach them Jewish traditions,
and that definitely has a shape and form. Thereís a point
where you canít just be philosophical about it, but
you have to decide, ďAm I going to keep the Sabbath
or am I not?Ē ďAm I going to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur
and on Xmas go to a church?Ē I donít think youíre going to
teach your children that, based on what you told me and what
I hear from you, so even though youíre avoiding the big question,
like what is absolute truth, the fact is, there is a path,
and the question really is that if there is absolute truth,
and your resisting it is for other reasons than for just the
search for truth, you may be, in a sense, doing a disservice
to your own children. You may not be giving them that absolute
confidence and creating an ambiguity as a result of, letís
call it, your own wounds.
I donít say it only to you, I say it to any one of us who
struggles with this. Any thoughts on that?
I realize that youíre saying what youíre saying now because
of your belief, which is a wonderful thing and a wonderful place to be,
but you know, I guess what I feel is that everyone needs to
plumb their own depths, and find the place where theyíre most
comfortable and the place thatís most meaningful to them.
And yes, where I agree with you most strongly is that those
signals are most evident when thereís something physical:
when itís going to shul
on Friday nightÖ
Right, itís not about the way we think about G-d, itís about
what we do to have that kind of connection and that kind of relationship.
And youíre right, thatís something that you have to build
difference for me is that Iím building it from scratch and
not building it from childhood tradition, so instead of doing
things that I know are done because thatís the way theyíve
always been done and expressing them as such, the rule of
thumb that I and my wife have developed is that we do things
as we fully understand them and as they fully make sense to
us, which means that slowly but surely weíre embracing more
of the tradition. But thereís a big difference, which is that
I want to understand the tradition or the element of it before
I embrace it, and that leads to a certain need for premeditation.
Itís a certain going against the grain of the way I was brought
up in which you do first, ask questions later, or more appropriately,
donít ask questions later.
So youíve been listening to Toward
a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. My guest is Stephen
Dubner, author of Turbulent Souls, which is available in
all bookstores, and on amazon.com. Itís really been very interesting
and I wish I could go on with you for quite a while. I definitely
welcome you to come on again.
want to say that this show has been made possible by, underwritten
by, a grant from James and Anne Altucher, in honor of Jamesí
birthday, so we thank them for that.
wanting to make a contribution to help make the show possible
should call us at 1-800-363-2646.
a final note, Iíd like to ask you if you could sum up maybe
in 30 seconds any particular lesson from your own journey
to tell our listeners.
In thirty seconds or lessÖ! Find some smart people and ask
them a lot of questions. When I say that Iím more attracted
to questions than answers, I donít mean I donít want answers,
it means that I just look hard for them. But asking yourself
the questions is like the dog chasing its own tail.
smart people like you Simon, like we all know, but you need
to have some teachers in this world if for nothing else than
to tell you the books you need to read and so on.
Well, thank you Stephen, and I really welcome and invite you
to come on the show again because we have yet to cover many
good subjects. Thank you.
Thank you, Simon.