Amy’s Marginalia: Foreskin’s Lament

foreskins-lamentI’ve been reading a lot more memoirs lately, thanks to some memoir loving friends and NPR’s This American Life, which features several humorous memoir writers, including my all time favorite, David Sedaris.  Shalom Auslander also occasionally reads portions of his books on the show, and I found his tale of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family bitingly satiric and downright funny.  It also had a painful edge about it that made me want to read the book, to find out more about this guy’s relationship with the God of Orthodox Judaism.

Shalom Auslander, ironically named “peace” in Hebrew, was raised in New York, in an Orthodox Jewish community.  He chronicles his growing antagonism from his childhood faith, intermixed with stories of his contemporary struggles to decide whether or not to circumcise his firstborn child.

Auslander’s god is an angry, vindictive, petty god, who demands legalism to ward off evil.  If Auslander doesn’t obey the Sabbath, his favorite hockey team will lose.  If Auslander eat’s pork, his grandmother will die.  Or at least, that’s how he sees it.

His faith (or perhaps we should call it anti-faith) journey is one that ebbs and flows from extreme zealous conservatism to extreme liberalism.  While living in Israel under court and parental order to clean up his act, he grows out his sideburns (Leviticus 19:27) and begins to routinely visit the Wailing Wall. But, like all religious attempts to white knuckle it, he eventually backslides, and ends up slipping a “F-you God” note into the wailing wall.

I think one of the reasons that I found this book so funny is because I sympathized with him in the times where I too can get angry with God.  In my sin, I get petty, and think that God is out to get me.  It’s mostly when I get caught up in a works mentality, when I think it’s all up to me to earn my salvation.   I lash out and do sinful, immature things, hoping to send God my own form of a “F-you” message.

But the difference between my God and Auslander’s god is extreme.  Jesus is my God, and he offers grace and mercy.  I don’t have to white knuckle it, to follow all the rules to earn my salvation.  Jesus did all that work for me.  He’s not out to get me; he’s out to save me, from myself, from my sin, from my own evil inclinations.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

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  1. I think a struggle to understand G-d is natural for all people who want to understand why we are here on this ball of rock spinning its way around the sun. Shalom’s is… a rather graphic… struggle at times, but it’s a struggle nevertheless. And the nice thing about that stuggle, in my opinion, is that it keeps him tied to G-d in the first place. He slips G-d a nasty note in the Wall… but he still slips him one, he still cares about that connection between the Creator and his Creation, and that connection is to me, the very essence of life.

    AL: I like that point, that even though he’s cursing God, he’s still cursing God…he still believes in somebody to curse. If he truly didn’t believe, he wouldn’t bother addressing God at all. Ideally, it would be in a more loving and respectful fashion, but I see your point. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Sometimes all I can manage is a Deist form of faith…it hurts too much to think God is involved in the details of life and the outcome is nevertheless dismal or painful. Christ on the cross was performing a batch edit on humanity, it is just up to the individuals to accept that edit and hit “save” for it to apply.

    After that…some folks seem to get one delight after another, which they attribute to God, while others experience a God primarily interested in allowing mostly pain to “grow faith by trials.” What did the second group miss in order to get in on that first contract deal anyway???

    Maybe seeing a rainbow or pretty sunset and counting it as “God’s gift to us” is supposed to balance out the hurts…somedays the equation seems unbalanced to me.

    Just being real here…

    AL: Jill, I love that you can be real and share where you are weak. I think too many Christians put up the front that they always have the faith that moves mountains and never falter in their view of God. If so, why in the world do we need a Savior? If we’re so wonderful, it sure makes Jesus pretty useless.

    You’ve touched on several pains that hit me too, at my weakest moments. The presence of so much evil in this world. And the nagging wonder if God is really caring about the details of my life. This is a good reminder to me to re-read some of my favorites that wrestle with these issues. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis being a classic. Knowing God by Packer another good choice. I’ve also found that Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is great for a quick knock of sense back into my head, on a particular issue that I’m struggling with.

    I find an odd sense of comfort in the fact that greater saints than I have struggled with these issues, long before my time. And that other sisters and brothers and Christ are right with me in the trenches.

  3. One thing I’ve found difficult is balancing “being bold in prayer” with God’s holiness. Reading Leviticus and the Psalms over the last week or so has been a reminder of that. The whole book of Leviticus deals with holiness, while many of David’s Psalms boldly ask God to “deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword” (Ps. 17:13), among other requests…

    David often wondered about God’s presence in the details of his life (Ps. 22) but you always got the sense he was a man of tremendous faith. I find great comfort in that 🙂

    AL: A dear sister in Christ and I were recently hashing out this very issue. We were discussing the Psalms and how we struggle to balance the need for petitionary prayer with a recognition of God’s sovereignty. So, basically, if God has it all worked out according to His perfect plan and our good, why in the world do we need to ask about specifics? But of course, God asks us to do that, and Jesus did that.

    The Psalms are filled with all sorts of prayers that raise a lot of questions for me. I’m reading a great book by C.S. Lewis right now call Reflections on the Psalms where he deals with the holiness issue a bit in how in the world the pslamist could be seeking so much vengeance and still be in line with God’s will. The answer isn’t exactly a simple or easy one.

    David is a great example. For being a “man after God’s own heart,” we certainly have a lot of flaws in common.

  4. The vast majority of American Jews are of Eastern European ancestry. In Eastern Europe, all Jews were Orthodox or Hasidic. Hence the vast majority of American Jews descend from Orthodox immigrants. A large majority of Americans who self-identify as Jews are not Orthodox. About 40-50% of adult American Jews decline to belong to a temple.

    This background suggests that Auslander’s journey away from Orthodoxy has played itself millions of times over the past 150 odd years. His predecessors often fell in love with progressive and radical politics. Or they joined Reform Temples or the Ethical Culture Society. They circumcised in the hospital on day 1, like the middle class goyim, instead of at home on day 8.

    I am attracted to Auslander because his writings are evidence of a growing Jewish unease with the Mark of the Covenant. I am amazed that this unease took this long to appear, given that the Jewish Enlightenment began about 250 years ago in Germany. Auslander also has a fine streak of the Jewish humorist in him. But it remains the case that he doth protest too much. To use the F word in the same sentence with the word God suggests not disbelief in God, but having a bone to pick with Her.

    Mrs. Letinsky, two memoirs that resonate with my Midwestern childhood are those of Annie Dillard and Jonathan Frenzen.

    You write like an evangelical Christian, but your name strikes me as very Jewish. Are you a Jewish convert to Christianity? A Messianic Jew?

    AL: I adore Annie Dillard’s writing. Haven’t read Jonathan Frenzen, but will look him up now!

    And I’m technically not a Messianic Jew, but my husband is, making me one by proxy, I suppose.

    I very much agree with his keen insight and humor but there is a sign of cynicism there too, a bit too much negativity towards the religion that formed him.

    Interesting stats about Jews in America. I’d assume that something similar is going on in Israel, which seems to become more and more secular with time.

    Thanks for taking the time to stop by and share your thoughts!


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