Catherine Madsen

“And Thy God My God”: A Convert’s Reflections

Catherine Madsen


Read at an Erev Shabbat service at the Jewish Community of Amherst, 15 February 1991 / 2 Adar 5751. 


The thought of being religious—or of being thought religious, either by those who approve or by those who disapprove—fills me with alarm and a sense of falsity. I seem to have an insistent need to worship, both alone and with other people, but I cannot reconcile myself to the thought that this makes me a religious person. The category itself is so respectable, so accounted-for, so impossibly remote from whatever it is that compels worship. Anyone who sees us after this service would think we are only talking polite small talk; they would not understand that we have just been in the presence of the inexpressible together. There is a tenderness in that small talk, a knowledge that we need not try all at once to express the inexpressible. But an outsider would see only the smallness.

            I have decided to risk this misunderstanding. Seven years ago, when I first began to understand Jewish thought, I found myself at home in the world in a sense I had never known. I felt the way I’d felt when I first used a kitchen knife that was properly balanced: as if a job I had thought impossible to do without feeling awkward and making a hash of it was suddenly possible and graceful. It was as if I had lived my first thirty years using tools that did not fit my hand, or were designed to do some other job than I was doing— and then somebody had handed me the right one, and I felt the universe had suddenly adopted me.

            The better the knife, the keener the edge: all tools have their dangers. One has to be aware of their unsafeness. Religions are uneasy dreams, that send indecipherable messages and may slip over at any moment into nightmare. And Judaism is the uneasiest of dreams, a dream that teaches awakening.

            The Torah sets out its stories in a kind of moral nakedness: there is nothing edifying about them, no sense that all’s right with the world and this is how we ought to behave. None of the patriarchs and matriarchs nor even God himself is presented as anybody we would want for a “role model”; they are all far too much like us, in their rage and reluctance and subterfuge and their painful family relationships. They behave astonishingly badly, as if to emphasize that it is in our mouths, not the mouths of perfected people, that the word must be found. Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it, said the rabbis—everything; Torah is not censored or prettied up, it will not conform to anyone’s notions of morality. It transmits a system of morality, which we are told to obey in the strongest possible terms and under the direst penalties; but it refuses to show us a world in which such obedience happens.

            But perhaps the proof of a moral system is not simply in its self-consistency, but in what stories it is willing to be surrounded by: can it tolerate the truth about humanity, is it willing to stand up to the whole content of life? Is it strong enough to associate with the strong? A book whose narrative strength is as stunning as its ethical strength—even when these two kinds of strength act on each other like matter and anti-matter—is a work of remarkable bravery. It is willing to risk everything, to come within a hairsbreadth of self-negation. Only a book that brave is worth the kind of loyalty that Jews have given to the Torah.

            It takes a strong stomach to be loyal to such a book. The modern sensibility is often not up to it. Distressed by the exultant ferocity of the old stories, unwilling to take them for our models, modern readers demur and recoil, muttering about ‘violence’. It does not help that fundamentalists of all persuasions have settled on violence itself as the sign of loyalty, the hallmark of true religion. But I think neither moderns nor fundamentalists are right when they suppose that the violence of the Bible is meant for emulation. As Grimm’s fairy tales and Scottish murder ballads and Greek tragedy are all awash in violence, because violence keeps erupting into our lives, the Bible too records its unbearable recurrence.

            Elaine Scarry has said that the biblical relationship between God and humanity takes place “at the two vertical ends of a weapon”—God wielding it and humanity wounded by it. She says that the ferocity of God’s acts and threats reflects the hugeness of the demand made on us: to remember God constantly and to transform that remembrance into the steady cultivation of restraint and compassion and saving activity. The threats are so dreadful because the task is so difficult, and the stakes so high. She compares it to turning our bodies inside out, discovering our blood and our nerve endings to the eye of the invisible. Spirit is a presence that needs our response: God is an expectant indrawn breath waiting on all our choices. When those choices are wrong or evasive, the breath is expelled in a howl of pain and disappointment. Why are we commanded to love such a God? Perhaps not because he is lovable, but because he never leaves off insisting that love must be possible.

            To be a Jew is to see the world, all the time, as being amenable to redemption. To see the world at its worst and not despair; to sense constantly, with our blood and our nerve endings, the possibility of change. To take that as a duty—to be that vulnerable all the time—what does it do to you?

            There is a strange relationship between seeing the world at its worst and seeing it glorified. To be a Jew is also to see the world, for one-seventh of our time, as already perfected. This seems to me no arbitrary spiritual discipline but a profound acknowledgment of a psychological truth. The stress of attention, the pain of witnessing pain without being able to deny it, eventually sends the mind into some fourth dimension of emotion, where even the worst seems solid and luminous, impossibly precious, and even our help is somehow beside the point. Jewish tradition has neither rejected this state of mind as illusion nor taken it for permanent reality: it has enshrined it as contingent reality, a reality we must serve and desire and enter very often but cannot remain in. The world is a terrible place which yet we must see in its perfection—cannot stop ourselves from seeing that way, as one after another people and places and objects become angels of peace, reminding us of the truth of peace, even where there is no peace. The apparently symbiotic relationship between violence and praise in the Torah may not be some accident of history or patriarchy, something to be understood anthropologically and let go of. It may be that praise never arises except out of agony—that it is the response of perfection to whatever destroys perfection, defiant, reactive, conditioned. We do not need rest unless we have worked. We do not praise unless we have been tormented. There is no perfection without imperfection—without the slavery in Egypt, the wandering in the desert, the wooings and ravings of an incalculable God.

            The dangers of this equation are obvious and explosive: it is the E=mc2 of religion, capable of fueling the world but just as likely to blow it to bits, and certain in either case to leave an insidious residue. Are we to believe that pain is necessary in the universal economy, and cease to look for the remedies? Are we to indulge in romantic mysticism, self-consciously seeking out pain as a road to enlightenment, yielding to the violent God as to a demon lover? Are we to imagine that inflicting pain on others for their own good—as parents, as teachers, as critics—is not merely unavoidable, but proper?

            The Torah does not say so. It does not offer any resolution. It gives us only the tension: the alternation between the six days and Shabbat, between violence and praise, between story and ethic. We must live with that tension uneasily, as we live with the Bomb. Yet the very necessity of living with it gives rise to an alert gentleness, a complex intelligence, a sane and earthy holiness, that seems to me altogether unique in religion. When I understood that a mind could work that way, I understood what it was to be an adult human being.

            I’m not sure ‘conversion’ is the right word for joining a community that understands these things. It’s not that I was formerly something else and am now a Jew; it’s that formerly something held me back from becoming what I was, and becoming a Jew has released me. I have known all my life many of the things I’m saying here, but nothing I knew as religion would say them along with me. I don’t think of conversion as a discontinuity, a break with my past, but as a consummation of it. I don’t say, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” No. I saw then, and this is the only practice worthy of what I saw.


© Catherine Madsen 1991