Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Quick Jews-and-Hell Question

I've just finished Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament, his very funny book about his very harrowing upbringing as a fundamentalist Orthodox Jew in upstate New York. On the one hand, it was a terrific read for me: I recognized some of the same anxiety, the same fear of punishment, that I'd gone through in my own transition. (I had at least three nightmares about the Rapture in my first year of apostasy.)

On the other hand, it also made me really happy I'd been raised a Christian and not Orthodox. The Orthodox (says Auslander) have to say a specific blessing over every piece of food they eat (one for fruit, one for meat, one for grains, one for milk products, etc.), and they have to combine the blessings if the ingredients are combined (as in blueberry pie), and they have to do them in a particular order. The agonies he goes through for simply eating a muffin are heartbreaking. (And, of course, funny for the same reason.) They have a million rules about what they can't do on the Sabbath; a hundred strictures on the yarmulke, on the mingling of the sexes, all of that. It's exhausting. By contrast, Jesus's own neo-sectarian, let's-get-rid-of-the-sillier-laws theology seems to anticipate Reform Judaism by several centuries. I've got my quibbles with conserative Christianity, but even with those, there's no question but that Christianity made the religious life a whole helluva lot easier than it is for the Orthodox.

But I've also found the book oddly troubling, because Auslander is basically tormented by belief that if he screws up on any of these activities--and especially if he eats a cheeseburger--he'll be punished in hell for all eternity. Hell? Really?, I thought. My understanding was that Jews don't believe in hell. You don't find any reference to hell in the Torah, and the first time anything like hell gets mentioned in the macro-Bible is in the gospel of Matthew. Which, of course, isn't technically a Jewish scripture. The belief in hell surely came from somewhere (in what is sometimes called the inter-testamental period), but I had always thought it was a Christian innovation--which has been one of my reasons to encourage Christians not to take it too seriously. If "hell" as we think of it (eternal punitive torment) is really the way we're supposed to take Jesus's references to "Gehenna" and "Sheol," then the Bible would have said something about it long before 4BC. It would have been too important to overlook.

Now I'm changing my guess. My guess is that Reform and Conservative Jews don't believe in hell, but that the Orthodox do. Or that certain unusually harsh sects of the Orthodox do. But the next obvious question is, where did they get it from? (Babylon? The Greeks?) And how do they justify their belief from reading the Torah?

I know I have a lot of scholarly-minded Jewish readers, so I hope someone can enlighten me. I also accept book references.

CELEBRITY CONNECTION: Shalom and I both appeared on the same episode of This American Life: #332, "Ten Commandments." He had "Do Not Take the Lord's Name in Vain," and I was further down the list at "Adultery." His story opens the episode, and it's really cool. Check it out at



Blogger Rhu/nmHz said...

First, a response to your question:

Around 2,000 years ago there were a lot of heterodox ideas floating around. Some of them ended up as the roots of Christianity, others as Rabbinic Judaism, and others died out. "Hell" was probably one of the ideas floating around, but it certainly isn't a part of contemporary mainstream Orthodoxy. (On the other hand, some of the so-called "ultra-Orthodox" have a bunch of ideas that I consider non-normative.)

I'd summarize the "Orthodoxy" on the afterlife as "This world is a qualifying exam for entrance into the next world." The complete annihilation of one's conscious existence is terrifying enough, do we really need fires and torment to make it worse?

I'll comment separately on the issues about Orthodoxy that you discuss at the beginning of your post.

4/03/2008 9:42 AM  
Blogger Rhu/nmHz said...

Yes, observant Jews say a beracaha over everything we eat or drink. (I don't like to translate beracha as "blessing" because that word becomes that brings in other ideas which are not appropriate --- we're not blessing the food, we're reciting a formula thanking God for being the source of blessings, of which the food is an example.) But I think from your description that Auslander has indulged in exaggeration for humorous effect (something that I think you can relate to :-).

Yes, foods are divided into nested categories, and one recites the most appropriate beracha for the food one is about to eat. When there are multiple berachot to be recited, one recites them in order from most specific to least specific. (The berachot are fairly short -- less than 10 words each.) But the idea (as explained in the first chapter of the Talmud) is that the food belongs to God, and God has given it to us as a gift, and proper etiquette is to thank someone who has given you a gift before you enjoy it. So, sure, the beracha for tree-fruits comes before the beracha for generic vegetables, and the salad fork gets placed to the left of the main fork. Is either more strange than the other?

(And what happens if you say the wrong beracha? Not much. If you made the broader beracha first, then post facto that's fine. If you made a beracha that doesn't apply to the food you're eating, you make the correct beracha and that's pretty much the end of it. Next Yom Kippur, when you go down the list of sins and say "forgive me for the mistakes of my mouth", you're all set.)

Now, having said that, I certainly think that the "fundamentalist Orthodox" (as you call them) adopt way too many stringencies (we call them chumrot) in the service of the idea that if one law is good, ten laws are better. Personally, I think they violate the commandment of Lo tosif ("Do not add on [to the laws]").

And, worse than that, they have adopted very strict attitudes towards people who don't follow their stringencies, either intentionally (such as me) or by accident. That's harmful to the individual and to society, in pretty much the same ways that you describe much of the evangelical community.

4/03/2008 9:55 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Rhu, I knew you'd come through! You're always so helpful. Thanks a ton! Now we're all a bit better informed.

4/03/2008 10:49 AM  

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