Beliefs Culture Ethics Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Why David Brooks is my rabbi

David Brooks in dialogue with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the Skirball Center at NYU.
David Brooks in dialogue with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the Skirball Center at NYU.

David Brooks in dialogue with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the Skirball Center at NYU.

Is David Brooks becoming a Christian?

That’s the question that some people have been asking about the New York Times op-ed columnist, especially in the wake of his new book, The Road To Character.

But David Brooks is quite Jewish — an observant Jew, actually.

So, what’s up with the “becoming a Christian” rumors?

As my fellow RNS blogger, Jonathan Merritt, has written: “Brooks claims to have written his latest book ‘to save my soul,’ and he told NPR that reading books by authors such as Christian convert C.S. Lewis has ‘produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart.’

Wait a second. Reading C.S. Lewis? “A religious upsurge in my heart?”

Sounds Christian to me.

Here is what Brooks said in a recent interview in the Washington Post.

“I do think that the state of your soul, whether expressed religiously or secularly, is the primary concern in life.” Judaism cares far less about saving your soul than about saving the world — “repairing the world in the image of God’s kingdom.”

If you’re going to think of your own eternal life, you need words like sin and soul and redemption.” Those terms certainly seem to have emerged from a Christian vocabulary list. Yes, Jews speak of redemption. But it’s not the redemption of the soul; it’s the redemption of a people from Egypt, which is a blueprint for the ultimate redemption of the world.

“With him (Augustine) what I found so attractive, and this is more a Christian concept, is the concept of grace, the concept of undeserved love. It helps to feel religious to experience grace.” Yes, Jews do speak of grace, in the sense of God’s love, but it is far lower on our list than it is for Christians.

The WaPo interviewer, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, couldn’t help but notice: “You articulate central themes in Christianity — you mention sin 70 times in the book, humility, a need for something bigger than ourselves (maybe a savior). In some ways, your book feels more Christian than many Christian books I come across.”

So, yes — David Brooks is certainly sounding Christian these days.

I am in the middle of reading The Road To Character, and I am enjoying it. But, then again, I happen to love David Brooks. Perhaps it is because Brooks is the “liberals’  favorite conservative.”  (Full disclosure: I don’t always agree with his political views).

But I will be the first to admit: reading Brooks’ book feels like attending an interminable Yom Kippur service. That seems to be what he wants. He advocates identifying your core sin, and keeping a journal of how it manifests itself in your life.

What’s the Jewish way of reading The Road To Character?

First, Brooks has done Jews, and his entire reading audience, a precious favor. In the first pages of The Road To Character, he introduces us to the writing of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the seminal modern Orthodox thinker, who was known, simply and affectionately, as “the rav,” the ultimate teacher of his time. Brooks introduces us to the Rav’s greatest philosophical move, and one of the most profound insights of modern Judaism — the notion of Adam I and Adam II. (Read the book; you’ll be profoundly moved).

And why is this such a big deal? Because it has been many years since a Jew has introduced the work of a Jewish thinker to the larger reading public. It last happened when Rabbi Harold Kushner opened the book of Job to the American public in When Bad Things Happen To Good People. This is good for the Jews — because it is good for Judaism.

Yes, Brooks brings a lot of Christian thinkers into his work. But this is also good for the Jews. Jews need to know what Christians are saying and thinking. Many of my most powerful intellectual influences have been Christian thinkers and writers. Among them: Reinhold Niebuhr, William Sloan Coffin, Barbara Brown Taylor (one of America’s best preachers), and Professor Tom Long of Candler School of Theology. As the ancient sages said: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.”

Finally, if David Brooks’ writing seems too inner-directed, perhaps we need that.

Why? In recent years, many Jewish conversations feel like extended civic lessons — about Israel and anti-Semitism. Our current crises are about peoplehood.

But what about personhood? What, indeed, about the soul?

For Jews, the soul is nurtured in community. Brooks says as much: “Someone said I paint too individualistic a picture of how character building is done. I should’ve been more communal. I’m a believer in Bible study groups. There’s a communication in those formal groups that you don’t get at a dinner party.”

He’s right. The fastest growing phenomenon in the American synagogue — especially Reform synagogues — is Torah study groups. More than that: many Jews have reclaimed the traditional discipline of musar, intense ethical inquiry and character building. (Check out the work of Alan Morinis).

Because, like David Brooks, they want to nurture their souls.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • Another excellent column, Rabbi Salkin.

    I recall David Brooks being the features editor at the Wall Street Journal and later was featured in a Sunday NY Times Mag piece on upcoming conservatives. He was on the cover with Laura Ingraham and a number of others.

    Rabbi, I would encourage you to do what Brooks has done and read CS Lewis. He is far from the only non-Christian to enjoy Lewis’ writings. Don Feder, a conservative Jewish columnist, once mentioned Lewis as one of many proofs that religion and the life of the mind are not opposed.

    I’m glad you read Niebuhr…..Interesting you mentioned William Sloan Coffin. After reading Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, I met with Coffin to talk about spiritual matters. Coffin scoffed at Niebuhr as being irrelevant for our time. I remember thinking to myself that the opposite was the case. He remains very relevant.

  • The first thing I thought when I heard an interview with David Brooks was that I wish he had discovered the Mussar movement. It actually provides a method to improve people’s character. I live in Philadelphia so I am also aware of Ira F. Stone’s book, A Responsible Life.

  • I hope that Brooks gets around to reading both Rabbi Heschel and Reinhold Niebuhr, if he hasn’t done so already.

  • Jeff-in most things you are my Rebbe, but in this I disagree. The only thing Brooks should be doing with his life is going to every family touched by the Iraq war and begging their forgiveness for his unconscionable support of the corrupt men who led us into that war.

  • When he was totally observant he supported and led the cheers for Bush’s wars. Maybe becoming a Christian will be an improvement for him personally. Good riddance.

  • Please, Mr Brooks long ago vacated any position of influence or moral authority with his ham-fisted boy love for all things Bush-Cheney

  • I am fascinated the Mr Brooks has been working on a project like this and think it is interesting to see anyone of faith who is sincerly on a spritual journey. Why don’t we in this space focus on the content of the Road to Character and its substance and not the messenger. To me religion is about the underlying ideas and substance, not the fluff of the flawed messengers that carry them to flawed recievers in a flawed world. I commend Rabbi Salkin for engaging with the substance and an interesting question brought up by the book. I would gently encourage the several posters below to move on from the Bush years etc.

  • This brings up the vexing question of whether by supporting one war you tacitly (at the very least) support all wars.

  • David Brooks’ continuous journey of examination and discovery is a commendable contrast to the “our group has all the answers” crowd.
    Questions worth asking, generation after generation, have no answers. There are only insights and pieces of the puzzle. Gods, religions, and civilizations come and go but “who am I, and what should I do with my life” remain.

  • I hope that your “gently encourage” works as the messenger attack is always the easy out of having to engage in the serious thought about character and how to improve. Continue the journey, Mr Brooks and share with us your continuing insights.

  • To some men of wisdom, “Who am I” is the question that one should seek to answer. All else follows.