Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

What religion is David Brooks, anyway?

I like David Brooks, as my review of his most recent book will confirm.

Except, like many people, I find him to be confusing.

When it comes to religion, I would echo the old union folk song, and ask him: Which side are you on?

What religion is David Brooks? (I am far from the only one asking. Check this out, and this. In the past, I have wondered about it myself.)

David Brooks grew up with an odd Jewishness.

First, there was folk ethnicity. From The Second Mountain:

We only said the Shema on the High Holy Days, but we recited the “Did you know is a Jew?” every day. All the geniuses turned out to be Jews: Einstein, Freud, Marx, Lionel Trilling…Exodus was the journey from obscurity to accomplishment. We had exchanged the robes of the righteous for the dream of the Nobel Prize. In the modern Exodus, every little Ralph Lifshitz could rise up to be Ralph Lauren.

But, second, there was a pseudo-WASPish wannabeeism — complete with an Episcopalian education and summer camp experience.

Fast forward to marriage #1. He married a woman who chose to join the Jewish people. Her newborn enthusiasm for Judaism was contagious. “I’d been on a trajectory away from Judaism, but now I was back in. We settled into the halachic life [Jewish law: JKS] : the life of kosher rules, strange prohibitions, rich community, and the cycle of Jewish holidays.”

But, then comes marriage #2. His second wife is a committed Christian. As a supportive husband, he accompanies his new wife to church.

He likes it.

Does he believe in Jesus? He certainly respects Jesus as a great teacher and as a spiritual exemplar. “Jesus is the person who shows us what giving yourself away looks like. He did not show mercy; he is mercy.”

When he attends church, he says the Nicene Creed and takes communion.

Is he just going along to get along — especially with his wife?

What does David Brooks say about his own religious identity?

I was and remain an amphibian, living half in water and half on land. I wish I could remember being confused by the two different stories that were rattling around in my head. But the truth is, I don’t really remember that. I was just raised in a dualism.

I think I know what religion David Brooks is.

You have heard of Confucianism?

David Brooks believes in Confusionism.

Did I leave Judaism and become a Christian? When I’m at Jewish events, as I often am, my heart swells and I feel at home…On the other hand, I can’t unread Matthew. The beatitudes are the moral sublime, the source of awe, the moral purity that takes your breath away and toward which everything points. In the beatitudes we see the ultimate road map for our lives. I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian…

So, David, I don’t know.

You say that you’re Jewish, but that the Beatitudes are the ultimate road map for our lives.

Road map: as in way to go. As in halacha.

Sounds pretty Christian to me.

So, what do I think of David Brooks’ religious identity? Is he a Jew for Jesus? Is he a Messianic Jew? Does he straddle some kind of imaginary line between those identities? Is he a contemporary reincarnation of the British Jewish leader and thinker, Claude Montefiore, who was certainly sympathetic to Christianity?

No. It is much more complicated and much more nuanced than that.

First: David Brooks is (how can I say this nicely?) theologically promiscuous. He is a living example of the ancient sages’ dictum: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” His writings are a literary buffet.

On the one hand: he quotes, and loves the Orthodox thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik; Abraham Joshua Heschel, Viktor Frankl, and former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

On the other hand: he finds meaning in the inspirational architecture of Christian churches, and in the teachings of St. Augustine, and Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa, and Frederick Buechner.

His writing “feels” Jewish. He clearly loves Judaism.

It is chesed, loving-kindness. It is the smiling eyes of a wise rabbi gleaming at you through his beard; it is the warmth of Bubbe giving you seconds on a Shabbat meal; it is the good of a community dropping everything for a shivah, the goofy kindness of a mensch, a whole people turning like a beacon when a Jew is murdered.

But, then he goes and drops Christian terms like “vocation” and “annunication.”

Like I said: This is Confusionism.

Second: David Brooks’ religious identity is a rejection of the binary.

We see it in race, and in sexuality, and in gender.

Also, in cars: I drive a hybrid.

Why wouldn’t we see it in religion?

He says as much himself:

[I am] a “border stalker,” perpetually on the line between different worlds. Politically, I am not quite left and not quite right. Professionally, I am not quite an academic and not quite a journalist. Temperamentally, I am not quite a rationalist but not quite a romantic…I grew up either the most Christiany Jew on earth or the most Jewy Christian…

I appreciate David’s writing and his insights. My appreciation of him does not depend on him firmly locating himself on one “side” or the other.

Maimonides put it this way: “Accept the truth from wherever it comes.”

Maimonides certainly would have understood. His own son, Abraham, skirted the line between Judaism and Sufism.

David Brooks quotes Alasdair MacIntyre: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

David Brooks must know that Judaism and Christianity tell two different stories about the world, and about:

  • Covenant
  • Commandments
  • Faith
  • Messiah
  • Good and evil
  • Sin and atonement
  • Human nature

So, David: what’s your story?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.