Originally published in the New York Times, 8th November 1987.
At Harvard, the author began a dialogue between his Jewish beliefs and the religious ideas he encountered.
In the first days of the 1985-86 school year at Harvard, the course called “World Religions, Diversity and Dialogue” was so popular that all the seats were taken and some students were sitting cross-legged on the floor of a great lecture hall. With two hands, the professor pushed her blonde hair behind her ears and made a statement that was to reverberate in my mind for the rest of the school year. “If you know one religion,” she said slowly, looking at us with intensity, “you don’t know any.”
The comment was so powerful for me because it broke down one of my basic assumptions. I had always felt that my involvement with my own faith, Judaism, was enough to enable me to understand Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. After all, I knew what it was like to go to synagogue, so I assumed that I knew just what a Christian felt in church or a Moslem felt in a mosque.
It was just one of many preconceptions that would crumble in the extraordinary year I spent as a student at Harvard Divinity School, the nation’s most prestigious Christian school of theology that is a training ground for Protestant ministers. I was neither a Christian nor a candidate for the ministry, but I found myself there on an unusual leave of absence from my job as a religion writer for The New York Times.
The idea was that, at the age of 35, after a decade of daily journalism, I would go to Harvard for a dispassionate encounter with Christianity and the religions of the East and then return to my beat to write about religion with greater knowledge and authority.
At Harvard Divinity, however, I learned that there was little dispassionate about the study of religion. From my first day at the “Div School,” as it was known familiarly on campus, I felt emotionally engaged and spiritually challenged.
At first, I tried to resist. In those opening days of school, I carried a small reporter’s notebook, ostensibly as a way to record the experience, but more importantly to try to retain the aura of a detached observer so well honed as a newspaper reporter. But soon, I put the notebook aside and let myself go, delving into the New Testament, the Koran and the Upanishads.
No, I did not convert. My Jewish identity, cultivated through a warm Orthodox upbringing and an intensive yeshiva education, never really came under siege. But what did happen was an extraordinary dialogue, one that began between the religious ideas I encountered and the Jewish ideas within myself. The dialogue continued every day in the classroom, in Buddhist meditation, in Christian prayer, in Moslem poetry and in fellowship around my own Sabbath table, around which I assembled people of various faiths.
As a result of these encounters, I learned how others experience their faith. In short, I learned that the professor was right on that first day: If you know one religion, you don’t know any. Or to put it another way: If you know many religions, you can begin to understand your own.
What happened at Harvard was that I learned not only about others, but about myself. My Judaism was enriched and broadened in, of all places, a Christian divinity school. For a time, in fact, I seriously considered becoming a rabbi. The seed of the idea began with an innocent comment of a neighbor and grew to be an obsession that kept me awake nights thinking, “What is it that is really important in life?”
The neighbor was a retired career Army officer in his 60’s with the unlikely name of Bill Doe. He lived next door to the house we rented on Chester Street in Somerville, about a mile from the school. Bill, who spent most of the day on his stoop smoking cigars and swapping stories with passers-by, was the unofficial mayor of Chester Street. On the day I moved in with my wife, Shira, and our infant son, Adam, he arrived to introduce himself. I told him my name and that I was from New York and a new student at Harvard Divinity School.
A few days later, as I walked home from school, Bill, engaged in conversation with another neighbor, waved and called in a booming voice, “Hello, Rabbi!” I went over to explain that I was not a rabbi, just a student of religion, but he was already introducing me. “Rabbi, I would like you to meet the Judge.” The Judge was a small man, long retired from the bench, who also smoked cigars.
I smiled politely, shook hands and excused myself, thinking “I guess there isn’t much harm in him thinking I’m a rabbi.” Besides, I thought later, maybe that is what I should be doing with my life—finish this year at the Div School, quit the newspaper business and enroll in a rabbinical seminary. Maybe being a rabbi was my true calling.
I was especially susceptible to the idea of becoming a rabbi because I was surrounded at school by people studying for the ministry. These were different from the caricature of the self-centered, upwardly mobile, competitive student of today. At the Div School, there were men and women interested in serving God and society in an age when many seemed to serve themselves.
In a refreshing way, attending Harvard Divinity was a throwback to my student days of the late 1960’s, when questions like “What are you going to do for society?” and “What are you doing tonight?” seemed so much more pressing than “How are you going to make a living?”
At the Div School, hair was worn a little longer than at Harvard’s other schools. The jeans tended to be torn and faded rather than designer.
From 1967 to 1971 I attended Yeshiva College in Manhattan, the men’s undergraduate school of Yeshiva University. The rebellion, excitement and turmoil of the times had not escaped my conservative college. After all, we were only a few subway stops from Columbia, the epicenter of student rebellion in 1968. We felt the shock waves and sensed the liberation it helped spread.
Back in school in the 80’s, I found the Div School and its values familiar and comforting. It was, however, no place to study to be a rabbi.
Harvard was founded 351 years ago as a training ground for Puritan ministers. The divinity school was spun off as a separate theological school in 1816, becoming, after Harvard Medical School, the university’s second professional school.
During the 19th century the divinity school maintained an affiliation with the Unitarian church and served as a principal training ground for its church leaders. In the early 1900’s it severed its denominational ties and began training ministers for all Protestant churches.
The Div School does not ordain anyone, however. It trains students in theology and the Scripture and then sends them back to their particular churches to be ordained. Over the years, the school has developed a strong department for the teaching of world religions. All candidates for the Christian ministry must take one course in world religions in each year of the three-year program. The Div School faculty is as much known for its Islamicists and Hindu scholars as its Christian theologians.
Much of this background is in the Div School catalogue, which conjures up the image of a devout and serious, if not celibate, student body, determined to shape the future of the American Protestant church. At least, that is what my wife and I thought until we arrived at the orientation party during the first week of classes.
The event sounded serious, even though it was billed as a dance, so we split the difference and wore khaki and tweed. Anticipating an evening of hymns and mulled cider, we told the baby sitter we’d be home early.
What we encountered at the Div School dance was spiked hair, fishnet stockings, short skirts and couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, dancing to U-2 and Michael Jackson. We called the baby sitter and told her we’d be late.
Over the next few months, I was to get to know my fellow students and their stories. There was Meg—the one with the fishnet stockings—who had given up her job as a buyer at Lord & Taylor to become a Unitarian minister. And there was Justin, a 23-year-old Midwesterner from a family of 10 children, a Roman Catholic with a girlfriend, who flirted with the idea of becoming a celibate priest. There was Robert, a middle-aged banker who decided to devote his life to God after he saw his bank go under and his wife become an alcoholic. There was Julia, a clean-cut suburban type from Cleveland who was a leader in the school’s Lesbian and Gay Caucus. And there was Soho, a Buddhist monk from Japan who brought his search for Nirvana to Harvard.
They were a diverse group. But, in keeping with my professor’s admonition, if I knew them all, I could begin to understand myself.
The professor who spun this wisdom, Diana Eck, was a Christian from Montana and a Hindu scholar who held a joint appointment at Harvard College and the Div School. Her class in world religions, held in Emerson Hall, on the main campus, was popular in both schools.
She worked hard at her lectures; she once admitted to staying up until the wee hours of the morning rewriting them. And she expected her students to work hard as well. The syllabus warned of a mid-term, final, term paper and reading list of 10 weighty books.
The books included “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula; “Ideals and Realities of Islam,” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr; “Between Time and Eternity,” by Jacob Neusner, and “Honest to God” by John A.T. Robinson. But maybe the book on the list that summed up the course the best was by Mohandas K. Gandhi. It was called “All Religions Are True.”
While the class was crowded for the first few lectures—during a time known as the “shopping period,” when Harvard students may decide what courses they finally take—it thinned out somewhat when the requirements were spelled out. In the end, 151 students, two-thirds from the college and the rest from the Div School, stuck with Professor Eck.
Her first task was to banish some misconceptions. On the blackboard, she chalked the names of the five faiths we were to study and asked us to estimate the percentage of world population each religion represented.
“Hindus, what do I hear for Hindus?” she cried out like a carnival barker. “Five percent,” said one voice. “No, no,” said another. “Think of all those people in India. Thirty percent.”
“Jews, what do I hear for Jews?” she called out. “Ten percent,” called out one student. “No, too high,” responded another. “It’s more like 3 percent.”
It went on like this for a while, with Professor Eck at the blackboard recording the guesses. Then she wrote the real numbers, which surprised more than a few people, including myself: Christian, 32.4 percent; Moslem, 17.1; Hindu, 13.5; Buddhist, 6.2; Jewish, 0.4.
Diana Eck was an enchanting teacher.
In her early 40’s, unmarried and pretty, she had the habit of pulling her hair behind her ears so her simple gold earrings would show. In the winter, she favored turtleneck sweaters and oversized sport jackets. She was also enigmatic. Though she came across very warmly, almost seductively, from the lectern, many students reported that she was standoffish when they approached her after class. Early in the semester, Shira good-naturedly teased me about having a crush on this professor of world religions.
There was another teacher I met in the first few days of the fall semester whom I undoubtedly had a crush on. His name was Louis Jacobs, a scholar from England who was at Harvard Divinity for the year as the visiting List Professor in Jewish Studies. He was short, a bit overweight, with a white goatee and large bags under his eyes.
Rabbi Jacobs, the descendant of an illustrious family of European rabbis, fast became one of the most popular professors at this elitist Protestant divinity school. Quickly he became known as “the rabbi,” as in “Have you heard the rabbi?” “You must sit in on the rabbi’s class.” “The rabbi is a storyteller.” All this was overheard in the cafeteria and the hallways.
The administration, bemused by the rabbi’s popularity, had inadvertently assigned small seminar rooms for his classes. All the chairs around the table were quickly filled; latecomers would steal chairs from less popular neighboring classes, or merely sit on the floor.
For everyone else, Louis Jacobs was a window into Judaism; for me, an insider, he parted the curtains and let the sun shine in.
The Orthodox Judaism I grew up with was warm, embracing and, at the same time, curiously intellectual, with much emphasis on the complicated legal arguments of the Talmud. It was an intellectualism, though, with its own set of rules that made perfect sense in the rabbinic context but would not bear the scrutiny of mathematics or science. When faced with the weaknesses of their system, the rabbis would resort to fanciful explanations or simply fall back on faith.
Tay-ku. It sounds like the name of a Japanese restaurant, but it is the Talmudic formula for questions that had no answers. Tay-ku essentially means, have faith, some day the Messiah will come and answer the seemingly unanswerable.
I was comfortable in accepting the Tay-kus of Judaism. Then I met Louis Jacobs.
Rabbi Jacobs was the first pious Jew I met who I felt really wanted answers. And in seeking them, some of the old shibboleths fell, but to my amazement they did not break. Because of his faith, they emerged alive and well and even fortified.
In one class, Rabbi Jacobs tackled the tricky question of who wrote the Hebrew Bible. The Orthodox tenet I grew up with was that the Torah was written by God on Mount Sinai and given to Moses. On an intellectual and historical level, I knew this scenario was unlikely, but on an emotional level I somehow needed to believe it was true.
In class, Rabbi Jacobs offered a full range of views, from the Orthodox to the scholarly, and demonstrated the weaknesses and strengths of each. In the end, he favored the theory of four different authors living at different times. This, he said, was obvious from different writing styles, inconsistencies in the texts and the development of Jewish law through antiquity.
After class, I walked Rabbi Jacobs home and told him what troubled me. “Once you punch holes in it,” I asked him, “and reveal that it is not all God-given, what happens to your faith? What is your Judaism?” He pointed to a beautiful tree on the school lawn. “Do you know how that tree began?” he asked. He bent down and picked up an acorn and rolled it in his fingers. “Just because you know how it began doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy the tree.”
I relaxed in its shade and gave it all some thought.
Is the Torah divine? An affirmative answer is easy if you know one religion. But if you know many, the questions multiply and chase each other in a wild circle. Is the New Testament divine? Is the Koran? And if they are, what about the Torah?
Or, is it possible that none of the holy books are God-given? Maybe they simply represent man’s striving to understand and ultimately reach the divine.
At that moment, I wanted to devote my life to these questions. I thought of Bill Doe, my neighbor who belonged to the Roman Catholic church on the corner, and how he seemed in some mystical way to be pointing me toward a life of study.
A short while later, Bill disappeared from our street. One day, I ran into the Judge and asked what had happened to our garrulous neighbor. “He’s at Mass General,” the Judge informed me somberly. “Cancer.”
When I got home, I called the hospital, and the switchboard put me through to Bill. He sounded tired, but he was anxious to hear news about my family and about the rest of the celebrities on Chester Street. When I asked how he was doing, he sounded concerned but upbeat in his finest military manner. “One operation down,” he said, “and one to go.” The first operation, he said, was not successful in removing all the cancer.
“Bill, tell me, is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.
“Just pray for me, Rabbi,” he replied.
As a reporter I had often encountered death, covering plane crashes and violent holdups. But as a “rabbi”—Bill’s rabbi, anyway—I was frightened.
I reached down deep into the well of theological studies in which I was steeped that year, but found no answers to the suffering of my friend. And I knew that even if the ministry were to be my primary calling, the answers to some questions would remain beyond my grasp.
Yet, there was one thing that I had learned about all religious systems. There is a point when book learning stops and faith begins. The only thing I could do was what Bill had asked. I prayed for his soul.