The Lord Will Gather Me In

Sarah Blustain reviews 'The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy' by David Klinghoffer.


Sarah Blustain
January 26, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

What can you do with a straight razor, a tattered Bible and a bathtub? Well, if you're David Klinghoffer and you're 15 and obsessed with your Jewishness, you can circumcise yourself.

At least you can try. When that doesn't satisfy your religious zeal, you can date Christian girls and try to argue them out of their faith, reject your adoptive parents' secular Judaism and spend fruitless years rummaging through your Swedish birth mother's past for evidence of a drop of Jewish blood. Along the way you can have yourself circumcised twice more; when, finally, an Orthodox authority makes the ritual cut, you will be a Jew in good standing.

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Of course, if you follow Klinghoffer's program -- detailed in his new memoir, "The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy" -- you may also wind up as a smug proselytizer for Jewish fundamentalism. Klinghoffer is the literary editor of the National Review, and what he offers here is an infuriating, self-righteous attack on liberal religion.

The season has been saturated with return-to-Judaism books. Klinghoffer's shares their existential anxiety and their wish for community but not their apolitical bent -- it marches straight to the right. "Philosophically speaking," Klinghoffer observes, "liberalism and secularism are brother and sister, both starting from the assumption that we humans, not God, are sovereign over our lives ... Once you begin to be liberated from liberalism, it's easier to escape from secularism." He should know. In high school he was a socialist who decried the Reagan presidency; then he spent the next decade liberating himself from that liberal, secular past. At Brown, he started calling himself a conservative, and soon he also developed an obsession with antiques, a passing fancy for Catholicism, a severe case of hypochondria and a yearning for his biological mother -- all urges, he now believes, that were expressions of a "repressed longing for God."

The theological scraps that Klinghoffer offers don't do much for his effort to prove that "God lives," as he keeps exclaiming. ("Next time you are at a natural history museum, look at the astonishing abstract designs on a 550-million-year-old snail shell ... much more lovely than the ones, created by humans, at the art galleries across town.") He argues that the Torah is the literal word of God and that AIDS is a sign of "moral corruption ... for the purpose of [inspiring] repentance." As for liberal Jews intent on "inventing a new regimen more in keeping with modern assumptions about spirituality, gender roles, contemporary lifestyles" -- pure hubris.

About a year ago, Klinghoffer was invited to deliver a lecture at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's rabbinical seminary in New York, although the organizer warned him "not to use it as a platform to attack Reform Judaism." Klinghoffer chose to speak on Korach's rebellion, a story from the book of Numbers. The upstart Korach, one of the Jews following Moses through the desert, declares that the ordinary Israelite has the right to interpret God's will along with the religious elite. Instantly, the earth opens and swallows up him and his followers.

Klinghoffer doesn't expect the same fate for the liberal institutions of contemporary Judaism: "I don't foresee any cracks opening up in the earth," he writes. But what he prays for is probably a different story.


Sarah Blustain

Sarah Blustain is an associate editor at Lilith magazine and a contributing editor at the Forward newspaper.

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