The Book of Life
Two new books help in the search for meaning during this annual season of repentance and renewal.
Reprinted from JewishIdeasDaily.com.
The High Holy Days are traditionally a time for introspection. Even the sturdiest soul must pause with trepidation over the more harrowing passages in the somber liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Who shall live, and who shall die? Who in his time, and who not in his time? Who by fire, and who by drowning? Wrestling with such questions is nothing new in Judaism, but this year, by coincidence, two newly published books, though vastly different in character, jointly aid in the search for meaning that is the watchword of the season.
In another set of coincidences, both books are by laymen rather than scholars or rabbis, and both laymen are active in American politics. The first is Joseph Lieberman’s The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath; the second is David Horowitz’s A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next.
Lieberman is coming to the end of a tumultuous and reverberant political career that saw him arrive in the U.S. Senate in 1988; run and lose as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in the 2000 national election, the closest in our lifetimes; be expelled by his own party for his maverick views on foreign policy, in particular his steadfast support for George W. Bush’s determination to stay the course in Iraq; return victoriously to the Senate as an Independent in 2006; and receive serious consideration as a potential GOP Vice Presidential candidate in 2008.
One is tempted to speculate on the connection between Lieberman’s soul-trying peregrinations in the political wilderness and the impulse to compose a book on that sheltered island of respite, contemplation, and prayer that is the Jewish Sabbath. But he himself draws no such connection, being content instead with a few tales of how he has coped with the inevitable conflicts between the requirements of Sabbath observance and his sometimes urgent legislative responsibilities. Mostly, though, he focuses on the ultimate meaning of the Sabbath in his own life as an Orthodox Jew and as an American. Though produced with the assistance of David Klinghoffer, a professional writer, The Gift of Rest is quintessentially Lieberman. Conversational, humorous, and at the same time morally serious, it is redolent of the spirit of a witty and well-educated man who has been blessed with a strikingly equable temperament.
The book follows in sequence the stages of the Sabbath itself, from prior preparations on Friday afternoon all the way through to the concluding Havdalah service after sunset on Saturday. In each section Lieberman intersperses information about the laws, rituals, and customs pertinent to that aspect of the day with anecdotes about his own habits of celebrating it. Each Friday, for example, he buys flowers for his wife, Hadassah; during the Sabbath itself, he will not so much as wear a watch, lest he be distracted by reminders of the scheduled rigidity of his work week. In a chapter titled “Sunrise, Sunset: Intimacy, Human and Divine,” he muses suggestively on the traditional injunction that husbands and wives make a point of cohabiting on the Day of Rest.
A bit of a how-to manual, the book also has consciously universal implications. At the end of each chapter, Lieberman offers practical hints for how all persons, Jew and Gentile alike, can bring a little more of the Sabbath into their lives. As he writes at the outset, the Sabbath “is a gift from God that I want to share with everyone who reads this book, in the hopes that they will grow to love it as much as I do.” Lieberman loves it, clearly, for itself alone and because it is a proven pathway to discovering the purpose of life on earth. As a deliberately modest reflection on that pathway, The Gift of Rest is worthy of its subject: a wise, measured, and joyful exercise.
A bracing if far less upbeat exercise awaits readers of David Horowitz’s A Point in Time. This is the last in a trilogy of brief books on the theme of mortality, his own included, that Horowitz has published in recent years, the earlier two being The End of Time (2005) and A Cracking of the Heart (2009). The author on display here may seem unrecognizable to followers of the gifted and voluble polemicist who has battled mightily against the pernicious influence of the American Left on American politics and culture. But the same David Horowitz has composed A Point in Time, a deeply thoughtful, at times lyrical meditation that is serious without a hint of solemnity, and quietly but powerfully moving.
In recounting his struggle to accept his own mortality while rescuing some faith in the redeeming significance of human life, Horowitz is guided by several carefully chosen thinkers. Prominent among them are the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.) and the towering Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). The former appeals to Horowitz as a philosophical Stoic who, given the final erasure of death, questions not only the permanence but the utility of earthly striving. “Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens,” Horowitz quotes the emperor quoting the slave Epictetus; although he does not note the resemblance, all three might have been quoting the strikingly similar musings on the ephemerality and futility of life by the biblical author of Ecclesiastes.
Even more strikingly, and to Horowitz’s frustration, Marcus Aurelius, as if overwhelmed by the bleakness of his own vision, concludes his Stoic quest in a complete philosophical reversal, urging himself and his readers to place their faith in the all-seeing wisdom of the immortal gods. (Appropriately enough, Ecclesiastes ends on an analogous note.) Moving, then, to the opposite side of the spectrum, Horowitz turns to Dostoevsky, with his famous repudiation of the quest for earthly salvation—a quest, the novelist mordantly observes, that “has led to the greatest crimes”—and his surrender to the love that surpasses understanding that is epitomized for Dostoevsky in the Christian faith.
Yet this, too, will not do. As Horowitz details, the great novelist’s embrace of all existence under the aspect of divine love is fatally undercut by the vicious and unremitting hatred Dostoevsky reserves in his heart for one human species in particular—namely, the Jews. And it is here that Horowitz’s book takes its final turn as, in a brief concluding chapter, his “Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next” comes to rest in contemplation of the stubborn and mysterious will of his own people to survive and to hold fast to their ancient calling, with its pledge of final redemption, against all odds and in contention with so many more powerful but finally evanescent human regimes.
It would not be too much to say that Horowitz’s tortuous but clear-eyed quest for redemptive meaning is itself an expression of a quintessentially Jewish approach to life, its possibilities, and its rewards, whether realized or promised. It is a spirit that he shares with Joseph Lieberman. Bypassing the often inaccessible researches of the academics and the platitudes of the self-help specialists, both of these men of affairs and passionate amateur theologians have something acute to say about Judaism’s answers to the toughest questions life presents us with—at no time more poignantly than in the annual season of repentance and renewal.
Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and the former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services.