Reimagining Jewish pilgrimage
Setting out to explore pilgrimage in three different religious traditions, Gideon Lewis-Kraus displays a far lower level of tolerance and curiosity for his fellow Jews than for Catholics and Buddhists.
There is a passage in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ new memoir, “A Sense of Direction,” that will make any secularist smile. Having arrived with his brother and their gay father, a Reform rabbi, in Uman, Ukraine, for the Rosh Hashanah festivities at the grave of the Hasidic master Nachman of Bratslav, Lewis-Kraus’ first instinct is rebellion. On the afternoon before the festival begins, when the pious crowd of thousands of revelers is entering the peak of spiritual ecstasy, father and sons sneak out of the barricaded pilgrims’ zone Lewis-Kraus refers to as the “ghetto,” and steal into a local grocery for a non-kosher salami. Under the scornful gaze of a few passing Hasidim, the three huddle together on a park bench, defiantly munching their treyf lunches. Take that, Hasidim!
Lewis-Kraus describes his family’s secular wagon-circling with wit and humor, but it seems strangely inconsistent with his attitude toward pilgrimage in the rest of the book. Uman, “the Jewish Woodstock,” as one of the participants calls it, is the third and final pilgrimage Lewis-Kraus, a regular contributor to Harper’s and other publications, undertakes in the book. During both of the first two journeys, along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the 88-temple circuit on the Japanese island of Shikoku, from the very first footfall, the author takes on wholeheartedly the identity and mantle of the pilgrim; he is participant as much as observer.
Part of what this means is abiding by the basic rules of each pilgrimage. On the Camino, a journey of some 800 kilometers, Lewis-Kraus insists on walking the whole route from its beginning at France’s border with Spain − getting his pilgrim’s passport stamped every day − and is disdainful of bus-taking, route-skipping cheaters. In Shikoku, he walks 1,200 kilometers, wears the traditional pilgrim’s garb, and pays his respects at every one of the 88 Buddhist shrines. And in Uman? The salami incident captures Lewis-Kraus’ lack of identification and how far that pilgrimage departs from his earlier journeys: He avoids the prayers, surreptitiously checks his e-mail in the porta-potty, scoffs at the Bratslav Hasidim he meets, and eats pork sausage.
There are a number of reasons that Lewis-Kraus’ attitude in Uman is so different. The author’s impetus for embarking on this string of pilgrimages was a surfeit of choices. The book opens with Lewis-Kraus in Berlin, to which he has escaped America to stave off what he perceives to be his father’s fate. Rather than repress his true desires for freedom, wildness and experience, the author tells us that he hoped to avoid the explosive return of those desires later on. “I wanted my twenty-seven-year-old self to take good care of my forty-six-year-old self,” he writes, making reference to the age at which his father came out of the closet, “and I wanted my forty-six-year-old self to be able to look back happily and be proud of my twenty-seven-year-old self.” It is only in Uman that Lewis-Kraus stops running from his father and obsessing on his mistakes, and starts listening to his father’s own sense of his story. The pilgrimage to Ukraine serves mainly as a backdrop to their reconciliation.
The fundamental difference, though, has to do with what Lewis-Kraus means by pilgrimage. Interspersed among the vivid and comic descriptions of pilgrims, landscapes and adventures that make up the best parts of “A Sense of Direction” is an argument, sometimes ponderously made, for reimagining pilgrimage as a secular rite. Lewis-Kraus contrasts the Hasidic pilgrims’ belief in an absolute authority
(i.e. God) dictating the events in Uman − a characterization of Uman that is neither strictly accurate nor conveys the fringe nature of this pilgrimage within the ultra-Orthodox world − with the openness of the now mostly secular Camino. His claim is that in secular pilgrimage, the journey is meaningful not because it is willed by the divine or promises release from sin, but because it is oriented and directing; as he puts it, life on the Camino is filled with “the meaning of moving forward, of getting to Santiago.” Just as important, this sense of purpose is provisional. Once the walk is over, the pilgrim returns to a life of conflicting choices, allegiances and desires. The journey, and the feeling of coherence that accompanies it, is a model that instructs us how to live after the return home. “These are brief encounters with radical acceptance,” Lewis-Kraus writes of the returning pilgrim, “that we do our best to secretly save up in our hearts.”
In this call for secular pilgrimage, Lewis-Kraus seems to be drawing on the work of Richard Rorty, though the author’s debt to this U.S. intellectual is never quite acknowledged. Trained as an analytic philosopher, in the tradition of Russell and Wittgenstein, Rorty is best known as a pragmatist. The central claim of pragmatism, in Rorty’s reading, is that there is no absolute, metaphysical being, ideal or truth that can dictate human behavior; in his words, “there is no ethical motive apart from the desire for the happiness of human beings.”
While for most of his life Rorty avoided the topic of religion, the works published in the decade before his death in 2007 reveal a new engagement with religious faith and reimagine pragmatism, as one of his essays puts it, as “romantic polytheism.” By polytheism, Rorty does not mean the existence of various gods, but the existence of various “goods”: “diverse, conflicting, but equally valuable forms of human life.” In this polytheistic situation, the one measure for ranking human needs is human happiness, and sin, commandments and revelation have no value. In place of belief in the supernatural, Rorty proposes a “faith in the future possibilities of moral humans, a faith which is hard to distinguish from love for, and hope for, the human community.” Elsewhere, Rorty, following in the tradition of earlier pragmatists, has identified this faith as the civil religion of democracy, in particular American democracy, in which fraternity, solidarity and loving-kindness replace the authority of God.
The pilgrims’ route along the Camino, even more than the temple route in Shikoku, is, in Lewis-Kraus’ description, a realized version of Rorty’s polytheism. Every one of the pilgrims on the way is walking for a different purpose − to overcome a crisis, for the physical challenge, to lose weight, some even because of their Catholic faith − but all share, literally, a single, temporal goal. Each is entitled to walk at his or her own speed, however they like, just so long as they do not impinge too much on others’ journeys. The Uman he describes is exactly the opposite: a rigidly policed theocracy riddled with rabbis, in which people are “micromanaged by scriptural obligation from sunrise to sleep.” Uman is the monotheistic nightmare of Rorty’s polytheistic pragmatism.
That “A Sense of Direction” reveals Rorty’s influence is far from surprising. Though he never mentions the connection in the book, Lewis-Kraus was Rorty’s graduate assistant at Stanford University, compiled a bibliography of his works and edited several collections of his writings, including the volume containing the essay “Pragmatism and Romantic Polytheism.” He has also explicitly written about Rorty and his philosophy in a number of articles, and “A Sense of Direction” is, significantly, dedicated to Rorty’s memory.
What Lewis-Kraus also shares with Rorty, unfortunately, is a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be religious. In “Pragmatism and Romantic Polytheism” and other essays, Rorty envisions a secular utopia in which religion and religious expression are shunted to the sidelines, outside the public sphere; where churches and ecclesiastical organizations, essentially agents of evil in his opinion, are abolished; and where “we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity.” Among the critiques of this position is the claim that Rorty is demagogic in his dismissal of religious belief. Is organized religion nothing but a blight, and, at that, a worse one than others in human history? Are all those who believe that homosexuality is anathema to God using faith merely as a cover to sanitize their homophobia, as Rorty has argued elsewhere? Is he not painting with too broad a brush?
Lewis-Kraus, despite being the son of two Reform rabbis − or, on second thought, perhaps because he is the son of two Reform rabbis − has just as little patience as his mentor for belief and believers. He portrays the revelers in Uman as hopelessly unfree, a black-hatted congregation of clowns and shysters, xenophobic and misogynistic. He portrays their faith as simplistic, cowering and unsophisticated, and their pilgrimage as an entirely different species than that which he has encountered before. There is little consideration for the multitude of motives that might bring someone to Uman, for the depth of their experience that pilgrims might feel, or for the possibility that this depth and multiplicity might be on par with the experience of pilgrims on the Camino.
In his narrative, Lewis-Kraus is so busy fencing himself off from the Hasidim that he hardly has time to talk to them at all, much less investigate their lives and beliefs. I am not arguing that there is necessarily more to discover − it could be that Rosh Hashanah in Uman is as shallow as he suggests − but that Lewis-Kraus did not give this journey its due. He came ready to pass judgment, eat pork and skip town.
“A Sense of Direction” would be a better book without the visit to Uman and without the philosophizing that encumbers an otherwise well-written and funny story. Most of Lewis-Kraus’ big-picture ideas come through in the narrative itself, and his exposition only makes them feel tired and sophomoric. Luckily for the reader, the best parts in “A Sense of Direction” carry the reader over the rough patches in the road.
Samuel Thrope is a writer and translator who has written for Tablet, Zeek, the Jerusalem Report and ZYYZYVA.