Neos and Theos

On Irving Kristol:

Kristol confesses that his neo-orthodoxy is “something of a puzzle” even to him. His Jewish family, he recalls, was Orthodox in the sense common in his Brooklyn neighborhood. His father attended services on the High Holy Days and his mother kept a kosher kitchen but (like many if not most women in that milieu) was rarely seen in the synagogue. As a child, he went to the local Hebrew school two afternoons a week and Sunday mornings, learning to read the prayer book and Bible by translating the Hebrew into Yiddish, although he knew neither language. (At home, his parents spoke Yiddish to each other and English to the children, so his bar-mitzvah speech, delivered in Yiddish, had to be memorised.) In school, the rabbi enforced classroom discipline by a strong slap in the face and taught the children to fear Gentiles and to spit when passing a church. “If ever there was a regimen that might have provoked rebelliousness,” he reflects, “this was it.”

Yet he had not the faintest impulse to rebel. On the contrary, he continued with Hebrew school for a few months after his bar mitzvah, although his parents neither required nor encouraged him to do so. After his mother’s death, when he was 16, he rose at dawn every day for six months to go to the synagogue, unaccompanied by his father, to recite the memorial prayer for the dead. “There was something in me,” he later observed, “that made it impossible to become antireligious, or even nonreligious.” This was so even in his later years, in spite of the other, political “neos” that might be expected to have moved him in a different direction. “I was born theotropic,” he concludes.

“Theotropic.” It was not Judaism itself but a “basic predisposition” toward faith that first stimulated Kristol’s intellectual interest in religion, for which he had always had a “vague, positive feeling”. Having read the Bible as a child in Hebrew school and the King James Version in college, he had always assumed that “the Book of Genesis was, in some nonliteral sense, true.” In the heady intellectual atmosphere of college, his theotropic instinct, expressed in his fondness for such poets as John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot, was further whetted by his reading of the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Jacques Maritain — at the same time, he ironically notes, that he was reading Trotsky, Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg. Why Christian and not Jewish theologians? Because, he explains, there were no serious Jewish theologians available in English at the time; it was only after World War II that the German-Jewish theologians Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem, began to be translated.

The inability to dis-believe. That is something I can relate to. At the moment, atheism or agnosticism don’t feel like possibilities for me. I don’t mean that in the sense that emotionally I wouldn’t be able to withstand them, but rather that they seem inaccessible to me.

And, indeed, that I stumbled into Roman Catholicism still strikes me as a strange and unlikely thing. I should, sociologically speaking, be the most liberal and secular person in my family: I’m the most educated, the one who kinda wanted to grow up into some sort of bohemian artist, the least practical, the gayest, etc.

Theologically speaking, it’s less surprising: the Holy Spirit is is not particular when it comes to zapping people into orthodox Catholics. And, psychologically speaking, I’m enough of a contrarian that perhaps it was inevitable in the course of my higher education that I would happen upon these things (a counterfactual thought: what would have happened to me if I had followed up my high school years with trade school  or something more blue collar?)

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
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