Review of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life by Lauren Winner. Algonquin Books. 296pp. $23.95.
Lauren Winner's father is Jewish. Her mother is a lapsed Baptist who agreed to bring up their children as Jews even after she divorced him. As for Winner, she weathered her teen-age years in a cozy Reform Congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she taught Sunday school, partied on Purim and fasted on Yom Kippur. She couldn't have felt more Jewish. "When I hear Anglicans talk about spiritual formation I remember the finger paint and the honey and the fasting lessons, and then I am happy that I was formed at Congregation Beth Israel."
After Winner was "formed" at Congregation Beth Israel, she converted to Judaism within the boundaries of traditional Jewish law and then lived as an Orthodox Jew while an undergraduate at Columbia University. That is, until the dreams started--dreams in which Jesus beckoned Winner to Christianity. At first her dreams and the ensuing feelings left Winner frightened and anxious. When the push and pull that Jesus prompted in her soul became too turbulent to ignore, she gradually withdrew from her life as an observant Jew. "...I gave in to Jesus, admitted I'd been fighting with him all these years the way you fight with someone you love, prayed the Sinner's prayer and got baptized."
This is the part where Lauren Winner, who is approaching thirty, should have lived happily ever. Instead she wrote a book that exemplifies Alain Robbe Grillet's assertion that one writes a book to find out why one wanted to write it. But in this case Winner wrote to understand the interplay of Judaism and Christianity in her life. Although she does not present anything conclusive, Girl Meets God is a brave, candid and heart-wrenching book that captures the wonder and the disappointment of intimate faith.
Love for a synagogue or church, love for God in the abstract or as the Son of God who died for the sins of his people here on earth, can be a romantic sort of love. But no matter how enticing a new bond with the Divine may be, you never forget your first love. (The language of courtship abounds in this book). Winner writes that even as a Christian, "I hadn't given up the shape in which I saw the world, in the words I knew for God and those shapes and words were mostly Jewish." It's a lovely sentiment, yet it echoes the troubling notion that Judaism is but a precursor to Christianity.
At first it seemed that Winner was truly a spiritual transsexual, convinced that she had a Jewish soul trapped inside a non-Jewish body. She writes, "stepping out of the mikvah (ritual bath taken as final step in conversion to Judaism) that all changed. My body had become right. My neshama [soul] could rest comfortably, I was a Jew."
But Winner is an intellectual pilgrim by nature, an inveterate reader, a non-stop thinker. Her mind is electric. Her thoughts are sparks that can ignite a fire at any moment and she moves quickly in order not to be consumed by that fire. She wants to cultivate her own burning bush.
The fact of the matter is that Winner then went over to the other side. Once a Jew always a Jew, but not as unilaterally as Judaic law implies. That paradox is inherent in the Yiddish word shmad, a derisive term for a Jew who converts to Christianity. Winner herself encounters the consequences of being considered a shmad when as a Christian she runs into an Orthodox friend who refuses further contact with her. Yet almost as devastating to her were remarks by those in her adopted community made at the time she was an Orthodox Jew: that she had converted to Judaism to snag a Jewish husband. Perhaps her paradoxical relationship with the Orthodox community--one that both embraced and suspected her--was too discomfiting to enable her to feel completely Jewish.
As much as I understand--or perhaps more accurately, almost understand, Lauren Winner--she did what many Jews throughout the millennia martyred themselves to avoid: she converted to Christianity willingly, openly, passionately. Yet I sense a bit of remorse on her part. Maybe it's because I want to sense such remorse. How can one ignore the fact that Winner was once a woman who was so "curious about where one met God amidst all the halacha (Jewish law)," that she took it upon herself to live a religiously observant life? Or maybe that's the point. We should not dismiss her passion or her intellect, but face them because they prominently figure in each of her conversions.
Here I must confess that I am a Jew who once flirted with Catholicism. In high school, I was the Jew-in-residence at an all-girls Catholic school. While I experienced no overt anti-Semitism, I answered questions such as how could I bear not celebrating Christmas or what exactly made meat kosher. I was absent a couple of times a year for the High Holidays and brought matzah to school on Passover. I did not wear the school crest--a cross inside of a crown--on my blazer. I bought a school ring, but had a jeweler melt the cross beyond recognition.
Although the cross was off-limits, I made other concessions. I went to mass when my class was blessed by the school priest, but did not go up to the altar for the actual blessing. Then one day I did it. After school, alone. I knelt down in the chapel, and when I stood up I was dizzy with my own apostasy. I was too young, too dazzled, to realize that I had begun a personal adventure in religious pluralism that would eventually lead to my spiritual monogamy as a Jew. At the time I was aware of only the most cursory of connections between Judaism and Christianity.
Winner, on the other hand, has a knack for taking what she needs from the two traditions to augment her Christianity. Most of the time she does it in a rabbinic state of mind--a state of mind in which she constantly uses the tools of midrashic or commentating interpretation to understand the world. "My story doesn't fit very well with this conversion archetype. A literature scholar would say there are too many 'ruptures' in the 'narrative.' But she might also say that ruptures are the most interesting part of any text, that in ruptures we learn something new." The ruptures, however, are gaps to be filled in, and Winner does that the way she intertwines the Jewish and Christian calendars. She brings together Judaism and Christianity in the Passover seder as well as in the traditional all-night study sessions that take place on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. She is a follower of Jesus who, if she lived during the Roman Empire, might have combined her faith that the messiah has come with traditional Jewish practice.
And while Winner is no poster child for religious pluralism, she attempts to practice her own form of spiritual monogamy by assiduously documenting the commonalities between Judaism and Christianity. "...On Ascension Day, I am struck by the deep similarity that lies just underneath that difference. Both Jews and Christians live in a world that is not yet redeemed, and both of us await ultimate redemption. Some of us wait for a messiah to come once and forever, others of us wait for Him to come back. But we are both stuck living in a world where redemption is not complete, where we have redemptive work to do, where we cannot always see God as clearly as we would like, because He is up in Heaven. We are both waiting."
It's not such a nostalgic or naive vision. The Temple was a model of ecumenicism. There was an inner-sanctum for Jews and then the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest was allowed to enter, and only on Yom Kippur. But there was also an area designated as "The Court of Gentiles." Throughout the ancient world gentiles and Jews worshipped side by side and Jews welcomed gentiles into their midst as "God-fearers." The presence of non-Jews in the Temple was messianic for the way it mirrored the Jewish hope that someday all nations would praise the creator together.
Maybe that is Winner's aspiration too. But there is so much mixing and matching of both traditions in Girl Meets God that it is her self-righteousness which leaves the strongest impression. Reiterating Robbe Grillet's sentiment, perhaps Lauren Winner should write another book to understand how exactly she loves and worships God.