My book about Leonard Cohen is being published next month, and when my editor told me that an audiobook version was in the works, I begged to be the one who narrated it. I did this because I love audiobooks, and because I wanted to see what recording one was like, and because it seemed a little strange to me that someone else would just waltz in and mouth off all these sentences I’d taken months putting together and all these ideas I’d come up with over the course of years.
A short audition was set up. When I was told that I got the part and could now play the part of me on the audiobook, I was overjoyed. Three seven-hour long studio sessions were scheduled, and had my calendar been old-fashioned pen-and-paper rather than a Google app, I would have drawn little hearts and flowers next to each entry. For days, I walked around the house, reading any printed matter I could find out loud in a voice I hoped evoked David Attenborough but in reality probably sounded more like Gargamel. I tippled on scotch and imagined my voice growing deeper and more mellifluous. I was excited.
It took 10 minutes in the studio to make me realize I had made a terrible mistake.
I am large and boisterous; the recording booth is small and sepulchral. I talk fast, with hands flailing about and sentences darting back and forth like cars changing lanes on the highway; the audiobook calls for a slow and measured cadence, a pleasant NPRish drone that. Really. Embraces. The. Silence. Between. Each word. By the end of the fourth hour, I was blinking rapidly. By the end of the ninth, I was shaking. By the end of the 15th, I sat catatonically in my chair, staring into space, numb.
And then it hit me: I finally understood why, despite the best intentions, I could never be an observant Jew.
The scion of a renowned rabbi, I am now many cheeseburgers removed from the faith of my fathers. I don’t keep kosher, don’t observe Shabbat, and don’t go to shul as often as I should. And yet, when asked to define myself, I’ve always said: I’m a religious Jew.
And I’ve always meant it. Very little about my worldview is secular. I fiercely believe in God, and although I believe the Creator is ultimately unknowable and his desires an eternal mystery, I strive to live in accordance with what I understand to be his will. To attempt and decipher just what that divine will might decree, I turn to my religion, the theological tenets of which inform my every deed and thought. And while the specifics of my faith or of anyone else’s are much too intricate to explore here, I will say that at the core of my emotional and intellectual life is a double helix, one strand of which is Jewish peoplehood and the other divine election.
The first guides me to immerse myself in my culture, be proud of my heritage, and be vigilant when either come under attack. The second provides me with what I believe to be Judaism’s spiritual engine, namely the notion that long ago, and for reasons unknown, the Almighty anointed us stiff-necked people a holy nation and a kingdom of priests; the covenant never says why we were chosen, or what it is that we were chosen to do, beyond a general injunction to pursue justice. Which means that we are all commanded to spend each day pondering these very questions, which is existentially exhausting but which also leads to the sharpened moral and intellectual sensibilities that have helped propel so many of us to the peaks of human achievement. Mine, then, is a thoroughly Jewish worldview, but not, I hope, a myopic one. Because I am so strongly committed to securing my people’s right to a peaceful life of self-determination and freedom from persecution, for example, I believe other people must be granted the very same right, whether they live in Teheran, Kiev, Damascus, Caracas, or Hebron. To me, that’s not an issue of human rights or geopolitics or universal humanistic values. It’s a religious issue, and a profoundly Jewish one at that.
Not eating a cheeseburger isn’t.
I have nothing but the deepest respect for those who have found comfort and meaning in observing the edicts of the halakhah, among whom I may count nearly my entire family. But the edicts never worked for me, not because they were hard, and certainly not because I thought them nonsensical—I don’t—but because my faith works differently.
But, for the first time, I understood just how differently the moment I walked into that studio.
The art of recording an audiobook is as punishing as it is precise. Pronounce it ee-ra instead of eh-ra, and the lovely but meticulous producer sitting at the controls will chime in, bring the flow you’ve worked so hard to build up to an abrupt end, and ask you to record it again and speak the words just so. It drove me mad. Which, I suppose, is exactly why I’ve never been much of a shul-dweller: I find prayer itself full of magic and awe, but when told that my communion with God must follow a precise script read a certain way at certain times, I wither. The same goes for most other halakhic decrees: I understand their logic and admire their wisdom, but I have never been able to feel as if they did anything but put a damper on my religious stirrings.
As I read my book out loud, slowly and dutifully, I understood why. While firmly rooted, of course, in the Bible, Jewish observance as we know it today is largely the creation of an ancient oral tradition. This is why so much of the Talmud is written in the form of conversational exchanges between rabbis: Even if these weren’t transcribed verbatim—and scholars are debating this question—it is still hard to read a daf yomi and not come away feeling as if the culture that created this document was very heavy on talk.
Me, I’m a book guy. The Talmud never moved me; the Bible, so thick with audacious and wise stories, always does. When the focus of the faith shifted from a piece of writing to the detailed decrees of oral culture, it lost, I think, some of that wild and all-consuming tremor that is the way I inhabit my religion. It made Judaism clinical, which is great and which is probably responsible for saving a lot of lives but which leaves those of us who don’t like washing their hands regularly and following very specific procedures out on the margins.
My spell at the studio confirmed all this. I love writing because it is solitary, because it is freedom, because it allows me to skate past my own sensibilities and into the ever larger rink of collective consciousness, because I can drink when I do it, because it is holy. And I hated reading my book out loud because it was confining, because it tolerated no deviation from the script, because it was taxing, because it was all mechanics and no soul.
But you should still buy the audiobook when it comes out next month! And enjoy it! And if perchance you do, and if you hear a certain muffled something in my voice, now you’ll know what it is: the groan of an unorthodox true believer.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.