Reform Jews do believe that the Bible was written by humans. Should Reform Judaism still be called a religion?
Well, that’s honestly what I wonder, whether it should be in that case, or whether it’s just a social club. There, I almost sympathize with the people who say, “Well, it’s not heresy, but it’s just another name for hedonism or believing whatever you like.” I’m okay, you’re okay—that’s not a religion. Religion is saying that you know the mind of God and you want to obey His revealed commandments, on pain of losing your soul, at least. People who really live their lives in fear of that—God-fearing, as they used to say—I can respect. People who are somewhere between Unitarianism and Reform Judaism—it just seems weak-minded to me. Why bother?
You mention in the book that some of your most interesting conversations are with religious friends. What do you talk about with them?
My friend Christopher Buckley and I have been discussing religion on and off for years. He’s had all kinds of fluctuations with Catholicism. He’s through with it now. But giving it up was no light matter. We had some very serious discussions about it.
And if I want to borrow a book—any book—that I don’t have myself and need to get hold of quickly, there’s a very ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple in this apartment building, a few floors below me, who would be very likely to have it. They’re highly intellectual, very well read. They’d also be very interested in having a discussion about the book before I gave it back. I’d just have to be careful not to call them on a Friday night because they wouldn’t answer the fucking phone.
Most of my Jewish friends are, like most Jews, non-believers—in fact, very discerningly secular. But these two are very observant. I wouldn’t say very devout, but it means something to them. It’s the continuity of the tradition. I’m not indifferent to that. Not at all.
It’s funny you should mention that, because when I read about your religious crisis at the age of nine, I found myself wondering if you would have been happier in a yeshiva, where you could have questioned everything and analyzed texts to your heart’s content.
My own way of joining a yeshiva was to become a Troskyite, I suppose. I was a member of an extremely Talmudic sect. The leading thinker of our group was a guy called Yigael Gluckstein; he wrote under the name Tony Cliff. There was a very heavy Jewish presence in this group, too. You realized that for many people this was a kind of substitute for the yeshiva. They loved the micro-arguments within Marxism about the nature of the Soviet state: the different theories of bureaucratic collectivism, state capitalism, workers’ status—absurd as these discussions would seem to outsiders, absurd as some of them actually were! Yeshivas were very good training, no doubt about it.
I use the word “fundamentalist” as a dismissive term, but actually, those who really struggle with the text, and try and make it come out right, have my respect in a way. Grudgingly. I think it’s sinister, but people who are willing to give a bit of their life to this, to their Torah portion or their Sura—it’s better than breezing along like some nihilist or hedonist.
At the very least, that approach to religion requires a lot of thinking. As one Orthodox rabbi once said to me, “No Jew is infallible. Only the Pope is infallible.”
My favorite time in the cycles of public life is the time when the Pope is dead and they haven’t elected a new one. There's no one in the world who is infallible for those weeks. And you know, I don’t miss it.
There’s one thing I have to ask you about. You mention in the book that Orthodox Jews have sex through a hole in a sheet. As far as I know, that’s an urban legend.
You should see the email I got from my downstairs neighbor about it! I asked him, “Look, someone’s told me this is an urban legend. There’s a film about it, there’s a book about it. How come only now, when I mention it in passing, does it suddenly become such an issue?” His email was wonderful—about three pages worth—including the possibility that some mad rabbi in some shtetl maybe did say something like that.
But I’ve changed it. It’s not in the book now, not in the new editions. And I wish I hadn’t put it in. It was absolutely in passing, and I didn’t need it. When I think of the mikvah, and other Orthodox teachings about women, some of them very obscene, I could have made it much harsher.
Ironically, you've learned a lot about religion in the process of writing this book. And religious people seem more than happy to engage with you about it.
That is actually what impressed me with all these debates on my book tour. I have had almost no refusals. Initially in Atlanta, my publisher said, “We’ve given up. We won’t get anyone. We might not even get a hall in Georgia to do this.” And I said, “No, I bet you we will. They won’t want it said that they refused the challenge.” And actually, they were pretty generous in the end.
According to the Wall Street Journal, you’ve been selling a lot of books in the Bible Belt.
And I promise you, there was no stop where we didn’t have to turn hundreds of people away.