Monday, February 18, 2013

a great memoir -- Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor

I like reading biographies and memoirs and just finished one that I have to recommend.  You would think that as on orthodox Jew there is not much I could gain from reading something with the title Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor, but you would be dead wrong.  Taylor tells the story of her leaving the ministry after 20 years of service only to re-discover her humanity and inner spirit, something that the intense demands of her job, even a job in the service religion, had robbed her of.  That rediscovery reminds her of what drove her to the ministry in the first place and what the service of G-d is all about.  She has a beautiful writing style and the book is just the type of thoughtful and reflective memoir that I like.  And the message is one that is important to all people: We are in such a rush to achieve and do, even in service of G-d, that we lose sight of the inner essence that religion is all about.

There are two passages in particular that I found interesting as a Jew.  Taylor discusses how hard it is to hit pause in life when there is just so much to do.  She writes that her Christianity exacerbated the problem, as she felt that G-d's kingdom was out there, waiting to be sought out -- under those circumstances, who has time to slow down and stop?  She found the answer in the Biblical verses we are all familiar with.  "Remember the Sabbath day..."  She writes (p. 136-137):
Like every other clergyperson I knew, I believed I had no alternative.  Taking a full day off was so inconceivable that I made up reasons why it was not possible.  If I stopped for a whole day, there would be no more weekend weddings at Grace-Calvary [the church where she was pastor], or someone else would have to do them.  Sick people would languish in the hospital and begin to question their faith.  Parishioners would start a rumor that I was not a real shepherd but only a hired hand.  If I stopped for a whole day, my animals would starve [she lived on a farm], my house would grow mold, weeds would take over my garden, and my credit rating would collapse.  If I stopped for a whole day, G-d would be sorely disappointed in me.
While remembering the Sabbath does involve a radical shift of priorities, these were all lies.  Observant Jews have kept the Sabbath for millennia, even those caring for half a dozen children and elderly parents whose needs do not stop when the sun goes down.  Sabbath is written into the ancient covenant with G-d.  Remember the Sabbath, the rabbis say, and you fulfill all of Torah.  Stop for one whole day every week, and you will remember what it means to be created in the image of G-d, who rested on the seventh day not from weariness but from complete freedom.  The clear promise is that those who rest like G-d find themselves free like G-d, no longer slaves to the thousand compulsions that send others rushing toward their graves.
Wow.  What a derasha.  No wonder Taylor was once ranked as one of the most effective preachers in the English speaking world.

There is another passage I found interesting.  Taylor writes that many ministers developed "larger-than-life swaggers" as they felt they had achieved near perfection, while others suffered sleepless nights as they contemplated just how far from perfection they were.  She writes (p 150):
As Christians, we were especially vulnerable since our faith turned on the story of a divine human being.  Those who became ordained were not presented with Moses or Miriam as our models, so that we could imagine ourselves as flawed human beings still willing to lead people through the wilderness.
When I read that I appreciated anew why the Torah presents every character flaw in our Avos and Imahos and does not try to sweep the defects under the rag and awe us with their greatness.  The message of Torah is that imperfection is not an obstacle to greatness.  

There is a lot more of value in Taylor's book that I think anyone who is human, no matter what their faith, can  appreciate.   


  1. Anonymous6:07 PM

    >>> You would think that as an orthodox Jew
    there is not much I could gain...

    so Moshe himself might've thought! for why was
    he in particular embarrassed by Yisro's "baruch
    Hashem" (Sanhedrin 94a)?
    he was embarrassed by his embarrassment! at the sneh, Moshe had hidden his face for shame-- to be there beside the mountain in the employ of an idolatrous priest!
    now that same father-in-law/boss was
    blessing & praising Hashem to the heights!* Moshe had underestimated this human being,
    this appreciation resource, who'd been for so long at his side...

    *while still in "the ministry"! (18:1, kohein

  2. Anonymous1:04 AM

    Her derash provides insight into the gzeira shava between Shabbos and Tzippur Yetzius Mitzraim "Zachor" "Zechor" that the RAMBAM mentions - the halachik similarity might also be a thematic one.


  3. Anonymous 1:04am
    Halachik and thematic are always intertwined. That's one of the justifications for analyzing ta'amei hamitzvot.

    Ba'al HaBlog:
    It's a shame the Department of Censorship at certain Jewish publication houses does not recognize what this lady does: that it is important to show the imperfections of great people.
    As, lehavdil, R' Hutner pointed out. After all, how are you going to make gedolim without "The Making of a Gadol"?

  4. Anonymous12:15 PM

    >>> a rush to achieve and do

    does everyday "religion" require a slow mode? (Avraham sitting at the entrance of his tent, before he rose & ran to greet the anashim?
    Avraham standing leefnei Hashem just after the anashim had gone?)

    >>> we lose sight of the inner essence that religion is all about

    & what sight, to all eyes, is that?

    1. Anonymous5:38 PM

      or is Yitzchak the answer here, who for all his coming & going
      (baw mee'bo, 24:62), yet made sure to enter a field of prayer?
      he'd been to B'air La'chi Ro'ee, situated between Kadeish &
      Bared (16:14), between holiness (Shabbos Kodesh) & (a plague of) hail-- he'd been to a crunchtime workaday place...

  5. Anonymous11:48 PM

    If you like essays, I highly recommend "Lavender" by Andri Aciman.


  6. Just googled it and it looks interesting... my plate is full now, but I'll try to get to it soon. Thanks for the recommendation