The Inner Monologues of Indigenous Foreigners

Celeste Marcus, University of Pennsylvania

Religious college students often find the vernaculars of the two worlds in which they live to be in dialogue with one another. Sometimes the interlocution is intentional; our secular peers or professors, who view our religiousness as the remnant of an archaic, anti modern world, invoke a religious precept or text and we are reminded, perhaps, that we are indigenous foreigners. Sometimes the collision is less intentional, more personal and subtle.

I experienced the latter sort the other day. Upon returning to class I was still whispering the following prayer which Halakha, Jewish law, commands its practitioners recite during every morning’s prayer service and after every trip to the bathroom:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, who fashioned man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured or but one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You, Hashem, who heals all flesh and performs wonders.”

Serendipitously, the recital came while my professor was delivering a lecture on deism. Deists, he was explaining, revere Nature while abhorring authority, tradition and ritual (I paid homage and submitted myself to all four of these things while reciting the aforementioned prayer). They believe humanity to be linked to God, as all nature is, and that one can come to know God as well as a human being can, and be adequately cognizant of and grateful for His beneficence and intelligence, simply through knowledge of His creations. Thomas Paine, one of the leading deists of the 18th century, explains, “natural philosophy, mathematical and mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure, and in spite of the gloomy dogmas of priests and of superstition, the study of these things is the true theology; it teaches man to know and to admire the Creator, for the principles of science are in the creation, and are unchangeable and of divine origin.”[1] Further, God’s love is universally and equally distributed; the idea of a God with a particular interest is anathema to a deist.

So is revealed religion. Deists practice Natural Religion, the religion that, they claim, existed before practitioners arose whose God is supernatural and Who reveals Himself through miracles. “How absurd,” says the deist, “To ascribe behaviors that run against the natural system to a Deity! How heretical to claim that God demands we subjugate our rational faculties beneath a system premised upon texts written to a particular people!” Natural Religion is devoid of revelation, and premised upon the human mind’s ability to commune with his Creator via the intellect. Paine explains, “Man does not learn religion as he learns the secrets and mysteries of a trade. He learns the theory of religion by reflection. It arises out of the action of his own mind upon the things which he sees, or upon what he may happen to hear or to read, and the practice joins itself thereto.”[2] Its adherents worship a God whose characteristics can be inferred from the natural world through the human mind and sensory organs alone.

It struck me that the blessing I had just uttered and the reason for which I had said it are at once hostile to and consistent with different aspects of deist thought. On the trek from door to seat I was engaging in an act that had become second nature to me in college: the attempt to reconcile and strengthen my religious and intellectual identities by grating the one against the other.

The idea of a God whose love is demonstrated through the complexity of his creations is familiar to me. It is, I have always thought, the philosophical thesis of the prayer I had just recited. God is an intelligent being, “who fashioned man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities…. If but one of them were to be ruptured or but one of them to be blocked it would be impossible to survive.” If the prayer had started and ended there it could have been a quote from a deist’s diary.

But it doesn’t. Not only does it not end or begin there – there are many laws surrounding the blessing that would further infuriate (or invite the contempt of) the Thomas Paines of today’s world. For example, if one has only slept for 60 breaths at night, which the rabbis estimate is roughly 30 minutes, one is commanded to recite the prayer upon awakening. If he sleeps for less than 30 minutes it is considered as if he did not sleep (I’ll say), in which case he does not recite the prayer[3]. This is merely one of myriad examples of Divine Law governing the minutiae of commonplace, daily activity.

Judaism’s God is quite different from His deistic counterpart. He commands all of these detailed actions and recitations. He granted a chosen people His Torah and His Law. He is beneficent, yes, but we Jews worship Him as our system commands we do because we are commanded to do it that way, not only because we are grateful. Prayer and ritual may remind us of God’s goodness– perhaps that is why they were written. But perhaps not. If there was no spiritual or intellectual activity triggered by the repetition of those verses, I would still have to say them. I am commanded to.

What is the nafka mina, the practical difference, between a deist’s religion and a Jew’s? In either, one absorbs his own dependence on God’s goodness constantly. But for the Jew, this is an abstraction made concrete, and constantly put before him through the rituals in which he engages.

This is not to say that I concentrate on the meaning of the words every time I utter a prayer. I do my best but I fail – I’m human and so fallible (another abstraction of which I am constantly reminded). But that I am engaged in an act because I am commanded to do so by God asserts a relationship with Him the nature and presence of which I am perpetually aware of.

I contend, though there are many sources and thinkers who disagree with this interpretation4, that the emphasis in Judaism is on practice rather than kavanah, underlying cognition or comprehension[4]. It is through action that we serve God, rather than mere analysis and appreciation of God’s goodness.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of the foremost leaders of Jewish Thought and Israeli intellectual life in the 20th century, explains,

The institutional religion whose principles and values are not confined to consciousness but are expressed in concrete manifestations in the lives of those who adhere to it is the truly living religion…. Within Judaism, the content of faith – the categories of religious cognition and sensibility – are the interpretations of the system of Torah and Mitzvoth (commandments) [and therefore secondary to them]….. Judaism was embodied not in an abstract set of beliefs attained by many who had never heard of Abraham or of the Mosaic Torah, but in the Torah and the Mitzvoth.[5]


This is not to say that mindless adherence to a system is the End of  Judaism. But this emphasis on commandedness contrasts sharply with the deistic weltanschauung which subtly injects the primacy of the human mind into its practitioners’ conceptions of self and world.

The Jewish system posits otherwise. Its practitioners, enshrouded in Divine Majesty, pay tribute to their Creator by perpetually subjugating their own intellect and rational faculties to a Will they cannot explain. The effect is two-fold: the practice of rituals like the prayer I had recited in my intellectual history classroom sprinkled liberally over the course of the day; and the sporadic glimmers of intellectual and spiritual activity that these rituals occasionally trigger. Various species of religious practitioner process these glimmers differently.

Religious college students are messengers from a secular, intellectual world to the religious, spiritual one and back again. Our tongues fumble over idioms in the inter-faith dialogues we conduct inside our heads. Our inner monologues are dances from one vernacular to another; struggles to synthesize two incommensurate, overlapping worlds.

Our home, the college campus, is even more hostile to our religious world than were the deists of the 18th century. Our modern intellectual zeitgeist has been marinating in the juices the Thomas Paines of that earlier era injected into the intellectual stratosphere. Deists have given way to secular millennials; the abhorrence Paine felt for dogma and tradition has fed on itself. We are truly indigenous foreigners muttering blessings under our breath in rooms full of twenty-somethings most of whom have never bowed to God, never seen a prayer book.




[1] Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1984. Print.


[2] ibid

[3] Shulchan Arukh 7:1, Ketzos Hashulchan

[4] Jewish sources debate this point: The Shulchan Arukh (60:4) writes: “Some say that commandments do NOT need kavanah (intention or cognitive consecration), and some that they DO need kavanah in order to fulfill the mitzvah, and such is the law…” While this source holds that the underlying intention or cognition of the mitzvah is just as important as the act itself, it does cite opinions that  disagree. There are many rabbis and sources who contend otherwise. I cite this text because it sets up the two positions alongside one another.

[5] Leibowitz, Yeshayahu. “Religious Praxis: The Meaning of Halakhah.”Yahadut, ʻam Yehudi, U-medinat Yisrael. Jerusalem: Schocken, 1979. 3-29. Print.