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The Jung and the Religious

Abraham only needed to prove his faith to God by demonstrating that he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham never had to take his son's life, or his own.
Joel Schalit

Issue #23, December 1995

'Do you have any possessions? Some? Good. Have you shared them with the poor? No? Then you are what I call a Sadducee. If you are not familiar with the Scriptures, I admit that this won't help you. But it does help you? So you know the Scriptures? Decidedly, you interest me.'
— Albert Camus, The Fall

The morning after Yitzhak Rabin was murdered I called my father in Tel Aviv to offer him my condolences. As usual, there was nary a sign of emotion in his voice, but this time the silence was overwhelming. Finally, I managed to goad Elie into speaking and when he did all the rage and sorrow in the world rushed out of him. 'These settlers,' he said, 'are all brownshirts just like the Irgun were before independence.' To understand the severity of my father's choice of words, one must not only know him, but also his particular generation of Israelis. Elie was born in British-occupied Palestine three years after the First World War. As a shipping expert in charge of smuggling Jews out of liberated concentration camps at the end of the Second World War, this must have been the most disappointing moment in his life. As though this were the only time I felt I could ever establish a sense of shared conviction I said, 'Now Abba, do you see why my work on the religious right is justified?'

Many people seem puzzled by my intense preoccupation with religion, especially since I appear to be so irreverent. I have two degrees in religious studies. I make fun of Evangelical Christians in a group called The Christal Methodists. I am writing my doctoral dissertation on the role of religion in Marxist critical theory. I have written numerous articles on religion for Bad Subjects. Not to mention that my girlfriend's name is Christina! At one point in my life, I would have felt no need to justify my interest in religion. Now that I'm older and more patient with people, I do try to explain it.

Unfortunately, this doesn't work too well. Religion is one of those subjects people simply aren't prepared to talk about. I'm forever being annoyed by individuals who assume that my preoccupation with religion is pathological, as if adopting a critical stance towards religion were a tell-tale sign of madness. Yes, I have personal reasons for thinking about religion. Significant events in my life have convinced me of religion's importance in a visceral way. And, besides, when you're a wandering Jew like myself, you can't afford to pretend it doesn't matter. This essay is an attempt to write the autobiography of my particular attitude towards religion, not because I'm more pathological than the average church-goer, but because I think that my experiences, however unusual, bring into sharp relief the problems religion poses for all of us.

The Holy Land

The experience of Fascism is the most defining moment in twentieth century Jewish life because Judaism is a historical religion, and the experience of the trauma of the Holocaust will take many generations to get over. It wasn't just the stories Elie told about seeing the open pits full of stinking, decrepit bodies that put the fear of God into me. It was my father's single-minded devotion to the state of Israel as a soldier and a military officer in Europe during the Cold War that did. I know very little about Elie's life during those years. He would stay away from home for months at a time pretending he was on business trips. But when I was eight, my mother died. This forced me into my father's world of revolving hotel rooms and warnings not to speak about anything important on the telephone. When well-meaning Christians and Orthodox Jews ask me why I don't believe in God, I really don't have anything to say to them except that for me religion is all about death. What more could I ever say to anyone?

No matter how many inconsistencies may linger in the way my father speaks about Zionism as the right to practice Judaism in freedom, he raised me to believe that my identity is defined by history and not by faith. All the trips we took around Israel when I was a child made it impossible to have ever believed otherwise. The most important example I could give anyone is where my father chose to bury my mother: Masada.

Masada was a mountain-top fortress to which the last remnants of the last Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire retreated in order to delay their inevitable defeat. After the defenders of the fortress had been under siege for six months, Rome's Fifth Legion finally began to ascend this 6,000 foot mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. When the fortress commanders realized they were going to be overtaken, they ordered the heads of each family to slit the necks of their wives and children. So when my father the war hero sprinkled my mother's ashes from the summit 2,000 years later, his action was motivated by the burden of history, as though my mother were a victim of the very same struggles, and my father a modern-day Zealot who had sacrificed her for the sake of freedom. Growing up in Israel now must be a lot different than when I was a child. Just look at Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir: he's the complete antithesis of anyone I ever thought existed in the Jewish world until I moved to America. But Israel is an older state now than it was during the 1970s. It has had the chance to develop and nurture its own reactionary ideologies. Now, Israel has Blockbuster video stores, Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlors and Kinkos copy centers, but a religious right as well. It all makes me wish things were still the way they were when I was a child, when the roads still weren't fully paved yet, and we were able to drive to Nablus or Ramallah on a Saturday afternoon with the cartridge of my father's Kalashnikov assault rifle buried somewhere in the back of the car, instead of loaded, with its safety pin turned on. As I have grown older my father's empty assault rifle is what comes to mind most often when I think about religion. That's not how I was taught to appreciate religion growing up in America during the 1980s, and yet it was that very image which drove me to inexorable levels of anxiety and misunderstanding when confronted by American Christians. Part of this feeling of cultural dislocation which I suffered as an adolescent stemmed from this overwhelming fear, beginning when my older sister Naomi enrolled me in an Episcopal boarding school in Portland, Oregon.

The New Zion

My first feeling about life in my new home was an overwhelming sense of depression. Maybe it was the perpetually bad weather. But the immense silence that pervaded every mandatory Wednesday chapel service was a far cry from the shouting and frenzy of my family's Mediterranean world. The way the ministers spoke down to you while students read comic books instead of Bibles was the complete antithesis of the Jewish culture I had grown up in. For the first time I began to think of religion as this objective structure separate from everyday life. People confronted their own religion as an institution to rebel against.

In Israel the feeling was altogether different, as it must be for many American Jews as well. You were Jewish whether your liked it or not. You didn't have to go to synagogue because you didn't need to. Judaism was inescapable because it was in your blood. Oregon Episcopal School was altogether different. All I had to do was attend chapel once a week before I began to realize that I was in a truly religious community whose sense of cultural identity was maintained by far more complex practices than simply attending mandatory worship services. When I was a sophomore, I remember walking out of a lecture by the chaplain of Andover-Newton who gave us the only seminar in sex education I ever got in high school. He started to tell us that since it'd be practically impossible for him to prevent us from having premarital sex, at the very least we ought to invite Christ into our sexual activities as an active, third partner. Enraged, I stood up in front of the entire upper-school student body, and told the minister off. 'You realize, ' I yelled, 'that you don't have a captive audience. I happen to be a Jew, and I can tell you that there also happen to be Moslems, Hindus and an animist from Thailand here too.' As I stormed out of the chapel, my classmates looked up at me in complete and total disbelief. One female student went so far as to immediately apologize for my rude and offensive outburst on behalf of the entire student body. In return I was confined to the dorms for the weekend without my weekly allowance of ten dollars.

I wasn't always so ornery. If anything I endeavored to be a model student because I felt so horribly unequal to my classmates. I didn't have any of my own money. My sneakers always had holes in them and my jeans were perpetually torn. Where I thought I could prevail was in my religion classes and in my devotion to the one physical activity I knew none of the jocks had any patience for, mountaineering. It was in the climbing program that I first met its director, Father Doctor Thomas Goman, a high school teacher with a doctorate in theology from Harvard Divinity School who had at one point in his life had been head of the Students for a Democratic Society in Cambridge. Rumor had it that Tom had blown up a selective service administration building in Boston to protest American involvement in Vietnam. But Tom had gotten that out of his system by the time I met him. Nevertheless, his legend preceded him to the point that many of us mistook his past for his present personality. Students revered him as though he were a prophet. Most of all Tom was a great philosophy teacher. We read Herman Hesse together, discussed Camus and Sartre, and spoke about Zen during our many weekends out in the Columbia Gorge, climbing Mount Hood, and hiking through the Oregon desert.

Tom was a father to me. But as I got to know him better I began to sense that he was seriously troubled. At the end of my junior year I got a job working for the Forest Service in Crater Lake, but I had a couple of weeks off before my seasonal contract began so Tom invited me to stay with his family in Southeast Portland. I had a lot of fun at first, fingering through his old Fugs records, reading Tom's dissertation on the concept of human sacrifice in Nietzsche and the Vedas. And yet it never dawned on me what these records and writings said about Tom and where his life would take him. All I really wanted to know was how they contributed to an idealized lifestyle of rock and roll, politics and a sustained commitment to thinking that I so desperately wanted to emulate at that point in my life. And so I dismissed them after assimilating their hipness factor until the time came when I was confronted with their significance. As a young Jew growing up in the Northwest during the 1980s it was of the utmost importance for me to meet educated adults whom I thought still lived out their sixties identity. It was the only remedy I had to all the docksiders, Polo shirts, and piety that seemed to flow around my high school. In retrospect what was so dangerous was that my need to overcome this superficial sense of stifling conservatism was rooted in my desire to take on the identities of my teachers, regardless of how the new political landscape of the Reagan era had thrown these very people into crisis. Tom was perhaps the most extreme example. Whenever a teacher would organize students to participate in a demonstration — such as sitting on train tracks to bar the government from transporting MX missiles through Oregon — Tom never showed up. Each and every time I asked him why he never attended any of these events he replied that there was simply nothing he could do anymore.

Despite my overwhelming naïveté, it was obvious Tom had directed his efforts elsewhere. In our ethics class he reveled in talking about Kant, Mill and Sartre. When I decided to take his Geometry class Tom's enthusiasm became even more pronounced in his almost spiritual passion for mathematics, trigonometry, and proofs. But I could never get that far. I was dyslexic, I'd never been able to get anything more than a D in Algebra, and I failed to complete even the most basic assignments. This was where Tom and I began to part ways. By December we had almost ceased to speak to one other. Finally I confronted him in his office before going home to San Francisco for winter vacation. 'Tom, I really can't do this work and it galls me. Why can't you acknowledge that and just recognize that I am indeed trying?' Tom took off his glasses, sat down and stared blankly out the window. 'Look Joel,' he said in a tired and exasperated voice. 'You're a great mountain climber, you write beautifully, and you've learned how to think these last three years. There's no reason why a boy like you cannot do equations when the world you live in is built on the math you claim not to understand.' Looking down so as to avoid seeing the expression on his face I responded 'Maybe that's the case but I can't see why you have so much invested in proving that to me when I'm never going to have to study this shit again.' Aroused, Tom finally turned away from the window, looked me in the eye and said the most outrageous thing I had ever heard in my life: 'Because math is the expression of God's mind in the world. By now I was hoping you would have figured that out and learned why you should come to Jesus Christ. Obviously you haven't and I have only myself to blame for that.' That was the first and last time we ever spoke about Christianity.

I proceeded to spend the rest of the school year failing his class and training with Tom and the mountaineering team to take the sophomores up Mount Hood in May for their annual climb. During our down time I'd sit in my room depressed, listening to Hüsker Dü's 'New Day Rising,' trying to meditate to achieve that sense of holiness Tom had found me to have been lacking. But it never really went anywhere. Bob Mould's furious, mantra-like yelling of 'New Day Rising' was more cathartic than the asthmatic breathing techniques I was learning from my Alan Watts books. And my commitment to trying to become more spiritual earned the respect of my peers who had just discovered Jack Kerouac and the Grateful Dead for the first time. But I still needed Tom's approval. By the middle of my senior year I had managed to get over the culture shock of being one of the only Jews in my high school. By turning to Buddhism, however superficially, I had managed to find a way of participating in the religious culture of the institution without necessarily buying into the religion of my friends and teachers. Buddhism was instrumental in putting a critical distance between myself and Tom because it helped me overcome the sense of rejection that the entire community instilled in me. It had to do with nature. In his Introduction to Zen, DT Suzuki summed it up in his argument that Christianity is based on the belief that man is supposed to dominate nature. As simple-minded as Suzuki's pronouncement was, it had a remarkable effect on me because the last positive aspect of my relationship with Tom had transferred itself to the mountaineering program. For the first time I was able to discern the religious origins of Tom's need to climb mountains. And start criticizing them too.

Masada, Oregon

The two practice climbs we performed prior to the annual sophomore outing took place in January and April. During the first training session, we performed a harrowing winter ascent of Mount Hood. After running out of mantras to take my mind off the altitude sickness, I was saved by Tom's request to escort one of our team members down the Hog's Back 4,000 feet to the lodge. She had become sick and it would have been unwise at that angle to have let her go home alone. Besides, I wanted to get back to the comfort of Timberline Lodge with its coffee machines, magazines and overweight Saint Bernards sitting underneath piles of snow next to the hotel entrance. But that wasn't all that was bothering me. The weather had grown positively awful. It was almost midday, we'd been climbing since two in the morning, and Tom still had an icy, cold and snowy 1,500 feet of climbing left. 'Make sure to turn around in an hour if you haven't made much more progress,' I yelled out to him in the howling wind. 'You bet Joel,' he replied as he fastened on his climbing harness and began the last stage of the ascent with his two remaining students. His determination to soldier on reminded me of the chapter we'd just read in the Bible where Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Three hours had passed before I began to get nervous. It was four o'clock and there was still no sign of them on the Palmer snow field. The binoculars were of no use because the snow was falling fairly heavily and the Hog's Back was draped by clouds. My neighbor Eric who had come down at the very beginning of the climb said to me that he wasn't too concerned. But it was getting dark and it wasn't like Tom to take such risks staying out so late. He'd been on the mountain for over fourteen hours, risked the avalanche hazards of climbing during the day, and the weather appeared to be closing in. Slightly reassured, I retired to the day lodge after deciding I'd put a call through to mountain rescue if Tom hadn't arrived by sunset because I knew he didn't have any lighting equipment or flashlights with him and had, as usual, left his sleeping bag with me.

At five I made the decision to take one last look outside before darkness had eliminated the last remnants of visibility not already obscured by the snow. As I walked out of the lodge, Tom emerged from a snow bank with his two remaining companions, falling to the pavement before he realized what was happening. As I picked Tom up I berated him for having taken so long, telling him that he put himself at risk as well as the safety and welfare of the other two students he had with him. Tom remained silent. As he removed his hood I noticed his face had turned a deep purple, and his balance was unsteady. Taking off his iced over glasses Tom declared that his kidneys had started bleeding again. Astounded by this extremely unexpected revelation, I was left speechless. The subject never arose again and I repressed all thoughts about it out of fear of acknowledging the risks he incurred by having remained on the mountain for so long in such horrible physical condition. Everything else Tom revealed to me that year chipped away at his omnipotence. As much as I tried to conform to his desire to get closer to God, I simply couldn't and it was clear to both of us that my flirtation with Buddhism was merely a passing fad. As much as Tom's authority began to lose its weight, every once in a while he'd express dismay over what he perceived to be the failings of my own spiritual efforts. 'All that Zen and existentialism won't get you anywhere,' he stated as we got in his car for our second and last training session on a rock towering over the Sandy River near the Columbia Gorge. 'It's empty. At the very least it ought to teach you that the mental discipline meditation requires is the same discipline you ought to be applying to trigonometry.'

But I couldn't make the jump because I knew what he was hoping it would reveal to me. As we unloaded the ropes and the carabiners from the back of his car, it dawned on me how symbolic my Buddhism was in light of what Tom had said. This religion was the only form of spiritual practice I could appeal to in order to prevent myself from losing my sense of my own Jewishness. Otherwise, if I gave in to the equally superficial option of replacing it with the practice of mathematics, I'd be strangely converting to Christianity. Feeling a little uneasy I bound myself with ropes as though I were a Hasid in front of the Wailing Wall and began the ascent of the 2,000 foot precipice off which we planned to rappel to get ready for the Mount Hood climb. Once we reached the summit, our instructions were to anchor a rappelling line by tying it to a tree. Then we were supposed to practice belaying one another from atop the precipice, lowering our partners slowly in order to prevent them from falling. We were all visibly nervous. In order to make it clear what kind of risks were at stake Tom volunteered to be the first member of our group to rappel off of the face of the rock. As my friend Mike settled in to his harness we anchored his waist on a safety line that we'd attached to the tree. We had to allow for some slack in Mike's own safety line because if Tom fell rather quickly his hip would break. Once our preparations were finished, Tom took off his helmet, screamed out 'On Belay?' and took a swan dive off of the cliff before Mike had the chance to reply 'Belay On.'

As I looked out over the ledge, Tom's body banged sharply against the jagged walls of the cliff. When we noticed Mike rapidly sliding towards the edge, unable to hold onto Tom, we all ran to his rescue to prevent the rope from sliding any further. Tom's fall broke before he killed himself. In silence we slowly lowered him to the bottom. This routine was repeated eight more times, and by the end of it Tom was covered in blood, his dry, frail skin punctured extensively by rocks. We were all extremely shaken. For the first time in four months I thought about his kidneys.

By the time we arrived at our cars I asked Tom whether he was going to go to the hospital. As he put on his favorite jeans shirt with stitched recordings of all of his most ambitious climbs, the blood from his wounds obscured the names of the peaks he'd bagged over the course of his life. 'Oh no Joel, I'll just bandage them myself when I get home,' he said. I was so incensed by the whole affair I spoke to the rest of the climbing team about bringing the matter up with the head of the mountaineering program, Pacific Crest Outward Bound director Sam Dibbins. Much to my chagrin no one volunteered. I went ahead and spoke to him anyway. After describing the day's events I said 'I know this sounds ridiculous but this struck me as something like a perverted act of penitence in order to prove his own faith.' Sam found this too hard to take and threw me out of his office. To this day, I still take no pleasure in having been confirmed right about the meaning of Tom's actions. But I hope Sam Dibbins never, ever forgets how wrong he was not to have taken my fears seriously. On May 9th Tom called me into his office to tell me that he did not want me to accompany him on the first sophomore climb of the season. 'There are fifty tenth graders this year,' he said. 'And you've got a geometry exam the day after the climb. If you don't pass it, you're not going to graduate from high school. Take the weekend to study for it and go up with the second and third groups later. I'll find a replacement for you.' Saddened that I was not going to be able to accompany him one last time before I graduated, I resigned myself to staying at home, even though I had misgivings about his recent behavior. The day before the climb I listened to the radio as I struggled in vain trying to solve practice equations. Towards the end of the evening edition of All Things Considered, Oregon Public Broadcasting announced that a storm warning was in effect for the Cascade Mountain region. I got on the phone and called Tom to tell him. 'Don't worry Joel,' he said reassuringly. 'I already checked with the Forest Service. We'll suspend the climb as soon as it becomes apparent that a storm is about to take effect.'

At 2 am on Sunday morning, Tom began the ascent of Mount Hood with eighteen students and faculty in tow. Several members of the group defected early on due to altitude sickness. By four the next day the worst storm in Mount Hood's recorded history kicked in. Thirteen members of the climbing party remained on the mountain, stranded at ten thousand feet. There are several different accounts of what transpired after that. The most consistent one contends that at that point the snow had reduced visibility to zero, so Tom was forced to set a compass bearing to guide the party back down. Unfortunately it was set sixty degrees off, and the group ended up on the southeastern side of the mountain amidst a series of glaciers and deep crevasses. When it became clear that he had made a serious error, Tom ordered everyone to build a snow cave in order to sit out the storm. For some reason, he ordered that everyone jettison their stoves, food and sleeping bags in order to fit into the cave. The next day the two most experienced climbers slid down the mountain on their backpacks to warn the authorities about what had happened. Unfortunately the rescue effort could not be convened until Thursday the sixteenth, when the weather finally cleared. I spent that Thursday acting as the student representative for the school's climbing program. As I stood in front of the chapel, reporters peppered me with questions, praising my skills as a mountaineer in order to get me to tell them I knew something really horrible had happened. 'C'mon Joel,' a CBS evening news reporter said, 'is this guy Goman a killer or what? You were his chief assistant, you should know.' 'Listen,' I responded as several reporters flocked around me, 'the question of culpability isn't even an issue yet. All I can really tell you without any of the facts on the table is that nature isn't a picky and choosy thing. Its indiscriminate, and when you engage in activities such as mountain climbing, sometimes things are out of your control.' For all the quasi-Buddhist wisdom of that statement, I knew I might be wrong.

At four that afternoon the school announced that a snow cave full of bodies had finally been found. Our new chaplain grabbed me and said that we were going to Emmanuel hospital where National Guard helicopters were flying survivors in a desperate attempt to save them. When we arrived we waited around for several hours as doctors heated the climber's frozen bodies up, hoping to revive them. Midway through the evening a physician's representative announced that the chances were slim because the average core temperature was fifty degrees below zero. Before deaths began to be officially announced, I was brought several pieces of clothing, one at a time, in order to identify the victims. 'Their bodies are too bloated to facilitate proper recognition,' I was told, 'So we thought that since you trained these kids you might have an idea what they were wearing.' I recalled what I could. 'Yes, that's it, that's Tasha Amy's jacket, ' I said, pointing out the last piece of clothing I could identify. By that point I was too overcome with anger to be of much help to anyone. Tasha was the one student in the program I had strongly objected to being allowed to participate in the climb. She was 80% blind, but Tom overruled me, saying that she would be the first to be sent down to the lodge under any sign of danger. As usual, no one had listened to me and a fifteen year-old girl was dead because of it. When I got home I found the dorms unlocked and students wandering listlessly around the parking lot. Everyone wanted to know who had died. None of the deaths had been announced by the hospital yet. All I could do was tell them that I didn't know. Of course no one believed me. The air surrounding the school was remarkable. All the regulations and solemnity had been suspended by the crisis. Students were smoking in the television room, one of the resident advisors was openly drunk, and televisions were broadcasting the latest news about the accident, from everywhere it seemed. As I stood staring at one of the sets, I saw Tom's frozen body being carted off the rear loading ramp of a helicopter. At that moment, I remembered that Abraham only needed to prove his faith to God by demonstrating that he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham never had to take his son's life, or his own.

Joel Schalit is a doctoral student in the Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University. He is currently writing his thesis on the role of religion in Marxist Critical Theory. Joel is also a member of the Christal Methodists, whose new single is entitled "The Fertilizer Mix EP" on Stomachache/RRR Records. In order to contact Joel about his work and his band, you can reach him at

Copyright © 1995 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.