Guiding the perplexed

"Whole new sub-communities are arising that I call the new secular and the new religious," says Dr. Micah Goodman, and these are the sectors that buy his best-selling books.

‘I grew up in a home that was full of humor – we were especially good at laughing at ourselves,’ says Micah Goodman. (photo credit: MIRI TZAHI)
‘I grew up in a home that was full of humor – we were especially good at laughing at ourselves,’ says Micah Goodman.
(photo credit: MIRI TZAHI)
It’s 9 a.m. and I’m at a café on top of the hill overlooking the Sataf Nature Reserve, just west of Jerusalem, with Dr.
Micah Goodman.
The 40-year-old researcher and lecturer in Jewish thought is the head of the Ein Prat Academy in Alon. He is also the author of the bestselling books, Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide for the Perplexed, The Dream of the Kuzari and Moses’s Final Speech (Hebrew, Dvir Publishing).
A big smile lights up his face as he leads me to a side table with a beautiful view of the terraces below.
The waitress recognizes Goodman immediately. “You’re not wearing your running clothes today? Would you like some shakshuka?” she asks with a smile.
Apparently, this is where Goodman has written a good portion of his books.
He comes here four times a week to go for an eight-kilometer jog. “I get back all sweaty, and I immediately sit down and jot down notes about all the ideas that went through my head during my jog. I send myself emails and afterwards expand the ideas. Jogging helps my body relax – otherwise there’d be no way I could sit for the seven straight hours I need to read and write.
“If I take a break for a day or two from writing, I can still come back to the exact place I left off. But with running if I take a break, I’m lost.”
The Rambam (Maimonides), the founder of mind-body theory in Judaism, would have been very satisfied with Goodman’s habits.
Somehow – perhaps as a result of the jogging – Goodman succeeds in maneuvering between his different activities: reading, thinking and writing outside of the box, lecturing in Israel and overseas (despite the fact that he hates to fly), teaching in Ein Prat’s “Elul” summer programs at four separate campuses, and lecturing at the Hebrew University during the year.
Goodman lives in Kfar Adumim; is married to Tsipi, a former archeologist who also worked in hi-tech and is now an ER nurse at Shaare Zedek Medical Center; and is the father of six-year-old twin girls.
He seems very approachable, and laughs easily.
His latest book, Moses’s Final Speech, made its way to the top of the bestseller list very quickly, and he has been inundated with requests to give interviews and lectures.
Judging by the success of his books, Goodman is truly succeeding in bringing a new burst of excitement to the connection between Judaism and philosophy, and between being Jewish and being Israeli. It has been said that Goodman is endowed with a unique gift of clarity – the ability to explain complex ideas in an extremely coherent manner.
“How do you explain the amazing success of your books?” I ask him; the Rambam, the Kuzari and Moses’s speech are not exactly light subjects.
“That’s true,” he concedes. “And I think that 10 years ago, not as many people would have been interested in these subjects.
The ultra-Orthodox won’t read my books because they’re too radical, and the secular think they’re too Jewish.
“But in the meantime, something’s happened in Israeli society. Whole new sub-communities are arising that I call the new secular and the new religious – secular Jews who are looking to become much more connected to Judaism, and religious Jews who are more and more willing to open up to the world around them.”
In The Secrets of The Guide for the Perplexed, Goodman tried to build a bridge between Judaism and people who doubt its truth; in The Dream of the Kuzari, between nationalism and universalism; and in Moses’s Final Speech, between success and failure, as well as power and morality.
Goodman spends about three years intensively writing each book. “But in actuality, I’ve been working on these books my whole life,” he says. “I’ve been grappling with the Rambam since I was 16, which is when I realized he offers an alternative to the dogmatic Judaism I never felt connected to.
I’ve been pondering the Book of Deuteronomy for eight years now. More recently, I decided to read it again, so every day I would read a few verses.
“Basically, every single discussion I had with someone, and every episode of Seinfeld I watched on TV – in other words every idea that went through my brain over these last few years – have helped me write my last book. In my opinion, this is the best one of the three books I’ve written in terms of clarity.”
MOSES’S FINAL Speech focuses on the fifth book of the Torah, in which Judaism’s greatest leader gives the last speech of his life just before the People of Israel are to enter the Land of Canaan. Moses, of course, will not enter Canaan with his people, and his place of burial remains unknown.
“What the people will be able to retain, though,” Goodman says, “are Moses’s insights and thoughts as they are written down in Deuteronomy.”
Why did Goodman choose to dedicate a few years of his life to Moses?
“This is the first book in the Torah that doesn’t purport to be of divine creation. It clearly says that these are the words Moses spoke. And it’s also the first book of the Torah that provides commentary on the previous books. Both of these ideas interest me greatly, from both a philosophical and a religious point of view. And one more thing – Deuteronomy offers a different type of religious proposal than the books that precede it.
“So it seems there are two different religious views of the Torah.
It’s not easy for most people to accept this idea, and it’s created a tremendous amount of turmoil. It’s one thing for people to accept the idea that there’s a disagreement about how the Torah is interpreted, but accepting the idea that there’s a dispute within the Torah itself is a different story.
“Rabbi [Abraham Isaac] Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, understood this. He said God speaks to the people in a few different voices in the Torah, just as every great man is made up of a multitude of contradictions and layers.”
I ask Goodman to tell me a little bit about his Moses.
“Moses stands there, on the plains of Moab, after the Jews made his life miserable for the past 40 years,” he says, chuckling. “He’s 120 years old and caught between his memories of the past and his concern for the future of the Jewish people. This is a turning point between weakness and power, between a weak nation and a conquering nation.
“In his speech, Moses is in essence trying to warn the Jewish people against the hubris of power, from becoming a strong – but corrupt – nation.
“A large portion of Deuteronomy is dedicated to this subject.
Moses knows that the time he has left with his people is limited, and yet he doesn’t spend these last moments trying to convince the people the land belongs to them. He knows they will win the wars – that’s not what worries him. What he is concerned about is whether the future generations of his people will remain moral.
“Among other ideas, the book deals with the question of whether a nation can be strong, successful and rich, and still retain a high level of morality.”
Is the comparison with the Zionist narrative purely coincidental?
“Yes, I believe so. Contrary to what Hermann Cohen believed, for example, that Zionism would destroy the Jewish people, Moses is willing to take the risk – provided the people keep and remember a few critical things. In contrast with Plato and [David] Ben-Gurion, Moses thought what would help us preserve ourselves as a people in this land was the memory that we came from somewhere else.
“This is one of the great paradoxes of the book. It’s not ‘our land, forever and ever,’ and we’re also not from Canaan. On the contrary – the book cultivates the awareness of being a stranger. You must always remember that you are not from here, and that your existence in this place is uncertain. You should not take the land for granted, and know that our time here could be limited.
“So what does our continued presence here depend on? It depends on what type of society we create here.” Goodman clarifies this. “People believed that the religious rituals and the Holy Temple would protect them. They thought that all they had to do was bring sacrifices, and they would be pardoned for all their sins. But Moses said to them, ‘My people, your protection is not secured by carrying out religious ceremonies or coming to the Temple. You will only be safe if you properly treat the three groups of unprotected people in our community: strangers, orphans and widows. And if you don’t protect those who cannot protect themselves, you will lose your own protection, and no religious ceremony will be able to help you.’ “But we’re pros at holding memorials – we’re constantly remembering the Holocaust. And yet we are inconsiderate with asylum-seekers and minorities.”
He pauses to reflect for a moment. “There’s a verse in the Torah, ‘Because there will be strangers living on your land – do not deceive him.’ And Rashi clarifies, ‘Do not accuse your fellow man with your own defect.’ Being the victim of a trauma can make you become more sensitive, but it can also make you shut yourself off from everyone around you or make you aggressive. Therefore, it’s not sufficient to just remember.
“The question is: What do you do with this memory, and how do you process it?” GOODMAN IS proud that he doesn’t have a Facebook account. “I’ve been told that this is a shame because then I’d be able to connect with my readers better, but I hear lots of both positive and negative feedback.”
Secular Jews love his ideas, but the more traditional religious Jews have not responded as warmly. “My friend Rabbi Benny Lau has said the religious Jewish community has split into two groups. One is frozen in place, and the other is fluid and open to new ideas. I have an extremely positive relationship with the latter. The more closed group is, unfortunately, not in love with me.”
He says that the most “insulting” thing people write about him is questioning his right to write commentary about the Torah when his mother is a convert. In other words, you’re so new to Judaism, yet you’re already looking to make changes to it? Goodman’s life story is indeed extraordinary, just like the man himself: his mother is from a wealthy Catholic family from Oklahoma; she met his father, a secular Jew from Massachusetts, when both volunteered for the Salvation Army in Bolivia. His mother converted to Judaism in an Orthodox ceremony, and the couple became religious and made aliya in 1969.
Goodman grew up in the German Colony with his two sisters and two brothers; his younger brother, Tani, was killed in an accident 13 years ago when he was 17. He went to a religious school and was a member of the religious scouts, but as he recalls, “I grew up in a very nonjudgmental home. My family didn’t split people up in to the religious/ secular or Ashkenazi/Sephardi camps. My parents just saw the good in everyone, and I think I received this gift from my family – this ability to communicate with everyone in their own language and act as a sort of mediator between past and the present, and to feel comfortable with religious and secular, Israelis and Americans.”
Where do you think your optimism comes from?
“I don’t know. When I see how different my twin daughters are from each other, I begin thinking that maybe upbringing and environment have less to do with it than genetics.
“I grew up in a home that was full of humor – we were especially good at laughing at ourselves. My father loves to make people laugh and he knows how to laugh at himself, too. My siblings and I have a very strong sense of humor – and sometimes it can be very black humor. When we were sitting shiva for our brother, we would sneak off into a side room and tell each other macabre jokes, and then come back into the living room with a completely serious facial expression. I think that being able to laugh at yourself is like making a religious statement – maybe even the most monotheistic statement possible.
Concludes Goodman: “In other words, it’s saying that God is the only part of our lives that is perfect, that everything down here is imperfect and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.