Religion & Beliefs
Why I’m Jealous of Shalom Auslander’s Horrible God
When I was a kid, I was taught that it’s okay to be angry, so long as you can find good ways to get the anger out. Painting—I was instructed—was good for getting the anger out (hence we make abstract … Read More
When I was a kid, I was taught that it’s okay to be angry, so long as you can find good ways to get the anger out. Painting—I was instructed—was good for getting the anger out (hence we make abstract art). Dancing was good for getting the anger out (hence we form mosh pits).
More than anything, talking was good for getting the anger out. Talking was constructive. Communication was good. Even when it was ugly.
And so I learned to confront people. To say, “I’m angry at you,” or “You did something that hurt my feelings and it really messed me up,” or “You’re a total douchebag, you total douchebag.”
But the trick with talking, as opposed to splatter art or slamdancing, was that you actually had to know who you were angry at. You had to be able to locate the object of your anger, figuratively and literally. You needed a door to knock on. Someone to yell at.
This week, reading Shalom Auslander’s new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, I found myself thinking about anger. About talking when you’re angry. And about talking to God, who is the object of Auslander’s anger.
See—this weird and powerful book, is basically just 310 pages of anger. 310 pages of ranting. 310 pages of Auslander screaming over and over again, “You’re a total douchebag, you total douchebag!” To God.
Auslander hates him more than I’ve ever hated anything. And he’s been putting off telling God that, until now. He’s been afraid to tell him. Afraid of God’s reaction. God’s wrath. In very concrete ways, Auslander has (if we are to believe his book) been afraid of God’s punishment. Pillars of salt and plagues of locusts. Auslander has been afraid God would kill his wife. Ruin his career.
But here’s the trick—in order to hate something you have to really believe in that something. You can’t hate a vague memory. You can’t hate an amorphous consideration. Auslander hates God because he knows God.
Which is pretty amazing to read about—such hatred. Hatred as proof of true belief. Hatred directed at the sky, executed without a shiny happy veneer. Hatred without a lesson.
But why so much hate?
Well, Auslander grew up a true believer with a fucked up life. With an alcoholic dad and a doormat mom. With an overwhelming sexual urge, a critical mind, and a religious environment that could accept neither.
And what does one do when one truly believes that everything in the universe is controlled by the omnipresent hand of HaShem, but that the universe is totally chaotic? How could one not, under such circumstances, be angry at God? How could one not see God as some kind of vindictive, manipulative bastard?
Okay, so Auslander’s mad. He hates God. He fights God at every step. He attempts to manipulate God into killing his raging dad by eating trayf. Because he has been given to understand that “until the age of thirteen all of a boy’s sins are ascribed to his father.” Then he tries to run away from God, from his family, his orthodox world.
And I guess we’re supposed to feel bad for Auslander. That he’s been so horrendously messed up by his family and the orthodoxy that he’s still making deals with God as an adult. That he’s superstitious to the core, so afraid of God he’s certain that if he dares to be happy, God will do something terrible to him, maybe deform his unborn child.
But here’s the trick—I don’t feel bad for him. Not really. I feel something else. I feel moved by his story, compelled, hungry for more. Which is to say that I feel jealous. Because I want a God too. I want to believe in something this much. I want someone to yell at.
When I was a kid—growing up with a kind of pluralistic, humanistic, academic Judaism, with a vague sort of “God is the force for good in everything and all gods are real” religion—there were no absolutes. No concrete belief systems. No real community. And so all I wanted in the world was to be an orthodox Jew or an Amish person. Because it seemed like it would be reassuring, to have specific rules to follow.
Heaven. Hell. Eat this. Don’t eat this. That guy is bad and you’re right all the time as long as you do what I say. I wanted there to be rules. And also, I was angry. Maybe as angry as Auslander.
I was angry because I had epilepsy and was being constantly overmedicated for my condition, to the point of illness. And I was angry that when they took pictures of my epileptic brain they found a tumor. I was angry that my mom and dad split up, and that we had to move. I had reasons to be angry, but I didn’t have anyone to blame, anyone to yell at. I had no rules to break that would give me any power or control. Nothing to bring me into a dialogue about all the ways I was angry. I had myself and my anger, and I got lost in each of them, hungry for some kind of relief, explanation, hope.
So I don’t think Auslander realizes how lucky he is. Where he has a core of rage and anger, I have something else. A hole. An empty space. Where God would be. And that hurts too.
I keep thinking about this. And what I arrive at is the thought that Shalom Auslander is the child of an abusive parent—this God of his—and he is MAD. So he’s telling all of us about how mad he is. He’s describing each beating, each time his God slammed his head against the bathroom sink. Each time his God forgot to feed him dinner. And it’s horrible—this story of his—horrible and fascinating and true.
But if he’s the abused child, I’m the orphan. Sitting alone and listening. Knowing that the abuse he’s describing is terrible and wrong, but at the same time, feeling sorry for myself.
“Well at least you have a dad!”
Because it sounds like some kind of a foundation, however messed up. It sounds like Auslander knows something, truly believes in something.
Which is why I think this book is so powerful. Because most gods aren’t gods I can understand. I’m too far removed from such belief, from such lovely faith. I’m too much an orphan to believe in the shiny happy veneer of a perfect parent—the god of Jesus Loves Me and Our Father Who Art and Who Brought You Out of Egypt to Be Your God.
But this god. The god of therapy and manipulation and neglect and irony. This faith of cynicism and resentment. This sounds like something I can understand. At least a little bit.
And that’s the funny thing. The punchline. That this book—which is so angry, so iconoclastic—has convinced me of something, touched me in a small way. Made a believer of me, if only for a few hours or days. The punchline is that this heretical book, this biography of one man’s attempted recovery from faith, has performed a kind of mission for me, brought me a little bit of god.
And although I’m not sure that’s what Shalom Auslander wanted, it might just be what his God wanted.