Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Book Review: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis

Tova Mirvis' memoir, The Book of Separation, is a beautifully written account of her break with Modern Orthodoxy (and religion as a whole). It's unique in the genre in that she left Modern Orthodoxy as opposed to Hasidim or the Haredi community; also, she left when she was turning forty, and the process of leaving involved the death of her marriage. That experience is unlike that of many college students or other young adults who slowly drift and then defect from the movement.

Mirvis struggles with guilt, shame, critical voices in her head, the role of men vs. the role of women and many other uniquely modern problems throughout the course of the work. She's at her strongest when she is describing the impact of leaving and the very real ramifications for herself and for those around her. There's a recurrent theme based on a story she was once told that people may leave religion, and partake of the pleasures of the world, but they will never be able to fully enjoy them. The mind remains caught within the religious strictures even when the body rebels. Mirvis also movingly describes the variegation within her own family- her brother became Haredi, she left Orthodoxy, and her sister was single at the age of thirty-seven. Each of these individuals had their own unique experience with religion and the attendant judgment, shame and the potential lack of understanding or acceptance from others due to their choices.

Mirvis is at her weakest when describing the death of her marriage, something which she consistently attributes to having gotten married too young and to the restrictions of religion. It seems obvious there was more to it than that; most likely Mirvis could not write about it in detail (either due to worry about defamation or because her children will read this book one day). In her narrative, Mirvis takes minimal responsibility, instead casting herself as someone brave, finally gathering the courage to live her truth; this reader sees her as someone who had a midlife crisis and decided to paint it in pretty colors.  The depiction of her husband is also flawed; he is a one-note character who only shows up as a foil to her supposed bravery. He wants to remain Orthodox, sticking with the status quo, where she wants to engage in free fall because she needs to do the things that scare her. Additionally damning is the fact that Mirvis was interacting with the man she would marry after her divorce at the same time that she was in couples therapy; granted, all of the interactions between them were innocent. Yet it's clear, in a scene where that man makes her feel confident and offers her courage, helping her overcome a long-held fear, that he is fulfilling her emotionally in a way her husband can't. It reads like an emotional affair even if nothing physical happened.

The scene which I found the most raw and impactful has to do with the relationship between art & religion. The Orthodox Forum asked Mirvis, along with other artists and creatives, to talk about the tension or correlation between religion and culture. Mirvis at first gave canned answers trying to claim that creativity wasn't stifled by religion, but then told the truth. In her words:
I sat down at my desk. The words rushed out of me. There was a conflict, a terrible one. To write required freedom, but I didn't think you could create freely with the admonitions of Orthodoxy looking over your shoulder. Did you have to show your rabbi any potentially controversial scene and ask whether it was permissible- here, too, were you subject to inspection What did it mean to write knowing you'd be viewed suspiciously by your community if you pushed past the comfort zone? What about stories that didn't conform the official public version of Orthodoxy- what about stories that wanted to challenge or subvert? Even though what I'd written didn't overtly cross any line- there was no attack against Orthodox doctrine, no open disavowal of the rules- I knew that I had become willing to walk closer to the edge. (194) 
Chaim Potok said something much the same when he talked about cultural fusion. It's something that I think all creatives struggle with- how to be part of the religion that binds you while interacting with a world you find spellbinding. The give and take, the push and pull, the tension that can choke do you navigate it?

Absent in Mirvis' memoir was anything relating to Tanakh. She is a novelist, and so one might hope that she would have been exposed to the ultimate storybook- the Tanakh, with all its twists, turns, complicated characters and complex realities. But in her book, her focus is entirely upon halakha and Talmud. The halakha binds and restricts her, curtailing her every movement. She chafes against it, a bird caught in a cage she is partially complicit in building...and so at last, she must break free. The Talmud fascinates her, and she enjoys it as an intellectual pursuit, but it doesn't provide meaning to her. I have to wonder whether the Tanakh was taught to her with the same passion that halakha was. My guess is no. I wonder whether a Tanakh-infused Judaism, one where the stories were not moralistic (as so many of the ones she references in her memoir were), but rather real, would have made any difference. The one scene where Mirvis talks about Tanakh is when her teacher is engaging in apologetics for David & Batsheva. Mirvis catches on to the seeming hypocrisy; she would not be permitted to give this sort of excuse, so why does David get away with it? This is precisely why Rabbi Carmy and Rabbi Helfgot have written about the need to teach authentic Tanakh, one which does not (or at least does not only) excuse characters but also engages with them, flawed as they are.

Much in Mirvis' memoir speaks to me as someone who loves words, loves books, loves to write and is still a participant in this religion. Like Mirvis, I often find the halakha constricting, and like Mirvis, I dislike the focus upon nitty-gritty details. But unlike Mirvis, the stories capture my attention and move me. When I find myself frustrated by snow white cloths and drops of blood, I remember Saul and Samuel and Abraham; it's their world, and the meaning they wrung from it, that appeals to me. My world is made of stories and I believe the stories in our book are some of the most potent and meaningful. They differ from myths and other Near Eastern origin stories in important ways; they educate humanity and teach humans the importance of nobility over power. The way I see religion emphasizes God and the individuals with whom He communed above the law, especially the law wielded as a weapon. At the center of The Book of Separation is the fact that Mirvis' Judaism had no God, or at least no God with whom she could really speak. Her religion was run by men and comprised of everlasting details, inspections, things she could and could not do. There's a piece of me that wishes- that wonders- whether things would have been different if she had been raised to speak to God, and to find power in the stories of her heritage, power that would have superseded her frustration with the law's grip. In a different world, Mirvis would use her incredible talent to write authentically about the tension of being a creative caught within a religious world. However, she would recognize God cheering her on, eager for her to navigate that territory, and so she would not worry about His supposed emissaries holding her back.