Old Left, New Left, Secular Jew Left

Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist

By Lawrence Bush. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2007, 194 pp.

In the 1979 comic film entitled Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, which is set in Judea in the first century C.E., there is a revolutionary group fighting against the Roman occupation called the Judean People’s Front. Who are its greatest enemies? The Romans? No. The answer is the People’s Front of Judea.

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and Jewish Currents magazine had very serious disagreements for most of their history. Their opposition to each other was not trivial, unlike the comical situation depicted in the Monty Python movie. Jewish Currents came into existence in 1946 under a different name, Jewish Life. It was a Communist monthly. The Workmen’s Circle is much older, founded in 1900, as a Jewish mutual-aid organization committed to social justice. It is more or less socialist, and in earlier years, identified with the Yiddish language. Communism and socialism were clearly enemies of each other when Stalin was alive. But Stalin died in 1953, and then in 1956 the ruler of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, spoke about the purges and murders committed by Stalin. Although Jewish Life printed Khrushchev’s revelations, many readers felt it had been guilty of covering up Stalin’s crimes for most of its history and canceled their subscriptions. The magazine then recreated itself as Jewish Currents, with Morris U. Schappes as its editor. Schappes had been a member of the Communist Party and had been imprisoned for 13 months for perjury, but he was willing to discuss Soviet anti-Semitism and other such issues. In 1967, when the Soviet Union denounced Israel for aggression, Schappes and Jewish Currents supported Israel’s right to defend itself, thus breaking forever with Communism.

At this point, Jewish Currents and the Workmen’s Circle no longer disagreed; nevertheless, they remained enemies, just like the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front. Schappes, who died in 2004 at the age of 97, had ended his editorship two years earlier, in 2002, and Lawrence Bush became editor in his place. Lawrence Bush then did the impossible: in 2006, he managed to get the two organizations to merge. Today, on the front cover of Jewish Currents, we read the words, The Magazine of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring.”

To understand how Lawrence Bush could have brought this about, we should read his wonderful, autobiographical, introspective, philosophical book Waiting for God. Like Jewish Currents, Bush is descended from Communists. They—his parents and the magazine—were the Old Left, rejecting religion and believing in Communism with absolute faith. Interestingly, the world is changing. Bush writes, “More than two thirds of Americans describe themselves as more or equally religious as their parents; more than four fifths express belief in an afterlife; more than half believe in the existence of hell; nearly a third have meditated or practiced yoga” (p. 4).

In a world which has been getting less religious ever since the 16th century, it is curious that belief in the supernatural is returning. Bush explores the possibility that the invention of the atomic bomb led a generation to question the value of science, which in turn led to an opening of the mind to mysticism and faith. “How ironic that this brilliant synthesizer of scientific knowledge and religious wonder should be responsible for facilitating the creation of the Bomb, the terrible ‘splitting’ that would alienate an entire generation from the sciences” (p. 24), he writes.

Bush recalls the take-cover drills that took place in schools during his childhood, when the teacher would say “take cover” and the students instantly disappeared under their desks. Such drills could easily frighten children and convince them that science had led the world into ever-increasing danger. Yet I too remember take-cover drills (which I never found frightening), dating back to my years in junior high school (1949-51), before Lawrence Bush was born. Nevertheless, people of my generation, by and large, did not take part in the religious reawakening of the counter-culture. It is hard to understand what caused a generation to embrace the rejection of reason that characterized parts of the New Left. A possible cause, perhaps, is that the movement grew out of the opposition to the Vietnam War, which in time became an anti-American movement, which in turn led it to be an anti-Constitution movement, and consequently, a movement that opposed the values of the Enlightenment that had given birth to the United States and its system of government.

Karl Marx said that religion is the opium of the masses (Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right, introduction). For the New Left, opium was the religion of the classes. The Old Left was atheistic, although members of the Communist Party had faith in the words of Marx. The New Left was characterized by the counter-culture, which included not only religion but also sexual freedom and illegal drugs. Bush has created the term “Woodstockers” for members of the counter-culture, based on the festival that was supposed to have taken place in the village of Woodstock, Ulster County, New York State, but in fact took place about 50 miles southwest of there. Bush was a Woodstocker himself for a while. Not only did he take LSD, but it worked to the extent that he writes “I even became Jesus Christ for one night, and emerged from this mini-psychosis with insights into the roots of my own egotism and messianism that might have taken years of therapy to uncover” (p. 30).

Science is learning about the world through observation, measurement, experimentation, discussion, etc. Rejections of science include religion, mind-altering drugs and post-modernism, which seem different from each other. Bush, with perception and accuracy, relates these anti-science phenomena to each other when he writes “These range from pre-modern astrology and faith healing to post-modern academic critiques of the very concepts of ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’” (p. 25). Furthermore, he relates the entire religious experience of the Woodstockers to the obsession with drugs: “… most historical writings about the crucible decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s tend to ignore or grossly underestimate the impact of drug use upon our generation’s consciousness” (p. 47). And in addition to drugs, there is anti-Zionism. Bush asks, rhetorically, “Was Zionism a form of racism, as contended by nearly every left-wing group?” (p. 73).

The title Waiting for God reminds us of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. The two main characters in the play are named Didi (Chinese for “younger brother”) and Gogo (Chinese for “older brother”). Nowadays, the pinyin system of transcription, which is the standard romanization used in China, spells the latter word gege [both g’s are hard]. The spelling of the vowel in gege differs from one system to another because it does not occur in English. It resembles the schwa vowel found in the final a in sofa, but it can be a stressed vowel in Chinese. Waiting for God is about the spiritual path of a didi, Lawrence Bush himself, and his gege, Russ. Russ emerged from the Woodstock era as a fundamentalist Christian. “Russ’s conversion came at the height of the cult craze, when the Moonies, the Hare Krishna Movement, the Divine Light Mission and others were recruiting heavily ….” (p. 115). Russ is absolutely committed to Christianity; he would not accept books that his didi and others passed on to him.

Lawrence Bush came through his Woodstocker years as a committed atheist, and simultaneously, someone who understands the appeal of religion and who can see its beauty. He rejects all religions, but not equally. Despite his atheism, he can write, “On the more intellectual side of things, I myself have been very attracted to some of the psychological, social and ethical insights of the Jewish religion. I especially love to read the Talmud (in translation) and encounter the civilizing spirit of the majority of its conversations” (p. 7). He does not say the same sort of thing about Christianity, perhaps because of his knowledge of the experiences of his gege, Russ. “Even the basic story line of Christianity—God offering redemption from sin to humanity by sacrificing his ‘only begotten son’ in a torturous death—has always seemed far more grim and repellent than redemptive to me …” (p. 124).

Old Leftists typically defined themselves as atheists and rejected the idea that they had faith of any kind. Bush’s atheism, on the other hand, extends to his recognition that Marxism shares elements of doctrine with religion. “…. Revolutionary Marxism was essentially that, a classical oppositional-salvational religion …” (p. 72). He has rejected the faith of his own parents and of the parent of the magazine he edits, Jewish Currents. This double rejection is what enabled him to negotiate the merger between the magazine and the Workmen’s Circle, between the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea.” And yet, Bush is not someone who should be characterized by rejection. He reconciles his Judaism and his atheism without any problems. He respects the need for religion, and he looks upon his personal Woodstocker experiences as enlightening. Most of all, however, he feels, “I treasure being a modern, Western man and I have no nostalgia for the helpless conditions in which my superstitious ancestors lived” (pp. 176-77).

Lawrence Bush, the atheist, ends his book with a story from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b, in which a group of rabbis reject proof by miracle in favor of majority rule. In this parable, God reacts by laughing and saying, “My children have defeated Me, my children have won” (p. 187). Bush is citing the Talmud as an argument in favor of atheism! How very Jewish!

Update:  In March 2009, the Workmen’s Circle / Arbeter Ring sent the following message to its members: “After four years of publishing Jewish Currents magazine and providing it to our members as a benefit for their membership, we are returning the magazine to its independence. This decision is strictly financial.”

A version of this review appeared in Midstream, versionVolume LV, Number 4, Fall 2009.