I never ran away, dropped acid, joined a cult, or got arrested, but I did take a class called “20th century studies” during my senior year of high school. Considering my general wimpiness, it was a fairly aggressive move. Towards the end of my junior year, I met with my guidance counselor and told her my plan. “You’ll be exempt. There’s no need,” she said. In my high school, if you took both AP English and AP history as a senior, you were excused from their default 12th-grade humanities requirement: the 20th century studies class.
“But it’s the only class that actually looks interesting. All those novels that are dark or spiritual—or both. Camus, Sartre, Hesse, Mishima. The description says we discuss and debate the great ideas of the 20th century. That’s the kind of class that means something to me. I really disliked the AP history class I took this year. The whole point was to learn the basic facts of European history so we could score well on the advanced placement exam and get college credit. To me that’s not enjoyable. It’s just a very unpleasant game that you’re forced to play.”
My guidance counselor folded her arms over her navy blue blazer. She was one of those mainstream women who took pains to present herself well at work. Around her neck was a scarf with a tasteful blue and green design. The blue part matched her blazer exactly. “But you have to take AP English and AP U.S. history. And then you’ll have too much reading to take on 20th century studies.”
“I’m not taking math. That will free up a lot of time.”
The counselor took a deep breath. I actually heard the intake of air, and my hearing is far from exceptional. “But you have to take math.”
“I don’t. Last year I completed the requirement necessary to graduate. I’ve even gone beyond that, a little. The bare minimum is through algebra 2. I took trigonometry too.”
“I’m not talking graduation requirements. I’m talking college admissions.”
“Believe me, I thought of that. But if I take math, I’ll get Cs if I’m lucky. Twentieth century studies is an almost guaranteed A. That has to mean something. And I’m taking AP biology, so I’ll have a science. I have it all figured out.”
She slid her chair away from me and busted out her final, strongest argument: “But 20th century studies isn’t meant for the people who are taking AP English and AP history. It’s less… challenging.”
“But the ideas they’re discussing look fascinating. Existentialism. Psychoanalysis. Nationalism. That’s deep stuff. It’s as deep as your brain wants to make it. How could it not be challenging?”
Though I didn’t express them, huge questions nagged at me: Why should the school’s stronger students be forced to take classes geared towards scoring well on a standardized test, while the rest are allowed to ponder the meaning of their existence and their place in the universe? For that matter, why should I necessarily want to take classes with other losers who are willing to steer their educations towards getting into college? Maybe I would enjoy studying with people who tapped into a kind of freedom that had eluded me until then.
In the end, I did take 20th century studies instead of math. It was one of the few things I looked forward to in school: a break from practice AP tests, memorizing dates, and futzing around with biology labs that were far beyond my weak coordination and visuospatial skills. Everyone at my school was heading towards a four-year college—it was a private high school with particular goals—so it’s not like 20th century studies was filled with gang leaders and pirates (though I’m sure they would have made the experience that much richer).
On the whole, my classmates were a bit less verbally polished than the AP English crowd and considerably less likely to complete the required reading, but that was fine by me. Some of them were quite entertaining. No one in AP English would have played eraser hockey during class, or spit in the middle of the floor to prove an argument about manliness. It was a powerful point, made much more poignantly and intelligently than any of the “smart” kids could have managed.
I remember very little from most of my high school classes, but an idea I discovered in 20th century studies struck me so hard I became obsessed: group narcissism. Erich Fromm coined the term in his 1973 book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. The second I came upon it, a spark seemed to pass into my brain and make a home there, getting larger and brighter each time I noticed it.
Group narcissism is the strong love and admiration people often feel towards the groups they’re part of. The sense that your family does things right and all others are slightly off in ways you uncover when you spend enough time with them? The surge of pride you feel when your school’s or city’s team wins the game? The feeling that your country is by far the best place to live because its underlying values and lifestyle cannot be matched, despite all its problems? Your wish to live in an area where your racial group or social class predominates? Your conviction that your own children are special in ways that other kids just don’t touch? The sense of rightness that surfaces when members of your ethnic group win an outsized proportion of this year’s Nobel prizes? Your belief that members of your own religion are inherently more spiritual, sensitive, or refined than outsiders? All variations on the theme.
It dawned on me that, if I had let group narcissism interfere, I never would have learned about the concept. I would have been languishing in a math class that was far beyond my comprehension because I didn’t want to sully myself discussing books with people who didn’t qualify for AP English and AP history.
Erich Fromm lived in Germany when the Nazis took over; he escaped to Geneva and then the U.S. His parents were Orthodox Jews. So it’s easy to see how this notion of group narcissism became such a burning passion for him. He had brushed against the ultimate, most brutal form of it: the belief that everyone outside your group deserves to die, and that your group can do no wrong as it brings that belief to fruition.
I think the concept struck me so deeply because I embodied it much less than most people I’d known. I’ve never cared at all about my city’s or school’s teams. Maybe I’d like the people on the other team much better if I got to know all the players—so why should I necessarily want “my” side to win? I’ve never felt an ounce of patriotism or nationalism. Sure, I’m particularly comfortable with Americans since we share a language and a context, but I’m well aware that I’d feel the same way about many places if I’d spent my life there. I’d been seeing group narcissism for years in other people and finding it irrational. Now it had a name and a context for understanding.
I took my fascination with this idea to college, where I bugged my roommate with references to it and discussed it in papers. Gradually, it receded in importance as I discovered other intriguing concepts. Years later, the notion rebounded with force when I lived in Crown Heights among the Lubavitcher Hasidim.
As I reread my description of my encounter with their particular form of group narcissism in my book, Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey among Hasidic Girls, I see that I captured it clearly: Lubavitchers “believe that Jews and non-Jews differ in one fundamental way: only Jews have a godly soul, the piece of the self that yearns for holiness. Non-Jews can be ethical, benevolent, and compassionate, but they lack the divine spark, the aspect of the Jew that transcends her physical nature and seeks communion with God. This doctrine confused my secular, egalitarian mind. Constantly, I asked my Lubavitch friends for evidence, for the practical ramifications of this profound disparity. ‘You can just tell,’ they would explain. ‘We are more… refined. It’s subtle but unmistakable.’”
This notion of the special Jewish soul appears fairly prominently in the Tanya: an exploration of Hasidic mysticism by Shneur Zalman, this Hasidic group’s very first rebbe. The tome is essential to Lubavitchers’ worldview, lovingly studied among both genders. Conversation arising from this analysis can be intense and profound, touching essential questions about meaning, purpose, God, and life. It’s a winner of a book when it comes to inspiring deep educational and philosophical experience. But there’s that Jewish soul thing, and I just can’t get past it.
The notion has infused most of the time I’ve spent with Lubavitchers, and I must confess that much of the effect has been beautiful. All Jews—from any race or background, with any level of Jewish knowledge (including none at all)—are welcome at their Chabad houses: the outposts they set up all over the world to share holidays, teach about Judaism, and reach out to nearby Jews. Events I’ve attended have included the successful, the floundering, the chic, and the tattered—often sitting side by side. If you’re Jewish, you’re family. All Jews have that special soul spark, regardless of external circumstances.
For that matter, Chabad houses don’t ask questions. Everyone, literally, is welcome at their events, Jewish or not. The Chabad rabbi on my campus speaks to my students every semester, and he invites all of them to his events. But the intent is clear: he wants to reach the Jews, and if welcoming their non-Jewish friends will help with that mission, he is down for it.
The flip side of this amazing hospitality and warmth towards all Jews is a wariness towards everyone else. I’ve met Lubavitchers who try as hard as they can to avoid hearing music by non-Jews. A music-loving family with parents who found Lubavitch as young adults fascinated me in this regard. Simon and Garfunkel were a wonderful choice because their music is great and they’re Jews. They’re not religious, but they have Jewish souls. Non-Jewish musicians were off-limits for this family. Music carries deep power on the level of soul, and they didn’t want to commune so deeply with non-Jews. They worried about contamination, a muting of their Jewish sparks. I should make clear that not all Lubavitchers feel this way, but the idea is fairly common.
I’ve wondered whether the stipulation that all regular Hevria writers be Jewish from an Orthodox standpoint stems from this notion of Jewish soul. This soul is passed matrilineally, from mother to child (or so the theory goes). If your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish, no further questions asked. Likewise if you’ve had a recognized Orthodox conversion. If your father is Jewish, your mother is not, and you’re president of your Reform congregation… not Jewish. Even if your mother converted with a rabbi who is not seen as kosher in Orthodox circles. If, say, you yourself converted through a Conservative rabbi… also not Jewish.
You might ask: Can’t a person define his or her own religious identity? If you feel in your skin that you’re a Jew, aren’t you a Jew? If you see yourself as a writer who is Jewish, isn’t that just what you are? But I have a hunch that the core issue is the Jewish soul. You either have it or you don’t, and you only have it if you’re Jewish according to an Orthodox definition. Perhaps some Hevria readers are wary of communing with a soul who lacks that Jewish spark.
Just as some Lubavitchers who avoid non-Jewish influences feel comfortable listening to Simon and Garfunkel even though they’re not religious, some may feel safe poring over my tidings here. For what it’s worth, I am pure Jew on both sides. I enjoy this fact about myself but see no reason to believe that I’m fundamentally different from non-Jews because of it. I’m an outsider in similar ways with Jews and non-Jews. An equal opportunity weirdo.
Now, I am a person of supreme openness. My fallible brain may find a notion rational or irrational, but I tend to feel that I am not qualified to have the final say on validity or truth. For all I know, there’s something to this Jewish soul hypothesis. All I can say with conviction is this: it does not resonate with my experience. On the deepest levels of intuition and connection, it shatters.
Many of the kindest, most fundamentally good people I’ve known have not been Jewish. Likewise, some of the souls who seemed to have a true line into the mystical—something true and whole underlying this strange, difficult life—have not been Jews by anyone’s reckoning, including their own. And, I’m sorry to say, some of the cruelest, darkest characters I’ve encountered have been Jews. We’re talking pure meanness, the kind of so-called human who chuckles at another’s deep hurt. For that matter, many Jews I know have virtually no interest in anything spiritual. They’re calmly pleased to accept a “what you see is what you get; you live, you die, and you disintegrate, with no trace of your former consciousness” view of existence and human life. Of course, I’ve known many big-hearted Jews as well—and some deeply spiritual ones. Jewishness doesn’t seem to matter much one way or the other when it comes to goodness and spirituality.
Clearly there’s a way to rationalize my observations with the Jewish soul concept. I’m guessing my more open-minded Lubavitch friends would say that, yes, there are wonderful and even spiritual non-Jews; their mission is simply different from Jews’ missions. Non-Jews reach their highest potential by following basic ethical and spiritual laws (for instance, not murdering, not stealing, and not denying God’s existence) while Jews’ souls need the full system of Judaism and its complex legal codes to reach their full potential. They’d say that the most splendidly developed Jews and non-Jews are all fabulous human beings capable of knowing God and channeling amazing good into the world. They’d also acknowledge, I’m sure, that all too many Jews cloud whatever spiritual proclivities they may have with cruelty, meanness, and the like.
But the fact remains: they see a difference between Jews and non-Jews, stemming from something soul-based that divides those defined as Jewish by the Orthodox world from everyone else. They’ve attributed all manner of things to this divide: Disproportionate Jewish success, including Nobel prizes. Disproportionate mental illness among Jews, which they attribute to Jews’ special spiritual sensitivity. A special bonding feeling they get when they connect with a Jew, which seems to arise from Jewish souls sensing each other and clicking together.
And I mean, maybe it’s all true, but I don’t buy it. Once we believe something, we can twist the world to meet that belief—at least the world our minds perceive. Tell yourself Jewish souls intuitively bond, and you’ll sense it happening, even if you’re simply responding to a similar background, cultural communication pattern, and the like. Believe that Jews have inherently more spiritual or complex souls than non-Jews, and suddenly all manner of sociological observations will seem to fit that hypothesis, when this-worldly explanations like cultural emphasis on education, literacy, and social justice might do just as well.
I should make clear that I’ve only heard about exceptional Jewish souls from Lubavitcher Hasidim, though the idea has taken root in some other Orthodox groups, who find textual evidence they respect for the hypothesis. In my experience, most Jews, including those who take Jewish law seriously, cringe at the concept.
“Special Jewish souls” may well be a reaction to virulent anti-Semitism that has sprung up throughout history: a sense that what some have done wrong generalizes to all non-Jews in a fundamental way. What many have described in sociological, psychological, or historical terms, Lubavitchers and some others have seen in terms of innate soul qualities: coarser, less spiritual non-Jews persecuting the inherently finer Jews. It’s an intriguing form of revenge: pick on us all you want, but we know that we’re better in a deep, ultimate sense.
Still, I understand the desire to fit with a group whose specialness mirrors and validates your own sensitivity, heightened perception, abilities, or whatever. I just finished Haruki Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and one particular episode stood out for me. The protagonist’s friend Haida tells him a story about his father. While working at a resort in southern Japan during a break from college, Haida’s father met an eccentric pianist. This pianist was dying, but not because he was sick. He had agreed to die shortly in exchange for expanded consciousness—an omniscient awareness whose depth could never be glimpsed by regular people.
He could only avoid imminent death by passing this ability along with the upcoming death to someone new. But the situation couldn’t be passed to just anyone: it had to be a person who gives off a certain color and glow. When people take on this early death, one of their many new abilities is to see the colors and glows that others emit. Everyone exudes a certain color and glow, and a particular combination indicates an appropriate candidate to accept the expanded awareness and the death.
This combination is rare: only one in one thousand to two thousand have it. Presumably, there’s something distinctive about them that goes beyond their color and glow; the color and glow speak to something else about them, some kind of capacity for deep awareness, or spiritual power, or something, even without the imminent death, which of course I want no part of.
Mortifying as it is, I’ll admit that I thought quite a bit about this, and wondered whether I might have this special color and glow. If I did, and I met others who shared it, would we recognize each other? Would we feel a special bond? If I spent time with them, would I feel like I belonged somewhere? When we moved about in the larger world, would we just kind of hide our distinctiveness and fit ourselves in, knowing that we could always come together and commune in our uniquely profound way? Of course it was just a fictional notion in a novel, but what if Murakami had tapped into something real?
The idea soothed and intrigued me, much as I knew it fit fairly neatly into the group narcissism model. This would be something metaphysical, something deep and true and beyond the scope of this world. It would give all of us special color and glow people a place, so we wouldn’t have to roam pointlessly and alone.
So how does this differ from the Jewish soul hypothesis? In some ways, it’s precisely the same. We’re talking mysterious, metaphysical giftedness—something you just sense.
So, then, why am I drawn to my potential color and glow community but repelled from the Jewish soul hypothesis? The color and glow idea holds no concrete power over anyone. Once these notions of rare sensitivities and abilities are institutionalized, disaster is bound to emerge. In my color and glow world, the special cohort would self-identify and come together. Everyone who felt part of it would be embraced. These color and glow pals would not lord anything over anyone else, wouldn’t keep those who don’t share their unusual traits away from any opportunities. They’d simply gather together, discuss their perceptions, and help each other grow.
I do not believe that Jews’ souls have any particular qualities that are unavailable to non-Jews, but what if I’m wrong? The possibility suggests a need for openness: for permeability at the boundaries, not cold, shut doors. Human institutions are grossly fallible, even those where special humans are in charge.
I’ve heard of too many cases where would-be Jews were kicked away. Those whose racial characteristics aroused suspicions about valid Jewish lineage. Those whose conversions didn’t meet with certain authorities’ approval. The list goes on. Many believers in the Jewish soul have said that converts to Judaism had Jewish soul qualities even before their conversions: that’s what drew them to convert. I imagine not everyone in this situation converts in just the right way by Orthodox standards. In our world of challenges and choices, life is messy. As are souls—which might not always fit into neat boxes, even if the boxes sometimes point to something real. If Jewishness is, at bottom, a soul identity, I’d rather err on the side of over-inclusiveness, letting those who don’t fit in drift away of their own accord, than institute a hyper-selectivity that banishes some who share the trait, alienating them from their truest home.
The color and glow people fascinated me in part because they flawlessly identified their kind. They used no error-prone tests of lineage, exams of mental fitness, or other institutional gatekeepers designed to keep outsiders away. They were who they were, pure and unequivocal, and they let everyone else live in peace.
Perhaps they exist somewhere—either here or in some parallel universe that only they can sense. Maybe, someday, some of us will find them, and realize we belong with them. Let’s face it, we all might wonder whether we could be among them—whether our particular qualities might qualify us for that honor. I say: let’s not divide or create hierarchies. Let’s exult in the amazing gloriousness that each one of us embodies. Not because we’re elite. Because we’re souls, unique and special. All of us.