Nautilus

The Hidden God

David Friedman moved from Denver to the Israeli city of Safed in 1979 to live as a Haredi, or ultra Orthodox Jew. At 29, he and his wife Miriam already had four children. He enrolled at a yeshiva where he drew a salary to study Talmud. It seemed like a splendid arrangement, a path into a life of spiritual consciousness. Friedman plunged into his studies headlong, mastering difficult texts in Hebrew and Aramaic. “It was my job,” he told me. “I was pretty serious about getting there on time, spending the whole day studying like we were supposed to do, and also serious about prayer.”

But as months and then years went by, he began to feel frustrated. “Everyone around me would rush through prayers and not get into it. Where were they going? They were staying in the yeshiva the whole day, so why rush?” Prayer started to feel less like a spiritual experience. Friedman believed that the mitzvoth, the commandments in Judaism, would lead him to spiritual experiences. But those experiences weren’t happening. He felt himself becoming alienated from the people around him. Something was missing.

His spiritual struggles suddenly gained a physical dimension. Seven years after arriving, he was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Friedman moved back to Denver for chemotherapy with much to consider. He had followed the strictest prescriptions of his faith to the letter. But he had not yet found God in Safed, at least not the way he’d expected. And, by letting him get cancer, God had apparently not found Friedman.

Friedman’s ideas of God changed dramatically around this time, he would tell me years later. God became an unknowable entity. “I know people who think their beliefs have been proven scientifically,” he told me. “But it’s more like shooting an arrow and then painting the bull’s eye around it. I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. You have to learn to accept what you don’t know, what you can’t know.” The devotee has to arrive at a

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