In “The Heart of Loneliness” (Jewish Lights, an imprint of Turner Publishing Company, 2016), Rabbi Marc Katz addresses a fundamental human experience: Loneliness. Although all of us are lonely at one time or another, many of us are reluctant to confess our loneliness to others.
In this short book, Katz offers a comprehensive exploration of loneliness in its many forms, and helps readers bring their feelings of “nobody understands me” to the surface, where they can be dealt with in a constructive manner.
Katz has written an honest and courageous book – inspired, at least in part, by his divorce from his first wife. As he says in his introduction, “At the time I began to examine the topic [loneliness], I was in the midst of a divorce. In one single season, as I moved from one session to the next of marriage counseling, I suddenly faced, for the first time ever, true loneliness.”
While Katz is not afraid to talk about his divorce, he does not dwell on it; he is grateful that “[m]y story was different from many others. Because I got divorced so young, I was able to fully start again.”
One of the many strengths of Katz’s book is his calling attention to sources of loneliness that fall below the radar for many of us. Nowhere is he more perceptive than in his discussion of the loneliness and frustration of infertile couples. For individuals who have tried for months and then years to conceive a child, “menstruation or a miscarriage signals not just a loss but a death of...their dream.” Katz tells of a young woman who “used to love coming to our synagogue, but now that she is dealing with infertility, she finds it too painful to be in a community that celebrates the children she so desperately wants.”
In his introduction to “The Heart of Loneliness,” Katz writes: “Our ancestors are our companions in pain.” Again and again he draws upon our biblical and rabbinic forbears to serve as role models for how to cope with isolating loneliness. Katz takes comfort, for example, in the story of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and the mother of Ishmael, who is “emblematic of the complexity of divorce.... Hagar is a model for all those suffering, a quiet voice from afar who whispers, ‘It’s okay. I’ve been there too’.”
At first glance, it seems odd that Katz considers the Witch of En-dor (I Samuel:28) to be an exemplar of compassion, for Jewish tradition has long condemned witchcraft in any form. Nevertheless, we learn that at the request of King Saul, this woman uses her magical powers to summon from the dead the prophet Samuel, who warns Saul that on the very next day his army will go down in defeat and he and his sons will die in battle.
Katz argues that in her response to Saul’s crippling fear and loneliness, the Witch of En-dor demonstrates “her incredible humanity and love.” She is unsparing in her efforts to bring some measure of comfort to the doomed king – preparing a meal for him, offering words of encouragement and consolation.
Katz shrewdly observes: “Perhaps the most important part of the Witch of En-dor’s response is what is not said. At no point does she blame Saul for his downfall.”
The theological chapters – “Our Lonely God” and “Israel, the Lonely People” – are at once the most problematic and most richly suggestive of the 10 chapters in Katz’s book: problematic, because Katz will need to devote an entire book to the ideas that appear in embryonic form in these two chapters; richly suggestive, because there is something explosively powerful in the notion of the lonely God in covenantal relationship with the lonely Jewish people.
Let a single example suggest what Katz is up to in these chapters. Commenting on those verses in Exodus where God tells Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no one may see My face and live,” but “you will see My back,” (Ex. 33:20, 23), Katz writes: “The Jewish people are forever looking for a part of God they will not see and settling for a part of God they did not ask for.” I wait for Katz’s book-length unpacking of this most provocative sentence.
Katz, 32, is a young rabbi, yet his book shows the erudition of a considerably older man. In addition to filling his book with the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient rabbis, he has included the latest findings of social scientists and psychologists. Moreover, his writing is enriched by a host of literary allusions, aptly chosen to spotlight dimensions of loneliness: passages from such classics as “Moby Dick,” “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “The Great Gatsby,” as well as from such contemporary bestsellers as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”
Marc Katz is the only student from Temple Habonim’s religious school whom I have had the privilege of mentoring on his journey to rabbinical ordination; he currently serves as associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.
On Dec. 18, Katz returned to his home synagogue to engage with Rabbi Andrew Klein in a structured dialogue on “The Heart of Loneliness,” followed by an animated discussion with a large and enthusiastic audience.
Katz’s book represents a first flowering of his mind, heart and soul – a book filled with the seeds of the rich harvest yet to come.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.