Were it not for William F. Buckley Jr., who died last week, a Roman Catholic with profound and very public Christian convictions, it seems doubtful that I would be a Jew today. Does this sound unlikely?
Recently I was complaining to my wife, Nika, about a habit among some of our fellow Orthodox Jews, who talk about what rabbi “mekareved” somebody or other. The Hebrew verb, to “mekarev,” is used here to mean bringing a person closer to God. The idiom struck me, having myself come to Judaism in adulthood, as ridiculously patronizing, picturing the rabbi as an omnipotent parental figure and the newly observant Jew as a helpless infant. I asked Nika, “Who ‘mekareved’ me? I was mekareved by God!” So too is every baal teshuvah.
I decided I should reconsider my view when I learned of Bill Buckley’s death at age 82. Buckley, for whom I worked for eight years as literary editor of his magazine, National Review, is the man responsible for mainstreaming political conservatism. He accomplished this, first of all, by the sly seductiveness of his personality; second, by anathematizing anti-Semitism.
Famously, he ruled in 1959 that no writer for NR could appear in The American Mercury, an older conservative magazine that had turned anti-Semitic. In 1986 and 1991 respectively, Buckley condemned as anti-Semitic certain writings of two popular conservative journalists, Joe Sobran and Pat Buchanan.
As the Jewish community would do well to appreciate better, the credibility of his opposition to anti-Jewish sentiment was enhanced, not diminished, by good will and moderation. He did not have the Jewish neocon weakness for holding grudges. His soul was too big for that. Thus, he and Sobran, whom I worked with at NR and always liked, reconciled before Bill died. To my delight, Buckley also annoyed the Anti-Defamation League during the flap about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ,” criticizing the ADL as “incautious” for its alarmism over Gibson’s movie.
Among these accomplishments, I almost hesitate to inject a personal note. Though not intentionally, William F. Buckley Jr. mekareved me.
I became aware of him when I was still a liberal. I was a high school student in a very Republican suburb of Los Angeles and had seen him on his erudite TV talk show, “Firing Line.” He was famous for delightedly tormenting left-leaning guests who couldn’t keep up with him intellectually. I was captivated by his effortless charisma, mixing patrician disdain for liberalism with exuberant joy in life.
My political conversion, the prelude to a more gradual religion evolution, came in college. That was at Brown, where I met a cast of liberal students so asinine that before the end of my freshman year, I had no alternative but to declare myself a Republican.
After graduating, I worked as an intern at National Review. Spiritually, I grew up there. What moved me most of all about Bill was the way his faith pervaded his intellectual and his personal life. Christianity, for him, bestowed transcendent purpose on existence and was the underlying reason for everything he thought about political problems, from the Cold War to abortion.
I realized that my own secular, ethnically Jewish upbringing offered nothing like the comprehensive worldview, grounded in ancient scripture and tradition, that being Catholic gave to him. Secularism’s “truths” all seemed to have been plucked out of the air yesterday, an attempt to lull us into forgetfulness of a simple reality: that without a God standing outside our world and ruling it, there can be no transcendent meaning in life. That’s what transcendence means.
I needed to learn this. Ours is a generation of what the Bible calls widows and orphans. Most of us are cut off from family spiritual traditions, just as the literal orphan has lost his parents and the widow her husband. Scripture warns again and again that these vulnerable people are to be cared for, saved from despair. I was a spiritual orphan.
My journey to Orthodoxy, which included formal conversion — because I had been adopted as an infant and my birth parents are non-Jews — has roots that go back further. But it took about four years from the day I started working at NR.
My closest encounter with Bill was an overnight sailing trip from his home in Connecticut, with him and two other men. He liked to drink and there was a good deal of this on the boat. At age 22, I was then very inexperienced (I’ve since made up for it) with this adult activity. I overdid things and woke in the middle of the night in my first-ever panic attack. The next morning we were sailing back and he noticed how green and scared I looked. I’ll never forget the fatherly way he tried to make me feel better, telling me a story to distract me.
The story was about how he and a friend had almost drowned when their boat capsized in these same waters. The friend couldn’t swim so Buckley pulled him all the way back to shore in his arms. To keep him from despair, Bill had sung to him. It’s the singing, while half-drowned himself, that stuck with me.
I will remember Buckley as a figure who, compared to those he leaves behind, confirms the Jewish idea of yeridas ha’doros, the spiritual decline that accompanies the passing of the generations. Humans of all religious and political persuasions seem increasingly puny. In no context can I think of anyone, any absolutely compelling personality still alive, like William F. Buckley.