On a Tuesday in July 2007, I learned that the sun is a star. A friend of mine, formerly Hasidic, told me the secret. She informed me that the heavens look nothing like we think. I said, “Huh?”
“Look,” she said reasonably, “I swear. It explains it here, in this incredible astronomy book. The sun is a star, a medium-sized one — and just one of millions in our galaxy…”
She looked at me, waiting for my wonder. “Stars,” she said, pointing enthusiastically up to the clouds, “can also be suns.”
I looked suspiciously at the book in her hand. I turned away. I sat down heavily on the steps, pulling my maternity shirt over my swollen stomach. Good God. She actually believed that stuff. The school we attended, the ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov School, did not teach us astronomy. But, still, we know the sun is not a star.
No, the sun is The Sun. The one with six to nine planets around it. The one God created after painstakingly reading the Torah instructions. The one, and the only one, in this universe, lighting our way along with the single moon and the myriad stars.
My friend insisted. It isn’t like that.
I patted my friend on her shoulder. I told her it is okay — we all have mental breakdowns sometimes. She went on. It’s the way it is with breakdowns. She spoke about light years, the distance between stars. She talked about elements forged in light and stars, rambling for minutes at a time. It was disturbing. It is one thing to demand that the sun is a star, perhaps a matter of linguistic interpretation, but that other stars are suns, too — with planets around them — whole galaxies impervious to and in complete contradiction to His orders? God would never betray us like that.
It is not that we disagreed about the fact that light travels. It does — just not very far. I explained this to her. I tried to make her see the logic. It was simple, only one sentence long and in the Torah: On Wednesday, God created one sun and one moon. Separately, He created stars. In the Torah it does not say, “And on Wednesday, God created many, many suns that from afar will look like many, many stars whose light will reach Earth after light-years of travel.”
But my friend had sparks in her eyes, the kind that emanate from people who confuse facts for knowledge, evidence for science. I listened to her convince herself. I sighed. Why would the sun be a star? Why be a star when you are already a sun?
So my friend gave me a book and said if I was so certain, then I should read it and convince her why it couldn’t be true. I read the book. It was called “Cosmos,” by Carl Sagan, and I never should have read it. Sagan was a scientist, and people like him use words in a deceptive sort of way so that it makes a deceptive sort of sense, and can, after not much difficulty, break even the strongest will. He described a mind-defying universe where suns confuse themselves with stars, where distances are so vast that they are measured in light years, where suns are drawn by gravity into galaxies, swirling in a cosmic dance across space like clusters of lovely seashells in the vast, empty ocean. Countless suns, countless galaxies, all the time, everywhere.
I tried to convince another close friend, a Hasidic woman, to read “Cosmos,” too. That way we could be confused together. She said that a book like that is a test of faith and I shouldn’t have read it to begin with.
She was right, of course. Why had I read it? Because now that I had, I knew God’s terrible secret; that his universe is large, and that He pounds out worlds like matzo balls, as many as He pleases, without so much as glancing at Earth. And from wherever He is in the terrifying vastness, up and beyond, could He see us at all? Did He care that we are here, a floating speck of planetary dust among the unfathomable largeness of space, where light just travels and travels and travels, never stopping, never ending, for billions and billions of years longer that it is supposed to?
I tried to understand God. I mean, we humans have always wanted a God that is all-great and all-powerful, but not quite like that. Just enough so we could pretend He is a lot like us and we are enough like Him, and that the universe is not much larger than our minds.
I never finished reading the book. I stopped halfway, when, for the fifth time, I read the word “evolution.” I felt uncomfortable with the book, as if it were a dirty thing I had touched. My formerly Hasidic friend said the word “evolution” often, without wincing, as if there were nothing to be afraid of at all.
“Who are you to tell God how to create the world?” she asked. “And if He decided to do the job through Evolution? What are you going to do, ban Him?”
I explained it simply. “God does not need tens of millions of years to create Earth. He is God. He could create an exquisitely screwed up world in just six days. Then the seventh for the holy rest.”
We argued for days. My friend said that I was disagreeing out of fear, not knowledge, without even looking into the whys and hows of the world we live in. There is overwhelming evidence, she claimed, years of study. There were billions of dollars invested in advanced research that proves that God was really slow. It took forever and an infinity of exploded suns until He finally came up with Man. It was complicated. The process long and torturous, with stars exploding, planets colliding, suns coming and going, living and dying, until He figured how to turn Earth the right way, at the right distance, with the right elements that would hold the miraculous capacity for life, so that He could evolve innocent apes into guilty men. It was Eden back then, she agreed, mankind in nothing but fur, eating endless apples from endless trees. It wasn’t easy being God, turning small-brained men into higher beings with the sophisticated ability to kill.
I told my friend that God created the world with men, for men, led by men. There was no evolution. We immediately had the capacity to kill. Faith was knowledge. It said so in the Torah. And the proof was God’s own proclamation to the saints, when he announced, “Lo Bashamayim He”: Not in Heaven is the Torah’s meaning revealed, but on earth by men.
We argued all that afternoon, and the following one. I would have continued arguing, but I had to go give birth.
My friend, visiting me a week later, brought me a small pile of books to read, on stars, other suns and evolution. I put an end to it. I told her that if we were to remain friends, we would have to stop this discussion. This is a democracy, after all, and in this great country we are free not to think. Instead, we should respect each other’s delusions. I would let her keep her lie if she let me keep mine. We agreed.
In the end it was my own mind that failed me. It was that space, once safely closed off, where the cosmos insidiously entered. When I looked up at the sky, I no longer saw the sun — only stars.
It was disorienting. It was as if I had received another mind at age 28 and I had to learn everything all over again. I never lost my belief in God. Sense or no sense, I needed someone to be really angry at. I believed in God, his all-greatness, His all-beyond-ness, His all-encompassing incompetence. But it was like seeing the world from a different platform. It was like someone had yanked me from my seat in front into a chair backstage, and now I could see how the cranks turned, how the pulleys pulled, how the props rolled on and off the stage in random but stunningly efficient order. And the show is no longer the same. God’s world is truly a miracle, a miracle of science, and I wanted to know every detail of it, every cosmic discovery. I was joyfully lost in the maze of exploration. But when I looked up, I was stunned. I realized that I did not care that I had lost my seat in the audience.
Losing belief is a journey. The mind must reorder itself completely. Logic, emotion, spirituality — all in perfect sync, all linked together by faith — must be unlinked.
There was wonder, exhilaration and sheer joy as I looked around like a small child grabbing everything in the new unfathomably large universe, where there is so much, suddenly, to understand. There was constant surprise, disconcertment, an unsettling of everything as I watched myself become someone else, but I wasn’t sure whom. And then there was grief. When I wanted myself back. When I wanted to believe and I didn’t care that it made no sense.
Life throws things with deadly aim — illness, tragedy, loss. And when it did and I stood with the shards in the flesh of my hands, I wanted my faith back just the way it had been. I wept because my entire being was screaming for a delusion, and like an addict in withdrawal I crashed against walls, consumed by my own mind. I grabbed out for anything to fulfill it, to satiate the desperate void, and I discovered the agony of praying to God when I knew I was talking to myself.
Eventually, there was closure.
It was a few years after my debate with my formerly Hasidic friend; it felt like a lifetime after my last birth. I was walking down 16th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Boro Park. I passed a group of women I knew, their heads covered with the white kerchiefs of Rosh Hashanah, their skirts carefully covering their knees. I watched them disperse at the corner, pecking each other on the cheeks, calling, “A git yur, a git yur! Leshune toyve…Hashem should listen to your prayers…You should have nakhes and brukhe and parnuse…amen, amen, git yontif.” I was on the other side, for the first time an observer. I was watching the story from the outside, the warmth and charm of a fading memory.
I walked on. I no longer held the certainty of that life, the certainty only ignorance can give. I no longer wanted to. Now I only look back sometimes to see myself in the growing distance, the girl I had been smiling innocently at the woman I’ve become. Sometimes, we still reach out to each other across the opposite ends of the universe to see if we can still touch. She does not know who I am, a stranger light years away, and I look back at her curiously, yearning for the time I lived in a universe where the sun was not a star.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. This is the second in a series for the Forward about her departure from the ultra-Orthodox world. She is currently working on her second book.