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    PloughCast #23 Resident Aliens and the Illiberalism of the Body

    Made Perfect, Part 5

    By Peter Mommsen, Susannah Black, Kelsey Osgood and Leah Libresco Sargeant

    February 1, 2022
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    Kelsey Osgood grapples with raising her family in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community; Leah Libresco Sargeant looks at the good of dependence.

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    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah discuss Kelsey Osgood’s piece “Stranger in a Strange Land” with her, about her adult conversion to Orthodox Judaism and her family’s attempt to find a place where, practicing that faith, they can feel at home.

    Then, they speak with Leah Libresco Sargeant about her three most recent pieces for Plough: on dependence and illiberalism, on the question of whose bodies matter in our public discussions, and on how design for those with and without disabilities can make a welcoming world.

    How do we raise our children in a faith without driving them away from it? How can we make a world that is welcoming to all human people, not just those who match the pattern of the adult male liberal subject?

    • I: Kelsey Osgood: On Jewish Conversion
    • II: Kelsey Osgood: On Mothering in a Religious Counterculture
    • III: Leah Libresco Sargeant: On Illiberalism and Dependence
    • IV: Leah Libresco Sargeant: On Disability and Design

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    I: Kelsey Osgood: On Jewish Conversion

    Susannah Black: Welcome back to The PloughCast. This is episode five of the series covering the latest issue of the magazine, “Made Perfect.”

    Peter Mommsen: Today we’ll be speaking with Kelsey Osgood about the joys and complexities of raising an Orthodox Jewish family in, but not of, the surrounding secular city, and with Leah Libresco about the good of dependence. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black: And I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough. This is the episode where we talk about religious community, the value of living by God’s law, and the good of dependence.

    First off, Kelsey Osgood. Kelsey is a writer whose memoir of an eating disorder, How to Disappear Completely, was published in 2013. She’s been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Harper’s, and many other places, including repeatedly in Plough. She is currently working on a book about millennial woman converts to demanding religious traditions. She lives in the Bronx with her family. Welcome, Kelsey.

    The piece that we’re mostly going to be talking about now is called “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The slug line is “Even in Brooklyn, our Orthodox Jewish family feels alien. That’s not all bad.” And this piece covers a lot of ground that we kind of tend to circle back around to a lot in the magazine. The magazine did a launch for Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, back when it first came out. And so the question of religious separatism, building intense religious communities that are, in some way, protected from or insulated from the outside world, and how that is good, how that can go wrong, how we should think about all of that, is something that we’re often drawn back to.

    Peter Mommsen: And is separatism even the right word? This is something that I hope we can get into. Or should we use, rather, the language of creative minorities? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a beautiful piece a few years ago for First Things on creative minorities, playing with Toynbee’s term, about how, by building a thick community on the edges of society and yet in touch with it, that can actually lead to renewal for the society that surrounds it.

    So all these things are sort of in your piece implicitly, and partly explicitly, Kelsey. I’d love to get into them a little more. Before we do, though, could you just tell us your own story? What led you to become the mother of an Orthodox Jewish family, feeling alien or not, in Brooklyn?

    Kelsey Osgood: I was born and raised in suburban Connecticut in a community and a family that was, I would say, largely indifferent to religion: secularized American Christians. It was a very homogenous place, socioeconomically, a very white, upper-middle-class place, which was fine in many respects. It was not a great fit for me.

    The defining feature of my childhood personality and, probably in many ways, my personality today is a preoccupation with existential questions. When I was a kid, that manifested as the typical questions: Why are we all here? What are we supposed to do when we’re here? Isn’t it weird that we were just born, and now we’re walking around and nobody’s talking about how odd that is? What are good and bad? Are they relative values? This kind of stuff.

    When I was younger, I characterized my environment as being really hostile to that kind of existential inquiry. But the truth is, I’m not actually sure if that was the case. I just remember that nobody really ever seemed to wonder about these things. Nobody really ever expressed them. There were no venues in which to dive into this stuff.

    That, I think, directly led to a lot of the struggles that I had. I had an eating disorder as a teenager, which is a lot of what my first book is about. I think looking back on it, I see my attraction to an eating disorder as really about a kind of yearning for the overarching ethical structure that I felt like was lacking in my community of birth.

    I’m not the first person to make a comparison between anorexia and religion. It has happened a lot, but there are obvious parallels. There’s rules. There’s a sense of good and bad. There’s a clear purpose and goal to one’s life. There’s a sense of focus. Even in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which was when I was dealing with this, there was even a nascent kind of community because the internet had just started. So there was a way to plug in to other people who were also dealing with eating disorders.

    Throughout this time, I considered myself an atheist. I considered myself an atheist starting around the age of eight. It was a very logical argument in my mind. You can’t see God, you can’t hear him, therefore, he must not exist. He must be a tool on the part of adults.

    When I was a kid, I was very into this idea that adults made things up for children in order to keep them in line. It was a sort of Marxist idea. I really didn’t like school. So I thought that school was this structure that adults had made up to put us there to learn things that were not very valuable in order to control us. I thought God must serve the same purpose.

    In college, I dealt with, yet again, another bout of illness. At the time, I was borrowing from a lot of what I was learning in school. A lot of postmodern thought, a lot of “your life and your truth are what you decide that they are; there’s no inherent moral structure to the universe other than the one that you make.”

    This led to a really scary moment of feeling like nihilism was going to be the inevitable end result, right? I had this problem, [this eating disorder]; I wanted to not have it, and yet I continued to do it. So maybe this was just the way that I was supposed to live. And that meant all sorts of terrible things. That I was probably going to die pretty young, that I was probably not going to have a family or any sort of real job or life.

    Because I was doing these things, that must be what I want, and nobody was in any moral position to tell me that that was the wrong thing to do. And then I had what you might call a moment of a white light. An Alcoholics Anonymous-type moment, where there was a part of me that went, “Oh, that is totally wrong. That cannot be right.”

    That was the beginning of turning back towards this idea that there is something larger than me as an individual, larger than individuals and their own lowercase-t truths. And that opened up the door for me to have a real life again, I guess.

    I’m going to fast forward a bit, because I think I’m lingering a little too long. I first came into contact with Orthodox Judaism, which I knew nothing about before this because there were, essentially, no Jews where I grew up. My first introduction was in college. And then, actually, weirdly, in the places where I was hospitalized, there were a lot of religious Jews, and I was very intrigued by them.

    I had no clue that it was. I didn’t even know, I think, that it was possible to be that religious at all. I knew that priests existed, obviously. I knew what a nun was. But the idea that there was this community of people who lived in close proximity to me, who were religious, was like … I just didn’t know it was a thing. I remained very interested in a half-anthropological, half-scholarly, I guess I would’ve described at the time, way with Orthodox Judaism from that point on.

    That was from when I was eighteen or nineteen up until around the age of twenty-six. At that time, I went to visit a friend who was living in Israel, and found that to be a very moving experience. I started dating my then-boyfriend, now husband, when I was about twenty-six, and he is Jewish by birth. He was raised Reform, which is … I’m sure everyone knows this, but it is largely considered one of the more liberal [forms of Judaism], outside of Reconstructionist and Renewal, which are smaller movements to the left of Reform.

    He was raised Reform. And around that time is when I really started considering, “Okay, this is going to be a part of my life in one way or another. If this is the person I’m going to marry, he has a strong Jewish identity, even if he’s not observant in the way that an Orthodox Jew would define it. He is going to want to raise his children with some sort of Jewish identity.”

    So I started studying, and reading, and speaking to rabbis, and forming friendships with rabbis. Probably I would say about maybe a year and a half to two years into our relationship is when I really started to grapple with this, “Oh, no, I think I actually want to do an Orthodox conversion.” Most people from the outside think, “Oh, well, it makes sense to convert to Judaism if your husband is Jewish.” The grandparents want you to have Jewish grandchildren or whatever.

    From this perspective, in some ways, it’s actually much more complicated than if I had done nothing at all. His parents, being strong Reform Jews, believe in patrilineal descent. My children would’ve been Jewish to them regardless of whether or not I had converted. When you become Orthodox, that takes a whole new set of lifestyle challenges that are a headache for everybody.

    There’s probably a clever name for this in social psychology or something. Sometimes when somebody is close enough to you, maybe the difference is more pronounced. it’s not narcissism of small differences, but the differences loom larger. Sometimes there’s more frustration from Reform or Orthodox Jews about other denominations of Judaism than there about, I don’t know, Hindus or something.

    The proximity creates a kind of difficulty. People feel like they’re being judged, maybe, for their actions. It was complicated. Matt, my husband, at the time when I first told him, when I first came out of the closet and said, “I actually think I want to do an Orthodox conversion” – Well, it was not an easy conversation. He was not super happy about this.

    Right before we got married, I was thinking we were going to have a Jewish but interfaith relationship, where I would be keeping Shabbat on a Saturday and doing my thing. And he would work, if he needed to, or be on his phone, and maybe he’d do it in another room and it would be respectful. But we would not have the same practices.

    That’s not how it worked out. Not long after we got married, he started keeping Shabbat. This rabbi that I’m friendly with likes to say it’s an evolution, not a revolution. I converted – this coming year, it’ll be seven years ago. Then you add three years on top of that of the study and the actual conversion process, leading up to the mikvah, which is the conclusion of that.

    There have been incremental changes over the years. Sometimes you don’t even realize that they’re happening to the point where now I’m thirty-seven, and sometimes I’m tearing up my toilet paper on Friday afternoon before Shabbat. And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, how did this happen? How did I get here? How did I become this person who does this?” I mean, it’s great and it’s wonderful, and I love it, but there’s something very surprising about going on this journey. Sometimes you don’t even realize how far you’ve moved in certain respects.

    I think that’s my general story. And now I have two children. They go to Jewish school. They keep kosher. This is the water they swim in, it’s not strange to them. They’re too young. It’ll be interesting … Sometimes I think about when I have to tell them, “This wasn’t always the way that it was.” It’ll be interesting to see their relationship to Judaism and how it’s different from mine, and even from my husband’s, I think.

    II: Kelsey Osgood: On Mothering in a Religious Counterculture

    Peter Mommsen: Speaking of your kids, one of the anecdotes you tell in your piece, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” has to do with Halloween. What’s it like to not celebrate Halloween?

    Kelsey Osgood: I think about this all the time. For the incident that I wrote about, my older son was only 18 months old. Now he’s four and a half. He’s a very precocious kid, and he notices everything.

    This is less the case now that we live in a neighborhood that is – I don’t want to overstate it. I don’t live in the heart of South Williamsburg. But it’s a pretty religious neighborhood. There’s a high concentration of Orthodox Jews here.

    So we don’t get trick-or-treaters. We don’t see a lot of Halloween decorations. But when we do, I can see my four year old really trying to work [it] out. He talks about it. He’s clearly fascinated by the decorations and the macabreness of it generally. And I can see him being interested, but not really wanting to show me that he’s interested. He’ll say things like, “I hate Halloween.” It’s full of nuance, it’s probably totally above his head, but I’ll say, “You know, Isaiah, Halloween is not a bad thing. And people who celebrate it are not bad. It’s just that we don’t celebrate it because we have our own holidays, and different people have different holidays.”

    He’ll say, “Oh, yes, that’s right. It’s okay.” That delicate balance of particularity is so hard. It’s hard for me as an adult. If you’re somebody who lives in South Williamsburg and your kids just rarely have this kind of experience where they’re confronted with a part of American culture that they can’t participate in, or maybe they do, and they are told explicitly, “No, that’s a bad thing. You don’t do that because it’s bad. And the people who do it are bad.” Or they’re just told, “It’s irrelevant. It’s not worthy of consideration. Don’t think about what other people do.”

    Sometimes I feel like maybe that’s easier than trying to explain to kids that different people have different things, and that’s okay. I don’t know. We’ll see how it turns out. I don’t think I could say that [it’s bad to celebrate Halloween], because I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that it’s okay to say that other people are bad or wrong for celebrating things in different ways.

    For me, as somebody who’s always felt a little bit countercultural and does feel that there is value in standing outside of mainstream American consumerist life, in many ways, there’s a part of me that feels a little bit invigorated by this protest mentality. I’m not doing this thing because I can tell you the reasons why I don’t think it’s correct or whatever. But my children might not have that.

    I don’t know. As somebody who had all this stuff available to her as a young person, maybe there’s no novelty there. There could be something very exciting for them about the novelty of this thing that’s off limits. We’ll have to see in my particular case. I don’t know if that answers your question.

    Susannah Black: I’m going to let Pete keep us more on track, because I feel like I am so tempted to go off on 11,000 rabbit trails right now. Possibly you and I will just have to have coffee in the city at some point.

    A lot of what you’re describing is just very familiar to me. But in the kind of Judaism that I was raised with, which is vaguely agnostic, red-diaper-baby Judaism, with lots of bagels on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, existential questions and existential crises are very accepted and encouraged. The problem comes when you find answers to them. That’s very taboo.

    And whether those answers are Orthodox Judaism or Christianity, it’s equally taboo. It would freak out your parents no matter what. My cousin actually did convert to Modern Orthodoxy from this vagueness, and that freaked his parents out. My parents freaked out when I converted to Christianity.

    But I think that what’s fascinating to me about what you’re describing, in particular, is this sense of a non-moralistic separatism. So a separatism that has to do with “this is who we are, but we’re not saying that Halloween is itself bad.” Because that’s not actually something that you see among evangelicals who won’t celebrate Halloween.

    Evangelicals who won’t celebrate Halloween don’t say, “That’s just not who we are. We have other traditions.” They say it’s bad. And that’s a fascinatingly different kind of way of making an alternate community, the non-moralistic way of making an alternate community.

    Can you talk more about this non-moral way of understanding this kind of communal formation? I guess you don’t really have a Christian background to compare it to, but what’s that like? What’s the experience of having a separate, but nonjudgmental community?

    Kelsey Osgood: Part of this is just related to the structure of Judaism. Peter mentioned Jonathan Sacks before. There is some amazing writing out there on this topic; Jonathan Sacks has written a lot about this, particularly in his book, Dignity of Difference but his website also has a lot of the transcriptions of his speeches and stuff that dive into this topic.

    There’s also an academic called Jon D. Levinson, who wrote an essay called “The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism,” which is fascinating, if rather scholarly. I mean, that’s not everyone’s taste. But work that dives into this a little bit.

    I think it’s interesting, that non-moralistic part. If I can make a bold pronouncement – or maybe it’s not that provocative – some antisemitism comes from this idea: because Orthodox Jews live together for the most part; that, and because they have this rhetoric that you can find in the Torah of chosenness, separateness, holiness, that differentiates them from other people, even though, as Levinson makes the argument, it’s not actually value-laden in the Torah, if you go back to the original sources.

    But it’s hard not to think that by the time that filters down to the average person, it sounds value-laden. And so let’s take it that way. These people think that Jews must judge them, in the same way that you’re mentioning that evangelicals who don’t celebrate Halloween expect that all people shouldn’t celebrate Halloween. But Jews don’t believe that all non-Jewish people should do the same thing that Jews do.

    Jews have a certain set of laws or mitzvot that apply to them. There are 613 of them. And a certain set of laws and mitzvot that apply to non-Jewish people. There are seven. From a Jewish perspective, if you follow those seven laws, you are fulfilling an ethical purpose. You are living an ethical life. There’s no reason that you should have to become Jewish. And this ties into the non-proselytizing nature of Judaism.

    We moved to the Bronx, to Riverdale, about a year ago. Over the summer last year, a friend of mine from college, very smart, works in LA as a TV writer, came up to visit my family and I for a day. And I made an offhand comment about, “Oh, it’s much more convenient in many ways to live here.” I mean, speaking purely logistically, because we live in close proximity to so many shuls, and that’s what you need for a good Jewish community.

    If you can’t walk to shul on a Shabbat, you can’t live there, because you have no way of getting to your house of worship. This is the person who grew up, I think, in the Washington, D.C. area and went to school in New York. She said, “Oh, my gosh, I never considered that. I always thought that Jews just lived together because they didn’t like other people.” And I was like, “Oh, no.”

    I mean, I don’t want to overstate it. I’m sure there’s phobia within Jewish communities, and there’s fear. When you’re a minority, you feel you face historical danger. You maybe want to live closed off. That feels safer. But the logistical side of it had really never occurred to her, which I thought was really remarkable.

    I mean, religious Jews would feel that a secular halachic Jew, meaning a person who was born to a Jewish mother, would be categorically incorrect to do something like, let’s say, celebrate Christmas. They would pass judgment on that, but they don’t pass judgment on non-Jews who follow the Noahide commandments.

    In fact, there’s a lot of Jewish writing, even all the way up to Maimonides, that really speaks in very positive terms about, particularly, Christianity and Islam, because Judaism is very passionate about people becoming monotheistic. And many celebrated Jewish writers throughout Jewish history have really thought that Christianity and, in particular, Islam actually were forces for spreading monotheism through the world in a way that Judaism as a tiny tribal, non-proselytizing faith could never have accomplished.

    I don’t know though. I mean, it’s really hard because I think of this in terms of my own family. I mean, my family of origin. Not my husband and my children, but my parents and my siblings, and their children. I’m thinking in terms of something like keeping kosher and not being able to just go over to their house and eat whatever food that they’re eating. Now, I can say all I want that this doesn’t have anything to do with how good your kitchen is, or how good your cooking is, or how good of a person you are. I can give you all the theological reasons why you shouldn’t be offended by this. But I think that it is hard to not feel that there is something in there that is at the very least difficult to understand and might feel a little personal.

    Susannah Black: As you were talking, especially as I was thinking about keeping kosher … So obeying the Noahide commandments: they’re quite general. They’re not specific. As a way of dealing with something like your eating disorder, the one that would apply is the commandment against murder, which would include self-murder.

    It seems to me that the specific food laws in Judaism [might actually help with an eating disorder.] What you’re hearing from God is, No, even if you want to restrict what you eat, even if apparently, because you’re doing it, you must want to essentially harm your own health by your eating practices, [you may not.] That’s not what eating is for. And God actually has things in mind for what good eating is and what eating is for. And in part, that is to give you strength to serve him and serve your family, and weigh enough to maintain a pregnancy, and that kind of thing.

    Receiving those more specific laws as something that pushes against your will and shows you more specifically what God wills for you in general as a person, your own thriving and your own flourishing, is that part of what your experience was?

    Kelsey Osgood: When I first converted, there was a part of me that felt that keeping kosher was going to be the most difficult thing, because it was reminiscent of an anorexic structure, or an anorexic worldview. I’m going to be totally honest. I think that I knew, even [at the] time, that my fears were overblown, but I thought, “Oh, I’m so fragile, I can’t do this.”

    But that was just really not the case. I was still stuck in a mindset that valued fragility, if that makes sense, that wanted to be that way, but actually I was not fragile. I didn’t want to acknowledge my own resilience, I think, even though I was sort of moving away from that mindset.

    I was just talking about this earlier with someone. I’m not sure I’m answering your question exactly. I think this comes up a little, like, “Oh, isn’t it triggering?” Somebody asked me this today, aside from the fact that it’s been nearly two decades since I was hospitalized, and at least a decade since I really would’ve considered myself eating disordered in any real way.

    I think part of the genius of Judaism is that it forces you to be disciplined even about your discipline, if that makes sense. There is a structure in place that says, “Okay, you’re a human, you’re an animal.” It’s very acknowledging of people’s animal natures, right? There’s very little asceticism in Judaism. You should be eating, but you can’t be a glutton. The whole world is not there for your culinary pleasure.

    You have to exercise your discipline in these particular ways. This comes up around food in the same way that it comes up around sex, the same way that it comes up around repentance. The obvious one being Yom Kippur. Here we have this period of time, leading up to Yom Kippur, where you’re thinking about the things that you’ve done wrong, and you’re apologizing to other people for them.

    But there’s no hair shirt. You’re not supposed to be self-flagellating all the time. For me, there’s the parts of my desire for anorexia that were not necessarily wrong in and of themselves. It’s not wrong to want to be self-disciplined, and it’s not wrong to want to examine your own flaws, but it becomes a kind of weird backward narcissism when all you do is examine your own flaws and discipline yourself as if you are the world’s worst person. Thinking that you’re the world’s worst person is kind of grandiose in an analogous way to thinking you’re the world’s best person.

    So, Judaism espouses a real moderation in this respect. And I was just reading something about … I think it’s in Kohelet. He says, “You’re even supposed to do that about your own piety. You’re not supposed to be so sanctimonious about your own piety.” Even that, you really aren’t supposed to overdo. [Ecclesiastes 7:16: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”]

    So I think it’s a balancing force in my own life, actually. Would that have been the case had it been something that I was raised with? I can’t say. I wonder that sometimes, especially since I feel like I know people for whom it was not. They felt it was restrictive for them. For me, it doesn’t feel that way.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, as someone who was raised in a community that was very different – I was raised in the Bruderhof community; I dressed differently when I went to high school – I think anyone who grows up like that, with a different set of values, a different set of experiences and references – we never watched television, we couldn’t catch any of the pop culture references – of course, there’s a resentment against that as a teenager. And yet, that’s precisely what I want for my kids.

    I want them to go through the resentment, because I believe that if you are able to come through it – and, of course, not everyone does – but if you’re able to come through, then you find the value of struggling through the questions: What does this mean? What is my relationship with this tradition that I come from? And what obligations does it put on me?

    I think there’s always going to be that moment of free will in passing on a faith, a tradition to the next generation. There is that moment of free fall, where they’re going to have to decide, are they going to lean into the resentment and anger at the sense of being hemmed in by this, and the sense of not being fully at home in the world? Or are they going to realize that it’s really good not to feel too at home in the world?

    Some kids are going to go one way, some another. But earlier in this process of working on this beautiful essay that you wrote, Kelsey, you and I were talking about a series of stories we both read, about congregations of converted Orthodox Jews in Bogotá, Colombia. I somehow could recognize a longing that was leading these Pentecostal churches to convert. I believe there’s over fifty convert Orthodox Jewish synagogues in Colombia. I’m not sure how recognized they are, but this is how they view themselves.

    And for them, from what I understand, a big part of the driver [of conversion from Pentecostal Christianity to Orthodox Judaism] was, how do we pass on this faith to the next generation? Where is the thickness of community that allows us to be a people? And so for them, it was more important to be a people than to even stick to acknowledgement of Jesus. And so they converted.

    This is something we’ve talked a lot about with different religions. We’ve published a piece by Shadi Hamid about Muslim communities doing the same in a liberal culture that seems to dissolve difference, that seems to despise the idea certainly of that non-moralistic separatism you were talking about. You almost need to build these structures.

    Of course, in Orthodox Judaism, that geographic proximity is kind of forced. For others, it needs to be chosen. I’m just wondering, as you’ve looked around, in the process of researching your current book, why is it that people are looking for those kinds of thick communities? Do you have any insights into what would make those good versus bad forms of separatism?

    Kelsey Osgood: I mean, I can theorize as to why people are looking for thick communities. And also, I would say, for wisdom that they might consider ancient or historical. I mean, it might be a little bit of a cliché to say at this point, but I think that there is a lot about contemporary life that encourages people to be so separate from one another, that the old models of continuity have been so disrupted.

    Now, the pandemic might actually have changed some people’s relationship to this kind of thing, but moving back to one’s hometown or staying in one’s hometown has been seen as a mark of failure in some ways. The rise of the internet, people not having relationships with one another that exist in the real world, that only exist on the internet, that kind of thing.

    I’m a pretty big tech skeptic, even though I think it’s kind of boring to knock big tech in a lot of ways. But I think that people really want to know each other in a way that goes beyond having a colleague, or having a friend on Facebook, or going to college with one another. You’ll notice in a lot of very simple consumer transactions in the 21st century, the big marketing ploy is to … You go online, let’s say, and you want to buy a coffee pot, you find one and you buy it. And whether or not you sign up for the email listserv, they’re going to send you an email.

    They are inevitably going to be like, “We’re so glad you’re part of our community.” I’m like, “Community? I just wanted to buy something. This is a simple thing. We don’t have to keep in touch.” This is a long story, but I ended up on a subreddit the other day, a subreddit that’s related to a TV show.

    I had never seen what online fandom looks like before. I did not know that it could exist like this. There were these enormously emotive over-the-top ways that people were talking about this thing, which was literally a subreddit dedicated to a television show. People were like, “I just love you guys so much. I’m so happy we’re all in this together.” Maybe this is not particularly kind of me or something, but I was like, “Wow, people are really hungry for that kind of connection.”

    And sure, it’s exacerbated by the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has actually just made people realize that what they had before wasn’t that great either. When you live in a religious community, there are various levels of thickness, and I’m sure people who grew up in the community where I live now might feel that maybe I’m overstating it, but there is an immediate familiarity and an immediate willingness on the part of most people to be part of one another’s lives in a way that is not abstract.

    I mean, to pick one example, my father-in-law died in August, 2020. And then we moved here. When someone dies in the Jewish tradition, if you’re a mourner, if you’re a spouse or a child of the person who’s deceased, you don’t leave your house. You stay in your house for seven days. And the prayer quorum, ten men make a minyan, and they come to your house. So my husband, because he has recently experienced a loss, makes a point of going to shiva minyans in the neighborhood.

    He’s showing up for people that he maybe has never met before, by virtue of us having moved here during the pandemic, to be with them in their moments of horrible grief. And it was very interesting to me to see, in the aftermath of my father-in-law’s death, what that was like. At the time, we were not living here yet, but we knew many people here, and we knew we were moving here. So we were kind of a part of this community.

    [I noticed] the ways in which people raised with that kind of framework knew automatically what to do and how to show up, and the ways in which people who didn’t really were at a complete loss. I mean, this goes for when someone has a baby. You know, the big life things. Not to mention having Shabbat, which is hugely bonding. That’s the wrong word. It sounds kind of corny the way I’m saying it.

    We have this ritual life that is, in many ways, very demanding because it’s very time-intensive. We have a lot of holidays. We do Shabbat once a week. And there’s the baseline expectation that you invite people to your house, they invite you to their house. You don’t even necessarily have to know somebody that well for that to happen. It’s just kind of expected. It’s part of the way that you create this.

    I don’t know that there’s really an analogous thing elsewhere. I haven’t heard of this kind of life, these kinds of behaviors, this way of being together. I don’t see it outside of religious communities. I don’t see it there.

    Most of my social network is pre-religiosity. I was already in my mid to late twenties when I started converting. So most of my friends are not religious people – my friends from early on in my life. I’ve never heard them say things that amount to, “Yes, I do X thing that provides me with this sense of community.”

    In terms of when it’s done well … Gosh. I mean, obviously, I like to think that the way I do it is the way that it’s good. There are benefits and disadvantages to all ways of doing it. With communities where it’s more insular, more small c conservative, whatever you want to say; certain sets of Hasidim, or certain strains of Anabaptism, the Amish or whatever, the advantage there is that when it’s so demanding and so insular, there is less of a risk that somebody is going to walk away.

    The disadvantage is that if a child, for example, wants to walk away, their fall is likely to be from a much higher place. Meaning that then they will have a much harder time in the dominant mainstream culture, by virtue of having not gotten the necessary kind of schooling and the cultural barriers that one has to overcome when one comes from an environment like that. I don’t want to underestimate that that can be really hard.

    So for me, I feel like, in some ways, what we do as a family is we’re kind of hedging our bets a little bit. My kids, they go to a Jewish school, but they go to a Jewish school that teaches them secular subjects as well. They’re likely to go to college, I guess. I mean, who knows what college will look like in fifteen years, but we’re preparing them as if they will go to college. And the dangers there are inherent, right? If that’s the system you set up for yourself, where you say, “Okay, we’re going to take in and have access to the things we think are good, and reject the things that we think are not right for us,” how do you know that you’re right? How do you balance that ledger? It’s just a constant battle.

    There’s another good essay about this by Jay Lefkowitz, from Commentary a few years ago, that’s about what he calls “Social Orthodoxy,” which is kind of his synonym for Modern Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy that is highly social in nature.

    Susannah Black: One of the things that really stuck out to me was just the idea of the structures of Judaism, like the communal and required structures of living a Jewish life, as remedial tools for being human. I don’t totally want to be a trad here, but liberalism kind of attacks all of our normal, natural law-based Noahide common sense, where we can use reason and conscience, plus normal natural law structures of the world, to live well.

    All of that gets messed up by many forms of contemporary life, which I would identify with aspects of liberalism. And then Judaism comes in as a corrective: Well, okay. Clearly, the Noahide thing isn’t working out for you guys, because the Gentiles are not doing too well. And therefore Judaism is a more detailed set of instructions for being human in a remedial way when you’ve lost the ability to do that without them. It’s like training wheels for being human well.

    I mean, obviously, the Jews are a light to the nations, it kind of always was meant to be that. This is a little bit like, with the Fall, we lost the skills of being human incredibly well. And God is reteaching us how to do that in a very intensive way through the history of Israel and through giving his law.

    I don’t know, but we should probably wrap this up. Thank you so much. I really honestly feel like I want to continue this conversation for at least another hour.

    Kelsey Osgood: Thank you so much, guys.

    III: Leah Libresco Sargeant: On Illiberalism and Dependence

    Susannah Black: Welcome, Leah Libresco, a dear friend of mine, Plough contributing editor, author of Building the Benedict Option, and before that, Arriving at Amen.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: It’s a pleasure to be here.

    Susannah Black: We’d like to talk about all three of the pieces that you’ve recently written for Plough. The most recent one for the disability issue is called “Spaces for Every Body: What Would a World Designed for Humans With and Without Disabilities Look Like?” But you also wrote a while back, about, I don’t know, a year ago, a piece called “Dependence: Toward an Illiberalism of the Weak.”

    And then in between those two, you wrote, for our “Creatures” issue, a piece called “Let the Body Testify,” with the slug line, “Whose Bodies Matter?” And I feel like, as with so many things, all of your work seems to have this very unified character. It feels like a tapestry. It feels like a really integrated set of concerns and approaches.

    Obviously, we want to talk about the most recent piece, but I almost want to start with the oldest piece, which is the Dependence piece, if you’re up for doing that.

    Peter Mommsen: Why does dependence matter?

    Susannah Black: Why does dependence matter? And what is the illiberalism of the weak?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: The thing that really struck me when I started working on that piece, which was a while before I sent it to you, was how much the discussion of post-liberalism often felt like it was centered on who would ultimately hold power, and how they would exercise it, and not on what it’s like to lack power or depend on other people’s decisions.

    So we had this critique of liberalism as the autonomous individual, which, I think pretty much all the post-liberals and I agree, is not an accurate depiction of what it means to be human. Humans aren’t autonomous individuals. We pass into that stage for brief moments when we’re wealthy enough and healthy enough, and don’t have enough other people we love who need us, that we feel like we can do anything, but for most of our life, we’re in webs of dependency. We’re either marked by our own need or the needs of other people whom we care about. Or most often, by both.

    I wanted to write about what it meant to look at post-liberalism, to really take seriously that this account of being human, of being an individual standing alone, was inaccurate. But to say then that our foundation starts from the assumption that we all are vulnerable to each other more than [starting from the question of] how will we wield power as strong post-liberal et ceteras.

    Susannah Black: So obviously, one of the ur-texts in post-liberalism is Alasdair McIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals, where he talks about dependence as a kind of sine qua non of human existence. In the first paragraph of this piece, which I deeply love, you go directly after our boy, John Locke, and the fantasy of basically like all humans are either forty-year-old landowning British men with at least no children who have any terribly severe medical conditions, even if he does have children, or you are in some kind of condition of being an imperfect version of a forty-year-old landowning British man.

    As you say, this is a fantasy of what it is to be human. That was not meant to be a slam against UK people. That was meant to be a slam against liberalism.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: It’s a little funny that John Locke is the avatar of all this as though he’s uniquely wrong about this. What you’ve just said, Susannah, that the prototypical person is a forty-year-old English landowner with no dependents that he’s personally responsible for: that’s still the way a lot of our society operates, and that’s the assumption of folks who have never directly read John Locke and weren’t as immediately influenced by him.

    But that’s often the focus of my Other Feminisms substack, that we take a very narrow range of what it means to be human. In fact, a painfully thin range of what it means to be human. I would not be very happy to be a forty-year-old English landowner with no dependents to speak of for my whole life. That’s a season at best.

    And then we take it as the standard, and we don’t leave room, we don’t build our societal structures, the literal designs of our building to be hospitable to anyone but this narrowest slice of humanity.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. We also don’t allow ourselves psychologically to feel okay about ourselves, unless we are, to the best of our ability, given constraints of gender, or not being British, or not owning land; if we’re not, to the best of our ability, approximating that, we feel like, “Oh, we’re doing humaning wrong; we’re not adulting properly.”

    And then we get resentful of people who make demands on us that constrain our own liberal ability to choose to do anything, because we are now obliged to them. And also, they seem weird or wrong themselves to us because they aren’t being the independent forty-year-old landowning man that everyone really ought to be if they were doing life right.

    And that just makes everyone miserable and anxious all the time, it seems to me, and guilty also. And it makes everyone a little bit crazy.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Absolutely. It’s an inappropriate offloading of responsibility. I’d draw a parallel just as, throughout the pandemic, things that really are systemic problems are offloaded to individual responsibility. We’re seeing it right now where, on the one hand, everyone is told to get rapid tests, but they aren’t actually available. And our government says, “Well, this is a question of individual responsibility. It’s up to you to catch up to this ideal that we’ve made it impossible to meet.”

    And in the same way, women, especially, but we’re not the only ones, are told to catch up to an ideal of this autonomous man with no dependents, or at least with a wife to take care of his dependents for them, that is impossible to meet. And which wouldn’t be good to meet, in this case, not even for men. Is it even good to be as autonomous as that ideal implies?

    But the more we hold that up as a false ideal, the more anything that feels unfair or exhausting or impossible feels like it’s our personal failure to live up to that ideal, rather than an injustice that that ideal was presented as something worth striving for at all.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. I’m thinking about, if you are in the position to strive for that ideal of independence, the reductio is, that’s going to be an emotional independence too. That’s going to mean you’re not bound to someone whose being upset with you, might make you feel upset.

    Therefore, the ultimate Lockean man would probably be a man who is only married in the sense of having a kind of AI wife who can order Seamless for him, because she wouldn’t make any emotional demands. And she also wouldn’t require him to fulfill any commitments that he had made in the past. His own past self can’t even be allowed to tyrannize him.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Well, Susannah, I know we’re both big Sondheim fans. And I think this is a lot of what the whole musical Company builds too, the idea that to live fully, we have to give up some of our freedom and some of our autonomy, and be vulnerable with someone else.

    That may make our life worse. As you know, it’s measured day to day sometimes, right? You bring someone into your life who you love, and then their wounds hurt you. You’ve extended your being over someone else. And now there’s more of you, and it’s all exposed. But the converse is terrible for us. Our goal is not to limit our exposure. It’s to enter into exposure deliberately, joyfully, and generously.

    Susannah Black: I’m going to work so hard to not take the Company bait, because actually, we have a pitch in about specifically that that I’m –

    Peter Mommsen: I’m going to police this on the Company conversation, and I will interrupt.

    Susannah Black: He’s imposing discipline here.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, I’ll be that forty-year-old guy right about now. So Leah, could you give us some examples of what the illiberalism of the weak looks like? So we’ve talked about Locke. Even one of my colleagues here, when he first read the essay, said, “Illiberalism? Isn’t that Viktor Orbán?”

    Tell us, what are you arguing for? And I think, as Susannah said, each of your essays builds on that essential idea of embracing the idea that we are dependent on each other.

    IV: Leah Libresco Sargeant: On Disability and Design

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: This is where I really do want to pivot back to that essay from the disability issue, on design, because there are two models, one of which I would say is the more liberal ideal model of how we accommodate people who are different. And one that is … if not fully illiberal, at least a non-individualistic model. It doesn’t have that much to do with Viktor Orbán.

    The individualist model says, “Well, when someone’s disabled, there’s something wrong. And our goal is to restore them to the way we think of the median person as acting.” So that often means accommodations that are meant to give some level of support for someone with a disability to interact with the world exactly the way a median person, I would say, would rather than a “normal” person, would.

    One of the examples that’s discussed in the books I reviewed is a woman who has a limb difference and has this kind of very high tech hand that she can attach, that has articulated fingers. And it’s meant to let her do things the way I would, since I have the standard set of hands. And most of the time, she leaves that hand in a drawer. And instead, she’s attached zip ties to handles in her house so that, with her limb difference, instead of operating a handle built for the average human hand, she’s operating a modified handle that works well for her.

    The design of her house starts from the assumption that there’s a wide range of people, and that we meet people as welcome guests where they are, rather than there’s a narrow ideal of what it means to be human: it looks like five fingers, and it looks like a specific set of handles.

    And then for other folks discussed, the accommodation is, “I don’t want to go through the day alone.” Accommodation means not lifting me to autonomy, but making room for the caregiver I need to operate in the world. And that’s where we run into different problems like handicapped bathroom stalls that are wide enough for a wheelchair, but not wide enough for an aide to come in with you with the wheelchair, because we assume that having an aide is not the goal. That if you’re out in the world, the goal is to move through the world by yourself. We don’t leave room for need and dependence, and that people operate as more than one person.

    We can’t cleave off the needs into, this is the need of this individual. And practically speaking, one thing I love … I hosted a discussion of that Plough article on Other Feminisms. And one of the authors, Sarah Hendron, recommended visitability design, which is just a set of construction standards for making sure a home is visitable, that a variety of people can enter it, that it has a zero-step entrance, doors that are wide enough for wheelchairs or other mobility aids. And when we just don’t build this way, there’s an assumption that not everyone is welcome in our homes.

    Susannah Black: Design as hospitality, design as a statement of welcome, is something that I think is really a powerful way to think about it. There’s part of me that does want to maintain this sense that … Not that I am a liberal, not that I want to judge people against these standards of absolute independence, but there are different things we mean when we say disability. There’s actual suffering, and sometimes people do have health conditions that mean that they’re not thriving in a particular way, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t thrive as human beings. And one of the ways that we do thrive as human beings is in welcoming and being welcomed. And so it seems to me that thinking about design as welcome is a way to say, “All right. We’re not saying that a particular disability does not entail suffering. If you are not physically well, that doesn’t mean that you’re not not thriving in that way. But if you weren’t in a position to be welcomed or to welcome, that would be not thriving in another way, which is arguably more important.”

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Well, I want to push back a little. I think thriving and suffering are not opposite ends of a spectrum. And we sometimes talk about it that way. We can have a great deal of suffering alongside moments of being welcome, simply because suffering is not totally excisable from human life.

    Susannah Black: That’s obviously true. And then the way that you deal with suffering [becomes important], and the way that you expect it, or the way that you allow life to be imperfect without thinking that that means that you are somehow doing life wrong, I think is an important point.

    Why don’t we now turn to the piece that you did for the “Creatures” issue, which is, “Let the Body Testify.” The subtitle is, “Whose Bodies Matter?” Could you give a brief overview of that?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Absolutely. So this is a lot about the different ways that people suffer or experience the world, and how difficult it is when not all of those forms of suffering or navigating the world are acknowledged. So I start with the example, a kind of upsetting example, which is that we just didn’t take seriously that newborns couldn’t feel pain for a long while. And that’s because they couldn’t articulate it in a way that we were prepared to recognize.

    So people did surgery on newborns without anesthesia, without as much pain medication as you would use on a comparably-sized adult. And the reason was that their pain was dismissed. And obviously, the newborns weren’t silent. They were making it very clear they were in pain, in their reactions, in their yelling. But it was dismissed as reflex, because they weren’t able to articulate their pain in a way doctors were prepared to recognize.

    This occurs before birth as well, when expressions of what we treat as pain in anyone else provided they accompany them with the comment, “I’m in pain” are written off as reflex. But unfortunately, we don’t grow out of having pain dismissed as much as you might hope. Women persistently find that their pain is undermedicated and under-taken seriously by doctors.

    Part of that is because we, again, have a narrow sense of what pain looks like, of what being human looks like. And then we push people out of those categories if they can’t articulate their experience in a way we’re prepared to recognize. So it’s not uncommon for women to translate their pain or translate their experience into something that a doctor, or a friend, or a boss will treat as legitimate, because it resembles more the median experience or the expected experience of pain.

    A lot of folks with chronic illness will find themselves not reporting all their symptoms. If they discuss everything that’s wrong, they worry a doctor will dismiss them out of hand. They go, “Okay, well, how can I sound like someone who’s healthier than I am so that someone will take me seriously? Because if I sound too much like a sick person, they’re not going to hear me out.”

    Susannah Black: We are a Christian podcast, and there’s not a way to talk about questions of suffering without talking about the fact that Jesus suffered. In fact, one of the things that we’re guaranteed as Christians is suffering – and that suffering is not useless and there’s meaning in it; it doesn’t point towards meaninglessness, but towards meaning. How do we negotiate between that and the good desire to alleviate suffering where it should be alleviated?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think part of that starts with hearing people suffering. To alleviate suffering, often the first thing we do that ameliorates it is being present with someone who is suffering as they actually are, removing that scrim of, “Well, here’s how I’m packaging or presenting my suffering to you so that you can believe in it or have sympathy for it.” So I think it’s starting there.

    One Christian writer who I really love is Saint Francis de Sales. He’s a great encouragement that we don’t have to needlessly embrace suffering. He has a moment where he’s writing to give spiritual advice to a pregnant woman who’s been trying to follow fasting rules. And he says, “What are you doing?” And he says, “you have holocausts [burnt offerings] enough to offer.” That the kinds of suffering that are enjoined on her by being pregnant are already enough to serve God. She doesn’t have to layer additional sufferings on them.

    And I think that’s almost always the case, that we have distinct forms of suffering that will always find us, it’s inevitable. So we don’t have to cling to a form of suffering we’re currently enduring if someone can help us relinquish it. We can trust that God will provide more suffering for us, if that’s what we need.

    Susannah Black: One of the things that is a big part of your life and your intellectual project is this attempt to find and articulate what you’ve called “other feminisms.” And I want to read a short passage from your “Whose Bodies Matter” essay that, I think, points towards one of the places that you go with that.

    You write, “A world that holds up independence as the ideal offers us two rival duties, to obscure our dependence and to be resentful of it. No woman can lightly assent to the illusion of autonomy, because a baby is alien to the world of self-ownership. Every woman’s citizenship in that imaginary republic is tenuous. A world of autonomous individuals can’t acknowledge both women and child simultaneously.”

    There’s a reason that John Locke’s imaginary forty-year-old landowning person is a man. Women, by their nature, by either being pregnant or knowing that they have the potential to be pregnant, or that that’s built into their bodies in some way, give the lie to the idea that independence is the norm, in any way, for human beings.

    This is not how human beings come into the world. It’s not how they go out of the world. For women, having your body be a place of welcome for another person, in a way, that totally subverts all categories of individualism and rights and autonomy. That’s part of our experience.

    Can you describe the part of your intellectual project that is looking at specifically what it means to be a woman and questions of feminism through those lenses?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: If the ideal of being human is being autonomous and being relatively invulnerable, relatively buffered to any demands anyone else can make on you, then it’s clear women aren’t human, or are very bad at being human. So if we want to accept this Lockean view, we have to cast women out of what it means to be human, as well as babies, the elderly, et cetera.

    That’s why you see such assumptions in our culture today, that being a woman is a problem that has to be solved by women, that women are the problem. Particularly in our attitudes towards fertility and pregnancy, where in discussions of abortion, becoming pregnant is always discussed as though it’s an unfair trick or things not shaking out the way they should.

    When in fact women, mostly, are fertile. That’s part of who we are. And instead, the assumption is, well, we should turn that off as quickly as possible, because we live in a society that isn’t hospitable to women who have their natural fertility. It’s a dangerous power. It’s kind of an error. We have to fix it by turning it off, and then just turning it back on when it would work out well for – often our employers, even more than for us.

    I think that just describes a world that can’t possibly be a feminist victory, can’t possibly be a world that’s hospitable to women, because it starts with a presumption that women as women are bad and have to be fixed. That women as women cannot be accommodated. That we’ve gone so fundamentally wrong in being vulnerable to others’ needs that we can’t be full citizens in this autonomous republic.

    Susannah Black: Do you want to describe what the project of the Other Feminisms newsletter is, just to give our readers a little bit of a taste of that?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Absolutely. It’s a sustained conversation about what it means to advocate for women as women in a world that often views us as deficient men who need to do a better job of being less deficient men. So that really does bring in a range of people, because women feel that pinch in so many different ways, in ways that employment is designed, in our abortion culture, et cetera.

    So I have a number of readers who disagree with each other on certain specific issues, on religion, on abortion, et cetera, but they’ve all run into this pressure somewhere of a world that tells them, being a woman is a problem that has to be fixed by being less like a woman. So I really appreciate having that community of readers to write for, to send me articles, to send me their comments, and to just see all the different ways this pressure is applied.

    And of course, there are some guy readers too, both because they care about this as a matter of justice, and because, as I’ve said, a culture that’s hostile to women in this way is hostile to women as a class, but it turns that uncharitable eye on anyone who has needs, or who cares about the needs of others. So a man who’s thinking about how to take care of an elderly parent is often interested in the discussions we’re having about vulnerability and dependency, even if he’s not experiencing them directly through the lens of fertility the way a woman might be.

    Susannah Black: So even before you were a Christian, you were a virtue ethicist. And I wonder if you could talk about something. There’s a kind of a tension that I sometimes see – and I think it’s a good tension, I don’t think it means that either of the positions is wrong – but there’s a kind of tension that I sometimes see between virtue ethics, at least as it’s classically understood, and the kind of openness to vulnerability, openness to the need for grace, openness to the goodness of being human even in the face of imperfection, physical and otherwise, that I think is the other side of the truth.

    We obviously have these dual sources; we have both the Greek and the Hebrew branches of our tradition that fight with each other sometimes, but I think fight fruitfully. Could you discuss that kind of a vulnerable virtue ethics, or a virtue ethics of imperfection, and how that’s working, how that might work?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: That’s kind of interesting, because before I was a virtue ethicist, I was a Stoic. And in some ways, I can see the answer more clearly through Stoicism than through virtue ethics. Because in Stoicism, every imperfection or every difficulty is a chance to practice resignation.

    And so a problem like I’ve sprained my ankle, I depend on others more now, and it hurts to walk is not a terrible thing for a Stoic because it reminds you, “I have the gift of an ankle. And I may not always have it, and I should be grateful for it, but understand I can’t hold onto it permanently.”

    And I think that is a genuine virtue that the Stoics put at the heart of their philosophy, and it’s not the utmost virtue in virtue ethics, but it’s a good one to develop, which is that we hold the things that we’ve been given loosely knowing that they’re less at the core of who we are, our strengths, our gifts, even our excellences. When it comes to something like, “I’m a very good singer,” it’s less at the core of who we are than, “I’m a beloved child of God. I’m a creature. I depend on him, and I depend on other people.”

    So any form of suffering or setback can be an opportunity for growth and virtue if it’s reminding us: at the core of who I am is my dependency more than some of the gifts I’ve been given in the midst of that dependency.

    Susannah Black: Well, Leah, this, I am quite sure, will be the first of many conversations that we have with you on this podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. And I do urge all of our listeners to immediately subscribe to Other Feminisms, as well to go and check out Leah’s books.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: All right. Thank you guys so much.

    Susannah Black: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or your app of choice and rate us. Tune in next week to find out what people have been hassling us about, and what we’ve learned. In other words, next week is our Q&A and Brooding Reflections-by-the-editors episode.

    Contributed By PeterMommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By SusannahBlack Susannah Black

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By KelseyOsgood Kelsey Osgood

    Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia and has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, Longreads, and the Washington Post.

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    Contributed By Leah Libresco Sargeant Leah Libresco Sargeant

    Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.

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