Justin Zemser, a 20-year-old sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy, was killed Tuesday night in the Amtrak train crash in north Philadelphia as he made his way home to New York on leave. Zemser, who was his high school’s valedictorian, student government president and a captain of the football team, was described as a thoughtful leader who aspired to be a Navy SEAL.
In this letter to his uncle, Richard Zemser, on May 2, Justin Zemser describes his enthusiasm for a course he had just taken — The Bible and Literature — and how it was inspiring his quest to learn and expand his horizons. The letter, which appears here unedited, was provided to The Washington Post by Richard Zemser. — Susan Svrluga
Dearest Uncle, 2 May 2015
You were one of the first people I spoke to earlier in the year when I thought about switching majors. At the time, I was an engineering major taking painfully boring, cookie cutter PowerPoint suffocated courses like Intro to Systems Engineering and Statics. I would ask myself every single day as I constantly checked my watch, impatiently waiting for class to end, “What am I doing with this crap?” I hated it. Unlike the majority of the people at the Academy, however, you supported my eventual major change to English, and with it came awesome courses like HE222, The Bible and Literature; classes that actually promoted thought and personal reflection, classes that rekindled my passion for learning. And boy, has this course lived up to its cool pre-registration name in January.
Over those next few months, HE222 opened my eyes to a religious world I was previously unexposed to. After each class, Professor O’Brien assigned short passages from the Bible, starting from Genesis, and methodically moving all the way up through the New Testament, ending with Revelations. I legitimately read the Bible, most parts word for word, for the first time in my entire life.
We approached the Bible from a much different viewpoint than most classes or modes of interpretation, hence the course name. Instead of reading the Bible as a purely religious text sent directly from God, we explored the work through a variety of literary lenses. Close readings turned the Bible into a huge story with characters, a plot, and countless themes. The text, once overbearing to me, transformed into something I could actively think about, disagree with, or relate to. This course freed the Bible from its rather stereotypical “the word of God” constraints.
From a technical standpoint, this course introduced me to Biblical academia, including a variety of terms and descriptions that are associated with the Bible and its various forms and interpretations. To my surprise, I learned early in the semester about “documentary hypothesis,” and how one could follow what seem to be different authors within the Bible itself. Differing traditions, such as the Yawehist tradition, “J,” and the Priestly tradition, “P,” are characterized by different tones, and emphasize different aspects of the text.
Professor O’Brien also made sure to highlight repeated motifs, or type scenes, that constantly worked their way into the writing. Several reoccurring themes, including woman bareness, the preference of the younger sibling, and unconventionality came up again and again in the Bible, often causing us to stop and better analyze those instances.
We even touched on some Midrash, one of your favorite topics, filling in the gaps of some of the rather ambiguous stories in the Bible with multiple literary works. Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” and Frederick Buechner’s “The Son of Laughter,” my two favorite outside works from the course, did a great job of shedding light onto the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, giving the Biblical stories a bit more substance and room for interpretation. These tools let me in on aspects of the Bible I had never even considered.
As the course progressed, I began feeling much more comfortable with reading and interpreting the Bible for myself. After reading the Bible for the first time about three weeks into the semester, I began challenging a lot of my own personal beliefs. I mean, both sides of my family are Jewish, and I was Bar ‘Mitzvah’d so I guess I am technically a Jew also, but what do I actually believe in? To be honest, the more I internally picked at and prodded my faith, the more I realized not only how little I know, but how little I actually believe in anything. I thought I knew about God. I thought I knew, as least somewhat, about what it meant to be a Jew. But in reality, I knew (and still barely know), nothing. This, however, has only invigorated my thirst for more knowledge.
I learned something new in class every single day about the Bible and its characters, whether I agreed with it or not. Each person brought with them a different background and different experiences, and ultimately, different interpretations of the text. After spring break, we began reading the New Testament, and I found myself in truly uncharted waters. I was a Jew that never even read the first five books of Moses, how could I even scratch the surface of Jesus and the New Testament? Luckily, over the past two years as a part of the Sprint Football Team, I attended weekly Bible studies, or “Fellowship / Tavern” sessions as we called it, held by several players on the team and a member of one of the local Protestant congregations. These studies sessions were times for us to come together as a team, and learn not about religion, but about a man named Jesus. Each night, we read one small passage from the Bible and discussed it, particularly Jesus, his relationships, and how the story related to something in our own lives. Without even knowing it, I had received a solid foundation for interpreting the Gospels, and learning about a man I thought I knew nothing about.
Reading about Jesus has opened yet another door of curiosity and discovery in my life. I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring his journey and the powerful interactions he had with people along the way. Time and time again, I have referred back to my Bible studies with the football team, and I see Jesus not as the Son of God, not as the Son of Man, but rather as the Son of Relationships. When it boils down to it, Jesus connected with people from all different backgrounds and creeds, from all different classes and walks of life. Based on the writings and teachings that we have available, he touched people’s lives, most of the time, by simply talking with them, by interacting with them on the most fundamental levels. I appreciate this. I am inspired by this.
In all that we have talked about over the years regarding God, religion, and our place in the grand scheme of things, I now come to you with even more questions. After taking this course, and opening my eyes to a spiritual world well beyond anything I have ever experienced, my mind is jumbled. Where do I fit in all of this? The more I have read the Old Testament, the more I began to understand our roots, our ancestry, and the belief system that is, perhaps, engrained in our blood. I saw an intriguing God, one with great personality, wisdom, and compassion, but also with a variety of flaws and questionable judgments. Questioning God and his motives made him much more relatable, and in weird sense, much more human. And at the same time, I have read about a man in the New Testament, one that built relationships, and loved unconditionally. Where do I go with this? How does Jesus fit into the Jewish belief? How do these often conflicting traditions fit into my life and my own faith? What would the rest of our family think about some of these thoughts? How would I talk to them about it? Questions uncle, questions.
These questions, sparked by the nature of this course, explored by my own curious nature, will likely set the tone for the spiritual journey I undertake throughout the rest of my life. The Bible will play a much more influential role in how I conceptualize my own beliefs, and shape my relationship with God. That being said, this course has served as a stepping stone for my future exploration of religion in general. I look forward to taking the next step in learning about not just Judaism and Christianity, but Islam and Buddhism and any and all other religions. I am grateful for having taking this course and joining this religious culture, one that will help me connect better with history, places, and people.
Your most sincere nephew