I love tzitzis and glitter and skateboard helmets, I love them especially all at once

“Where are my presents?”
“You got your present.”
“What present?”
“That the Hanukkah Man gave you.”
“That thing from last year?”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve been gypped by the Hanukkah Man!”

So, I came across this picture:

poo

Those were good times, yet terrible times. They were the best of times and the worst of times.

I look at myself and think: “Why didn’t they ship me to hadar immediately?” Then I think: “How did I get to a place like w&m?” Then I think: “How did w&m get someone like me?”

Want to know what those pins say? They say: “Moshiach, we want moshiach now” and “Tzitzis, we want moshiach now.” They were a gift, OK? (Once, a guy in Prospect Heights saw one of my pins and said, “So, you want moshiach, huh?”)

I don’t try to be eccentric, you know? I am a walking collection. For instance, my mom got me a skateboard helmet for my birthday and so I was sitting there like derp listening to Matisyahu wearing my skateboard helmet. And now I have glitter because the “hanukkah man” aka my mom gave it to me aka she re-gifted it from when I didn’t want it last hanukkah. Also, I collect stickers on the back of my computer. Look closely and you can see a real live leopard.

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DSCF0154

I don’t want tzitzis to be a fashion accessory. I don’t want it to just be a part of my collection of things I seem to acquire. But I know from experience that–unless you’re a halachically jewish orthodox man–there’s absolutely no threshold you can cross where you won’t still be questioning your motives. (I say orthodox cause it’s not really expected so much outside of orthodoxy.)

Honestly, I have no way of knowing whether I’m just trying to have a fashion accessory, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. When I look at a woman with tzitzis I don’t think: “She just wants a fashion accessory.” I think she must be really dedicated to put herself out there like that. I look at that picture of me and I think “Why was I so hard on myself?!” If it were someone else in my situation, I would have judged them favorably. If they showed that kind of dedication, I wouldn’t have done all that, like, pilpul. I wouldn’t care what their lineage was, either.

I’ve had friends who consider themselves gentiles converting to judaism, and I’ve had friends who consider themselves jews converting to judaism. I think the way you see yourself makes you see your conversion quite differently. Maybe it was being in new york, but I don’t think you can dismiss subjective experience so easily anymore. There’s no “official answer,” which I was in denial about for a long time. Of course, though, not having a right answer doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers. I’ve known people who wanted to convert–who believed they had jewish lineage, even–but whose resolve and tenacity I doubted. Oh, don’t think I don’t still judge people! If someone told me they wanted to wear tzitzis and then in the next breath told me they’ve decided to follow Jesus/the Buddha/whoever, I will probably doubt their dedication.

But I also have friends who are converting, whom I wouldn’t doubt for one second, and whom I treat as jewish.

This, so far, is working better for me in everyday life than my outdated system of judging people solely by halachic standards as if I were their conversion rabbi. A conversion rabbi, of course, is concerned with the integrity of the system, but this is sometimes to the detriment of a person’s psychological well-being. I know this well. I can’t know which way of looking at people is the right one. Maybe I really am compromising the integrity of the system. But if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, all we can do is guess. And if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, we can’t exactly feel bad about making a best guess. That goes for anything, really.

And that’s all well and good.

I don’t know what all this means for me, though. I don’t know my own motivations most of the time, but I tend to believe that I should (like most of us, I presume?) And so I analyze it to death, a sound and fury signifying nothing. If I wanted to wear my tzitzis again, it’d have to go beyond “which mitzvos a non-jew can do” and “what does patrilineal mean philosophically.” It would have to go deeper. I’d have to enter a whole new system. I know I can’t be orthodox, and I know I can’t be conservative, reform, or recon either. It’s kind of an open field right now. Everything is free for the taking. I could be anything. I could be renewal (I’m not). I wish I didn’t have to convert (and therefore pick one…currently it’s RCA and currently I don’t want to change that). I wish I could just be. You know, in the margins. Like I do. I don’t feel like a convert. I don’t want to continue acting like I’m converting. I don’t want to be a gentile. I don’t want to be a righteous gentile. I davened like a jew. I learned gemara like a jew. I went off the derech like a jew. I came back like a jew.

Something has to change here.

alice explains

Dear Alice,

You have an excellent site … I think that there is a lot of information that would be useful for high school students … BUT (there had to be a “but”) … as webmaster for our district, I would get hung if I posted a site that had the type of lesbian and homosexual postings that you have. It would be nice if you could have a high school main page … if the above mentioned links weren’t displayed. I think it would help a lot of schools.

thanks, Jim

Dear Jim,

It’s ironic that you used a metaphor of death to describe the consequences of including gay/lesbian/bisexual/questioning information on your district’s site. Gay and lesbian teenagers commit suicide at two to three times the rate of their heterosexual classmates, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A 1991 study at the University of Minnesota found that out of 150 lesbian and gay young people surveyed, 30 percent of them had tried to kill themselves at least once as teenagers. On the “lighter side,” there’s also the verbal and physical abuse of out gay high schoolers and those merely suspected of being queer.

For these reasons alone, Alice will continue to post gay-related Q&As from and for high school and college students, and from and for many others. Much of the world yells “YOU’RE SICK AND YOU SUCK” at les/bi/gay teens. By reading questions sent in by other Go Ask Alice! readers and seeing that their own feelings and questions are echoed, queer high schoolers can say, “if so many people share my joys, fears, and fantasies, then I must be much more ‘normal’ than I thought.”

Perhaps you anticipate the anti-inclusion argument to go something like: “We don’t have a problem with homosexuals. We just don’t want to promote their lifestyle.” A “gay lifestyle” means going to school, seeing movies, working, and perhaps, being in love — this sounds an awful lot like the heterosexual lifestyle. The “type” of lesbian and gay questions in the Go Ask Alice! archives often resemble what’s on the minds of heterosexuals.

In line with the anti-inclusion argument, wouldn’t this mean that the Q&As from women who want to assert themselves in bed, from men with sexually transmitted infections, from people who are depressed, and from masturbators also should be excluded? After all, there are many among us who think dames should save their feelings for PTA meetings, only sluts get herpes, depression is nothing more than laziness, and masturbation is for sex-starved losers.

Alice loves the idea of a special high school home page (many schools already link to Go Ask Alice! as a health information resource). Erasing the gay/lesbian/bisexual/questioning stuff would shut out a huge number of readers — yours and Alice’s. It would also say loud and clear both to queer and “non-queer” people: “Your lives and concerns are not as important or legitimate as those of your ‘straight’ peers…. There’s no help for you here, and, frankly, we don’t really care about your attendance, schoolwork, safety, or the increased likelihood that you’ll hurt or kill yourself.” This message would undoubtedly do much more harm than good, and it’s certainly counter to an educator’s code of ethics. A great big delete to that idea.

Jim, these thoughts are directed more at the “hangmen and -women” in your school district than they are at you. Would it be possible for you to use some of these points if and when it came time to defend reality, the whole reality, and nothing but reality?

A poem. To commemorate my new Creative phase. Some say: era.

A poem. To commemorate my new comix collection series.

What does it mean to be Orthodox? Does it mean wearing pencil skirts and flats, long straight brown hair, and a love for both marriages and keeping every bentcher from each one? Is it being a good docile woman? Is it carrying your high heels to shul and wearing them as soon as you get in, making sure everyone sees you?

Where does culture end and religion begin? Which supports which? What happens if you don’t own any high heels? What happens if you don’t buy all your clothes from the special expensive “frum lady” stores? What happens if you look in the “recommended psalms for any occasion” at the beginning of your tehillim and you don’t find your occasion? Why are there so many supposedly for “welfare of children” or “finding your spouse” but if you want one for “hoping the girl you like talks to you today,” you’re out of luck? Why is it that for the people who need God the most, he isn’t there?

Just look at the “recommended psalms” at the beginning of your tehillim and see.

 

Conversion Tips ‘n’ Tricks Aggregate

I just realized, re-reading some of my older posts, that I’ve come a lot farther than I thought. And it’s weird, because two years have gone by and I’m technically no closer to converting. It’s disheartening, but at the same time I know that I did learn some things that will hopefully make me look like not a beginner.

I did write a “You Know You’re Over Conversion When…” post in August, and I think it was pretty timely, and had such sage observations as “When you’re angry with God but it’s time to daven, you don’t get an existential crisis, you just angry daven” and “You’ve stopped wondering whether it would be ‘good for you’ to join Sisterhood.”

But we all know that could never be enough. So here’s some advice for anyone who might be reading this and is having their own conversion journey. It might be bad advice. It might even be good advice. YMMV.

1.) Anything I say about conversion might not even resonate with you. I don’t like all these “And at two months, you should feel this, and at one year you should feel this” lists, and even more so I don’t like this out-of-nowhere idea that “Once you feel like you’re not ready, only then will your rabbi know you’re ready!” People will try to get in your thoughts. Get them out.

2.) I was so serious in the beginning! Don’t be so serious! It’s like when you’re a kid and you take your mistakes so seriously, but then you look back and you’re like “Oh I was such a cute little cocoa puff! Why was I so hard on myself?”

3.) Your life might go through stages. Or themes, if you will. It may make you wonder what your core personality actually is anymore. For example, first I was like “Everyone must like me!” then I was like “F you people; I’ll do what I want!” and currently I feel like a yeshiva bochur on the inside; I have internalized Matisyahu. Also, at first I was pretty adamant about being Conservative, but then I decided I didn’t like Conservative, then I decided I wanted to be non-denominational, and currently I’m Against Injustice. A couple of things that changed my life recently are 1.) The Orthodox kiruv on our campus, 2.) The documentary Trembling Before G-d, which for some sick ironic reason made me want to be frum even more, probably because of how those people stayed even though they had adversities, but it also made me want to be against injustice even more, cause those people tried so hard. You also might make “My Life Changed” lists such as this.

4.) Your experience will be radically different depending on what denomination you’re trying to go through. If you’re looking for ease, go for whichever place offers a class. Those are so easy. The two I’ve been to were Reform and Recon, though, and Reform is explicitly into converting people, which is weird to me. Anyway, if you feel like Conservative and Orthodox people are wary of you, it’s probably true. They don’t really have classes. This is probably politically incorrect, but this documentary made me think of it. Those people gave me weird “They still seem Christian” vibes. I think there are two groups of converts; those who are really going to struggle and never quite fit in, and those who will eventually fit in. I’m sure you, my readers, are the latter group. But I’ve seen quite a few potential converts who couldn’t handle it. So, that’s probably what they’re expecting of you, too. I don’t really know if I have vibes or not yet. (If I have Christian vibes, I’ll just die.) Don’t let them tell you who you are. You know if you can make it.

5.) You should learn Hebrew. There’s no question. So many doors will open; everything will make so much more sense in life. I know you might not think you “need” it. It’s like when my sister was five she used to think she wouldn’t have to learn how to read. But you must! Last year, I was really into speed davening without pausing to think about what the words meant. But now that I know a bit more it makes it much more meaningful. You might not believe this, but if you learn Hebrew, the English translations will pale so much in comparison. How can I say this enough? LEARN HEBREW.

6.) There will be easter eggs! For me, this was realizing I could understand (a lot of) what I was saying in the siddur, which happened this morning, and it was amazing. Just like that, suddenly I was like “Wow I recognize that, it’s hifil.” Did I mention you should learn Hebrew?

7.) On a sad note, you might have to deal with people who seem to want nothing but your demise. This could be fellow congregants who want to suck you into their toxic gossip, it could be a rabbi who doesn’t like you, it could be a congregant who makes sure you never dare to think you’re “one of them” yet, it could be someone who laughs at your observance, or someone who has no reservations disparaging your preferred denomination right in front of you etc. Everyone will have an opinion. Don’t let them get you down.

8.) The second year of holidays are much easier. It was so disorienting the first year; it was very weird to think of the holiday year as an endless cycle, each holiday meant to represent something totally different, and it was just too bizarre. I was used to my mom going “I cannot bear to have Christmas without a tree!” and dragging the thing out of the basement, and that only lasts one day! It was just too weird to have all these crazy eight day long holidays, with things like “customs” involved. (My family’s holiday custom, by the way, is to drive past people’s houses at night and look in their windows. It’s a cherished tradition.) But now that I’ve been through Passover already, for example, it wasn’t as bad. And I didn’t feel like such a nerd learning as I go. But I wasn’t used to holidays being such a big part of life. There’s always a holiday. But anyway, the second time around was a lot less stressful for me because I knew what to expect, I guess.

9.) If you’re getting tired of certain platitudes (usually accompanying descriptions of the holidays), like “We’re standing again at Sinai” or “On Tisha B’Av, we should also think about our impact on the environment,” stuff anyone could think up, and you’re getting frustrated with its lack of originality, well, you’re not alone there. Don’t worry, there is a lot more to things than that.

10.) I know it’s easy to get caught up in other people’s opinions and the politics and appearances, but don’t forget why you’re doing this. Also, God is there for you even when no one else is. He is on your side. He wants you to succeed.

I Don’t Know Why But I’m Tired of My Life

Do you ever get that thing where you might listen to a song that you used to listen to during a certain period in your life, and then it brings you back? But then, and only then, are you really and utterly aware of how bad that time was? This happens to me often. And I think this is going to happen with last semester (and perhaps early this semester). This is no good.

For example, last semester I would really just listen to Y-Love and DeScribe and stuff on repeat, and now I can’t listen to them without thinking of how horrible last semester was. I’m not sure I knew how bad my life was at the time. But I felt trapped! Utterly trapped! And it’s too bad too, because I would still like them. And it’s even worse because I used to listen to them before last semester, and those were good times, only now when I listen to them again I’m going to always think of last semester, the bad times. Why is it always this way? It’s very annoying.

I remember mentioning at one point last semester that I felt like I was living my life online, and that all my Judaism was basically online. I was resigned to this idea, but now I’m a little horrified. I spent a lot of time online, and it got to the point where I felt that if I somehow erased my online presence I too would disappear. And that was pretty sad. Moreover, I was around people who constantly argued with me and it made me really tense…worse, we argued about Judaism, which gave it a terrible flavor. Last semester had a really bad flavor.

So this semester, at least nearing the end of it, I’ve pretty much checked out at this point. Seventeen days left. I’ve abandoned my friends, shall I mention effortlessly, and I’ve deleted every post I’ve ever made on Facebook, and I’m trying to eradicate the mindset that led to my feeling so trapped in the first place last semester. Must start anew. I knew something was wrong last semester–I came in following the letter of the law, and the semester threw me up with nothing to show for it, except eating treif again and realizing that what I was currently trying just wasn’t the way. It was a difficult road to the end of this year, to say the least. Especially since nothing I could have done would have helped. Time heals. It’s like when someone’s drunk, and the correct answer to how you can sober up a drunk person is “Nothing. Just give them some water and wait it out.” You just have to wait it out.

It’s weird, because in small increments, I always seem to find so many brick walls and roadblocks, but when I look at the past two years from afar, I see that my journey here to this point in life telling you all this has been almost effortless. It’s as if no matter what problems I had, I was still being pushed through the sludge to get to where I need to be. For example, when I started school here I had no idea what I was in for, and as the year progressed I thought it was impossible that I was “here for a reason.” I’m still wary of that phrase. Everything went wrong last semester–I hated Hillel, I only made a few Jewish friends and they ended up annoying me to the point I wished I’d never met them, and anything good that happened I think I saw through a filter of “Well, how is this going to help me convert, etc.” I was quite goal-oriented, but my soul had been sucked out.

And yet, looking back on the year, look how easy it’s been made for me! I didn’t get elected to Hillel, which makes it easier to leave (I would have had to resign mid-year), my school gave me $4,000 extra in financial aid, I paid off my old school loans, I met an Orthodox rabbi, who helped me with life, I saw myself at my highest and lowest, I was accepted to Brooklyn College, I sat in my Hebrew teacher’s sukkah and went to her seder, I learned how to explain why I’m leaning Orthodox, and all this within the year. I put things in perspective, which wasn’t the goal of course, but now I think I’m realizing that my goals were smothering me. I think, at least I hope, I’ll come out of this year with a better sense of purpose. Or something.

I don’t know what kind of vibe this year is going to have when I think back to it. This semester is the semester of Matisyahu, Nick Cave, Kate Bush, and Sleater-Kinney. On repeat. So, who knows. Hopefully this was a good and useful semester, because I don’t want to ruin them too, they’re my favorites.

Rava Say Relax

You know, the internet can be a pretty dangerous place. I’m pretty certain most of my readers know by now what I’m referring to, so I won’t recount the details cause I don’t think it needs another trackback. But I’ll admit that I’m naive and never thought something could blow up in such a way. And suddenly, everyone was taking sides! Making accusations! Making statements about how they weren’t making accusations! Even I’m slightly embarrassed by the fact that I’m partially connected to the wreckage by, like, three degrees. My first inclination was, like human nature I suppose, to get involved and argue in the comments and things like that. But as it went on, and as more blog posts were written as commentary, fueling the flames (this one included now lolol)…I started to realize that it’s really, really easy to get off track.

I’d been doing it myself…I’d been doing exactly what people on the other side had been doing; latching onto what I don’t like about other denominations and writing polemical essays based solely on a mélange of found examples. And using unwitting individuals as paradigmatic pawns. And worse, turning a small, semi-private affair into a big public spectacle for no good reason. And as I saw the implosion go down, and I saw how much anger and derision and explicit sinat chinam went into a simple blog post, and I thought to myself “I can’t become this person.”

I know that the writer of that post supposes the “exposure of Orthodoxy” (a common theme) is beneficial in the end, but in that post, into which so much effort was exerted, I saw a kind of coarse hatred and revulsion I’d never seen before, thrust suddenly into the limelight. It’s been really affecting me since it was posted, and not only in all the mitzvos broken in order to tell the story the writer wanted to tell. But because it spun off into such a thing, and because it was so hard not to look.

When you’re online, it’s too easy to start naming names and saying things like “I know I shouldn’t say this, but…” “I’m saying this because this information will help expose the general practice,” or “So-and-so shouldn’t have said thus-and-so, he shouldn’t even talk cause he once did this-and-that.” I was appalled by how many people spoke lashon hara while simultaneously claiming to be against someone else’s lashon hara. I know I’m no better, and this whole affair was probably the primary reason I decided to start trying to study more. Cause, frankly, I’m wondering if THIS post isn’t lashon hara.

Someone made a wise comment on the importance of tznius in these kinds of situations, and not throwing your business and your gripes out into the street at the expense of others. Even if you’re entirely in line technically (which according to my current read, sefer hachinuch, I believe I am when I criticize Reform cause I feel it’s bringing people away from Torah but not always so I admit I have to think about that too), you still have to ask yourself: Are you embarrassing someone? Are you causing someone distress? Are you publicly shaming someone whom you know won’t heed your well-intended suggestions? Are you publicly shaming someone who is like a tinok shenishba and doesn’t know any better? Is this a chillul hashem; are you making Torah look bad? Is what you’re saying actually helping anyone? I think one reason that post affected me so much was because I know–honestly–that I’m not above that kind of spiteful rhetoric quite yet, though I suppose I thought I was. I thought there had to be something that sets apart my actions from someone who doesn’t feel guided by mitzvos.

And also, when you say stuff, I recently realized, there are larger considerations. When you publicly denounce something the “Orthodox” do (needlessly, that is), obviously you never know what lost soul is hearing what you say and thinking “You’re right, Torah sounds dumb and outdated.” That’s one reason I really dislike when rabbis tell their congregants things like “Don’t listen to Rashi, he was into magic.” “Urim and tumim, that was put in by the priests so they could tell people what to do.” “It’s OK if the mezuza scroll isn’t kosher, *some people* are just neurotic and will pay $50 extra for one.” “Gemara is just nitpicking.” “Don’t read that; it’s Orthodox.” Do you think that will get people to want to learn Rashi; into being interested in urim and tumim; into being likely to have a kosher scroll; learning Gemara?

But I also know, as far as I’m concerned, that I’ve also been drawn into the indignant observer role, and it’s good for some things, but it’s also pretty consuming. You can spend your time gawking as others go down in flames or you can spend your time improving yourself. Just like how you can study Torah and use what you know to denigrate others, or you can use it to save the world. Pick one.

“Rava said in Berachot 17a, “The goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds, so that one should not study Torah and Mishnah, and then despise his father and mother because of their ignorance…”

My life

(I originally posted this elsewhere, hence the casual tone.)

So I found a couple of things since I moved to W&M.

First, when I came here I was really into halacha and stuff and I really hated that I had to live with people who were ONLY in to the “cultural aspects” and were literally just secular Jews or whatever who only came to Hillel stuff because they were catered. I hated those people so much. But now I’m finding that I’m not observant hardly at all anymore, no matter how much I try to bring it back it’s not going well. So I’m really (despite myself) seeing what it’s like to be a “cultural Jew” or whatever for the first time ever. It’s odd and I don’t know if this is a good thing or not…

But before I came here I wasn’t into Zionism or Israel or Hebrew or whatever, and now I’m listening to Diwon’s Sabra Sessions mixtape while sitting next to a book on “Contemporary Halakhic Problems” after just learning some Modern Hebrew. I’m so obviously not into the synagogue or reading the parsha these days, but I’m still into Judaism. And I never thought that was possible until I moved here. I don’t know if it’s good or bad (and I WISH I still could figure this out while still being observant but eh) but perhaps it’s a good lesson I guess…because before, I was pretty terrified that if I ever got to be less religious or whatever then Judaism would also fade away.

Even though I hate thinking of things in my life as “lessons.”

Not good to be figuring this out while you’re trying to convert to Orthodoxy, but hopefully it will get better if I move to Brooklyn.

I also learned that I’m getting really annoyed with the halachic process. The Reform rabbi here just gave me two books of responsa “to compare” between the Reform and Orthodox responsa processes, and I’m really annoyed at the Orthodox one. (The Reform one was from the 1920′s, so I mostly thought of that as an educational experience.) But it was stupid because one of the Orthodox questions was whether women can count in the minyan (1985). And the whole thing was about how the Conservative position was wrong, which is OK because the Conservative position has its flaws. BUT the thing I hated was how nonchalantly the author was all like “The precedent for ‘ten men’ can be found in the spies.” No. The precedence for ten PEOPLE was found in the spies. But he just said it like no one was going to question. And probably no one WOULD question, so long as they liked his answer.

Also he argued that women can’t count because they don’t have the obligation to public prayer, but that’s circular. If they did, then they would. And anyway, men DON’T have an OBLIGATION. It’s only “strongly preferred.” The idea of obligation started in the 1500′s, and it didn’t come from Shulhan Aruch, it came from Mordechai Yaffe.

Oy.

The thing that annoys me is that he kept pulling out random impertinent sources like that proved his point or something, like bring up a “big name” will always win. Which so doesn’t fly in philosophy, but apparently it’s OK in halacha. I just got the feeling that I was merely reading the codified opinions of a bunch of old men who at the end of the day are more interested in ego stroking than with emulating the sages.

You know what though? Judaism is more than halacha, because it’s more than a bunch of old men in their ivory tower.

Matisyahu strikes again

Note: This isn’t about Beardgate, I know you are glad

I took an 8-hour train to get back home, complete with a three-hour layover. I prepared for this marathon by buying two Matisyahu albums, trying to pack up some wisdom. I think I got some wisdom, but as usual I’m not sure if he’s being idealistic. I wonder what Matisyahu would do if he was going to my school right now. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself: “What would Matisyahu do?”

And it’s kind of awkward when you’re listening to one song that’s all “You’ve got to deflate your ego” and you think, “Well, that’s it then. My ego’s saying re-apply to Stern right now. Better forget that idea.” But then another song comes on and says “If you got no water how you gonna survive” and then you think, “Wow, that really makes sense. This school is a ridiculous Christian desert, where the sand is made out of churches and ambivalence. How am I gonna survive? I should re-apply to Stern.”

I think the second message won out, because I’ve decided my job here was done. Now, whether these schools actually accept a third-time transfer is yet to be seen. Really, these are the best years. What am I doing here, just waiting them out?

Other than that, I thought about a couple of things. First, after deciding that, I wondered why I often appeal to divine intervention when it comes to school decisions. This is a failure for many reasons. But I don’t really know what else to do. If I can’t appeal, or if it doesn’t work, what am I doing applying to a Jewish school anyway? Because I’m “interested in the subject matter”? It’s unfortunate that I’ll never really “know” if I can “handle” a “Jewish community”—a “real” one—so I’m just blindly making decisions as if I can handle it, like devoting my major to Jewish Studies and devoting my career to Jewish non-profit. I feel like I’m backing myself into a corner, because I don’t really know anything except non-Jewish or secular slightly-Jewish contexts. (The admissions lady at YU even told me once “I wouldn’t fit in” because everyone else had been to Israel. It was pretty sad.)

I mean, Matisyahu seems really intent on the idea that “If you ask Hashem for mercy / He will throw you a rope.” This hasn’t actually happened yet, because I’ve been rejected by many schools already and yet I’m here in one of the absolute worst places to cultivate any kind of relationship with Hashem, rope-throwing or otherwise. And if I keep being rejected from schools, and keep thinking there’s a “reason” I’m here, the more I will think that obviously Hashem doesn’t want to hang out anymore, and he wants a quiet and convenient way to get rid of me because he’s tired of my whining and failing. And that could be the only “reason,” because He should have known I couldn’t handle it. (I did try, though.)

But I never thought this way before—thinking everything has to have a “reason” and such. Who says? I always thought it was a weird idea that sounds a lot like fatalism, which is boring. And it always ends with me blaming God for junk. “Why did you put me here? What did I ever do to you?” But then I thought, what if he’s on my side after all? Maybe I was rejected because I really did have that 1.3 high school GPA. That could even mean there’s no “reason” for me to be here; I wasn’t “meant” to stay here to help Hillel or whatever esoteric thing W&M might need. I don’t really feel great about being used in ways I don’t understand anyway.

I really don’t know what’s going to happen if I am here for another year and a half, though. Look what happened after one semester. It’s frightening how easily my connection to Judaism and Hashem and everything was broken into shards of lies just from being isolated for a mere four months.

But anyway, at about this time I spotted a familiar-looking book in the back of one of the seats on the train. As I pulled it out, my eyes widened. A Talmud! What were the odds of not only some guy learning TALMUD on the Amtrak, but ME sitting in THAT SEAT, given the variety of other seats?

I took a picture of it for posterity, but naturally not before briefly considering the possibility of keeping it as a souvenir. “That guy doesn’t want this anymore, does he?” I thought. But alas, then I decided it would be too ironic to steal a Talmud and anyway what a great mitzvah it would be to return it. I ended up giving it to lost and found, even though I still had a nagging feeling that that’s not what the Talmud says you should do. His international phone number was in it. I keep meaning to call. But if one of you guys wants to go for it….

Don’t think I hesitated for one second to say to the train attendant, “Some guy left his Talmud on this train, and you better watch out because these are pretty expensive so ah better get that to lost and found.” Any other person would be like, “Some guy left his weird alien foreign book on this train.” So I felt pretty legitimate, but anyway, it gave me a great insight. I should look at more or those “ethical mitzvot.” And I don’t mean Reform “just be nice” ethical mitzvot. I felt really bad that I didn’t know the protocol for returning that lost object. What if the guy was transferring trains? What if he didn’t know how to look for an in-train lost and found? etc.

The whole situation reminded me that, if I’m getting so uncomfortable doing some of the ritual stuff these days, why not concentrate on that other large sphere of mitzvot? And not—this is the insight—because “non-Jews only have to do ethical commandments,” but because ethical commandments are also part of Judaism. And we all know I need to stop being a jerk in life. And I’d really like to feel better about the fact that I tailgate and don’t initiate small talk and roll my eyes at cars that actually screech to a halt for me when I’m illegally crossing the street. (Just GO, I SEE you.)

But yeah. Maybe then God will come back to me. Can’t really be an atheist again. So I’m just waiting it out, I think. It’s starting to really wear me down—the fact that I’m being pushed and pulled and haven’t even started the process yet. Now I have to think about all the crap on how God relates to non-Jews, and that’s a bunch of crap, and I don’t appreciate the need for this thought. Especially since, oddly enough, all the best books on Judaism that I want to read are all couched in “This is how WE relate to God” terms, which is really alienating to me lately. I’m trying to read Horeb and it’s all about how God is present through mitzvot and I’m like, “Wait, what about me?”

Orthodoxy

Crossposted at New Voices

I sense that my readers probably believe that I’m pretty liberal. In fact, I sense that it’s simply taken for granted that if we can all agree on anything, it’s on how archaic, naive, and altogether hateful Orthodoxy is.

And that’s why I’m sensing it’s time to lay down the law on why I’m thinking of choosing an Orthodox conversion.

This list is supposed to be read all together; I tried to impose some sort of emergent order to it.

1.) This campus is slightly anti-Semitic (if you’re paying attention). When we were discussing Zionism in class, one girl spoke up to say she just could never understand how the Jews could “take away someone else’s happiness for their own happiness.” I’m not an expert on the subject, but it seems that the default position is that “the Jews took the land away (ideally, forcefully) from the defenseless Palestinians and they just want what’s rightfully theirs.”

Next, I am writing a paper for another class, given the following instructions:

 The paper will focus on the question of relating to other peoples. 

Read Nehemiah 13. How does Nehemiah attempt to secure the identity of the people? Why does Nehemiah act the way he does? Now read Ezra 9-10. How does Ezra attempt to secure the identity of the people? Why is intermarriage such a big deal? 

Read Jonah. Are the foreign sailors and the people of Nineveh depicted positively or negatively in Jonah? What is YHWH’s relationship with foreign nations according to this book? 

Read Ruth. While set in the days of the judges, Ruth is almost assuredly a story from the Second Temple period. What is the primary purpose for telling this story? What does the characterization of Ruth tell us about ethnic boundaries? Reflect on the difference between the attitudes toward the foreign wife in Ruth and in the post-exilic writings of Ezra (Ezra 9-10) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:1-3; 13:23-28). Could the book of Ruth be read as a protest against the extreme emphasis on purity in the post-exilic period? 

It’s clear to me that Nehemiah 13 and Ezra 9-10 are commentating on the subject of foreign nations to show that intermarriage is causing the Israelites to sin (particularly Nehemiah). There’s no “racial superiority” element. However, I’m fairly certain this is what my Protestant teacher is getting at, because we were told to write about how these texts promoted “Jewish ethnic identity”—not to mention the fact that he considers these writings evidence of “extreme emphasis on purity.” His idea, I suppose, is that the Israelites were insular, particularist, and simply couldn’t stand outside influence. I wonder how he feels about Jewish law against intermarriage today. Those Jews, why can’t they just be normal and Christian like everyone else.

Third, and less noticeable, is the way the Jewish students on this campus think of themselves. I often hear stereotypical jokes about how “Jews are good with money” among them all the time, or how “The Jews are serving FREE pancakes!”, or how they refuse to host pro-Israel events or speakers on campus, or how they are more concerned with promoting intercultural dialogue (and hosting Shabbat dinners with the Muslim Students Association) than with understanding their own religion.

The saddest thing was when we watched a short documentary film called The Tribe in my Judaism in America class, which went through the fact that Jews are 0.3% of the population, and it dramatically listed all the pogroms through the centuries, but it was awkwardly mixed in with humorous bits on how there are hippie Jews and yeshivish Jews and all the different types, and ended with this lady reading her poetry about how the Jews were attacked in every generation “now tell me I don’t look Jewish” and I was like “Whoa” and all my friend Hannah had to say afterwards was “LOL all those stereotypes are true!”

“Non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.” -Jonathan Sacks

2.) To concede to “modern values” is really to concede to the French Enlightenment. As I learn more about the history of the splits, the more obvious it is that the Enlightenment had everything to do with it. Truth comes from reason. Look, there is nothing wrong with this statement. I’m in a symbolic logic class, after all. I know a thing or two about truth. But this “reason” came with a price—anything that couldn’t be immediately deduced via the scientific method was considered of an older, lesser era; and Jewish ritual—non-rational as it is—went along with it. The Enlightenment, along with its emphasis on reason, also emphasized universal brotherhood, “beauty,” “decorum,” and “elevated minds and spirits.” Judaism, then, started to be seen as dirty, base, and in need of revision.

Particularism, of course, had no part to play in this fraternité and egalité. This, along with the newfound freedom of the Jews in tolerant America, led them to feel assured that the ultimate way to continue living in non-persecutory lands was assimilation (i.e. universalism), and that the natural way to attain that goal would be to get rid of all those Jewish peculiarities that were impeding it. I suspect this happened without premeditation. “Reforms” happened, and only later on did an ideology attach itself to those reforms. It would be a mistake to assume that a group of enlightened people came along with new ideas of “individual autonomy” and the like and constructed reforms forthright. It’s likely that the reforms were simply emulation of Christian surroundings rather than a conscious effort to repudiate Judaism, but before long that is exactly what the reforms appeared to be.  (Rabbis dressing like Protestant clergymen and calling themselves “reverend” helped.)

3.) To concede to “modern values” is really to concede to Protestant values. Did you ever wonder why universalism is such an important value (does “we are all one in Christ Jesus” mean anything to you?) I have a feeling that a lot of our progressive values are really just Protestant values. You can’t really tell because, as we know, America itself was founded on these timeless virtues. Case in point: Modern Biblical criticism is quite distinctly a Protestant affair, and although they are far too professional to conclude that “it was all leading to Jesus,” they have no trouble claiming the “cult” was solely meant to “keep the Israelites’ identity separate from the Canaanite nations” and that a distinction must be made between Temple “cult worship” and unregulated worship outside of Jerusalem. Moreover, these scholars greatly enjoy shutting down opposing arguments by citing other scholars and claiming that “they know the Hebrew” when only a cursory glance will show that indeed they don’t (our History of Ancient Israel teacher once wished us a “tova shana”). But I digress.

Look, the Torah isn’t meant for everyone. (I’m looking at you, 1999 Reform platform.) Its ethics, yes. Its truths, fine. But I don’t think we should pursue universalism as a Jewish value. Nor is “ethical monotheism”—”shucking the husk”—desirable. It is a Protestant value to suppose we can get to the core of the matter without ritual, commentators or authorities; by scripture alone. We shouldn’t eliminate what makes us peculiar because it’s offensive to the untrained ears of Christian neighbors (this is why the Talmud and Aleinu were abridged, and also why the early reformers decided to change some words of the service around in English). I think this is the first step in allowing ourselves to completely synopsize and compress our religion into something palatable for everyone—and the 1999 Reform platform, which explicitly encourages spiritual seekers to find their home in Judaism, does just this—which is easy when it’s pared down to universal ethics. But that’s not what Judaism is.

The most noticeable instance of this is the separation of ritual and ethics, popular in Reform Judaism. I’m still surprised that no one noticed that this is probably the most Protestant idea ever, yet it is a central tenet of Reform. The ethical mitzvot are obligatory and the ritual are not (I wonder how they came up with that?)

4.) Liberal Judaism is about concessions. This doesn’t sound very nice, but think about it. Both Reform and Conservative platforms are written so as to appeal to what the largest amount of people want to hear. It’s as if they are trying to sell themselves to the largest amount of people, offending as few as possible. The Reform platform is extremely vague, and oddly although it doesn’t allow for people who believe the Messiah will be a person, upon inspection it would seem to allow for a Jew for Jesus to join its ranks.

The Conservative platform itself is better, at the very least setting ranges, but still in practice it seems forever condemned to making mainly utilitarian decisions. Its practice for issuing takkanot for non-dire situations seems quite impetuous at times. For instance, the driving teshuva was not only made during a time when, strangely, clergymen were actually encouraging their congregants to live closer; but also it was worded in such a way so as to apply forevermore. Gone, therefore, was any impetus for a person to one day move to be closer to the synagogue. Some say that this teshuva was a good thing because people just are moving away, but that’s what I mean by concession. It’s one of the more useful “descriptive” teshuvot, if you will. But others, of course, make all sorts of efforts to allow electricity and even television on Shabbat, “provided it’s tuned to an educational channel”! This is a real teshuva, and although our Conservative rabbi didn’t agree with it, a Conservative rabbi could choose to advocate for that teshuva. This concession was absolutely not necessary.

Orthodoxy doesn’t generally provide concessions. Although with less amicable rabbis it may be a painful three-mile walk to shul on your cane, unlike Conservative responsa that allow something like driving for an entire community of Conservative Jews—truly needed by any given individual or not—Orthodoxy seems more wont to consider such cases on an individual basis. I often say that I don’t want to affiliate with a denomination that tells me I can be less observant than I know I ought to be. Where a liberal Jew, emboldened by the true spirit of Protestant values, might decide to forgo a certain observance because details don’t really matter—maybe say kaddish without a minyan or something—but if a person doesn’t make such decisions he thereby claims that Judaism is his most important valuable, and comfort or convenience is not (which confuses Americans, I think).

5.) Judaism shouldn’t need a “platform.” You may have noticed that there’s no Orthodox “platform.” There’s also no Orthodox central authority akin to the USCJ or CCAR. Reform probably gets it the worst here, with their many different (and how!) platforms, ranging from “we believe all ritual is archaic” (1885) to “we believe in studying the whole array of mitzvot” (1999). Their platforms are highly reactionary, and it seems that their goal is indeed to fine-tune their belief system with each passing generation—in as condensed a phrasing as possible. Is this discomfiting to you?

Similarly, although Conservative Judaism only has one platform, they seem unsure on where they stand—possibly they aren’t entirely sure what their stand on halacha is. (The example I always bring up is the fact that women are included in minyan even though no one’s really sure whether women are actually obligated in fixed prayer.) They too could not resist summing themselves up in a pithy saying, as if they were a sports drink—”Tradition and Change.” Conservative Judaism has also taken the strange step in distinguishing itself not only as a way of practicing Judaism, but quite consciously as an entirely autonomous branch of Judaism. As I’ve said elsewhere, a Conservative Jew would have to look at the texts through the lens of the USCJ, and that makes me uncomfortable.

My Reform professor unwittingly said it best while we were discussing the different branches and their platforms—after reading the Reform platforms and the Conservative one, we skipped a discussion on the Orthodox platform because “They don’t need a platform; their platform is the Torah.”

6.) Orthodoxy is not really the enemy here. It’s easy to believe that the Orthodox are looking down on everyone else, but I have two observations in my experiences as someone trying to be more observant in a liberal community. First, it’s very hard to accept halacha and to concurrently accept those who openly reject it; and more so since these people are encouraged by an entire institution saying that this is all right, which is unprecedented.

Second, liberal Jews certainly look down on the Orthodox as well. This is almost exclusively true for Reform Jews, I’ve found. I’ve spent time in both Reform and Conservative synagogues, and I know that the Reform people spent a lot more time disparaging our Conservative synagogue than the other way around. And they saved their worst for Orthodoxy. In Hillel, I overheard someone telling a non-Jew that “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two different religions.” It seems that the less someone knows about Orthodoxy the more they have to say about it.

But apropos to the Orthodox “looking down on everyone else,” I’m now in the position to comment on this from personal experience as well. As someone who believes that Orthodoxy is the closest thing we currently have to how the sages envisioned Judaism ought to be practiced, I find it frighteningly easy to call Orthodoxy, as the Orthodox already do, “Torah Judaism.” Still, I entirely understand that observant Conservative Jews aren’t practicing their variation out of deviancy or laziness—I simply believe that their compromises with the modern world are far too casual with regard to their handling of halacha to deal with it. One thing to be said about Orthodoxy is that it takes an extreme sense of intellectual honesty to be able to say “halachic precedent doesn’t allow us to do what we want.” (Needless to say, there have been many dishonest instances, but they haven’t been institutionalized as far as I know.)

For me, dealing with the majority of people who don’t consider halacha binding is the difficult part. Stranger still, the majority who are secular. I have a hard time separating Judaism from mitzvot and mitzvot from divine obligation; and frankly I’m a little offended that I now have to. The idea that Judaism can legitimately exist without mitzvot is new and unprecedented and came straight from the 19th century. Needless to say—and I’m personally a product of what happens when that system breaks—I strongly disagree. I find halacha obligatory, and therefore I cannot find Jewish practice that considers halacha personal and voluntary a legitimate practice. Nor can I find a system that encourages this a legitimate system. As for “looking down” on people; I wouldn’t say I consider myself “better than them,” so much as I’m just very sad about it all. (I also have to admit that I think some of it must be laziness.)

This, interestingly, combines with the fact that many liberal Jews may consider someone who is sufficiently observant “too observant,” and so every time I hear an inquiry including the phrase “I don’t have to be religious on this trip, do I?” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to be observant,” or a brazen admission that “I will never stop eating bacon/driving on Shabbat/etc.” I feel just a little more lonely in life.

I also often hear that Orthodoxy has brainwashed us all into believing that “their way is the only way” and that “there is a linear system culminating in Orthodoxy, when really liberal Judaism should have its own narrative entirely separate from Orthodoxy.” I am convinced that the idea of a linear system may be a myth; still, it is not meant to be disparaging to believe that one’s beliefs are true. That is called moral objectivism. To say that different authorities are authoritative for different communities is a good argument; to say that those authorities can legitimately and suddenly call halacha personal and non-obligatory is not.

Similar are my findings on how anti-religious and even anti-Semitic movements such as the LGBT and women’s rights movements are. You usually think of religion attacking the one, but never the other way around. Not so.

7.) Eventually, there is a divide between practice and ideology in liberal Judaism. Ideology can only get a person so far. It took me a while to realize this. Although Reform was never an option for me, I considered Conservatism for a long, long time (hence this post). It had occurred to me that many Conservative Jews aren’t practicing to their potential or even according to their beliefs, but I ignored this. When I was going to the Conservative synagogue back home, I quickly became one of the most observant people there…and I’d only been going for a year. After nineteen years of no Jewish education (I literally didn’t know mitzvah from mikveh). I’d envisioned better for those people. I simply couldn’t understand why they refused to learn rudimentary Hebrew or certain holiday basics or even the order of the service. It was all the more shocking because these were Conservative Jews, who ought to have subscribed to the position that to know those things was important. “Too busy,” they always said.

This is liberal Judaism. People are “too busy” to learn about Judaism—to practice Judaism—and that’s simply not me. Judaism has wholly and irreversibly taken ahold of every aspect of my life—how could I dare to say I was “too busy”? I am accustomed to asking myself first and foremost before ever embarking on anything how I would nourish my Jewish needs—when I buy foods, I always look at the ingredients or the kosher label. When I was considering studying abroad, the first thing I did was Google Map the nearest synagogues. I write “can’t work on Saturday” on my job applications. I deal with my caffeine withdrawal because I won’t use money to buy coffee on Shabbat.

This isn’t to say that Conservative Jews can’t do this, but I can’t imagine choosing a community where these questions don’t normally occur to people. I don’t like to have to guess whether my congregation will consider halacha important; I don’t want to feel that I ought to celebrate the “achievement” of actually finding that rare liberal congregation where people are very (and not just incidentally) observant. Nor do I especially wish to subscribe to a life where I constantly have to “teach” my peers Judaism. There’s something beautiful about living in a community where people know what to do with a negel vasser cup; and no complex theology or ideology will ever make up for the moment when a liberal rabbi has to explain to his congregants how to use it.

8.) Ultra-Orthodoxy isn’t the whole of Orthodoxy. For some reason this seems to be the biggest myth. I always hear “Orthodox” in a derogatory sense—”The Orthodox in Israel are bucking the system,” “The Orthodox don’t work,” etc. A good part of this, I’m sure, is the media. But it’s a myth that must be knocked down. I would likely associate with the Modern Orthodox crowd, namely because I am a womyn and wimmin don’t have many opportunities in Black Hatdoxy. There are bad apples making everyone look bad, really. Orthodoxy doesn’t preclude a person from being reasonable. I think that the thing that separates Modern Orthodoxy from Conservatism (and I admit I still find that the line is extremely blurred) is that in MO Torah comes first. And Conservatism, well, their motto is “Tradition and Change”—change inexplicably shares 50% of that core, and it seems that the only thing keeping “change” from being their choice dictum is that quaint and too-comfortable “tradition” is keeping them back. Orthodoxy can exist in the modern world too, but it doesn’t concede just to concede.

9.) I know there are problems with Orthodoxy. But I want to live in a community where difficult questions are answered honestly and deliberately. I know that many great books have been written by individual Conservative rabbis coming to very valid conclusions. Still, for all the above reasons I’m choosing, at the moment, to associate with Orthodoxy and face its problems from there. Although I agree with a lot of Conservatism’s outcomes (and disagree with just as many), I can no longer accept the process of how they come to such conclusions. My biggest concern, as you may very well know by now, is the role of women in Judaism. It would be so easy to simply accept the Conservative line of thinking and rejoice that I can count in the minyan and wear tefillin etc., but I can’t deny that I find the arguments wanting. I applaud such efforts as JOFA and Shira Hadasha in trying to come up with halachic opportunities for women. I’m not looking to be some housewife. But I have to be honest about it, and Judaism comes first. It’s hard to voluntarily set something as an authority and imposition over you—verily, it’s easier to say feminism comes first—but if Judaism is right than it can’t impede something from emerging if that thing is also right. I’ve been finding for the past few weeks how important Judaism is to me, how irrationally important Israel is, how hostile the outside world can be to both (sometimes inadvertently), and how outside (American Protestant) values are not necessarily conducive to my values.

Look, maybe it’s useful that all my Jewish friends are liberal. Fortunately or unfortunately, I know all the arguments against Orthodoxy; so now I can really say I know what I’m getting into.

I am so poised right now to be as post-denominational as I want

Ten days ago, I wrote:

I realized I haven’t picked the “conversion” category for a while…that’s good; I feel like I’m so over it. (Except on the days when it hits me like a sack of bricks that I can’t convert Orthodox and the best I can do is round up my Judaic Studies professors for my beit din and hope it takes.)

But I didn’t know what a great idea I had going there. I’m in a great position to be totally post-denominational, just like I wanted. And it wouldn’t just be words; it could be completely true.

Why not round up my Judaic Studies professors? I’d try to get the observant ones, but if I don’t find three, I could use some of the Orthodox people who come to the hippie synagogue near my school instead of the scary hareidi one an hour away. I could use the lady Conservative rabbi. I could use a mix. It would confuse everyone! “What kind of conversion did you get?” “Just a conversion! I know, it’s radical!” Moreover, for those people to whom this wouldn’t appeal, there is the group (larger than you’d think) who would nonetheless accept my patilineal status anyways.

I could have a lot of great and revolutionary bases covered here, if planned correctly, and I wouldn’t have to align with any denomination. Yet my conversion would be halachic according to classical sources. It would be so DIY!

Religion and Coercion

Don: “And then I put cheese on a milchig plate.”
Laura: “Wow, you know way more than you let on.”

It’s a basic argument. Religion forces people to conform into something that they really aren’t, and coerces them on the basis of social pressure to accept practices that are repressive and senseless. It’s also, I think, the argument by most Reform people against Orthodoxy (this happened to me today; I had to reiterate the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Hareidism..) I don’t really know how to argue against it, so when my friend and I got caught in a conversation about religion with our best friend Don from the coffee shop, I didn’t have any apologetics to whip out.

It started with us asking how bad it would be if we came to hang out at the coffee shop and not buy anything on Tisha b’Av, and he said that probably wasn’t a great idea. He asked what this strange holiday was for, and I said “Eh, something about the Temple..” He sort of looked at me, so I said, “It’s for the most serious religion ever…” He said, “Oh, so you’re doing Ramadan?” and then he was like “No, you could never handle that.” (It’s true.) He said something like how Muslims have to wear that white kittel thing or some brief snippet of information, and he said he doesn’t like when religions make [read: force] you wear things on your head. And I said, “Wow that’s weird because I love wearing things on my head.” (Not true.) I knew what was underlying the statement (see above), but I didn’t really know how to argue against it. I definitely wasn’t going to use my The Jewish Book of Why type of answer, because it’s dumb. And I wasn’t going to use my “well, it’s just a custom” answer, because that doesn’t answer the question. Why should we wear what our religion tells us to? Why should we do anything our religion tells us to that doesn’t appear immediately comforting to the secular palate?

So yeah anyway that was that for a while and we left. Earlier today, in a completely different scenario, my sister was looking at a catalog for some art school she wants to go to, and she spotted a really pretentious sounding paragraph of “mumbo jumbo” as she called it, and I have to admit it was pretty bad. Stuff like “we are unassailably for a pluralism of visual literacy and galvanize the ordination of our student base”…from the chair of the department, none less. She said, “They teach us to write like this, you know. We have to write like this [in art class].”

That’s a crappy way to write. But they are taught to write like that. I’m assuming it’s for the practical purpose of fitting in with other artists who are also going to write like that; you’ve got to decode it and if you really want to talk about it that’s just what “art writing” is anyway. It’s part of the biz.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to wear religious garments and do religious activities etc. just to show that you’re part of a group, but that it’s not something (taken in a new light etc.) that has to be thought of as repressive—surely, crappy or not, art students likely enjoy writing that way at least sort of, if not personally then more likely because it makes them part of a world.

There are a lot of things in Judaism that aren’t immediately relevant or even palatable until they’re put into context. For example, in my opinion a kipah is good for nothing but causing a bald spot, but perhaps someone might be put in mind of the sages/comrades and so on who wore hats and came up with tons of reasons for that (kipot seriously just make me think they’re a sad 3.5 inch shadow of the former glory of big hats).

Or you could very well say either thing: Women’s headcoverings are totally sexist and lame and encourage objectification, or you could say that it puts you in mind of the Biblical ladies of sotah who never really did any crimes, and their ridiculous testosterone-laced husbands were put to shame at the test.

You could say not mixing meat and milk is supposed to make us ethical, or you could say it was just a fertility rite. Or you could say it was a fertility rite and by practicing it we continue to profess a belief in Torah and metaphorically repudiate idolatry every day. (That’s what I told the Reform rabbi…ah she probably thinks I’m insane by now.)

I’m not getting to my point very well, but what I’m trying to say is that religion doesn’t make anyone wear anything on their head (can’t speak for all religions but just humor me), any more than any other group or path in life makes you do anything else. You want to be a nurse? You’ve got to wear that dumb gown. You don’t want to wear the dumb gown? Well, what’s more important to you? You don’t want to have to write using that pretentious art jargon? Well, go for it, but you’ll have a hard time at an art student. It’s not about keeping you down. It’s just something you end up wanting to do because you like what it’s a part of more than you dislike whatever detail about it.

Not that you shouldn’t try to change the bad stuff, but as you go on hopefully you can filter what’s bad and what just requires more thought about it.

You know you’re over conversion when…

1.) You stop worrying about whether you’re allowed to do a mitzvah, and you say F it and just do it

2.) You stop worrying about whether your thoughts and intentions are perfect

3.) You stop counting how many times you’ve missed shul

4.) You say things like “bimah” and “responsa” and wonder why people don’t know what you’re talking about

5.) You stop expecting that “big personality change” you’re supposed to have by taking on this new life

6.) You go from knowing you’d ask “how high” when your Orthodox bet din tells you to jump…to wondering just where they get off telling you what to do…to wondering why you still have to be subject to such nonsense when clearly you know more than any other candidate

7.) You no longer find it endearing when Christians say “Jewish church” and “so the rabbi blesses the food, right?”

8.) When you’re angry with God but it’s time to daven, you don’t get an existential crisis, you just angry daven

9.) You don’t attach symbolism and great political meaning to mitzvot; it’s just become a lifestyle like any other

10.) You’ve had at least five people try to get you in on a game of Jewish Geography (thanks to Frum Satire for letting me see that THIS is what was happening!)…or at least ask you your last name

11.) You used to be offended by Frum Satire but now you think it’s really funny

12.) You are becoming uncomfortable with phrases like “Jew it yourself” and “Jew York City”…not because you’re offended, you just think it’s totally dumb

13.) You stop getting so uptight about trying to do all the chumras you’ve heard about

14.) You don’t use that extremely stilted Sephardic pronunciation they teach you in Reform Hebrew class (ex. “yisrai-ayle”)

15.) You write cursive Hebrew instead of block print

16.) You give up all those idealistic notions of how Judaism is so logical for the reality of how many people accept kabbalah

17.) Your life no longer revolves around the synagogue (and realize that it’s perfectly fine not to be interested in the lives of everyone there)

18.) You’ve stopped wondering whether it would be “good for you” to join Sisterhood or Men’s Club

19.) You stop feeling proud that you know more than anyone else and now it just exhausts you (mostly relevant for Conservative)

20.) You don’t feel like you have to chime in as the expert on every stranger’s conversation about something Jewish or Israel

21.) You’ve stopped feeling like you’ve got to walk on eggshells; they’re not going to take away your chance at being Jewish if you do something wrong

22.) You’re really getting sick of other conversion blogs because you don’t really feel that camaraderie anymore

23.) You start to feel like one of those college kids/young professionals/singles that the Jewish organizations are advertising to…until they throw in something cruel like “You must be Jewish to enter” or “Remember that time at Jewish summer camp?”

24.) You stop trying to interpret everything that happens to you as a “sign”

25.) You’ve stopped feeling like it’s heretical to criticize Judaism and Jewish things for their problems

 

Things that aren’t true about being over conversion:

1.) You DON’T start saying “us Jews this” instead of “them Jews that”…just like I don’t say “us women are this way…”

2.) You DON’T start feeling like you “could just never do it all!”, which supposedly magically signals to the rabbi that you are “ready”

3.) The mikveh won’t be this great revelation. You’re not “getting” a new soul.

4.) There is no “now you’re truly ready” at the end.

5.) If you felt different after the mikveh, you probably were never really “over conversion”. (This is yet to be seen, just a prediction.)

Another friend.

As we unite against ArtScroll. (Among other things. He says that Reform rabbis often react to a young person’s interest in Judaism by telling him/her to become a rabbi—when what we really need is an educated Jewish laity—it’s true. See? That’s what institutionalism does.)

Can we just talk about the difference in rabbis right now? This is going to border on lashon hara, but you don’t know these people so I’m going to try to make it work for illustration purposes.

I love my rabbi. If one can embody Jewish ethics, he does. He’s great. For instance, once during Judaism class we were talking about driving on Shabbat and the Conservative position and so on. He said that you can always drive in order to save a life of course, and one lady I know there mentioned to him the time he stopped the service one Shabbat to drive her to the hospital when her husband died. Now, it’s enough that he likely didn’t expect any gratitude, but after she mentioned that, he didn’t even gloat for one second. Instead, he said something like “I’m sorry that I had to bring that up,” or something like that.

Basically, I want to be just like him.

The other rabbi here, though, is a little different. I don’t want to say “It’s a Reform thing”, because obviously that’s not so fair, but I do suspect that the code of conduct is a little more vague at the Reform schools—I mean that one doesn’t have to be observant to graduate from the rabbinical school, which I’m supposing means that if someone there doesn’t follow a specific ethical path that follows Jewish law or whatever, no one will notice. Hence the vagueness. Thus if a Reform rabbi speaks a subtle lashon hara for example, it wouldn’t specifically be a transgression. Again, I have no idea; I just have this sociological theory.

So, one thing I like about my rabbi is that he never, ever, ever names names. He barely says anything negative about anyone, actually—he wouldn’t even say anything bad about the Sim Shalom siddur. But I was shocked to hear the other rabbi name names one night. It was a Judaism class on Kabbalah, but the whole class ended up being a tirade against the Kabbalah Center. She actually specifically mentioned the full name of someone from the congregation who left to go study at the Kabbalah Center! I was a little horrified.

So there’s that. Another thing I don’t really like is how some people (rabbis included) tend to defend their denomination to the point where they look for something to be offended by coming from all other denominations. Or, the other way around, they unduly criticize all people in some other denomination. This is a great way to…er, tear us apart.

I can use myself as an example. I really, really hate when people say that “women don’t need so-and-so mitzvot”. I think this is warranted personally, but then again lots of times it’ll happen that I’ve pegged someone as a “women don’t need it” type of person, and then we’ll chit-chat for a short time and I’ll see that he’s not so violently sexist after all; often it ends up being the concern that a woman won’t do something for the sake of a mitzvah, but rather to prove a point. I tend to think that if you respond with “Well, I do need this mitzvah,” and armed with reasons why you are doing it, you’ll get a better reception than you would by saying “Well, F you and your outdated Hasidic ways” or something.

People outside your denomination are people too.

Taste and see…if you want to put it back.

Reader-friendly version crossposted at New Voices

I predicted that about eleven o’clock was the latest I could show up Saturday in time for Kaddish, but of course I got in a little early, right before the Torah reading. I looked at my watch and decided next week I could come in half an hour later.

I don’t know when it happened. I used to like going to services. But suddenly—sometime during Musaf—I just got so depressed. I figured it was because watching Bar Mitzvahs and the-boys-who-have-them always seem to serve to remind me that (despite certain apologetics) the synagogue is an important part of Jewish life, and men still hold the reins in it (despite totally separate apologetics). Worse, nobody seemed to care about that but me. But maybe I was upset on a more personal level. I looked around and saw that everyone was there with their families—or probably otherwise had someone to, at the very least, celebrate some of the holidays with. Basically, everyone but me knew their place there.

Whatever other people see in the synagogue—and what I used to see—isn’t there so much these days. I thought I could fix that by learning the rhyme and reason to the services, but that only brought attention to the fact that no one else knew why they were doing the calisthenics.

The rabbi’s a man’s man; I’m jealous of the kids’ Hebrew School educations; everyone there is, let’s face it, greying (apparently, so is the Conservative movement itself); and I’m starting to feel as if some of the crankier ones don’t like that I don’t chit-chat before and during the service, and that I sometimes complain about their beloved ArtScroll. So I’m just not feeling my synagogue lately.

There has to be another way; someplace where there’s no remnant of the Conservative complex about women’s participation (i.e. Someplace where there is women’s participation and total halachic backup for it), where people are aware and engaged, where participation and education isn’t only encouraged but expected, and where people like me can come in and not feel like Judaism doesn’t want them because I didn’t have a traditional upbringing and a big family.

My Torah partner just told me that she thinks Judaism should be more centralized and institutionalized, but despite any political or pragmatic appeal she sees in that, I have to disagree. If you ask me, keeping it the way it is now (which I see as quite institutionalized already) doesn’t allow for much growth and change when a good new idea does come along. If you ask me, we rely too much on packaged answers when this need not always be so.

For example, in my synagogue, the rabbi always leads every Shabbat service and every minyan and gives every d’var Torah. That’s centralized. And so therefore people have come to think that you need a rabbi for every event. The rabbi tells us about the berachot for thunder and lightning when there’s a storm during services, or he tells us why we don’t speak between al netilyat yadayim and hamotzi, and people laugh. It doesn’t affect them. They only want the bottom line.

At the Reform temple down the street, there are posters up for every cause but the Jewish ones. They have guest speakers present their political diatribes during services. Their mezuza scrolls are photocopies. And similarly, because the temple says so, people think that this is the way it ought to be. There’s no need to think otherwise, not when the temple decides for the sake of everyone.

Lately, I’ve been interested in reading about the trend toward post-denominationalism:

Over the last decade and more, social scientists of American life have been writing about the decline of long-standing attachments to political parties, commercial brands, and religious denominations…[A]longside (and often confused with) these non-denominational [i.e. non-engaged] Jews, we find clusters of highly engaged Jews who may be labeled trans-denominational, post-denominational or, as I have argued, often post-Conservative. These Jews and the several innovative and vibrant institutions they have founded of late speak to new signs of vitality and creativity in Jewish life, albeit often at the expense of the Conservative Movement. [Steven M. Cohen]

The first thing I thought when I read this was, “Wow, good.” Previously, as an almost visceral reaction, I’d probably bemoan this break from affiliation: “Where would they all go?” I’d think, “Obviously everyone’s becoming non-committal! Judaism’s dying!”

Let me ask you something. What’s good about our strict denominational lines, besides having a convenient category for your general observance level, give or take? (And never mind if your theology fits but your observance level doesn’t; there’s no convenient category for that yet!)

The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement…

Part of the problem is that there are very few places that offer Jews an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Jewish tradition firsthand. Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values. They are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them, and they trudge to High Holiday services to receive the requisite “Be good!” sermons, only to return to their lives unchallenged and unchanged. [Elie Kaufner]

I see this. There’s no dialogue. We have Judaism classes here, but they’re on the history of the Omer and the wars of Israel. Now, in my synagogue’s case, that’s probably fine for the older people who aren’t really interested in making their own mezuzot or tzadaka boxes or other such projects, or otherwise learning about things that are applicable now, but there are 1,000 Jews in my town (the rabbi said so)—at least some of them must be under forty.

We’ve had enough focus already on the cultural aspects which, not intuitively, seem to focus more on the negative—”Seinfeld and guilt”, as Kaufner writes. We’re ultimately giving the wrong answer to the question: “Why be Jewish?”

The only truths of Judaism that some of us haven’t edited out completely are the ones that mesh with our current, uncontroversial views. We’re starting to recognize that we desperately need to move past a post-Holocaust survivalist mentality—and aren’t really sure how. To some, Judaism’s still a private embarrassment, if only out of habit due to their parents’ rote, detached approach—and especially so for the religious, non-universalist aspects. Bringing serious intellectual engagement to Judaism, in a world so unsure of its place, is a hard task:

Take young Jews returning from Birthright Israel. After a 10-day trip, they have been opened to the possibility that there is real substance in Judaism. But upon returning home, they have no clear educational option. They want to learn Hebrew, but there are not enough high-quality Hebrew classes. They are interested in basic Jewish knowledge, but are unable to connect to synagogues. The Jewish community does not have the teachers and the leaders who can step forward to meet this need. So what do Birthright alumni do? They get funded to have beer nights, ski trips and at best a Shabbat dinner (with no intellectual or traditional content necessary or encouraged). Because their enthusiasm for deeper Jewish engagement has no substantial outlet, it eventually fades away. [Kaufner]

We can’t rely on the current institutions to do it for us. “We do not have the luxury of assuming that Jews will feel engaged in the Jewish tradition just by experiencing a few inspiring programs. Jews must become self-directed translators of the Jewish tradition — for themselves and their peers,” writes Kaufner. We need to gain the tools to recognize whether our own communities need a change. We need to be able to support ourselves with knowledge of halacha and tradition; not a faceless monolith’s attempt to preserve the status quo under the guise of halacha and tradition.

Judaism is yours. It’s mine. My Judaism tends to resemble The Jewish Catalog, and maybe yours has a bigger emphasis on the role of the rabbi and the synagogue. But the minute you give it to someone else to live out for you, you’ve forfeited it.