“i got no choice, i got no choice at all”

I said I was gonna leave Judaism forever. That’s pretty funny. I was hoping to avoid all the questions. It didn’t really work. How could I even begin to explain? I don’t even know how to explain it to myself. Then I decided I would just be cultural, you know like the people I used to think were so lazy, I made latkes.

But life with religion is much stranger. Judgmental OCD people who use religion as an excuse to boss you around. Ladies who daven weird next to you in shul and you make fun of them in your mind but then you feel guilty but then they look over at you with glaring eyes cause you’re not singing the songs and you go right back to making fun of them in your mind. Feeling like EVERYTHING that happens to you must have a rhyme and reason…but trying to figure it out gives you an angry headache. Feeling guilty all the time over everything. Wondering why you put yourself in a community that’s 70% retired people and 30% really, really “normal” people who like to wear earrings and floral print dresses on shabbos. And sometimes velvet house robes. Not being able to cook for three day yontifs because your roommate takes over the stove, even though you don’t care at all and would cook all yontif long if she wasn’t home. And being with people who literally can’t stop talking or thinking about religion for ten minutes was really a culture shock, even though I was and possibly still am that person.

-Me, circa October 2012

I found myself wanting to go around the block for another round. I don’t know why. Maybe cause I’m in the same environment I was in where this all started; if I couldn’t handle New York then how do I know it’s not just me being an exhibitionist where I know I’m the only one so I can really do whatever I want all day long? It’s a different set of rules when you’re somewhere where there are, like, other Jews who actually know what they’re doing etc.

Here’s something stupid. I know this is stupid; that’s why I’m saying it actually. I remember when I first came to W&M and I was still trying to find a room; I remember deciding the logistics of davening in front of a roommate. (And by roommate I mean roommate, not housemate.) Would I wait till they left? Would I tell them what was going on? I had decided I would just daven in front of a roommate. And I thought about it a lot. And I started to get pretty excited about it. I don’t think I knew how to differentiate “being a complete religious exhibitionist like the worst of the worst” and “doing necessary administrative details because there is no private realm and there is no public realm.” And I decided I was a terrible showy ostentatious person, look at me not only being a flaming BT but being a flaming BT in front of the goyim like that is just plain pointless really, and then I wondered why the christians tried to talk to me about it all the time.

I guess it was disgusting but necessary part of the journey to be like that, I look back now and I was really flaming and judgmental, at least I know I wasn’t the only one in the world. It’s always extremes with me. Of course I was gonna try to leave Judaism forever. (EDIT: I was so hilarious though!!!)

I kind of knew immediately that wasn’t going to happen.

It’s weird to think about.

I’m writing a book, by the way. No, really.

It sounds so dumb. I know it does. For one thing, why am I so sucked in? Also, I think I had a pretty solid theological reason for leaving religion forever? How can I just crawl back cause I’m remembering how good it was? What about the bad times, eh? Do I have to feel bad now about all the bad things I did before?

Does this mean I’m back on the derech now? I’m not keeping kosher or anything. I’m really not doing much except for a bunch of solitary contemplations.

I want to daven again but I don’t know if or how I could go back just like that. Would the whole cycle start all over again? After all, I’m about to start W&M in January…aaaaaaaaaaall over again. (Well, OK, i’ll be a senior this time.) Why am I doing this?

So I want to daven again but when I get in the mood it’s not even zman anymore. How do you deal with that one? I don’t know what to say without my siddur, man. I’m not gonna start saying maariv anyways. And then what? If I do that do I have to start getting up for shaharis all the time again? I can just see it all over again…the cycle of guilt (“oh no I didn’t get up for shaharis!”) At least it’s not like last time where I didn’t know what I was doing so I felt like it had to be more methodical. I really, really, wanted to get into the habit of getting up for shaharis. Maybe that was what was stressing me out. Well nonetheless, I’m not so methodical these days of course.

And then what? Do I have to start keeping kosher again? Maybe just sort of (I like those steamfresh vegetable and cheese sauce packets, dammit). Should I, like, bentch again?

I already did hanukkah, really just cause it’s like the light of my childhood, not cause I’m trying to be religious. I don’t want to rush into things. After all that, you know. I don’t even know what I’d do first if I wanted to try to be frum again. What’s even the point anyway. I live in RURAL VIRGINIA!

I like Nick Cave; I don’t even care.

middleness

One thing I didn’t expect about being religious was the amount of guilt it would involve. All the time. It was worse in the beginning when I knew more rules than I knew what to do with, having read all the machmir orthodox halachic conversion books and not living in a place where I could actually do it all. Strangely, this tension had no real reason–I never believed in the afterlife, and logically I knew that “as a non-Jew,” I didn’t have to do any of it. I could quit and no one would be the wiser.

That guilt increased tenfold when I was affecting other people. In Virginia, I knew enough to know that I shouldn’t cook for Jews. I did anyway. I knew that I couldn’t say kiddush for them. I did anyway. These were unobservant Jews who wouldn’t have done it themselves, and so therefore I was also faced with the conundrum that I ought to do it, since I did know it, so I wouldn’t have to face the prospect of being a vehicle for them to break any mitzvos. I am still unclear on what my obligation is to Jews, if any, given that I have the knowledge that I do. I’m pretty sure I’m in a situation that not many people find themselves in.

In New York, telling people I was still converting made me nervous, even though I would gladly offer that I was raised Reform or even “secular.” But what if they asked me to light a shabbos candle “with them in mind”? Be motzi them? “Just tell them,” you say. “It’s easy.” It’s not so easy. I don’t think you know how frightened I am by the prospect of watching someone realize they wasted their food/time/goodwill/life on some gentile. I don’t know. I don’t really believe in humanity that much or anything, so I don’t really think they’d equally want me there if they knew my “true” “identity.”

(Nor did I want them talking down to me once they knew.. “Oh, did you need an English bentcher? You know what bentching means don’t you?”)

Wrong Place, Right Time

I am just too worldly for my own good. I went to some thing at Hadar Monday night, and I personally thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. At first I wondered why it was in a Reconstructionist synagogue, but then it occurred to me that it might possibly be because  their congregation’s not in there very often. But anyway, it was the first time I saw a large cluster of people actually close to my age for once, although I have a feeling I was possibly still the youngest by at least a couple of years. And for once they seemed like they knew what they were doing, and in a sense it was even an improvement on the few Orthodox clusters I’ve ever known, since I don’t suppose there was a way someone would join Hadar just out of momentum or, like, tradition.

So basically, during the How To Lead Davening class that I went to, complete with a syllabus even though I’m not paying for it or anything, I learned that participants would have to Lead A Practice Service Using The Nusach You Learned. And even though it’s not real, it made me think about all the instances I have to tell people I’m “still converting,” and tell them the entire tale. It comes up more than you’d think. If I’m not counting in a minyan I’m counting in someone’s zimmun. I told one guy it was “too complicated” when he asked me about my “background,” and it’s just horrid. It’s like a massive secret that no one can know. I don’t like to tell people cause I feel that they won’t want to talk to me anymore, particularly after they’ve invited me for shabbos or let me be their roommate…I mean, I’m in pretty deep as far as that’s concerned but at the same time I should tell certain selected people cause they might know someone who can help me get out of the wreckage. But probably they don’t, so it’s risky.

I just emailed the RCA beit din, and they said, “Yes, indeed, your sponsoring rabbi is ideally the shul rabbi,” and do they even begin to comprehend how difficult that is? Now I have to like this rabbi I haven’t actually met yet, and he has to like me. I’m already going to the most “liberal” of the Flatbush minyans here according to sources, and even so I skipped last week cause I didn’t find it very inspiring. I liked Hadar better.

And yet…I’m too worldly for my own good. Someone told me that RCA likes to revoke conversions if you get too “egal” after your conversion. That’s stupid of course, and I’m getting really sick of these rumors about revoking things, but perhaps it’s true. And how could I find out before it was too late? I couldn’t. I’m not really sure what my options are, but I’m starting to feel like that’s my only option. Most people, I think, would recommend RCA first. So basically, if I have RCA I can’t have Hadar and if I have Hadar I can’t have Orthodoxy. And I’m really starting to want to punch people who tell me that “The Orthodox are letting you into their lives! You have to adapt to them, not they to you! They have no obligation to you/you have no right to complain or have any problems! They have ‘no reason to accomodate you’!” These are the people who say if I find even one complication I shouldn’t even try anymore, cause obviously I was meant to be a Noahide. Cause “maybe your mission in life was actually to be a Noahide! Being Jewish is hard you know!” Thanks for that advice, cause I haven’t heard it before.

Monday night also included this lady’s talk about “Identity.” Little did she know I was her target audience:

One who is half slave and half free: works for his master one day and for himself one day–are the words of the house of Hillel. The house of Shammai said to him–you have established his master but himself you did not establish! He cannot marry a maidservant, since he is half free, and he cannot marry a free woman, since he is half slave! Should he be idle? Has the world not been created but in order to be fruitful and multiply? As it says in Isaiah “he did not create it to waste but formed it for habitation”…Rather, because of tikkun olam, they force his master to make him a free person…The house of Hillel reversed their opinion, and taught the opinion of the house of Shammai. (Mishnah Gittin 4:5)

She said that you can’t be “half a traditional Jew and half a person of contemporary values,” which is a nice message and everything, but I extrapolated it in my mind to mean many things. First of all, obviously I am this person. I am also idling. And it makes me want to throw up. I can go to Hadar, and I can go to the Flatbush minyan, but I’m not doing anything. I can’t move forward. Was I created to waste? Is it all for naught? Half slave and half free. How much longer can someone go on in a liminal state?

And also, she made some sense when she said that you can’t be half one thing and half another thing, because my entire life is pretty fragmented like that. There is Flatbush and there is Hadar. There is Jewish and there is gentile. I’m in a variety of different worlds, not all of them do I actually want (i.e. I don’t actually want the “gentile” part obviously.) Like Kate Bush says, ‘Can I have it all? You can’t have it all.” But whoever says that is an asshole because I’m not trying to “have it all,” whatever that means; I’m just trying to not be fragmented.

What I’m trying to say is, that’s not allowed apparently. If you’re having a hard time finding your place, you’re obviously just “trying to have it all.” If you like Hadar and Flatbush, you’re “asking them to accomodate you.” (Whoever “they” are.) Apparently, conversion wasn’t meant for people who are already in the middle of taking classes at two yeshivas at once. Apperently, that is too complicated. Apparently, it was meant for people who want to live in one place for the rest of their life and get married immediately and maybe get a degree in Banking and just Settle Down. I am 21. I can’t do it! But then I think, “What am I doing here? Do they know there is a flaming gentile in their midst?” Perhaps it’s an inferiority complex. More likely, though, is that I’ve been doing this way, way too long with no actual progress. I haven’t actually changed (i.e. I didn’t suddenly want to go to Hadar just to be rebellious). This was an organic process. And to that end, it’s been and is going to continue being pretty messy. I’m not going to deny this obvious fact. Sometimes I wonder “Why me, obviously I can’t be this stable Banker,” but that’s inconsequential. I’m just watching the train crash.

Throwing up now.

Intermarriage: An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis

Crossposted at Frum Satire

An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis:

You say you’re against intermarriage, you know there’s a 50% intermarriage rate, and you know some kids who come out of those marriages aren’t going to be halachically Jewish–maybe 30-40%. So, about 15-20% of all Jewish marriages will result in non-Jewish children. You say you’re against intermarriage, but what are you going to do about it?

I’m one of those kids. I got lost in the system. To be told by someone that you’re Jewish one day and to be told you’re not the next, well it’s pretty disconcerting, if you can imagine. And as much as I’d like to believe the former, I’ve decided to convert. I’m tired of wondering in which contexts I can call myself Jewish, and in which contexts other people would be offended if I did. I’m tired of wondering whether the words of the Torah were meant for me or not. I’m tired of having it implied that the God of my fathers doesn’t want my davening. I’m tired of thinking that’s actually true. I’ve been trying to convert since I was nineteen, but I keep running up against you.

I like to think I’m doing the right thing, you know. Next to all the halachically Jewish kids my age, for whom you are happy if they just light some candles on Shabbat or something, I’m gladly taking on a whole lot more. I don’t know about them, but I have the extra burden of knowing I’m the only one in my family left to keep it going. I’m here. I’m ready. Heck, I’m even completely willing. And yet–I get no compassion. You don’t even notice. In the halachic world of categories and laws, I have no category. I fell through the cracks. Do you care what happens to me? Am I a part of klal yisrael? If so, what do I do about it?

Nothing would make me happier than having you tell me you’d like to see me convert because it’s my responsibility as a part of the Jewish people. Instead, it’s as if you hope I don’t mention it too much. It’s as if you simply cannot tolerate the subject, so instead you always come up with the same line: “You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish.” And the conversation ends. And I feel terrible. And you don’t notice. Your hands are tied, you say. Just be patient, you say.

My request isn’t that radical. I’m not asking that you accept patrilineal descent. Hey, I’m with you: my childhood was a perfect case study of the mixed messages kids get from an intermarriage, and therefore I’m against it because intermarriage caused this.

I’m only asking two things, and I think they’re pretty reasonable: Make it easier for people like me to convert, and stop reacting with such horror when you hear the term. It’s not a “death sentence” for continuity unless you make it one. Look, I’m on your side. I want to do this the right way. Why make it so difficult? There’s a lot of people like me out there, and I bet the number is growing. Ignoring it isn’t going to help you, me, or us. Telling me that I’m 100% a gentile and you couldn’t care less one way or the other whether I convert or not is pretty hurtful, you know. I know it’s easy to say it anyway, especially now that it’s an “issue.”

I want to know something. What do you suggest I do? What would be ideal? Do you want me to be Reform? Convert to Christianity, maybe? Would that be convenient for you? Do you really think keeping the children of 15-20% of married Jews alienated from Judaism is going to be a good thing? I didn’t choose the religion of my parents, but I am choosing what I do next. I love Judaism, I’ve never had another religion, I don’t want it to die in my family, and I don’t believe you really do either. So, can you help me out here?

Sincerely,

A Patrilineal Conversion Candidate

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.

I recently wrote to a friend:

I’m not looking forward to Yom Kippur because, judging from Rosh Hashana, it won’t be very revitalizing, and then I’ll feel worse, because it’s supposed to be. Sort of like you said. I feel more inspired from things that just happen in everyday life that make me think, you know? And I hate being made to feel things from piyyutim or responsive readings or whatever. And it’s hard to go into a holiday specifically knowing you probably won’t get anything from it. How can you expect to, every time? I feel like I could get more from reading and drinking coffee and listening to Popul Vuh and talking to people about God and theology—like, personally, not just from a machzor…but that won’t be happening, sadly enough.

I just realized this week that the liturgy’s not really speaking to me lately. I guess that doesn’t sound so weird in itself, and it’s certainly happened before, but this is now happening at a time where my interest in other religions is reigniting, what with my new job to interview different clergypeople for my modest little religion section in my school’s newspaper (thanks to David for suggesting I write for them in the first place). And it’s not just that—I’m realizing that Christians are just, well, more excited about their religion. I come from my interview with the Catholic chaplain who says that students come to daily Mass and all these things are going on and his answers are replete with references to God and love and transcendence, and that students come and talk to him often “about their faith,” and from that I get to go back to our Hillel and my Jewish friend who told me that “We’re only interested in hanging out with other Jews” and I quote “I don’t give a shit about the rituals. The only time I say the blessings are during the Hillel Shabbat dinners.” It just makes me really disappointed and discouraged to see how little the Jewish students here care about their religion.

They care about their ethnicity, all right, but they don’t care about their religion.

Then how can I go back home and pray about how we’re so chosen and God gave us His Torah and that we meditate on it day and night and if He would just save us from those other nations we would surely return to Him as in days of old? If God chose us, we must certainly be very disappointing.

Because what are we doing besides just existing nominally?

Christians are also less afraid of talking about spiritual matters. When I first started getting into Judaism, I distinctly remember being glad that it wasn’t necessarily essential to believe in God to be Jewish. (Apparently, that was what I was looking for in a religion.) And I really liked that it was more about “doing” than “believing.” But now I’m coming into this, new and fresh and excited, and no one wants to talk about it with me. There’s no outlet, I guess. And that seems to be a majority of the Jewish community—at least in my limited experience. (And living in a campus bubble, that experience is simply everything.)

Even our hippie synagogue that from the outside might appear spiritual—what with the clapping and the nigguns all the time—but I feel like there’s nothing underlying it. They’re just there to have a good time—that what it seems like to me, anyway. And the Shabbat service can be fun, that’s not illegal…but when it seems like that’s all it is about, I wish such people would remember for whom they are there.

Maybe other religions are just new and shiny to me because they’re different and the newness of practicing Judaism is wearing off. But it frightens me to wonder whether there’s anything left under that shell of what Judaism is ideally. It feels like I’m going to other lovers to get what I need or something.

This quote is regaining its truth for me again:

“I feel a lot closer to a religious Christian than I do a non-religious Jew” -Benyamin Cohen

I’m having a hard time with my newfound realization that I need to stop judging people, and now reconciling it with the fact that underneath all the judging I really am very uncomfortable with having to deal with so much vocal staunch non-observance and ambivalence around me. It’s just really sad, and I’m not really sure who to discuss it with. The rabbi? He’d just think I was coming to my senses, giving up all these archaic ideas of halacha and theology. Christians? They’d just think I was secretly hoping they would convert me. Can’t complain about Judaism around Christians.

I’m not looking forward to Yom Kippur because I don’t really know how to feel—and you know how you’re supposed to feel something different for every holiday? Like, for Rosh Hashana I was supposed to be repentant. I’m not really sure what Yom Kippur is about still. More importantly, I am uneasy with the fact that I have to actually go read about Yom Kippur to find out how I must feel on that day. That is odd, if you think about it. And if I’m just supposed to be reflective—well, I think you can tell from this blog alone that I don’t really need more of that; I’m already waterlogged with reflections.

I could understand fasting on Tisha b’Av because 1.) Not everyone was doing it, so I could feel however I wanted to…and lo and behold it worked, and 2.) I didn’t have to be in shul all day being told how we collectively feel. I don’t know. Maybe I’m being childish. I mean, I love Judaism most of the time, but sometimes its routines are suffocating me. Like, I don’t want to be in shul on Yom Kippur. I don’t really want to fast, but that’s not quite as bad as having to be in shul all day.  I feel like I could get more out of listening to Popul Vuh and talking to people than reading out of a static book, like I said. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not in the right community. But if I can’t get what I’m after out of Judaism—then what? I don’t believe in secular Judaism; I don’t believe in SBNR; I don’t believe in any other religion. I’d be way lost. I’m deadlocked.

I’m also starting to question if my dismay with everyone’s practice (or lack of practice) here is supposed to be what I should be repenting for. I know I judge—but am I allowed to say I dislike, say, the way they sing inappropriate parts of the service at our hippie synagogue? Can I complain about the disproportionate amount of time they spend on the stupid Mi Shebeirach (it’s not magic, people, why are you so worried)? Even besides that, how can I reconcile different practice with how important I feel halacha is? (I feel like Conservative rabbis definitely have this problem.)

William & Mary: a Hillel report

Crossposted at New Voices

My first week of school has been…chaotic. Before I even came, there was a fire, after I came, there was an earthquake, now this horrorcane, not to mention the most grueling Orientation ever invented and having to be social 24/7 which can get pretty tiring when you’re not used to it. (Apocalypse Now!)

Meanwhile, my priorities have shifted. Back at home, where it’s considered a great achievement to graduate community college and not get pregnant before age eighteen, I had great room and impetus to formulate all these fabulous lofty plans for life, and my theoretical theology grew and grew, and I had tons of time to decide that I had things figured out. No obstacles! No fear! But now that I’ve moved to Williamsburg, all the obligations I made while I was in my bubble are starting to have their consequences now that I’m outside of my bubble.

For example, keeping kosher is hard on an Orientation schedule, where everyone is supposed to eat at the same time in the same dining hall. So is keeping Shabbat when you move into your new apartment on a Friday and the very next Friday you’re under evacuation orders! I’ve had to pray on a bus, on campus, on the stairs, and at the bus stop (all in front of tons of people, of course), and those were the days I remembered to do it. And I’ve had to wonder how many people avoided talking to me because they thought my tzitzit was too weird or my clothes make me look poor (that one’s probably true). When it’s the first week of classes and you’re trying to make friends, it’s a little exasperating to be confronted with this sudden clash of values. I’d prepared for this in theory, but now that it’s starting to dawn on me that I’ve actually chosen to start this new life as that really, really religious kid that you ought to keep away from, it’s a little frightening. Because I’m doing it to myself. For reasons I still don’t quite understand.

It all came to fruition at the first William & Mary Hillel event of the semester. During the Club Fair, the girl at the Hillel table seemed really excited to see me. “You should come to our barbecue!” she urged. So I had to go. I want to change the Jewish world as we know it, remember? I had to make friends with them. Needless to say, whether it was the impending hurricane or the fact that everyone looked like they were from Long Island, it didn’t go very well.

We had to walk through a bit on construction to get to it, and “it” turned out to be two picnic tables with hot dogs and chips on them. And a small group of people who could be barely bothered to look at the newcomers cautiously approaching them.

I don’t know if you can see what’s going on here, but I quickly noticed a certain something about the demographics of this event. It started out rather evenly distributed, but as time went on, more dudes started showing up. Weirdly, a couple of them seemed like they came straight from Long Island. That alone was enough to make me fearful, but I would have been perfectly OK had they been friendly Long Island dudes. But no, they went straight for their friends and my two guests and I went pretty much ignored.

Eventually, we were approached by one girl who had recognized my friend from one of her classes, and they started talking, as I stood near them awkwardly. Some guy came up to my friend’s boyfriend and asked where he was from and so on. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“No, I’m just here with her,” he replied, pointing to my friend.

“Neither am I!” he whispered gleefully. I sighed.

They talked for a while and then the stranger walked off. And I took that moment to babble incoherently to someone near me (“Man, look at all the dudes,” I seem to recall saying).

Maybe I’ll give them a break because it was their first event of the semester, and I guess they were more excited about seeing their friends than about greeting new people. Suddenly I thought back to all the discussions on how independent minyanim tend to be perceived as unfriendly to outsiders, but that’s just because they have a higher initial social curve…or something. After all, this Hillel proudly describes itself as “tightly knit”, and here I am seeing that description in the flesh. But look at these people! They seemed so incredibly…normal. It could have been any club on campus. What differentiated it? What made it special? What made it Jewish? These are the questions only a detective can answer.

But maybe it was partially my fault. These probably weren’t the type to wonder how to keep Shabbat during a hurricane evacuation, or to say seemingly constant berachot for things, or to go through painstaking soul-searching to figure out how they feel about halacha. And that seems to be the baseline here. A cultural baseline. Fine.

But what does that make me? Ultra-Orthodox? Am I going to be the religious token again, just like I was in community college? Look, I know tzitzit looks weird. It’s weird to wear a denim skirt while everyone else is wearing shorty shorts. Of course they didn’t want to talk to me. When you suspect that you’re “too much” even for your Hillel, you really start to wonder what your priorities are. I knew all my newfound obligations weren’t going to make me any friends, but good heavens being ignored feels terrible when you know you’re probably bringing it on yourself. Am I doing a stupid thing? Should I just put an end to this before it’s too late?

YOU DON’T CARE

This post is not to be confused with YOU WON’T LET ME CARE, which is about something totally different.

This post is about how little compassion certain people—not limited to Orthodox and certainly not limited to non-converts—have for those who aren’t halachically Jewish. I’ve found, fortunately enough, that most people in the larger context will accept people as Jewish if they aren’t matrilineal and/or haven’t had the strictest conversion (whether I can believe this and still not accept Reform conversions without kabbalat ol hamitzvot is another story for another day). But there is a good-sized group of people who are vehemently against it.

I say vehemently not because they are legally and rationalistically opposed to something that is against whatever is spelled out in the Talmud or whatever doesn’t live up to their community’s standards of conversion (i.e. the beit din’s necessary level of observance, for instance). This group isn’t interested in looking at the sources and prooftexts for descent and/or conversion so much as they are only wont to express their opinion in any given arena, offending whom they will (“Sorry man, just telling you the facts, don’t blame the messenger”). It happens a lot on the internet, for obvious reasons.

They might say that there is absolutely no room to consider patrilineal descent, whilst not acknowledging that somehow the Rabbis detracted from the Torah by no longer allowing it in favor of matrilineal (prooftext or not; patrilineal was used by the Israelites.. see previous post for details). They might call such people gentiles who can’t touch your wine, and group perfectly hardworking willing potential converts with third-generation nonobservant patrilineal Jews who just like Seinfeld and guilt (whom are spoken about with derision, of course, so to get grouped in is not a good thing). Kiruv groups aren’t interested. Rabbis treat them as gentiles. If you answer “no” to “Is your mother Jewish?”, the conversation is over.

To be clear, I am fine with accepting only matrilineal descent, but there are some stipulations here. Being grouped with gentiles isn’t fair. Questioning my motives isn’t fair. Delaying my conversion isn’t fair. I don’t mind not counting in our Conservative minyan, but being told totally point-blank “You won’t be Jewish here” with no more options provided isn’t fair.

I could complain about conversion all day long, but I’m not on the inside so I can’t do much about it. You know how I feel anyway, right?

I feel like Plato

So I was just doing some light reading

I can gaze at a beautiful sunset, and try to describe it to you. But until
you open your eyes and see it for yourself, my words are in vain. You must
see it to appreciate it.
I can describe the most delicious fruit. But you must taste it to
appreciate it.
The same is true of Judaism. The Bible tells us (Ps. 34:9), “Taste and
see, that G-d is good, happy is the man who embraces Him.”
You must actually live Torah Judaism to appreciate its beauty and
wisdom. Only when you immerse yourself in it totally will you discover its
full spiritual dimension. [p. 12]

I feel this way. It’s a dangerous thing to say, and I myself am a great reminder of this—every time this thought flounces through my mind, I just take a look around my room and see that the very same argument could be used to condemn everything I ever loved.

I think I told a friend once…it seems like it negates the purpose when you “choose” to do a mitzvah—then every time you do it, you’ll be thinking “I’m so perceptive, I’m so spiritual, I picked this mitzvah!” It’s all about you. The whole point of mitzvot (i.e. chukkim pretty much) is that you’re not always right, you know? Moreover, you don’t know whether this or that mitzvah will be “good for you” unless you do it long-term and unless, in many cases, you take the whole package.

Here’s the thing, though. That “whole package” talk sounds great until you start to see how people use that rhetoric in the real world. Anyone could easily use the “whole package” talk to assert that I, your humble author, am not following “Torah Judaism” and therefore no matter what I think I’m feeling, I really can’t appreciate its “beauty and wisdom”, considering the circumstances. After all, “Torah Judaism” stipulates that women are spiritually dragged down by those cumbersome time-based mitzvot, for example. Truly, a woman’s best interests are served by attaching herself to more appropriate mitzvot, such as candle-lighting. (Other things that aren’t Torah Judaism include having gay friends, Simchat Bat, and bringing the Torah to the women’s section.)

Neither is my rabbi following “Torah Judaism”, because even though he walks to shul even in the snow even though “technically” he doesn’t have to—nonetheless, he is still Conservative and therefore has a corrupted view of Torah.

I’m into Torah Judaism. I’m not into the baggage. So let me tell you a little story now that we have that all straightened out.

I was watching this show on National Geographic about different cultures and their mind-altering drugs, and the last bit of the show focused on these two Americans who were travelling down to South America to try some ayahuasca. They were being interviewed, and the guy said something like “I hope it’s not just another drug, I want a spiritual experience!”  So they both went down there on a boat far away into the wilderness, where no one would even find them if they died. They stayed and watched as the natives mixed in the ayahuasca bark with some DMT, banging on the bark with this hammer to “let the spirits out”. This other native girl had come with them; she was there because she was having migraines and problems with her husband, and her family was making her go “get help for it”. So, it got dark, and they all took their little cups of ayahuasca and settled in.

Throwing up is a big part of the ayahuasca experience. It’s supposed to be the “beginning of the journey”—you’re getting all the “bad spirits out” so you can totally concentrate on the visions you’re about to have; the visions that will solve your problems. But you have to really believe in it, you know, you can’t just be like “GIVE ME THE STUFF!” and expect to have a good experience (DMT is pretty extreme; don’t know if you know that). So naturally the tourists were having a terrible time; the girl was just waiting for it to be over rather peacefully, but the guy was having a worse time—he was collapsed on the floor, throwing up for eight hours until he got diarrhea and they had to drag him out of the tent. The native girl, on the other hand, was interviewed again in the morning, and said she felt much better; her migraines were gone and the ayahuasca really worked.

Can you see where I’m going here?

You don’t have to be in South America to get DMT, and obviously if you just pound it down, it is going to be “just another drug”, not a spiritual experience. The reason it was a spiritual experience for the native girl and not the tourists was because she knew what to expect; she knew what she was supposed to be getting from it; it all went together—you can’t have the ayahuasca without the culture and still expect the culture to somehow seep through the ayahuasca like magic despite that fact. You can’t just be like “GIVE ME THE STUFF!”

This is the problem I have with Reform and Reconstructionism (and maybe left-leaning Conservatism; haven’t really experienced that yet). The mitzvot aren’t really meant to be taken apart. “A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and an averah leads to another averah.” They’re not meant to be ripped apart into “moral” and “other”; the “other” being discardable if we think we’ve evolved beyond them…even if it says “do this for all generations”, who cares?

But I can’t accept all the chumras** and, worse, minhagim, of Orthodoxy, either; at least not right-wing Orthodoxy. “Women HAVE to stay at home and have tons of children (preferably boys); it’s good for them!” Who says? Rambam, who also said that Dinah was asking for it? (Reading that feminist commentary book made me realize that pretty much all the rabbis thought that any women who went outside more than once a month was asking for it. That’s one example of a mindset that should be changed by time.) Feinstein, Mr. Spit On Women If They Wear Tefillin? Chofetz Chayim, Mr. We Only Teach Women Torah As A Temporary Concession To Stave Off Assimilation (And Preferably Only So That They Can Teach Their Sons Torah)?

It’s getting to a point, though, where my need to observe this thing “Torah Judaism” is overpowering my disdain for the overt sexism and other little problems of Orthodoxy. I’ve got to face facts; no amount of ideology is going to help me if no one in my circle but me is keeping Shabbat, for instance. Maybe I have to “pick my battles”, like my high school principal once told me. I didn’t see before why that rabbi in Washington DC wanted me to live in an Orthodox community, but now I’m starting to (naturally I can’t act on that realization, but that’s another story). I feel like one of those guys in Plato’s cave—there’s a film over the way things could be! It’s so near, yet so far! It’s very discouraging! (Not to mention disorienting.)

I’m having the same problem again—even if I do personally think a Conservative conversion is a fine choice ideologically, I don’t want to have to pledge allegiance to Conservatism. It’s like the glass ceiling. Sooner or later, I’ll need an Orthodox conversion.

I might even take a year off of school to do this. You probably can’t understand the cognitive dissonance this whole “half-Jewish” thing causes unless you’re there in the midst.

** Case in point: I’m listening to music right now DURING THE NINE DAYS! OH! NO!
Although I might not shave…just for kicks.

My Approach to Halacha; Part II in a Series

Part I.

I don’t know if you know this, but being a Patrilineal Jew/half-Jew/Gentile (that one makes me wretch) is seriously exhausting. It’s a big bowl of contradictions, internal inconsistencies, self-doubt, and cognitive dissonance. Being one that’s about to have a Bat Mitzvah as a 20-year-old is even more so. Suddenly, I have to know exactly what I think of myself, and thus what I think of others like me, and what I think I am obligated in or even permitted to do, the validity of Reform, and what I think of all halacha in general. For example, if I’m going to be reading Torah in front of a congregation, I really ought to know by then whether I believe that I’m actually qualified to do so. It’s made me have to consider what my status was when I actually would have become Bat Mitzvah, what my sister’s status is, and what my status will be after my ceremony—after all, after all is said and done, it’s still just a ceremony. But what comes with it? Obligation? The ability to obligate myself? Should I follow what Reform says about the Bat Mitzvah, what my (Conservative) rabbi says, or what I think? And what should I think if the rest of my theology doesn’t reflect Reform; is this cheating?

An anonymous commenter on the blog I newly love, Mah Rabu, said it well:

okay back to these hypothetical characters :-) say gershom’s mother tzipporah converts to judaism before he is born, but the conversion is not orthodox-it is reform and his bris is conservative (where was the beit din when the biblical tzipporah made the blood covenant with gershom, was that kosher?). the modern gershom identifies strongly with the jewish people and the jewish religion as both his parents do. anyway- his love of Torah brings him to learn with the orthodox, they ask a few questions about his family history and boom- they refuse to teach him talmud in havrusa, he can’t wrap tefilin, nor be counted in a minyan, they make him break the shabbos- turn the stove off, open this can, do that (avoiding asking directly of course)- the rabbi has turned our commited jewish brother gershom, who strives to uphold the mitzvot to the best of his ability, into the shabbos goy- but at least he is not a mamzer! he becomes obsessed with the question of who is a jew and he is reading this blog right now. he does not have the luxury of baal teshuva at his own pace. instead he encounters a judaism that is all or nothing. the orthodox rabbis tell him that he is only obligated to uphold the laws of noah (and actually is not permitted to do other mitzvos)- the only problem is that he knows deep within he was at sinai and he knows what G-d did for him when he came out of mitzraim. his nefesh yehudi tells him to respect his parents and their judaism, but he wrestles with the details of halacha- would another conversion in the family solve the problem- what does that say to his parents and siblings who all identify with the Jewish people? tzedek tzedek tirdof? klal yisrael? a hasid and a litvak walk into a bar… no no wait.

So, naturally I’ve had to formulate my own idea of what halacha means rather quickly. And I really took pains to justify adding myself into the equation at all. Basically, my idea was this: I know that matrilineal descent is what it is, and it’s widely accepted as uncontroversial. However, that’s only rabbinic and we’ve got a 50% intermarriage rate to worry about. This just isn’t working. So if a patrilineal Jew comes along and wants to cast his or her lot with you people, it ought to be made as painless as possible. Legally, this would ideally amount to a much shorter conversion process; but theologically, this amounts to being able to voluntarily obligate oneself, to not be held accountable for any previous transgressions that were due to not having a great Jewish background or education, and basically to be considered—in the case of a product of an interfaith “You can pick when you’re 18″ type of family—a ba’al teshuva rather than a ger. (I recently learned that, at least in Conservative halacha, a patrilineal Jew doesn’t have to use ben/bat Avraham avinu when he converts, nor does he have to include “ha ger” on official documents. A good start!)

Let’s look at the “voluntary obligation” stuff right now. It kind of looks like the Reform platform, doesn’t it? However, because of all my study being either from Conservative or Orthodox sources, I see the inherent obligatory status of mitzvot as very important. Thus if someone voluntarily obligates himself as a patrilineal Jew, it ought to be 1.) Because he lacked the Jewish education to do it sooner, and 2.) As a larger attempt to take on all the commandments, not just those he likes. Hopefully this will be painless, but in any case it looks more like the path of an Orthodox ba’al teshuva than it does a Reform Jew’s voluntary assumption of mitzvot.

I’m still unsure of the status of voluntary mitzvot taken on in the Reform movement. Is someone then obligated only to himself (what does that even mean)? Obligated to his community? To God? Not at all? My vision of voluntarily assumed mitzvot is very similar to the time-based mitzvot voluntarily assumed by Conservative (and Orthodox) women à la Roth’s responsum (which I wish I could find). It’s real, and it’s forever. So it’s pretty serious business. And if that’s not the Reform position, then I don’t align with Reform in that way.

Further, as I mentioned the difference between a mitzvah and halacha, whose definition of halacha? Whose definition of observance? This is where you’ve got to be your own posek, at least until you find a suitable rabbi, which looks a little like the ideal Reform way. But you’ve still got to be very honest here and follow your rabbi once you find a suitable one, and not go pasken on your own just because you’re “exempt” or something. (Which I’m having a little trouble with, being that I’m having a Bat Mitzvah at a Reform temple even though I’m using my Conservative rabbi for all my halachic advice, except when it tells me that I’m not Jewish, which is when I go right back to the temple again.)

But if I fundamentally don’t align with Reform, then how can I see myself as Jewish at all? They’re the only ones that agree (save for Reconstructionism, which I’ve realized I can’t even easily comprehend, let alone join). Hence the cognitive dissonance. I’m taking on mitzvot that I really see as new obligations, yet I’m still unsure as to whether I see myself as “really Jewish” or not. I’m drifting toward “yes”, but only out of necessity (the necessity to not go insane, that is).

Even if I am, I’m still stuck in a permanent category of not being able to release others from their obligations (or count in a minyan or zimmun etc.), since my little theory isn’t acceptable to everyone. And how do I know I’m not just “settling” for believing in patrilineal descent (when I usually don’t want to fight over such essentials) just so I can participate?

More importantly to me is the theological level. I wouldn’t mind being in a temporary “can’t involve other’s obligations” category if it were true that my own obligations carry any weight at all. I can’t stand to think that in the grand scheme of things, my mitzvot are being counted as if it’s just a hobby—or worse, as a desecration (as the Orthodox would say, or even my Conservative rabbi, which is the possibility I’m frightened of).

Thus I made the distinction between “anyone” mitzvot and “Jewish only” mitzvot. Originally, I did this to make Shabbat easier to handle—I’d only do things that wouldn’t seem strange should a non-Jew do them. But the categories have expanded. And they’re very strange. See if you can understand this:

Kiddush and Havdala are OK; tefillin is not.
Jewish adornments are OK (read: Star of David); only not in the synagogue.
Learning Gemara is OK; learning to leyn is questionable.
Tallit is questionable; though not OK in the synagogue.
Mezuzot: Not OK.
“Asher kidshanu”: Not OK.

Now, if you’ve got these incomprehensible categories floating around in your mind all the time, eventually you’ll get to a point where you’ll have to decide whether you consider yourself a Jew or not. I’ve convinced myself tallit would be OK but only if I say the bracha after my Bat Mitzvah. So you’d think then that I see the Bat Mitzvah ceremony as conferring some type of obligation, yes? Well then how do you explain the fact that I say “asher kidshanu” for Kiddush, Torah study, counting the Omer, and netilyat yadayim (for example)? Luckily, I can easily counter this with the fact that I might see taking on the obligation of tzitzit as equivalent to kabbalat ol ha-mitzvot, which could conceivably happen at a Bat Mitzvah ceremony—if you follow my theory that voluntary obligation must be assumed for patrilineal Jews after a period of study!

Hey, it works.

This whole thing has also prodded me to avoid denominational labels altogether—it’s the only way this whole elaborate system can make any sense to me. I suppose if you had access to such a community, you wouldn’t even need a Reform temple to give you a Bat Mitzvah as a sort of culmination to a journey; a public statement that you can “never go back again”.

I know that I will still have to convert to have any legal or pragmatic function, and I know that the batei din won’t agree with me that I don’t need two plus years of study, but in the meantime this is how I keep myself from going mad with the theological/metaphysical side of it all.

Part III.

“because GOD IS NO SEDATIVE hé-é-é”

I wrote this when I was eighteen:

5.20.09 (hotel st helena)

A st helena at sheffield hotel
B WITH A BUN IN HER HAIR
B where no-one could tell (like no-one still wear)
C after MICHAEL (her dear one) is thinking of life
D they stand to walk together. stand as one.

A michael went off to school one day and they learned a lesson (the teacher read quickly)
B THAT GOD IS REAL; A BOOK WE READ
B and he said no that feeling hasn’t been good to me
C they thought him something but wouldn’t let him stay
D for the first time at school time he was turned away

michael walked home because life gets so old and michael does what michael is told

when st. helena dear one did lean in to kiss him she felt a school child’s madness rush through him

michael shouted:
“why do you feel such calm when I can’t”
they said how can you live that way
he said I feel like I could jump over mountains
because GOD IS NO SEDATIVE. hé-é-é.

when asked what she would do with michael’s story in public view, and he’s got the limelight

said to helena “surely she must be so worried” she told the reporters this:

“WHY IS THE THING THAT SHINES BACK BRIGHTEST
the soft glow of nighttime TALKING TALK RADIO

when you say it all the blood rushes in, you come and ask why and that makes me question!”

they came in the next day and st. helena had little to say

(ANNOUNCER) a corner piano started in the little room and all
the children closed their eyes and lifted their hands
mouths dropping open heads to the heavens …
all glistening. “What a sight to behold,”
was the broadcast, “all opened up as one.”

but they both know things others only imagine
others who think god is only to cleanse them
NOT INSIDE to touch the dust in their space
but st helena knows and st helena can
and inside st helena
is god’s HOLY LAND.

and you can say there’s no news in the world but there’s always one more thing to know
and she tells the tale that happened so long ago
when she tells the story her eyes seem to glow

Here’s the music version. (It’s really kind of not very good…after about a month I got sick of working on that go-nowhere song…but I thought it might be useful in context and everything.)

It took like fifty thousand hours to write, and it didn’t come out so great all things considered, but I like it because it reminds me of how I thought about God before I was even ready to, like, not be an atheist anymore—i.e. before philosophy, before theology, before reading all the literature, before Judaism.

All in all, I still think basically the same way. It’s like it’s back with a vengeance.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’m “supposed to be doing” or whatever, and the thought occurred that maybe I’m “supposed to” settle down and just let stuff happen to me. It’s sort of like when my friend told me I should stop switching my majors on every whim all the time and just let whatever happens lead the way.

I was kind of thinking, even though I don’t want to—or maybe especially because I don’t want to—that I ought to just do what everyone else is doing and just like get married and forget about yeshiva and being such a subversive dissident all the time. And be normal and stuff. Like majority rules so get back in line.

But as you can see, it’s not working. I’m finding too many reasons for why my current pathway is just fine the way it is. First, I learned that women aren’t obligated to get married or have children (Yevamot 65b—ALERT: Secondhand source!!!), which I’m totally not arguing with because no man wants some caustic big-glasses lump like me, and hey talk about women’s lib besides. Also, I learned that something amazing exists. Something I like to call religious Jewish hardcore punk, rip rap, and hip hap. It’s freaking fabulous that I found this; I can’t even explain. (Although it can get really close to bordering on shticky and self-deprecating “Judaism is so funny and stupid, no one takes it seriously” stuff—did you know I hate that? Or, like, political messages, which bore me.) I mean, I don’t need this message, for example:

Perhaps Tel Aviv-based pop-punkers Not Kosher have found the perfect middle ground of being unobservant but proud Jews: “I’m a Jew, now I’m gonna do it my way / I’m a Jew, but I don’t go to shul on Saturday / Maybe I don’t do what God says / But I’m a Jew, I’m a motherf*cking Jew.”

Seriously, all I need to get that message is go to the Reform temple or talk to my mom who still thinks I could become Catholic, or my sister who complains I won’t drive her to the piercing place on Saturday, or like most of the rest of the world basically.

Consider the following:

 “I’m a Lithuanian, now I’m gonna do it my way / I’m a Lithuanian, but I don’t have dual citizenship or really want to otherwise have to think about it too much / Maybe I don’t speak Lithuanian / But I’m a Lithuanian, I’m a motherf*cking Lithuanian.”

Anyway. Are you pleased?

I also just happened to be reading this book Entering Jewish Prayer, and I decided to take a look at the section on the Shema because I really don’t get it still. I mean, it’s so vague and self-referential. But then I read the incredibly common-sensical “When it says ‘with all your heart’, this means ‘with both your good and evil impulses’. ‘All your soul’—until you die. ‘All your might’—either this means all your money or to love Him even when you don’t like what’s going on in your life lately.” It all made sense! (Well, that one sentence, anyway.)

More importantly, I kind of felt like I got my answer. It wouldn’t make any sense to repress what is most noticeable about me, which is my aggressive approach toward injustices and other various things I don’t like. Repressing that first of all wouldn’t work probably and second of all it seems to go against the Shema itself. If my bad impulse is to be aggressive and angry at everything I don’t like, doesn’t it seem reasonable that I ought to channel this into something good and important?

Fabulous.

The dark side

I don’t even care if most people wouldn’t admit if they think Come On Eileen is a MASTERPIECE! It is!

It’s really strange and interesting how influenced I get by really small things, mostly what I read. This is the main reason I stopped reading fiction back in middle school or high school (I don’t even remember which); it’s because I would get way too involved, inadvertently that is, and people wondered why I was a totally different character per every few months or so.

Well, it’s happening again. I’m reading a graphic novel called Awkward and Definition by Ariel Schrag, and it’s all about the author’s experiences in high school. Actually, I believe it was written during high school. It’s kind of a beautiful book, because it’s so genuine! And true! It reminds me of myself in high school so much that I’m starting to feel like I’m in high school again. I’m only halfway through, too. So I can just imagine.

It also doesn’t help that I’m listening to all this 90′s music lately, which really reminds me of high school.

So I was on Facebook at about 4:00 in the morning and “friended” (wow, that word got past the spellchecker) a few people I knew in high school, including one who was my bully but I loved it, and one girl I was so blindly in love with during twelfth grade—and she was a freshman—as soon as I saw her picture again I melted into a puddle even though it’s four years later.

It’s really ridiculous.

I’m putting this experience in my comic.

Also, maybe this is for the best because I can’t go on denying all this extra bits that are really going to make my life difficult if I don’t own up to them. Ignoring all the things I stood for as a teenager would certainly be easier and more expedient, but it would be a lie.

The Results of this scientific experiment

I like to occasionally have a Week Without Judaism™, but this time wasn’t quite so extreme as last time. Boy oh boy. Last time I really needed a cleansing. But this time, the basic premise was that I wouldn’t stop doing everything so much as I would consciously have to choose whether I wanted to do something or other, rather than feeling obligated. This applied to the specific and the general. The only thing I really wanted to keep doing was counting the Omer because stopping would have implications for the rest of the Omers after the week was done.

But this time I did it because I was getting sick of the repetition and how it wasn’t really doing what it was supposed to be doing lately. I was reading the words but just not getting it. When I go on automaton, sometimes it’s time to take a break.

What I learned was that I seemed to choose to do a lot more than I thought I would, given that I wanted to do a lot less when I was having my Weeks With Judaism™, feeling bound to mitzvot etc. It was the very contradictory to what I always espoused: “If you are doing something voluntarily, you will be less likely to do it”. I’m thinking I will try this for a longer term. It was quite interesting. When I told myself that I didn’t have to say this or that Shema or keep kosher or whatever, I usually ended up doing it anyway. I did skip some things. But in general, it’s come to the point where I can’t imagine not having a Jewish day. And when I did end up doing, I appreciated and paid attention to a lot more. I guess the last time I tried this Week Without Judaism™ I could get away with not keeping a lot, but even then I was already on the cusp of where I am now—a day without Judaism is unimaginable at this point. There’s a big hole in my life without it.

I remember when the rabbi asked me if I “felt Jewish”, and I quite genuinely said no. But for some reason or another, I’m not sure what, probably a combination of things, I feel like I am. I’m Jewish because I’m not anything else. I’m not a Christian, or a gentile, or even a prospective convert to Judaism (to Orthodoxy, maybe, but you can very well be Jewish and still have to convert to Orthodoxy, you know), according to me. So there. (Plus according to Bemidbar I would have belonged to a tribe if I lived in Biblical days, so that’s good enough for me.) There is just too great a diversity of acceptable opinions in Judaism to worry about the minutiae that one can never prove.

So now that I don’t care because it’s too exhausting, I’m doing a lot more stuff that’s not so, oh, straight and narrow, because I’m not scared to death anymore that someone will come and take it away if I’m not “good” enough. For example, I tend to listen to the Christian rock station when nothing else is on (and, OK I admit that I make fun of it sometimes and think about how anyone could believe in that, but I listen to it anyway because it’s better than sports or Glenn Beck, who’s annoying the crap out of me lately). And listen to my 70′s punk rock. I’m just not worried, ugh, about whether “they’ll” accept me. It’s very freeing. And it really helps you get to the basics.

It’s funny because I watch these music videos of Patti Smith and Pere Ubu and The Fall and stuff and I think: “What if they were Jewish? What if they were really observant and wore tzitzit and went to shul on Saturdays?” This is especially effective with Patti Smith. She would be a fabulous Jew. I love Patti Smith. It’s probably Patti Smith who’s made me feel best about trying to integrate this new “religion” thing into my life, a life that’s seemingly so antithetical to religion.

It seems dumb now that I write it, but I’m starting to see that you don’t have to fundamentally change your whole personality to be Jewish. Judaism is big enough for the both of us. I don’t have to be a doormat housewife who prefers being silent in shul and behind the mechitza or better yet on a balcony and taking challah classes while pregnant with her seventh child, preferably a boy. Because you can be Jewish and not like the mechitza. I’m just learning this, believe it or not. You can love Judaism and still criticize bits of it.

There’s this one picture in a book that I saw of a guy in his 90′s dorm room, saying the Shema with his little siddur and his tallit and tefillin, just hanging out in his little teeny dorm room, surrounded by Pink Floyd posters and other normal things. I love this picture because it’s like me. You can like Pink Floyd and pop culture and go to college and just be you, and still take Judaism seriously. Because it’s just as an important part of you too. It seems like common sense, but I’ve never, ever seen this before, and sometimes I feel like the only one.

My theory: Second in a series of long posts.

I thought of something. I’ve been in a jam lately, as you know, in that some people think I’m Jewish and some don’t, my family and one rabbi does but my rabbi doesn’t, and not to mention what I think…But I’ve reached a solution. I’m probably pulling things out of the clouds here, but first of all I think I want to make a distinction between being legally Jewish and having Jewish obligations. Behold—there are lots of people who “find out later” that “they’re actually Jewish”, but all along they’ve been raised as practicing Christians or atheists or anything else. So, they were legally Jewish all this time, but you can’t hold it against them that they haven’t been observant, of course. And what about now? Do they have a choice to become observant? I’m sure the sages had something to say about this, but I think we could agree that an upright person ought to learn to grow into his new identity and responsibilities. (What he actually ends up doing is a different story. Judaism is hard.) So we might agree that if someone is unaware of his obligations, he is free from them. But when he learns that he has them, he is responsible for them.

I think the same may apply here with me. Legally, I have had no obligations. “Exempt”, if you will. However, unlike people who find out that they are legally Jewish and ought to start practicing, I, merely a “Jewish seed“, need not. I ought not do anything, if I don’t want to. But if I decide to become observant, what of it? This is my problem right now.

Obviously, to count in a minyan or zimmun or to function in any legal capacity wherein I would affect others, I will have to convert. This I don’t disagree with. But—theologically speaking—I have a hard time believing (though logically, needless to say, it’s perfectly valid) that what I do (and what I feel guilty for not doing!) has no value, given my circumstances! I was dragged to this point—dragged!—theologically speaking, mind you. How devastating to believe as much and still believe that my mitzvot have no value! (This led to a lot of depression back when I first started thinking about converting.)

So, I propose, for my own sanity’s sake at the very least, that people like me can assume equal status and obligation—theologically speaking, you know—whilst still recognizing that there is no legal validity. Now for someone with no Jewish family or background, I cannot speak for them. But in my case, this is how I’m getting through the day.

Now, I have another theory. I was thinking about the Sephardic and Ashkenasic division. Really, I don’t see how there ought to be a technical validity to the split because it’s totally ethnic, but since it’s there of course I accept it. For example, if someone is exempt from something, I learned that the Sephardim follow Rambam in that he or she doesn’t say a blessing for that thing. But the Ashkenasim follow Rabbenu Tam in that he or she can say a blessing. Kitniyot are forbidden for Ashkenasim. Apparently, so is covering one’s unmarried head with a tallit gadol. Anyway, there are lots of dividing lines, some of which may very well acquire the bind of law.

Why should it not be so with the denominational lines as well? I’m not pro-denominational dividing lines at any rate, but I have to mention that so long as there are dividing lines, I might as well propose this: If it is true that American Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent, and my family is allegedly a long line of Reform Jews, why should I not follow in the tradition of my family and consider myself as bound by Jewish law? After all, even Reform Judaism, as I recently learned, is still bound to some aspects of Jewish law, though they may be indiscernible to the casual onlooker. The only problem with this, of course, is that I’ve come to feel bound to all of Jewish law, and not just some bits of it, and not just by my own personal inclinations, but by the very real burden of Torah itself. My feelings, and my family’s tradition of Reform, conflict then. I’m unsure as to whether the Reform platform suggests that we are only “personally bound” no matter what, or that people can become objectively bound by only the mitzvot that they wish. There’s a difference, I think.

Nonetheless, for my sanity’s sake, I also propose that until I actually convert with a beit din, I ought to see myself in my family’s tradition of Reform, which plainly accepts me, rather than shirk even this responsibility, since that would be quite similar to someone who learned that he is legally Jewish and shirks his legal responsibility. I have some ties to Judaism, and I shall live up to them. Until I find a beit din etc.

I’m starting to slice apart legal Judaism and some other strangely vague non-legal form of Judaism. I said I wouldn’t do it, but hey—it’s for my sanity’s sake.

Part III.

Identity Crisis Part II: i.e. Putting Conversion into stages is wack

Crossposted at New Voices

So, I recently learned that (thanks, guys), supposedly, there are “stages to conversion”. At first I thought, “Why, how interesting,” but then I thought, “They would pathologize something as personal as this.” The only thing I could find on the internet that was written specifically for Judaism was this:

Stages of Thinking During Conversion

1st think about conversion and anxious/stressed wanting to do it NOW

Learning and hopefully experiencing the mitzvot and in a rush to learn it all and be Jewish NOW

Convinced we know what we are doing and frustrated that our rabbi does not think we are ready NOW

Convinced that we will never know all we need to so we will never be ready to convert – and this is frequently when your rabbi starts talking about taking you to the beit din – because this is when they know you are ready – when you are the one slowing things down and feeling uncertain

Stage 1 

Just getting interested, reading some books, surfing the net, thinking about it, hopefully getting to know Jews both observant and non-observant.

Stage 2

Starting to implement the mitzvot (cutting out pork and shellfish, tznius dressing, making Shabbat a different day), hopefully spending some time in Jewish communities for yomin tovim and Shabbat, listening to Jewish music (helps towards learning Hebrew sounds), start keeping a journal or tracking your journey (what was your introduction to Judaism, what mitzvot you’ve taken on, what’s gone well, what hasn’t – look at and update at least every few months), making good use of your library or the local shul library to read books – but do NOT forget the importance of learning with people as books are written for a specific audience and based on ideal situations.

Stage 3

Looking for a rabbi/community, adding more mitzvot (kosher style, more Shabbat/at least all the “positives”, beginning Hebrew, beginning prayer, studying laws on honoring your parents), letting your family know what your plans are, spending more time with observant Jews and confirming that you actually like us (yeah this sounds funny but its true – some people are drawn to Judaism but don’t actually like the Jews they know – and those people end up being unhappy and angry converts since they must move into a community in order to convert).

Stage 4

Working with a rabbi and becoming more careful in your mitzvot practice and talking to the rabbi when you have the urge to eat a cheeseburger or a situation where you won’t be able to keep the mitzvot – depending on where your are he may give you different advice than you’d expect (like have that cheeseburger).

So, ah…this fails (and not only because it has you eating cheeseburgers into Stage Four), because I’ve cycled through these steps about fifty times in the past year. To use an especially relevant example, back in January I went and bought a binder and labelled the tabs stuff like “Halacha”, “Holidays”, “Mitzvot”, “Tefillah”, “Hebrew”, and so on. And I made this whole schedule wherein I’d study a certain subject for a certain period each week. I must be in Stage Two, right? But lo, the week afterward as the week I totally gave up and decided to spend a Week Without Judaism, but then the month after that I decided to start going to minyan and studying more all over again. Step 4: Denial.

So naturally, without my rabbi’s approval, I’m now currently in Step 3.75, which is when you would be in Step 4 if your rabbi was, you know, talking to you.

So, what gives? Now suddenly if I happen to mention to my rabbi, “Oh, by the way, I thought this was the right thing to do, but never mind,” then and only then he’ll realize that it was always meant to be?! What kind of nonsense is that?

Obviously, these stages were made for people who were raised Christian, or something, as that is likely the biggest…er, “feeder group”, to use an academic term. Where’s the step where you realize that you have no other freaking choice?

Call me arrogant, but it seems pretty dumb to me that I ought to be lumped into the same group. “You’re joining a people!” “You’re becoming Jewish! Get rid of all your idolatrous jewelry!” “Soon, you may even start to really feel Jewish!” My favorite: “You’ll gain a Jewish soul once you leave the mikveh!”

Well, F that. You can’t box me in!

But seriously, does it seem fair? If my mom was Jewish (yeah, yeah, see previous post…) I’d be a plain old BT or whatever and I’d be welcomed. No one would question my “sincerity” in “joining this people”. No one would dare to lump me in with the zealous ex-Christians. I wouldn’t have to worry about whether the admissions committees at JTS or YU rejected me because they “doubted my sincerity”. If only my mom were Jewish, all the Jewish books and junk I have about my room would be tokens of my newfound dedication, not telltale signs of “doing too much, too soon”! I’d be “coming back home” or whatever they say; not just another generic convert like the rest of them, with all the predictable “classic traits”—Double standard?

Think of it. If only my mom was Jewish, if I told people I wanted to study Judaism and maybe even get an advanced degree, I’d be commended!—not chuckled at knowingly by people who have seen it all before, who know that soon my so typical enthusiasm will soon settle down.

I don’t want to be called a convert. What step is that?

Zera Yisrael: A Serious Identity Crisis

“I was working my nuts off” -My mom

I have to admit that, after reading certain articles, I’d probably have just as bad an identity crisis if my mom were the Jewish parent. But the fact of the matter is that I’m having an identity crisis still anyway. I know that this problem is only going to become exacerbated down the line as intermarriage remains prevalent. I don’t like this current “Just ignore it” approach wherein patrilineal Jews are treated socially as Jews but legally as 100% Gentiles. It’s the sort of thing that can’t go on for much longer. Apparently, this is becoming quite obvious in Israel thanks to the Law of Return. There’s even a category for it: “Zera Yisrael”, the “Jewish seed” is my translation of it.

Well, if I’m a Jewish seed, where does that leave me? Exactly half of my local rabbis thinks that this seed is Jewish; the other half doesn’t. So no help there. Some people say that Judaism is at least somewhat ethnic in that you even can be a Jewish seed, ancestrally speaking. Some say it’s quite straightforward: Either your mother is Jewish, or you’ve converted. Some say it’s a spiritual state…and some even say that it’s a spiritual state that can be passed to you either through your mother…or upon conversion! Still some real wiseacres say that anyone who has the “nuts” (à la my mom) to say he’s Jewish must be Jewish—or that anyone who doesn’t deny he’s Jewish…must be Jewish.

Now, the theological question is this: Are you Jewish merely by casting your lot into this crazy circus, or are you made Jewish by tevilah? It’s kind of like: Are you Bar Mitzvah the second you wake up on the appropriate birthday, or at the onset of puberty, or the second you say the bracha for your Torah parsha (as my rabbi likes to dramatically announce during every Bar Mitzvah)? Anyway, the fact of the matter is that there are way too many dissonant opinions to know for certain; but metaphysical state of my soul aside, I wouldn’t dare declare myself Jewish for legal purposes.

But can you be both Jewish and not Jewish at once?

All I know is how difficult it is to answer the question: “Are you Jewish?”

Now, this Jewish seed wonders: What are my rights and privileges? What are my duties and obligations? What ought I do now? What ought I not do? Am I obligated in mitzvot; and if so, which? And if not, do my mitzvot even matter? How could they? Should I refrain from certain mitzvot, like tzitzit or mezuzah, two very outward ones?

This comes up because of this Bat Mitzvah I’m about to have. Many questions arise: Am I becoming Bat Mitzvah, even though I’m quite older than twelve? How can I, if I’m not halachically Jewish? And if I’m not becoming Bat Mitzvah, what is the point? What the heck am I doing and why am I doing it?

I’m not sure if I think of myself as Jewish. Sometimes I do, and sometimes—like when I’m considering wearing a tallit and then remember that I couldn’t wear it at the synagogue—I don’t. So I’m not sure what this Bat Mitzvah is going to mean to me. Knowing me, I may even feel guilty doing it. Speaking of which, what is this conversion going to mean to me? I’ve never been anything but Jewish—well, except those seven years as an atheist—I’ll be proving myself worthy of converting to my own religion!

I’m stuck in this gestation period—this no-man’s-land; neither one thing nor the other—and I want to get out!