I’m going to do a kind of belief evaluation. I know this isn’t important in day to day life, but it starts to come up when you’re in college, particularly torah is a lie class where you’re not really sure *what* you believe half the time, and I think it’s good to rummage through the recesses of your mind sometimes.
Also, I feel like I have to get over my phobia of talking about religion except in abstract terms if I want to be some kind of communal clergy person type of careerwoman. Luckily, Jews never talk about God—if you never noticed—but lately I’ve been wanting to (it makes me a little jealous of Christians who are all about that).
So lo, or should I say הני, I am going to write this. If you ever wondered everything I ever believed, well it’s your lucky day.
Torah OK, I believe a couple of unorthodox things about Torah. First, I happen to believe (though I’m not married to it) that the stuff that came before Moses (i.e. Genesis) was a long long tradition of oral tales, that Moses or someone he commissioned wrote all or part of Moses’ journey (the argument that he “wouldn’t write about his own death” isn’t very convincing given that he had to hear the news of his own death in Deut.—it was so morbid—”Look to the horizon. This is Israel. You will NEVER ENTER IT”), and if not that I feel like other people who were round filled things in. But I don’t think the Exodus was just made up to be a political metaphor. I just don’t like the idea, you know? I think the Torah is unified and not a mishmash of sources because everyone wanted to get their 15 minutes of fame and get their one sentence in or whatever. I think one writer could use more than one name of God, and I don’t think that the priests or Josiah “retroactively imposed their theology on an original pagan polytheistic document.” My view on this isn’t entirely “fleshed out” yet, but as I mentioned to a friend a while ago I am much more comfortable with the idea of an original source and renovations than many sources from extremely disparate time periods. Like saying the Israelites were walking around with a scroll of folk tales until Josiah “found” Deuteronomy and they just happened to believe him and then Leviticus got tacked on even later. I’m not into all that. I heard somewhere that Torah is timeless, and therefore Abraham knew about Sinai and vice versa and so on and so forth. That’s an interesting theory to me. Basically, whether or not it’s historically accurate is not highly important to me (though I still don’t want to be involved in biblical criticism—I prefer the Jewish methods to your German Protestant ones, thanks), because 1.) That would be extremely difficult for me considering everyone espouses the “It didn’t really happen” theory, so I just concentrate on a few key moments that I really want to have happened, and 2.) I tend to think that God is down with what we (faithfully) do with the Torah in any case, so if we get a law from the appearance or lack of a letter, He is guiding and enjoying this interpretation, whether or not that letter was there originally etc. I have to think of it this way or I will go insane.
Exodus I feel like the exodus is the one thing that’s important in the Torah. Obviously, it’s all important, even Numbers, but I have to admit that the Exodus is the one thing that I really, really don’t want to concede is some kind of metaphorical folk tale. There are many theories, including the one saying that it was a fabrication, but I enjoy PBS’s rendition. It says that some rebels came up from some land near Egypt, and they combined along the way with another group that’s either insurgents in Canaan or Egyptians and they all went up to Canaan highlands together in אלף’s. There are people who say that the Reed Sea is actually a little stream “with enough water to splash through” as my philosophy teacher says, but I don’t mind that so much because it seems like it would be easier for agile Israelites to get through and for chariots to get stuck in the swamps. Either way, not essential. I don’t think it was a political metaphor, however, and I don’t have a problem saying that the Israelites were glad that the Egyptians were dead on the seashore. It was a different time, man.
Mesorah I feel like I also have unusual views on mesorah. I think that Mishnah is the closest representation of what the Torah meant. I also think that Gemara is a great and earnest elucidation of Mishnah, but that as it is largely case law, it must be expounded upon in modern times. I also question some of the more questionable principles they use to deduce things. Also, I think that the Amoraim were far enough removed from the action that we can feel free to change some of their rulings, albeit in a halachic context. Apparently, some of them still claimed descent from priestly classes. But that doesn’t matter here because I don’t believe in rabbinical infallibility. I feel bound by the Talmud by one principle, however, and that’s that the Torah says “follow your teachers” or something like that, “the Torah’s not in the heavens.” This is what we have, you know? I’ve been thinking lately about the question “But what if the Rabbis got it all wrong?” I think God enjoys our efforts, and even if He didn’t mean tefillin to be gigantic black boxes, He looked upon the Rabbis fondly as they come to that conclusion and as we continue this etc. It’s a biconditional effort, I think. What I’m saying is, our way is right, but it could have easily been another way. It’s just like how you’re not in the wrong if you walk around without an eruv when you thought there was an eruv, for instance. It’s right to go off of your own knowledge. (This is getting totally philosophical, but I think if you have a justified belief then you’re good to go.)
Mitzvot I have a relatively conservative view of Torah, I know that’s weird. Therefore I think that the mitzvot are obligatory and they were given at Sinai (at least in part) and detailed by the rabbis etc. But what’s to be said of some of the unfriendlier ones, like erasing Amalek or not letting Moabites convert just because they didn’t get the Israelites bread? I could say two things. One, I could say that maybe certain mitzvot weren’t meant “for all generations,” but then I’d have to figure out just how to distinguish. Two, I could say it’s a good thing that we have running interpretations and the rabbis took care of a lot of that already. What of being obligatory? I don’t think your “sin points” rack up amounting to how many simultaneous chairs get thrown at you in Gehinnom; I think the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah and the reward for an averah is another averah. Every time you approach a mitzvah, you are being presented with another opportunity to express your relationship with God, and every time you don’t you’re totally losing out on a chance to sort of anchor yourself in that way. So, if you don’t do mitzvot, you aren’t going to be “punished” like a little child, but you are losing out on an opportunity to live as you were meant to as a Jew (got this from Ari L. Goldman). But what if you’re not feeling it, or you’re angry with God, or something else? You can do a mitzvah and invest it with an entirely different emotion if you wish. I think that kind of thing is totally possible. I’m familiar with angry davening. You “have to do it” like you “have to eat”—it sustains you as a Jew; you might not ever realize it, or it might take a while to realize it.
Ritual “Well, that’s all well and good,” you say, “But how could knowing what a revi’it is, or knowing whether grapes are haeitz or haadama possibly enhance your relationship with the Divine?” I will always remember what a certain Rabbi Krazee Eyez once said, that the best part of Talmud study is finding how a mitzvah got that way. It’s much more meaningful if you see its history. This sort of relates to my idea about mesorah—the halacha could have been anything, but it is what it is now, and learning how it became thus positions you in the expanse of tradition. I think I said this in a blog post a while back about having a kosher sefer torah. Some people figure the details aren’t important so long as you get the job done, who cares about reading from a kosher scroll or reading from a scroll anymore at all. But I think you can compare it to secular life—imagine any very important familiar relationship; perhaps you’ve just been married or have an old parent you’re fond of (you have lots to choose from right?) or a very good friend. When you’ve just been married, details matter. Suddenly you find you really care about finding the right house. Suddenly, what you put in this house really matters. You’re buying a holiday card for your best friend. You don’t just pick up the cheapest one and figure “Well, I got it done;” you read the insides. You care. You consider. It matters. Paying attention to ritual details is a consistent reminder that you are paying attention; that your relationship with God isn’t utilitarian.
Prayer I have to admit that one of the reasons I’m discontent with our Hillel is because they’re highly uninvolved with any religious aspects of Judaism. That makes me discontent because I really happen to like davening. So what is prayer? Can you change God’s mind? I think you can. No, really. Abraham did it. Not saying you always can. Not saying you should constantly be asking for crap all the time. Prayer, I think, puts you in a conversation with God, but it’s a conversation that continues afterwards. If you pray for courage, and you find yourself in a frightening situation (I’m thinking talking to Krazee Eyez about converting type of frightening), you can think back to that conversation and recall that God is on your side. It’s interesting how prayer can penetrate everyday life in this way. Not only that, I think it’s the most intimate mitzvah (particularly the tefillah but also spontaneous prayer), wherein you and God are passing ships in the night throughout the rest of the day, but at a variety of points during the day you can “check in” if you will and be like “Dude remember this morning.” Further, according to Chabad, He really, really wants to hear from you, even the junk you think is dumb to bring up.
Community As I go on in “this crazy game we call life” as my sister says, I see more how community is important. Halachically, you can get by with a lot by yourself. But it’s certainly not ideal; I’m seeing since I live here in Williamsburg how easily someone might take for granted something as simple as, like, having a halachic advisor. Beyond that, for me in my situation at least, having a community makes me feel like I couldn’t “just give it up” at any time. I remember how oddly comforting it was to have other people in the synagogue standing alongside me during kaddish back home. And to have that for a whole year. Or how excited I was to make a Jewish friend to study Torah with. Or how invaluable I consider my Jewish friends and acquaintances now, both online and off, because it’s too easy to get sucked into your own Jewish vacuum. For me, that vacuum was wrought with great discontent about my identity and otherwise. Without them, I would have been sucked into the null void of my own theology cannibalizing itself until it shrivelled. I really enjoy being in a community during services or otherwise discussing theology, because I have to admit I absolutely love to see the diverse range of people worshipping the same God, from the poorest people who came in with their four children to the freaking city judge and college professors. On the other hand, I’m not tyrannical about having to be in a minyan or in shul on a certain day. The High Holy Days are making this really obvious to me. I feel like I could find much more meaning alone by myself in the Wildflower Refuge on Rosh Hashana than in shul with a bunch of people I don’t know. That has a time and place, sure, but I don’t feel like the mitzvah of the High Holy Days is to be in shul, not in the least.
Identity I am having a continuing internal struggle with this issue. It’s like asking “What is Judaism?” It’s wrought with confusions and complexities. What is Jewish? Being on the conversion track, it’s easy to equate it solely with mitzvot, until you’re thrown into the real world (i.e. the secular campus), you see that most Jews will freely admit that they’re only in it for the “cultural aspect.” I still think mitzvot are a huge part of what Judaism is in truth, but having to confront this sort of anti-religious community has made me feel like I have to accommodate and newly consider things such as the cultural or ethnic aspect of it. It’s hard to imagine feeling a connection with completely secular and non-practicing Jews, though it was only about three years ago when I wanted nothing to do with Judaism…and when I was the one bemusedly looking on at the Hillel table during Club Day at my old art school…wanting to stop and look, but too embarrassed to. I have remnants of what other students probably feel about Judaism, but it’s been nearly completely replaced with this new religious POV of Judaism that I have. At this moment, I’m still unsure how to consolidate my strong feelings on how important it is to be observant with the reality of how few people are observant.
Israel I don’t know why Israel is so controversial, but then again I don’t get politics and I probably never will. My view, therefore, may mean nothing to you. First of all, I am quite displeased and uncomfortable with the fact that the Hareidi sector has taken over the entire government. So I hear, this is a self-perpetuating cycle and there’s no way out of it. I don’t really think there should be a state of Orthodoxy, though I don’t entirely mind it being a Jewish state with Jewish laws governing it. That’s not so terrible, if you remember that Jewish law isn’t equivalent to what is happening in Israel right now. That means things like shmitah or like schools should be run by the Jewish calendar and basic things like that, but you shouldn’t be throwing rocks at cars that drive on the Sabbath. It’s sort of “Hey let’s make it easy to practice Jewish law” rather than “Hey let’s make it impossible for non-observant people or non-Jews to live here.” I also enjoy the “don’t farm pigs here” law, because seriously it’s Israel I mean really, but according to Krazee Eyez people get around that. Other than that, I think it should be a Jewish state, not a two-state, but at the same time I’m not exactly expecting the messiah so I’m not that worried about Israel’s Jewishness. I mean, I am out of principle, but I don’t think it’s a life-or-death situation. Nonetheless, I am still on Israel’s side if only because everyone else hates it. And have you seen how tiny it is? Have you looked at a map lately?
Creation I really like what our Catholic chaplain had to say about creation:
The creation accounts in Genesis are poetic expressions of the true way that God created the world. You know, the Big Bang theory and all of that is a scientific explanation of the same thing. I find them complementary. Some of our Brothers and Sisters say that you should read Genesis like a science textbook. For Catholics, it was never meant to be read that way. It’s true, because it’s revealing true things about who God is and how he loves human beings. But the point of those stories is not a scientific account of creation, the point of those stories is that God created out of love, and that he created unique human beings as an object of his love.
Chosenness I know a lot of people dislike the idea of “Chosen People,” but I don’t see a great problem, especially when you consider that every other religion sees itself as the “true one,” by the way. Of course, most supporters of this concept will tell you that it doesn’t mean “chosen” in a good way—we just have more responsibility! I used to enjoy this argument, until I realized that it’s a cop out. I learned that while I was researching women and mitzvot…because you know what they say to justify women having less mitzvot? That’s right, they say “You don’t want our mitzvot! They don’t make us better, we just have more responsibility!” In normative Judaism, obligation is a good thing. You want mitzvot, basically. It’s like thumbing your nose at the person you’re claiming is so free compared to you. I get it. So I don’t buy that argument so much anymore. If Judaism sees mitzvot as a way of being closer to God, but only offers Gentiles the option of either seven mitzvot or being an idolater (i.e. becoming a Christian or whatever)—if you believe in Judaism, how could you go on not being Jewish? It’s really quite mean to tell such people that “they don’t want to be Jewish.” So, if I believe that Torah is the best way to live your life and I believe it was given to Jews, that would mean I believe in the “chosen people” concept. But I am really becoming uncomfortable with its implications—there’s really no other option for someone who wants to be monotheistic and believes in Torah. What right-minded person who believes in mitzvot would content themselves with seven mitzvot? Proponents of the “you don’t want this” argument—would you give up your mitzvot, when all is said and done? I didn’t think so.
Non-Jews That being said, I think that no religion is right for everyone, and that people approach God in different ways and that those ways are appropriate for them. I want people to love God and love their religion and to feel good about their religion, whatever it is, and I value any opportunity I might get to help a Catholic be a better Catholic or a Muslim be a better Muslim (not so sure about Wiccan though). I believe in the basic tenet that Judaism isn’t highly concerned with saving people’s souls, and I think that it’s more important that someone be of a good moral character than to have right belief. Of course, there are the Noahide Laws, but I wouldn’t really be sure how to enforce that given that I’m not sure how Idolatry is defined exactly. According to me, Christianity is idolatry, but I can’t very well look the Catholic priest or my roommates in the eye and think of them is idolaters! I just love people who care about something, you know?
Afterlife Speaking of saving souls, there’s something called the afterlife. I don’t really have any concrete feelings about it, and in fact I barely thought about it at all until that crazy Christian lady tried to get me to be saved because of the afterlife benefits! That was so foreign to me. The purpose of Judaism and of the mitzvot is to sanctify life here on earth (like Judaism 101 if you ever read conversion books), not to guarantee a spot upstairs. In fact, the rabbis are quite liberal about this. If you observe even one law of the Torah you have a place in the World to Come. If you are a righteous gentile you have a place in the World to Come. If you repent the second before you die you have a place in the World to Come. Converts with an especially seedy past have a great place in the World to Come. I think what they were getting at is: “Don’t worry about the World to Come.”
Messiah and Resurrection Also not very worried about the Messiah. I wasn’t very into this idea for a good amount of time, but it’s been thrown at me on all sides like the time Achan stole the treasures and got stuff thrown at him (including a sack of death). I kind of like it just as a motif, like “You just wait till the Messiah comes and then you’ll really hear it.” I’m pretty sure if there is a messiah he won’t come because if he does all the things he’s supposed to, such a mythology has developed around the messiah that people would most certainly feel the need to worship him, thus defeating the whole purpose. I sort of like the Reform idea of universal messianism, one which we aren’t really going to make ourselves—that is, it’s not something we can work toward, per se, using human effort. It will just come and we wouldn’t even see it coming, probably. It won’t be floods or whatever that dumb movie 2012 was about; it will probably just be a gradual shift in reality, wherein by the time we notice “Wow, something’s really changed,” it will have already shifted. I’m not sure about bodily resurrection, because that’s gross, but since I love philosophy and modal logic and metaphysics and all that I could totally picture a world wherein the dead come back in an alternate non-material hyperreality. The World to Come.
The Temple and the World to Come I sort of agree with Maimonides that it’s not really the point to have the Temple rebuilt. That was another time, one perfectly suited to the ancient Israelites, but something we probably wouldn’t be able to handle correctly today. It would be interesting to have the Temple rebuilt in the Messianic age because it’d be like insisting on a highly physical reality in my vision of an anti-material world. Of course, I’m not a Platonist so much in that I would be wont to say that the material world gets in the way. In a new reality, a highly physical Temple worship could very well be an excellent thing for intensified spirituality. That being said, even though I’m not counting on the Temple being rebuilt, I have to admit that the idea probably isn’t so far out in my mind, and if it happened I wouldn’t be extremely shocked or anything. I’d wonder how long it would last until the UN or PETA was like “animal torture,” but I would look on entirely enthralled, probably. I like the (Talmudic?) idea that the only offerings that they would offer would be shlamim. I mean, why would you offer anything but peace offerings in the Messianic Era? I do often wonder how we would feel about giving up all the “no longer relevant” mitzvot, though, like all the ones that are supposed to correspond with the sacrifices and so on.
God OK, now I’m ready. I think it was only two years ago when I was an atheist. Oh, I had theological ideas, but they weren’t personal ideas (interesting thing about philosophy). So I feel like I have a pretty interesting perspective in that I’m still in the “Everything is amazing” stage, even though it’s been a year already since I felt the Calling (or the Urge as Talmud calls it). God is manyfold—involved in everything from sustaining your kidney function to organizing bird migration patterns to hearing your prayers and wearing tefillin and putting crowns on the letters (I love those last two…Talmud rocks). It’s still amazing to me to think that the same God of the Exodus is the one who sustains our most disgusting bodily functions and who still is fond enough of us to listen to our prayers and give us things like sentience and qualia and mitzvot—and even different religions, because not everyone wants to be a Noahide. He likes us. He wants a relationship with us. This is good for improving your self-image, I have to say. And I would have never said this as an atheist, but I think a relationship with God is a basic human need—you can live without knowing God, but it’s like living without music or birthdays, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t really have much to say about what I think God is, though, because obviously how am I supposed to know that? He is inexplicable. Lots of things are beyond our perception—like the thirteenth dimension or that spectrum of colors that only jumping spiders can see. There are lots of things we will never know just because we don’t have the capacity—moreover, all the things that we don’t even know we don’t have the capacity for. I guess it’s not so different from my original philosophical concept of God as simply Ultimate Objective Reality…but it’s an ultimate objective reality that you can connect with here in your everyday life. And it’s personal. I and freaking Thou. You can’t go back from that. It’s like if you meet someone and recognize them and then find out they’re actually your long lost sibling, you can never go back to treating them like some jerkface who just cut you off.
Something else the Catholic chaplain said:
I used to tell my students, “Go be a Zoroastrian, go be anything, but don’t be a secular humanist because its so boring.” And it really is! It’s terribly constricting in terms of imagination in a way that Catholicism or Judaism or Islam is not. When you have a transcendental realm everything takes on a transcendental beauty, a meaning beyond something just sitting there.