if(order && destruction){return true};

I was walking with a friend the other day when he saw my Ahavas Yisrael pin, which I happen to cherish dearly and it’s the only blatantly Jewish pin on that particular jacket. I had just told him I was a Jewish Studies major. “Wow, you must be really into it,” he said. “Not really,” I said, “not really at all anymore.”

I explained it to him and he was the only one so far not to say , optimistically, naively, “You can still be Jewish!” He said something very interesting. He said: “Maybe you were looking for a sense of order.”

It makes sense. It makes so much sense. It makes enough sense to possibly qualify as real closure. It started in community college in 2010, when I wanted to be a philosophy major. I wanted objectivity. I was really against Continental philosophy. I wanted to be against something. I liked the raw logicality of analytical philosophy, and I hated anything that threatened it. I liked my logic classes; ethics I found wishy-washy. Interestingly, that was also around the time when I started thinking I wanted a different way of life…I had just come back from art school, after a failed relationship (if you want to call it that), a failed music career (if you want to call it that), and a failed freshman year of school (literally…I dropped out). Music–what I had always assumed I would do since age ten–had failed me. Being gay had certainly failed me. I had originally enrolled in community college wanting to be a business major (!), but ultimately chose philosophy. By the end of my two years there, I was hooked on Judaism. It was only natural that I would end up choosing Orthodoxy.

This need for order–along with my new goal of becoming a philosophy professor–led me to get something like a 3.9 so I could be accepted to William & Mary (a decidedly traditional school, which was exactly what I wanted). I was still planning to convert to Orthodoxy. I changed my major from philosophy to religion to Jewish studies. I was going to go to Hadar when I graduated, or Drisha. I had it all planned out. And by the end of my first year at William & Mary, I was basically on an inevitable path. Why stop at Modern Orthodoxy? I took an Aish course online, and considered joining their women-only BT seminary. Never mind that I wasn’t technically Jewish. It was painful to think about. It disrupted my order.

That was just the beginning of my growing sense of disorder and liminality. But I was still ignoring it at that time. I withdrew from my classes at W&M and transferred to Brooklyn College. I bought my food from Pomegranate and my undershirt shells from the Shell Station, and not without tons of stares. I didn’t care. Soon I would fit into the framework, if I would only try. I was talking via email to a BT rabbi who lived in Brooklyn, and he was giving me so much encouragement. “I know how you feel, since I felt that way too,” he’d say. I found a minyan and a rabbi who would convert me, and I filed a conversion application with the RCA. Everything was going really perfectly, and of course I considered it a sort of divine will, although I never would have admitted it except to other very frum, religious people.

But then things started changing. I started noticing the stares more. I started getting annoyed by them. I started getting annoyed at other converts, people who seemed too religious, too by-the-book, annoyed at the texts, annoyed at Orthodox Brooklyn.

And then my annoyance disappeared and was replaced by disappointment. Everyone around me seemed to be doing just what their parents did. The “Orthodox culture” everyone had told me about was appearing all around me, suffocating me. I noticed that people were just as religious about having seltzer water on the table as they were having challah on it. I noticed people didn’t finish birkat hamazon sometimes. I noticed that gemara had gaping holes in it, and I noticed that people didn’t seem to mind. I noticed that people were forming their own pathways to get around the inconsistencies. And I noticed that those pathways were called “customs.” Judaism wasn’t being held up by a timeless and flawless system; it was being held up by people.

And, just like that, my sense of order was shattered.

That is what I try to tell people when they insist that I shouldn’t have left Judaism after coming out. I was accepted by the community that I had formed around me. Sure, that encouraging rabbi had stopped emailing me. But my real friends were still there. It wasn’t that. Homosexuality proves to me that Judaism is a flawed system; a human one. Its only answers were to either ignore it or to require celibacy. It took me a long time to get over this, obviously. I felt deceived. When you think you were brought into a situation by some kind of divine imperative, told the system has no flaws, and you find one, and the very people who told you there were no flaws have no answer for the flaw, of course you are going to feel deceived.

I don’t know whether to decide that I need to find my order elsewhere, or that searching for order will ultimately fail us. I used to think that order was a sign that God existed. But there is so much disorder in order that I am not sure anymore. If God exists, it is certainly not in the ordered way that books describe. I used to be completely fascinated by the idea of God, and now, frankly, thinking about it makes me nervous. I lost my sense of ego to my idea of God for two years; and now facing that void scares me. The sense of order that I got from being religious gave way to complete bewilderment. It was really like going from having everything–all the answers–to having nothing at all. I felt as if I had lost everything, and all I could do was pick up the pieces. I had built up trust in this thing for two years, and it was gone within a month.

I’m not sad, though. I was sad at first, and really just mortified and embarrassed for quite a while. I’m not really embarrassed to talk about it now, because I think that everyone goes through something similar. But now I still have to tell people I am a Jewish Studies major. “It’s a long story,” I say, although I am getting a little tired of the story. I am feeling more and more distant from my summer in New York, although it seemed so real and immediate and important at the time.

It makes sense that I am newly interested in computer science, since about six months ago. It’s tiring that my interests change almost every year, but there is a common theme at least. Logic, order, reasoning.

And religion couldn’t stand up to that after all.

how much does it cost to be jewish? (reprise)

I grew up thinking Jews should work in social change,
but only investment bankers can afford a Jewish life
-Jewish Women Watching

Crossposted at Jewschool

Original, lesser post here

I was at the Blue Ribbon food store on Ave. J in Brooklyn the night before Rosh Hashana.

“Store closing! Store closing!”

blue_ribbonI wandered around, people rushing past me. Yogurt? Should I buy yogurt? Cheese? Tuna fish? There were no prices on anything. I had been putting off food shopping until the last minute, and I was paying for it. Blue Ribbon was the last place open that late erev Rosh Hashana.

I had to think pretty quickly. This particular year, I was going to have three days to fill with food. Imagine coming up with a 3-day menu for one on a budget…when there are no prices on anything. And I had to buy something.

I hastily went over to my safe zone–the challah rack–and picked up a round challah and a pack of six rolls, deciding which would be a better buy. Could the round one really be cut into six equally substantial pieces? People were pushing up against me while the “Store closing!” character kept bellowing somewhere in the depths of the store.

I picked the rolls. They’d last me about two days. A $4 choice, cash only.

The fact that there were no prices said to me that I was the only one worrying about the cost of things. Figuratively, though, everything has a price tag. Who knew that Jewish living could have so many material trappings?

On Yom Kippur, I heard enough pledges to the shul in the amount of $613  (or “eighteen times three,” very clever, guys) to last me a lifetime.

And Sukkos made completely transparent what had been perhaps inadvertently hidden. My street was lined with people selling esrogim and tinsel and bird cages. There was a sukkah store competing with another sukkah store across the street. And of course Eichler’s was right there, too. You got the sense that if you wanted to participate, really participate, in Jewish life, you had to be ready to shell out a whole lot of money for the requisite commodities.

The 2001 NJPS study shows that the median income of Jewish families was about $54,000 (compared to the $42,000 national average), with over one-third of households having an income of over $75,000. I can’t be certain, but I think my own family’s income growing up probably hovered around $25,000. The basic line is that “the Jewish working class has all but disappeared,” but that’s not true. Unfortunately, the Jewish community seems to be set up as if it is. Of course there is aid available; yeshiva stipends and gemachs and the like. But being the recipient of such aid, just like in secular society, puts you in the periphery of Jewish life. In other words, if you’re constantly eating in someone else’s sukkah, you’ll never have a sukkah to call your own!

Most of the discussion has centered around the costs of synagogue membership and day school. Indeed, the required costs of day school etc. for a family with children is estimated to be about $30,000 a year. But the costs go well beyond this into everyday life–particularly where it can. You can wear a hair covering or you can wear a $2,000 sheitel. You can buy your clothes at department stores or you can buy them at the special fancy $30-per-one shell store. I’m sure there is community pressure, at least I sensed it by living off Avenue J and trying to walk down to the subway with my ripped denim skirt from Goodwill when everyone else got their nice new clothes from Tznius Princess or who knows where.

Same with food: I could buy it at Blue Ribbon aka No Listed Prices R Us, or I could go all the way down to the secular store in Union Square instead. Oftentimes, a regular, national brand would be missing from the kosher store in favor of its more expensive Israeli counterpart.  I can’t afford a $16 lasagna just because it has a special hechsher from Israel. I can’t afford to be selective with hechshers! If that’s not some kind of community pressure I don’t know what is.

But I knew if I had wanted to participate, really participate, I’d be buying those Israeli brands, not going to Union Square.

So how much does it cost to be Jewish?* Here’s an answer:

Another dimension to be measured is the cost of Jewish living as a percentage of total income. The members of the Orthodox Jewish community, which comprises about 10 percent of the total Jewish population, have on average accumulated less wealth and earn less money than other Jews. Nevertheless, they remain steadfast in their commitment to day school education, trips to Israel far beyond the frequency of other Jews, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish camping experiences. At the same time, they have more children per household than other Jews, keep kosher with its concomitant higher costs, buy special clothing free of shatnes, and, for the Ultra-Orthodox, purchase wigs for women’s hair covering. Given all these additional expenses, the Orthodox or traditional practitioners spend 25 to 35 percent of their available income for Jewish living, often at a sacrifice of more adequate housing, a more comfortable lifestyle, and the acquisition of savings.

-”The Costs of Jewish Living,” 2008

The community sets the standards.

American Sociological Association: United Jewish Communities. 2003. National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01. New York, NY: United Jewish Communities [producer]. Storrs, CT: North American Jewish Data Bank [distributor].

Bayme, Steven. Bubis, Gerald B. The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers. American Jewish Committee (AJC). 2008: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=322

*I know, “How Much Does It Cost to be Orthodox” is more accurate, but it doesn’t sound as good.

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

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

So, I came across this picture:


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

And that’s all well and good.

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

Something has to change here.

The religious element

“We’re chained / we’re chained / we’re chained” -The Pixies

I saw this coming and everything, but now that I’m leaving the womb of brooklyn, I’m getting a little nervous. Before I came here, sure I lived in rural virginia but I had 1.) a conviction and 2.) a hope. Now, Judaism has taken out my heart and thrown it into the road and drove over it with a truck and stabbed it with a thousand knives.

So as it stands I am getting really burnt out on religion in general and theoretically I need a detox I think (sucks to be a religion major right about now). But at the same time I’m not really down with people jestfully insulting jews and joking about lame overused stereotypes just cause they don’t know any better or whatever.

Like, on one hand I want to be like “wtf why is my roommate playing her stupid lipa remixes and crap israeli adult contemporary music or whatever to get ready for this motzei shabbos party right now so they can just talk about sephardic guys some more, she’s lame and her friends are lame,” but I can’t say that to my non-jewish friends cause they’ll take that as permission to say stupid anti-jewish things. It’s like, maybe I think my mom did something weird but if I tell some stranger then THEY’RE going to think my mom is weird, and they don’t even know her! Not good.

I don’t know man. It’s very strange. I’m torn between two lovers. Actually, neither option is particularly spectacular if you really want to know but they both have their pros and cons I suppose.

Life after religion is vague and nebulous. It’s a world of cultural relativism and gentiles making bad jewish jokes and everything that happens to you has no rhyme or reason and you kinda just make up morals as you go and codified secular morality is called philosophy and we all know how well THAT turned out. And you kinda just drift in and out of different circles, making base camp by happenstance. At least with judaism I have an edah and even if I get annoyed by things about it every day at least I sort of know where I stand.

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.

I can’t speak for them, but once you’re burnt out you’re burnt out and no matter what you do you don’t think you could ever see yourself having kavana ever again. I mean sometimes you bentch when everyone else is just to time yourself for fun or something but you don’t really think it would matter whether you did or didn’t bentch ever again, in the scheme of things. Like, I saw it happening as it happened, first with my not fasting then laxness with kashrus then wearing short sleeved shirts in the 100 degree summer came next, I have no idea how that got to be the order of things but there you have it. I can’t really put all the blame on that book about homosexuality and judaism by rabbi chaim rapoport. I think that was just the first domino, probably. The thing is, once one thing comes toppling down a lot of other things do too. I feel like my aish way of thinking taught me this. I know some of you liberal jews out there will say that you don’t have to “have all or nothing,” as you say, but for me I don’t see the point in doing just some of it if I don’t believe that the whole thing is worth keeping. Cause really, if I’m just doing parts of it because they feel spiritually good or right or whatever, you can be certain I’d be doing almost none of it. I definitely wouldn’t fast. I probably wouldn’t keep shabbos if I thought it was “just a good idea.” I definitely wouldn’t give tzedaka. I wouldn’t not gossip. I don’t see what would make it so different from secular morality which says it’s not nice to gossip etc. But at the same time, at this point I have absolutely no idea what it would be like to GROW UP believing in torah min hashamayim in a community where THAT WAS JUST THE NORM and to NEVER HAVE QUESTIONED IT!

I guess here I’ll just refer you to this page. I mean I’ve been encouraged by an insane amount of orthodox friends to try to stay in the fold and convert anyway despite my issues, which is very nice of them but to me it tends to prove that my orthodox friends are nicer than jewish law actually is, which confuses me if I think about it too much. On one hand, I’d like to think (and surely it’s technically more rational to think) that orthodoxy is the sum of its people and I only have to worry about them, not some amorphous law code which changes with the people anyways. But on the other hand although believing in the supernatural religious aspect certainly got me to do crazy things like move to brooklyn, after reading that book on homosexuality and judaism by rabbi chaim rapoport really sealed the deal on how ruthless jewish law is. I know that despite what anyone says, the talmud and rambam and shulhan aruch etc. still say what they say no matter if it’s actually the 1500′s right now or not.

And why does the law have to be made gentler/better by contemporary people anyways? What does that say about the law itself? And why do people say that God is so kind and forgiving when I don’t really know where that came from given that 1.) his autobiography doesn’t really paint him in the best light, and 2.) it’s not like trying to get to know him isn’t a completely one-sided endeavor. Like, people say God does this for them and God does that for them but when I look around I can’t really say I see it.

Sometimes you think you see it, but then it turns out it wasn’t something at all, you thought you saw a pattern but in reality it was all just a horrible joke. It’s like you spot some candy in a hole so you go down and get it, but then you realize both that the candy was really just a stick and you can’t actually get back out of the hole again.

The ladders of life we scale merrily
Move mysteriously around
So that when you think you’re climbing up man
In fact you’re falling down
-Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Third Annual Obligatory Yom Kippur Post Part II

It’s not just that I don’t get personal repentance. I don’t like the idea of shoving a whole year of repentance into one day. It really does make it seem like you can do whatever you want the rest of the year, as long as you make up for it on one day. It makes me very uncomfortable. They say that’s not what it’s about, but when you specifically call it a day of repentance it sure sounds like that’s what it’s about. I don’t like that I have to be in shul all day where it’s hot and annoying, just to listen to piyutim which aren’t even required. Why can’t I do it at home? Why are the hhd’s the #1 time to be in shul, when really you could just do it at home, maybe invite a few friends over? I can surely give up the kol nidre melodies to avoid the rabbi’s hour long speech. Maybe even–chas v’sholem–sing them ourselves.


And to go even further, this is pretty meta if you can handle it, why do we need to sing so slowly? I was thinking about it, and these songs would suck if they were in English. No one reads that slow normally. You don’t have to say it slowly. You don’t even have to say it poetically. Singing slowly and in poetic piyut format is purely for aesthetic effect. And aesthetic effect is only for humans. It’s completely for us.

And so therefore we came up with these things cause we thought they’d be good for us, communally speaking, but what if they’re not? We made it obligatory to be in shul all day long listening to slow singing because we thought it would be conducive to repentance. As far as I’m concerned, if a person really did get more by not being in shul, I think God would secretly understand. I think he judges people by their own standards. But we feel like we need to be in shul, and we feel like we need to sing somber songs. It just seems appropriate to be ceremonious, cause that’s how humans do things.

But I HATE slow singing. I HATE being in shul. Seriously, the closest I got to a religious experience that night was sitting on the windowsill at Talmud Torah on the way to the women’s balcony and listening to the cantor through the wall and wondering if this was going to be the last time I went to a kol nidre service. That, decidedly, did not happen in the women’s balcony staring at a siddur, wondering what page we’re on, but being decorous enough to hold the book open like you’re reading it. Like everyone else. I hate getting dressed up for shul when who I’m getting dressed up for is other people, when this is supposed to be the day you’re not supposed to be worried about other people…

We made up these themes and rules and while I do appreciate how organized religion makes religion, well, human, it can also be exclusive. We made it important to look like you’re reading the siddur. We made it “more meaningful” to sit in shul decorously than it is to sit in the windowsill on the way up to the women’s balcony. We made it “more meaningful” to listen to shiurim on the metaphorical significance of yom kippur than it is to find significance in completely unrelated sources. We made up that metaphorical significanceWe made it important to get dressed up for shul. We made it important to feel “inspired” by the rabbi’s horrifically long speeches. We made it important to stand when everyone else is standing and sit when everyone else is sitting. We don’t understand any other way, so we made any other way “wrong.” And because Judaism is communal and minhag is law, we have to do it anyway, because what works communally is more important than what works individually. That’s what holds a religion together theoretically, and that’s what we insist though we know just as well that we’re mostly there cause we feel like we have the social obligation to be there.

I get it. I just don’t like it.

the difference

So, I read something someone said in a facebook comment and I thought it was really interesting: “Yes, conversion is difficult. My conversion left me depressed and way less observant than I started out, but with two vital skills: dressing frum and playing Jewish geography.”

We can talk all day about the politics of conversion and the merits of “sincerity” over “ease,” but I trust that’s all been said already. What it made me think of, though, is the very basic difference in experience between converts and non-converts, even if on the surface they’re going through the same things. For example, this comment was in reference to an article on Lillith about a baal teshuva’s experience going off the derech (and getting back on? I skimmed). Because I’m meddling, I chimed in “try having that experience while still converting!” I’m not sure if They’re prepared to deal with otd bt’s (there’s an acronym for you), but as for otd converts in  progress, well there’s certainly not that much support out there.

So for the experience of watching yourself become less religious over time, obviously it’s a Good Thing to help a bt stay on the path. They’re Jewish, after all. But for the convert in progress (or, possibly, even the convert…there’s an interesting scenario)…what’s the impetus, really, to help them become observant again? It’s like, “oh, guess it wasn’t for you.”

That’s cool and all, but since we’re in the hhd’s and repentance is all around, I’m in the mood to wonder where a convert in progress stands when s/he sees him or herself going otd. Do they have any obligations? One reason I find the hhd’s tough is because I don’t feel like I need to repent for anything. What do I need to repent for? Not doing the mitzvos? Should the convert in progress try to stay on the path, or can he reasonably consider his going otd as a sign that “it wasn’t for him all along!”

For the bt, it’s all very straightforward. You know what you have to strive for and you know what you have to repent for. Not so for the convert in progress. There are no rules, really.


from an fb ortho conversion group post, although i feel like i re-explain this daily

I just read Judaism and Homosexuality by Chaim Rapoport, and the basic thesis is that “homosexuality is ‘an uneviable position’ and “we just have to show them sympathy in this ‘noble and selfless struggle.’” Basically: “It’s tough, guys. Sorry.”

I spent the last two years of my conversion journey being fine with this–even apologetic–because lots of prohibitions ARE tough. You deal. But reading this book (which is very compassionate, mind you), in which the author lays down other sexual prohibitions–”auto-eroticism” and “willful fantasy” included–made me realize how incredibly cruel this prohibition is. And besides celibacy (COMPLETE celibacy…), they’re denied the very basic tenets that make Judaism what it is–children, family, intimacy, etc. Even for some other mitzvos that don’t make sense or are hard, they’re not actually HARMFUL to people.

When I think about all my lgbt friends and how religion has kicked them around and pathologized them, I’m so exhausted with trying to find halachic loopholes and giving God the “benefit of the doubt.” I’m horrified that rabbis are OK with so many people being denied love and intimacy by a supposedly kind God, and think they can completely ameliorate it with “sympathy.” I’m horrified that while gay people are being harassed, disowned by families, kicked out of houses, and committing suicide, there are still Orthodox rabbis who find it necessary to say things like they’re fine as long as they don’t “parade their sexuality around the shul” or that they “shouldn’t be proud of their sin just like I wouldn’t be proud of eating treif.” And in a way, if halachic decision makers are this insensitive, so too is halachic Judaism.

I felt like I was being drawn to conversion, but at this point I don’t feel like I can or should convert. However, in the space where I’ve been conveniently ignoring all this, I’ve become completely entrenched in Judaism and the Jewish community, and I don’t really know how to proceed. Needless to say, I’m finding it hard to feel connected to religious Judaism much these days, and not to be melodramatic but it’s kind of hard to trust God anymore when you feel like you’ve just changed around your whole life for him to just back out on you. And that’s no relationship.

Like, it’s not even about being accepted by the community. I’m sure I could find a space where I’d be “accepted”–whatever that even means–even an orthodox space. I just can’t believe that “despite it all, God still likes gay people and wants them to succeed” when all evidence, including halacha, including the entire way Judaism is set up, is to the contrary. Either God is terrible and came up with this, in which case I want nothing to do with him, or he’s just like “woops, didn’t see all this coming!” in which case, what makes anything else in the Torah compelling?

Anyway, I’ve just been thinking about this a lot lately. Hope I didn’t bring you down too much.

Like · · Unfollow Post · August 26 at 10:07pm

PS if you reblog this with my name attached, i’ll shank you. actually i’ll probably just rick roll you

Wherein I consider something someone said.

I take 1 1 1 cause you left me and 
2 2 2 for my family and 
3 3 3 for my heartache and 
4 4 4 for my headaches and 
5 5 5 for my lonely and 
6 6 6 for my sorrow and 
7 7 for no tomorrow and
8 8 I forget what 8 was for and 
9 9 9 for a lost god and
10 10 10 10 for everything everything everything everything
Violent Femmes “Kiss Off”

So, Drisha had this chaburot thing where different people gave talks on stuff, and I just followed a group of people into a room, which happened to be housing the topic of Loving God With All Your Heart and All Your Soul or whatever, which I’m not especially into lately. I’m actually surprised–maybe I shouldn’t be–how easy it is to forget about God when you decide he’s not paying attention to you anymore. I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of days, and I wasn’t really paying attention during the chabura but suddenly she said something that related to my life. She said “You can’t just start ignoring God after he gives you everything you wanted,” or something like that, and it made me wonder if that’s what I’ve been doing.

I don’t think of it that way, of course. Like, for instance, I got to move to New York and come to Drisha and even stupid little things like I got a good deal on rent and I just got an interview at a coffee shop and Patti Smith is signing books next week in Brooklyn. My life isn’t too bad currently. But I’m not very thankful. Not cause I’m all “OK God, it’s been real but I’m done now,” but really for the more existential reason that I don’t see a pattern. I feel like–and I’m reminded at regular intervals–that it’s going to be really hard to fit into Regular Jewish Life in the way that Converts Are Expected To. The extent to which it will be hard you can determine yourself I guess depending on the degree to which you know me~

But anyway, it’s like I’m getting all these things just to fail. It’s like when you make a friend who you start becoming BFFs with and you spend all your time with them and then they turn out to be maniacs and just start dragging you down with them before you even saw it coming. How are you going to be thankful when you know that’s what’s about to happen?

I can’t relate to all the stuff we’ve been reading lately about the rabbis who will go through all obstacles cause they believe so strongly in olam haba or how you have to “love God as you love your wife” and I just don’t get it. I mean, maybe before I didn’t REALLY get it, but I could imagine it and I could get into it. But now I can’t even listen to stuff like chaburot about Loving God With All Your Heart, cause it’s going over my head lately. I’m not connecting to it. Instead, I ask: “Why? And how? How are you supposed to feel strongly about this distant and seemingly flaky if not downright inactive God?”

Moreover, I don’t see how it’s possible. According to all this mussar, you should just get all your joys from Torah and mitzvos. I did, and it was very nice, but that was when I think I was living under a delusion that I could fundamentally change because of Torah. But it’s not happening. And now it seems like Torah and mitzvos are just secondary, if not getting in the way altogether. And it seems like I, in turn, am outside the radar of Torah. Like it wasn’t meant for me. Like it’s meant for straight married people, preferably in their 30′s. I’m, like, not its target audience. Why try? Even trying to make it even seem like I could be its target audience seems arbitrary.

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?


A Patrilineal Conversion Candidate

“You were *meant* to be here!!”

I sometimes do things like read The Jewish Catalog and come away feeling like I should have been made a man living in 70′s Boston. Alas, that is not the case. And I think about this often. Everything would have fit into place! This happens a lot. If not that, I’m depressed that I had the “wrong Jewish parent,” or that we were raised with lukewarm religion since my parents never actually picked one, or I’m depressed that I’m tone-deaf, or that I don’t have European dual citizenship, or that I don’t know my family tree, or that I’m not living in 1978, which is a golden era for music as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve been doing this since I was, like, ten, when I once printed out a list of dental labs in New York so that my mom could find a job there and we could move back north and out of Virginia. I was always a go-getter. Maybe that’s why I can’t keep a job, either. But unlike then, when I felt free to go with these whims wherever and whenever, now I have people saying unprecedented stuff like “Maybe you were meant to be here!” Whoa. I can handle arguments like “You should stay here because it would cost too much to leave,” or “It would have sucked living in 1978 because the chances of you not being stuck in the south are still slim, and also if you lived in 1978 you’d be old by now.” Or worse, “You’re getting too old to have these whims.” But you can’t very well disagree with this idea that “Maybe you were meant to such-and-such,” because who can argue?

When I was an atheist, oh gawd, it was so easy. No one said stuff like “Maybe you were meant to be born a woman even though it totally sucks and TMI I don’t understand these ladies who are like ‘omg I’m so glad it’s my time of the month again, it’s a sign I’m not pregnant b”h I’m so thankful for this day’.” It just was. You didn’t have to worry about whether those jerks who think “Women shouldn’t wear menswear” means anything other than “Women shouldn’t carry guns” or worry about jerks who think women shouldn’t carry guns. You knew they were jerks and you knew you were right. And anyway, what did it matter?

It’s probably worse for Christians who think they’re going down if they do something wrong or whatever, but in any case it really inhibits your sense of carefree lightheartedness about life and your actions. It’s a lot harder to just straight up transfer when you think that maybe you ought to stay here for WHATEVER FREAK REASON. When I was an atheist, there were no reasons. I’d move. The only worry would be whether it would look really bad to have gone to four schools, and well if I was an atheist I’d probably still be trying to go to grad school for philosophy, so I might have gone to UVA actually.

Of course there’s always the possibility that what you think you’re “meant to be doing” is actually the safest thing. It would be stupid to transfer (get European dual citizenship, get a sex change, get music training and become a famous musician, convert to Orthodox Judaism, etc.) It also doesn’t make very much sense to think that I was “meant” to have the wrong Jewish parent and live in Nowhereville and go to a school with a self-destructive Hillel and be a radical feminist and still be “meant” to convert to Orthodoxy. Like, WTF. What a sick joke. I really don’t know what I’m “meant to do” or what it’s “supposed to mean,” and I also think that trying to figure it out is kind of naught. Cause you can’t, really.  Well, according to The Jewish Catalog you can. But I’ve been here for a year so far, and I don’t know of anything that happened to me that made me think it wouldn’t have been just as well had Stern College accepted me instead. I mean, I’m getting a full scholarship, and that’s good…but… “meant to”? Similarly, I don’t really see what’s so great about being a woman or living in 2012. I mean, there are some good things I guess, but I would have probably found equally good things in a different situation.

I still think to what my friend said about all that I have. I do have many things. But I am restless. It’s never enough. I don’t like people telling me to “Let go and let God.” How much of that, seriously, is just you “really thinking you should do this thing!!!” or other people telling you they “really know about this subject and really think you should be doing this thing!!!!”

You just don’t know. So F that.

Sounds nice, though.

EDIT: It can backfire, too, by the way. Like, I could be like “Oh, it’s raining today and I can’t go to the minimally-advertised Roommate Fair so I probably can’t live on campus. Guess it’s a sign that I should transfer.” Or, “OK, if I don’t make one more friend during this last semester, it will be a sign that I have nothing good left for me here and it’s a sign I should transfer.” It’s a sign. It’s a sign. Yeah, sure. “Having come to W&M and being given a free scholarship was a sign I should run away with the money.”

Folk v. Elite, Recon, and the Training of American Rabbis

Here is some light reading I wrote for my independent study, based on “The Religion of American Jews” and “The Training of American Rabbis” by Charles S. Liebman, found in Understanding American Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner (1975).

I was unsure of the role of folk and elite religion that Charles Liebman portrayed in this essay on the subject. At first, I thought folk religion was meant to represent a perfectly viable alternative to elite religion, which itself has the sound of an inaccessible and undesirable option. This wouldn’t have made much sense to me, since I tended to effortlessly substitute “folk religion” with “unonservant people” or “secular events” throughout the essay. More accurately, it seems to refer to the customs rather than the laws of a religion. (Or to use a recent example in my life, substituting a Purim play for the megillah reading.) However, my reading seemed compatible with Liebman’s brief definition of folk religion as a “set of errors shared by many people” (29).

I couldn’t help but notice, then, that what may or may not have been intended as a remark on Reconstructionism’s validity seemed as such when combining definitions. Liebman describes it as an “elitist framework of folk religion” (45), which seems hard to disagree with. I think Reconstructionism might be a good case study in a “purely folk” religion in that sense. It might be similar to the first wave of immigrants’ practice of a kind of secular “Yiddishist” Judaism, only with its liturgical context changed immensely and its ideological changes that were necessary to (attempt to) sustain such a folk religion.

I would have liked an elaboration on the concept of the folk religion as a “set of errors,” since it seems to me that legitimization of the customs of a religion as a real alternative to that religion in its entirety is absurd. Such a characterization implies that folk religion comes about due to a kind of mass misinterpretation of the essential elements of a religion (in Liebman’s example, kosher becomes “kosher-style,” a meaningless version of kashrut). He notes that the lack of takeoff from the movement may likely be due to the fact that most Jews would rather “deceive themselves and others about the nature of their faith and commitment” (50), rather than accept an institutionalized form of their nonobservance (which itself says a lot about the validity of Reconstructionism). It makes sense, then, that more Reform than Conservative rabbinical students are interested in Kaplan, since Reform has already abandoned the law (52).

The Reform Hebrew Union College is a good example of this reformulation, in fact. Reform Judaism is referred to as a “way of life” (257) at the school, unlike YU, where Orthodoxy is taken for granted, and JTS, where “academic freedom” serves as ideology (246). It is easy to suggest that Reform is its own religion entirely (259). This is supported by the suggestion that some may envision a Reform Judaism with “entirely new consensual or authoritative symbols” functioning as replacements for the Shulhan Aruch and Talmudic codes (260)!

Meanwhile, JTS experiences its own problems regarding its method of teaching and its curriculum. Its use of textual criticism as a method of teaching Talmud in its rabbinical courses is stunted by the fact that the amount of knowledge it would take to master such a method is more than most graduates attain (248). However, this method is still considered ideal as it reduces ideological divisiveness to focus on philological analysis rather than overall message (247-8). Therefore, rabbinical students are socialized to appreciate institutional survival and the value of scholarship over religious ideology, which is consistent with the character of Conservative Judaism (244). Ironically, more than a superficial amount of knowledge may no longer even be necessary, as the texts will likely only be retained as having a “broad symbolic meaning” to most of the rabbinical student’s future congregants (262). I wonder if JTS itself carries a separate ideology from Conservative rabbis who have been “on the field” for a long time (249).

It was also interesting to me that students were similarly ill-prepared in Orthodox institutions. “Unsystematic and irrelevant” courses at Hebrew Theological College lead students to feel unprepared, and “encourage students to enter the congregational rabbinate” in lieu of functioning as viable halachic authorities (234). Yeshiva University’s rabbinical program also lacks a comprehensive education, with students learning only one part of one section of the Shulhan Aruch (236)! I wonder if this widespread deficiency has the effect of ensuring that rabbis as well as congregants remain subsistent on the current congregational model, as both lack proper education. Perhaps this lack of practical textual study is a remnant of the idea that students learn all they need to know by regarding the world from a “purely secular perspective” (261).

So you want to acculturate, yeah?

“Please don’t become one of those people who think that Jews are the only important people” -my friend after I told her I might want to change my major from Religion to Jewish Studies


About a week ago, we started reading Yiddish short stories in our History of Jewish Thought class. I was definitely sulking in my chair for a good part of it, because, well, what connection do I have with Yiddish short stories? Those people lived in the 1800′s and what’s it to me? And why can’t we read stories about more relevant stories about intermarriage and perhaps internal alienation?

my doodles

We started discussing the first story, “White Challah,” which naturally I tried to tune out because I was already irritated that the author dared to title his piece “white challah,” as if there were that many colors of challah. I’d read it. It was about this guy who was a soldier, and whilst he was out on the field at some point, someone gave him an anti-Semitic leaflet—”The Jewish government!”—and he kept it in his pocket as if it were gold. He started to actually act on it, and became irrational; and the story ended with his bursting into a Jewish home and attacking a girl inside. I’d read it, but of course I didn’t really read it, and I skipped parts of it.

So when we discussed it in class, our professor brought up things I hadn’t noticed. He started with the context of the piece. “He’s writing this while experiencing the Russian pogroms,” he explained, writing the word on the board. “Now, this was government-sponsored destruction,” he said coolly, as he’d said the same thing for twenty years, spelling out the word P-O-G-R-O-M on the board.

We read pieces of the story.

Someone handed a leaflet to Vasil, but he did not take it. He drew out of his pocket, with love and respect, a crumpled piece of paper creased at the edges and stained with blood, and showed it — he had it, he remembered it. The man gave Vasil a friendly pat on the back and left with a strange smile on his lips. The Jewish privates had vanished: they had been quietly gathered together and sent away, no one knew where. Everyone felt freer…the alien was no longer in their midst. And then someone launched a new slogan — ‘The Jewish government’.

I knew about anti-Semitism. It’s when people blame Jews for things because they just happen to be there. It’s the reason my mom occasionally warns me about converting. Once some kids spray painted a swastika on our synagogue, but those were just kids. It was all kind of a vague concept; after all, it was something that happened long ago and doesn’t really affect my life; it’s 2011, after all.

Between Kolov and Zhaditsa the starved and crazed legions caught up with large groups of Jews who had been ordered out of border towns, with their women, children, invalids, and bundles. A voice said, ‘Get them!’ The words sounded like the distant boom of a gun. As first Vasil held back, but the loud screams of the women and children and the repulsive, terrified faces of the men with their long earlocks and caftans blowing in the wind drove him to a frenzy, and he cut into the Jews like a maddened bull.

A hand gripped his neck. He turned his head slowly and looked at the Jew for a moment with narrowed eyes and bared teeth. Then he raised his shoulders, bent forward, took the Jew by the ankles lifted him in the air, and smashed him against the table. He flung him down like a broken stick.

“Vasil has primitive emotions,” our professor explained. I started to realize someone actually wrote this; someone who was Jewish and experienced the pogroms. He knew what he was writing.

While the armies crawled over the earth like swarms of gray worms, flocks of ravens soared overhead, and swooped and slanted in intricate spirals, waiting for what would be theirs.

Waiting for what would be theirs. I suddenly found I couldn’t look up from the story.  I stared at it blankly as our professor went on, dispassionately detailing literary devices and word usage. I was thinking too many things. It was becoming overwhelmingly clear to me—I came to this school, and I became a Religion major, simply to find an answer to the question: What does it mean to be Jewish?

I’d been concentrating on what I already knew and what I wanted to consider relevant—Judaism entails religious obligations, I could deal with that, but these people who felt connected to Judaism through tradition or culture were people I just could not understand. I’d been opposed to reading anything about anti-Semitism because I thought it made it seem like Judaism was only about that; like there was nothing good about it. Like it was reactionary and just trying to limp along. I knew it was better than that.

But that day in class, I got so sad. It was similar to the time when, as a teenager, I found out just how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. It was becoming clear—this happened. This was our history. My history. The history of some of those in the class. Our Jewish professor’s history. I wondered if he ever thought about that.

Then I looked up and, abruptly, something shifted. Our professor suddenly seemed like a different person to me. I felt like I understood him so much more and so much less at that moment—after all, he’d had us read what we’d read. And all he said at the end was “it is depressing, isn’t it.” He told us a story once about how his synagogue sent their youth group to the South in the 50′s to help blacks register to vote—and it was considered dangerous for someone to be caught helping their synagogue’s group or housing them. And he told us so objectively. These things happened in every generation—even now—but somehow we always win.

When class was over, I dragged myself to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror, trying to figure out what I was thinking. I didn’t even know. But I knew something strange had just happened to me.

Fittingly, the next section of the class is dedicated to Zionism.

One of these things is not like the others / One of these things doesn’t belong

Crossposted at New Voices

Did you know? Hillel elections are coming up, and as per planned, I’m running. They’re a mess, as far as clubs are concerned. I even talked to our rabbi a few days ago (under the guise of interviewing him for our newspaper), and he confirmed that our Hillel is a “Jewish affinity club” and that I should run etc. It made me feel pretty validated. I called my friend and we came up with a game plan—her idea being to get enough friends to run to corner the market and overturn Hillel leadership and make it great. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger.

But then I started worrying about our current Hillel president and her possible dislike of me. Why? Oh, I know. She hates my tzitzis. I notice these things. Every time we go to a Hillel event, she tends to stare at them like they’re snakes and I’m not really sure if she’s aware of her utter distaste or what, but my friend suggested that possibly she—and other “Hillel Jews,” as I’ve taken to calling them—can’t handle someone who’s both religious and not a crazy Haredi, i.e. it’s outside her sphere of knowledge. To them, you must either be secular or, well, crazy. I did indeed overhear a Hillel member explaining to a non-Jew, “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two separate religions.” Reform, of course, being the normal one…and Orthodox being the unexplainable one, possibly involving witchcraft.

This explanation makes some sense to me, since the culture here is chiefly secular and I might even venture plainly anti-religious—”We can’t do that; that’s too Jewish!”—the same Hillel president who said that “We’re not like the religious groups on campus. We’re a different sort of group.” It doesn’t get plainer than that. Anyone who is “too Jewish” is either Haredi or insane, and in any case just not someone to be reckoned with.

I remember at the beginning of this year I was worried that my appearance would bar me from making friends. I mean you enter a college in the middle of the summer when everyone’s wearing shorty shorts and you’re wearing tzitzis, you start to become aware of things. But anyway, I’m realizing this is probably a longer-lasting struggle than how Hillel feels about tzitzis. The same friend and I went to some fancy restaurant a couple of days ago, and for this scenario just assume the fact that I’m unaccustomed to fanciness in the first place, so I was wearing jeans etc. and gawked at all the people who actually put the napkins on their freaking laps, but anyhow, behold.

I usually say my brachas and stuff and not feel self-conscious, because I don’t really hang out in fancy joints anyway, and I’m not too worried about what tourists in the coffee shop think of me, because they all love W&M students and I feel like we’re part of the scenery naturally anyway. But when you’re in a fancy place you kind of feel like you’re on display. You have to be decorous. You have to wear your napkin right and order right and so on and so forth. And it seems as if anything out of the ordinary should warrant a big spotlight, so yes when you whip out that bentcher the whole world is watching. Same for asher yatzar which I will never stop saying. It’s just not decorous. It’s like, save that stuff for home, you know? Oh, and tuck in your tzitzis because it might hit someone in the eye.

It’s odd, but I can see, even in 2011, how the striving for decorous reform in the 19th century easily led to a patterning of Protestant forms of worship and behavior. Where religion is inward and seemly and, well, no cause for fuss. It’s so easy to be like, “Oh no. Not here. It’s time to be dignified.”

Backfiring: when Judaism collides with isolation

So, this whole “Go to a school in the swamps and get pluralistic because you have no choice” thing is backfiring. Everyone around me seems to be totally on-board with Interfaith Dealings. I know a good many very religious Christians (i.e. Bible quote Facebook status updates), and apparently I know by a variety of degrees some Jews For Jesus as well. Indeed, almost everyone I know is either a Christian who is interested in Judaism, an otherwise serious Christian, a Jew For Jesus, or is converting to Judaism (or otherwise on the fringe of Judaism).

This isn’t good.

Not because dealing with people with beliefs different from yours isn’t good; on the contrary, I applaud the efforts of everyone around me to coalesce and learn from each other. I mean, look at me now. I’m in our school’s interfaith campus club; I’m writing our school paper’s interfaith religion column; I even have a book from the library with the title The Journey Home. I’m trying to get spiritual and accepting. I’m trying to be some person I’ve never been, and I’m wondering if this is an impossible thing.

I’ve found myself pulling away from the Interfaith Cause just because something-I-know-not-what has been watering down my commitment to Judaism, you know? At the end of the day, I don’t think “all religions lead to the same place.” I’ve got to feel good about Judaism. It’s the one I’ve pledged loyalty to. I’m therefore imagining that if I had ended up going to Brandeis or JTS like I’d wanted, I wouldn’t be confronted with the barrage of self-doubt day after day, and I’d have more strength and resolve to approach the trials when they came.

But alas, my leap into the abyss is simply making me rather angry instead. I didn’t want to have to ask myself exactly why I dislike Jews for Jesus. I didn’t want to find out the girl from the synagogue whom I just invited to minyan is actually a Christian but didn’t tell me. I didn’t want to be coined as That Jew who, as a Religion major, must be planted firm in deed and creed. Because on the contrary, I am truly a mess. I can’t handle the barrage.

I thought this would be a good thing, but somehow it’s rather been tearing at my very core. I thought that I’d knock down the pillars of my legalistic mindset, and the fruits of unprecedented kindness and mercy underneath the shell would naturally bloom. But now that I can almost palpably feel the pillars come crashing down—as I skip Shabbat after Shabbat and bracha after bracha—the question whether this will work is becoming ever more immediate. And I’m getting increasingly worried that there’s not going to be any fruits blooming from the rubble.

My practice and my ideologies and my theology are separating. Before, I defined Judaism by its liturgy, and my presence at the synagogue, and my interest in Jewish texts, and the like. But now—whether because it’s become just another part of my life or because it’s become something that my life is trying to actively eject—I’m really not interested anymore. (Worrisome, since I’m a Religion major focusing on Judaism.) I’d rather listen to “Who feels and knows the Lord / Who feels and knows the Lord” by The Wailers than read the Ma’ariv service yet again, with its platitudes set in stone that are so vague that they have no meaning to me unless I invest them with my own, which is entirely difficult unless I’ve just read a good book or something, which itself is rare. And I’d rather listen to it on Shabbat than to sit alone in my silent room on Shabbat. And I’ve come to really dread going to the synagogue, whether at the Reconstructionist one, with its slow singing, guided meditations, and its weird communal tallit blessings; or the Conservative one back home, with its country club donors buying their aliyot, its responsive readings, and its stage directions (“stand, sit, stand, sit”).

Less simple to rationalize, I’m becoming—and I’m embarrassed to admit—bored with some of the mitzvot. I’m finding it less meaningful to do things like light candles and pray in the morning (I’ve been doing it by memory while making breakfast). I like to think it’s because no one in my family ever did such mitzvot, and absolutely no one around me does it, so it only seems appropriate that I too would gradually stop as well. But who do I have to blame? Sometimes I wonder whether I will look back on this time ten years from now and think how hard I tried, but alas how naive I was.

(And it’s even more awkward because it’s not like I’m just going off the derech, rebelling after having been raised observant; I’m going off the derech after having been observant for LESS THAN TWO YEARS.)

But I don’t really know what I want instead. I don’t know what I ought to want. I’m no longer interested in reading books about Judaism—be it history, halacha, Talmud, holidays—nor do I want to read any of the plentiful overtly Jewish graphic novels, most of which seem to be about the Holocaust. I want to do and I don’t have the chance to. Sure, I have the chance to go to the Simhat Torah here at the Recon place, but I don’t want to. Should I? I don’t consider them my community. Should I? I’d rather just stay home. But should I want that? I want Judaism to be compatible with my punk rock and my comics and my rather aggressive “Fight all things” theology—but is it so or am I imposing my own desires upon it?

I’m more interested in now. I want to experiment with my minyan, I want to make Biblical videos, I want to make tallitot, I want to read graphic novels—and not about some family in the Holocaust or some immigrants in tenements; I want to read about someone my age, in my situation. It’s like when you rent movies, and you rent two; one you want to watch, and one education historical documentary you suppose you should watch. I want to live in an observant Jewish community. But it feels as if I ought to be learning from this interfaith, pluralistic “no one here is even remotely like me” experience here at this tiny school filled only with Christians and “cultural Jews.” It feels as if I shouldn’t be resentful about it.

Since I’ve never lived in an observant community, I don’t have much of a baseline—so thusly when I start to drift, like now for instance, I always figure “What would happen if I just…quit?” What would happen? I’m not sure where I’d go. I’ve never had another religion. I could be an atheist again. I find myself teetering on that fence, especially lately (it seems that when you start doubting whether God listens or cares, He’s not exactly quick to reassure you). Ever since my weird little vow on Rosh Hashana to “stop worrying so much about halacha,” it seems that I’ve somehow taken that quite far and I find myself “not worrying about” almost everything. I find myself seriously considering my friend’s advice that birkat hamazon is only meant for special meals, and I find myself using the tired “mincha’s not essential, I guess” argument, and the “eh, this cake is probably kosher;” and meanwhile my textual criticism teacher is finally wearing me down with his “deuteronomists this” and “redactors that.” It’s coming at me from all angles; how can I even stand it?

I’m wondering what it might have been like at Brandeis, with their three different Jewish clubs for three different denominations, complete with their own minyans. I’m wondering what I’ll be like when I get out of this school.


A Manifesto—The longest thing I’ve ever written

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.

The Platform of Laura

God Avoiding the obvious (i.e. not anthropomorphic or a trinity), I’m at a loss. This is the hardest one. I’m going to come back to it.

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.