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.

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

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

So, I came across this picture:

poo

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

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

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

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

DSCF0152

DSCF0154

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s all well and good.

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

Something has to change here.

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

Dear God

“No pearly gates, no thorny crown
You’re always letting us humans down”

I still like Drisha. For the first couple of weeks it really helped my observance, cause everyone else was doing it, it was frum but with it, and it was nice cause even though the teachers were all JEDP theory we were all Torah miSinai, and we discussed this occasionally with the teachers, as a matter of fact. It became like a thing. But we respected each other. It was all going very well. But then I started happening. And I started coming to the surface. And everyone there thinks I’m incredibly interesting, “you’re like a frum hipster” one person said, but it’s just cause everyone else went to seminary and Israel and I’m just a poor kid from public school. I like being the diversity and everything, but it’s just underscoring what I’ve always suspected, which is no matter what will I ever really fit in? Everyone at Drisha is so fantastic, but even at Drisha is there a Great Divide. At a certain point, there’s them and there’s me. And that’s what I think. I will never have had a nice upper-middle class Modern Orthodox upbringing, I will never have a nuclear family, I will never have a heimishe extended family, I will never have “that hasidic cousin,” I will never have gone to seminary or yeshiva or camp. I’ll never have those experiences. And that’s what it will be, no matter what I do to try to change myself nowthere will always be then. The Baggage.

So when someone casually says “I just don’t get homosexuality” or “who are Violent Femmes?” I am reminded of this. And every time a teacher at Drisha says something like “I know you were raised to believe that minhagim are also from Sinai” and everyone can relate but me cause I was raised to believe that Judaism was Hanukkah. Not that I don’t appreciate being in different situations. Believe me, I never heard “I just don’t get homosexuality” throughout my whole life. Even in the Bible belt south, I guess that kind of talk was reserved for the Baptist youth groups I was never in. And it’s interesting and everything, sociologically speaking, but I hate that I feel like if I don’t become the type of person who comes out of a upper-middle class Modern Orthodox upbringing, I can’t really be Jewish, not really. And, as I said, I can do whatever I want. I can have ten children. I can stop wearing colors. I can only listen to soft folk and Israeli music. Nothing will matter. I’ll never be that person.

And so hence my last post, a lot of what Judaism “is,” (i.e. what’s not in conversion books, but what just is) is totally out of my scope, for better or worse. Like, for instance, I wanted to deal with my teenage boy hormones, so I did what any good citizen would do and decided to read half the tehillim to knock it out of me. Short of rolling in the snow if you know what I mean. But what are most of the tehillim about? The “enemies speaking of war” and “Hashem will support your burdens.” I’m sure Hashem will support your burdens…if you’re the right kind of person. I tried to imagine being, like, one of my neighbors or something who probably has an easier time believing Hashem will support their burdens, cause their burdens are supportable and not actually condemned by Hashem himself, if you know what I mean. I feel like he wants nothing to do with this. Not sure why, hm, though I can suspect.

And I don’t know who the “enemies” are supposed to be, contemporaneously speaking.

And so, pretty much, what Judaism “is” is that if you’re having trouble you’re supposed to be able to relate to tehillim, but I get my stuff elsewhere. (And that elsewhere is called my post-punk and grunge 90′s music.)

But I try it out anyway. And so I go to the index to see if any of the subjects can relate to me: “On the day of marriage.” No. “At the time of bris milah.” No. “For one’s sons’ success in learning Torah.” No. “Upon giving birth.” No. “For recovery from illness.” No. “When the land of Israel is in danger.” “To have children.” “For success.” “At a cemetery.” These are direct quotes from the ArtScroll Interlinear Tehillim, by the way. I just…I don’t know. Where’s the one for “I’m surrounded by thirty girls all day long and I feel like a boy in the girls’ locker room”? I can’t decide between “For teshuvah” and “An intimate plea for God’s guidance.” Neither seems like an entirely appropriate choice. If I picked the teshuvah one it’d be like rolling in the snow and frankly at this point I don’t really think that’s going to help.

But I also feel like “God’s guidance” is another terrible option. God seems to kinda back out when you’re too “different,” for whatever reason, so I’m also backing out. “God’s guidance” only works when you’re both already bros. Religion doesn’t really seem to want me right now. Behold: I’m immature and irresponsible and play guitar during the nine days. And so it goes.

This isn’t about Judaism. No other religion would do me any more good. This happened in high school. Now I remember why I wasn’t religious. But at this point I have nowhere else to go. Whoops. What I’m doing is what I’ve always done instead, listening to my “sad.txt” playlist which I made specifically for boy in the girls’ locker room circumstances, and when you feel this bad, when it’s between mourning for the Temple and trying to comfort yourself about the fact that you can’t tell anyone about the girl you like, even her, even God, who’s supposed to be there for you, well I generally pick the latter.

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?

Sincerely,

A Patrilineal Conversion Candidate

God is (Like) a Socialist

I try to get nearer, 
But as it gets clearer 
There’s something appears in the way, 
It’s a plank in me eye

-Kate Bush, “Suspended in Gaffa”

I’m still thinking about the whole “You’re here for a reason!” concept. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I was rejected from Stern and JTS and came here to W&M instead. Of course, it was nowhere near my first choice, but to appease myself, I and others said “Maybe there’s a reason you’re going to W&M!” (Worse: “Maybe the reason is that you need to learn a lesson to be patient!”) And this rhetoric started to get to me. I tried to figure out what it was. And I really started convincing myself that it was because I had to come in and save W&M’s Jewish students from a certain destruction!

Indeed, I wrote about this a lot more than I thought I did:

When someone asks why I won’t eat that pastry or that slab of meat, I tell them it’s because it’s not kosher…not that I ate earlier or that I don’t like that style of meat or whatever. I like to assume doing this “honesty” thing has the added benefit of making people think about how if I can do it, they can do it—all in a nonintrusive way—but maybe it’s backfiring. [April 17, 2011]

I hope I came to this school for a reason.  I don’t yet know what that might be.  I’d like to think that I’ll bring the Joy of Observance to these people, but somehow I doubt that anyone will be receptive to my archaic and outdated ways.  I guess I’ll have to take on the rhetoric of Modern Orthodox kiruv experts; that doing mitzvot is a good and pragmatically useful “choice.”  Fine; I’m up for that.  I think I have to be. [Sept. 11, 2011]

Wow, my first experience trying to engage Jews who vehemently don’t want my engagement – probably the first of many. I mean, look at me, I’m ready to alienate our only Hillel, to invite pro-Israel speakers onto our anti-Israel campus, to waste any favor I might have had with Hillel by running around with my radical ideas, or even doing my own events entirely outside of Hillel. It’s because we have 200 Jews and only ten of them are doing anything about it. I can’t stand it. I would do anything. Hillel is bored, jaded and doesn’t care that they don’t care. I may need to overthrow it. [Sept. 25, 2011]

It’s admirable. I’m not saying it’s not admirable. But I think I overestimated myself. I think a lot of people probably would like to change their environment for the better by “living by example” or helping others and things like that…but you’re not supposed to think about it. You’re not supposed to come into a place thinking from the get-go that you’re going to lift them out of spiritual desolation. That’s weird.

It’s a good thing I failed at that goal because it was a bad goal. What kind of 20-year-old is “meant” to save a dying community, like in a movie? But that’s the best thing I could think of at the time. But really, I had it all wrong! Who says my “purpose” here wasn’t to save $3500 so I could move to New York? Cause that’s what ended up happening instead. Moreover, I have to admit that at some point being here, at the very least, I realized I absolutely couldn’t stay here, and I think that should count for something, cause it was a pretty painful lesson as it was. It wasn’t something you can learn just like that, and then check it off your list when you’re done. I knew coming in that it would suck, but I thought I could do it anyway, and now I know that it’s living a lie.

Or maybe I didn’t learn all that. After all, I was ready to stay until I heard the school in New York accepted me last month, and I was still waffling even just two weeks ago. The point is, no matter what you think you’re doing you’re probably doing something entirely different. So it’s no use trying to think of the “reason” you’re doing anything. Cause you’re probably wrong.

I don’t know if the “you’re here for a  reason” idea is the consequence or the reason, but it all seems so fatalistic. “Socialist” was what I called it in my mind at about 3 AM while I was trying to go to sleep. When I was a tot, I thought that socialism was basically sort of like 1984 where the government would assess your strengths for you and then tell you what your career would be, and you just did that. I guess socialism is kind of fatalistic. You’re given what you need, right, everything is paid for you, and in turn you are compliant and let it happen. In the religious sense, you can be sure that everyone is equal and has an equally important role in life, but the downside is that if you happen to think your role isn’t working out, you can’t really work your way out of it, cause there are untouchable forces at work, and they know what’s best for you and everyone…and who are you?

Like sometimes I wonder how I got myself into this, like it’s so insane. In the past three years, I went from being an atheist theater major in art school who wanted to be a playwright and mixed media performance artist, to a Jewish studies major who just passionately argued with someone about whether Christianity is idolatry. I feel like that theater major in me is still there, of course it is, but I imagine the community I’m about to join, and I wonder: Why me? How did I get here? How did this become my thing I “need to do”? Surely, a reasonable projection coming out of where I was when I was eighteen would never include converting to Orthodox Judaism (not to mention actually believing in it! I would have died).

And I know I can’t do anything about it.

And yet, I suppose it’s rather exhilarating to watch yourself going down a road you would have never, never imagined for yourself. Let’s just say that this is “what God wants,” hypothetically. Nothing I do will be able to change it. I can think I’ll never fit in all I want, but for some reason I know I have to keep going. It’s like watching yourself from above at times, although you are entirely in control of your actions, you can’t help but wonder where you got all the momentum. I suppose that could be freeing in a sense.

And yet, remember the downside? If you’re not the one guiding yourself into this role or “purpose,” you don’t really know at any given moment what you’re supposed to be doing, or what’s supposed to come next. So you turn to the unknown forces. And you plead with God. But he doesn’t answer because there’s nothing you can really do here, he knows what he’s doing for you, and therefore you don’t have to, and you’re at once both lost and not lost, but to your everyday life all you’re seeing is that you don’t know where to go next. And that’s a little frightening, I think.

So I don’t think I was “meant to come to W&M” for some lofty purpose anymore. And while I still don’t really know whether this totally random year of my life had any “purpose” to it, I also know that I can never really know. But everyone can’t help but wonder. And it’s just such a bizarre feeling to think that you are on a path but have no idea how to follow it. It’s like you’re blindly following someone through the jungle; someone who refuses to talk to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is Another Way

Last summer, I wrote this innocent post on how I felt about people who were 1.) Brazenly breaking halacha with reckless abandon, and 2.) Converting with no intention to ever keep the mitzvot.

Then I came to my little pop. 6,000 school and witnessed this in the flesh, an entire community, indifferent, blasé. Then as our Hillel leadership turned over for the year, word got out that some people on campus really were interested in more religious programming. Some people weren’t happy with Hillel having come to be synonymous with Laser Tag and free pancakes. And I regained hope. The new Religious Affairs director began starting out Hillel Shabbat dinners with “the blessings,” which is a small but mighty beginning.  They also let the Orthodox rabbi back on campus, who brought an online college-based Aish program with him, and online I can see that a lot of the participants in that program are AEPi party central guys. (Next week’s program is supposed to be “Who ~really~ wrote the Torah?!” They are truly ambitious.)

Meanwhile, this past year I’ve been trying to understand my fellow students. I never tried to understand those Reform Adult B’nai Mitzvah convert people last summer. I was surprised by how laid-back I was in my post last summer, maybe cause the situation wasn’t really close to me, and anyway I figured “oh, they’re all old, let them have their fun/religious fulfillment.” But this is different; it’s my school and people my age and people who are really–just like me, actually–on the cusp of being able to go either way, depending on the circumstances. When I first came here, I was pretty observant. Then I stopped and had a couple of months of introspection. I started to see how easily anyone could get by being unobservant.

And then a couple of days ago I got a flashback of being at the Student Activities Fair when I first started art school in Chicago. Seventeen. I’d moved to the city to be a musician and perhaps a theater major. My identity was bound up with being an atheist. My only goals were to make “cool” (in Chicago this means hipster) friends and get inspired to write some great songs. My heroes included such towering figures as Lou Reed and Man Ray. So when a friend and I wandered past the Hillel table, I glanced. I’ll admit I glanced. I just remember not wanting to be seen being interested in the Hillel table. I didn’t even stop to see if there were free things. Religion, especially Judaism, was entirely embarrassing. When someone asked me in high school if I was Jewish (“you look Jewish”), I said “my dad is.” It was just not a very interesting topic. (It’s like in middle school when I was too embarrassed to let people know I was part Russian or Lithuanian.)

So when I think back to that, I can understand how a lot of people are probably approaching our Hillel and our programming. Most of those kids are probably Seventeen Laura, not Twenty-One Laura. And even the ones who are interested in the religion part are not nearly at the level of Twenty-One Laura, who concurrently reads Sefer HaChinuch, Rashi, and a book called “Guide to Halachos Volumes One and Two.” When I was seventeen, I didn’t want to hear about God or covenants or prayer. (I was too enlightened for that. I enjoyed such things as making fun of Leviticus, reading Nietzsche, and liking the Documentary Hypothesis.) I would have liked to hear about how Judaism was different from Christianity, how hella punk it was when you think about it, or how and why it could be a real alternative to the other worldviews I was considering at the time, including such classics as Buddhism and Existentialism.

I think I would have been open to the details once I was into the general idea (actually, I think that’s how I started getting into it when I was nineteen), once I decided it was a good idea. All I really wanted was a real, stable lifestyle. I would have been prepared to do the same for Buddhism or Existentialism. I mean really, my first semester in art school I started considering theatre and playwriting a sort of lifestyle. I wanted something I could give to, you know? I think people are looking for that, even if they can’t put it into words. Everyone’s looking for something, and they don’t think they can find it in Judaism, and when you aren’t or fear calling yourself religious it’s just impenetrable, and so they don’t try.

And so when you present Judaism as a bunch of rules, particularly if you present them as an optional array whose sole purpose is to make mankind ethical and/or happy, it doesn’t look like a stable lifestyle for someone like Seventeen Laura. I wanted to pick one thing; I didn’t want to think “oh, lighting candles, that is so spiritual, bringing in metaphorical light to my household.” I was more ready to think “Judaism doesn’t make me believe in a person who is a god, it doesn’t make me love my enemy, it stands up to enemies, and those boring stories about the desert somehow have merited layers of commentary–why is that?” I would only think halacha was important after I decided the whole thing was worth doing.

***

There’s a way Judaism can make sense without seeing it from the traditional viewpoint. You can find something in Judaism without being interested in the traditional commentaries, the more intricate laws of kashrut, or Hebrew; and without worrying about the stranger things like brachos over rainbows and chalitzah and hagalah and aggadah.

But embracing all those things, especially the strange parts, all of it, is an entirely different experience. It’s definitely different to read the taryag mitzvos and being interested in how “beis hamikdash mitzvos” were re-interpreted to be applicable today, than it is to read those same mitzvos and say “look at all these inapplicable mitzvos, look at all these unimportant, disposable bits.” I’ve done it both ways, and although I still liked Judaism when I looked at it from our modern haskalah perspective, it was nothing compared to what it’s like when you take the whole thing as one indivisible concept. When you go from one to the other, your whole mind shifts. It’s quite frightening.

So I can’t be bitter about the people I’ve known who don’t believe in all of it. How can you demand belief?  I feel sort of bad for them because they don’t know what’s out there, whether because they intellectually can’t make a leap or because where they are in life (or even fear) prohibits it. After all, those people in the Reform B’nai Mitzvah class I wrote about last summer were just following what they believed Judaism was. And moreover, when I was nineteen, seeing the story of Noah as “two separate sources, one priestly source” was the only way I could read it with integrity at the time. At the time, I was just glad I’d found a way I could read it.

I was talking to one of my non-Ortho friends the other day, and she said she was jealous of me because it’d be so much easier if she could just accept Orthodox belief. Instead, she finds she has to question every piece of halacha and the authorship of Torah. I used to think it must be really easy to be non-Orthodox, but I can see what she means. I have the original text message I sent to her; I kept it because I thought it captured my sentiment pretty well:

“I can imagine [our rabbi] saying how unreasonable it is to believe in sinai. But like if you’re reading torah with the mindset that’s how God actually wants you to live etc. that is so fucking amazing it makes up for the inconvenience of being ortho.”

Then we read Ex. 28:17 in Torah study class, reading about the four stones on the ephod, and some commentator (it was Etz Chaim, so it was probably Hertz or something) said the four stones correspond to four types of Jews: the ones in the swamp of despair, the ones who are kind and do good things but don’t really have a great divine relationship, then the ones who do have a pretty good relationship, then finally the ones who are so in touch with God it’s like how can they even leave their house. And then it said at some point everyone is at one of these stations in life, and everyone will leave that point, and for everyone else it is equally so.

I know personally I’ve been in the swamp of despair, when I thought it wasn’t worth it anymore, and I’ve been on top too, when it seemed like I just always did everything right and God was throwing unicorn dust on me 24/7. But I realized that you never know when you’ll be back down or up again; so how can you judge others there? Or those who are still in Plato’s cave and haven’t realized there is much more beyond Hertz and Plaut commentaries? You’ve been them. I mean, I know enough to get out of the cave but I wouldn’t even consider myself out in the sunlight yet.

That was right before spring break. Then I started learning Torah myself (to be specific I’m starting with taryag mitzvos), and it was like a lifeboat. I decided that if I could finally get it just from the four stones on the ephod, maybe I should keep looking in the same place for answers. It will save you from drowning in the world of relativism and wondering what makes someone a ‘good person.’

You don’t have to rely on a syncretic amalgamation of secular ethics, Christian ethics, received platitudes, and a bit of Jewish tradition as well. There is another way. And, I think, if you stop at the surface conception of Torah (i.e. “lashon hara is just another word for gossip; it’s no more detailed that that”), it’s like you’re going to be stuck in between dreaming and awake forever. You’ve only gone halfway. Layer after layer, wall after wall. There is always more, there is always more after.

“Can’t you show me nothing but surrender”

My life. This school. My life. Did you guys know that I’m really kind of neurotic? Maybe I should say reactionary. I mean, I know I’m 21, but all the other kids here seem like they really have their, um, briefcases together. I’m skippin’ classes. I’m skippin’ homework. I threaten to transfer every time something happens that I don’t like, such as daily asthma attacks (this town is in a swamp) or grade deflation (they say this is a “suicide school”…kinda true). But that’s cool. Cause I don’t even know what I want in my life. Now I don’t really know what to concentrate on anymore. And I don’t even have a master plan or anything so I can never be like “Oh well, thus-and-so didn’t work out, but that’s OK, cause I’ll always have __________!”

The rabbi was talking about this the other day, about how you should have something that has meaning that’s not contingent on other stuff, and since he was in a school setting obviously he didn’t explicitly say what that was, but I have to admit something. I don’t see the use in finding “meaning” in “God” or “transcendent morals” or what have you, because you can believe that, but then what? You still don’t have an actual goal in life. I’d be much easier to “believe” in math, for instance, then you’d really have it made, you could plan to be a math teacher and those are totally in demand so hey wow! your future is now bright. Not so with “God” or “Jewish Studies major.”

But believing that “this is all for a purpose/reason/the Good” isn’t very helpful at all, because then you’re just like a pawn in a scheme you never signed up for. And then you have no control over your life. All the actual pragmatic things in my life are shattering.

I should transfer to UVA. Surely that will solve my problems.

I’d still want to transfer to Brooklyn College if they didn’t LOSE ALL MY DOCUMENTS ALREADY. Like, you hear about it but you think it won’t happen to you. It’s not even about being in an Orthodox community right now so much as getting away from the asthma and grade deflation and small school-ness, that’s all. Even though the Jewish communities would be bigger both at UVA and CUNY, I happen to know that I am too neurotic to actually end up not hating all of those people. I just know. I mean, cause, frankly I really, really…dislike…our Hillel and our AEPi and everyone in them. What if the Jewish community at this hypothetical school isn’t my scene either? Then I’ll be all alone and bitter again.

I need a cat.

See, this is why it’s good I’m not trying to actually transfer for the “community.”

Matisyahu strikes again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washed up: a livejournal post marks an era

Here is a sassier post from when I used to write on livejournal. Don’t get too excited; my livejournal experiences lasted all of two months. You’ve heard all this before, but I thought some might enjoy what happens when I have an audience of two.

===

[private post]washed up

November 9th, 16:49
Current Mood:
distressed distressed
Current Music:
skeletal lamping

I have entirely set myself up for this.

Know that I’m eating ice cream and if we had a TV I’d be watching Lifetime too.I know I’ve said this before, someplace, but have you ever suddenly realized that there’s absolutely no way out? Really, how many avenues have I tried? I just got done looking at Zipcar’s website to see if I could live in the city and drive here occasionally, but it’s only for occasional driving (as in, it’s like $100 per day but $8 per hour). I briefly considered just driving to the city on the weekends so I could convert already (they want that Orthodox community etc.) but then I realized I have no place to stay. I could stay at a hotel or something, but that would be defeating the purpose and anyway that’s just not a stable life.

Also, I’ve already tried Amtrak, Greyhound, and Megabus, and I’m about to give up right now. “Just be patient,” you say. “Just be glad with where you are now! After all, you might even be here for a REASON!” Let me briefly destroy your illusion. I live in Wburg, OK. Behold, there is no observant community here, right. I’m not going to be converting here. So, I wanted to go to Pardes in Jerushalayim for a year and maybe convert with the israeli rabbinate because they are kinder to patrilineal people. But then I learned I’d have to “prove it,” which I can’t. Of course. So that’s another year I won’t be able to convert (if I did try it in israel I am told it will be three highly painful years). Then I was going to come back to NYC for either JTS or Hadar, and I pretty much know for a fact no Orthodox rabbi will convert me if I’m at JTS, let alone and RCA rabbi. (Anyway, I can’t apply to the rabbinical program until I convert. I just want to be a halachic advisor.) So that’s at least four years; however it will probably be about five or six, since apparently three-year conversions are popular these days. Yeah, so I’ll be about 26 when I can even think about converting. That means I can’t really do anything until I’m 26…(because everything I want to do involves living in a Jewish community and NOT this one).

Now you’re wondering why I “don’t just convert Conservative; you don’t really believe all the Orthodox crap, do you?!” Don’t even start.

I’m getting burnt out on “waiting” and “being patient” and “just doing what I can” and “making it work.” My mitzvot aren’t counting, man, and that wears me out. I’m washed up.

How long? How long must we wait?

I live with my straight Christian roommates and stay home for Shabbat and I’m shrivelling and I will never go back to our hippie synagogue and worse I’m getting really tired of what our rabbi has to say about Judaism. “I believe in the Documentary Hypothesis.” “No one here really believes in halacha.” He’s very slick about his criticisms of Orthodoxy—”Judaism is about CHANGE!” as if Orthodoxy, all of it, is a fossil. His synagogue’s not so hot either, man, I don’t know what he’s thinking. You want to see a fossil, just look at the old people placidly tapping out Ps. 150, after the rabbi insists that it’s to be sung with “ruach” but it’s not because no one has any idea what they’re doing there.

And I’m tired of the apologetics for it.
And I’m tired of having to bear the burden of proof for why I find it important to live in an observant community.

“Judaism is about DIFFERENCES!” Look, I accept your differences but not doing halacha and taking things out of the siddur and talking throughout the service like you’re at a freaking family reunion and getting rid of mitzvot that “don’t speak to you” are not one of those differences I accept. That’s not Judaism; it’s pick and choose “spirituality.” And no one agrees with me.

I must get out
I must get out

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.

If.

I don’t know what Yom Kippur is but it’s sure something

So, right before Yom Kippur, just as I predicted, I felt a sudden wave of fear and terror, and I felt the need to cancel the carpool that I was supposed to get to the Conservative shul for Kol Nidrei. I wasn’t even going to fast until it started getting to be crunch time and I thought “F this I’m going for it” and chugged a bunch of water and hoped for the best. I think that water was elixir because as soon as I chugged it I knew that somehow/some way I would have some sort of useful experience on this new, strange, and frightening day.

I have a hard time mixing days, so I decided that Yom Kippur overrules Shabbat (which it does) and thusly my current practice of doing stuff on yom tov means that using the computer on yom tov beats not using it on Shabbat, so I stayed up until like 1:00 AM reading cracked.com articles (I’m warning you, if you click that link you will never get out). But all in all, I was feeling pretty good, you know? I was just planning to wait it out, that’s generally how I solve problems.

But alas, I woke up in the morning and things went downhill. A friend’s comment still reverberated in my mind (I’m thinking this is floating around the internet by now): “Either accept fate as a reform whose lineage will die out with her and organize a reform minyan, or convert first and organize a traditional minyan.” Harsh! 2 da core!

We’re kind of having a “we’re converting together” type of thing going, but we diverge in certain areas. She’s quite traditional. So I’m the one who’s trying to organize a minyan, and she’s the one who once told me the Conservative movement isn’t hierarchical enough. But anyway, this was upsetting me, so I lay in bed for two hours wondering whether I should just convert to Catholicism etc. and whether I could ever handle this freak holiday cycle of jamming thirteen holidays into four weeks. So I was lying crumpled on my bed pretty much positive that my world had come to an end because obviously I wasn’t in shul and that meant I couldn’t even be forgiven on this day of forgiveness. Moreover, I wasn’t even sure if Yom Kippur was really the day of forgiveness or if Rosh Hashana was, or when I was being inscribed in the Book of Life, and I don’t even know what that means but whatever it is I don’t like it. So I was super down, and I had pretty much convinced myself that God hated me (which I do a lot), which made me feel like a nagging woman (“You don’t love me!!”), which made me wonder whether nagging women were social constructs or whether God hates naggers, and that was approximately when my brain exploded.

Then I decided to have some light reading, so I picked up where I left off in Who Needs God by Harold Kushner, a good book, and lo and behold I totally turned to exactly the page that was the most relevant:

But redemption from the burden of sin and guilt is only one of the things God does for us which we cannot do for ourselves. What about those of us who don’t feel perpetually guilty, who have never struck a pedestrian while driving drunk, who have never ruined our health or betrayed our marriages? Where do we need God?

[...] There will be times in our lives when we need help, because we won’t be able to do for ourselves what we desperately need done. When we are financially bankrupt, we cannot lend ourselves the money to solve our problems; we need help from beyond ourselves. In the same way, when we feel guilty and inadequate, we cannot forgive ourselves. Forgiveness has to come from a higher source.

Well, needless to say this was rather pertinent at a time when I was getting really worked up about how we could dare to just assume that this day will bring instant forgiveness just because it’s a day. But it planted a seed in my mind—perhaps it’s not the passage of the day that leaves us randomly forgiven; perhaps this day is a (super intense) reminder that God is on your team. Somehow that made me feel better, even though my problems ran the gamut from being upset about my unfortunate lineage to being upset about how I can’t get into these holidays that are supposedly so life-changing and junk. But anyway, that is a simple but good reminder, especially given that I tend to think that when I give up on my hopeless case, I figure that God has too.

(I don’t know if you know this but when you’re an atheist only YOU hate you, but when you get to be religious a scary thing happens in that you just naturally transfer that feeling and just assume that a freaking ETERNAL JUDGE ALSO HATES YOU)

I didn’t go to shul for Saturday, so I don’t know what the machzor looks like, but let me just tell you why I didn’t end up going, and that’s because of my crushing fear and stress of not “feeling the right thing,” and that I figured I ought to figure myself out (“It’s between you and God” a friend told me) and not worry about doing what I “ought” to be doing. I figured my sensitive soul would be better off not pressing theological ideas into it and just letting it come of its own accord. I knew it would, eventually, even if I stayed at home.

That’s not to say, of course, that I didn’t feel totally guilty about it. And before I read that part in the book and formulated that little theory, I was pretty much certain that I—and I alone—wasn’t going to be forgiven on this day of forgiveness, because I wasn’t in shul. I know that’s ridiculous, but once the cycle starts man it can really go places.

I figured something else out, too:

When I meet someone who is totally committed to the idea that his way is the right way and that all who differ from him are wrong, a person who cannot even contemplate that one of his ideas might be mistaken…I suspect that if I scratched far enough below the surface of that person, I would find a vein of fear. I suspect that fear, not faith, not love of God or love of life, is that person’s animating emotion—the fear that what he has based his life on may not be true.

When you need to believe in something, and part of you suspects that it might not be true, you work very hard to quiet that inner voice of doubt, and you can find it very upsetting when someone says out loud what you are trying so hard not to hear. That is why religious disagreements about apparently minor matters can become so intense and bitter.

I mean, I knew I’ve been missing the point, but Harold Kushner—good book, by the way—put it so succinctly. That fearful sardonic person is me! I didn’t think about it at the time, but I’m starting to realize the reason I’ve been so worried about lighting candles on time and hating our hippie synagogue is because I’m utterly afraid that if I don’t do it right I can’t be Jewish (and my “your lineage will die with you” friend isn’t helping), and therefore no one else is allowed to do different things, either. It came to a point where I became that grumbly old man in the corner who hates any song that he doesn’t recognize, just because he doesn’t recognize it.

I’ll always have to confront the problem of dealing with my views of halacha with other people’s practice, but I certainly think it’s a good step to stop doing what I do out of fear. I didn’t really realize I was doing this. I had to be reminded that God likes us and wants to forgive us even when we don’t like or can forgive ourselves. From Harold Kushner. Which to me is counter-intuitive.

I know I was supposed to go to shul and confess sins communally, but I think this was a basic lesson that had to happen before I could even hope to comprehend a communal confession. And not going to shul for the day and feeling forgiven when it was over was something I wasn’t expecting.

I had a great break-the-fast with my friend; we drank Kedem wine, which by the way is made of fire, played Na Nach videos, and prayed in the middle of the living room. Judaism is great.

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.