time for a champion (unofficial review of ‘the evolution of god’ by robert wright)

I’m torn between having this blog either be completely objective, throwing myself out into the world and seeing what happens, and documenting everything, including things that people might not like; or censoring certain things because I’ve had some surprising readers so far and who knows who might read it next? I don’t need the wrong person taking something completely out of context and getting the wrong impression.

Well anyway, that’s one of those decisions that I’m probably going to ignore anyways. I guess I don’t have much of a filter.

I’m getting pretty excited about my autobiographical graphic novel, which is currently in its planning stages. It’s supposed to be about 200 pages when it’s done, but it’s also my first one so who knows how it’s going to come out, maybe like five pages for all I know. And unlike with novels, where it’s like “Oh, here’s my autobiography even though I’m not famous,” I feel like if you have a decent story, autobio graphic novels are pretty standard fare. Anyway, the whole motif will be middleness and “losing everything,” as it were. It’s going to be pretty dramatic as soon as I decide how to dramatically end it. I have super high hopes. The working title is Get Ready for Love, after the Nick Cave song with an eerily similar theme.

-=-+-=-+-=-

It’s weird, you know? A couple of weeks ago I got this book The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, because now that I’m “over it” I wanted to get the very kind of book I’d been avoiding for the past two years. It’s all about the sociology and development of religion, from  “hunter-gatherer societies” to Christianity and Islam (not much on Judaism past the point where Christianity starts, no big surprise there). Of course, he spells out ykvk approximately 30 times per page, which I hate, and he just got done talking about how Josiah invented monolatry or whatever, which I already heard about and still hate, and I started to wonder. Why do I hate it? Why am I even resisting? Why am I writing passive-aggressive comments in the margins?

So much for being a non-biased reader.

I originally got this book (And God: A Biography by Jack Miles) because I wanted to make a clean break and I was already feeling myself being all “Oh, it’s not so bad, I’ll just be religious again,” and getting pretty nervous about this, and I’m also reading Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor, which is reeeeally bringing me back. (“The ‘hesitation click’ is a linguistic feature of Orthodox Jews.” I laughed when I first read that.) And I wanted to be like, “I should know the truth anyways, why should I be scared of the truth?”

I did take History of Ancient Israel taught by the biggest heretic ever, but lately I’m kind of into the idea of God evolving. I’ve had this cycle of questions for a while now: How can we say that God is so nice and forgiving and actually cares about us, when that’s not exactly in the texts at all? Can whatever we invent to be true of God actually come to be true? Does he react to whatever our conception is of him? These questions, as far as I’m concerned, are pretty pressing, and I’ll gladly get my answer from secular sources if need be.

The Evolution of God seems more like the usual JEDP explanation of historical events though, rather than anything too original, but then again I’m only halfway through the book. Maybe I’m just bitter because I just read 200 pages of how the Torah was written by Josiah. I had to keep reminding myself to be objective. Realistically, of course, I shouldn’t be taking it so hard. I’ve heard it all before. And, after all, “progressive Jews” believe in the JEDP theory and know all about the “multiple authors” over “many generations” and they’re fine with it. And somehow, they think the Torah is still an “inspired document,” even, rather than the result of political factionism and rebellions and whatnot. (Interestingly, Wright says the oft-quoted “light unto the nations” phrase was referring to aggressive takeover, not “gently helping the other nations learn from the Israelites,” as some would have it.)

But I’m also not about to get down with Wellhausen just because he’s in vogue. I just don’t know who to believe these days.

I don’t know how they do it–if God was invented out of El and Baal and had tons of consorts until the upper echelons decided it was tearing the country apart, and meanwhile the Israelites were only rebelling against other gods because the other nations kept putting them into vassalage, how could take it out of its political context and say, “OK, THIS text is divinely inspired (by a god invented out of El and Baal), even though it was changed to fit the different ideologies of different kings, and just happened to evolve into monotheism, even though that wasn’t exactly the point of it at all and it’s all a mistake and a huge coincidence.”

I can get into the idea that the Israelites were polytheists. But I don’t love the idea that polytheism was the actual doctrine allllllll the way up to Josiah, nor do I love the idea that devarim was a political strategy. In theory, I’m following the idea that “God works through the political strategies,” as progressive Jews say, but I am just feeling really resistant to a lot of it. (The El and Baal thing is an example.)

Because, he works through political strategies to…what? The usual line is to be a “light unto the nations,” but…I’m with Wright on that one. I don’t really think the Jewish mission is martyrdom. The whole idea sounds kinda Christian, if you ask me. But what is the mission? What is anything?

I’m feeling so 22 right now. I can feel everything crashing down to be built up again. On what? Who knows?

The religious element

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

“The whole package” revisited: A Tisha b’Av post

The whole package, visited.

It just occurred to me; maybe the reason for this sometimes cruel “you need the whole package” rhetoric isn’t always what we think it is. Usually, I presume, we take it to mean that we have to do all the mitzvot and can’t take it like a buffet or ignore a whole bunch and we can’t just start driving on Shabbat all the time, for example, just because we don’t think it “applies” anymore.

But maybe it’s more; something much more vague. I was trying to find out what kind of fast day Tisha b’Av is, and somehow I found myself reading a Chabad article on why we’re mourning on Tisha b’Av, which yeah OK fine I read it…only because I’m of the belief that the Temple was meant to be temporary and why should I be so sad that it’s gone if it was going to happen anyway? I wanted to know. I mean, it’s like being sad that Beethoven died. I like Beethoven, but good heavens, I didn’t know him or anything.

It said something about how we’re mourning because we’re in exile and “so far from Hashem” or whatever—”He just wants to love us!” They pulled some low blows, but it made me think. I first started trying to observe the holidays last year, and the first one was Tisha b’Av. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well. I tried to fast, but it sucked because I didn’t understand it, I wasn’t into it, and I didn’t know what I was doing. If I’d read this article…

G‑d is our father, and we are His children. And during galut we constitute a dysfunctional family. We have been expelled from our Father’s home. Our relationship has been reduced to its very core. All the perceptible traces of the relationship have vanished. We don’t feel or see G‑d’s love for us, and we don’t really feel like His children. We study His Torah and follow His commandments, and we are told that by doing so we connect with Him, but we don’t feel like we are in a relationship.

This is certainly not the way the relationship should be, and this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when we were coddled by our Father’s embrace. His love for us manifested itself in many forms: miracles, prophets, abundant blessings and a land flowing with milk and honey. And at the crux of our relationship was the Holy Temple, G‑d’s home where He literally dwelt amongst His people, where His presence was tangible. Thrice yearly Jews would visit G‑d’s home and feel His presence, feel the relationship. They would then return home invigorated by the experience, their hearts and souls afire with love for G‑d.

…then I don’t think it would have said anything to me back then, probably nothing more than “man, that sucks” (I don’t usually get into Chabad articles just so you know, but this one kind of got to me, as much as I don’t like to admit that I have feelings). I was just very conflicted with my new lot in life. I wasn’t even thinking about how it all fits together; I’d never been religious before; I didn’t know which way was up or down; I was too busy trying to find out where I fit into things. But, now I’m starting to see, of course I didn’t get it—I’d never thought about exile, or what the Temple was like theologically speaking, or forced through the weird somersaults of the really depressing Tachanun through the really optimistic Aleinu yet, or through the Mourner’s Kaddish into the grotesquely upbeat Adon Olam afterwards. I’d never thought about internal strife or how we’re all our own worst enemies, and I’d never looked at the sad, sad website for Vilnius’s Jewish community. And any historical problems with the Temple aside, this isn’t “the way the relationship should be”. I mean—look at us! People hate each other! People see Judaism as that embarrassing dead animal in the corner of the house that nobody wants to touch (what, you don’t have one?)

But I’ve been doing this for a while now, and not just in doing the mitzvot but in being lodged in Judaism and the Jewish community (sort of…on the outskirts, anyway) basically 24/7. And though I’ve never really sat in a rocking chair and thought about the exile, I guess it’s one of those latent, hidden things that is lurking and growing and when I do sit and think about it, I can read something like this and think I really see where he’s coming from, at the very least I wouldn’t leave wondering what that impenetrable strangeness was all about. I would understand, in a way I probably wouldn’t if I weren’t wholly lodged in Judaism.

Maybe the “whole package” isn’t what you do, but what arises out of doing it.

I’m going to have to give a speech at my Bat Mitzvah, which by the way is on Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av. I kind of wanted to talk about that National Geographic show and how we can’t just take the ayahuasca and expect to get the whole experience (kind of going with my Deut. 6 parsha…). But I don’t think that will resonate with them. I wanted to talk about how what fasting on this Tisha b’Av means to me in contrast to what it meant to me last year. But I don’t think they actually know that Tisha b’Av is a fast day. I don’t really know what to talk about—there’s a gap there (I’m sure some of it has to do with my speechwriting skills, yeah), not because they “pick and choose” their mitzvot (and leave more out than in), but because by doing so, they probably aren’t in a place to understand these underlying concepts; to feel these latent feelings. Maybe they can, but likely only in a way that is already compatible with their secular, everyday values. I’m not sure there’s anything that would stir a distinctly Jewish sentiment, just because they’re not really doing enough to create a web where that emergence can even happen. I’m not sure. And it’s really too bad if I’m right about that. It’s kind of sad to be that far removed, I think.

A journey through the siddur, Part II: Shema Line 1 & 2

Part I.

The Shema has tons of baggage. If you don’t get it; if you recite it by rote; you’ll really start to feel like you’re missing out on something. I heard a story from a friend who said she once recited the Shema over and over in the hospital because she thought she was dying; I read about all the martyrs and Rabbi Akiva who said it while they were dying; I say it every night; it’s printed way big in my siddur; and yet it’s said sitting down to emphasize that it’s not “the only important part of the service”; so what gives?

Well, like I said in Part I, all the most eloquent explanations in the world won’t help me if they don’t stick (and the weirdest things stick, as you’ll soon find). Koren (technically, Rabbi Sacks) tells me that “it is less a prayer than a prelude to prayer” and that it’s “the supreme act of faith-as-listening” and that it’s the acceptance of the “sovereign of the universe…not in fear but in love…That love suffuses all we do, from our relationships with our children to the homes we make.” First of all, I never relate to references to the importance of children or the home, for the obvious reason that I’m twenty. Second of all, I usually really like Rabbi Sacks’s commentary (in fact I once read someone’s review wherein he said that he couldn’t concentrate on the prayers because the commentary was so distractingly brilliant), but for this one it’s just hitting a brick wall.

So I came up with my own commentary, albeit slowly and painfully. OK, so, since I don’t say Barchu of course, Yishtabach drifts swiftly into Yotzer Or, which is a big speed-read except for the fact that I can no longer get through אל ברוך גדול דעה הכין ופעל זהרי חמה without singing it Darshan-style. There are certain points where I don’t really understand why the rabbi finds it important to spread certain bits out on Shabbat—such as the strikingly boring platitude-like line: “May You make a new light shine over Zion, and may we all soon be worthy of its light.” I don’t even like reading that line, because it reminds me of a certain folk song I know and because I don’t really see what it’s saying, except for a really annoying metaphor.

In case you can’t read this, it says:

The שמע must be said with intense concentration. In the first paragraph one should accept, with love, the sovereignty of God; in the second, the מצוות as the will of God. The end of the third paragraph constitutes fulfillment of the מצוה to remember, morning and evening, the exodus from Egypt.

I think of the first line (“God, faithful King!”, Koren says) as, firstly, a declaration that God is indeed being quite faithful to listen to my Shema without the “security” of a minyan. I don’t know where I got this, but I like it a lot better than the only other reason I’ve read, which is that it adds up to some kabbalistic number (which doesn’t explain why it’s only included without a minyan).

I still have trouble with the next line. One theory I heard is that one should draw out the ד until one can imagine God’s providence stretched in all directions of the compass…I tried this for a while; it wasn’t so great. Throughout the…er, one oddly long year of saying it, I tried different methods according to what I was most worked up about at the time. When I was extremely worried about Jewish unity (back when I was reading all that Chabad nonsense and everything), I’d turn it into a nice reassuring broadcast hybrid—”Listen Israel, including Chabad. Your weird social routines aren’t our God. If you don’t like my ways, too bad, because God is One.” Later, and more recently, I’ve just refined it to the point of taking the protest element out but keeping the premise the same; I like to break it up into three parts.

“Listen, Israel…”: This is kind of a reminder to me that what’s coming is so easy to forget that it’s really simply essential to repeat it twice a day. It’s like saying, “Look, man, you keep forgetting this basic fact.”

“The Lord is our God…”: Meaning no one and nothing else is. Not the President, not money, not our social norms, not our need to fit in, not cultural relativism, not mob rule, not even halacha. In essence: never make a religious decision if not for God—not even to appease a disapproving group of people. Not even for social cohesion. If you find it best to dance naked in a prayer circle in the woods while playing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” on guitar, who cares what the rabbis have to say about it?

Every man receives reward from God for what he is convinced is the right thing, if this conviction has no other motive but the love of God. [R. Zedekiah ben Avraham of Rome]

They thought Baal-Peor was bad? It’s worse today, because it’s wicked subtle.

“The Lord is One.”: This implies a couple of things. First, we have no easy scapegoat, like say a certain demon (I just saw a show on National Geographic of this lady having this exorcism) or warring gods if that’s your taste. We don’t really have anyone to blame for the so-called “evil” that befalls us. God must be everything we ascribe to Him—there’s no dividing it up to make it all fit neatly and logically:

Augmenting this is the fact that he must be all things to everyone and every religion—simultaneously, at many levels. To the simple person, he is accessible by a few words of prayer. To the people at Kiddush, by a simple “amen”. To the halachist, by a minyan. To the Catholic, by a priest. To the Kabbalist, he is accessible through specialty. To the theologian, through mathematics. By dance. By nature. By thought. He disciplines. He loves. He sustains. And those are only the things we can describe. As soon as we think we can describe God, we much necessarily discard that description. As Brian Eno says, “Oh, what a burden to be so relied on!” [Me]

I liked this post, namely because of one insight:

[T]here is an interesting layer of meanings with the “melech” language of traditional prayer. On one hand, it really goes back to pre-Babylonian captivity semitic Battle of the Gods…Then there’s the later monotheistic layer…where theology developed around submission and helplessness. I think I’ve been inspired somewhat by Rabbi Green’s insistence that, despite some of our modern democratic discomfort with the Melech language, we need to keep it. Rabbi Green argues (if you’ll excuse an oversimplification) that it keeps the balance of Justice and Mercy in the works if we maintain and embrace the Melech language.

Obviously הי אחד doesn’t have the word “melech” in it, but the same idea could still hold—in the scheme of things, it’s important to remember all these aspects lest we start to focus too much on only one. These days, I’m guessing we probably focus a lot more on rachamim and chesed than a mighty hand. But behind the kindness, there’s something terrifying and hidden (and terrifyingly hidden!) But it’s all the same God.

Gates of Understanding: A Theology Part II

So remember that time I read that book?

Jewish theology at least has more room to roam, but this still isn’t enough, which I recognize now. I’ve been going through the siddur trying to understand phrases such as “When He looks at the earth, it trembles. When He touches the mountains, they pour forth smoke.” On good days I’d assume this was just a respectful, if not meaningless, overstatement. But think of it—this is only the very surface of it. God is enormous! To reach the Fiftieth Gate Of Understanding would probably melt your brain!

I think that book was meant for adolescents, but for some reason it really got to me. And now occasionally I’ll try to remember that jarring feeling I got when I first realized this. And it’s kind of like marijuana or LSD in that it seems to rest in my marrow or something until—unexpectedly—it blows up right in front of me and sort of knocks me down because I didn’t see it coming.

And it comes from the simplest things, like for example the statement “God is kind.” Well, that’s pretty obvious I think, but once and a while I’ll read this line and think of the enormity of the situation. Like Job’s experience, just to witness a sliver of Him would probably be so terribly frightening that, well, you’d probably “melt your brain”! You think you know? You have no idea!

And yet He knows that that would happen, so unless we’re really bold about it like Job or the girl in that book I read, He generally keeps it under wraps. Even when we’re all complaining and it would be really easy to shut us up that way. He only shows a little piece according to what we can handle. And you know what that takes? A great kindness. I think what you get that, like really get it, even if you don’t totally comprehend it, well how can you even stand it?

This happened to me Friday night. Like marijuana or LSD, it just hit me in the middle of shul. The culprit was the blessings before the Shema—specifically, the simple, straightforward phrase הי ימלוך לעולם ועד—Hashem will reign forever and ever. That’s the kind of phrase that’s really easy to bypass, but I tried to ruminate on it for a short second, using the strategy I mentioned above. Well, it hit me right there and I leaned over, slack. I can’t explain it. I probably looked like I was having a breakdown, as I slid farther down into my seat just staring at the words, oblivious (I do this almost every week actually, so maybe not).

Then too soon it was time for the freaking upbeat and long v’shamru b’nei yisrael et ha-shabbat, and I could barely stand. I kind of wanted to stay in my seat, swimming in my strange new mindset. But I had to stand, and it didn’t escape me what a dumb addition that is between the Shema and the Amidah. That’s a strangely delicate time, for me at least, so I don’t get it. I kind of leaned over onto the seat in front of me (which I also do often; standing up straight is for chumps) and the lady in front of me noticed. Obviously, she also noticed I said the Mourner’s Kaddish so she leaned over and asked me if I was OK. I was still way out of it, but I managed a cheery “Yes!”

I tried to appear more presentable after that, but I have to admit I slogged through the Amidah a little slack-jawed and not really paying attention to saying it in a timely manner. I really must have looked like I was having a breakdown, because I really did go from totally lively and singing and junk to a huddled mass in my seat. I always figured the rabbi was used to this out of me, but if that lady in front of me noticed, who knows? Who else do I frighten? I often inadvertently project exactly what I’m feeling.

I’ve prepared what I’ll say if someone asks me if I’m OK again: “I just get really into it.”

It made me wonder if I had to work through some theological stuff—I mean it was intense; of course this is from someone who listens to Ode to Joy and is dazed for half an hour afterwards—but unfortunately I couldn’t go to shul the next morning because I just HAD to go to sleep at 4 AM again because of my STUPID PRINCESS CAT who MEOWS OUTSIDE MY DOOR and wakes me up every three hours.

But it made me wonder: Is shul the place for this? Obviously, everyone else goes, especially on Friday night, for a nice airy time and to sing some songs and go home. Like, it’s acceptable to sway if you need to, but not during every part, but what if someone like me comes along and just can’t get back out of it? Lots of times I’m sure it’s generally not socially acceptable, for whatever reason, to be crumpled in your seat because you’re still going over a particularly poignant bit in the service, even though everyone else is onto something else, like the Torah reading or something. What if someone drew attention to your neuroticism? What would the rabbi do?

I personally think shul is the place for you to work out these things, but I still wonder. It’s like you can commune with God there, but only to a point.

The same goes for mitzvot, by the way. I think I got this from The Jewish Catalog, but it said something like “Remember what you’re about to do is a mitzvah from the Torah.” Again, it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to ignore, but Friday night after all this I got home in time to light my candles, which after all this seemed really vital to do, so if you light 3-hour candles in your room at 8:25 PM and then try to sleep at 10:30 PM, it’s probably going to keep you up. But I didn’t mind so much. “It’s a commandment!” I thought, “A mitzvah from the Torah (though in this case I think it’s rabbinic but ignore that)!” How could I be irritated by the result of a mitzvah; the light of my candles? The same thing happened with Havdala. Grape juice is expensive you know, and filling your kiddush cup to overflowing doesn’t exactly help that. But that’s my favorite part of Havdala, because it serves to remind me quite forwardly that I ought to be prepared to spare no expense for a mitzvah, a great joy—during Havdala, I’m wealthy.

Told you I get into it.

A theological theory and book review: Third in a series of long posts.

I recently read an interesting piece of ethical theory from a book called Religion for Skeptics by William B. Silverman, written in 1967. The book first caught my attention on account of such phrases as “Religion has become a dependent variable. It does not originate; it reacts (p. 17),” and “Abraham was forced to leave his homeland and family, and grope through endless hours of torment before he glimpsed a vision of the living God (p. 5),” and:

No less indicative of kindergarten religion is the crass and vulgar exploitation of prayer to inject a meaningless note of religiosity into otherwise secular meetings and functions. It is difficult to estimate the time wasted by ministers, rabbis, and priests who are asked to give perfunctory invocations and benedictions at countless meetings and banquets. Those who attend are not praying; they are waiting. The invocation is tolerated if it is brief. It is the socially sanctioned liturgical dinner bell that signals the approach of food. The benediction likewise has a purpose. It heralds the conclusion of the meeting, as the worn-out, speech-fatigued members of the audience bow their heads but brace themselves for the “amen” that will start them racing madly to the parking lot to beat the crowd (p. 43).

I also liked this:

…[W]e would rather evade the intellectual demands [of asking "What do you mean by God?"] and the emotional torment of wrestling with it, and seek complacent refuge in talking about God, professing a belief in God, participating in rites and prayers that enable us to worship God—but never enter the arena of religious struggle to force ourselves to emerge with an answer. The mature faith demands that we think through our belief about God, come to grips with the divine and, like Jacob, wrestle through the long night of doubt, groping for religious clarity, writing through the blackness of soul struggle, until the dawn of truth enables us to emerge, humbled but triumphant, with the blessing of faith.

To abandon the simple, understandable, anthropomorphic, kindergarten God of our childhood is to subject ourselves to the growing pains that herald the approach of religious maturity. To wrestle and struggle toward a mature, adult conception of God is to invite the consequences of perplexity, frustration, confusion, humiliation, and intellectual anguish. The blessing is not without cost. Jacob was triumphant, but limped upon his thigh. Mature man in search of a mature conception of God must expect to be wearied and strengthened, purified and debased, exulted and depressed, glorified and dejected, confident and chastened. He will never be the same again (p. 109).

I don’t know if the author was aware, but he advances quite an interesting theological position near the middle of the book. We come to a discussion on how we can even hope to relate to a transcendent God, especially on a moral level? How can we even be sure that he does possess such moral qualities, which we try to imitate, especially when we see such destruction? “A discerning reader may properly ask,” he writes, “‘If it is immature to project physical qualities to God, isn’t it equally immature to project spiritual qualities to God?’” After all, we can barely know whether the emotions of animals or even other humans are exactly comparable to ours personally—as in when we’re sad, angry, and so on—how could we even attempt to say that God could be vengeful, angry, compassionate, or just? Moreover, could we go so far as to equate God with the absolute concepts of absolute truth, absolute justice, absolute mercy?

But I think he advances the following theory: The morals we consider absolute, such as justice, are not absolute at all, but rather the best we can do with human-sized perceptions. Such terms are “relative terms, rather than absolute concepts.” Of course we shouldn’t hope to equal God with our human values:

Reason alone asserts that the essence of God is amoral—not to be assessed as good or evil, just or unjust—God is. His essence is beyond all values or ethical or unethical attributes imputed to Him…Faith, however, declares that God is moral in that He has endowed man with the potential for morality. God is moral in that He has granted man freedom of will—which glorifies him and exalts him above all other creatures. Without freedom of will, there can be no morality of immorality (p. 124-5).

He goes on to say that freedom of will is why we have the Problem of Evil, but if he had spent more time on this other concept, I would have found it quite interesting. God isn’t what we call good or evil, nor is he really so responsible for things that happen which we call good or evil—we are. (You can’t deny the humanistic quality of Judaism.) It’s easy to see that throughout time and throughout the lands, the so-called “absolute concepts” of justice, love, compassion, and so on, can vary widely. I hate to say this, because it comes so close to Cultural Relativism, but how might we reconcile different conceptions of these absolutes in different situations?

I propose that the idea that the actions we take in pursuing justice/mercy/etc. are relative—though the ideals we wish to reach are absolute. Thus if something happens—something “bad”—that doesn’t quite correspond with an action we’d take that we’d call justice/mercy/etc., we cannot very well blame the absolute concept. Or God, for that matter.

Now, could we call these ideals we wish to reach justice or mercy? I’m not sure. They’re certainly not identical with our limited conceptions of them, and we can only hope to know the aspects which we actually practice.

The whole thing is very Platonic.

Part IV.

Zera Yisrael: A Serious Identity Crisis

“I was working my nuts off” -My mom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow, I really love reading fiction: A Theology Part I

I always thought I hated fiction, but maybe it’s like movies—most are bad, but you’ve just got to recognize when it’s going to be bad and avoid it for your own sanity’s sake. I just read Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, and it’s about a young girl who finds her talent in a spelling bee, and her father uses this talent to introduce her to the kabbalistic method to transcendence. Using spelling. Meanwhile, her brother joins Hare Krishna and her mother steals various things in hopes of gathering all the shards of light that escaped from the vessel.

It was pretty awesome. All three of the characters were focused solely reaching transcendence, which I’ve thought about often, only not in so many words. In high school, I was too lame to know where to find drugs, so I would light incense, sit on my bed, listen to The Doors, and think about if I only had drugs I could be complete—something could really happen. Or I’d listen to a new record and wait to be lifted into the heavens. I tried to push past the wall using all the legal methods—staying up too late, playing my keyboards, listening to Pink Floyd. I thought I could do it by writing music; writing plays; moving to Chicago; and other things that never worked.

On one hand, I was really tired of the cycle of everyday life—and if you’ve ever been in high school, you know that this feeling is quite real. But on the other hand, I’d had only a glimpse over the wall, and it wasn’t pretty. Since I never really had lots of friends in high school, I had more than enough time during the summer to spend by myself in my room, becoming whomever I wanted to be. (Of course, that image shattered as soon as I left to go to Kroger or something.) But I figured that if I were to reach this point, I wouldn’t exactly be acceptable to the safe and comfortable world of everyday society. “Comfort”, I’d decided, would cease to be.

I was reminded of this sentiment near the end of the book, wherein the girl ends up finally pronouncing the Name correctly, kabbalistically speaking, and ends up on the floor in a frightening trance, so frightening that she hopes to die, and she knows that she can never really enter into everyday life again. “Succeeding sounds scarier than failing,” as she says in the book upon reading Abulafia’s description of success.

It made me think a lot of things that night—For one thing, it occurred to me that books are written on how to pronounce the Name, yet there are Biblical scholars who pompously insist that they know how to say it because of such pedestrian reasons as it’s close to the verb “To Be” or whatever (which is no fun anyway). I recently heard a new theory on NOVA, however, that there was a group of people who came from the land of יהו and they just decided to add a hey at the end just for kicks. NOVA made it sound so punk rock too, because even though on its face this theory might be subversive or something, its premise was that a group of wanderers came up from יהו to meet with a bunch of political dissidents from Canaan who “wrote into the Torah that they were actually from Egypt/Ur when really they were from Canaan all along, evident by the fact that the pottery is the same but also simpler, evidence that they were rebelling against Canaan”.

The point is they got together like true revolutionaries and marched for monotheism. And that’s pretty punk rock.

NOVA made me realize that if I’m going to get anywhere I have to learn things like this. I have to admit I get nervous going in—what if they tell me that the Exodus was made up? Passover is coming!—but sometimes I sit through something and it wasn’t so bad after all. I can’t be scared to learn about the archaeology or whatever; I just can’t.

Anyway, after reading that book it also occurred to me that the Christian view of God is extremely limiting—not only in the sense that he could actually become a man, but more pressingly in the sense that the entire theology is based on redemption. That’s not just a part of it; that’s all of it. I think to the end of the book wherein the girl is simply reciting the Name—no more—she probably only entered the First Gate Of Understanding—and that was more than enough to push her over the edge. Imagine the Fiftieth Gate Of Understanding! To think that God is primarily concerned with original sin so much so to create it and then plan out that whole ordeal to cancel it again seems naive to me.

Jewish theology at least has more room to roam, but this still isn’t enough, which I recognize now. I’ve been going through the siddur trying to understand phrases such as “When He looks at the earth, it trembles. When He touches the mountains, they pour forth smoke.” On good days I’d assume this was just a respectful, if not meaningless, overstatement. But think of it—this is only the very surface of it. God is enormous! To reach the Fiftieth Gate Of Understanding would probably melt your brain!

Augmenting this is the fact that he must be all things to everyone and every religion—simultaneously, at many levels. To the simple person, he is accessible by a few words of prayer. To the people at Kiddush, by a simple “amen”. To the halachist, by a minyan. To the Catholic, by a priest. To the Kabbalist, he is accessible through specialty. To the theologian, through mathematics. By dance. By nature. By thought. He disciplines. He loves. He sustains. And those are only the things we can describe. As soon as we think we can describe God, we much necessarily discard that description. As Brian Eno says, “Oh, what a burden to be so relied on!”

Towards a new theory of vision

1.) Do you ever wish that Yeshiva University would just reject you already so you could get on with your life? Why do they have to drag it out?

2.) Do you ever wonder if the Biocentric Theory Of The Universe could apply to rabbinics (wherein life creates the universe, not the other way around—this would mean that what the rabbis rule is what God wants, not the other way around)? I was just reading halachic commentary on the Mishneh Torah and it was saying that “Although women are EXEMPT from learning Torah, nonetheless they receive a reward. The reward is not as great as that for men, though, for they are obligated.” Who decides? When women became exempt, was that the day their reward was less? It went on to say that the Hasidic thought is that you only establish a connection with God through mitzvot—obligatory mitzvot. This is even more problematic. What about non-Jews; do they have less of a connection because they don’t have mitzvot? If that is so, why discourage converts?

Next, is heavenly reward simply doled out point-by-point? Would I still have less points than a comparable man, if we both studied Torah BUT I am a convert, and he is a lifelong tzaddik? Not to mention those who propose alternatively that women always get a better heavenly lot than men just by virtue of being women.

So, according to Hasidic thought, if you are following the wrong posek and wrap your tefillin the wrong way or whatever, it’s as if you never did it at all? Could it be that whatever you learned is your own personal meter for “what God wants”—what if you know other options? This is courtesy of the people who suggest that God will likely ignore anything you say unless you’re currently in a minyan, by the way.

Too bad Maimonides never cites his sources, because I would like to know why “Women are exempt”, save for the fact that they will turn everything they learn to nonsense or whatever those people believed in the Middle Ages.

It was the Middle Ages, remember! The Jewish community didn’t exist in a bubble. Everything written at that time (and there is a lot) is a product of people who lived in the Middle Ages, not exactly a bastion of egalitarianism.

3.) I’m now in the market for a tallit. Yesterday, a lady I’m teaching Hebrew said that we ought to go to the fabric store and buy some supplies, but after that conversation, I went online and found that real people actually make tallitot in their own homes. I wouldn’t have to buy one from a big box store after all! I’m not sure which route to take here.

More importantly, I’m not sure of my status still. Should I wear one? Should I wear tzitzit? That’s why the Hasidic view of obligation came up; I remember now. Am I just ruining a mitzvah by doing it while I’m not *legally Jewish*?

Somehow I think this is one of those problems that will have twenty different answers.

4.) I have about three speeches to write right now, but only one is getting off the ground. My Haftorah is going to be pretty great. It’s on Shabbat Nachamu, and I just learned that (if I read correctly) Rashi wrote that Isaiah 40:1-26 is written as a comfort meant for the future Messianic age, when all the exiles are returning. This is where it got interesting, because why should we need comfort during the Messianic age? This question shall be answered. In my Haftorah speech.

*Picture: My synagogue’s library.

Decidedly, Christianity is more impossible.

1. The premise was that since the Torah’s laws are so hard, Jesus had to come along and take that big impossible ball and chain out of our lives so we could get on with what is real and true. That’s fine for them and everything, since I think that Christianity is probably better than witchcraftery, but alas—one rebuttal. Christianity, by its very premise, is impossible. There is a theory that Christianity formed the way it did precisely because everyone was fearing the End of Days at that particular point. (I read this in The Judeao-Christian Tradition by J.H. Hexter.) Turn the other cheek? Done! This world will only last a little while longer, after all—what’s the point of fighting? Give all your money to the poor? Simple! Lifelong servitude? All others before yourself? Love humanity all equally, without preferencing your own community? Nothing to it!

No wonder you hear so often “I know I’m supposed to do this [insert ethical precept], but realistically…?”

This happened in Religion class yesterday. I gave my presentation on Jews For Jesus and why you can’t mix Christianity and Judaism. “Even the basic ethics are different!” I said, and later when I thought about it, I was struck with a situation in which we are presented with a very obvious difference. If you and a friend are out wandering in the desert, and your canteen is full, but his just happened to have sprung a leak, leaving it empty, what do you do? Neither one of you can live on only half a canteen. Either you give it all or keep it all, or you both die. What do you do?

I kind of love this scenario, because it bravely illustrates what I like so much about Judaism. It’s realistic! I asked my Religion teacher, a United Methodist pastor, what she would do in such a situation. She said that “she knows that she should give it to the other guy” but “realistically she would keep it for herself, probably.” See the disconnect? I said that in Judaism, you should keep it for yourself, because you’re not supposed to sacrifice one life in order to save another—i.e., the canteen was yours originally. Judaism was meant for the long-term, and it’s not impossible like the rather vague precepts of Christianity.

The Torah is not in heaven!

2. Speaking of which, I’d decided that I need to start learning the whole Birkat Hamazon, which is going to be a long-term task. I tried looking for a simple Hebrew-and-English version online, but to no avail. Either it had the tetragrammaton and “God” written all over it, and it was a PDF and thus non-modifiable; OR—worse—it was an “inclusive” version, which uses the matriarchs where they weren’t originally, and this version also refuses to use “Father”, “King”, or “He” for God. You know what that means. “God, our Parent, opens God’s hand and satisfies all God’s creatures.” I find this a little more disconcerting than the traditional text, even more so that the Hebrew itself is altered to accommodate this agenda. I am a woman. And I don’t want the matriarchs in my stuff. There are bigger problems out there—I mind more when the female grammatical form isn’t offered than I mind that women aren’t getting enough representation in the Amidah or the Birkat Hamazon. I don’t care. They made it that way for a reason.

What I mean is this. I’m listening to this Yeshivat Hadar lecture about the Amidah, and apparently every line has a purpose. Even, believe it or not, “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” As someone astutely noticed, The first verse of the Amidah was missing an important hero, Moses! Why not include Moses? Why just the three? He was important too! But then the guy said that “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is a line found in the Torah someplace (I think it was Moses that said it in the form that was actually used in the Amidah). The point is that it’s not arbitrary. And putting matriarchs in would be adding something rather anachronistic, and that is really my problem with it.

And honestly, “Parent” just doesn’t sound as good as “Father”. I don’t need to be thinking about feminism during prayer. I don’t need to be reminded of how some editor thought we all ought to remove “He” from our theological thoughts. And the whole thing seems to draw attention away from where it’s due.

Just my opinion.

And as for my search, after transferring a PDF to TIFF, then using Paint to erase every single “God” (which is hard when, remember, this was a translation that refused to use PRONOUNS), then erasing every “Adonai”, then getting angry when I noticed what was happening and defiantly replacing all the “God”‘s with “He” and “His”; and “Parent” with “Father”; and “our ancestors” with “our fathers”, I realized it probably wasn’t worth it so much because half my text was gone at that point. It looks like I’m going to have to copy the whole Birkat Hamazon by hand.

You just can’t get a good translation. It’s really annoying.

3. I’m making Buddy Bands.

I have lots of useful jewelry now. Beads I found on the street during the Chicago Halloween Parade not pictured.

My day of junior yeshiva

This lady whom I am teaching Hebrew and I went to talk to the rabbi Monday morning. We were supposed to meet after the minyan, but she called me and told me that she’d come so early that she went to the minyan anyway. Oh, the way she sounded on the phone was so priceless—she said that no one was there but the rabbi, and she “knew he was embarrassed” and “he had on all his garb”. Of course, being the rabbi, when she was the only one to show up, he was like, “No! Stay!” She said he asked her if she would mind if he just went on silently, but she said he was humming a lot. “He’s very sing-songy in everything he does,” she said. I laughed some more.

So when I finally showed up, we went to go see him in his office and asked if we could study with him. “Talmud,” I said. “Why do you want to study Talmud?” “I….think it’s….interesting….” I stammered. I hate those types of questions. He ended up saying that he’s sorry but he just doesn’t have any time. I felt bad for the LWIATH (Lady Whom I Am Teaching Hebrew), because she was getting the very same treatment I got when I told him I wanted to convert, too. He said we would meet and we never did, and so on. He actually recommended that we study the Talmud by ourselves using the internet. The internet! That was the saddest thing I ever heard. “You have to start with the Torah,” he said. “The Torah with Rashi.”

So that’s what we did.

I printed Rashi’s commentary on this week’s parsha and we met on Tuesday to have our own Torah study, without the rabbi. The most disturbing part of our conversation was that we both know quite clearly that the rabbi did have a study time with this one other guy who (apparently) is converting—granted, he is farther along that we are, but that shouldn’t matter. You’ve got to start somewhere. We decided he was a “man’s man” and I’m really glad I wasn’t the only one who thought that. I can’t help but think that if we were men he’d help us more. I don’t think he realizes this. It’s upsetting, because you can tell where this is going—the rabbi’s “I’d rather talk to men” personality is getting in the way of all women’s conversions—in the sense that upon approaching the rabbi, if you are a man he will probably work with you and if you are a woman he probably won’t—which is a pretty serious event in someone’s life. The reason I feel bad for the LWIATH is because I can move in the fall to a whole new rabbi, and she can’t.

Oh, then as we were leaving his office, I commented on the Be Happy It’s Adar note on his door, and he said, “I don’t know who put that there.” I said, “Yeah, who would do something like that?” “I was you, wasn’t it!”

So Tuesday was interesting. That lady is interesting. Since she was traumatized from the experience on Monday, I offered to let her tag along for my own Shaharit—something that I predicted would happen. I always knew that one day I would be reciting my whole Shaharit for someone who was trying to learn it. And Tuesday was that day. We went out to this gazebo in the park and it was really cold, but it wasn’t too bad. My Hebrew was rusty in the sections that I don’t usually say due to being late for school, but anything was better than having the rabbi say stuff silently, I figured. You have to learn somehow.

Then we went to the coffee shop to have Torah study. “I never had a Torah study before,” I warned beforehand. I recited the blessings for the Torah. By the way, I love being able to do all this. Never mind Jewish friends who are probably unobservant anyway, I need more friends who are converting to Judaism. It was a good experience, although we did start out in the wrong chapter for a good five minutes until I realized the parsha starts on Leviticus 6:1, not 1:1. I’m not sure how to explain it, other than that quote where that guy said, “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me” is true.

There’s something about learning Torah with someone else and a real commentary that’s immensely more satisfying than reading some random person’s dvar Torah on the internet. It took us at least an hour to get through one chapter, and we ended with more questions with answers, and we concluded with “Oh well, we’ll ask the rabbi later” one too many times, but it was pretty great.

The rabbi at the Reform temple gave me a big giant binder full of different articles and things to read for my Bat Mitzvah. What a difference from trying to talk to the other rabbi, Mr. “Learn Talmud on the internet, I’m too busy”! I read most of it last night, but I was a little uncomfortable with the first two articles, which were all about this great new method called the Documentary Hypothesis which is so scientific (even though no one’s procured any evidence except their own circular theories) and can solve all our problems! The second article was all about Deuteronomy and I think it was how it obviously came from Josiah’s reign or whatever; but I stopped because it started using that ugly, ugly “Y” word, which made me realize it was written by some so-called “Scholar” and wasn’t Jewish and what do I care what some non-Jewish scholar thinks when I’m trying to have a Bat Mitzvah? I’m so sick of Biblical scholars and the way they write—all starting with their use of that ugly “Y” word, which is so pretentious given that they don’t really know that you’re supposed to pronounce it that way anyway, and even if you do, what gives you the right?

But I digress.

I just realized that—I don’t care which is “more scientific”—I’d rather study Torah with Rashi for one second than read about how this sentence is from P, this sentence is from J, all day long. Who cares? Who cares? Who are you helping? What are you finding out, really? It really misses the forest for the trees. I don’t understand how Reform can base its religion on this “new scientific finding”. According to the article, the Documentary Hypothesis is a “simple answer to the problem of the contradictions”, but I’m more interested in getting through those contradictions and even finding meaning in them than in simply attributing it to a new author just because it doesn’t seem to fit.

No one’s ever said “When I study the Documentary Hypothesis, God speaks to me”.

I’m going to sound really ultra-Orthodox here, but you don’t exactly come away from that type of study loving God more. You come away feeling proud of yourself for having discovered some new author or some new historical reason for why the Exodus never happened, for example. This is fine for the ivory tower—totally fine! you have to write your thesis on something, after all—but these very liberal congregations so concerned with being up-to-date with the latest theory of authorship (which is getting to be a useless dinosaur, frankly) don’t know what they’re missing. Torah just makes so much more sense when you’re not trying to rip it apart into ten thousand authors like a piece of meat, and when you actually give it its own dignity.

Reward and Punishment. War and Peace.

“[When people kiss their siddurim] it’s a sign of ultimate respect” -Lady in Judaism class

I’m still trying to figure out what happened in New York. But it’s led to a larger question—What does it mean to be rewarded by God? And what does it mean to attempt to “punish” God?

In the context of my visit to New York with my sister, recall that I asked many times that she simply remain receptive to Judaism and the two minyanim I would bring her to. That didn’t happen (the people were extremely nice to us, so it wasn’t them)—instead, she told me to never bring her to a minyan again and then naturally I got sick and my headphones broke on the train back, too. So on the surface, nothing really resembling an answer to my petitionary prayers was to be found, despite my trying to do my part. I am wont to conclude that my extended preparations for the trip in that regard went unnoticed. No “reward”, if you will.

Now, what constitutes a “Reward”? I’m not really banking on an afterlife, and furthermore I’m weary of assuming that what appears to be bad will somehow turn out for the best (see Leibniz’s hit single, “This Is The Best Of All Possible Worlds”)—especially since, well, the trip is now over. But I’ve come to think that maybe expecting an answer in the form of something I could palpably notice is to make a category mistake. The same goes for expecting your goal of becoming rich to come true because you’ve made a pact with God to pray thrice daily and you’ve been keeping up your end. Or even that, sans pact. That’s like training to become an opera singer and, not being content with simply a skill in opera singing, expect to receive a new pony at the end of it. “I deserve it, after all,” you think. And you convince yourself: “Of course I’m going to get a pony in the end. True opera singers need ponies. And now that I expect to receive one, surely someone will detect my desire and buy me one.” Or, to be philosophical, it’s like asking what color “Good” is.

Prayer is a means to a relationship with God—its product is thus a relationship with God (not a pony, not my sister’s feelings, not curing cancer). That’s the “reward” for praying a lot—nothing more (as a rule, at least—as a baseline). It’s boring, but what a reward!

Relationships are rocky. Sometimes you argue. Sometimes you think He hates you. Sometimes you hate Him. But what comes of trying to punish God by letting your observance/prayer life deteriorate? Does it affect God? I don’t know (it depends on whom you ask). Does it affect you? Probably more than it does God. So I don’t recommend it—I don’t recommend not doing what you are obligated to do, that is—but no need to go the extra mile when you don’t feel like you can. That’s not fair to anyone. For example, I’d say Shaharit—but not Baruch Sheamar; not Yishtabach. If you’re angry at God, wouldn’t that seem like a sarcastic thing to do? Still, conflict serves its purpose. By weathering it you emerge in an enjoyably agitated type of ease.

Something interesting happened. Yesterday the Conservative rabbi said he uses electricity on Shabbat, and today the Reform rabbi talked about how she follows certain halachic rulings. Halacha! Two things I never knew. I thought halacha wasn’t normative in Reform, but there it was. A pile of Reform responsa that we were using in the Advanced Judaism class I just found out about at the temple. We talked about how non-Jews shouldn’t use asher kidshanu when lighting Shabbat candles on behalf of the congregation. She even said that she waits for a minyan.I’m not sure what to think about Reform anymore.

I gave her my honors paper on Women And Halacha to read, and somehow someone else mentioned she wanted a Bat Mitzvah and I said Me too and the rabbi said if I was going to go to JTS I should go to the mikveh too. Afterward, she said, “So do you really want a Bat Mitzvah?” and I said Yes let’s do this.

So I guess that’s what I’m doing. Now, where’s that paper on what makes a conversion halachic?

We’d just got done with a class on halacha, she mentioned an additional stipulation of mikveh if I were to go to JTS, a Conservative seminary, and she said there usually is a bet din but she personally uses a written test instead. I feel like I might have options. If not, whatever—it’s not like I’d be breaking away from my family’s tradition of Reform.

PS The Conservative rabbi think “I’m too young”. Well, I tried.

Sight-singing

I had a very enlightening dream last night. My stupid cat woke me up in the night, which is probably the only reason I remember it. I was trying to explain God to someone (I guess the rabbi’s and my mom’s and everyone else’s question of “Why Judaism” really got to me…) and I said: it’s like sight-singing. You can read and read about it all you want to, but unless you get in there and start actually trying it you’ll never understand it. My philosophy/religion teacher started riffing on how he admired the Jews for keeping it up even though, as he saw it, there was no light at the end of the tunnel (Jesus being the only possible light at the end—which I personally told him I think is just too easy…by the way, I brought up to him the question of why the Old Testament even existed before the New Testament at all, and he didn’t really answer either, although he did inadvertently answer earlier by saying that it was to keep “the ethnic group separate” in preparation for the messiah, etc.)

Anyway, I’m not doing this for an afterlife or to be “saved” or anything. If that was my concern, according to Judaism, I could just concentrate on the seven Noachide rules, and be done with it. And I don’t know how to explain this to people, but I’ve felt God and it’s like cocaine…how can I go back now?