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.