Last summer, I wrote this innocent post on how I felt about people who were 1.) Brazenly breaking halacha with reckless abandon, and 2.) Converting with no intention to ever keep the mitzvot.
Then I came to my little pop. 6,000 school and witnessed this in the flesh, an entire community, indifferent, blasé. Then as our Hillel leadership turned over for the year, word got out that some people on campus really were interested in more religious programming. Some people weren’t happy with Hillel having come to be synonymous with Laser Tag and free pancakes. And I regained hope. The new Religious Affairs director began starting out Hillel Shabbat dinners with “the blessings,” which is a small but mighty beginning. They also let the Orthodox rabbi back on campus, who brought an online college-based Aish program with him, and online I can see that a lot of the participants in that program are AEPi party central guys. (Next week’s program is supposed to be “Who ~really~ wrote the Torah?!” They are truly ambitious.)
Meanwhile, this past year I’ve been trying to understand my fellow students. I never tried to understand those Reform Adult B’nai Mitzvah convert people last summer. I was surprised by how laid-back I was in my post last summer, maybe cause the situation wasn’t really close to me, and anyway I figured “oh, they’re all old, let them have their fun/religious fulfillment.” But this is different; it’s my school and people my age and people who are really–just like me, actually–on the cusp of being able to go either way, depending on the circumstances. When I first came here, I was pretty observant. Then I stopped and had a couple of months of introspection. I started to see how easily anyone could get by being unobservant.
And then a couple of days ago I got a flashback of being at the Student Activities Fair when I first started art school in Chicago. Seventeen. I’d moved to the city to be a musician and perhaps a theater major. My identity was bound up with being an atheist. My only goals were to make “cool” (in Chicago this means hipster) friends and get inspired to write some great songs. My heroes included such towering figures as Lou Reed and Man Ray. So when a friend and I wandered past the Hillel table, I glanced. I’ll admit I glanced. I just remember not wanting to be seen being interested in the Hillel table. I didn’t even stop to see if there were free things. Religion, especially Judaism, was entirely embarrassing. When someone asked me in high school if I was Jewish (“you look Jewish”), I said “my dad is.” It was just not a very interesting topic. (It’s like in middle school when I was too embarrassed to let people know I was part Russian or Lithuanian.)
So when I think back to that, I can understand how a lot of people are probably approaching our Hillel and our programming. Most of those kids are probably Seventeen Laura, not Twenty-One Laura. And even the ones who are interested in the religion part are not nearly at the level of Twenty-One Laura, who concurrently reads Sefer HaChinuch, Rashi, and a book called “Guide to Halachos Volumes One and Two.” When I was seventeen, I didn’t want to hear about God or covenants or prayer. (I was too enlightened for that. I enjoyed such things as making fun of Leviticus, reading Nietzsche, and liking the Documentary Hypothesis.) I would have liked to hear about how Judaism was different from Christianity, how hella punk it was when you think about it, or how and why it could be a real alternative to the other worldviews I was considering at the time, including such classics as Buddhism and Existentialism.
I think I would have been open to the details once I was into the general idea (actually, I think that’s how I started getting into it when I was nineteen), once I decided it was a good idea. All I really wanted was a real, stable lifestyle. I would have been prepared to do the same for Buddhism or Existentialism. I mean really, my first semester in art school I started considering theatre and playwriting a sort of lifestyle. I wanted something I could give to, you know? I think people are looking for that, even if they can’t put it into words. Everyone’s looking for something, and they don’t think they can find it in Judaism, and when you aren’t or fear calling yourself religious it’s just impenetrable, and so they don’t try.
And so when you present Judaism as a bunch of rules, particularly if you present them as an optional array whose sole purpose is to make mankind ethical and/or happy, it doesn’t look like a stable lifestyle for someone like Seventeen Laura. I wanted to pick one thing; I didn’t want to think “oh, lighting candles, that is so spiritual, bringing in metaphorical light to my household.” I was more ready to think “Judaism doesn’t make me believe in a person who is a god, it doesn’t make me love my enemy, it stands up to enemies, and those boring stories about the desert somehow have merited layers of commentary–why is that?” I would only think halacha was important after I decided the whole thing was worth doing.
There’s a way Judaism can make sense without seeing it from the traditional viewpoint. You can find something in Judaism without being interested in the traditional commentaries, the more intricate laws of kashrut, or Hebrew; and without worrying about the stranger things like brachos over rainbows and chalitzah and hagalah and aggadah.
But embracing all those things, especially the strange parts, all of it, is an entirely different experience. It’s definitely different to read the taryag mitzvos and being interested in how “beis hamikdash mitzvos” were re-interpreted to be applicable today, than it is to read those same mitzvos and say “look at all these inapplicable mitzvos, look at all these unimportant, disposable bits.” I’ve done it both ways, and although I still liked Judaism when I looked at it from our modern haskalah perspective, it was nothing compared to what it’s like when you take the whole thing as one indivisible concept. When you go from one to the other, your whole mind shifts. It’s quite frightening.
So I can’t be bitter about the people I’ve known who don’t believe in all of it. How can you demand belief? I feel sort of bad for them because they don’t know what’s out there, whether because they intellectually can’t make a leap or because where they are in life (or even fear) prohibits it. After all, those people in the Reform B’nai Mitzvah class I wrote about last summer were just following what they believed Judaism was. And moreover, when I was nineteen, seeing the story of Noah as “two separate sources, one priestly source” was the only way I could read it with integrity at the time. At the time, I was just glad I’d found a way I could read it.
I was talking to one of my non-Ortho friends the other day, and she said she was jealous of me because it’d be so much easier if she could just accept Orthodox belief. Instead, she finds she has to question every piece of halacha and the authorship of Torah. I used to think it must be really easy to be non-Orthodox, but I can see what she means. I have the original text message I sent to her; I kept it because I thought it captured my sentiment pretty well:
“I can imagine [our rabbi] saying how unreasonable it is to believe in sinai. But like if you’re reading torah with the mindset that’s how God actually wants you to live etc. that is so fucking amazing it makes up for the inconvenience of being ortho.”
Then we read Ex. 28:17 in Torah study class, reading about the four stones on the ephod, and some commentator (it was Etz Chaim, so it was probably Hertz or something) said the four stones correspond to four types of Jews: the ones in the swamp of despair, the ones who are kind and do good things but don’t really have a great divine relationship, then the ones who do have a pretty good relationship, then finally the ones who are so in touch with God it’s like how can they even leave their house. And then it said at some point everyone is at one of these stations in life, and everyone will leave that point, and for everyone else it is equally so.
I know personally I’ve been in the swamp of despair, when I thought it wasn’t worth it anymore, and I’ve been on top too, when it seemed like I just always did everything right and God was throwing unicorn dust on me 24/7. But I realized that you never know when you’ll be back down or up again; so how can you judge others there? Or those who are still in Plato’s cave and haven’t realized there is much more beyond Hertz and Plaut commentaries? You’ve been them. I mean, I know enough to get out of the cave but I wouldn’t even consider myself out in the sunlight yet.
That was right before spring break. Then I started learning Torah myself (to be specific I’m starting with taryag mitzvos), and it was like a lifeboat. I decided that if I could finally get it just from the four stones on the ephod, maybe I should keep looking in the same place for answers. It will save you from drowning in the world of relativism and wondering what makes someone a ‘good person.’
You don’t have to rely on a syncretic amalgamation of secular ethics, Christian ethics, received platitudes, and a bit of Jewish tradition as well. There is another way. And, I think, if you stop at the surface conception of Torah (i.e. “lashon hara is just another word for gossip; it’s no more detailed that that”), it’s like you’re going to be stuck in between dreaming and awake forever. You’ve only gone halfway. Layer after layer, wall after wall. There is always more, there is always more after.