Category Archives: Hagah

Posts that meditate on, ponder about, explore the meaning of, or otherwise interrogate the reasons behind my process. In Hebrew: הָגָה

Epstein: A Common Ancestor

19 Tamuz 5774

Epstein asks us in chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism:

“What would it mean if we all shared a common ancestor?”

This bothers me, the idea that having a common ancestor should be this important. Of course, religiously, Epstein means Adam and Eve (and, I suppose, Noah and his children, since nobody else survived the Flood). But he also acknowledges genetics in the chapter that precedes this question. Chapter 4 is largely about balancing scientific findings about evolution and natural selection with Biblical teachings about the origin of humankind.

If we all shared a common ancestor in the sense that we all looked alike, we’d still find other ways to separate ourselves out and treat others as less-than. I’m a social scientist; I study this stuff.

However, we do (technically) all share common ancestry, if not a single common ancestor. And as such, we need to talk about things like race, and how we let this social construct separate us in ways we should never have let it separate us from each other.

Race is entirely a social construct. Evolution has a lot to do with it, but there are no separate “races.” There is the human race, and variation within it. The darker you are, the closer your ancestors were to the equator, and the more sun they were exposed to. Our bodies protect us against skin cancer by increasing melanin content. Conversely, the farther away from the equator your ancestors lived, and the more Vitamin D you needed to attract, the paler you’re going to be, to protect yourself from rickets.

But both of these things are just evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. There are no “races.” There are only human variations.

I really wish people could understand this better.

The problem is, humanity is, by its very nature, an ingroup-outgroup kind of creature. We like our groups and our tribes and we often define ourselves by what we’re not (the outgroup). I think, as a social scientist, that ingroup-outgroup is sort of the fundamental problem with humanity today. We can’t seem to see everyone as part of our group.

This applies to race, and it applies to gender, and to religion, and even to occupation. When are we going to get our act together as a species and see that we all share common ancestry?

So, what might it mean, if we all understood that we have a common ancestor? Maybe the end of us-and-themism. Maybe the end of ingroup-and-outgroup. Maybe the end of fighting with each other.

Yeah, I can dream, can’t I?

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Hagah #4: The Rules Lawyer Has Been Banned

19 Iyyar 5774

Apparently I’m not the only person having trouble with that Orthodox poster on the conversion board I’m part of. Last night I received notification that he has been banned from the board for talking non-Orthodox movements of Judaism down, as well as attacking people who do Judaism differently.

I won’t lie; I’m relieved that he’s been banned. But on the chance that he was sincere and not just another internet troll, I must admit that I wonder what his life is really like, if his is that rigid about the rules. It’s been documented that keeping all 613 of the mitzvot is not possible, in part because many of them require the Temple to still be standing, and it isn’t. But even those that don’t require the Temple may not be always possible. In The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs, the author found that it was impossible to keep every single rule listed in the Bible, so thinking of the mitzvot as “something to work towards” might be more realistic. But it didn’t seem that that was how the Orthodox poster went about things. So I wonder how he accomplishes his reach for perfection without beating himself up for falling short. Perhaps he takes that anger or shame about failure out on other people instead.

Yesterday I received a gift of several books on Judaism, including The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Prager and Telushkin, and in reading it I found the answer to one of my questions: “How do I get started practicing Judaism?”

The answer was “Try the ‘not yet’ method. Are you keeping kashrut? Not yet, but I am saying the brachot and the grace after meals. Are you donating 10% of your income to charity? Not yet, but I am donating more than I have in the past.” And so forth. This looks like the “mitzvot something to work towards” approach.

But in that same discussion, I might have also found an answer to why this Orthodox poster demanded absolute adherence to all the mitzvot: he worships the letter of the rules over their spirit. One of the things the authors said was that when we allow the mitzvot to become more important than the people, the mitzvot become idolatrous.

This is not a new idea. Many people who are not fundamentalist have pointed out that fundamentalists tend to worship the Bible even more than they worship G-d. The authors of  Nine Questions also point out that some of the mitzvot are person-to-person, while others are person-to-G-d. An example of a person-to-person mitzvah would be “do not place a stumbling block in front of a blind man,” while a person-to-G-d mitzvah might be about kashrut, or the prayers you say and when to say them.  And it seems that people who get bent out of shape about others not performing mitzvot tend to get bent out of shape about the person-to-G-d type a lot more than the person-to-person type.

Why is that? I have a few ideas, but I’d also like to hear from others on this one. What do you think?

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Hagah #3: The Law – Spirit and Letter

18 Iyyar 5774

I grew up in a rule-bound religion, with the emphasis on following the rules, rather than understanding their intent or their spirit. In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t leave much wiggle room for people who don’t fit inside what is actually a very narrow rule set.

Every religious movement has its rules lawyers: the people who, when faced with a hard question, will check the rule book. Indeed, this phenomenon goes beyond religious groups to cultures, societies, and nations. It becomes more prominent when the rules are written down, but even when most of the law is unwritten, there will be people who push for strict adherence to it.

I will use the gay community and its norms as an example of this rules-lawyering. The modern gay male community, at least the one that is most prominent and visible, has a very distinct “look”: Young (under 30 years old), white, athletic, well-off. In recent years, “straight-acting” has been added to this list “what gay males are like.” Queeniness and effeminacy are no longer considered appropriate. In this most visible of all the gay communities, you are expected to work hard and play hard, be sexually active and attractive, find social activity to be extremely important… Well, you get the picture.

None of these norms are written down anywhere, except in books of comedy about the gay community.  But they are enforced in dozens of subtle and unsubtle ways, including being part of the in crowd this week and on the outs next week.

However, adherence to these norms is only the surface of what it means to be a gay male. Being gay is not about following these norms; it is about being attracted to people of the same gender. As a mid 40s, heavyset, un-athletic, slightly queeny gay male, I don’t fit the “letter” of gay community norms, but I absolutely fit the spirit of them. Men are hot.

But even if you fit the spirit of the norms, if you’re attracted in any way to people who are the opposite gender, you are told that you’re not really queer, or to get off the fence. I still respond “gay” about half the time when asked what my sexual orientation is, because in the main I’m attracted to other men. My female partner is a rarity for me.

Some gay men can’t handle the idea that I have a girlfriend. In their heads that fundamentally makes me not gay. In their heads, anyone who is ever attracted to someone of the opposite gender cannot be gay. (I suppose they’ve never heard of the Kinsey scale.) But I’m still gay, for all that. I had to figure out which sub-community of the gay community I actually belonged to when I first came out. I found it–the bear community–but it took a while, and in the meantime I wondered how I would ever meet the standards set by those unwritten rules.

Finding out that I didn’t have to meet them once I found the bear community was a relief. But there will always be gay men who judge anyone who doesn’t fit those standard norms as “not really gay.” And I just have to live with that, while continuing on as the gay man that I am.

In the same way, there will always be Orthodox Jews who have decided that halachic orthodoxy is the only right way to be a Jew, and who will reject me because I do not fit the letter of their laws – they feel that I am not halachically acceptable. That still doesn’t make me any less of a Jew, however. They may never accept me, but I don’t need them to accept me. I just need my sub-community of Judaism to accept me.

I affirm that G-d is One. I affirm that we received the Torah at Sinai. But I also affirm that halacha is as much about the spirit of the law as it is about the letter of the law: to do what is right, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with our G-d, in the words of Micah. What “right” is cannot be solely tied to a narrow, letter-only interpretation of the Torah. There will be times when we must work on Shabbat. There will be times when we cannot keep kashrut. And many of the texts which do not let people live must be understood for what they are: a product of their time, written down by men who tried to understand G-d as best they could, and who ended up putting G-d in a box.

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Hagah #2: “Coming Out” Has Many Meanings

16 Iyyar 5774

There are many guides on the web about how to tell your family or friends that you are converting to Judaism. Really, they’re very similar to guides about how to how to tell your family or friends that you are gay.

Most of those guides tell you to expect two things:

1. People will be shocked. Usually they will be shocked because this is a change and they didn’t expect it.

2. People will be upset. The upset usually comes because this change feels like a rejection of who you were to them, who they were to you, or both.

The usual suggested methods of dealing with their shock or upset are to remind them that you’re still the same person you’ve always been, and that this change has nothing to do with them, and it’s not a comment or a judgment on how they live their life.

That’s all well and good, but for people who have no prior experience in coming out, it can be terrifying. For many people, declaring that you are different from your parents, or your best friend, or your grandparents, or your coworkers, can feel like putting yourself on an island that no one else can really reach.

Also, I’m not entirely sure that it’s honest to say that you will be the same person you have always been. For example, being gay might mean that you choose a different church (being Jewish almost certainly means that!). It might mean that you no longer find certain jokes appropriate. It might mean that some of the topics of your conversation will change. Depending on which movement of Judaism you are converting to, it might mean you’re no longer available on Saturdays to mow lawns, hang out, or go to football games. It might mean that you have to be more picky about where you go out to eat if you are keeping kosher. Family holidays might become problematic.

On the other hand, this also gives you new topics of conversation. Who knows? Your parents might be absolutely fascinated about Pesach or Hanukkah. One of your friends might want to go to a Pride parade with you just to see what it’s like. So it’s not necessary to approach conversion conversations like this with fear.

Still, you will need to take into account the beliefs and practices of the person to whom you are coming out. That’s where it can get a little tricky.

Since starting this journey towards Judaism, I have realized that many of my friends may not be okay with me becoming religious. After 13+ years of being an atheist you tend to collect a lot of atheist friends. Many of my atheist friends are quite vehement about their position on Deity: that there isn’t one.

Part of the reason why I write this blog is to work through the objections that I expect from many different sides. I’ve mentioned my Christian correspondent, as well as my Gentile partner, as people whose concerns and questions I’ve already had to respond to. I’m sure that my atheist friends will have concerns and questions as well.

Answering their questions is very much like coming out as gay always has been. In a sense, I’m “coming out” as a Jew. Yesterday, I made my first foray into non-theist territory by telling one of my research partners, a non-practicing Jew, that I was converting.

He is not precisely atheist, but he is areligious. Culturally, he’s Jewish, but he doesn’t practice Judaism in a religious sense. And that turned out to be okay when we talked about my conversion. He said, “it shouldn’t be about whether we care if you convert. It should be about what works for you.”

Still, I know that some of my atheist friends may not take it very well when they find out that I am converting. But then again, I’ve handled this coming out process before, and I know that most people may be surprised, but very few of them will leave. I’ve already worked out many of my responses to the questions that I know they will have, just by posting here.

So I know what it’s likely to be like when I do come out. The friends I’ve told already are largely people of faith of some kind: Christians, pagans, other Jews. They’ve all been happy, so this has been a good start for me. My research partner’s reaction is also heartening. But there will probably be two or three friends who say, “How ridiculous. I can’t believe that you would be this weak-minded.” And I’ll lose those friends. It’s just part of what you get used to when you come out.

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Hagah #1: Why Judaism?

12 Iyyar 5774

Preface: In talking about why I feel that I (am/need to be) a Jew, one of the things I’ve had to think about is what religion means to me now that I’ve started listening to the intuitive, experiential evidence that I would not pay attention to previously. This does not seem, to me, to be a wrestling match, so I’m categorizing it under “Hagah,” which is the Hebrew word for “meditation, pondering, contemplation, or examination.” These are not me fighting with anything, but rather organizing, or sorting out, what I feel and believe. Hence this category.

NOTE: What I write here may offend some Christian readers. I do not intend offense, but in order to show my reasoning, some of what I say may feel like attacks on your belief. I’m not saying your belief is wrong; I am simply saying why I do not connect with it. 

So, since I have abandoned atheism, I really have to push on this question: Why Judaism? I mean, if it’s all just about believing in G-d, Christianity should suit me just as well as Judaism, right? If I was misled about who the G-d of the Christian churches was by my bad experiences with an NPD mother, I should be willing to try Christianity again before I make this huge and irrevocable step of declaring that I am Jewish and becoming Jewish, right?

Well… no. Not really. The atheism is only part of the issue I was having. There are two other important components: theology (or what the religion says about who and what G-d is) and whether the religion and I “fit” with one another on four metrics that are important to me: ethics, learning, ritual, and community.

THEOLOGY

I did believe in G-d until I was in my early teens. Then things that happened to me, as well as discovering science and finding how appealing it was to my logical mind, made me declare that if it can’t be empirically measured, it wasn’t real. But that denied many of my experiences: singing in church always made me feel there was Something there beyond our shared experience – and what else to call that Something but G-d? I knew people who were quite holy and spiritual, including my own father – what else to call them but G-d-filled? Yes, as an atheist, for quite some time, I called them “delusional.” But that was my thinking/reasoning brain trying to deny any reality or credibility to emotions or experiential evidence. That was me with the hammer of logic, looking at everything like it had to be a nail of empirical evidence or it wasn’t a real nail.

Being in Christian churches – first Catholic, and then some very right-wing Protestant, and then Catholic again – never spoke to me. The ritual, yes. The music, yes. The theology? Absolutely not. Some of the main backbone beliefs of Christianity, concerning what and who G-d is, are either very strange or downright horrifying to me.

For example, the belief in original sin – that all of us have to pay, forever and ever, for Adam’s mistake in the Garden – seems rather vindictive, doesn’t it? (I personally prefer Rabbi Bardin’s take on that: Eve had to push Adam to grow up, so she made it possible for them to leave the Garden by forcing the issue. Read Telushkin’s account of that in Jewish Literacy, if you’re interested – it’s well worth a read.) There’s also an amusing play called “The Creation of the World and Other Business” which goes into this issue – until Adam and Eve knew about good and evil, until they grew up, G-d had zero hope of grandchildren.

Another bit of theology that horrifies me about Christianity is this whole G-d-sacrificed-his-son-to-pay-for-our-sins thing. Central to Christian theology, this just doesn’t make sense to me. When I discovered Judaism I discovered why.

Jews don’t believe that anyone other than the person who did the harm can atone for the harm (see Yom Kippur). Since you, and only you, can atone for your sins, the idea of G-d sacrificing his son to pay for your sins makes zero sense. This is echoed in the story of Abraham being sent to sacrifice his son Isaac, and being told by G-d not to do that after Abraham demonstrated that he was willing to do so. If G-d wouldn’t let Abraham sacrifice his son (an act which was intended to demonstrate to the Jews of the time that human sacrifice, commonly practiced by their neighbors, was no longer an acceptable act), the logic of him killing his own son later on makes zero sense. If G-d is not logical, he is not G-d. The G-d of the Torah is logical. Everything he does or makes happen, happens for a logical reason.

Let’s not even get into the whole “he died, was dead for three days, and came back to life” thing, okay? I’ll just say my position here as succinctly as I can: biological reality all aside, if G-d brought him back to life, did killing him even count? To me that’s not only icky, it’s kind of ridiculous and negates the whole stated purpose (as confused as it is) of killing him in the first place.

Finding out that the Jesus story as explicated in the four books that Christians call “the Gospels” is actually engineered to fit with the Jewish liturgical calendar gives me further evidence that the Jesus story is, at least in part, a made-up story. You can read more about that argument in John Shelby Spong’s book “Liberating the Gospels.

After discovering Judaism I found other reasons that the Jesus story makes no sense: he doesn’t do any of the things that the Messiah was supposed to do (see Michael Benami Doyle’s explanation of this, which is better than any I could do at this point).

In any case, it isn’t just about whether there’s a G-d or not. It’s also about whether the theology surrounding G-d makes sense. The Jewish theology makes sense to me; the Christian theology does not.

Now that I’ve dispensed with that, let’s get on to why Judaism calls to me by fulfilling what I need from a religious practice.

PRACTICE 

What I need from religion can be boiled down to four main things: ethics, learning, ritual and community. In order to explain why Christianity and paganism did not accomplish this for me (including my stint in the Unitarian Universalist church as a UU pagan/atheist), I’ll explain what each of these needs means to me, and then go over each religion I tried to explain why only Judaism fulfills them.

Ethics

For me, ethics boils down to “do no harm, and if you see harm happening, prevent it if you can and help the one harmed if you can’t.” While this sounds a bit absolutist, it’s not. The ethics that a religion espouses have to fit with my internal sense of justice for it to work for me; otherwise, I’m swimming upstream against a whitewater rapid.

The ethics of Catholicism, frankly, alienate me. The idea that we have the right to ostracize people because they are women, or queer, is not a holy idea. To this day, the Catholic church issues edicts that say that women are second-class citizens, that gays only have the right to be celibate, and that women have no right to decisions about their own bodies. Every time I had to listen to a homily about abortion, or gays, or feminism, I walked out of the church with a face streaked by angry tears at the injustice of the belief system espoused in those homilies. And let’s not go into the pedophilic scandals that have rocked the Catholic church for twenty years or more.

The ethics of the Christian churches I attended alienated me for similar reasons. Again, the demand that women take a backseat, that gays get off the bus entirely, etc. just made me disgusted and angry. I think what made me even angrier was that so many of the sermons claimed love at the same time that they were preaching abuse.

The ethics of the Unitarian church worked fine for me, as did the ethics of paganism, but I missed other components in these faith practices, which I’ll get to in a few more paragraphs.

Learning

Learning is one of the loves of my life. I’m an academic and a teacher. I need a religion that constantly pushes me to learn more, and has more available for me to learn. A religion that has finite answers that don’t invite discussion, questioning, or doubt is not a religion that will fill this need for me.

In the Catholic and Christian churches I attended, “learning” meant “parrot back what we tell you to believe.” It did not mean what I consider learning: exploring, engaging with the text, questioning the text, debating the meaning of the text. It also means the freedom to make mistakes and to doubt and still be considered a good person. That was not my experience of Catholicism or of Christianity. Instead, I was ostracized, talked down to, and scolded for asking questions or doubting. When I expressed doubt, I was told to pray harder, not to ask questions. I was told to accept the mystery, rather than investigate it to find answers. I found this attitude really difficult to deal with; I’m the son of two teachers and now a teacher myself. This rejection of learning did not sit well with me at all.

Paganism and the Unitarians, again, encouraged learning… but in paganism I didn’t find the answers I wanted, and in the Unitarian church, many of the answers were “we don’t know, and that’s okay,” without encouraging discussion.

Ritual

I’m a sociologist, and yes, I understand what ritual is all about. But for me, the repetition and dependability of ritual is a bedrock for me. If there is no ritual, I have no meaningful way to worship. If I have no meaningful way to worship, I lose my connection to the Divine. If I lose my connection to the Divine, well… what’s the point?

While the Catholic church and paganism completely satisfied this need for me (I still love “high church” services), the other lacks I felt in each practice made it impossible for me to continue. Most Christian churches rejected ritual, including the Unitarians (who started out as nominally Protestant), so I couldn’t find ritual there at all.

Community

Ritual goes hand in hand with community. A ritual performed alone is not satisfying to me. I need to feel my feelings from other people around me. I need to see my awe reflected in other people’s eyes. If I don’t have that, the religion does nothing for me. The very word, “religion,” can be broken down into its two roots: “re,” to do something again; and “lig,” to connect. Religion, then, is the reconnection you feel – and for most people, including me, reconnection takes a community.

Paganism largely failed me here, because the pagan community is overwhelmingly online, not an in-person community. Although there are occasional celebrations that happen throughout the year, it’s hard to get to them. Also, for me, a community has to be people that I know and meet regularly. I could never get that in paganism. I kept searching for, and not finding, much of anything.

While the Catholic and Christian churches I attended did give me some feeling of community, the overwhelming feelings of disapproval that were directed at me for doubting, or for being queer, or for supporting women created a deep feeling of disconnection – invalidating what community is supposed to do in the first place.

SO, WHY JUDAISM?

First, the theology of Judaism makes sense to me, as I talked about in the previous Wrestling Match. The way that Judaism sees G-d doesn’t frighten me; it fills me with awe and peace. Knowing that I do not have to figure him out (that is, that it’s not an expectation that I will figure him out) but that he won’t be angry with me if I have doubt and questions – that is exactly what I need from a G-d. And Judaism fulfills that need.

Second, the ethical structure of Judaism pretty much rests on the idea of tikkun olam – “heal the world.” This fits exactly with my own internal sense of justice. The arguments in Reform and often Conservative Judaism towards allowing women equality, treating gays the same as straights, etc. is a huge, huge deal to me. I won’t have to walk out of a Shabbat service with tears of anger on my face.

Third, learning is central to Judaism. I’ve heard of other converts who were told, “Of course you’d be a good Jew – you’re a scholar.” As an academic who loves investigating and learning more, Judaism offers me the opportunity (and more than that, mandates the responsibility) to investigate and learn for the rest of my life, as a core part of my religious practice.

Fourth, Judaism has ritual. I was relieved to find out that Reform shuls have largely re-embraced ritual, because it’s extremely important to me – daily ritual, weekly ritual, and year-round ritual. The ritual of the Seder I attended during Pesach made me feel supported and included, rather than being an outsider looking in. Learning about the Jewish liturgical calendar and calendar of holidays and festivals feels like coming home, to me. There will be a rhythm to my life, instead of a disjointed “what are we going to discuss this week?” uncertainty.

Finally, the community in Judaism is a welcoming community. I know this not only from my own experience but also from the experiences I’ve read from other converts. While individual shuls may not offer this welcome, as a Jew you have the right to pick the shul that makes you feel welcome. There are in-person regular meetings, classes, and a concern for those in the community that transcends a simple religious belief.

Christian friends and acquaintances may find it hard to understand why the theology of Christianity doesn’t make sense to me, but even if it did, Christianity would fall down in at least two other areas that are requirements for me in order to follow a religion.

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