Category Archives: Judaism

Countdown -5: The 7th of Elul and Being

By the Hebrew calendar, it’s already the 8th of Elul. However, I didn’t post on Shabbat, so this is for the 7th. Yesterday was the 7th of Elul, which is 5 days before I become a full Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

Today’s theme is “be.” That’s also a toughie for me. Because today it’s raised the question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Being is a pretty encompassing term. It’s also not a word that exists in Hebrew in the present tense – it’s all implied. This can lead to some funny weirdnesses in translation. If I say “Ani Adam,” it literally translates as “Me/I Adam.” Which is clunky in English.

But that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. Grammar is something for another day. Let’s talk about being.

When we say I AM something, we mean in the present tense. In the past year, I’ve been saying I am a Jew, more and more, rather than “I will be a Jew.” Because I have felt like I am already a Jew, and this Thursday’s scheduled activities (beit din; mikveh) are just formalities. They will be profound formalities, but they will simply affirm what I already am.

So then what does it mean to be a Jew? Is it about observing a certain number or kind of mitzvot? Is it in the way you dress? Is it in how often you go to Temple? Is it about how perfect you are about being ready for Shabbat before sundown, or not missing Havdalah? This has come up so often on this blog that it might be something my readers are tired of hearing. But today I read something on Quora about Judaism that really struck me. Lisa Reiss said:

Although the term ‘sect’ is used in regard to Judaism, it’s essentially referring to level of religious observance and regional traditions not radically different beliefs.

That, I think, is the best way to sum up the differences between my way of being a Jew and an Orthodox haredi’s way of being a Jew. And even then, I don’t think I’m at a lower level of observance than he is, but a different one.

I’m still a Jew. I may not be his kind of Jew, but I’m still a Jew.


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Countdown -6: The 6th of Elul and Knowing

Today is the 6th of Elul, which is six days from when I will be officially a Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

Today’s theme is “know.” (Have you noticed that the themes of these days all seem like pretty tall orders on the surface reading? Yeah, me too.) What does it mean, to “know?” Let’s start there.

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of “know:”

Full Definition of KNOW

transitive verb
1 a (1) : to perceive directly : have direct cognition of (2) : to have understanding of <importance of knowing oneself> (3) : to recognize the nature of : discern
   b (1) : to recognize as being the same as something previously known (2) : to be acquainted or familiar with (3) : to have experience of
2 a : to be aware of the truth or factuality of : be convinced or certain of
   b : to have a practical understanding of <knows how to write>
3 archaic : to have sexual intercourse with

Psalm 46:10 says (in English): “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

Okay. Which form of “know” are we talking about here?

Well, too many times I’ve heard other religious people say that they know God is real, and most people who hear that will interpret it as the first part of the first definition above – to perceive directly. Which is probably one reason why so many non-religious people shrug and say “Yeah, whatever. Show me proof that there’s a God, or shut up.”

I used to do that, because that’s the definition of “know” that I always used. I also knew that it was a jerk move, but I did it anyway. I thought being a scientist meant that kind of knowing – seeing or otherwise perceiving directly.

But let’s look at the third part of the first definition, shall we? To recognize the nature of. Well. That’s a very different matter, isn’t it?

Recognizing the nature of God is not the same as seeing God in a burning bush, or seeing God come down from a mountain. It doesn’t mean having to see God in physical form. Quite the opposite. It means understanding why that is neither possible nor necessary.

The nature of God is infinite and omnipresent. When we try to impose a physical form on God, it’s our minds trying to comprehend that nature. It’s our minds trying to know by creating a form that we can perceive directly. But God is not in a form that we can perceive directly. God is infinite and omnipresent.

Just stating that may not give me a full recognition of the nature of God, but it’s a start. God is here, regardless of whether we perceive God or not. God is also there, whether we perceive God or not.

Now, I know some people will say that that’s a cop-out. For example, my Christian correspondent last year pressed me to define God exactly, saying that I couldn’t be sure my need to convert was real unless I understood God by being able to define God. But I think that’s where I started to realize that I needed to pull away from the demand that I define God – or that I had to define God in order to know God.

I don’t.

I can know that God is real, that God is infinite, and that I cannot possibly perceive God directly – but also that I don’t need to.

Sometimes, it’s okay not to know.

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Countdown -7: The 5th of Elul and Accepting

Today is the 5th of Elul, which is one week until I officially become a Member of the Tribe.BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme is “Accept.” Hoo, boy. I’m not sure I even know where to begin.

In our class yesterday, we discussed the idea that in order to change, you have to begin by not changing – by accepting who and what you are, where you are, right here, right now. For a lot of people that’s a really tough thing to do. I know it is for me. I’ve been fighting with this – wrestling with it, if you will – for all 44 years of my life. There’s always something preventing me from accepting who and what I am, where I am, right here and now.

So I guess I’ll talk about acceptance by talking about that.

Part of yesterday’s lesson in class, which came from the outstanding book God Was in This Place, & I, i Did Not Know by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, really hit me hard. It was the part where the book says that in order to improve yourself, or better yourself in any way, you have to accept your starting point. The class got very exercised about this point. One person said “But then how can I better myself, if I accept where I am right now? Isn’t that like giving up or giving in?”

I (and several others) brought up the idea that we focus too much on the goal, or what we think we “should be,” instead of the process, or how we get incrementally closer to the goal, as the main point in change. For example:

  • I’ll be acceptable once I’ve lost 30 pounds.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I can run a marathon.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I can quote the Talmud from memory.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I have that job.

But isn’t the truth that God finds you acceptable right now, as you are, even though you’re not perfect? Doesn’t acceptance, at its heart, come down to being okay with not being perfect? Because the truth is, none of us can be perfect, no matter how driven we feel towards perfection.

This brings up another lesson I’ve already learned before, but I’m seeing it in a new way. (Judaism does that to lessons, I notice: Turn it and turn it, for all can be found in it.) The lesson I’m thinking of is the one that says “When asked if you are keeping kosher/giving 10% of your income in tzedakah/whatever, a good answer is ‘I’m working on it.'”

  • Are you giving 10% of your income in tzedakah? Not yet, but I’m working on it. I gave $20 to a homeless man the other day.
  • Are you keeping kosher? Not completely, but I’m working on it. For example, I no longer eat shellfish.
  • Are you saying all the required brachot and other prayers? Not yet, but I say the Shema every morning and every night.

Why are we so unwilling to say “I’m working on it” instead of “I’ve got it done/fixed/handled?” Why are we so prone to demanding completion rather than process?

Robert Merton, in his theory of institutional anomie, said that the American society is far too focused on the goals and not nearly enough on the means of achieving those goals (aka the process). Is it a human condition to focus on the goal rather than the process? Or is it simply a condition that we’ve created for ourselves in this hectic world where you don’t eat unless you have a paycheck?

It might seem that I’ve strayed far afield from the idea of “accept,” but I haven’t, really. Because all this is, is accepting where we are, right now, isn’t it? It’s accepting that a goal is not the be-all and end-all, that process is the real thing, and that being 1% better than you were yesterday could mean a 365% improvement in a year, if you did it every day.

But to do that, you have to accept where you are as the starting point.

Where are you today? Right here, right now, what do you need to accept in order to move forward?

Look down at the starting line. That’s where you are, right here, right now. The finish line will wait for you.

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Countdown -8: the 4th of Elul and Understanding

Today is the 4th of Elul, which is 8 days before I officially become a Jew.BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme is “understand.” And it occurs to me that this goes quite nicely with a request from Rafi: What are the rules of my blog? and something else I saw on Facebook today. That something is here:

Realization isn’t always the absence of confusion. Sometimes it’s the total acceptance and embracing of confusion. – Brad Warner

Understanding is also, sometimes, when you have to totally accept confusion. I do not pretend to be a straightforward, uncomplicated, linear person. I have contradictions, and I know I do. Some of those are centered around Israel and its politics, and also its political situation (the two are not the same). Some of those are centered around my views of Judaism and what it means to be a good Jew. Some of those are just contradictory because I’m a human being and humans are contradictory, go figure.

I don’t know everything about what it means to be a Jew who practices in the Reform manner. But here’s the thing: nobody does. Just like nobody knows everything about what it means to be a Jew, period, or an American, or a woman, or a gay man, or any other category you care to name. This goes along with yesterday’s theme of seeking. Sometimes we seek understanding and we don’t find it.

What the quote above is telling me is that it’s okay not to find it. The world is not a nice, linear, orderly place. There are a lot of weird things in our world – ever seen a duck-billed platypus? That, my friends, is weird. (It also tells me that God has a sense of humor, which has been a life-saving thing for me since I started down this path.)

So let’s start with this basic point: Sometimes there are things you don’t understand. Sometimes those are things you won’t understand, or can’t understand, or can never understand. For example, I can never understand God. My finite mind is not capable of understanding the Infinite, the Eternal. At a Shabbaton that I attended during our Intro classes, we talked about the infinite universe. We talked about how understanding – comprehension – really isn’t possible for us when we look at something that macrocosmic.

For me, today’s theme is more about letting go of the need to understand. I have been intensely frustrated trying to understand things that I cannot understand, and it’s caused me insane stress. Why do that to myself? Part of this process of preparation is to stop intellectualizing everything and just experience it sometimes.

I will address Rafi’s question in another post, but for this one I’m just going to leave you all these questions:

  1. What do you think you have to understand?
  2. Why do you think you have to understand it?
  3. What would life be like if you knew that you could never understand it? How would that change your life?

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Countdown, -9 and counting: 3 Elul and Searching

Today is the 3rd of Elul, which is 9 days from the day I become a full Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

I have been reading about Elul this week, on Anna’s Jewish Thoughts and Jewels of Elul. And it occurs to me that Elul is a time of preparation – and I am preparing. Not just for the beit din and mikveh, but for the High Holy Days, of course. Every Jew is, in their own way, preparing for those.

Today’s theme, if you will, for 3 Elul is “search.” We can search outside ourseives or inside ourselves, but to search – to seek, if you will – is so much a part of me that it’s part of my blog name (“shocher” – שׁוֹחֵר – means “seeker”).

A year and a half ago, when I first contemplated the day I’d finally meet the beit din, I thought the following things, none of which were very realistic:

  1. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no further doubt that God exists.
  2. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no doubts about being a Jew.
  3. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no doubts, period.

I’m sure you can see how that’s not realistic. Everyone doubts. “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth,” as the meditation from my best friend’s siddur warned me. But how does this connect to seeking or searching?

Well, seeking includes doubting. It includes not being sure. And it includes something I’ve never been comfortable with: being comfortable with not being sure. I have so much baggage between my religious upbringing and having been abused by an emotionally disturbed parent, not to mention being autistic, that doubt has always been something I’ve been afraid of. Even as a scientist, while seeking answers about social problems from my data, I have fought the possibility that my answers might be wrong. I have fought the possibility of doubt.

But seeking has to include doubting, or it’s not seeking. Searching has to include the possibility that we might not find what we’re looking for in the form we are expecting, or that we might not find it right now but we might find it later, somewhere else, or that it might not even exist at all. Searching has to include the ability to say “I’m not sure that this is what I was looking for,” and also “I’m not sure that this answers my question.”

If the beit din asks me what Judaism has given me, I know one thing that I will be able to tell them. Being able to say “I’m not sure,” being able to say “I don’t know” – these are priceless things to someone like me. Because even now, saying “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” makes my stomach clench with anxiety.

But it’s not as bad as it used to be for me. Not nearly. Because now I have Judaism, and Judaism both allows me to doubt and more or less expects that I will doubt. I’m not going to be punished for doubting, or arguing, or having a different opinion than the Jew sitting next to me at Torah study. That’s both expected and encouraged.

So becoming a Jew has given me, among other things, permission to doubt and not feel like I’m going to go to hell for it – either literally or figuratively.

Every now and then I still have doubt that God exists. Every now and then (usually when I see something egregious or upsetting inside the Jewish community) I have doubts about being a Jew – not doubting that I want to be a Jew, or that I am a Jew, but that I can accept that Jews who attack others are still Jews too. In Christianity it was always the opposite – if they attacked people they weren’t a “real Christian.” Judaism does not give me this “No True Scotsman” dodge. But the people that I’ve written about here on my blog, who’ve made me worried and made me doubt, are also Jews. By making it formal and official that I’m a Jew, I’m also declaring a connection to them, however reluctant I am about that aspect of it.

For me, acknowledging that I will be part of one of the most hated, persecuted, and reviled groups on the planet is easy compared to acknowledging that I’ll be part of a group that includes people like the ones who burned down that Palestinian baby’s house and burned him to death, or murdered that young woman at Jerusalem Pride.

But I’m still going to do it. Why? Well, that’s another thing that Judaism has given me as I’ve been searching for these last eighteen months and more: a name for my drive for justice. Tikkun olam. Healing the world. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. And if my being a visible Jew gives an anti-Semite a moment of doubt, or if my being a visible Jew causes someone to search out answers they might not have considered before, then that’s a step in the right direction.

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Counting Down to the 12th of Elul

On 12 Elul 5775 (August 27 2015), I will officially cross the line.

Once I cross that line, I will no longer be a “convert” or a “ger.” In the eyes of my fellow Jews, I will be a Jew, and will have always been a Jew.

That’s ten days from today. Ten more days of being a Gentile, and then never again.

When I read Michael Benami Doyle’s account of the day of his conversion, I was stunned by the wonder in his words. He woke up thinking “This is the last day I’m going to wake up as a Gentile.” But I don’t think that’s going to be my experience. I already identify as a Jew, and I have for more than a year now. I haven’t really identified as a Gentile (or a non-Jew) since I started working with my current rabbi more than a year ago.

However, as I’ve said in recent posts, the day of my beit din and mikveh is not the finish line. It’s more like the starting line. I’ve made it to a certain point, but it’s like a b’nei mitzvah point. The journey doesn’t end here. I will have much more to learn, to do, and to be after this point.

Part of my mind is yammering on about all the little ticky things that go with the conversion process: how do I get my toenails that clean? Will I be able to remove my earrings, which have been in for six years and never removed because they’re captive bead rings and I have never figured out how to remove them? What about afterwards – will I be able to get them back IN? (I honestly don’t know, and those earrings are important to me – I got them at a time in my life when I was missing my father more than I can say.) Will I remember all three of the blessings at the mikveh? (Would you believe how often I’ve muttered “vetzivanu al ha-tevilah” under my breath in the last six weeks?) What will the beit din ask me? Am I really prepared for this? Will I faint? What if there’s too much traffic between here and the mikveh? Will I remember to bring the Mogen David kippah that I got for this occasion? Will I remember my tallit clips that my friend gave me more than a year ago, to go with the tallit she bought me and will bring on the day of? What if I’m allergic to the soaps at the mikveh?

And part of my mind is standing back amused and saying “All of that will be handled. You worry too much.”

Yes. I do worry too much. It’s part of what makes me who I am. (I joke that that neuroticism is part of why I’m going to be such a good Jew, too.)

So what happens between now and then? Well…

I plan to purchase our first mezuzah on the actual day, either at our synagogue or at AJU. It’s one of the few pieces of Judaica we don’t have yet. The other one is a challah platter, but I’ve already picked out the one I want that goes with our other Judaica. I will probably have my friend help me remove my earrings the night before (it will take two people) and pack a small bag to take with me – nothing like a mikveh kit, but my own shampoo, and a comb, and my tallit clips and my new kippah that is for this occasion.

And I’m going to make sure to have something more than coffee before I go to the beit din at 8:30 AM.

What happens after it’s done? Well…

I acquired a new blog follower recently who worried in her own post about the blogs she follows that I was going to stop posting once my conversion was done. I’m not sure what the status of this blog will be eleven days from now. I may still post, but it probably won’t be so much about conversion anymore. I’ve gone through the holidays as a Jew, starting with Pesach two years ago. I’ve celebrated all of them in one form or another. I may still write about these things being relatively new, but it won’t be from the point of view of a convert, I don’t think. It will be from the point of view of a Jew.

Will I stop identifying as “a convert?” As those words? Yes, probably, unless I have to explain why I don’t have a recipe for my grandmother’s matzo ball soup or rugelach (she wasn’t a Jew), or why my Judaica is all so new and shiny and modern (I bought it myself). But I will always identify as a JBC, or Jew by Choice. That doesn’t necessarily mean someone who converted, either. Many people who were raised secularly as Jews and became religious later – the baalei teshuvot – also identify as Jews by Choice. I became Jewish. The mikveh will not erase my past; it will add on to my present and my future. It will place a new layer on top of the person I still am and still will be.

Counting down to my beit din/mikveh date (I don’t want to say “conversion date,” because conversion is an ongoing process, not a single point in time) feels like my own little counting of the Omer. I know it’s not, but it feels that way. So today I say:

Today is the 2nd of Elul, which is ten days from the day I become a full-fledged Member of the Tribe.

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Murky Sunset

Coffee Shop Rabbi

Last night’s sunset was downright creepy. The Sabbath departed amidst the smoke of several huge fires upstate. The horizon was obliterated by the filth in the air; the murk appeared to swallow the burning orange ball of the sun.

The land is dry from four years of drought. Unwise management in the past has left us with a huge “fuel load” in many of our wild lands, and in some places there are stands of exotic (non-native) plants that add to the danger. Now firefighters are risking their lives to try to protect people, animals, and property from the ravages of the fires – and fire season in California has months yet to go.

The facts of the drought here in California are sobering: right now, we have made our water supply almost completely dependent on the Sierra snow pack, which has not been replenished in four winters. The coming El Niño weather…

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My Issues With Orthodoxy: A Response to Rafi Mollot

I had not intended to devote an entire post to this topic. Most regular readers of my blog already know how I feel about the Orthodox stream of Judaism, between the Elad Debacle a few months ago, the Haredim who are constantly trying to stop the Women of the Wall from worshiping at the Kotel, and of course the ongoing violence from Israeli Jewish extremists against women and children, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My position’s been pretty clear, and I guess you could say I’m with Wil Wheaton on this: Don’t be a dick.

But after Rafi Mollot‘s impassioned response to a comment thread on my blog, which asked me if I was just using stereotypes to judge an entire group, I felt that it was necessary to make this a full post.

Rafi and I got into it the other day in my post “A Wasted Yom Kippur”. You can see our conversation in the comments. I felt at first complimented, and then condescended to, by what he initially said. Part of that may have been that Rafi had not read the rest of my blog, and so did not know my position on Orthodoxy. My reasons for not converting Orthodox – now, or ever – are pretty well-known to my regular readers. Some posts which probably stand out in that area are:

Wrestling Match #1: Orthodoxy and Self-Definition as a Jew
They’re Not Your Shabbos Goyim, and Other Hard Truths
Hey, Pop Chassid, It’s Not a Paradox
Style or Substance? A Follow-Up Post

There have also been posts about Orthodox converts on the conversion boards that I’ve read and been part of, which boil down to: They claim that Orthodox Judaism is the only “real” Judaism, and I disagree. They usually end up being banned for trolling the boards and refusing to get along with other Jews because they refuse to recognize anyone who isn’t Orthodox as a Jew.

Most of my readers know this already. But Rafi was not a regular reader. I’m pretty sure he found me from Rabbi Adar’s reblog of that post.

At the time I responded, I was also tired and I had had a bad day, which probably colored my response. When I read his initial comment, what I got out of it was “If you’re not Orthodox, you’re not really a Jew, you know.” It rubbed me the wrong way.

So first of all, I should explain why I’m not converting Orthodox. I will refer people back to this post from now on, if I get comments like Rafi’s again, so that the explanations are clear.

  1. I’m queer. That’s not going to change. Since the Orthodox are well-known for being homophobic, I have zero interest in being Orthodox. The stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade did not help this perception.
  2. The Orthodox are, by and large, very sexist and misogynist in their practices. I find the existence of the mechitza despicable, and the reasons given for it appalling. The ongoing struggle between the Women of the Wall and the haredim at the Kotel is a big deal to me, and I’m on the side of the women, not the haredim.
  3. By and large, the problems I’ve seen in Israel (and Jewish enclaves outside of Israel) when Jews are involved are caused by Orthodox Jews (many times, ultra-Orthodox) Jews. See my intro paragraph for a few examples. Frankly, I don’t want to be part of that.

The upshot is, I have been personally told by Orthodox people, such as Pop Chassid and the various Orthodox on the convert boards, that I’m not a “real Jew” because I’m not Orthodox. It doesn’t take too many times of that happening to decide that Orthodox Jews generally have a stick up their behinds and their hands clamped firmly over their ears, singing La La La to avoid any new information. And it doesn’t take much for me to believe that when an Orthodox tries to push me towards Orthodox practices that the underlying message is “you’re not a real Jew unless you’re an Orthodox Jew.”

That said, I jumped to conclusions when I got Rafi’s original comment (I am quoting the second half here, because it’s the part that made me jump to conclusions).

On that note, and I know I’m about to open up a can of worms here, but I do so out of genuine concern for you, not to stir up controversy. Here goes… I know of quite a number of cases in which people who converted to Judaism through Reform were chagrined to learn later that their conversion was not recognized by some other streams of Judaism (particularly Orthodox). See this article on the subject:

Importantly: “The Reform movement recommends that the potential convert be made aware of mikvah and mila, and that their conversion would be unacceptable to Orthodox Jews, but such notification is not required.” (And, by the way, I do believe the Orthodox have the right to preserve Judaism according to their tradition by upholding strict standards for conversion. There’s nothing wrong with that.)

So, I’m telling you because I care about you. From your description, you and I share a fair amount in common, and you certainly seem like someone worth caring about. And this important information may influence how you go about conversion or your overall decision to convert.

Since my beit din and mikveh is in eleven days, I have zero interest in changing my focus. I’m also having a conversion process that will be acceptable to just about every other stream of Judaism, including the Conservative/Masorti stream – a beit din, the mikveh, and hatafat dam brit. I had already settled that issue long before Rafi commented. But he didn’t know that, and I should have been less sharp in my response. As I said, I was having a bad day and I was tired, and that probably colored my response, which I will quote here:

I am well aware of the Orthodox position on my conversion, but this may surprise you: I don’t care what Orthodox Jews think of me. They don’t own Judaism, even though they think they do. Yes, they have the right to hold to their tradition. They do not, however, have the right to claim sole ownership of Judaism, any more than the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to claim sole ownership of Christianity.

I’ve written on this issue extensively in this blog already. I have a strong dislike of fundamentalists, and the Orthodox fit into that category. Yes, they’re Jews. But so am I. They can pretend I’m not a Jew, but they will be wrong. If the anti-Semitic pogroms came again, I’d be targeted right along with them.

This article may help you understand my position:

I am finishing my initial conversion process with my beit din on the 27th. It will include mikveh and hatafat dam brit. I say initial because conversion is a life-long process. A b’nei mitzvah doesn’t stop learning and growing after their 13th birthday; a Jew by choice doesn’t stop learning after their beit din. If I had doubts about the stream of Judaism I was joining, I wouldn’t be going through with this.

And as a matter of fact, knowing the Orthodox position has influenced how I went about conversion – I deliberately chose the Reform movement because the Orthodox make me ill with their continued fundamentalism. They can hold to their strict standards for conversion to their variety of Judaism. They cannot impose those standards on me. And when they try to impose their standards on others, we get stabbings at the Jerusalem pride parade (, and infants set on fire (, and closer to home in the US, we get young women who commit suicide because their Orthodox communities hounded them into it ( You can probably see that I’m not interested in their views after events like this. I hold all Orthodox responsible for those deaths (and by extension, all Jews including myself, for not putting the kibosh on the Orthodox and their hateful views).

I don’t like your implication that the Reform somehow hide this information from conversion candidates – that the Orthodox only accept Orthodox converts. It was never hidden from me. It annoyed me when I discovered it (on my own, before I even contacted a rabbi), and angered me when my rabbi and I discussed it, but I am not chagrined that the Orthodox wouldn’t accept me. I am chagrined that they’re too closed-minded to accept me, because that’s their loss. Their acceptance has zero bearing on my decision to become a Jew – apart from my sense of justice showing me that they have none.

I am a Jew who practices my Judaism in the Reform manner. If you wish to follow my blog, I’m fine with that. However, I’m not fine with commentary that says that only the Orthodox are real Jews, so if that’s your stance, I would appreciate it if you’d keep it out of my blog. Having looked at your blog, I doubt that you would be comfortable here, especially after seeing your recent attack on scientists.

Framing it as “caring about me,” when you’ve read one or two of my posts, sounds too much like Christians who have tried to convince me that Judaism is wrong and Jesus is the only right way. Don’t be one of those folks, okay?

Also, don’t take my quoting of an Orthodox rabbi as any indication that I think Orthodoxy is the only way, or the only right way. Rabbi Hartman said something smart and important, and something that more Jews need to think about. That’s why I quoted him – not because he was an Orthodox rabbi. I’ve found worthy information to think about in all kinds of books and from all kinds of sources.

Rafi responded back the next day, and I had to think about it for a while before responding. I will be interleaving his most recent response with my responses to it. Hopefully we can come to some kind of understanding here.

Adam, thank you for your honest and heartfelt reply. If only most Jews had as acute an understanding of Judaism as you do, in your expression that a Jew’s journey does not end with Bar Mitzvah (or conversion, in this case), but only begins. I have a friend, a rabbi, who says, “There’s no such thing as Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew, Reform Jew, etc. There are only two kinds of Jews. Growing Jews, and non-growing Jews. Where you are on the spectrum of observance is irrelevant. The question is, are you moving in the right direction?” I have heard this from a number of rabbis (who would be labelled Orthodox, incidentally). In fact, I had had plans with another rabbi friend of mine, a former colleague, to start a “movement” called “Under-Constructionist Judaism” (UCJ) based on this philosophy. We both left the organization we had been working for at the end of that year and went our separate ways, so nothing ever came of that.

Rafi, I shared something similar not so long ago in this blog, in Moving Up The Ladder, or, The Foundation of My Yiddishkeit. “You have not told me which of the men is moving upward,” said the rabbi in this lesson, and I agree with that. UCJ sounds interesting, but I wonder if it was more of a thought experiment than a thing that was actually needed by the community.

However, on the topic of your anti-Orthodox diatribe, I would like to ask you a question. Have you ever met Orthodox Jews? Interacted with them? Spent time with them? Or are all your conceptions of what Orthodox Jews are based on their portrayal in the media, or otherwise secondhand sources? I ask because your statements about Orthodox Jews in this reply are broad, sweeping statements that lump everyone into one basket.

I have met Orthodox Jews. I have several friends who are Modern Orthodox. They live on the opposite coast, so I don’t get to see them much, but we correspond on Facebook and in other venues. There is a Chabad community two blocks from where I live in the Los Angeles area, but I have received multiple cold shoulders from them when I run into them on the street or at the market, even though I wear a kippah and a Mogen David and don’t hide my Jewishness.

I also have friends who are ex-Jewish and have left Judaism altogether because of having been raised in ultra-Orthodox households, like the one that Faigy Mayer was trying to escape from when she died. I have a friend who was told by an Orthodox rabbi that she wasn’t Jewish, after having lived as a Jew all her life, because her mother’s conversion was not Orthodox and therefore invalid. (It wasn’t invalid. It was just unacceptable to a hard-starch Orthodox fundamentalist, which is not the same thing.) I have another friend whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor (not to mention an Orthodox Jew) whose father was told by an Orthodox rabbi that she wasn’t Jewish, because her mother was not a Jew – which is reprehensible in the extreme. She is one of the most amazing Jews I know.

Not only is it impossible to characterize all people within a group with one label, for certainly there must be exceptions, often “stereotypes,” and particularly negative ones, are built around the extreme behaviors of a very visible minority, but don’t represent the views of the majority, even the vast majority. Often, the characterization of a group by a small number of representatives COMPLETELY misidentifies the rest of the group. Antisemites have done this for millennia, as have other groups toward one another, and this has only yielded tragedy and destruction. I’m surprised that someone like you is not more sensitive to this. And as an Orthodox Jew myself, I KNOW you’ve mischaracterized me and my community, and I am personally hurt by your remarks. Sadly, this happens all too often. People are quick to judge one another, and I too, it seems I was too quick in my judgment of you as tolerant of other streams of thought, including “the hateful Orthodox,” which, apparently, includes myself. 

For your hurt, I am sorry. To me, you came across as someone pushing me to be Orthodox as if that was the only acceptable way to be Jewish. I wonder if you can see why you did.

However, I must address “the hateful Orthodox” comment. So far I’ve seen you get offended by my perception of Orthodoxy because you think it comes solely from “the media,” but it doesn’t. As described above, I have friends who have been personally harmed by the Orthodox movement, just as I have friends who have been personally harmed by the fundamentalist Christian movement.

There are certain beliefs that I cannot tolerate or find acceptable, such as the misogyny and the homophobia that seem to be inherent in Orthodox Judaism. How do you respond to that?

  • Do you have examples of Orthodox Jews who are willing to speak out on the side of justice and equality?
  • Do you speak out on the side of justice and equality? Or do you just say “Well, if it’s not halacha, they’re the problem, not us”?
  • Do you recognize that Torah is a living document, not a dead and fixed-in-stone document?
  • Do you recognize that liberal rabbis have interpreted its words to find that I, a gay man, am an acceptable Jew? Or do you just reject that and say “That’s not halacha”?

These are not rhetorical questions. I’m honestly curious to know.

If you just reject social justice in favor of “that’s not halacha,” then yes, in my opinion you are part of the “hateful Orthodox,” just as the fundamentalist Christian who says that sex education should be abstinence-only and who wants their gospels preached in the schoolhouse is part of the “hateful Christians.” If you are open-minded and say “those things are shameful, they are a shame to all Jews, and we should not promote misogyny and homophobia against God’s children,” then you’re not part of the problem. But your initial reaction here  leads me to believe that you’re on the side of the misogyny and the homophobia, because you’re defending it.

I once heard someone say, “When non-Orthodox Jews talk about ‘Ahavat Yisrael,’ they mean toward everyone but the Orthodox.” I would like to believe that was hyperbole, but it seems to reflect a real sentiment. I must admit that I have heard over and over from people who have interacted with Reform communities (including those who came out of Reform and became Orthodox) about the enmity toward the Orthodox, sometimes unspoken, sometimes overt, that exists among the Reform, though I have personally never encountered it… until now. From what I know, it is the people who have had the least contact with the Orthodox that have the strongest prejudices. 

My experience with the Orthodox has been that when they say “Ahavat Yisrael,” they mean only the Orthodox. As I’ve already said, the Chabadniks give me the cold shoulder – perhaps because I’m not wearing black and a white button-down shirt with my kippah and my Mogen David. Who knows? They’re not welcoming; they’re shunning.

I don’t deny that they are Jews. I do feel that their behavior is embarrassing. But they wouldn’t recognize me as a Jew even if I was crammed in next to them in the cattle car. And yes, I use that phrase quite deliberately.

I know you are a good person, with a strong sense of justice, as you highlight in your article. Does anything I’m saying resonate right now that perhaps you have prejudged, and wrongly so at that? You see, I REALLY KNOW what Orthodox Jews are, and the reality on the ground does not comport with the image of the Orthodox you have presented here (which I’m certain is only a reflection of the twisted image that has been fed to you — you would never on your own paint such a character; it just surprised me that a forward thinking person like you did not see through it). Don’t you see that your condemnation of “the Orthodox” is the same crime that you accuse “them” of perpetrating? I’m not claiming every Orthodox Jew to be an angel, but they can’t be worse than any other demographic, none of which you would vilify for the actions of any of their individuals. And even if you fall back on the “hateful views” of the Orthodox as justification for your characterization of the people, I once again must assert that your impression of Orthodox views must be greatly misinformed. 

You say it is. Where is your proof? I have actual, real-life examples, both from the media and from my own experiences and the experiences of my friends, that the Orthodox are, by and large, hateful to any Jew who isn’t Orthodox. Do you have counter-examples for me? People who stood up and said “No, the Women of the Wall have the right to a Torah and to shofarim at the Kotel”? People who identified the haredi men who assaulted Charlie Kalech and Alden Solovy back on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar for doing that very thing, so that they could be brought to justice? I’ll take your pointer of the OU rabbis condemning the Pride stabbings and the pricetag murders as two good examples – but that’s two examples against twelve or fourteen bad acts. Show me more. Give me some balance, here.

I humbly direct you to one of the best sources of information on the Internet for Orthodox ideology: It is one of many mainstream Orthodox Jewish websites, none of which I think you could accuse of touting “hateful views,” quite the contrary, in fact. Why don’t you go ahead and check out, of the — GASP! — Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), and find a condemnation of the stabbing attack as well as the “pricetag” murders.

I’ve read, and it’s interesting, but a lot of it is contradictory. For example, the author of assumes that everyone has to have a Jewish spouse in order  to raise Jewish children. Well, okay, if you think “Jewish” means “being absolutely 100% tied to the mitzvot and doing everything exactly correctly”, then fine. But that’s not how I, or many other Jews of my acquaintance, approach Judaism. This author assumes that everyone wants to have Jewish children and the only way to have that is to have a Jewish partner, which is categorically not true.

But then the contradiction comes in in the “Ask the Rabbi” question today, in which the rabbi says “Any attempt is better than no attempt.” Well, which is it? If you want me to take that page as an authoritative description of Orthodox Judaism, some consistency would be helpful. I’ve had people from Aish tell me that I’m sinning for not eating halachically acceptable ha-motzi – which I can’t eat because I’m allergic to it.

I hope you will reconsider your evaluation of Orthodox Jewry. No, I am not trying to influence you to become one of us (you may well know the Orthodox do not seek converts, though we LOVE the convert, as the Torah teaches us to — you read that right, “love,” not “hate”), but I’m allowed to be genuinely caring toward others, even non-Jews, even though — GASP! — I’m Orthodox! (“No, it cannot be!”) 

I hope you can see that your approach came across as “I am trying to influence you to become one of us.” Because it totally did. By devaluing the approach I have taken to my conversion, you are doing exactly that, whether or not you realize it.

And you must understand, Rafi, that the claim of “love” grates on anyone who’s been religiously abused in the name of religious love – which I have been, multiple times, by multiple faiths. It smacks of “We love the sinner even though we hate their sin,” which is a platitude I find disgusting from anyone’s mouth.

This point is clear to me as an insider, but I emphasize the point here out of necessity for someone who may be an outsider, and yet, no matter how much I try to convey this, something tells me I won’t convince you. 

If you want me to believe you with no evidence, on your assertion alone, then yes, you’re going to have trouble. If you want me to believe you, provide me some evidence that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews were not cheering on the Jerusalem stabber or the men who set fire to that baby’s house and killed him and his father. If you want me to believe you, show me that Orthodoxy is working on fixing these problems instead of trying to brush them under the rug or give a “No True Scotsman” argument. Show me that most Orthodox were horrified and said “We have to fix this, we have to make them understand that they can’t do this,” instead of just shrugging their shoulders or actively cheering on this violence against people who were no threat to them. Show me that this sermon by Rabbi Benny Lau (who is, yes, Orthodox) and the crowd reaction are not anomalies in the Orthodox movement.

Let me suggest another great “Orthodox” website (that is, created and run by an Orthodox Rabbi): It’s a free service that allows you (among other things) to contact a potential Shabbat host ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD to arrange to stay or eat for Shabbat. Why don’t you find yourself a nice Orthodox family near you to host you for Shabbat, and then tell me after your experience about your FIRSTHAND impression of the Orthodox? I think that’s the fairest way to judge, don’t you?

I have had firsthand experiences of Orthodox Jews. With only one or two exceptions, those experiences have been uniformly negative. The friends I have who are Modern Orthodox are not local, so I can’t just go to their house for Shabbat dinners. And I can’t go to just anyone’s Shabbat dinner, because I am allergic to about a third of what would be on the table, including the challah and anything else that had flour in it. It wouldn’t be respectful to say to a stranger through that website, “I can’t eat most of what you cook; I eat a special diet; cater to me.” Instead, I hold my own Shabbat dinners and have friends over to them so I can control what I’m eating and not end up in the hospital.

I’m willing to have a discussion. I’m not willing to be the target of someone yelling at me. So if you wish to continue this discussion, Rafi, feel free to comment here – after you’ve read and understood the rules of my blog.


Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Wrestling Matches

A small triumph

Today’s Beginning Hebrew class ended with us learning the “ee” vowel, and then I turned the page and was confronted with the blessing on the Torah before reading (aliyah). AND I COULD READ IT. IN HEBREW.

When I got home I typed “Hebrew text” into Google images. I can read the Hebrew text it shows me. I don’t understand the words, yet, but knowing how to read the groups of letters is a huge thing. It means I can now start to read and recognize words I know, and learn ones that I don’t with their meanings, eventually.

This is exciting for me. I have been struggling with this for over a year now.


Filed under Jewish Practices

“A Wasted Yom Kippur”

The High Holy Days are just over a month away. The time of the New Year and, ten days later, the time of repentance at Yom Kippur are almost upon us.

As a Jew by choice who will be officially a member of the Tribe only sixteen days before Rosh Hashanah (if I’ve counted correctly), and who had a powerful, meaningful experience at last year’s Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days will probably hit me hard every single year.  Last year, part of what hit me so hard was that we aren’t getting singled out for our sin. We are all confessing, communally, as a community, to grave sins.

This is on my mind today partly because of an article in this morning’s New York Times.  This article is talking about the recent murders of Shira Banki and Ali Saad Dawabsheh by Jewish extremist fanatics. I could quote from all kinds of places in this article, but I think this is probably one of the best ones, from Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi:

“The interesting question for all of us is, ‘Is this going to be a growth moment or is it going to be another wasted Yom Kippur? Oh, we’ve sinned, and we feel so righteous for saying we’ve sinned.’”

Mouthing the prayers is not the same as meaning them. It’s not even close. It’s the difference between keva (saying the words) and kavanah (feeling the words). And although I have seen many Christians mouth the words of repentance and then turn around and hurt people (what are sometimes called Sunday-only or Christmas and Easter Christians), it never occurred to me that many Jews might do the same thing.

So what is Yom Kippur about? Repentance and atonement? Or feeling prideful that you’re at the service, and fasting, and look how impressive you are? That’s not attractive to me. I doubt that anyone at my shul does this, but I don’t know for sure. And I’m going to be remembering what the words mean when I say them on Yom Kippur, because on that day the community confesses together:

Ashamnu: We have trespassed.
Bagadnu: We have dealt treacherously.
Gazlalnu: We have robbed.
Dibarnu dofi: We have spoken slander.
He’evinu: We have acted perversely.
V’hirshanu: We have done wrong.
Zadnu: We have acted presumptuously.
Hamasnu: We have done violence.
Tafalnu sheker: We have practiced deceit.
Yaatsnu ra: We have counseled evil.
Kizavnu: We have spoken falsehood.
Latsnu: We have scoffed.
Maradnu: We have revolted.
Niatsnu: We have blasphemed.
Sararnu: We have rebelled.
Avinu: We have committed iniquity.
Pashanu: We have transgressed.
Tsararnu: We have oppressed.
Kishinu oref: We have been stiff-necked.
Rashanu: We have acted wickedly.
Shichatnu: We have dealt corruptly.
Tiavnu: We have committed abomination.
Tainu: We have gone astray.
Titanu: We have led others astray.

A couple of those are general enough that a lot of sins can fit into them. V’hirshanu, for example. Tainu, as another example.

And frankly, this year, given what happened to Shira and Ali, in a nation where the police could have stopped the man who killed Shira and the men who killed Ali, all of Israel should be admitting “Hamasnu, Tsararnu, Tiavnu.” Because those murders were violence, they were oppression, and they were abomination.

Now, as a Jew in the United States, do I bear a share of the responsibility for those murders? Yes. Every Jew does. Every Jew should be saying “The murderers were Jews, and how horrifying and shameful that they were Jews.”

But if we simply say “that was shameful and horrifying,” and mouth the Ashamnu on Yom Kippur, have we changed anything meaningful? Or are we just feeling righteous for saying we’ve sinned?

I don’t know how I can help as a non-Israeli Jew, but there has to be something I can do to bring about tzedek (justice).

Justice is one of the things that brought me to Judaism. It has to be one of the reasons I continue in it.


Filed under Current Events, Holy Days, Israel, Jewish Practices