Category Archives: Wrestling Matches

Posts that deal with my historical and ongoing struggles with G-d and religion.

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning without fail, and made my Judaism the first and most important thing about my life. But the world got in the way, and, well….

Since November, less than three months after my husband and I completed our conversion processes, we have had to be – paradoxically – far less active Jews than we were hoping to be. We haven’t been able to attend a real Friday night shul service in several months, because of his work schedule (he works for an amusement park; November to March is “peak holiday time” and lots of mandatory overtime for him) and the inopportune arrival of several illnesses that kept me and him both flat on our backs and unable to function. Due to a personal conflict at our Torah study group, we stopped going for a while because it made us uncomfortable, and we still haven’t really resolved that, either.

In short, we have not been good members of our community, and although the reasons are valid, guilt’s still a real thing and I’ve been feeling it.

Here’s the thing about feeling guilt for not measuring up to some standard that you or others have set for your behavior: it makes it less likely that you’re going to try to fix it. At least, it makes it less likely that I’m going to try to fix it. Every time I’ve thought about going back to shul, the guilt has come up and hit me with “but then people would ask you where you’ve been and you know that that would really mean ‘why are you only showing up now, you half-asser?'” That’s a deterrent, not an incentive.

We missed Purim entirely, because we were sick; but was that a good enough reason? We haven’t been to Torah study in months because of illness and over-stress; is that a good enough reason? We missed a concert at our shul with a Jewish musician that I love because of stress and exhaustion; is that a good enough reason? And of course there’s also the cost, and right now we’ve had to penny-pinch, so we haven’t had the money to buy tickets to concerts or food for Purim baskets or, well, pretty much anything.

And yet…

All during that time, we still managed to have Shabbat dinner with a friend at least twice a month, and take Shabbat pretty much “off,” even if that meant catching up on missed sleep the majority of the time.

I have still worn my kippah and my Mogen David, and I haven’t backed down when someone says something anti-Semitic.

I have still said the Sh’ma every night, and meant it.

I have still experienced the world as a Jew, even if I’m not especially active at my synagogue right now.

And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

As the author of the Kveller article said:

Embracing Jewish motherhood (and motherhood in general) isn’t about following every rule and winning the game. It’s about showing up and staying in the game, even when you don’t know which rules apply to you, or what it even means to win.

I’d argue that the same thing applies to Jewish identity. Recently, I have not been able to follow every rule. But I have done what I can to keep my foot in the door, even if it’s been mostly outside of the community of Jews in my area. And once I have recovered from the stress, exhaustion, and overwork, I’ll be getting back in the game in more substantial ways. For starters, we’re going to a Seder on Saturday evening, and hosting one here the following Thursday, and ideally we’ll be going back to shul after Pesach is over.

But I also think Adonai will understand if, just at the moment, I can’t quite do it all.

6 Comments

Filed under Day-to-Day, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

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: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Conversion.html

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: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.670717

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 (http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/02/middleeast/jerusalem-gay-pride-parade-stabbings/), and infants set on fire (http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/1.668871), and closer to home in the US, we get young women who commit suicide because their Orthodox communities hounded them into it (http://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-hasidic-woman-jumps-off-ny-rooftop-bar-to-her-death/). 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: aish.com. 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 ou.org, 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 aish.com, and it’s interesting, but a lot of it is contradictory. For example, the author of http://www.aish.com/jl/jnj/nj/100712764.html 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): Shabbat.com. 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.

12 Comments

Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Wrestling Matches

The Power of Doubt

One of the most powerful things for me during my conversion has been confronting doubt – not trying to stop doubting, but trying to learn to be okay with doubt, and to engage with doubt. It’s actually been one of the most freeing and the most frightening things I’ve ever done.

Doubt, in many of thquestion-mark-309085_1280e religious traditions I’ve been part of, is considered either sinful or the next thing to sin. It’s an indicator that you don’t have faith if you have doubt. For example, Thomas (one of Yeshua’s apostles) is vilified for his doubt – for saying “yeah, okay, you guys say he rose from the dead, but let me see the nail holes first before I believe that.” Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is an insult in Western society. We’re generally not good with doubt. Heck, just type “doubt” into a Google image search and you’ll find all kinds of images that put down, vilify, or reject doubt as a bad thing. It’s a hard habit to break – generally, Westerners (by which I mean Christians) aren’t good with ambiguity, which is where doubt resides. Let your yes be your yes and your no be your no. Let’s not have maybes, or possiblys – they make things more complicated and we don’t like complications.

Judaism, on the other hand, is pretty good with doubt. How do I know this? Because it’s good with debate, and debate doesn’t happen if the matter is settled, and the matter is only settled if nobody doubts the settlement. But look at the Talmud – the arguments of rabbis over the Law indicate that things are not, in fact, settled. They are up in the air!

In the same vein, today, a friend of a friend on Facebook shared this link:

Kids’ Questions are the Antidote to the Pew Study’s “Jewish No Religion” Category

One of the things that hit me hardest from this article was this part:

Once the conversation got underway, the campers’ questions came pouring forth. It was as if this were the first time they could ask these questions without feeling foolish (or worse). They asked questions like:

  • “If I’m not sure about God, should I still say the prayers?”
  • “If I don’t believe God takes care of the good and punishes the bad people, am I still a good Jew?”
  • “The Romans had
     so many gods, but Judaism teaches there is only one God. Why are we right and they are wrong?”
  • “My grandmother died too young but she was a really good person. Where was God?”

And I noticed that what was hitting me from these questions as a main theme was the doubt. The questions are all saying things about whether doubt is a valid thing for Jews to feel, to acknowledge, and – pardon me for saying so – to wrestle with. Is it okay for me to be unsure about God? Is it okay for me to feel like God isn’t doing the job that God is supposed to do? How do we know we’re right about God being One? And in the classic question Kushner addresses in When Bad Things Happen To Good People: My wonderful grandparent died too young – where was God when that happened? (That question is very close to one of my main reasons for exploring Judaism – where was God when my father died too young at 63?)

Fortunately, the campers were assured that yes, doubt is a perfectly valid thing to wrestle with and to feel, and it doesn’t make you less of a Jew, or a less-good Jew, to have doubts.

It is okay to doubt. That has been so very, very hard for me to wrap my mind around. More than a year ago now, I wrestled with this very thing in Doubt is the Handmaiden of Truth. I’ll just share the meditation from my best friend’s siddur that hit me so hard at that time.

MEDITATION

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.

Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.

For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear; the house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.

But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.

They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.

Therefore, let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.

The demand of “faith and no doubt” is inconsiderate, unrealistic, and unfair. But looking at this meditation again, I can see that in the year-plus since I last posted it, I’ve come to a détente with doubt. I’ve reached the point where I can now say, “I’m not sure about that – I don’t know the answer to that” and although it still makes me nervous, it doesn’t make me feel like the world is going to end if I don’t have an answer right this second.

And if doubt is okay, then by definition, disagreement is, too. I don’t have to be in lock-step with everyone else in order to be a good Jew. I don’t have to agree with anyone else’s perceptions or experiences of God to believe in God.

That is more freeing than I can ever say in words.

The power of doubt is that it allows us to question. The power of doubt is that it allows us to form our own bond with God, in whatever way that works for us – even if that way is sometimes doubting that God exists. The power of doubt is that it allows us to learn and grow and understand.

It’s a tool I was denied for many years. But I’m never giving it up again.

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Thoughts on God

Atheists: Don’t bother. Your comments will go to the bit bucket. Thanks.

There are lots of atheists on Quora, and many of them are anti-theists.

I’ve discovered that there seems to be a link between absolutist thinking and denial of other people’s reality, as well as intolerance to ambiguity, that is common across certain groups of atheists and certain groups of religious people. So I know not to bother getting into an argument with an atheist about the existence of God, or any of the proofs that have worked to convince me that God exists.

But when I find a way to express my proof in another way, in another set of words? That’s awesome to me.

So here’s the quote:

Joshua Kaplan’s answer to Why do Jewish people keep believing in God after all the bad things that happened to them? Can’t they see that God is either non-existent or immoral?

There is a saying from an 19th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk thats says “A God that I can understand, is not a God I would be able to believe in”. God is an infinite being and therefore humans – with our finite minds – could never fully understand Him or His ways. To fully know God would mean that we are God.

I’ve always said “I think it’s sort of arrogant to assume that just because we can’t prove it YET means either a) it doesn’t exist or b) we will never have that proof.” But I like this way of looking at it, too, and I’m going to look up Rab Mendel.

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“Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet…” an ex-Catholic’s reflection on Yom Kippur

So, it’s Kol Nidre – also known as erev Yom Kippur. Think of it as “Day of Atonement Eve,” if you like. The last of the ten Days of Awe.

When I was a kid growing up Catholic, going to Confession was a Big Deal. As part of this uncomfortable ritual where you sat in a little box in the wall with the priest in another little box in the wall separated by a screen (so that anonymity could supposedly be preserved), you told him everything you’d done (or thought!) wrong in the past week or month: lies, anger, impure thoughts, impure deeds, sins you’d committed, sins you’d committed by failing to act… the list went on and on.

At the end of this little recitation, you recited the Act of Contrition. I’ve provided the beginning of it in the title of this piece. Translated, that means (essentially): “O my God, I am most heartily sorry.”

The entire prayer – which has to be said before forgiveness comes from the priest – goes like this.

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and amend my life.  Amen.

There are other English translations. Some say “I firmly resolve to go and sin no more.” Well. That’s a little unrealistic, don’t you think? (Especially since in the Catholic tradition, thoughts are also sins.)

Yeah, it is unrealistic. But I realized in the last few days that it’s also my image of what “contrition” – and thus atonement – looks like. To me, this doesn’t look especially healthy. It looks like self-guilt-tripping and it brings up the whole God-As-Cosmic-Bully problem that I’ve mentioned before.

The Ashamnu and Al Cheyt prayers, which are part of the Vidui services on Yom Kippur, are different from this in one very important way. They are communal confessions, not individual ones. They are communal statements of wrongdoing and a communal resolution to do better in the future. That means you’re not being singled out for what you did. We’re all atoning at the same time, for the same things, in the same way. We can lean on each other for support while we confess and repent.

One online source I found gives the Ashamnu as a list of 24 sins that we, as a community, must improve upon:

Ashamnu

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.

To me, this seems to be the “confession” part of the atonement process. We’re admitting we did these things. So far so good, right?

The contrition part, or atonement part, come with the Al Cheyt (Al Chet, in some transliterations). This has 44 statements of petition for forgiveness. A search online tells me that the Al Cheyt is like the Pesach haggadah; many people have written their own Al Cheyt to address sins that are not listed in the original Al Cheyt (like environmental sins, or homophobia, or sexism). Examples include this one from the Velveteen Rabbi and this one from Zeh Lezeh.

In Hebrew, “chet” or “cheyt” means “sin.” It’s one of the three main kinds of sin. Knowing that the translation of is literally “To miss the mark” – it comes from archery, where you didn’t quite hit the target you were aiming for – I have written out my understanding of the 44 statements below.

For missing the mark before You both under duress and willingly;

For missing the mark before You through having a hardened heart;

For missing the mark before You thoughtlessly or without awareness;

For missing the mark before You through our words and our deeds;

For missing the mark before You in public and in private;
For missing the mark before You in our immorality;

For missing the mark before You in the use of harsh speech;

For missing the mark before You with knowledge and with deceit;

For missing the mark before You through our inner thoughts;

For missing the mark before You through the wronging of our friends;

For missing the mark before You through insincerity or false apology;

For missing the mark before You by gathering to do harm to others;

For missing the mark before You by our will and by our carelessness;

For missing the mark before You by false statements towards our teachers and our parents;

For missing the mark before You by the exercise of our power and our privilege;

For missing the mark before You for through desecration of Your Name through our words or actions;

For missing the mark before You through thoughtless and foolish words;

For missing the mark before You with vulgarity and unpleasantness;

For missing the mark before You through hedonism and disregard for goodness;

For missing the mark before You through our actions against those who know and those who do not;

For missing the mark before You through bribery;

For missing the mark before You through false promises;

For missing the mark before You through gossip and negative speech;

For missing the mark before You through scorn and disrespect of others;

For missing the mark before You in our business and workplace practices;

For missing the mark before You with food and with drink;

For missing the mark before You through the exploitation of our financial agreements;

For missing the mark before You through arrogance and incivility;

For missing the mark before You through our facial expressions and our gestures;

For missing the mark before You through excessive and unconsidered speech;

For missing the mark before You through our self-righteousness;

For missing the mark before You through ignoring the moral consequences of our actions;

For missing the mark before You through ignoring or refusing our commitments and responsibilities;

For missing the mark before You through our judgmental behaviors and actions;

For missing the mark before You through violating our friends’ boundaries;

For missing the mark before You through envy and jealousy;

For missing the mark before You through frivolity and shallowness;

For missing the mark before You through refusing to see another’s point of view;

For missing the mark before You through rushing through the good and prolonging our time in evil;

For missing the mark before You through repeating gossip to its target;

For missing the mark before You through taking our vows in vain;

For missing the mark before You through our hatred of those who are not like us;

For missing the mark before You for avoiding acts of charity;

For missing the mark before You through the confusion of our hearts.

For all of these things, O God, forgive us, pardon us, and permit us to atone. 

Obviously, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur have brought up some uncomfortable echoes out of my Catholic past. This Act of Contrition is obviously one of them. Another is the fast. The all-day, 26-hour fast. Sundown tonight to sundown tomorrow.

And how I wish I could do that. Mortification of the body is a really penitent-feeling thing for me.

But medically, I am not able to fast. I feel awful about it, too. I fasted every year from the time I was eleven years old on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) until I left the Catholic Church. But I wasn’t a diabetic back then. My diabetes diagnosis five or six years ago put an end to fasting for me. I’m completely diet-controlled, so far, but if I go more than six hours without protein and fat, I get suicidally depressed as my blood sugar bottoms out. And because of the damage that diabetes does to a diabetic’s kidneys, I am medically not allowed to go without hydration.

Instead of the mitzvah of fasting on Yom Kippur like every other Jew I know, I’ll have to settle for the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh. It just doesn’t feel as righteous to me, somehow. It bothers me.

But it’s also not something I can do without making myself physically ill. So, no fasting.

Instead, my partner and I are going to coordinate. He doesn’t feel ready to go to Yom Kippur services, so he will be doing our laundry that day while I go to services all day, starting at 11 a.m. I will eat something before I go to temple so that I can hold out for a few hours while he goes and does other things. He’ll drop me off, so we won’t have to worry about “where do I park?” (a big problem at my synagogue; all the parking is street parking) or “how do I drive when I’m low-blood-sugary?” He’ll stop by once in the middle of the day to see if I need a snack and a drink, and I know I will. He’ll bring me some nuts and string cheese and a bottle of water at around 3 p.m. so I can have those and then go back into services. Then, he’ll pick me up after the fast-breaking when the sun has gone down.

It will be enough. It will have to be enough.

Today I’m going to bake gluten-free crown challah for the break-fast tomorrow night at temple, and go buy a few things for the food collection drive that happens tomorrow as part of the Yom Kippur services. Kol Nidre, for me, is at 8:30, which means I need to leave at about 7:30 to make sure I get parking.

I know that I’ve been missing the Friday Feature, and I’m sorry. Today does not feel like erev Shabbat. It’s erev Yom Kippur.

G’mar Chatima Tovah, everyone. May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life in this coming year, and every year.

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Another Spiritual Helicopter

For a definition of “Spiritual Helicopter,” please go to this link.

Today I was late to Rosh Hashanah services. I mean, I was LAAAAAAATE, okay? I misread my ticket and thought that services started at 11:00. I showed up at 10:40 and they were just getting to the Torah reading.

Oops. Services started at 10. It’s Yom Kippur that starts at 11.

I got into the sanctuary, into the way-back-in-the-back with the temporary seating in the social hall, and tried not to cry. For about five minutes. Beating myself up for making a mistake – again. Beating myself up for being late to shul ON ROSH HASHANAH, of all days.

Beating myself up.

Oh. Wait. Didn’t I say, just this morning, that I was going to stop beating myself up for small mistakes? Was anyone else going to care that I made this mistake except me? Was God really going to be offended because I wasn’t on time when I spent at least ten minutes hunting for parking (there’s no parking lot at our shul), really? Did something this minor really matter?

And that’s when the spiritual helicopter showed up. I swear this is not me hallucinating. It didn’t come in words, exactly, but more of a sense. A sense that communicated this:

My son, the God you were told about when you were a child is not Me. I won’t hit you for making a simple mistake. 

I suppose I’ve been told to put my (spiritual) money where my (spiritual) mouth is, nu?

Because then I did cry. Not much, but I did cry – the tears of someone who’s been under pressure after the pressure is lifted.

I have to remember that God is not a spiritual bully. My mother was, but He isn’t.

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I can’t be thankful today

27 Tamuz 5774

The Israeli leadership has just admitted that they knew from the start that Hamas was not behind the kidnapping of those three Israeli teenagers. Most likely, it was an independent cell of terrorists who did not care about the repercussions of their actions. 

Go on, read the link. I’ll wait.

Done reading?

I am ashamed of my adopted state. I am angry with Netanyahu and his government for perpetuating a lie. And I am furious that this was used as an initial justification for attacks on a civilian population. I am enraged that this put peace talks in jeopardy.

Gratitude isn’t really in the cards in the face of this disgusting revelation. I just feel sick.

I’ll see you all on Sunday. Maybe by then we’ll know more and I’ll have calmed down. But the fact that my challah came out perfectly seems very… trivial, in the face of this knowledge.

Shalom ba’olam. Sooner, rather than later, please.

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From My Readings: Why Bad Things Happen To Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner

19 Sivan 5774

One of the main reasons I was an atheist for so long was that I was angry with G-d.

No, let’s put that another way. I was white-hot, incendiary-bomb, heart-of-the-volcano enraged with G-d.

You see, in the churches I was raised in, G-d was represented to me as three things: omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent ( always there) and omniscient (all-knowing). He can do anything, he is everywhere at once, and he knows everything. Not much was said about his love for us beyond his sacrifice of his supposed son, Yeshua. But even in many faiths where G-d is represented as a G-d of love, this message of “he’s all-powerful” comes through loud and clear, which doesn’t jibe so well with the reality of the world today. The truth is, bad things do happen to good people, and bad people get away with a lot of stuff and often never have to pay for it.

As two cases in point, my father was a good and godly man. I think of him as “the caretaker of wounded birds” – any person who was in pain could come to my father and get healing and help, in whatever measures my father was able to offer it. (My father would have made an excellent Jew, by the way.) And he died of complications of diabetes and cancer at the age of 63, specifically gangrene. It was a horrific way for him to die. My father had done nothing to deserve it except being dealt a rather crappy genetic hand.

On the other end of the scale, we have my mother’s (thankfully deceased) sperm donor. He was a child molester. Including myself, I know of at least five people (me, one of his sons, and all three of his daughters including my mother) who were abused by him, and I’m sure many others that we don’t know about. This monster masquerading as a man lived into his eighties and finally died of a heart attack – which surprised me, as I wasn’t aware he had a heart.

So the idea that G-d is all-powerful is kind of hard to swallow. If he was, my father would have lived into his eighties and that monster molester would never have laid a finger on me, my mother, my aunts or my uncle. Yet G-d didn’t step in and stop it. Why? My anger about him NOT stopping it is what fueled my atheism in the five years after my father’s death.

Kushner’s book is a painful and deep exposition of this question, and there are three main points he makes to explain it. The first is that G-d gave humans free will; the second is that the world, which runs largely by natural law, still has pockets of chaos and disorder in it; and the third is that G-d is all-good, but not necessarily all-powerful. And these points intertwine in startling, but important, ways.

First, Kushner likens G-d to a parent. Parents can caution their children against certain behaviors that have known consequences, but they are often unable to prevent their children from those behaviors. All they can do afterward is help the child deal with the consequences of the behaviors. When a child gets hurt by accident, or through the operations of natural law, the parent can, again, only help the child deal with the consequences of the accident. And if the parent simply keeps the child from learning to make his own decisions and experience his own mistakes, the parent is not doing his job. He is abrogating the child’s free will, his learning and his growth process and keeping the child artificially a child. In fact, Kushner claims, having free will is what makes us “like G-d” or “made in G-d’s image.” Without it, we’re just the most complex of all the animals.

Second, G-d is not like a cosmic puppet master, controlling every single atom in the entire universe. He is more like a worried parent who has allowed his children to make decisions and learn from and live with their consequences, because he knows that’s the only way that they can become adults. And here’s an important side point: sometimes things happen that we didn’t do anything to bring on ourselves. A fire burns down our house. A car hits our child who ran out into the street after a ball. We come down with cancer or diabetes or myasthenia gravis. That’s the “pockets of chaos in an otherwise ordered universe” part of Kushner’s argument. Again, like a parent whose child is stricken ill, all the parent can do is comfort and help the child who is suffering. He can’t change what happened.

According to Kushner, because he gives us free will and because he lets the laws of nature operate so that we have a mostly predictable, orderly natural world, G-d cannot fix everything. He gave us free will, so fixing everything is no longer an option. G-d is also bound by the laws of nature – even if he could and has superseded them in the past (the miracles in the Torah), he won’t do that any more because how would he choose which of his children to save? Are we so arrogant to believe that our problems are somehow more important than our neighbor’s? And a world in which we do not have to obey the laws of nature would be chaos. A world in which G-d made it so that some of us were not bound by the laws of nature would be equally so. Imagine, for example (Kushner posits) a world where there was no pain. That would seem to be beneficial until you think about the child who would press his hand to the hot stove, never noticing that he’s being burned, or the person who walks on a broken ankle because there are no pain signals to tell him or her that it’s broken. Maybe a painless world is not such a good idea after all.

It’s human to look for reasons why this good person is suffering this bad outcome, or to look for someone or something to blame, so that we can trust that the world is orderly. But oftentimes there is nothing and no one to blame, and looking for it is pointless and keeps us mired down in misery. Sometimes the reason is “because nature.” Viruses don’t know whether they’re infecting a minister or a madman; floods don’t know whether they’re washing away a doctor or a demented killer. Nature is remarkably equal-opportunity in who she hurts, and because G-d cannot mess with natural law, blaming G-d for not stopping whatever it was is really pointless. Human beings, having free will, often harm their fellows. Since G-d will not mess with free will, blaming G-d for things like the Holocaust or for other human-made tragedies are equally pointless.

Instead, Kushner asks us to redirect our anger to the situation. He also asks those who are trying to comfort those who are in these situations not to analyze what the victim could have done differently, or what he did to cause it. Instead, just affirm that it sucks that this is happening. Affirm that it’s not fair.

As an example of how to do this, I’ll relate something that happened to me a little under a year ago. My best friend and I went out for sushi. Now, I have to be really careful in restaurants, because any wheat contamination in my food will set off an arthritis flare that can last for up to 72 hours. Nothing touches that pain; it’s agonizing and awful. And I got wheated because someone in the kitchen was not careful with the fake crab (which is held together with wheat starch) and my food was cross-contaminated. Within fifteen minutes, I was in enough pain that I was almost crying. All my best friend could do was let me rant and rave about how much it hurt and how stupid and pointless it was, and affirm that yes, it’s offensive that something that minor causes me this much pain. But the point is, it was exactly what I needed. It helped me bear up under the pain until it finally began to wane about eighteen hours later (fortunately that was a short flare – 28 hours). She did not tell me what I should have done differently. She just said, “This really sucks. You do not deserve this.”

In the same way, G-d can’t always stop us from being hurt or from bad things happening to us. But what he can do is be there for us to lean on. G-d doesn’t usually answer prayers like “heal my cancer” or “make this pain stop,” but he can and does answer prayers like “please give me the strength to bear this pain” and “please give me the courage to get through this frightening journey.”

Many people will then find it offensive that the pain or the tragedy didn’t come from G-d. If it didn’t, if it’s all by chance, then does that mean that their suffering has no greater purpose, no meaning? Here’s where Kushner delivers the final point: Misfortune and tragedy have whatever meaning we give them. If we let them turn us bitter, then that becomes their purpose. If we let them turn us to greater works of healing the world or helping others – even if only by our example of bearing up under them – then that is their meaning.

This book was difficult for me to read. Although I have let go of the need to blame G-d for my father’s death and for being molested as a child, it’s hard to accept that G-d is not all-powerful. On the other hand, it’s a relief to know that G-d is there for us when we are in pain as a support and a help. And this explanation makes sense to me: free will and natural law between them make it impossible for G-d to intervene without screwing up both of those things, which we as humans depend on.

I still have to work on my hypervigilance about situations that seem dangerous to me, but at least now I know that when I’m scared, I can call on G-d to help me with the fear.

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Commentary and Change

15 Sivan 5774

So, when I comment on some blogs, I use my Gravatar account, which is linked to my WordPress blog. But that’s fairly new. Some of the places I’m commenting these days don’t use Gravatar or WordPress. They allow Disqus, however.

Your internet history follows you around forever. Yes, you can friends-lock your Facebook, or your blog, but when you make a comment on someone else’s? It’s right there out in the open for everyone to see, nine times out of ten. Such is the case with Disqus.

I’ve used Disqus for a long time as a commenting program on many and varied sites. But as I told the rabbi on Tuesday when I met with him, part of my five years of hard atheism between the death of my father and, well, a few months ago, was picking fights with the religious. I did this on many websites and in many places. I lost a lot of friends, and I said a lot of things I am ashamed of and regret now. I have a lot to answer for when Yom Kippur rolls around.

Some who read my comments that I’ve made on these blogs now may follow my Disqus link back and read all my old comments from then. And they will find anti-religious, atheist, and anti-theist comments among them. And some of them may judge me for those comments, which were largely written in anger and in defensiveness. And some of those may think I haven’t really changed.

But change is the only constant in our lives, and I have changed. The last twelve months, and especially the last three months, have been a period of intense change and growth for me. There was a time when I felt anyone who was religious must not be very smart, and anyone who was theist was fooling themselves. But now I see it from another perspective. I no longer think that empirical evidence is the only “real” evidence – I accept experiential evidence, too. There was a time, not so long ago, that I would have agreed with a very religion-negative commenter on Pop Chassid’s blog, rather than with Pop Chassid. So yes, this is a fundamental change in me.

Only time will let me demonstrate that the change is real. I don’t expect anyone to accept that it is right off the bat. But I hope, over time, most will.

And while I’m at it: To those whom I have offended or hurt by my attitude and statements, I apologize. I ask for forgiveness, and the opportunity to make things right. I was in the wrong, and I know it now.

And that said, I’ll wish you all Shabbat Shalom. I’ll be back on Saturday night.

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When HaShem Tapped Me On the Shoulder

14 Sivan 5774

It occurs to me that I should talk about the spiritual helicopters.

Let’s start with my first encounter with anyone Jewish. I was about eight, I think. I didn’t grow up in the Northeast or any big city area with a big Jewish presence, so for me Jews were oddities that I wanted to understand. I heard a couple of boys at school making fun of the little girl with the six-pointed star necklace, and I found out she was a Jew. At church (at the time, the Crystal Cathedral was “church”) I heard a Sunday School teacher saying that the Jews were going to go to hell for killing Jesus if they didn’t get saved. I was pretty upset, since the little girl at school seemed like a nice person. So I went to my Dad and asked him what this all meant.

He told me, quite gravely, that the Jews had kept their covenant with G-d and that there was no good reason why they should go to hell just because some bigoted people wanted to blame the entire Jewish people for something that only a few of them did. Then he gave me my first copy of the Diary of Anne Frank.

I read that book and I wept. How could anyone be okay with what had happened to Anne? How could anyone be okay with letting the government take people away from their families or put them in camps to let them die? I couldn’t fathom it. But as a kid who was also on the outs with everyone at school at that point because I was smart and queer and it was obvious, I identified strongly with Anne and Peter and the other kids in Het Achterhuis.

From time to time over the years, I’d encounter Jewish characters in books or movies and immediately be drawn to them. I remember them, even if I don’t remember anything else about the books. Abie, in The Great Brain, who was assumed by everyone in the town to be rich because he was Jewish, and who died of starvation because nobody was patronizing his store – he was one of the ones I remember well, and with pain. Many, many characters in Judy Blume novels were Jewish as well, as were several in Paula Danziger novels. Both the main character and the bullied girl in Blubber, for instance, were Jewish.

By the time I was in my teens, I was reading Stephen King, and I was drawn to the characters of Stanley Uris and his wife in IT. I was also revolted by the kid and the Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil. In my 20s there was a character in this movie who was a Jewish kid in an all-Protestant 1950s prep school for boys. A character in that book who was careful to keep his Mogen David tucked under his collar. I saw Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. The character I keyholed in on in Ryan was not Tom Hanks or Leonardo diCaprio – it was Adam Goldberg, who played the Jewish private Mellish. Schindler’s List is one I still, to this day, cannot talk about. It hit me so powerfully that tears come to my eyes every time I think about it.

But that’s all groundwork and background, I think. I’m not sure HaShem was tapping my shoulder at that point. It’s just that my first deep identification with the Jewish people was that feeling of ostracism. Of being different. Of being part of a people set apart and special and reviled and persecuted all at once. I had that, being queer and smart and fat and socially slow due to the autism. I know what that’s like. I get it. I always did.

In my twenties, I had a Jewish friend  – a friend of my ex-spouse’s – for a while, and a friend of my own who was in an intermarriage but was not herself Jewish. I went to the second friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, and wished I could understand the Hebrew he was chanting. I went to the first friend’s wedding and marveled at the ceremony and ritual that seemed so real and majestic. In my thirties, I discovered that many of my friends in far-flung areas were Jews: friends in Boston, friends in Texas, friends in San Francisco.

But I don’t think HaShem started tapping me on the shoulder until my father died just over five years ago. I wrote about this in my post on ritual: I wished I was a Jew then, so I could sit shiva. That was probably the first real tap on the shoulder. But I had closed my ears to G-d at that point.

As I’ve said before, I go on a hunt for G-d every year around my birthday. Not this past spring, but the spring prior to that, I found myself reading John Shelby Spong’s book Jesus for the Non-Religious, which is a deconstruction of the Jesus-as-G-d myth.

Remember, in every Christian church, there’s a huge emphasis on affirmation of belief – of saying you believe. The most constant demand for that, in my experience, was the Nicene Creed, which spells out what you are required to believe, including this:

– There is one G-d, the Father Almighty.

– Except there isn’t, because Jesus was also G-d. Oh, but he’s “one in being” with the Father.

– Also, did we mention the Holy Spirit, who somehow “proceeds” from the Father and the Son? The one who’s spoken through the prophets?

– But they’re all one G-d, you know?

Yeah. To me it sounds ridiculous now. But when you’re raised Catholic, you say it at every Mass you go to. It’s part of the service. It’s not optional.

In his book, Spong pointed out that the entire Jesus story, if you put the Gospels and other New Testament books in the order they were written, becomes gradually more and more insistent on his divinity and G-dness, and bends itself more and more into pretzels trying to tie his life to the Hebrew scriptures so that he can be the Meshiach. But – and this was the kicker for me, that absolutely knocked the struts out from under whatever was left of the Jesus story that I still held on to – those stories were and are written in an order that follows the Jewish liturgical year.

That means that it’s very likely that the Jewish followers of Yeshua ben Yosef, the rabbi and teacher, simply substituted their stories about him for the haftarah readings at synagogue services.

To me, that was a helicopter approximately the size of Texas, sweeping away the last vestiges not just of the Jesus myth but the imperative to believe in it with the force of its propeller’s wind. It finished any belief in Jesus that I might have had. He was a man – a rabbi – and I had no obligation to believe anything beyond that about him.

So, that brings us to this year.

I have never trusted my feelings, because when you have a narcissistic mother you learn not to. G-d mostly talks to us through feelings, so I was functionally spiritually deaf. But in learning about and processing the abuse, I began to realize that there were all kinds of signals that I had been missing, or ignoring, like the fact that I had come out and claimed my real self thirteen years ago, after staying functionally a child through my twenties due to pain and abuse and other problems. (A Jewish friend of mine said “Happy bar mitzvah!” when I pointed out that helicopter.) I read about an acquaintance’s Seder plans, and felt a strong pull to go to one. And then I did go to one. And then I felt like I was home, like this was me.

I started reading online blogs about Judaism. I found Mike’s blog at Chicago Carless and wept when I read his post about G-d being on the Brown Line and finding Him there. I identified so deeply with Mike’s journey that I was shocked at myself. And in reading about Judaism, I found everything I had looked for and never found anywhere else: an ethical structure that made sense. A G-d that made sense. The right to doubt. The right to disagree and still be part of the group. Ritual. Music. Tradition. It was all there, just waiting for me to wake up and say yes to it.

I started this blog a few weeks later. Up until that point I’d been cagey on my Facebook and other social media, trying to pretend that it was going to go away. But it didn’t go away. The pull kept getting stronger, and stronger. Finally I had to put it somewhere. I think I opened my first account on a Jews-by-choice forum somewhere around the 21st of April, the day after the Seder I went to for Pesach. Eventually I came here.

When I hesitantly started to ask friends about Judaism, and especially when that whole “fear G-d” thing was blown out of the water at the Seder, there was no going back. I started reading Telushkin the very next week.

Another spiritual helicopter: I’m two blocks away from an open, accepting, interfaith-tolerant, GLBT-welcoming temple. I can WALK there. It’s like G-d was saying “Hey, you have a place you can go even if your partner needs the car.” That, I can’t ignore, can I?

It really was like HaShem had been tapping me on the shoulder but, like Samuel, I couldn’t figure out who it was or if it was a real thing, so I ignored it. But thankfully, HaShem is patient. He can wait until you figure it out.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches