Tag Archives: coming out

On Robin Williams and Depression

This post might look like it has nothing to do with Judaism, but bear with me. It does.

Ever since I found out about Robin Williams’ death yesterday I’ve been sort of in a state of shock. The man who created Mork, Garp, Airman Cronauer, the Genie, John Keating, Armand Goldman, Peter Banning/Pan, and Vladimir Ivanoff dead? Impossible.

But even worse: his death was by suicide? Incredible. Unbelievable. This brilliant, vibrant, funny, successful man killed himself? How can that be?

And yet. And yet.

Finding out that he suffered from depression makes all of that completely believable – both his successes and his death.

You see, I have depression. I have always had it. I always will have it. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. And I have heard that inner voice saying in a very calm, rational, completely believable way: “Nobody would miss you if you died. They’d celebrate if you were gone because you’re a waste of space, energy, and air. You’re worthless. You’re pointless. Anyone could have done the things you did. You’re not that special. You deserve to feel this way because you are scum. Your partner could do better, and probably is doing better. Your kids are ashamed to be seen with you. Your family thinks you’re an embarrassment. So why don’t you just give them all a break? The knife is right there on the kitchen counter. The pills are in the medicine cabinet.”

Life with depression is a constant fight against that voice, because that voice never shuts up. I’ve had three suicide attempts in my life. The first one was when I was fifteen. The second one, I was sixteen. The third one was in my thirties and very few people knew about that one until just now. Thankfully none of them were successful, but at the time I was just disappointed (and ashamed) that I couldn’t even kill myself correctly.

It. Never. Stops.

If you have depression you find ways around it. You find ways to shore yourself up against it. Comedy is a big one. Music is another. Publishing a book. Writing a screenplay. Getting a doctorate. All of these are bulwarks against depression and the lies that it tells. But even those ways don’t always work. Sometimes the levees break. Sometimes the foundation crumbles.

To this day I still have far too many times when I don’t think I’m a very good or important person. Despite all my accomplishments, I still have depression living in my skin. It tells me that my doctorate is no big deal, that the students I’ve reached would have succeeded anyway, that my family and friends see me as a bother rather than a blessing. Sometimes I believe it. Sometimes I fight it. Not always.

If you have never known true, clinical depression, be thankful. It is worse than being sad. It is worse than being “blue” or down in the dumps. It is worse than feeling grief when a loved one dies. Depression is the sense of total worthlessness, of feeling that you deserve every bad thing that happens to you and that you don’t deserve any good that is part of your life. Depression is an endless black hole of suck, like a tar pit. On a good day you might be able to claw your way up to only waist-deep in it. On a good day you might be able to draw a few breaths thinking that you will be able to keep breathing without a struggle tomorrow.

But it never goes away. Medication can help manage it for some people. Therapy can help manage it. Learning strategies to cope like cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage it. But it never. goes. away.

Robin Williams’ death and the circumstances surrounding it serve as a stark reminder that we must address this problem as a national public health issue, just as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death reminds us that we must address addiction as a national public health issue. But in the meantime, until our policymakers get off their collective asses and start doing something about depression, here’s what I have for you. And here is where Judaism informs my approach. When I am in pain nowadays, when that low, rational voice is telling me that I’d be better off dead, I turn to G-d as well as to my friends. I cry out for help instead of holding it in. I pray. And when I see someone else in this kind of pain, it is a mitzvah to reach out to them and help.

If you have a friend in pain, reach out to them. Reach out to them. Reach out to them. Send them a note, an e-mail, give them a hug or a phone call. Take them to a movie or out to lunch. Don’t let them struggle alone in the endless black hole of suck that is depression. And don’t be fooled by their shiny happy exterior – it’s a front. Let them know you’re here. Let them know you care. Let them know they matter. And say it again, and again, and again, because depression can be louder than you are.

If you are in this kind of pain, if you think that ending it would be better than going on, if you can’t see the point any more, please, please get some help. Please reach out. Please call a suicide helpline –http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ even has an online chat program if you can’t handle a phone call. But don’t wait. Don’t give up.

Because my life is better because you’re in it.

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Friday Feature: What Good Thing(s) Happened To You This Week?

13 Tamuz 5774

It’s time for the Friday Feature again, where I ask you what good thing happened to you this week. This is direct from Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values, Day 69.

This is a regular Friday morning feature for this blog. Telushkin intended his book to provide topics for Shabbat discussions for at least a year, as each “week” is composed of six values (one per day) and then Shabbat, where he encourages us to talk about those values at our Shabbat dinners and services. I feel that the idea of gratitude is so central to Jewish practice that we should be reminded weekly of what we might be grateful for.


While I know that this might seem a little self-centered, I’m also doing this so that people will have some food for thought for their own Shabbat dinners about what they might be thankful for. I generally talk about the following areas of my life: work and career; family and friends; health; household; my conversion studies; miscellaneous life; and the wider world. Feel free to add or subtract as necessary for your own use.

Work and career: My summer course is going very well. My “how to write well” class opened a lot of eyes and got my students thinking, which is awesome.

Family and friends: My partner got promoted at work, and that’s been great for him. He’s also doing a lot of writing projects, which is fantastic for him. Another friend of mine recently got published in an academic journal, which is great.

Health: I have been sleeping reasonably well with one day not-so-good sleep (for me that’s really a big deal; usually I don’t sleep especially well).

Household: My new kippah arrived today, and two days ago all the ingredients and tools for my grain-free challah arrived: potato starch and parchment paper and a sifter that hasn’t been contaminated with wheat, a couple of pastry brushes to replace the one we seem to have lost; xanthan gum to make it stretchy like bread should be. This means that I can make my challah again for Shabbat! I admit I’m excited.

Conversion and conversion studies: I’ve made the hard decision and have contacted another rabbi. I am still studying Hebrew and reading every book I can get my hand on and I’m really enjoying it. I have about two people left to come out to and then I can go public on Facebook about my conversion.

So now I ask my readers: What are you grateful for this week? What are you going to talk about over your Shabbat table?

I wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll see you back here on Sunday.

 

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From My Readings: Back to Epstein

8 Tamuz 5774

I’m working my way through Leonard Epstein’s book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism for the next few weeks. In this book, Epstein gives us a chapter on some topic, and then some exercises at the end of the chapter for the reader to think about. He doesn’t number his exercises at the ends of his chapters, so sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out if a sentence is an exercise to write about or just something to think about. For example, Epstein asks us at the end of Chapter 2 to “Consider what is at stake in your beliefs. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put this very well: “[G-d] is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.”

Hm. OK. I’m not sure how to parse that, especially with the Heschel quote attached. Since the chapter is about G-d, Epstein probably means our beliefs about G-d. But as a former agnostic/atheist (and even now I’m not sure which of those I used to be), it’s hard to even put my beliefs about G-d into words, let alone talk about the stakes of those beliefs. I know what I used to believe. Now, the only thing I can be sure I believe is that G-d is there, somehow, and that a lot of what I used to think about him isn’t true.

I don’t know what Epstein means when he says “what is at stake in your beliefs.” Does he mean Pascal’s wager? Does he mean what people might do to me if they find out what I believe? Some other stake that I can’t discern yet? I’m at a loss.

So I’ll just address those two things and move on.

Pascal’s wager is that if we believe in G-d, there’s a chance we’re wrong. If we believe and we’re wrong, we simply die when we die, there is no afterlife, and there is no reward. But if we do not believe and we’re wrong, then we end up in Hell. Meanwhile, if we believe and we’re wrong, nothing happens to us, but if we believe and we’re right, then we end up in Heaven. So it’s better to believe than not believe.

But Pascal was talking to Christians, not to Jews. Does the wager even apply to Jews? Since Jews do not believe in the afterlife or in hell, and since Judaism is largely based on what you do rather than your statements of belief, it’s kind of hard to apply Pascal’s wager to Judaism. Besides, I’ve always felt that believing in G-d only because you were afraid of what would happen to you if you didn’t believe in him seems kind of dishonest, and that G-d would see through that in a heartbeat.

However, on a more pragmatic level, there are certainly things at stake in my belief in G-d and my performance of that belief through Jewish practice. On a very mundane level, it means giving up Saturdays as a day when I work and catch up on things, which for me is a pretty big deal. It means that sometimes I will make people uncomfortable when they see my kippah or my Mogen David, or when they see me praying the brachot at mealtimes (although I generally do that sotto voce; it’s my conversation with G-d, not theirs). It means that I may lose friends and even family members when I finish my coming-out process later this month. And it means that I will be a target for violence, because there are plenty of people who don’t like Jews, even today in this supposedly enlightened age.

On a less pragmatic level, the things that I risk in my belief in G-d include the stuff I’ve already talked about having to let go of: empiricism as a solution to every problem, black-and-white answers, suspicion and mistrust.

So what’s really at stake? Pragmatically, it’s my time, my energy, possibly my social relationships, and (in the worst case) my safety. Emotionally, I risk having to admit I’m wrong, having to get good with doubt, and having to change my perspective on the world.

So why risk that, you ask?

Well, in a pragmatic sense, many of the things about being a Jew (which will be the public face of my belief in G-d) that will make me a target are no different than the things about being queer that make me a target. People who hate tend to hate all groups that aren’t just like them. The KKK doesn’t have a Log Cabin KKK group, for example. They hate on Jews and queers pretty much the same way. As far as my belief in G-d specifically making me a target, I expect it’ll mostly be from the die-hard atheists who can’t tolerate other people believing in G-d for the same reasons I used to be unable to tolerate it. But even then, atheists rarely rise to the vitriolic level of a Richard Dawkins or a Greta Christina, and if they do, I can simply ignore them, as hard as that may be.

Taking this a step closer to my own personal life, as far as the atheist friends who demand sameness of belief or nonbelief as a condition of friendship? Well, it was nice knowing them. As the saying says, “Sometimes people come into your life for a reason or a season, not a lifetime.” I have already (probably) lost one friend over this, and I’m just hoping I won’t lose more, but if I do, it’s not that different from when I came out as queer.

So maybe the reason that it’s hard to parse Epstein’s question is because there is nothing new under the sun here for me. Almost everything that I have to face from other people’s reactions is the same stuff I had to face when I came out as queer. This is not my first rodeo. The things at stake that happen internally? That’s stuff I’ve been considering even before I started this blog. Could I maintain my self-respect after admitting I’d been wrong? Could I see myself as intelligent when I still have doubt? Could I accept non-empirical evidence and not think of myself as a fraud?

As it turns out, yes, I can.

But then there’s the other half of Epstein’s exercise, the Heschel quote. In many of the other books I’ve been reading, there’s this presumption that G-d is central to everything in Jewish life. And I can see that it must be for those who are Orthodox and even, to some extent, Conservative. But I’m not in the habit of praying before everything I do and everything I think. I don’t know if there’s a way to make G-d central when I’m at one of my medieval events, for example, except through my practices – avoiding lashon hara, being kind, being considerate.

Is that enough? Must I become a fundamentalist to be a good Jew?

I reject that. While Heschel has wonderful things to say, I don’t think the idea of G-d as an on-off switch is compatible with my Yiddishkeit. I do not think that it’s possible to allow for doubt if G-d must be of supreme importance all the time. I do not think it’s possible to allow for argument and debate if G-d is of supreme importance all the time. I think that in my experience of Judaism to date, it’s been about people – how you treat other people – far more than about G-d being central. And even some writers have said that it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

That also calls the question of what it means to make G-d central to everything. Is it professing continuous belief in G-d that makes him central? Or is it behaving towards others with kindness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, avoiding lashon hara that makes G-d central?

I’d say that as a person who aspires to become a Jew, my answer would have to be that it’s the practice, not the profession, that makes G-d central.

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Coming Out, One Person At A Time

20 Sivan 5774

Coming out is one of those fraught processes. You can never be sure, beforehand, who will shrug and say “okay,” and who will be excited for you (or perhaps come out to you themselves), and who will freak out and attack you, and who will smile uncomfortably and begin to back away, later distancing themselves from you and disappearing from your life. Sometimes you get pleasantly surprised; sometimes, the surprise is less than pleasant.

As a queer man, I’ve had to come out a lot in the past, and continue to have to do so. Once you come out, you can’t go back in, either – it’s a one-way street. Every new person has to be told, because it’s not usually immediately obvious that I’m queer. (Unless I deliberately flame up, for example, I have to be pretty drunk for my innate flaminess to come out and play. I don’t ping most people’s gay-dar.) And just coming out is only the first step. After that, you get the Question Period, with questions and comments that can range from startled (“But you don’t seem gay – are you sure?”) to compassionate (“That makes sense – what can I do to make this easier for you?”) to outright intrusive or ridiculous (“But… but… how do two men… you know… uh…?” or “You know you’re going to go to hell, right?”).

I think I’ve heard them all, when it comes to being gay.  I’ve heard quite a few when it comes to being autistic, too (I am not obviously or immediately autistic to most people, because their image of “autism” looks like Rain Man, not like me). And some of the things I’ve read from other bloggers who’ve come out to their friends about converting to Judaism have made me insanely anxious about coming out to my friends, because some people are as closed-minded about religious shifts as they are about sexual orientation or even neurodiversity. In the past, I’ve had people refuse to believe I’m autistic, reject me because I’m queer, and tell me that they just can’t handle me being out and to keep those differences to myself. Every time you come out, you risk being attacked or rejected (or both). So coming out can be a dicey process.

However, I am happy to report that so far, of the thirty-odd people I’ve come out to about my conversion, I haven’t had a single negative response. Many have asked intelligent questions: how did I get to the point where I could believe in G-d again after being an atheist? how does the conversion process happen? and even something as simple as Why Judaism? But nobody has been hostile yet. In fact, one of the things that’s confused more people than anything has been the idea that I’ll have a new name. I’ve had to explain that the bestowal of a Hebrew name is more “something that is important inside the Tribe,” and that none of them will have to call me by the new name – that it’s for me to use with other Jews.

My youngest brother and I talked about it last Thursday night on the phone, and he was completely cool with it. We talked about my dad and how he might have reacted; my brother said he thought that if Dad was still alive, he’d approve of this change on my part. That’s a real relief, because I admit I was worried about losing my family over this.  I’ve talked to long-term friends, former grad school classmates, and several folks from my medieval group. One friend who’s a weaver has offered to hand-weave me a tallit (without being asked!), and another one agreed to weave the atarah for it. A third friend, on hearing the news, said “I’m going to crochet you a kippah.” This blew me away, and made me realize just how blessed and rich in friends I am.

I am still stressing about this pretty badly at times, though, because this is only thirty-odd folks so far, and just on my Facebook I have over 500 friends and acquaintances. I found myself making a list of people and rank-ordering them on how close I felt to them and whether they needed to know. That list came out to over 50 people that I feel I needed to talk to one-on-one, whether through FB chat, Skype, or in person, before I make the general announcement on my Facebook page.  And that’s just my friends on Facebook! I also have at least three other social-media sites that I have to comb through and determine “who is close enough to me that I need to tell them one-on-one about this?” That’s a lot of people, and a lot of questions, and a lot of possible rejections. Is it any wonder that I’m stressed?

And yet, this is something I need to do. My plan is to message people on Facebook and give a pretty standard explanation, and then let them ask me questions. The explanation starts with the helicopters joke, continues with the wish to sit shiva after my Dad’s death, goes on with the Spong deconstruction of the Jesus-as-G-d idea, and then gets into my mother’s NPD and the abuse that made me have trouble trusting my feelings which led to my insistence on empirical/literal evidence for a long time. After that, I talk about the different spiritual helicopters that I’ve been seeing: the fact that the temple is RIGHT down the street from me; the fact that it’s been thirteen years since I first came out and really asserted my adulthood; and then learning about Judaism and its ethics and practices, and how it fits me and makes sense. It took about fifteen minutes, talking, with my brother to get it all out. It took about ten minutes to type it to my friends on Facebook that I’ve come out to so far.

My goal is to be able to post about my conversion by Independence Day or sooner, but even then, the coming-out process is an ongoing thing. With strangers it’ll be pretty easy: I’m wearing a kippah and a Mogen David. But with friends, I feel the need to give them a heads-up before they see me kippah-clad for the first time.

 

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A Trip to the Fairfax District, and Shabbat/Oneg Friday Night

10 Sivan 5774

Friday morning and early afternoon, my Jewish best friend took me to the Fairfax district so we could do some Jewish-specific shopping. The night before we had identified a few shops we wanted to go to, including a Jewish thrift store.

I admit that even with a plan, I was kind of overwhelmed. Despite living in the Los Angeles area now, I grew up in a suburb. Crossing the border into Los Angeles makes my mind go offline as I can’t visualize the map, and in my head “Los Angeles” translates into “large undefined area that I can’t process.” It’s a thing. But this is why my partner or my friends drive when we go into LA instead of me. I’d get lost in a heartbeat, even with a GPS trying to tell me the way. As it was, we had some trouble getting to Fairfax because of unexpected traffic, but we did arrive where we wanted to be eventually.

I wore the borrowed cotton kippah that my temple had let me take home on Shavuot last week, and I found out that cotton cloth kippot are generally made of broadcloth. Broadcloth is so tightly woven that it does not breathe at all. So combine black color + broadcloth + Los Angeles midday sunshine and you get “very hot very fast,” so I was eager to find a few crocheted/knitted kippot that would breathe better. (Not to mention that that borrowed kippah was enormous – it covered as much of my head as a baseball cap would.

My friend drew my attention to the street when we got to the thrift store, our first stop. Up and down the street were two or three small kosher delis, a kosher butcher, a couple of stores that were obviously Judaica, a jewelry store, and a social-service agency that was aimed at Jews by the signage. Just standing on the sidewalk, I noticed that at least half the men walking by us were kippah-clad. Several had tallit katan showing under their t-shirts, as well. It felt like I’d come home – or as much like home as an urban area will ever feel to suburban-minded me.

We drove to a more upscale store after going to the thrift shop, and then a new kosher deli – Wexler’s – that opened up in the Grand Marketplace area of town for our lunch and that a friend of my friend’s had said was better than Langer’s (which she thinks is better than Canter’s, a deli that is known in LA for being “the best”). She wanted to confirm that Wexler’s really was better than either of those – and it turns out, it is. Go to Wexler’s if you’re in Los Angeles. Their pastrami is amazing!

I came home with two new kippot, a Mogen David, a chain for the Mogen David, and a few kippot clips. I’d originally intended one of the kippot for this Sunday’s West Hollywood Pride, among other queer-themed events where I want to be an obvious queer Jew-ish person, but I’m so tired tonight that I’m bidding my partner a good time and staying home tomorrow. (I’ll still wear the multicolor kippah tomorrow, though – it looks  something like the one on this page. Eventually I want to get one like this.) I put on the white-and-blue one as soon as I paid for it, and my head was noticeably cooler after that, although it kept sliding down the back of my head even with the clips, which frustrated me a bit. It looks pretty much like this one on this page. (I’m also looking forward to the sage-green-and-white one that a friend of mine in the South crocheted for me when she found out that I’m converting; that should be arriving sometime next week, I hope. I’m thrilled about that one too.)

The Mogen David and its chain were from the thrift store. My best friend bought me the star, and I bought the chain. She commented that it’s important that you not buy your own first Mogen David, and the shopkeeper’s face got a look on it that I couldn’t parse. My best friend later told me “That was the look of ‘Oh, this is a REALLY important purchase.'” I had thought it was disapproval – I’m glad I was wrong.

The Mogen David’s not especially big, but it’s bright silver and pretty obvious if I’m wearing anything dark behind it (which I do, most of the time). I keep catching myself playing with it, and grinning like a loon. This is what it looks like against my T-shirt:

2014-06-06 at 15.24.22

It’s about 3/4″ (2 cm) across from the tip of one star point to the one across from it. It’s very simple but it also makes the statement: Yes, I’m Jew-ish.

And after lunch, I got my very first anti-Semitic slur as we left the district on our way back to the car after lunch. The sidewalk was a little crowded, and a young woman simply shoved past me and said “fat k-ke!” as she did so. My friend was livid, but hey, apparently the bigots haven’t forgotten the classics. I was actually just annoyed. I guess I’ve taken enough abuse for being queer that being abused for being Jew-ish was just more of the same nonsense to me. Still, it’s a first that I won’t be saying the shehecheyanu for (although I did say that for the purchase of the Mogen David and of the kippot).

We intended to make Shabbat dinner before going to services but we left it too late; between Friday traffic and being tired, we bought but did not prepare any food for Shabbat dinner. Oh, well. I now have a good kosher red wine to use for a few future Shabbat dinners, at least. Instead, we had a snack and then walked over to temple to participate in Friday night services. And this time we actually got a minyan plus one extra! I noticed that the convert couple I met at Shavuot (husband is moving towards conversion; wife is born Jewish) was there and that the rabbi counted them both as part of the minyan, so I need to find out how he determines that when we have our appointment on Tuesday.

My friend knew most of the melodies that the rabbi used, but there were a few differences from her Reform services. The service was once again lots of singing and pretty informal; the oneg was fun even though I couldn’t eat anything (again – I need to bring a gluten-free contribution next time I think). The convert couple and I exchanged contact information and the husband said he would send me the rabbi’s booklist. When the rabbi overheard that, he said “Oh, this guy’s probably read all the books – I’ll have to think of something different for him to do.” (I’m still not sure if he was kidding or not.)

My friend will be coming over on Tuesday to go to my first appointment with the rabbi with me. I’m looking forward to it instead of dreading it, so I think that’s a good sign, right?

Next weekend both my partners and I are traveling on Shabbat so I won’t be able to observe it, but I plan to get right back to observance the week after. I’m sure HaShem will understand; I’ll still pray, but it’ll be alone instead of with a group this coming weekend.

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Kippah in Practice

Today was a busy day: my partner and I had to do laundry at the laundromat, and then hit Costco for our monthly grocery run, and somewhere in there we had lunch. But I left my kippah at home, because a) I felt conspicuous and b) I wasn’t sure he’d be comfortable with it, and the last thing I want to do is alienate him with my conversion by being that overt about it.

When we got home, though, and got everything brought in and put away, I put it on almost without thinking about it while he was in the shower.

He saw it when he came out and said, with a bit of confusion in his voice, “You’re wearing your kippah?”

So then I had to explain to him why I was wearing it. What it boils down to is this: I am moving towards being a Jew, and part of what I need to do is follow the various Jewish practices to see if they fit me or not. And wearing a kippah is just – part of that, for me.

More to the point, it feels right. I feel right wearing one. Another blogger I’ve recently started following said that wearing a kippah felt like being under a blanket, safe and protected. That it was very lightweight but you still felt it on your head. You’re aware of it, and of what it means. Yeah. That.

Other Reform and Conservative Jews (either by birth or by choice) that I’ve talked to and read have expressed similar sentiments. Michael at Chicago Carless has said that he rarely if ever takes his kippah off, and one of the reasons why is that he feels it would erase the evidence of a Jew in the world if he did. My best friend does not wear a kippah, but her Mogen David is always on and always obvious, for the same reason.

As for me? This is a public symbol of my identity. It’s like wearing my rainbow bracelet to identify myself as queer. It’s evidence of a person with this identity in the world. Not to wear it is becoming more and more unthinkable for me.

Tomorrow my best friend and I are going to the Fairfax district, finally!, and I hope to come home with several kippot for different occasions so I can return this workaday borrowed one to the temple tomorrow evening. But in the meantime? I’m going to wear it because it comforts me, it feels right, and because I want to.

My partner said that he’s fine with me doing that, so I might pick up a rainbow-themed one for Pride on Sunday, too.

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Let’s Talk About Atheism.

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable being a closeted Jew-ish (and newly religious) person. (I will use that word, “Jew-ish”, with the pronounced hyphen, to describe myself until such time as I get my mikveh dip.) Part of the discomfort is hearing all the arguments that I used to make against religion and theism generally, and Christianity in particular, being raised in current posts by atheist friends of mine on LJ and Facebook. And since many of them are poking at stories in the Tanakh (the “Old Testament,” for the non-Jewish readers in the blogging audience), they are also arguments against Judaism.

Although I used to be an atheist, I never stopped being a traditionalist. This might make me sound like I should be a political conservative, but it didn’t actually affect me that way. I am a liberal and I always will be, but tradition is important to me. Community is important to me. I’ve always looked at the American push for individualism and “go it alone” and “look out for Number One” with a bit of a fisheye. In many ways, the values of Judaism and the values of liberalism go right together. The concept of tikkun olam, “repair the world,” is inherently a liberal value, as are the ideals of community support and tradition.

While I don’t agree with his conclusions, I find Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s article “The Real Reason Why Jews are Liberals” makes some cogent points about this connection.

Judaism is an ideology devoted to the betterment of the human condition based upon values and goals that are fundamentally liberal.

Goldson also points out that liberalism and conservatism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are inextricably tied to one another. They inform one another. Conservatism that never allows change becomes stagnant and brittle, and cannot survive. Liberalism that has no basis in tradition or a shared value system goes off the rails and crashes. So, both are needed.

The problem is, both conservatives and liberals are fighting caricatures of their opposite poles. Conservatives think that liberalism has no values; liberalism finds many of the values of conservatism abhorrent or outdated. And yet when I look at liberal positions, the best and most enduring ones are rooted in already-established conservative traditions: community, treating each other compassionately, living up to our obligations to those who serve, including people in the traditions that create community (marriage, religious practice, creation of family, meaningful work).

So I think that the practice of Judaism at its best and most honest is an inherently liberal practice, based in a set of conservative values that changes slowly over time in response to changing cultural conditions.

I’ve never met a conservative atheist. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; I’ve just never met one. But I think that most modern atheists tend to go right off the rails because they see no value in tradition and they’d like to sweep it all up and throw it into the dustbin of history, where they feel it belongs. This isn’t to say that atheists don’t hold important and moral values – they do – but they miss the point of tradition and history and often say it’s just not important. I disagree with them on this point, obviously.

But I can also understand why atheists demonize religion and theism. I did it myself, not so long ago, and it’s easy to do. Atheists tend to be surface readers. They look only at the letter of the laws and the literal descriptions of the histories, without knowing the spirit of the laws or the backstory/context of the histories. They also tend to ignore practice for belief or history, thinking that the entire religion must be judged only on its beliefs or histories, and ignoring what the members of that religion do in their day-to-day lives.

For example, I recently saw a meme here on WordPress that ranted about how Judaism implied that it allowed child sacrifice (not to mention blind obedience to G-d), and referenced the Abraham and Isaac story as a supporting point.

I’ve edited to add the actual story from Torah, for context. It is from the Torah parshah called Vayeira, which spans Genesis 18:1 to 22:24. This particular story is Genesis 22:1-19, and is known by most Jews as “The Binding of Isaac,” or the Akedah.

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. 2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. 3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? 8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, 16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

When you read only the words of the Torah on this story, it’s easy to get the idea that G-d was demanding blind obedience while also commanding the horrific act of child sacrifice. I know that this looks very problematic.

But there’s backstory there that you can’t get just from those verses. There’s context that changes the entire meaning of the story. The ancient Hebrews lived in a time and place where child sacrifice to deities was routine, so for Abraham, the initial command from G-d to take his son up on the mountain and sacrifice him was, if certainly devastating, not entirely unexpected. But in this story, G-d is actually providing Abraham (who had been Abram, a pagan, up until G-d called him to found the Jewish people) with a kind of logical proof: Yes, everyone else does this, but from now on the Hebrews will not. Yes, you were willing to when I commanded you to, and for that you are blessed, but as you see, I’m not that much of a jerk. You and your descendants will never know the loss of your children as meaningless sacrifices; their lives and deaths will have some greater meaning.

Now, many atheists will insist that that doesn’t matter and G-d should not have demanded this of Abraham in the first place – he could have just said “So, you know how the other people around here sacrifice their children? Don’t do that.” And that can certainly be argued. But what do people remember more? An object lesson, or a decree?

As a teacher, I’d say that people tend to remember the object lesson far more than the decree. Despite the decree in my syllabus that plagiarism results in an automatic zero on the assignment, I have had students every term who have plagiarized on their papers “because everyone else does it.” Yep, and when you get caught doing it, you get a zero on your paper. Of course these students come begging for another chance and I routinely deny them that chance. Do they remember, the next time they write a paper, that they cannot simply copy from websites? I’d bet they do.

Abraham lived in a culture where it was normative to sacrifice your kids when things got bad. Absent the object lesson, he might have dragged Isaac to an altar at another time when things got bad, unless G-d had put him in the position of being ordered to do it and then reprieved from it. He had to experience it to understand it. He had to gain experiential, not just theoretical, knowledge of it to really get what G-d was driving at, in the same way that some of my students have to gain experiential knowledge that cheating will result in a zero.

But those who read only the surface of the text never get that far. Most of the time, atheists are simply cherry-picking theist scriptures to find “zinger verses,” without understanding the background of those verses. This is something I wouldn’t put up with in my students, and I’m ashamed and appalled that I ever allowed myself to do it, either. Doing this is simply making a caricature of theism. It’s literal-mindedness taken to an extreme.

Are there a lot of very violent stories in the Torah? Yes. Why? Because the people of that time lived in a harsh world and a harsh culture, and let’s face it – they still had a lot of growing up to do. (And let’s not kid ourselves; if the human race should last so long, our two-millenia-hence descendants will look back on our histories of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq with the same kind of horror that we look back on Jericho, Sodom, and so forth. We’re not as civilized as we like to pretend we are.) Judging the current religion and its practices based on its historical flaws is like judging someone who’s in their 40s for the dumb things they did when they were 15. Atheists who judge religion based only on the religion’s starting point are not being honest in their analysis.

But one of the best things about the Torah is that, given this harsh context, the people in it are not perfect paragons of virtue. They are dysfunctional. They are real people, dealing with real problems. Their stories express the truths of the human condition. Yes, Abraham could have just said to his people: “We don’t sacrifice our kids, even though the other tribes do.” Or he could have said, “I went up there to sacrifice my son Isaac, and G-d told me not to do it. Thus we know by G-d’s demonstration to me that we are not child-killers, and that he has better expectations for us than that when times get tough.” Most people tend to take the second version of the commandment more seriously than the first.

Or we could just lean on the atheistic caricature of what happened and say “G-d set him up for a harsh test of obedience because G-d was being a jerk.” Well, okay, if you want to believe that, you can – but that’s only the surface of what was going on here. It’s a caricature and it misses the deeper meaning. By making a caricature of theism, atheists are simply setting up a strawman. By only looking at the surface, they miss the deeper point. And certainly, that’s their right – but I do not have to listen to them or take it seriously.

It’s human to make caricatures of things we don’t like. I do it myself, and have done it recently. The person to whom I needed to apologize yesterday had become a caricature in my head, and that was unfair to them. I was judging them based on my own assumptions about them instead of discovering the truth (and I’ll be writing another post on why I feel that this was lashon hara on my part, later on). But part of the Torah is about us striving to be more than human – to look to our better nature and keep on enacting it, instead of giving in to our weaker side.

Knowing this makes it easier to contemplate coming out as a Jew-ish person on my Facebook page and my LiveJournal account. Knowing why some people reject theism based on the caricatures in their heads makes it easier to understand how and why some of my friends are going to reject me when I come out. But I also know that I’m going to lose friends when I do it, for the same reasons that I once rejected my religious friends. And I just hope that someday they will understand that it was a caricature that they were fighting, not the reality. It took me long enough; I am willing to give them time to come to the same conclusion.

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My First Shabbat Dinner, Redux, and Telling My Kids

3 Sivan 5774

The prayers went reasonably well, although my ebook reader closed the page with the prayers just after I’d said the candle-lighting blessing. I did, however, get through them and felt accomplished just for getting through the transliterated version. I’ll work on reading directly from the Hebrew later on.

After that I was very, very busy, making all the dinner things. But I’m pleased to report that the dinner went off splendidly, and our guest was impressed. Yay!

The challah was not light-and-fluffy, but it was still recognizably bread, and it tore just like I’m told challah is supposed to tear. It tasted a bit more foccacia-like than eggy, but that’s probably the olive oil. Slathered with butter it was REALLY good. Next time I’m going to try using sugar instead of honey and see if that makes a difference in the proofing of the yeast and the rising of the dough (this didn’t rise much and the yeast didn’t bubble much, either). I’ve also ordered whisks and the smaller pan for next weekend’s Shabbat.

The soup was very well-received and tasted better than I’d hoped for (I am so glad I have a stick blender). The chicken was pretty good and there was enough left over for my partner to take some today for lunch, but I think I want to make it sweeter – the combination of lemon juice AND olive brine made it very, very sour even with the golden raisins added, unfortunately. The rice, although I didn’t try it, was apparently very good. I need to let the green beans cook a little longer, next time.

And one of my candlesticks broke when the flame got near the rim. 😦 So I have to find a replacement for it, somewhere.

My partner paid me a compliment when he got home: “Wow, people will think you’re Jewish with all this food!” We had LOTS of leftovers, but everyone was very full when we got up from the table. So it was a successful Shabbat dinner – yay!

My breakfast this morning was the last bit of leftover challah, some cheese, and some cashews. It was wonderfully filling.

– – – – – – –

About my kids. I have two daughters – sixteen and fifteen – and they’re both incredible young women. They live with my Catholic ex and my ex’s Jewish-by-birth partner, and I mainly get to see them every few weekends for an overnight or two. We have gone about three months without visits due to our schedules not working out, so I was anxious to tell them about my conversion plans. They’ve both been to many Temple services and Shabbats, so I was hoping that neither of them would be too fazed.

Happily, they weren’t. Not only that, my younger one said “If I could choose a religion, I’d probably be Jewish. They let you ask questions and they don’t care if you don’t agree with them.” This means that I can probably look forward to some Shabbat dinners with my kids, now, if they want. I don’t have to hide it from them. It was a lot lower-key than I was worried about, and I’m glad.

When I explained that I wasn’t going to keep kosher, my younger child said “Eh. Not many Jews do. R and N” (her stepmom and one of her stepmom’s daughters) “only keep it because her parents would be upset if they didn’t.” So that won’t be a hurdle either.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes… and an appeal to my readers.

24 Iyyar 5774

So my partner told me today that he’s a little worried about my conversion changing me or making me want to leave him.

It’s a normal fear, I suppose. I just don’t quite know how to address it. And this isn’t the usual fear that converts face: my partner and I are queer. That does make it different, because there’s so few resources out there for people like us.

Now, I can’t imagine a future where I would leave him, for any reason. From my conversations with the people at the local temple yesterday, I don’t think that they would make him uncomfortable, or me either, just for being GLBT or for being an interfaith couple. When I brought it up last night, the rabbinical student said, “You will not be the first ones here.”

He was also worried that I was going to start keeping kosher, but I reassured him that that’s not going to happen, because of my own current dietary restrictions. But I can see his point. I will be praying a lot more than I have been, which up until I decided that conversion was right for me, was zero times per day.  I’ll be wearing a kippah most of the time, so it will change how I look. And those are mostly just surface changes.

Frankly, I think that he will enjoy some of the other changes – like the fact that I won’t feel the need to talk religious people down (although I still reserve the right to call certain religious people out on their bad behavior, but that’s a different thing). I’m already calmer than I was, and I think I’m happier. And I think he sees that. He’s already said he thinks this is a positive change for me.

I’m sure that part of his worry is: what will me being Jewish do to our sex life? And I’ve been wrestling with that in my own time, with a few trusted correspondents. Let me put it this way: I’m not going to let it damage our sex life.

But I think most of what he’s worried about is just the changes he can’t predict. The unknowns. And I can understand that.

So, since there are so few resources out there for queer people in this situation, I could use some help from my readership. Is there anything that you can think of that might make him really uncomfortable, that I can address now, to make it less scary? Any ways in which I can help him so that he doesn’t feel so threatened? Any heads-ups I should be giving him now?

And, while I’m at it: does anyone have any advice for me? I don’t mean just about my partner’s worries, but about my own coming out process as I begin to tell friends and family members what I’ve chosen to do. Really, I think one of the things that is stressing me out the most is that so few people that I care about know that I am moving towards conversion to a religious path, after being so vehemently atheist for so many years. When I came out as queer, there was one friend who was very dear to me that completely rejected me and never spoke to me again. That still hurts, and it’s been 14 years since it happened. And just in the last week, reading Facebook and another blog site that I’m part of, I see my atheist friends running down religious people simply because they’re religious, making really nasty and hurtful comments, and just generally being as intolerant as fundamentalist religionists are of anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

It took me over 20 years to understand that I can’t measure spirituality using the same tool as I used and still do use for the material world. I can’t expect my atheist friends to make the same shift as I have.

But it occurs to me I should probably document why I have.

I’ve mentioned the helicopters before. One of them was an article about near death experiences. What convinced me that they have to be the real thing – which means there has to be a soul or something beyond what our material self produces by electrical flashes in the brain – was that the people who went through the NDE could independently verify things that happened while they had absolutely no brain activity. Their lack of brain activity is a matter of medical record, and yet they knew things that they could not possibly know, if the “personality and self are entirely made up of electrical flashes in the brain” school of thought is true.

I am a scientist. At this point, the only explanation that fits the evidence is: there is a soul.  It is independent of the body. And we don’t understand anything about it.

Another helicopter is one I’ve talked about at length here: the fact that I equated my mother’s abuse with how G-d operates. When I realized that my view of G-d was based largely on a faulty filter system, that changed everything for me.

But do I expect these helicopters to mean anything to my friends who are atheist? No. I will be pleased and surprised if they do, but I expect to lose quite a few friends when I come out and say, “Hey, guess what? I’m converting to Reform Judaism.”

My partner is much more understanding than my atheist friends will probably be. For one thing, he believes in G-d. But he still has fears and I can understand that. So please, give me some ways to help him deal with the fears that he’s going to have.

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Filed under Conversion Process, GLBT, Identities, Judaism