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Countdown -6: The 6th of Elul and Knowing

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

BlogElul 2015

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

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

Full Definition of KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t.

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

Sometimes, it’s okay not to know.

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Countdown -7: The 5th of Elul and Accepting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Countdown -8: the 4th of Elul and Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Countdown, -9 and counting: 3 Elul and Searching

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

BlogElul 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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