Tag Archives: halacha

The Prophetic Aspect of Being a Ger Tzedek, and How To Do It Wrong

26 Sivan 5774

When Michael Benami Doyle stood in front of his beit din, his rabbi asked him how he reconciled his deep commitment to the Jewish community with the luke-warm commitment of many of the synagogue’s members at the time. Michael’s response, which I generally agree with, is that there is a prophetic aspect to being a Jewish convert. Michael says that the very act of converting makes us “take Judaism with joy and sincerity and totally in earnest because it’s so new to us, and because of that we often serve as an inspiration to born Jews who may have lost their sense of wonder about their native religious tradition.”

In essence, Michael is saying that gerim tzedek serve as a light to the Jewish community through our lived example. To me, that’s the right way to go about this prophetic aspect of being a convert.

But there are certainly wrong ways to go about that aspect, as well. To explain this statement, I’m going to combine insights from two other areas of my life here, and then tie the package up in a nice, neat bow for you. Bear with me.

First, many different sources that I’ve been reading have pointed out that in the Tanakh, the prophets were by and large very reluctant to be prophets (with the possible exception of Isaiah). G-d essentially demanded it, even though the last thing they wanted to do was go out and tell other people how to live, even if G-d required it of them. If we read the stories of the different prophets, most of them only began to speak their prophecies after great reluctance and some resistance. They did not jump at the chance to go tell people how to behave, or what to do, or what to think. Jonah is the classic example, running as far as he could and still being caught by the requirement that he speak G-d’s prophecy.

So it should be clear that it’s not fun to be a prophet. Prophets tend to say “you should change,” or “what you’re doing is not pleasing to G-d – so cut it out already.” Prophets tend to be rejected by their own countrymen. It’s not exactly a cushy job.

The second insight is that nobody likes to be told what to do by someone who’s just showed up on the scene, prophet or not. Even in non-religious contexts, this is quite clear: the new guy on the job who comes up with a way to speed up production is generally not liked by his coworkers, the new kid who can play basketball better than the other kids because he’s had some actual coaching gets drummed off the team because he makes everybody else look bad, and so forth.

My personal example is Usenet. I used to be an active participant on Usenet newsgroups, which (back in the days when rocks were still soft) were the “internet message boards” of the 1990s. This was before AOL and before Compuserve. Newsgroups were community-policed; that is, there were no moderators to come down on someone like a ton of bricks if they came into the group and started causing trouble. Instead, individuals who were group members had the responsibility of shunning the disruptive new member. This was accomplished by the use of a “killfile,” a small program that filtered out any comments from the disruptive member before you ever saw the message threads.

Sometimes my killfile had twenty or thirty people in it. And most commonly, the disruptive member would come in, say hi, and then immediately begin demanding changes to the way things were done in the newsgroup, simply because they didn’t like how things were being done in the newsgroup at that time. Since newsgroups were, in some ways, very clannish (the longer you’d been there, the more status you had, just like in real life), this usually didn’t go over very well. Oh, occasionally a new member would assimilate and become one of the group, but like as not, he or she would end up in everyone’s killfile because of the demands that the community change for them.

So there is a right way and a wrong way to go about being a prophet in the modern world. If there is a prophetic aspect to being a convert – and I agree with Michael that there is – it doesn’t involve taking it upon ourselves to demand change. Unless we are guided by G-d to do that, we need to keep our traps shut and simply be prophetic by the example of our lives. Demanding doesn’t work. Nor should we think it’s okay to demand anything. Instead, simply living the example will probably bring more people over to our side as they see that what we are doing is working.

The reason this is on my radar right now is that there’s a very well-intentioned person at my temple who is, like me, going through the conversion process. But this person is full of ideas, and most of those ideas are about how the temple needs to change, or become different – “more Jewish.” This person is also one of those extroverted, enthusiastic, and socially clueless folks who come across kind of like a very well-intentioned, good-natured bull in a china shop, with very little sense of boundaries and no understanding of the fact that they’re walking all over them. I won’t go into more detail than that, but the fact is that this person seems to think that demanding change is the right way to get it. As an example, they (and I’m maintaining gender anonymity here as well) thought it would be a good idea to wear a tallit “to make other people uncomfortable.” Never mind that as a not-yet-converted not-yet-Jew, they don’t have the right to wear a tallit! That simply did not occur to them in their enthusiasm and desire to shake things up a little bit.

While it’s certainly appropriate and necessary to confront corruption or favoritism or systemic problems when we see them, I think two things have to happen first. One, we need to have credibility. This person (and I) are not yet Jews, regardless of our yiddishe neshamot. We are conversion students. We currently cannot claim to have a dog in this fight – if a fight even exists (and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t).

Two, we need to be very careful not to judge how others live their Judaism by the measuring stick we’re using for ourselves. Just as we have to own our own Yiddishkeit, we have to allow others to own theirs, even if their way of being Jewish makes us uncomfortable. In any congregation, there will be people who follow kashrut to the letter and those who have the occasional bacon cheeseburger. There will be people who can manage to avoid working or doing anything that is disallowed on Shabbat, and there will be those who have to work on Shabbat because they need to pay rent and feed their families. And the moment we start getting judgmental is the moment that any credibility we might have is lost.

This is not to say that it’s not right to make a stink about systemic problems. But demanding that people be “more Jewish” because they’re not practicing to the standard you’ve set for yourself is not right, ever, and it’s certainly not prophetic. It’s just being a jerk – and unless G-d told you to do that, you should probably cut it out.

How can you tell if G-d told you to do it? Well, from the known prophets, you really should feel reluctant. If the impulse to tell others how to live their lives makes you feel excited or happy or smug, that’s probably not G-d talking – and despite what you might think, ego is not G-d.

So yes, live your life as the convert that you are. Show your community what your Judaism is like by your example, because this is a religion of practice, and actions speak louder than words.

But unless you’re addressing actual problems, and not just things that make you uncomfortable because they’re not doing Judaism like you do Judaism, keep your words to yourself.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism

Do Not Stand Idly By: Being A Jew Who Picks and Chooses

18 Sivan 5774

I recently found a wonderful article by Rabbi Maurice Harris on MyJewishLearning.com. I’ve been struggling with the idea that you have to keep and observe every single one of the mitzvot or you are not a good Jew. But Rabbi Harris gives a really, REALLY good reason for rejecting some of the Leviticus laws that require us to be sexist, racist, or homophobic. He says:

“I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).

“Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.”

Now, Judaism has certainly carved out some exceptions to reduce harm that might be caused by religious beliefs. Pikuach nefesh deals with some of the mitzvot that are harmful for Jews in certain health situations, as well as prioritizing life over almost any of the mitzvot. I believe there is also a ruling somewhere that says that financial hardship is a reason not to perform certain mitzvot. And there’s definitely a rabbinic doctrine of human dignity before rules whenever possible.

But that is still a powerful, powerful – and true! – statement for Rabbi Harris to make. “I was just following orders” is not an excuse for following rules that harm real people, even if the orders supposedly came from G-d.

I don’t believe that it is a mitzvah to condemn someone for their gender, their gender identity, their sexual orientation or their race. I don’t believe that HaShem actually wants that. I believe that while many of our traditions are good and should be preserved, some of them are harmful and should be set aside. Keshet, the organization that is working for full equality for LGBT Jews, has a signature drive called Do Not Stand Idly By, a pledge to speak out against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and harassment in the Jewish community. (By the way, I urge you to sign it.)

I’m now going to switch to a discussion of Rabbi Kushner’s book How Good Do We Have To Be? that I referenced in another post, because Kushner also has some important things to say about this whole rule-bound thing.

I quote:

“To say that we are destined to lose G-d’s love or to go to Hell because of our sins is not a statement about us but about G-d, about the tentative nature of G-d’s love and the conditional nature of G-d’s forgiveness. It is a claim that G-d expects perfection from us and will settle for nothing less […] I strenuously reject [this idea]. If I am capable of forgiveness, of recognizing intermittent weakness in good people or good intentions gone astray in myself and others, how can G-d not be capable of at least as much?”

Too many times, people who cling to every rule teach us that everything about us is sinful, that we are sinners, that we are fundamentally wrong because we are not obeying each and every rule and performing every mitzvah perfectly. Kushner and Harris are both arguing against this “marriage to the rules” instead of “paying attention to the people” mindset; Harris by saying that there’s no “I was just following orders” defense for harming people through obeying rules, and Kushner pointing out that G-d does not demand that we be perfect in order to be loved.

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, in his Orthodox-flavored tome Judaism for Everyone, points out that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than doing the wrong thing for the right reasons:

“[J]udaism insists that one must do a good deed even if it stems from improper or insincere motivation. Refraining from doing a good deed because we question our intention is the piety of fools.”

Kushner also points out this important fact: Religion, at its best, does not exist to carp at us and make us feel inadequate, or guilty, or wrong. It exists (or should) to tell us that even in our imperfection we are welcome. Even in our flawed humanness, we are acceptable.

We have a choice between being self-righteous and taking comfort in being the ones who do everything perfectly and perform all the mitzvot and never transgress a commandment (as impossible as that probably is), or in being the ones who trip, make mistakes, do dumb things, fall down, and get up again and make amends. Certainly the idea is not to say “Well, I can’t even try to perform X mitzvah” – but it is important to recognize, I think, whether some mitzvot are also gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness), or if they are simply relics of a time when the rules were more important than the people.

And then the question becomes: given the choice between following mitzvot that harm others (which, for me, is the same as standing idly by while our brothers’ blood is shed) or treating people with kindness, tolerance, and acceptance – well, which do you think is more important to HaShem in the long run? Which choice truly seeks to serve justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with our G-d?

I know my answer. Do you?

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Wrestling Match #9: Why Is This Religion Different From All Other Religions?

Yesterday’s Torah study session, and some things that happened today, really opened my eyes to some fundamental differences between Judaism and the other religions I was raised in and tried – Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, Unitarian Universalism, and paganism. (Atheism is not a religion.) Mainly I’m going to focus on the Christian religions because those are the ones that really caused me problems; UUism and paganism, on the other hand, simply didn’t fulfill my needs.

Let’s start with the differences in the view of G-d – and, by extension, the view of sin. In all the G-d centered religions that I’ve been part of (Catholicism and Protestantism), G-d is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. This means that he knows everything you do, think, and say. And if he doesn’t like it, he can zot you with a Great Big Divine Lightning Bolt (or the figurative equivalent). You have no privacy in these religions. Your thoughts can be sins – and are often considered such. Catholicism has a whole category of sins called “impure thoughts.” Basically, you have to be perfect in thought, word, and deed. And do you have any right to any boundary between you and G-d? Heck, no.

In Judaism, G-d isn’t concerned with what we think. He’s concerned with what we do and say. He’s not going to zot us for thinking bad things, unless we put them into action. As the rabbi said last night, the whole point of Moses going back and forth between G-d and the Hebrews at Sinai was that G-d was saying “Yes, I could read your minds, but I’m not that big of a jerk. You get your privacy inside your head.” This may take me a while to wrap my mind around, but it’s just another wrestling match, right?

And then there’s the whole sin thing. In Judaism, sin is what you do (when you shouldn’t do it) or don’t do (when you should do it). It’s also about what you do to others as much, if not more, than what you do to G-d. And if you hurt others through your sin, you have to go to those others and ask for forgiveness. Which brings us to…

Forgiveness. It isn’t just a single act in Judaism. In Catholicism, you recite your list of sins to the priest, who gives you a few prayers to say as penance, and you’re done. That’s what forgiveness looks like – almost like a transaction. In Protestantism you just go right to G-d and you’re done. Poof, presto, no more sin.

But Judaism demands more of us when it comes to apologizing. First, the apologies have to be made to the person harmed – not to a third party or to G-d, unless G-d is the one we harmed by our actions – and we have a special day for that (Yom Kippur). Then, once we are forgiven (and it is a mitzvah to forgive when you get a sincere apology), we have to follow through on our apology by not doing that action again. This isn’t like Catholicism where, even if you do it again, you can just go to the priest and get a theological shower in the confessional to wash it away, or Protestantism, where you just say “I’m sorry, G-d,” and you’re back in the clear again.

In the movie Ladyhawke, Matthew Broderick (who plays Phillipe, a thief) promises not to cut purse any more. Later in the movie, you see him cutting someone’s pouch off his belt as the guy sits half-asleep on a dock, and Phillipe whispers, “I know I promised, L-rd, never again. But I also know that you know what a weak-willed person I am.”

It’s funny as a movie scene, but the truth is that many Christians do this. I think of this as the Christian Cop-Out. Judaism doesn’t allow for that. If Phillipe were a Jew, he would have to go to the guy he stole the pouch from, apologize, and make amends.

Forgiveness also demands more of us. In Judaism, you are supposed to forgive someone if they ask you sincerely for forgiveness by the third time asked. In fact, it’s a religious requirement. And again, it’s not a one-off thing. You can’t just say “OK, you’re forgiven.” You have to actively work on continuing to forgive that person every time the anger comes up.

This is hard for me as well. I’m not good at forgiving. I’m actually very good at holding grudges. But a situation has come up where I need to forgive someone for a harm they did me and then apologized for over a year ago, and I’m struggling with it because, well, I don’t wanna. Forgiving them feels like saying that what they did to me wasn’t that big of a deal (and to me, it was) and letting them hurt me again, because I also have to ask for forgiveness for distancing myself from them since the apology. It’s a big mess, to me.

But I’m not going to wait around for Yom Kippur to extend my apology. I’m going to treat this as an object lesson: am I ready to be a Jew? Am I ready to follow through on what I’ve been saying, or is this all an intellectual exercise?

So tonight I’m going to contact this person and say, “I want to apologize for avoiding you. I also want to know if you still think that I’m [what they said I was] last year, and if so, if there’s anything I can do to remedy that.”

And whatever happens after, I will apologize and forgive like the Jew-ish person that I am and the Jew I hope to one day be. Anything less would be immoral.

No, it’s not easy. But it’s what I have to do.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Jewish Practices, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Shabbat Shalom!

By my handy Hebrew timer app, I should be lighting my candles around 7:39 tonight. I’ll have to do it earlier than that, though, and my timing won’t be as good as it could be. My partner is not off work until 6:30 and he’s running two errands AND picking up our guest on the way home; the chance he’ll be here before sundown is very, very low.

So, this is me being a pragmatic Reform Jew. I’ll adjust. Candles will be lit at 7, kiddush (and ha-motzi) will be said right after, and then I’ll cook most of the meal that can’t be served until probably 8:15. HaShem will understand.

2014-05-30 at 17.25.58

That is the gluten-free “challah” that I made myself today. I used this recipe, with a couple of tweaks: I used olive oil (vegetable oil gives me problems) and Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose flour. My other flour was coconut flour. I would have used coconut oil but I couldn’t get the jar open (sad face).

The recipe did NOT make enough batter to fill up the mold I bought from Amazon, however, so I’m thinking about buying the smaller one too, and perhaps even one that makes chalets. But first I need to know how this turned out, and I don’t, not yet. I also need a whisk (ours broke when we moved here); I had to make do with a fork when the yeast was proofing, and it didn’t bubble much.

2014-05-30 at 17.25.52

There’s the Kiddush cup and candlesticks I talked about, too, with the challah decently covered. Please ignore my ebook in the background. I’ll be setting the table once everything’s in the oven and on the stove.

I still have some pre-prep to do (onion chopping, mainly) for the dinner, but most of the dishes are ready to go, so it’s mostly “combine these things and put them in the oven/on the stove” at this point. I’ll save most of the challah for my partner and our guest, and just have a little bit myself to say the prayers over, since I don’t want to make either of them uncomfortable.

I had lunch today with a Jewish friend who greeted me with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom!” as he walked up to me outside the restaurant. I was caught almost off guard and then was able to repeat it back. I don’t think we got any stares, even though we talked incessantly about Judaism and my conversion process both before and during lunch. This friend is not even observant, but he’s glad for me. (He said “Just don’t schedule your conversion simcha during my qualifying exams!” – he’s a graduate student friend from grad school.)

The book I’m currently reading – Diamante’s Choosing A Jewish Life – says that one of the things that the beit din look for during the interview is the use of “we” and “us” instead of “you” and “they.” All during that conversation it was “we” and “us,” pretty much, with a few exceptions when I was alluding to my life before deciding to convert. And it felt natural. It felt totally natural.

Yes, HaShem. I see the helicopter.

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May 30, 2014 · 6:12 pm

“Art thou jealous for my sake?” and Offense Kleptomania

When I put up my “Trolling for Topics” post a day or so ago, Rabbi Adar asked me to write about what part of the Torah is speaking to me right now. After some thought (and some searching through the Torah), I find in Numbers 11:27 – 11:29 this passage:

11:27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

11:28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: “My lord Moses, shut them in.”

11:29 And Moses said unto him: “Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”

I find this three-verse section of Parshah Beha’alotkha to be meaningful on several different levels.

First: we have an unnamed tattletale, running to tell Moses: “Hey, these guys Eldad and Medad are usurping your authority as the prophet of our people!” Second, we have Joshua the son of Nun taking this kid at his word and saying to Moses: “Yeah, you should shut them up and make them stop. Who do they think they are?”

And then we have Moses looking at Joshua like he’s grown a second head (work with me here, I’m envisioning this scene) and saying: “What, I should stop them from doing something that indicates they have G-d’s favor?”

I would think for most people, that’s the point of this passage: Moses saying “Hey, I wish all the people were prophets.” He’s pointing out that in this very rule-bound culture, this rule that the tattletale and Joshua think is being broken isn’t a rule that actually exists (much to the tattletale’s and Joshua’s chagrin, I’m sure). I can also envision him wishing that all the people being prophets were the case, if only to take some of the workload and distribute it around a bit.

But there’s one little line that I’m not sure many people notice, and that’s this one:

“Art thou jealous for my sake?”

Let’s look just at this part of this passage. Joshua’s concern seems to be “They’re usurping your place, Moses.” But by saying that, HE is usurping Moses’ place in an entirely different way, by being personally offended that anyone would dare do something that he would find offensive if he were Moses (or so Joshua apparently believes). He’s basically being offended for Moses, and by extension telling Moses “this is something you should be offended about,” instead of allowing Moses to decide whether or not he wants to be or needs to be offended about this. And Moses, bless him, calls him on it. “What, you think I can’t handle this? You think I need you to be angry on my behalf? You think I’m not capable of figuring out whether or not I need to be offended about this? You think I need you to speak for me?”

This very small part of this Torah passage speaks to me because I am, among many things, a social activist. In the not so far-off past, I have been known to do something which I have since labeled “offense kleptomania:” I find out that [insert minority that I’m not part of] has [trouble that I think I have the answer to], and I get outraged.

The problem is, many times, offense kleptomaniacs then get up on their soapboxes and start telling the people who are actually experiencing the trouble what they should do about it. Or, they claim to speak for the people who are experiencing the trouble, instead of allowing those folks to speak for themselves. In essence, offense kleptomaniacs try to take away both the autonomy and the voice of the people who are actually experiencing the problem – and many times do not even realize that that’s what they’re doing.

Now, being outraged by a trouble that someone who isn’t part of my group is suffering? That’s fine. That’s empathy. I would hope that non-Jews find the Holocaust just as horrifying as Jews do. I would hope that whites look at the situation that blacks often live in, in the ghettos, and are outraged by it. But the moment I move from being outraged about it to telling that person what to do about it, or speaking on their behalf without letting them speak for themselves? That’s over the line. That’s making an ass of myself. That’s offense kleptomania.

Now, offense kleptomaniacs often claim that they’re being allies with the oppressed or troubled person or group. It sounds great on the surface, but it doesn’t work so well when you look at it from the oppressed person’s point of view. There’s a difference between being an ally and being an overbearing git. One great example of this is what’s called “mansplaining,” when a man tells a woman (or a group of women) what they’re doing wrong and how they should change it in order to make the problem of sexism or misogyny go away, instead of hearing what the women are saying about the problem (and his role in it). I am thinking of the current #YesAllWomen firestorm that’s going on right now. As an ally, I can and should talk to other men, and tell them to quit derailing the conversation or redirecting it back to their own hurt feelings – to quit mansplaining. That’s me, as a member of the oppressing group, actively pushing away the ability to oppress and calling out anyone else who’s doing it. But as an ally, I do not get to tell women what they have to do, or how they have to do it, or why they have to do it. That’s not my place. It is not okay for me to be an offense kleptomaniac and say “Hey, when men treat women badly, that really offends me just like if I was a woman, so women, do this and this and that to fix it! Also, I’ll be a spokesman for women so that they don’t have to trouble their pretty little heads about it!” (I call this White Knight syndrome.)

Um, no. As a man, I do not have the right to be offended in this way. Women do. I can and should be offended that men make women anxious, nervous, scared, and uncomfortable, and I can and should call men out on it whenever they try to derail the conversation or mansplain. But the moment I say that women shouldn’t be afraid of ME because I’m not like that, or that it’s bigoted for them to assume a man does not have their best interests at heart? The moment I say that I’ll rescue women from this and solve all their problems for them? I’ve crossed the line. If I tell women to dress or act any differently, I’ve crossed the line. I’m being an offense kleptomaniac and usurping their right to be empowered decision-makers that have control over their own lives.

Another example of offense kleptomania are all these people who are not autistic (and often have no autistic people in their lives) who want to “raise autism awareness” and “find a cure.” If you talk to most adult autistics, we don’t want a cure. We just want to be supported so that we can live as normal a life as possible. But do you see any adult autistics on the board of any of these “Autism Crisis” groups? Not bloody likely. That’s why one of my mottoes is that Autism Speaks does not speak for me – even though they keep trying to speak over me, and keep trying to silence me and other neurodiversity advocates. They’re offense kleptomaniacs, plain and simple. They didn’t just cross the line; they left it way, way behind them and they probably don’t even know it’s there.

Joshua, too, crossed the line. Joshua was an offense kleptomaniac in this passage. You see, Joshua had no right to be jealous (offended) that Moses’ authority was supposedly being usurped by these two guys prophesying. Notice, too, that Joshua answered our unnamed tattletale for Moses, instead of letting Moses speak for himself, by demanding that Moses “do something” about the perceived problem. That was Moses’ decision, not Joshua’s, and Moses called him on it.

Now, we don’t get to know what Joshua’s reaction was to being called on it, but I do wonder. Did he try to mansplain to Moses why Joshua had every right to demand that Moses do something about this perceived problem? Did he listen and say “Okay, I’m sorry, I was over the line?” We don’t know. From his reaction, though, it sure looks like Joshua was offended because the authority figure he respected was being challenged, and he wasn’t good with that.

Notice, too, that Joshua made a mountain out of a molehill here. Instead of taking Moses’ big-picture view – wouldn’t it be great if G-d spoke directly to ALL the people? – he took a narrow view: A rule is being broken and that’s not okay (even though, as it turns out, there was no rule being broken). G-d calls us to look beyond our narrow view every time he commands us to welcome the stranger, doesn’t he? The narrow view is not Jewish. It’s human, certainly, but we’re expected to rise above that.

So in this short passage, G-d is calling on us to do several things:

1. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but you cannot insert yourself into a situation where you have no place. Joshua did that (as did our unnamed tattletale) and Moses, fortunately, called them out on it and said “Not cool, guys.”

2. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but unless you’re actually the target of the offensive thing, you may not speak for those who actually are offended. You may not take away their voice or their autonomy.

3. Take the broader view. Is this actually offensive, or are you making it bigger than it needs to be? What’s more important – rules, or human beings? Social standards, or people? Take a breath, chill out, and consider before you fly off the handle and make things worse.

Yeah. That’s what I have to say about that.

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Filed under Drashot, Judaism

Pikuach Nefesh, Kashrut, and Shabbat Dinner

To me, keeping kashrut has always been one of the definitive Things That Jewish People Do.

And how I wish I could! But unfortunately, the cost is prohibitive for someone on a smallish income like mine.

And, sadly, even if I could afford the cost, I could not keep kashrut, because keeping kashrut depends on being able to eat a lot of foods that I’m severely allergic to: wheat, corn, barley, spelt, rye, oats, soy, and things made from them like noodles and bread and breadcrumbs and dumplings – and a lot of the things that make my diet-controlled Type II diabetes blood sugar go off-the-charts whacky. I can – barely – tolerate white rice, but it spikes my blood sugar like whoa, so I never eat more than a half-cupful of cooked rice.

And yes, the diabetes means that I cannot fast on Yom Kippur.

I’m also severely averse to almost all scale fish (canned tuna being the sole exception, and not often). I can’t even stand the smell of it, so that’s not ever on my menu. My parents believed that it can be traced to my “bouillabaisse episode” when I was about two and a half or so – when I got food poisoning about three hours after I had three or four helpings of my mother’s one attempt at bouillabaisse. So, fish are right out. I was too young to remember this. I just know that when I smell fish I feel like I have to throw up.

My normal meals are a combination of meat, eggs, cheese, brassicae, and leafy green veggies. I don’t eat fruit (it spikes my blood sugar) or most starchy veggies including potatoes (again, spiking the blood sugar – although I do occasionally lapse for In N Out’s french fries, or for Jongewaards’ hash browns. Unlike grains, those don’t make me feel physically bad; they just spike my blood sugar, so I do the best I can to avoid them). I don’t eat anything made of the five grains, or soy, or corn. My allergies to the five grains and to corn make my rheumatoid arthritis flare for several days; tofu or edamame can easily send me to the hospital with an anaphylactic reaction.

This means that a lot of traditional Jewish food, like kugel, or “real” challah, are simply out for me.  Even cheese can give me blood sugar problems if I don’t eat it with sufficient fats and protein to keep the spike down, and most dairy foods are dairy-with: dairy with potatoes, or dairy with noodles, or dairy with bread (none of which I can eat). I can substitute spaghetti squash or julienned zucchini for noodles, and cauliflower for potatoes, but it doesn’t cook the same way as the starchy veg and noodles do.

So, what’s a ger to do if he can’t keep kashrut?

Well, I eat with conscious deliberation, which is to say that I pray over every meal and eat with awareness. I do what I can. But I also eat with attention to my blood sugar and to my blood pressure. A low-carb, high-fat, meat-heavy diet is what keeps those things stable. And the meats that keep it most stable are the ones that are not (in any way, shape, or form) kosher.

This means that even as I do what an observant Jew does, I have to draw upon pikuach nefesh – the idea that harming yourself to follow a rule is not something HaShem intended, and that we must preserve life and health in almost every circumstance.

And you know what? I refuse to feel guilty about it.

I have decided to avoid shellfish from now on, and that won’t be terribly hard for me because the only shellfish I really like are shrimp and scallops, and that won’t be a huge loss (clams are already out because there isn’t a clam chowder in the world that isn’t made with wheat flour). But pork will still be on the menu, and I’m not going to worry too much about having milk and meat at the same meal, although I have been finding myself avoiding putting them in the same dish.

We have an out-of-town guest coming over for dinner on Friday. He’s not Jewish, and of course my partner isn’t either, but it’s still Friday night and that’s still Shabbat. So I’m planning my first Shabbat dinner and trusting that HaShem will understand that the soup is a cream soup and the main dish is chicken. My dinner companions will not be Jewish, so it’s only me that has to square this away with my conscience and my G-d.

I’ll put the menu behind a jump tag, for those who don’t want to see what I’m going to be serving.  Continue reading

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From My Readings: “Becoming Jewish” by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

20 Iyyar 5774

Although I started this blog thinking about different kinds of oppression and othering and rejection, I don’t want people to think that’s the only thing this blog is going to be about. I mentioned already that I’ve started reading books on Judaism, to better understand whether I really do fit in this niche that I’m becoming increasingly convinced is the one I’m supposed to be in. So in addition to the wrestling matches, the conversations, and the meditations, I plan to use these books as jumping-off points for blog posts here as well.

The first book I’m going to talk about is Becoming Jewish: A handbook for conversion by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs. This book was written in 1993, so it’s about 20 years old. It also seems to be geared towards people who are converting in order to get married to someone who is Jewish (and planning to have Jewish children with them). Like many books about conversion, it doesn’t take people like me and my non-Jewish gay partner into account. So, that’s a weakness.

The part about talking to your non-Jewish family about your conversion looks remarkably similar to advice I’ve seen about coming out to your parents as gay: be prepared for them not to be happy, tell them in person, don’t pick a holiday or a birthday or other special occasion to break the news, stay calm. So that part, at least, has nothing I can really learn. Been here, done this.

However, it also has many good things to say about your new Jewish identity, the process of conversion, what the program of study looks like, and how to lead a Jewish life. It’s that last part that I want to start with here, since many of my earlier posts have already gone over the “identity” thing, and I won’t know what my program of study or my process of conversion will look like until I talk to a rabbi.

For anyone who started out as Christian and is now considering conversion to Judaism, one of the most startling things will probably be exactly what I found: it’s not about what you believe, it’s about what you do. That’s a huge shift in thinking for most people who come from a Christian background, but for me it’s a huge relief. Practice, not belief, is the basis of this religion.

Several of the main practices that Isaacs suggests in order to begin living a Jewish life include holiday celebrations, synagogue attendance, Shabbat observation, making prayer a regular part of your life, practicing Hebrew, and collecting the various ritual items that go with these things: Shabbat candles and candlesticks, a Passover seder plate, a matzah cover, a challah cover, a menorah, a Havdalah set and Kiddush cup, and so forth. He also suggests immersing yourself in Jewish culture: going to Jewish museums, reading Jewish literature, watching Jewish drama, and learning Jewish music. Becoming part of a Jewish volunteer organization is also a good idea.

Obviously, I need to watch Fiddler on the Roof. But I’m listening to popular Jewish music, including the work of Neshama Carlebach; I try to pray the shehakol over every meal (since I can’t pray the ha-motzi, not being a bread eater); I say the Sh’ma whenever I wake up whenever I’m going to bed; I’ll be back to my Hebrew studies as soon as the hand heals up and I can write again; and I’m working on collecting the items that will allow me to celebrate Shabbat (I need a challah loaf pan so that I can bake grain free “challah,” but I’m not quite there yet). Once I can get to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah and a Mogen David, too.

I’m still wrestling with kashrut; I already have to give up quite a bit of different kinds of food because of my health issues, and kosher meat is more expensive than I can currently afford. Vegetarianism made me physically ill, because it’s so high-carb (I’m a diabetic), so although I do feel a small pull towards kosher, I don’t realistically see that happening.

(About the “challah” loaf pan: this is another thing I struggle with, but I have nearly reached the point where I’ve decided that if I cannot eat bread made of the five brains because of my allergies, I really don’t think HaShem is going to punish me for making a grain-free challah look-alike for Shabbat and praying the ha-motzi over it.  And in any case, that’s between me and G-d. A lot of what we do is symbolic; that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.)

Isaacs’ book is actually quite short, and it seems to be more of a reference than a standalone book. More than half of it is filled with appendices: jewish holidays, the names of Jewish months, Shabbat rituals, and daily prayers. It’s a good place to start, although I’d really like to see one geared toward people who are converting Reform, especially queer people with Gentile partners.

 

 

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Hagah #4: The Rules Lawyer Has Been Banned

19 Iyyar 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hagah #3: The Law – Spirit and Letter

18 Iyyar 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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