Tag Archives: Jew-by-choice

On a happier note… met with the new rabbi

I feel much more comfortable with this rabbi than the previous one.

For starters, he was patient with me and understood the issues I was bringing to the table. He also invited me to attend High Holy Days as a guest. (Now I just need to check with the partner and clear September 25th from work calendars.)

They use the same mikveh as the other temple does, so no change there. But my best friend can be my witness if I want and if she’s okay with it. This is a huge relief for me.

I love the sanctuary of this new temple – they apparently leveled the old building and built a brand-new one a while back.

If I go through the 18-week classes in the spring and then convert, I get a complimentary one-year membership in the temple. And my partner can attend the classes with me if he wants to. Also, they can help people with the cost of the class if they have financial issues. 

The rabbi also said that I seem to already have a lot of basic knowledge but that if I want to take the free Taste of Judaism class in November I’m welcome to do so. I am leaning that direction.

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Just an update for Tisha B’Av

So I scheduled a job interview for Tuesday, not knowing that it was Tisha B’Av… but once it was scheduled, it could not be changed. Unfortunately.

However, even if I had been able to reschedule it, I can’t fast. I am a diabetic with other health problems; fasting is not part of what I’m able to do safely for any length of time. (Trust me. Me with a below-70 blood glucose = raving crazy uncontrollable hosebeast. Not a good thing.)

So then, when you cannot fast and you must meet obligations you created before you realized the significance of the day, what do you do to observe Tisha B’Av?

Well, I spent the afternoon and evening after my interview thinking a lot about the trials that the Jewish people have endured and survived. Yes, the destruction of the two Temples, but also the Shoah (of course), the expulsion from Spain and the Inquisition, and many other horrific and horrifying events over the last few millenia. I devoted some time to praying for all those who have died and who will die in Gaza, and praying for peace (as unlikely as I think that probably is). I spent some time thinking about my father, too.

In essence, I treated the day as a day of mourning once I got home. I can’t say that that’s all I did, but I did everything deliberately, not mindlessly, and focused on remembering what our people have had to go through at the hands of others.

תן לנו שלום בזמננו – Give us peace in our time.

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Friday Feature: What Are You Thankful For This Week?

It’s time for the Friday Feature again, where I ask you what good things 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.


This week, I can be thankful. In terms of work and career, my grades are filed and I’m on vacation for the next three weeks, during which time I’ll be able to set up my fall courses without too much hassle. I am presenting research at a conference in the middle of the month, which will be fun, and I’m working on my book (though not as much as I probably should be). I also got permission from a former student to use her absolutely stellar research paper as a good example for future classes. Finally, I have a job interview next Tuesday for a class or two at a new school, which will bring me up to full-time income for the fall should I get it.

Family and friends – we’ve seen friends almost every day this week, and it’s been great. We are having one friend who’s moving out of state to Shabbat dinner tonight, and I’ve got a bang-up dinner planned. We’ll have lunch with my kids tomorrow and see them for at least that time, which will be good.

In terms of health, I seem to be doing mostly okay. I’ve been pretty tired because it’s been hot and swampy here (not normal for this area) and that wears me out, as well as not letting me sleep. But otherwise, I seem to be doing okay.

We were able to get some needed things for the household when I got paid, and that was helpful. Earlier this week I rearranged the kitchen to make challah-making easier, and that’s also helped. We will be emptying out our storage unit in our old hometown this weekend, and that will also help.

My conversion studies, right now, are mainly meditation, prayer, and music. I returned the 22 books I’d checked out of the library, and I might go back and get one or two of them for a re-read, but at this point I’m sort of booked out. Part of this is due to being tired due to the weather (see above); my concentration is pretty shot. But I’m glad that I’m still learning and remembering prayers.

In the wider world… well. I wish that I had more to be thankful for there. I suppose the recent Uganda decision to invalidate the anti-gay law qualifies, but what’s going on in Israel has me in tears if I think about it too much.

What are you thankful for this week?

Shabbat shalom, and I’ll be back sometime after Shabbat is over!

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“Deserve” is a Toxic Word

22 Tamuz 5774

Ursula K. Le Guin, an author I admire tremendously, has one of her characters say this in her book The Dispossessed:

“We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free yourself of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

In the scene in question, the speaker is quoting Odo, the founder of the anarchist community on the planet Anarres, which has rejected capitalism for communalism. Much of the book’s description of Anarresti life looks a lot like the life of Israeli kibbutzim, so to me this is a special book. But that quote above, especially, resonates with me.

We use the word “deserve” in a toxic way far, far too often. Many times, recently and not-so-recently, I’ve seen the word used towards a group as if each person in it were homogenous and exactly like all the other members of that group. I’ve seen that word used to exclude, to shut out, to oppress. The Palestinians in Gaza “deserve” to die from Israeli bombs because they were warned the bombs were coming and they refused to get out of the way; the Israelis “deserve” to be called murderers for defending their borders against Hamas’ terrorism (although the news media often conflates Hamas and the Palestinian people – an inaccuracy that enrages me every time I see it). In the United States, poor people “deserve” their fate because they’re somehow “lazy.” New college graduates “deserve” low-paying jobs because they should have to “earn” their way up. I’m sure you can think of other examples, none of them flattering. And let’s not start on the comment threads on these news items, okay?

I’ve also seen that word used to encourage people to buy things, not because they need them or because the things are especially useful, but to show off how special they must be if they own one of these things. You “deserve” that new car, that diamond ring, that new house, that expensive meal. Why? Because you are rich enough to afford it, and you should be ostentatious about it.

Can the word “deserve” be used in any positive way? I don’t think it can. It’s inherently a value judgment, and a negative one. It’s not based on the individual human being’s personal traits or their actions, but on their group identification or on their material circumstances (which, most of the time, they have only limited control of). And I think this ties into one of the big differences between Jewish thought and non-Jewish thought, for me. Remember that whole thing about “thoughts are not sins, only actions can be sins”? That means we should only be held responsible for our actions, right?

The poor rarely did anything to be poor. Many of them were born into poverty. Many others were victims of unpredictable economic shifts. Those who are members of marginalized groups rarely chose to be part of those groups (converts being an exception). And nowadays, there are very few self-made rich people, either. Most of them inherited their wealth, so they didn’t do anything to “deserve” their wealth. They just got lucky in the birth lottery.

And yet, more and more, our Western societies insist on the “deserving” poor being the only ones who “deserve” to get any help – if any – at all. Who are the “deserving” poor? Apparently, they’re the people who show enough shame at having to use an EBT card to buy their groceries, who drive crappy cars, and who have no internet-worthy machines (smartphones, computers, etc.). If they have an iPhone, they don’t “deserve” any help, apparently.

In what world does the word “deserve” show even the slightest bit of compassion? In what world is the word “deserve” worthy of any consideration?

We all “deserve” an adequate standard of living because we are human beings. We are the children of G-d – Jews and gentiles alike. Life and the support of life should be our birthright. And if it is not, for some reason, then it is everyone’s job to make it so.

I challenge you to go a week without using the word “deserve” or any of its related synonyms. See what it does to your ability to be compassionate when you stop using that word for other people’s situations – and your own.

 

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

20 Tamuz 5774

It’s time for the Friday Feature again, where I ask you what good things 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.


And we’re back again with the Friday Feature!

In terms of work and career, I finished the lectures for my summer class and I’ll be done with their grading on Sunday. I am planning to spend part of the day today working on a literature review for my writing partner (I hope). Next week I’ll be setting up my fall class Blackboard pages so that they’re all ready to launch.

For family and friends, I’m thankful that my friend Missy’s daughter Cassie was diagnosed and treated for a very dangerous medical condition. I’m also glad that my partner is having a productive week at work both at his workplace and with his writing, and that my daughters will be spending the weekend with us starting this morning. My best friend was over yesterday and we had a splendid time.

In terms of health, I’m still able to walk a mile even after standing for three hours lecturing, which is a good thing. I’m currently free of injuries, my arthritis is behaving itself, and my sugars are mostly under control. All to the good.

My apartment could use a little cleaning, but the kitchen is clean and ready for Shabbat cooking. I got paid earlier than I was expecting, so I’ll be able to catch up on some bills, which is good. The gas tank is full, we’ll be clearing out our old storage unit this weekend, and the laundry will be done on Sunday night after the kids go back home. And the test grain-free challah I made two days ago, with the new recipe tweaks, probably needs two more eggs and a higher mixing speed, but it’s much, much better than the previous grain-free attempts I’ve made, so I’m happy about that too.

My conversion studies have been somewhat on the back burner this week, but I’ve still managed to work on Epstein and my Hebrew studies. (Part of that is that I’ve read alll these library books and now I need to absorb what I’ve read. I should probably renew them, too.) I’ve sent an e-mail to a new rabbi and I’ll be calling him later today if I don’t hear back, to find out if maybe he’s on vacation or something (which is what happened with my last rabbi, too). Listening to new Jewish musical artists has allowed me to memorize the Modeh Ani prayer, which has actually been really neat.

In the wider world, I’m glad that the heat wave here has cooled off. We’re back to temperatures in the low 80s instead of the mid-90s F.

Last but not least, in miscellaneous life: I’ve finished my coming-out process about my conversion by posting about it to Facebook, and I got an enormous amount of support (which is a huge relief).

So overall, things are going pretty well for me this week. How are things going for you?

I’ll see you on Sunday – and I wish you Shabbat Shalom!

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Epstein: A Common Ancestor

19 Tamuz 5774

Epstein asks us in chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism:

“What would it mean if we all shared a common ancestor?”

This bothers me, the idea that having a common ancestor should be this important. Of course, religiously, Epstein means Adam and Eve (and, I suppose, Noah and his children, since nobody else survived the Flood). But he also acknowledges genetics in the chapter that precedes this question. Chapter 4 is largely about balancing scientific findings about evolution and natural selection with Biblical teachings about the origin of humankind.

If we all shared a common ancestor in the sense that we all looked alike, we’d still find other ways to separate ourselves out and treat others as less-than. I’m a social scientist; I study this stuff.

However, we do (technically) all share common ancestry, if not a single common ancestor. And as such, we need to talk about things like race, and how we let this social construct separate us in ways we should never have let it separate us from each other.

Race is entirely a social construct. Evolution has a lot to do with it, but there are no separate “races.” There is the human race, and variation within it. The darker you are, the closer your ancestors were to the equator, and the more sun they were exposed to. Our bodies protect us against skin cancer by increasing melanin content. Conversely, the farther away from the equator your ancestors lived, and the more Vitamin D you needed to attract, the paler you’re going to be, to protect yourself from rickets.

But both of these things are just evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. There are no “races.” There are only human variations.

I really wish people could understand this better.

The problem is, humanity is, by its very nature, an ingroup-outgroup kind of creature. We like our groups and our tribes and we often define ourselves by what we’re not (the outgroup). I think, as a social scientist, that ingroup-outgroup is sort of the fundamental problem with humanity today. We can’t seem to see everyone as part of our group.

This applies to race, and it applies to gender, and to religion, and even to occupation. When are we going to get our act together as a species and see that we all share common ancestry?

So, what might it mean, if we all understood that we have a common ancestor? Maybe the end of us-and-themism. Maybe the end of ingroup-and-outgroup. Maybe the end of fighting with each other.

Yeah, I can dream, can’t I?

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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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My Jewish&

MyJewishLearning.com is a fantastic site for converts. It’s got blogs, resources, references, all kinds of stuff to help us gerim get into the swing of things in our new chosen community.

12 Tamuz 5774

A recent blog post asks: “What’s YOUR Jewish&“? This post is a simple list of people’s responses – “I’m Jewish AND (&)…” So I thought I’d just do that here for fun. (Be aware: there’s a LOT of “&” for me.)

I’m Jew-ish&…

… white.

… Scots-Irish, German, French, English, Welsh, Hungarian and Dutch.

… raised Catholic.

… queer.

… polyamorous.

… a parent of two non-Jewish kids.

… a teacher.

… a scholar.

… fat. (Yes, this is an important one for me.)

… diabetic.

… grain-allergic.

… arthritic.

… educated.

Now let’s get into some of the other stuff that MJL might not have considered. I’m also Jew-ish&…

… angry about what’s going on in Israel and the Gaza strip.

… disappointed at the state of education in the United States for many reasons.

… tired of people othering everyone. For example, on a comment on the Josh Gad interview on Kveller the other day, someone just had to self-righteously say that Gad, a descendant of Shoah survivors and the parent of two children who are being raised interfaith with his Catholic wife, is a “tragic outcome” of the American melting pot. I happen to think that’s a bigoted opinion and that it qualifies as lashon hara. (Shame on you, Pinchos Woolstone.)

… sick to death of violence, hate, bigotry, and stupidity.

… hopeful that things can change for the better.

… determined to make them so.

So what’s YOUR Jewish&?

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From My Readings: The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, by Leonard Epstein – Asking G-d Questions

2 Tamuz 5774

Continuing on with Epstein’s second-chapter questions, in this one he asks us to “Make a list of questions you would ask [G-d] if you could.”

This one is a toughie for me, as it feels presumptuous. It feels like I’m challenging G-d or something. There’s also all those questions I already asked G-d, which I now have some answers to, thanks to Kushner and other authors. I can accept, for example, that G-d did not have control over my father dying, or over a horrific event like the Holocaust. Because of the way He set up the world so that we could have humans in the first place, he had no control over what those humans did with their free will.

But what would I ask G-d today, if I could?

What does one ask G-d? Epstein’s prompt seems geared towards “if you could get an answer,” because anyone can ask G-d questions without getting an answer to them – people do that all the time. So, going on the assumption that I could actually get answers, I would ask G-d these questions…

1. Is my father safe? Is he happy? 

For me, this will always be the most important question. My father was the most important person in my life for a long, long time. He was my cheerleader and my counselor. When I had questions I couldn’t get answers to any other way, my father would at least try to help me understand. He accepted me when I came out and I truly believe he’d accept my conversion if he were alive today.

The way he died scarred me – not just that he died, but how he died, and when he died.

It is really important to me – more than I have words for – that he is safe and happy now. I miss my father so much, and I resent that he’s gone, even now.

2. If I have a yiddishe neshama, why wasn’t I born into a Jewish family?

While I know that the family I grew up in made me the person I am today – including my Yiddishkeit – the fact remains that it feels strange, being a Jew-ish person with a Gentile history, past, and memory. I feel a little cheated – as I’m sure all gerim probably do – of not having memories of Shabbats and Chanukkahs and Pesachs and High Holy Days, instead of the memories I have of Christmases and Easters and long Sunday Masses. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up knowing how to speak and write in Hebrew, instead of the vestigial Latin that I learned while singing Mozart Masses for my father’s choir. What would it be like to have memories of Chankkah songs and Hebrew prayers, instead of Christmas carols and Latin Masses? What would it be like to have memories of sitting shiva for my father, instead of the chaotic grief that never really went away? What about a Bar Mitzvah, instead of a First Communion? What would that have been like?

So why did G-d put me in a Gentile family, if I am supposed to be a Jew? What was the purpose behind that?

3. How do I know that it’s You speaking and not just my imagination?

I have nothing if not an active imagination. Sometimes it worries me that I might be simply making all this up. And yet, I can’t quite push away the feeling in my gut that there is Something out there – what better to label that Something than “G-d”?

This is harder than it looks, asking questions of G-d. Some of the ones I’ve thought of, I’ve also shied away from sharing here, either because they’re too personal or because they feel like asking a genie in a bottle for a wish, or a deck of Tarot cards for a prediction about my future. And I’m not into treating G-d as a genie or a fortuneteller. That seems worse than presumptuous; it seems downright disrespectful. So I am not going to ask them anywhere except in my own heart, and maybe not even then.

What questions would you ask G-d, if you could?

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From My Readings: The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, by Leonard Epstein – The Mystery of G-d

1 Tamuz 5774

This book is probably the most recently published of all of the many books on my to-read list. Epstein condenses much of what great thinkers like Telushkin and Robinson have expounded and expanded upon at great length into a relatively short book of ten chapters. Except for chapter 1, which gives an overview of the book, each chapter has a set of exercises at the end for the reader to ponder, think about, and discuss with others. I will be making these exercises the themes of this blog for the next two to three weeks, and I invite my readers to join in and discuss these questions as well.

Epstein begins his series of exercises and questions by asking us to consider G-d. In his second chapter, “The Mystery of [G-d],”* Epstein considers Jewish beliefs and ideas about G-d throughout the centuries, from his qualities to the questions we have about him and everything in between. At the end of the chapter, Epstein sets the first exercise in front of his readers:

“Consider when you feel close to [G-d]. Make a list. This might include, for example, being present at the birth of a child, or on a holy day, or when you are singing. But also consider when you feel distant from [G-d], such as when someone good dies young, or when you read about some tragedy or a great tragedy such as the Holocaust.”

So when do I feel close to and distant from G-d? It’s a good question.

Epstein certainly hit it when he said singing makes me feel close to G-d. It’s practically the only reliable thing for me when it comes to prayer – singing is prayer, for me. When I need to feel G-d, I sing. I love that so many of the prayers that Jews commonly use, such as the Sh’ma and the brachot for meals, can be sung.

Music, generally, makes me feel close to G-d. Right now I’ve got a Spotify playlist playing in the background with several Jewish artists and a few more generically religious artists (or at least songs by more Christian artists that do not hammer on Christian-specific beliefs). And each one makes me feel G-d’s presence a little differently. “Flood” by Jars of Clay talks to me about the support of G-d – “Lift me up/When I’m falling/Lift me up/I’m weak and I’m dying/I need you to hold me/Lift me up/To keep me from drowning again.” As you might expect, this makes me feel G-d’s presence as safety and rescue, when I’m really drowning in despair or depression. It often makes me cry. But it feels, to me, like G-d speaking in my ear: “I’m here. It’s all right. You’re safe.”

Another song by Jars of Clay, “Sinking,” makes me weep for needing forgiveness for the years that I simply ignored and blamed G-d:  “So I don’t need you / I don’t think I need you / Deny myself, deny my heart / Deny your hand, deny your help / and you offer me eternity / but why should I buy that?” This song is all about doubt, which makes it uniquely suited to say what I need to say sometimes. I found myself choking out “I’m sorry, Father!” when I heard this while driving to work the other day. It caught me by surprise.

“Return Again” by Neshama Carlebach makes me long for return – to return to G-d and to the person I know I can be in his presence. Both her arrangement and Aryeh Kunstler’s arrangement of “B’shem HaShem” make me feel protected and surrounded by G-d’s unconditional love. The Josh Nelson Project’s “Seven” makes me feel an intense approval of my Yiddishkeit and my intentions, although I don’t know why. “Hu Elokeinu” by Neshama Carlebach makes me feel exalted.

I feel G-d’s presence when I create. When I’m writing, when I’m cooking, when I create something that is worthwhile – even if it’s temporary – I feel G-d’s presence. I couldn’t say exactly how, but there are times, especially when I’ve been writing, that I feel like I’m the tool of something powerful, a channel to something greater.

And oddly, when I see an ambulance or a fire truck, or I hear sirens, I feel G-d’s presence when I pray for the people those sirens are on their way to – that they will survive and be safe through whatever is bringing the sirens to them.

And of course none of this is rational. It can’t be. G-d can’t be sensed with our rational senses; he transcends them.

When do I feel distant from G-d? When I’m alone and have no music. Being still and quiet does not let me hear G-d or feel his presence. I’m a doer, a mover, a creator, so being still and quiet does not make me feel G-d. Learning to hear him was an active process of curiosity and searching. I’m still not sure how others can hear G-d when they’re sitting and not doing anything, but that may just be me.

I feel distant from G-d when I can’t keep my life together. When the bills are mounting, or when someone I love is hurting and I can’t fix it, or when I feel despondent, I feel like G-d has retreated somewhere unreachable. I have to put on music to bring him back again. I also feel distant from G-d when I have to admit I’m human, with human failings. When I feel tired, or when I’m in pain, it’s hard to feel G-d. That’s probably that ol’ debbil Perfectionism raising its ugly head in my psyche, and I’m trying to learn to recognize that.

Reading about tragedies doesn’t make me feel either close to or distant from G-d. It just makes me feel numb and shocked. It also makes me picture, what it must have been like to be in or present at those tragedies, and that often crushes me flat. Now that I know that G-d does not have control over those things because of the logical requirements of humans having free will and natural law, all I can feel is shock and sadness when I hear of them.

So now I ask you: What makes you feel close to G-d? What makes you feel distant? Talk to me.

*In the original, Epstein includes the vowel in G-d’s name. I have indicated replacements by bracketing the word in any quote from Epstein’s book.

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