Tag Archives: Jew-ish

Back to Epstein: What About the Body?

18 Tamuz 5774

In Chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, Epstein asks us to consider the following question:

What is your religious attitude toward the body? In what ways do you treat it as sacred and in what ways don’t you? 

Wow, Rabbi Epstein. You sure do like to open those cans of worms, don’t you?

I admit that I have a very troubled relationship with my body. I’m overweight and have been most of my life. I have diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, neither of which are fun. I’m short, too. So I don’t like the way my body looks. Since finding out that I am allergic to most grains, I am at least taking better care of my body’s physical needs. I try to walk more than I used to. I’m trying to eat better. I’m not perfect at it, but I try to at least give my body what it needs and avoid the things that can damage it.

But the idea of treating my body as sacred is very difficult. I have always seen it as a meat sack – a vehicle. It’s hard for me to even feel that my body is me, most of the time. I live the life of the mind because the life of the body is sweaty, uncomfortable, and often painful. Sometimes I resent the fact that I got stuck with this body. Okay, maybe more than sometimes.

So what lesson should this question teach me? If we’re supposed to treat the body as holy, as sacred, how can I do that when I can’t even figure out how to accept my body in the first place? It’s a conundrum, but then again isn’t that what Jews are supposed to be good at – figuring out conundrums? I don’t have answers yet, but the questions are sure piling up in a big way from this exercise.

It’s easier to talk about the ways I don’t treat my body as sacred. I will admit I don’t like treating my body as anything but a nuisance. I do the minimum necessary, most of the time. I shower, I shave, I comb my hair, I make myself presentable for social interaction. But I often forget to brush my teeth. I put off eating until I’m dizzy with hunger and I ignore my body’s signals about it until I can’t any more. I hate exercise because it makes me aware of my body. And let’s not even mention sex, okay? That’s not somewhere I’m willing to go.

Most of the time, my body just gets in the way of what I want to do.

Do I have to stop hating my body to be a good Jew? That’s going to be really, really difficult. Right now the thing that’s weighing on my mind about the conversion process the most isn’t all the reading and studying, or learning a new language (Hebrew), or even the social awkwardness of joining a culture that I am not yet as familiar with as I want to be.

It’s the mikveh.

It’s the knowledge that, on the day my rabbi and I decide I’m ready, I’ll have to get naked in front of strangers. That’s terrifying. I never let anyone see my body; I’m covered not from modesty but from shame.

That has to change. I don’t want the day of my dip in the mikveh to be one where I’m walking in a cloud of shame.

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Understanding Mitzvot

17 Tamuz 5774

So, you all know I was raised Catholic, and that I have some pretty bad spiritual hangovers from having been raised Catholic. One of the worst is the idea that you have to do everything exactly right, and if you don’t, you’re a bad person.

In the catechism of the Catholic church (think of the catechism as sort of the Catholic Talmud, if you will), sin is defined this way:

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

Okay, I can get behind some of this as a Jew-ish person, but certainly not all of it. One of the parts of this definition that I have to learn how to fundamentally reject is that bit about “a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

I can want something and not act on it. But in the Catholic church, even wanting something that isn’t approved or okay is a sin. It’s going to take me a long, long time to get past this idea that just thoughts and desires, even when never acted upon, are sins. In Judaism, you’re held responsible for what you do and say, not what you think and feel – at least as far as I understand it.

Catholicism also doesn’t seem to really allow for “working towards being better,” or even allowing for mistakes. This may be one reason why so many Catholics go to confession every week. You’re supposed to avoid ALL sin – thought, deed, and word – or you are not good enough. Since anything can be a sin, that means there’s a LOT of sins to avoid, including inside your own skull.

To me this seems to be “setting people up for failure.” And here’s something that really irritates me (a direct quote from that same catechism): 1870 “[G-d] has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32).

Isn’t that cute? According to the Catholics, G-d made it impossible for us to be perfectly obedient. And yet, we’re still expected to be perfectly obedient. And if we aren’t perfectly obedient, we risk hell and damnation.

Setting us up to fail much?

Now let’s take Judaism’s approach to this – and I speak here as someone coming at it from a liberal Jew-ish tradition.

1. Thoughts are not sins.

2. Actions can be sins if they violate the commandments (mitzvot).

3. There are 613 mitzvot, but only about 245 of them (77 positive and 194 negative) can be kept by Jews in the Diaspora who are not Kohanim (priests). Some of them are Kohen-only; some of them are Temple-only (and by this we mean The Temple, the one in Jerusalem, which is currently some rubble under a couple of mosques at the Dome of the Rock, so those can’t be performed).

4. You are expected to strive to keep the mitzvot – to do the best you can do. You are not expected to do it perfectly. Rabbi Adar, over at Coffee Shop Rabbi, has two recent posts about this issue here and here, and I recommend reading them.

This is, of course, a really wild thing for me to wrap my head around. There are no mitzvah police, as Rabbi Adar jokes, that will check to make sure I said the Shema in the morning or before I go to bed. There’s nobody who’s going to make a mark next to my name in a book if I forget to say a brachot because I’m tired, overhungry, rushed, or sleepy.

It’s the difference between having to be perfect and striving to do better. The first is negative and damaging. The second is positive and affirming.

Using those two lists, I’m going to start contemplating them as Rabbi Adar directs us to do in her blog post about the mitzvot. I might even talk about that some, here.

Which of the 245 mitzvot do you find most interesting, problematic, or difficult? Why?


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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: Back to Epstein

8 Tamuz 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why risk that, you ask?

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

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

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

As it turns out, yes, I can.

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking Back the Word “Morality” From the Right Wing

3 Tamuz 5774

Tell you what, friends and neighbors. I’m really troubled tonight. I’m going to come back to Epstein tomorrow, but tonight I need to vent.

I am tired of “family values” being a synonym for “keep women in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, and keep gays in the closet until they’re so far back in it that they can see Narnia.” I am tired of “moral” being a synonym for “repressed,” or “anti-sex,” or “anti-woman,” or “anti-gay,” or “Christian.” I am sick to death of morality being used as a bludgeon and one very small group of die-hard the-rules-are-everything people swinging it like a club at anyone who isn’t exactly like them. I have had it with “decency” being used to shame people for self-expression.

I’m not going to continue to support selfishness, or self-centeredness, or every-man-for-himselfishness. I’m not going to be silent when the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is considered the right way to live, even if you have no boots. I’m not going to let people say that the poor are just lazy, or that women should know their place, or that gays and lesbians are mentally ill or making a choice. I am not going to stand by while my brothers’ and sisters’ blood is shed.

Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to the freedom of religion, and that this means that corporations can deny women certain kinds of health care if it conflicts with the corporation’s “deeply held religious beliefs.” This follows on from a previous decision, Citizens United, which held that corporations are people and so, as people, corporations have the constitutional right to free speech – which is considered specifically as money and political contributions. What’s next? Corporations having the right to bear arms? Corporations having the right to vote? Those are constitutional rights guaranteed to people, too, right?

Last I checked, people were born and had hearts, and blood, and bones, and brains. They live, they breathe, they die. They marry. They have children. They divorce. Last I checked, corporations can’t do any of those things.

The fact is, today’s decision – and the ones leading up to it – are a horrific marriage of corporatism and religious self-righteousness. The Christian right and the corporations got in bed together way back when I was in high school, in the 1980s. Today, that marriage has borne fruit that I cannot even think about too much without beginning to shake in anger. Corporations have used far-right religionists’ anger about difference and dissent, and their determination to make their religious laws the law of the land, to forward their agenda of corporations eventually ruling the country.

This decision harms people of faith as well as women – although in its instant effect it certainly harms women far more. This decision opens doors to make it possible to rescind rights for women, people of color, GLBTs, and anyone who is part of a religion that doesn’t conform to the Christian far-right agenda for my country.

It also makes religious people look like sex-centered jackasses. It reduces religion to moral policing, rather than what religion was originally supposed to be – the drawing-together of community. Religion was never supposed to be the world’s moral policeman, but more and more, people are seeing it – and using it – as only that.

The mentality of the Christian right is one of the main reasons I find Judaism so appealing and so right for me. You see, Judaism does not teach that only Jews have a corner on the world to come. Christianity and Islam both teach that their way is the One True Way – the only way – to get right with G-d. Of course, One-True-Wayists annoy me anyway, but when religion affects public life, it’s a special kind of NO for me.

I’m also sick and tired of the Christian right saying that I’m immoral for being gay, or that my female friend is immoral for enjoying sex and not wanting to have to worry about getting pregnant, while at the same time refusing to say anything about the immorality of how the homeless, the poor, and the disadvantaged are treated in this nation and around the world.

So here’s my response to the Christian right’s straw-man morality.

Yes, our current world is immoral.

It is not immoral because there were Pride parades all this past week and weekend. It is immoral because people who are gay get attacked by Bible-thumping bullies and the bullies get away with it.

It is not immoral because women can protect themselves from having a baby that they may not be able to afford to raise, or that they may not be able to cope with (not all women are cut out to be mothers). It is immoral because a dedicated phalanx of whited sepulchers can bend the law to deny women the ability to avoid pregnancy. Pro-life positions that do not allow for contraception are not pro-life. They are simply pro-birth. Unless you care about what happens to that child after it’s born, you have a lot of nerve telling a woman to have a baby in the first place. Your position on this is immoral.

Our world is not immoral because poor people are lazy. It is immoral because poor people are demonized and we refuse to help them. It is immoral because we demand that the poor somehow produce miracles when we won’t even give them a helping hand. It is immoral because our elected officials cut food stamps, unemployment, and anything else that might help the poor get back on their feet.

Our world is not immoral because we have homeless people. It’s immoral because we do everything we can to make it impossible for them to live. It is immoral because instead of helping them get off the street and into housing, we put spikes on covered areas near buildings to ensure they have nowhere to sleep.

Our world is not immoral because capitalism exists. It’s immoral because the 1% have done everything possible to stack the capitalist deck in their favor. It’s immoral because we lionize the filthy-rich instead of shaming them for their selfishness and self-centeredness. It’s immoral because the Real Housewives of Orange County are looked at as role models.

Our world is immoral because it prioritizes financial success over personal connection. It is immoral because it prioritizes winning and competition over compassion. It is immoral because it prioritizes and rewards selfishness instead of kindness.

Last I checked, a Jew was required to show their morality through charity and kindness. I doubt there’s a Jew out there who supports this decision.

So don’t talk to me about morality, Hobby Lobby. Don’t even try to tell me that denying a woman the ability to be close to her partner with sex without the constant worry about pregnancy is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that letting the poor suffer instead of helping them is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that making it impossible for the homeless to live is moral. Don’t tell me that putting profits ahead of people is moral.

That’s not morality. That’s sin. And it has to stop.



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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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From My Readings: Acting Cheerful is Not A Choice (Telushkin, Values)

Today a friend of mine posted a link to Facebook that said “Maybe the reason you get bad customer service is because you’re a bad customer.” She works in customer service and takes a lot of abuse from her customers. I sympathize, because I’ve been there and done that – both as the service person and, to my chagrin, as the customer.

I need to remember not to do that any more, for a number of reasons – most of which are fundamentally Jewish reasons. I will explain.

First, in Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values, one of the values (day 33) is “Acting Cheerfully is Not a Choice.” This seems to be a little much at first reading, but Telushkin’s explanation points out that it’s not our right to inflict our bad moods or bad tempers on other people. People serving us in a business transaction did not ask for our bad mood, and it’s not our right to dump it on them. He quotes Prager saying “We have a moral obligation to be as happy as we can be.” A passage from the Talmud backs his up for Telushkin as well: “The man who shows his teeth to his friend in a smile is better than one who gives him milk to drink.”

For me, this also ties into the I-Thou relationship as opposed to the I-It relationship (which comes from Martin Buber’s work). We tend to see people who are serving us in business transactions as Its, rather than Thous. We don’t see them as people. And this even goes beyond business relationships to other relationships, when we start just thinking of other people as a means to an end, rather than as human beings. The mechanic produces a functioning car. The grocer supplies food that is quality enough that I can eat it. The storekeeper sells me a kippah so I can wear it. But do I know anything about these folks as human beings? Do I care? If they died tomorrow, would I notice it in any way other than the basic material irritation of having to find another mechanic?

Well, this value tells me I should care. If that’s my regular mechanic, I should know more about him than just that he fixes cars. I should know the shopkeeper where I buy my Judaica, ideally by name. Even in the process of conversion, it’s easily possible to slip into thinking of the rabbi as a gatekeeper whom we must “get something” from, instead of another human being who has knowledge we do not have.

But that can only happen if we stop seeing them as their role, and start seeing them as a person. Instead of Jim the mechanic, I should be seeing Jim Smith, whose wife is having surgery next week and who is pretty stressed out. Instead of seeing Rabbi Jones, I should be seeing David, my rabbi, whose son is moving towards a bar mitzvah in two weeks. I should know more about them than just their names and their roles.

I work hard with my students so that they know that I don’t really see my doctorate as something that puts me “above” them. I work hard to make them see me as a coach, not a high-muckety-muck. But I’ve known professors in my time who really needed their students to see them as minor gods, and who maintained that I-It relationship for all they were worth. I refuse to do that. I try to learn names as quickly as I can. I make time for casual chit-chat to know more about my students. I do my best to be open and honest with them about myself (they know I’m queer, and that I’m converting, for example). And I think it makes a difference. They remember me – and I remember them – as people, not objects.

It’s harder to see people as people when we’re grumpy, or tired, or otherwise negatively framing the world. So being cheerful is a good first step. Some research has shown that just smiling will put you in a better mood. There’s also the “fake it till you make it” idea, which has worked for me as well – just keep acting cheerful, even if you aren’t. When we do that, we’re more likely to see people as people.

Maybe that’s the lesson in this link I read today. We have to see all people as people, not as obstacles or tools. Until we do, we have no chance of healing the world.

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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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