Tag Archives: Judaism

Style or Substance?: A Follow-Up Post

A friend of mine told me that a Conservative Jewish friend of hers said this when she read about the whole Elad Debacle of 5775 today: “You know… we don’t talk about the Orthodox. We’re kind of embarrassed about them.”

After the ED of 5775, I can see why. It seems like the Orthodox approach non-Orthodox Jews like they’re Great-Uncle Mergatroyd who just has to spout his anger and bigoted opinions at the dinner table, and expects everyone to just go along with him, because he’s Great-Uncle Mergatroyd.

It saddens me that an entire branch of the Tree is so willing to prune off all the others to maintain its purity, even when there are obvious examples of people who lived as Jews, raised Jewish children, and yet never went through the formal, rules-lawyer, halachic conversion process. Ruth (whose descendant, if you’ll recall, was King David). Abraham. All the women who were taken as brides during the conquering of other peoples. And yet we would never say that their children or descendants aren’t Jewish.

So why do the Orthodox have such a hangup about “you must fit every one of these exacting criteria or you are not Jewish”, anyway?

I’ve read a number of blogs since starting this journey. Occasionally I’ll run into one written by an Orthodox person who lives in an Orthodox community and never ventures outside of it. And it seems from these blogs that in the “frum” community, specifically, there seems to be an awful lot of fuss over appearances. Are you wearing your tallit katan, is your wife wearing a wig or a veil to hide her hair, that kind of thing. And it just tires me out, and I think I know why.

My mother was all about style over substance. For her, how you looked was more important than anything else. How you looked extended to observable behavior. As a result, I have an allergy to people who prioritize style over substance.

In addition to reading those blogs, I also have friends who have left Judaism because they were raised in a similar, frum, Ultra-Orthodox environment. The abuses they report cannot go unremarked:

  • daughters forbidden Talmud study and forced to dress in concealing clothing
  • boys taught that women were second-class citizens
  • intense shaming of those who are “off the derech”
  • parents sitting shiva for sons and daughters who left Orthodoxy (especially if that involved marriage outside of Orthodoxy) but then trying to get back into their children’s lives when babies arrived so that they could try to turn the grandchildren back to Orthodoxy
  • and, of course, the recent exposure of rabbis who molested children and whose communities covered up for them

Somehow, the Orthodox have managed to set themselves up in the minds of many Jews as the authoritative last word on what “Jewish” means. It happens in frum communities all over the world, but it also happens in Israel (witness the haredi control over the Kotel and how they treat the Women of the Wall, just as an example). Too much of it is about style, not substance. It’s about whether you dress in clothing from the 16th century, not your focus on tikkun olam. It’s about whether you are avoiding carrying anything into your house if it’s Shabbat, rather than whether you opened your home to someone who needed a place and a meal on Shabbat. It’s about style, not substance.

I reject that. I reject that fundamentally. For me, Judaism has to be about tikkun olam, and hospitality, and hesed (lovingkindness) – and that has to be the central focus or it’s all just dust and ashes.

If you wear your black hat every day but reject anyone who won’t wear one too, you’ve completely missed the point.

And this brings me back to Pop Chassid. He isn’t being honest in his struggle with the rules. Instead of checking whether the rules can be realistically applied today, he struggles to find bits of support for the rules so they can stay the way they’ve been for 5700 years. That kind of legalistic nonsense is something I don’t tolerate in my students, so why should I tolerate it in him? If he’s not willing to look out and apply Torah to the world as it is today, why should I take his definitions seriously? If his understanding of Judaism isn’t framed in the central values of tikkun olam and tzedakah and chesed, why should I care what he thinks?

It is not just, or kind, to exclude other Jews just because they don’t fit your definition of what Judaism is. It does not serve the goal of tikkun olam to exclude other Jews – it creates more fractures to heal, rather than healing the ones that are there.

Please note: At no time have I said that Pop Chassid is not a Jew. That’s because he’s using a different interpretation of the Torah. I do, however, take issue with his interpretation, because his interpretation goes against those central values, and that’s uncalled for.

If you want to argue with me about this, do it on your own blog. I will be holding the banhammer at the ready.

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Chag Pesach Sameach!

As my husband says, we went to two and a half Seders this week. The first one probably doesn’t “count” as a Seder, which is why he is saying “a half.”

First was our practice Seder with our Intro class. That happened on Wednesday night. Rabbi walked us through it with a haggadah that I don’t think my husband and I will use; it’s aimed at families with young children, and we don’t really qualify. Mostly, that Seder went all right. We brought our own gluten-free matzah and nobody had a problem with it. We also brought a salad (my husband put it together). Of course, Mr. Christian had to interject inappropriate questions and comments, but we’ve gotten used to that. We also brought three jars of horseradish to use as maror. Note to self: jarred horseradish is mild compared to the maror we had later in the weekend.

Then we held our own Seder for a few friends on Friday night. It came out well, but I’m not using the Maxwell House haggadah again – it’s just too preachy. As it was, my best friend and I spent a lot of time changing, editing, and taping-in changes over the text, and it was still too much. I have one started at haggadot.com for next year’s Seders. We made the mistake(?) of using fresh, refrigerated pureed horseradish for the maror; when I took my tablespoon of it I couldn’t hear anything for a minute or so as I struggled not to show that it hurt. It made my eyes water and my ears ring, and wow do I know that I have sinuses now. It’s almost as bad as my friend’s dad’s completely fresh ground-that-afternoon maror – oy!

Our Seder plate (center of the table) had:
– Italian parsley for karpas
– A lamb shank that my best friend roasted and brought (z’roa)
– A roasted hard-boiled egg that we roasted here (beitzah)
– A tangerine (we couldn’t get oranges) for inclusiveness
– Endive for hazeret
– A spoonful of my charoset
– A spoonful of the fresh-jarred horseradish, for maror

On the individual Seder plates, we replaced the lamb shank with chicken wings that had been roasted in the oven along with the roasted boiled egg. Those were easy: toss them with olive oil, three spoonfuls of minced garlic, salt, and pepper, and then just put them on a cookie sheet and bake for an hour at 375F. I know that on some Seder plates, gefilte fish is traditional, but I’m allergic to what they make it with, so we substituted.

Here’s my charoset recipe.

2 Asian pears
1/2 cup dried cherries, minced
1/2 cup pinenuts
1/2 cup pomegranate pips
1/2 cup kosher red wine
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon each of ground cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and 1/3 teaspoon of ground ginger

Dice the Asian pears fairly small, and mince the dried cherries. Combine all the ingredients and refrigerate. That’s it!

There wasn’t a lot to the cooking; the charoset was the hardest part. We had two roasts in the crockpot that I’d marinated since Wednesday with ground ginger, cloves, some red kosher wine, salt, pepper, and dried onions. Those cooked all day in a little more red wine and were fall-apart tender when we got them out of the crock (we still have one of them in the fridge!). My husband made his amazing salad, our friends brought gluten-free egg noodles that had been tossed with garlic and olive oil, and I made a quickie asparagus that I’ve always been good at. And of course, we had matzah.

Gluten-free matzah doesn’t hold its shape very well. It’s more brittle than regular matzah, and it tends to show up if you have it shipped with no whole pieces. In four boxes, we found three whole matzot. Next year we’ll buy it from a local Jewish grocery my husband found in our city. (I recommend the Yehuda brand matzah; the Manischewitz is very, very dry and bland.)

Running the Seder was stressful for me but worth it. Like I said, though, we need a different Haggadah. I also need to learn when it’s okay to skip ahead; that’s an art form, I think. It was also really awesome to have my friend D there – he’s Israeli, and he read the Hebrew flawlessly. (Someday….) I asked a couple of questions that didn’t really go anywhere – what is your personal Pharaoh?, for example. Eh. I’ll get better at it, I’m sure. Still, we got through it, and we still have leftovers.

Last night we went to the last Seder we’re going to go to during this Pesach. It was at my best friend’s father’s house. This was the Seder that my husband and I went to last year at this time, when I was just beginning to think that Judaism was for me and my husband was humoring me and going because I was going. This time, we showed up with our kippot on our heads, our Mogen Davids around our necks, and ready to fully participate instead of just spectate. Everyone who was part of the regular Seder group congratulated us both on our decision and on our wedding (157 days ago today, by the way) as we got in the front door, and several of them wanted to make sure that we hadn’t felt pushed or proselytized into it by them or anyone else. (Such a refreshing thing, that was.)

My charoset was very well received, and the maror hurt all of us (my friend’s dad grinds his own from fresh horseradish root while wearing an Israeli gas mask made in Germany). After Friday, I’d learned my lesson and I think the bit of maror I put on my plate was about the size of a marble. My husband loves horseradish, however, and he had so not learned his lesson – he had tablespoons of the stuff. However, he had been struggling with a knee injury, and after having two or three tablespoons of the maror he said “well, my knee doesn’t hurt much any more…” A, one of the seder regulars, opined that it was because the fresh maror kills off the nerves that tell you something hurts.

My friend’s dad runs the Seder by having people read bits and pieces in a round-robin sort of way. I did something like that at our Seder, but I wish I’d had a better haggadah. Eh. I have to get off that topic.

Anyway, one of the seder regulars asked about how we had time to take all this wealth away from Egypt but not bake full loaves of bread or get any provisions together. I pointed out that any culture that holds slaves has much of its wealth invested in those slaves, and perhaps what we took away as wealth was ourselves. That got raised eyebrows and some good discussion.

At one point one of the other seder regulars misread “beasts” as “breasts,” and she and my husband got laughing so hard that we were worried that he’d choke or something. That was probably the high point of the seder for me, watching him laugh and eventually laughing with him.

During the festive meal, my husband and I both talked about our intro classes, and people asked questions, and it was good. It felt very much like “this is my place and these are my people,” to me.

At the end of the Seder, when we came to the point where it talked about the Omer, one of the other guests asked about that, and my friend’s dad looked to me and said “Go ahead, tell it.” I was kind of shocked, but I explained about the Omer as best I could, and it seemed to go over fine. That meant a lot to me that he was willing to let me talk about it.

Finally, when my friend’s dad was trying to read his paragraph of “Chad Gadya” and kept blowing it, my friend (sitting next to him) took away his wineglass, and then for good measure I reached over and took away the wine bottle, and everyone cracked up. So there was a lot of good laughter and fun and teasing, which made it fun.

Her dad said to both of us, “We’ll see you next year.”

Today is the second day of the Omer. Hayom sh’nei yamim l’omer.

Chag sameach, everyone.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Holy Days, Jewish Practices

Why I became religious

Someone on Quora asked if people only become religious because they’re weak, or because they lack confidence. Here’s my answer.

I didn’t become religious for affirmation or for strength. It has nothing to do with how confident I am.

I became religious because I need ritual, and poetry, and a shared community, and stories that make me think. I became religious because I need connection. I became religious because being part of something bigger than myself gives me solace and satisfaction.

So no, religious belief is not for the weak. (It’s also not weak to admit that you cannot do everything entirely on your own without any help or support – it’s realistic. The only entities who believe that they can do everything all on their own are house cats and libertarians – neither of which realize that they do, in fact, rely on other entities in order to survive and thrive.)

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Shiva for a Six-Year-Old: Community and Shared Pain

25 Sivan 5774

An Internet acquaintance of mine very recently lost his god-daughter Rebecca to something that should not happen to children. She made it to her sixth birthday, but she had an inoperable brain tumor. She died on her birthday.

Naturally, her parents were hit hard by her death, and so was he. Apparently this little girl was a light to the world, funny, silly, snarky, and she deserved a much longer time here than she got. Saying “It was G-d’s will” or any of the other Standard Platitudes would be a shonda.

He’s been very open about what’s been going on as she went through her dying process, and recently he wrote about the week of shiva for her, and what it was like for him. I can’t do better than to link to it, so I’m doing that here: Shiva Is. Would that there were something more I could do for him beyond saying “Baruch dayan emet” and offering my condolences, but I live nowhere near him, and I’m just an acquaintance.

I never got to sit shiva for my father, because at the time I wasn’t Jewish. I will never have had that experience. Of course I will remember him on his yarzheit and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him from now on. But too much of my memory of the time of his death was his disbelieving friends coming to his funeral and demanding to know what had happened to him, at a time when I was least equipped to deal with questions (especially questions that, to my ears, sounded accusatory). How different might it have been if the community I was part of at the time had had that process of shiva in place for us?

Oh, I had a community – don’t get me wrong. I had a blogging community that rallied around me while he was dying and afterwards, when I poured out my grief into my LiveJournal. But that is not the same as being able to sit with the pain and process the grief while trusting that others are taking care of food, and running interference between you and the questioners.

So it hit me hard, reading about him sitting shiva for her (and how he ended up being a comforter, rather than being allowed to really mourn). It hit me how much we really do depend on community to get through this kind of pain. Ursula LeGuin had a character say once that “brotherhood begins in shared pain,” and perhaps that’s part of what shiva is for. Another writer, Spider Robinson, had a motto for the bar he wrote about in many of his books: “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased: thus do we refute entropy.”

When we visit the grieving or are grieving ourselves, isn’t that about sharing pain? Isn’t it about refuting entropy? And even sharing happy stories about the person who’s died is increasing shared joy, isn’t it?

G-d forbid you should have to sit shiva for a loved one now or anytime soon, but we all have pain, sometimes daily. What pain are you having today? What pain does your neighbor have? How can you help and be helped? What joy can you share?

How can we, as a people, make each others’ lives a little less painful?

Perhaps that’s what shiva is for. It’s a way of formalizing the ancient Greek axiom (variously attributed to Plato and to Aristotle): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.

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Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

Wrestling Match #6: The Verses That Won’t Let People Live

15 Iyyar 5774

Please excuse any typos I don’t catch in this post, and probably the next few that will follow it. I sprained my wrist quite badly yesterday, and I am on doctor’s orders not to use my right hand for anything including typing and writing. Since I’m a professional academic who does a lot of typing and writing, this is a very frustrating situation for me. I am using a dictation program that really likes to insert random capitals and incorrect words, as well as putting ‘s after just about everything that should be a plural. This means I’m still doing a lot of left-handed correction by hunting and pecking on the keyboard.

So this won’t be a long post. But it occurs to me that as a queer man, there are some verses and texts in the Torah that won’t let people like me live. So this begs the question: why would I convert to a religion that has those verses in its scriptures?

The best answer that I’ve found so far has two main points: first, Reform Judaism leaves it up to the individual person which mitzvot they will follow. But that seems like too easy of a solution, doesn’t it? This also seems to be one of the Orthodox community’s biggest gripes about non-Orthodox Jewish traditions: if you can pick and choose, then what’s the point?

For me, part of this first point is that Judaism is not just about following every single rule to the letter. It’s also about walking with G-d. It’s also about how you treat your fellow human beings. It’s also about cultivating a sense of reverence and thankfulness. It’s also about mindfulness. If being Jewish were just about following the rules, then I would not be drawn to it.

But the second point, to me, is equally important, and that is this: part of our job as Jews is to interact with the Torah, and part of the interaction is interpretation and re-interpretation of what those texts or verses mean in today’s world. The best discussion of this issue that I have yet found is this drash from Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D., at Beth Chayim Chasadim in Los Angeles, so I share it for you here:

Today, with my hand in the condition it’s in, this is what I can offer you. Rabbi Adler does a much more successful job of wrestling with this particular question that I could do on my own.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Drashot, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Hagah #1: Why Judaism?

12 Iyyar 5774

Preface: In talking about why I feel that I (am/need to be) a Jew, one of the things I’ve had to think about is what religion means to me now that I’ve started listening to the intuitive, experiential evidence that I would not pay attention to previously. This does not seem, to me, to be a wrestling match, so I’m categorizing it under “Hagah,” which is the Hebrew word for “meditation, pondering, contemplation, or examination.” These are not me fighting with anything, but rather organizing, or sorting out, what I feel and believe. Hence this category.

NOTE: What I write here may offend some Christian readers. I do not intend offense, but in order to show my reasoning, some of what I say may feel like attacks on your belief. I’m not saying your belief is wrong; I am simply saying why I do not connect with it. 

So, since I have abandoned atheism, I really have to push on this question: Why Judaism? I mean, if it’s all just about believing in G-d, Christianity should suit me just as well as Judaism, right? If I was misled about who the G-d of the Christian churches was by my bad experiences with an NPD mother, I should be willing to try Christianity again before I make this huge and irrevocable step of declaring that I am Jewish and becoming Jewish, right?

Well… no. Not really. The atheism is only part of the issue I was having. There are two other important components: theology (or what the religion says about who and what G-d is) and whether the religion and I “fit” with one another on four metrics that are important to me: ethics, learning, ritual, and community.

THEOLOGY

I did believe in G-d until I was in my early teens. Then things that happened to me, as well as discovering science and finding how appealing it was to my logical mind, made me declare that if it can’t be empirically measured, it wasn’t real. But that denied many of my experiences: singing in church always made me feel there was Something there beyond our shared experience – and what else to call that Something but G-d? I knew people who were quite holy and spiritual, including my own father – what else to call them but G-d-filled? Yes, as an atheist, for quite some time, I called them “delusional.” But that was my thinking/reasoning brain trying to deny any reality or credibility to emotions or experiential evidence. That was me with the hammer of logic, looking at everything like it had to be a nail of empirical evidence or it wasn’t a real nail.

Being in Christian churches – first Catholic, and then some very right-wing Protestant, and then Catholic again – never spoke to me. The ritual, yes. The music, yes. The theology? Absolutely not. Some of the main backbone beliefs of Christianity, concerning what and who G-d is, are either very strange or downright horrifying to me.

For example, the belief in original sin – that all of us have to pay, forever and ever, for Adam’s mistake in the Garden – seems rather vindictive, doesn’t it? (I personally prefer Rabbi Bardin’s take on that: Eve had to push Adam to grow up, so she made it possible for them to leave the Garden by forcing the issue. Read Telushkin’s account of that in Jewish Literacy, if you’re interested – it’s well worth a read.) There’s also an amusing play called “The Creation of the World and Other Business” which goes into this issue – until Adam and Eve knew about good and evil, until they grew up, G-d had zero hope of grandchildren.

Another bit of theology that horrifies me about Christianity is this whole G-d-sacrificed-his-son-to-pay-for-our-sins thing. Central to Christian theology, this just doesn’t make sense to me. When I discovered Judaism I discovered why.

Jews don’t believe that anyone other than the person who did the harm can atone for the harm (see Yom Kippur). Since you, and only you, can atone for your sins, the idea of G-d sacrificing his son to pay for your sins makes zero sense. This is echoed in the story of Abraham being sent to sacrifice his son Isaac, and being told by G-d not to do that after Abraham demonstrated that he was willing to do so. If G-d wouldn’t let Abraham sacrifice his son (an act which was intended to demonstrate to the Jews of the time that human sacrifice, commonly practiced by their neighbors, was no longer an acceptable act), the logic of him killing his own son later on makes zero sense. If G-d is not logical, he is not G-d. The G-d of the Torah is logical. Everything he does or makes happen, happens for a logical reason.

Let’s not even get into the whole “he died, was dead for three days, and came back to life” thing, okay? I’ll just say my position here as succinctly as I can: biological reality all aside, if G-d brought him back to life, did killing him even count? To me that’s not only icky, it’s kind of ridiculous and negates the whole stated purpose (as confused as it is) of killing him in the first place.

Finding out that the Jesus story as explicated in the four books that Christians call “the Gospels” is actually engineered to fit with the Jewish liturgical calendar gives me further evidence that the Jesus story is, at least in part, a made-up story. You can read more about that argument in John Shelby Spong’s book “Liberating the Gospels.

After discovering Judaism I found other reasons that the Jesus story makes no sense: he doesn’t do any of the things that the Messiah was supposed to do (see Michael Benami Doyle’s explanation of this, which is better than any I could do at this point).

In any case, it isn’t just about whether there’s a G-d or not. It’s also about whether the theology surrounding G-d makes sense. The Jewish theology makes sense to me; the Christian theology does not.

Now that I’ve dispensed with that, let’s get on to why Judaism calls to me by fulfilling what I need from a religious practice.

PRACTICE 

What I need from religion can be boiled down to four main things: ethics, learning, ritual and community. In order to explain why Christianity and paganism did not accomplish this for me (including my stint in the Unitarian Universalist church as a UU pagan/atheist), I’ll explain what each of these needs means to me, and then go over each religion I tried to explain why only Judaism fulfills them.

Ethics

For me, ethics boils down to “do no harm, and if you see harm happening, prevent it if you can and help the one harmed if you can’t.” While this sounds a bit absolutist, it’s not. The ethics that a religion espouses have to fit with my internal sense of justice for it to work for me; otherwise, I’m swimming upstream against a whitewater rapid.

The ethics of Catholicism, frankly, alienate me. The idea that we have the right to ostracize people because they are women, or queer, is not a holy idea. To this day, the Catholic church issues edicts that say that women are second-class citizens, that gays only have the right to be celibate, and that women have no right to decisions about their own bodies. Every time I had to listen to a homily about abortion, or gays, or feminism, I walked out of the church with a face streaked by angry tears at the injustice of the belief system espoused in those homilies. And let’s not go into the pedophilic scandals that have rocked the Catholic church for twenty years or more.

The ethics of the Christian churches I attended alienated me for similar reasons. Again, the demand that women take a backseat, that gays get off the bus entirely, etc. just made me disgusted and angry. I think what made me even angrier was that so many of the sermons claimed love at the same time that they were preaching abuse.

The ethics of the Unitarian church worked fine for me, as did the ethics of paganism, but I missed other components in these faith practices, which I’ll get to in a few more paragraphs.

Learning

Learning is one of the loves of my life. I’m an academic and a teacher. I need a religion that constantly pushes me to learn more, and has more available for me to learn. A religion that has finite answers that don’t invite discussion, questioning, or doubt is not a religion that will fill this need for me.

In the Catholic and Christian churches I attended, “learning” meant “parrot back what we tell you to believe.” It did not mean what I consider learning: exploring, engaging with the text, questioning the text, debating the meaning of the text. It also means the freedom to make mistakes and to doubt and still be considered a good person. That was not my experience of Catholicism or of Christianity. Instead, I was ostracized, talked down to, and scolded for asking questions or doubting. When I expressed doubt, I was told to pray harder, not to ask questions. I was told to accept the mystery, rather than investigate it to find answers. I found this attitude really difficult to deal with; I’m the son of two teachers and now a teacher myself. This rejection of learning did not sit well with me at all.

Paganism and the Unitarians, again, encouraged learning… but in paganism I didn’t find the answers I wanted, and in the Unitarian church, many of the answers were “we don’t know, and that’s okay,” without encouraging discussion.

Ritual

I’m a sociologist, and yes, I understand what ritual is all about. But for me, the repetition and dependability of ritual is a bedrock for me. If there is no ritual, I have no meaningful way to worship. If I have no meaningful way to worship, I lose my connection to the Divine. If I lose my connection to the Divine, well… what’s the point?

While the Catholic church and paganism completely satisfied this need for me (I still love “high church” services), the other lacks I felt in each practice made it impossible for me to continue. Most Christian churches rejected ritual, including the Unitarians (who started out as nominally Protestant), so I couldn’t find ritual there at all.

Community

Ritual goes hand in hand with community. A ritual performed alone is not satisfying to me. I need to feel my feelings from other people around me. I need to see my awe reflected in other people’s eyes. If I don’t have that, the religion does nothing for me. The very word, “religion,” can be broken down into its two roots: “re,” to do something again; and “lig,” to connect. Religion, then, is the reconnection you feel – and for most people, including me, reconnection takes a community.

Paganism largely failed me here, because the pagan community is overwhelmingly online, not an in-person community. Although there are occasional celebrations that happen throughout the year, it’s hard to get to them. Also, for me, a community has to be people that I know and meet regularly. I could never get that in paganism. I kept searching for, and not finding, much of anything.

While the Catholic and Christian churches I attended did give me some feeling of community, the overwhelming feelings of disapproval that were directed at me for doubting, or for being queer, or for supporting women created a deep feeling of disconnection – invalidating what community is supposed to do in the first place.

SO, WHY JUDAISM?

First, the theology of Judaism makes sense to me, as I talked about in the previous Wrestling Match. The way that Judaism sees G-d doesn’t frighten me; it fills me with awe and peace. Knowing that I do not have to figure him out (that is, that it’s not an expectation that I will figure him out) but that he won’t be angry with me if I have doubt and questions – that is exactly what I need from a G-d. And Judaism fulfills that need.

Second, the ethical structure of Judaism pretty much rests on the idea of tikkun olam – “heal the world.” This fits exactly with my own internal sense of justice. The arguments in Reform and often Conservative Judaism towards allowing women equality, treating gays the same as straights, etc. is a huge, huge deal to me. I won’t have to walk out of a Shabbat service with tears of anger on my face.

Third, learning is central to Judaism. I’ve heard of other converts who were told, “Of course you’d be a good Jew – you’re a scholar.” As an academic who loves investigating and learning more, Judaism offers me the opportunity (and more than that, mandates the responsibility) to investigate and learn for the rest of my life, as a core part of my religious practice.

Fourth, Judaism has ritual. I was relieved to find out that Reform shuls have largely re-embraced ritual, because it’s extremely important to me – daily ritual, weekly ritual, and year-round ritual. The ritual of the Seder I attended during Pesach made me feel supported and included, rather than being an outsider looking in. Learning about the Jewish liturgical calendar and calendar of holidays and festivals feels like coming home, to me. There will be a rhythm to my life, instead of a disjointed “what are we going to discuss this week?” uncertainty.

Finally, the community in Judaism is a welcoming community. I know this not only from my own experience but also from the experiences I’ve read from other converts. While individual shuls may not offer this welcome, as a Jew you have the right to pick the shul that makes you feel welcome. There are in-person regular meetings, classes, and a concern for those in the community that transcends a simple religious belief.

Christian friends and acquaintances may find it hard to understand why the theology of Christianity doesn’t make sense to me, but even if it did, Christianity would fall down in at least two other areas that are requirements for me in order to follow a religion.

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Filed under Hagah, Judaism

Wrestling Match #4: Comprehending G-d

10 Iyyar 5774

Until I discovered Judaism, I was an atheist.

I had my reasons for that, and for a long time they seemed like very good and valid reasons. Please note: the order I’m listing them in has nothing to do with their importance. This isn’t a rank-ordered list; it’s just a list of the various reasons I had for not believing in G-d.

One reason was that G-d had been represented to me as a stern, angry taskmaster for most of my childhood and adolescence. My sole idea of G-d for years and years was “He will punish you; He’s just waiting for you to mess up so He can smack you down” – G-d as taskmaster, prison guard, and slave driver, not G-d as loving parent or friend. (In my more cynical moments I’ve said to friends “So you believe in a ‘loving parent’ that sets you up to fail and then punishes you for failing? Not interested!”) I had the terrible experience of hearing a hymn when I was about nine that went “Watching you, watching you, there’s an all-seeing Eye watching you” that conjured up a nightmare vision of a disembodied eye watching everything I did and finding it unacceptable. The verses that command us to “Fear G-d” were translated in my Catholic and Christian backgrounds as “be terrified of G-d; you must be perfect or you will feel His wrath, and if you are not perfect He will turn away from you until you are.” It was not a good message, and no amount of “G-d is love” could counteract it because the emphasis was on being afraid first. 

My partner was also raised Catholic, but he doesn’t remember this being the message in his church. It doesn’t matter. I do. And it was very, very hard to let go of that fear (and the anger it produced). For a long time, I felt that if such a G-d did exist, it was my bounden duty to deny its existence, because the alternative was horrifying.

I also got that message at home – not about G-d specifically, but about authority figures more generally. My mother has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you’ve never lived with a person with a personality disorder, you’re luckier than you know. Living with a narcissistic parent is like living with a time bomb. If you read the time bomb’s mind well enough and are as perfect as you can be, you might avoid abuse, sometimes. My mother’s narcissistic abuse installed a very deep need to understand authority figures so that they wouldn’t hurt me. When I didn’t read her mind, abuse was the logical outcome. So logically, if G-d is an authority figure, he expects you to read his mind and be perfect and never make a mistake, and if you do, you should logically expect to be punished.

In essence, I had the image of G-d as a parent with severe NPD.

It should be pretty clear why I was so afraid of G-d, nu?

Second, because of the fear, I got angry. Not only was I angry with G-d for being (as I saw it) a divine bully, but for a number of other reasons too. I was bullied from second grade onwards, and G-d never seemed to do anything about it no matter how hard I prayed. I was molested as a very young child by my grandfather, and G-d, as far as I could see, didn’t do anything about that either. My mother was emotionally abusive. My father, who was a good and godly man, died when he was just past his 63rd birthday, far too young. I had been told to believe that the world was just, where bad things only happened to bad people, and yet the world was not working the way I had been told it was supposed to. (My Sunday School classes never included Job, for some reason.) I wasn’t sure if I was a bad person, but I knew for certain that my father was a good person, and yet bad things happened to him.

It’s the classic thing that everyone wrestles with, right? Why do bad things happen to good people if there is a loving G-d? I found meaning in the book Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes, where a character who had been forcibly enslaved said to his former master: “If I believed in G-d, I would hate him.”

And yes, I did hate him for a while. I hated him because no matter how much I hurt, and no matter what bad things happened to me, he didn’t seem to be there for me at all.

Another reason that I turned to atheism was that I was a “gifted” child. That meant, in the 1970s, that I was praised mainly for getting the right answer. For understanding. For comprehending. For being able to explain everything. And that became a part of how I perceived myself: I was a good kid because when asked, I always had the answer and I got praise for it. It was one of the few times I could count on getting approval from my mother, so being able to understand and explain, to have the right answer, became an obsession for me.

So imagine what it was like when I ran into something I couldn’t explain – like G-d.

It wasn’t just upsetting. It was soul-destroying. And I found it offensive that there was anything that I could not explain. That was my job, you see – to explain and comprehend. So I think my first step towards atheism was saying “If I can’t understand and explain it, then it must not be real.”

As an autistic and an abuse survivor, logic and order are very important to me. They’re soothing. They help me cope with a very chaotic world. So for many years, I demanded logical causes and physical evidence for everything, or I simply wouldn’t believe it. Feelings were not logical. Therefore, they couldn’t be trusted.

Having been raised by a narcissistic mother, I had had my ability to trust my own feelings pretty much beaten out of me by the time I was six or seven years old. How I felt did not matter. It was how she felt that mattered. My job was to feel whatever she told me to feel, and to believe whatever she said, not to trust my own feelings. If you haven’t dealt with someone who has a personality disorder, it may be difficult to believe how pervasive this is. But since I couldn’t trust my feelings, any time that G-d might have tried to speak to me, I was essentially deaf.

I was all about the empirical, and I shunned the experiential.

So when I found out about the scientific method, I was enthralled. Logic! Orderliness! It made sense! Here was something where cause and effect were actually linked, unlike my life, where random bad things happened with no discernible cause. It was comprehensible. It made sense. I could actually categorize what was going on and it would still be there, dependable, when I got back. It was the best tool I’d ever found for understanding the world. I began to perceive anything I couldn’t explain with that tool as something offensive – including G-d. It didn’t occur to me that you can’t use the same tool for all jobs. I was trying to shoehorn G-d – who cannot be experienced logically – into something that could be analyzed scientifically.

Probably due to the abuse, I have a deep need for justice. When people wouldn’t follow the rules, it made me mad. When they’d get away with not following the rules, it made me enraged. I have a deep commitment to doing the right thing, but I also have a deep commitment to following the rules if the rules seem to match what is good and right and proper. I loved the law, because it seemed so orderly and logical.

I’m a social scientist these days, and one of the things I study is law and how the law works. More and more I’m finding that all the things I thought were logical and straightforward are not. But during my atheist phase, I demanded actual, physical evidence of G-d, and when nobody provided it, I mocked their beliefs. (Yes, I was one of those atheists – every bit as fundamentalist as any haredi Jew or evangelical Christian. And I’m not proud of it, and I know I’m going to have a lot of people to make amends to when Yom Kippur rolls around in the fall.) At thirteen, I walked away from Catholic confirmation classes when I realized how silly it all sounded to me. Later in life I went through confirmation classes and confirmation to make my then-spouse happy, but on the day it happened I didn’t feel anything beyond “this is so fake, there’s nothing there.”

So here I am, a person who demands logical and physical evidence and can’t seem to find any for G-d, who has been conditioned to never trust his own feelings and who believes the most important thing is to have the right answer, who is angry for the unjust and undeserved pain he experienced, and is still shying away from G-d due to the fear he was told to have. I was very angry with G-d for a long time, especially after my father died, and felt that I could either hate G-d, or I could stop believing in Him. So I stopped believing in Him for a while. It seemed the lesser of two evils. 

Then one day earlier this year, everything shifted. If you asked me exactly how, I couldn’t tell you, but I used this joke as a parable to explain it when I first joined a board for converts last month:

There’s a man whose town is going to be flooded. He listens to the radio and watches the TV, and says to his friends “It’s okay. I’m a religious man. I pray. G-d won’t let anything happen to me.” Well, the flood comes, and a guy comes by in a rowboat and shouts for him to get in, but the religious man says “It’s okay, I pray. G-d will save me.” Then as he’s standing on his roof peak, a guy in a helicopter lowers a ladder and shouts for him to get on, but the religious man shouts back that he’s safe, because he prays and G-d will save him. 

Of course, he drowns. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates he demands an audience with G-d. He says “L-rd, I’m a devout man. A religious man. I pray to You every day. I tithe. I do good works in Your name. Why didn’t you save me?” And the Lord looks at him and says “I sent you a radio report, a TV report, a rowboat and a helicopter – what the heck are you doing here??”

The specific nature of the rowboats and helicopters I’ve been seeing aren’t important. What’s important is that I started seeing them, and I stopped judging everything by the scientific yardstick. As I discovered that my mother was a narcissistic personality and what that meant about my difficulty in trusting my feelings, I began to make room in my life for letting my feelings guide me. I stopped arguing and shouting and started listening. 

At the same time, I was discussing G-d and religion with people I care about, including both of my partners. It’s something I’ve done every spring, pretty much, but this year was different. This year I was talking not just about the Christian G-d, but the idea of G-d. A lot of the things I’d been conditioned to believe by my upbringing don’t make any sense in Judaism, and my Jewish best friend’s explanations of how G-d is not like that in Judaism were confusing to me. I had to know more about this G-d who didn’t bully his children, so I started researching Judaism on my own, instead of going back over liberal Christian theologians’ books again.

That’s when I discovered that Judaism fit my own ethic of “do right by others.” Tikkun olam – that was a revelation. The idea that it wasn’t about the afterlife but about the now-life, the present life, that mattered. The idea that actions were more important than professions of faith, because action IS a profession of faith. That you can argue with G-d and he won’t send the giant lightning bolt to incinerate you for daring to say “That wasn’t cool, Adonai.” These discoveries were revelatory. Absolutely revelatory. I walked around in a stunned daze for a while after I began to realize that Judaism was where I belonged.

And here’s the main thing that finally came across to me. The thing I had struggled with for at least two decades. Judaism provided me with an answer I had been needing and didn’t know I needed.

That answer is this: You can’t comprehend G-d.

You’re also not expected to comprehend G-d.

He doesn’t expect you to “get” him. When asked his name, he told Moses “I am that I am.” That’s saying “I’m not something you can comprehend, and that’s okay. Simply accept that that’s what I am.” He doesn’t expect you to read his mind. If he did, he wouldn’t have given us the Torah. And it stands to reason that if he doesn’t expect you to read his mind, he also doesn’t expect you to be perfect.

That was the most stunning discovery I had, and it is the one that has me shaking my head in wonder every time it occurs to me.

G-d isn’t like my mother. He’s like my father. He isn’t a divine bully. He’s a bedrock.

When I wrote about this shift in my perceptions on a support board for people with personality-disordered parents, a well-meaning Christian acquaintance asked me in private message, “But don’t you think you need to find out the facts about exactly what G-d is and what he wants?”

My answer was something along the lines of: “Asking about the truth or falsehood of G-d is like asking about the truth or falsehood of the sun. He’s there. That’s it. Most Talmudic and rabbinical scholars don’t debate about the “facts about who he is.” They do, however, do a lot of debating and arguing about what he wants us to do, based on the Torah and the Talmud.” 

As a follow-up question she wanted to know how I was going to address the fact that G-d is divine and holy and that we are not? My response was: “By realizing that G-d does not demand perfection. And he does not set us up with nebulous or unclear requirements in order to be good enough and then punish us when we can’t read his mind. The Torah actually goes into some detail about what G-d expects: obey his commandments and perform his mitzvot (good deeds). What matters to G-d is what we do here on earth, not what happens afterwards.”

So what brought me out of atheism? Understanding that there are some things that it’s okay not to understand. Understanding that there’s a place for people who want to understand more without having to worry about being punished for not understanding it.

Folks, that’s a revelation I never expected to have.

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Wrestling Match #3: Jewish Identity and “Doing Jewish”

I’m on a roll here today. Who knew that creating a blog would lead me to write this many posts in less than a day? In any case, I’ve just noticed that my posts today have had a bit of a theme, and it’s a theme that keeps popping up for me all over the blogosphere today, so there must be a reason it’s there. That theme really centers on the question that almost all converts (and many Jews by birth) have to ask at one time or another: Who is a Jew (and why)? Michael Benami Doyle at ChicagoCarless explores this theme over and over again, both in his pre- and post-mikveh posts, but one of the ones that jumped out at me today had this to say:

The more you cede your definitions of Judaism and Jewish community to others, the less confidence and control you feel over your own Yiddishkeit. We Jews do not exist in a vacuum, from each other or from the wider world of fellow human beings. But unless you want to go down a stringently Orthodox road that narrowly defines what is and isn’t acceptably Jewish–and no matter how stringently observant you are, there’s always someone more stringent waiting in the wings to edit you out of the story of the Jewish people–letting others define your identity is a dangerous game.

 The problem is, being honest–fully honest–about who you are is not going to please everyone. It sure didn’t please the Egyptians when the Jews stood up for themselves after the ten plagues and hoofed it out of Mitzrayim.

I’ll just give you that quote for the flavor of it – but go read his post for yourself. It’s important. In a similar fashion, Ruth Adar of CoffeeShopRabbi had this to say about the legitimacy of Jewish identity:

[T]here was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece…. Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. 

Emphasis mine, in both instances. Now, one of them says “don’t let anyone else define your identity,” and the other says “the support of the community is important.” They’re both right. I don’t need anyone else’s approval to be the Jew I am becoming, but that feeling of community? Absolutely necessary. It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle: you need the support of your dad or mom until you get your balance (the community), but you’re the one who has to learn how to get your balance (doing Jewish) – they can’t tell you what it is or how to get there. All they can do is be supportive and give you confidence while you learn. Okay, so I needed to hear that today. I needed to hear that it’s normal to feel anxious when someone questions my sincerity, and that it’s normal for me to be throwing myself into Judaism headfirst with both feet. More so because despite all the work I’m still needing to do, I can’t stop studying Hebrew (so far, I can recite the aleph-bet and I’m working on the nikkudim). I can’t bring myself to let go of the prayers that are becoming more and more a given when I reach for my cup of coffee (Baruch atah Adonai…) or wake up in the morning (I tend to say the short two-line Sh’ma, because that’s the one I know by heart). I can’t stop listening to Neshama Carlebach’s music and looking up the transliterations (and meanings) of her songs so I can sing them too. I can’t seem to stop pestering my Jewish friends with questions and anxieties. And I haven’t even gone to a Shabbat service yet, or talked with a rabbi yet! I’ve just been to a very welcoming Seder and talked – a lot – with Jewish friends. So why have I written so much in this blog on its very first day in the world? Well, it’s that whole “needing to ‘do Jewish'” thing and not really having a place – yet – to ‘do Jewish’ beyond here on the ‘Net. For example: It’s Shabbat, and definitely after sundown, but tonight I can’t really observe it in the traditional way. I don’t have wine or candles in the house, I don’t have a gluten-free bakery nearby where I can pick up gluten-free challah, and I don’t want to bother my partner with my observation of private Jewish ritual when he’s home. This blog is also about trying not to make it so that my Judaism isn’t the only song I’m singing, because no matter how much the harmonies entrance me, to those around me it can seem kind of one-note after a while. My male partner, my fiancé, is not planning on converting, and that’s fine. But I struggle not to have every conversation revolve around this new thing I read about Rabbi Akiva or that comment on a blog that spoke to me. So I bottle it all up and then unload it on my best friend (she’s Jewish) and sometimes I feel like I’m overloading her with it. Sometimes she’s worried that our relationship is going to go away or change into something neither of us wants because of my studies. And I can’t have that – for either of them. I need to get a handle on this “doing Jewish” thing so that it doesn’t alienate my loved ones. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog, too. It’s after sundown on Shabbat, but I’m not able to observe Shabbat tonight. (I don’t intend to be shomer Shabbat anyway – I’m converting Reform, so I’m going to take the mitzvot I can do now, and try not to beat myself up for imperfect observance as I learn.) But I can at least write about this path and this journey. I can put this information here instead of overwhelming my loved ones with it. So let that be my Shabbat observance for tonight. (For reasons why this works for me, see the second story on this page, about Rabbi Israel of Rizhin.) So who am I? I am a Scots-Irish Hungarian (with bits and bobs of many other Western European heritages) American with possible Jewish ancestry, who was raised Catholic and has always felt Jewish. I am a ger, and someday (hopefully someday soon) I will be recognized as a Jew by the community. Some of my Jewish friends, including my best friend, have told me that as far as they’re concerned, the day I meet the beit din and enter the mikveh is a formality only, and that they consider me a Jew now, because of my obvious yiddishe neshama. So I’ll keep on praying over my food and in the morning and at night, and as soon as I can make it to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah everywhere except at work. Why? Because, as Rabbi Ruth Adar says, “I would be a real Jew when I acted like one. How does a “real Jew” act? Well, that’s up to the individual Jew, now isn’t it? So now that I’ve put that out there, I need to get my grading done, because for me, part of being an observant Jew is doing what I promised I would do.

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Wrestling Match #2: Teshuva

I want to comment on what many converts have said on their blogs: many of us feel that we’re not converts. We are already Jews. We have Jewish souls – yiddishe neshamot – how could we be otherwise?

We are returning after having been separated from our community. How that separation occurred is really irrelevant. The point is, we are now returning.

But it’s hard to express that to people who don’t have to go through this process to be recognized and affirmed by the Jewish community.

I’m a musician first, and always have been. Lately, I’ve been looking into Jewish popular music, and discovered the amazing singer Neshama Carlebach. Her song “Return Again” hit me so hard that I almost couldn’t breathe, because that feeling I’ve been describing as the pull, the feeling I couldn’t find words for – this song describes it completely and exactly. 

Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are born and reborn again


That’s what the pull is. It’s a call for me to return. 

I feel drawn to Judaism and I can’t stop feeling the draw. I feel like I have to be a Jew. Like it’s an inevitability, an imperative, like day following night. Like my soul was at Sinai and it just took a while for me to find out that I am Jewish at my core.

But – and there’s a big “but” here – I also feel presumptuous. Less so than I did when I first contemplated conversion, because I’ve spoken with many Jewish friends from many movements and none of them find my need to become a Jew in any way presumptuous – but it’s still nervewracking to just say “I feel that I am a Jew.”

And yet I’ve always identified with Judaism. I’ve identified with Jews, with their struggle, with being both chosen and rejected, with being the social scapegoat. I was a “gifted child” and an undiagnosed autistic in the 1970s, which caused merry hell with my peers; I came out as queer when I was in my 20s; I’ve always struggled with weight, which made me a target – just a lot of other issues that put me on the scapegoat hot seat, I suppose. I attended my first seder this past Pesach, and one of the “regulars” at that seder said to me “What, you want to become even more marginalized and ostracized?” with a wink. 

But when I read about the Jewish experience I identify with it, strongly. Every time I read a book where there’s a Jewish character I understand that person’s views as if they’re mine. When I talk with Jewish friends I get where they’re coming from. I don’t have any better words for why. I just feel this pull, and it’s not going away. 

How else to explain that pull, unless I have a Jewish soul?

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Wrestling Match #1: Orthodoxy and Self-Definition as a Jew

When our Yiddishkeit is called into question, what can we say to the questioner? I attempt to answer that question.

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