Tag Archives: reflections on Judaism

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning without fail, and made my Judaism the first and most important thing about my life. But the world got in the way, and, well….

Since November, less than three months after my husband and I completed our conversion processes, we have had to be – paradoxically – far less active Jews than we were hoping to be. We haven’t been able to attend a real Friday night shul service in several months, because of his work schedule (he works for an amusement park; November to March is “peak holiday time” and lots of mandatory overtime for him) and the inopportune arrival of several illnesses that kept me and him both flat on our backs and unable to function. Due to a personal conflict at our Torah study group, we stopped going for a while because it made us uncomfortable, and we still haven’t really resolved that, either.

In short, we have not been good members of our community, and although the reasons are valid, guilt’s still a real thing and I’ve been feeling it.

Here’s the thing about feeling guilt for not measuring up to some standard that you or others have set for your behavior: it makes it less likely that you’re going to try to fix it. At least, it makes it less likely that I’m going to try to fix it. Every time I’ve thought about going back to shul, the guilt has come up and hit me with “but then people would ask you where you’ve been and you know that that would really mean ‘why are you only showing up now, you half-asser?'” That’s a deterrent, not an incentive.

We missed Purim entirely, because we were sick; but was that a good enough reason? We haven’t been to Torah study in months because of illness and over-stress; is that a good enough reason? We missed a concert at our shul with a Jewish musician that I love because of stress and exhaustion; is that a good enough reason? And of course there’s also the cost, and right now we’ve had to penny-pinch, so we haven’t had the money to buy tickets to concerts or food for Purim baskets or, well, pretty much anything.

And yet…

All during that time, we still managed to have Shabbat dinner with a friend at least twice a month, and take Shabbat pretty much “off,” even if that meant catching up on missed sleep the majority of the time.

I have still worn my kippah and my Mogen David, and I haven’t backed down when someone says something anti-Semitic.

I have still said the Sh’ma every night, and meant it.

I have still experienced the world as a Jew, even if I’m not especially active at my synagogue right now.

And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

As the author of the Kveller article said:

Embracing Jewish motherhood (and motherhood in general) isn’t about following every rule and winning the game. It’s about showing up and staying in the game, even when you don’t know which rules apply to you, or what it even means to win.

I’d argue that the same thing applies to Jewish identity. Recently, I have not been able to follow every rule. But I have done what I can to keep my foot in the door, even if it’s been mostly outside of the community of Jews in my area. And once I have recovered from the stress, exhaustion, and overwork, I’ll be getting back in the game in more substantial ways. For starters, we’re going to a Seder on Saturday evening, and hosting one here the following Thursday, and ideally we’ll be going back to shul after Pesach is over.

But I also think Adonai will understand if, just at the moment, I can’t quite do it all.

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The Spirit of the Law and the Value of NOT Doing It All

"Sunrise Los Angeles" by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Sunrise Los Angeles” by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Things looked better on Shabbat morning. And fortunately, that continued for the rest of the day into our afternoon at home and our evening with friends. 

Things usually do look better in the morning, did you ever notice that? Something about sleeping on it really does help fix most of the problems of low spoons, lack of energy, and general overwhelm.

Of course, I was trying too hard. I was trying to live by every rule, everywhere, to be a perfect Jew, even as I had admitted that it’s okay not to be perfect. There’s a definite difference between saying it and practicing it, and G-d called me on it on Friday, I think. I was at the end of my rope, frazzled, tired, worn out, overwhelmed, and still thinking I could somehow put together the equivalent of a holiday dinner AND bake challah for the next day’s temple Kiddush service when I was almost completely out of cope and energy. I was convinced that I could still follow all the rules and make things somehow come out perfectly even though I was scraping the bottom of the energy barrel.

Reality. It hits you in the strangest ways. Obviously none of those things happened. I’m just glad that the fallout was a few pieces of dough hitting the coffeemaker and the carpet, and nothing worse than that (like a cut hand due to a knife accident, or a concussion because I slipped and hit my head on a wet floor). 

It occurred to me this morning that one of the things I find so healing about Judaism is that Reform Judaism is not a rule-bound system. I grew up with a strong and frightening sense that if I didn’t follow every rule perfectly, all the time, to the letter, then I was in big trouble. Yesterday’s experience at temple in the morning, where I participated in the mid-service Torah study, and where I was reassured that everyone has had kitchen disasters and not to worry – we’ll love to try your challah next week, showed me it’s the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that we’re trying to get at here. People (and G-d) don’t expect perfection. They expect an honest effort. They don’t expect me to do it all correctly the first time. They expect me to focus on doing my best to do a little bit better next time.

It’s not about perfect adherence to the rules. If that was all it was, any religion would do. 

My life before Judaism didn’t allow a lot of time for contemplation or doing things deliberately. Due to some disabilities I have, for example, getting dressed in the morning can be a very complicated process. If I put on my jeans before I put on my socks, it’s harder to reach my feet, for example, because that restricts motion enough that bending my knees far enough to reach my feet becomes almost impossible. But there have been times when I’ve been rushing because I feel like I’m late (I rarely am) and then I have to undress and start all over again, usually berating myself for not paying attention well enough. Eating deliberately? What’s that? I have still caught myself being halfway through the meal before I realized I haven’t really tasted it (and that I haven’t said the brachot yet), and then kicked myself for it. I wasn’t raised with the habits of deliberation or contemplation. I was raised with the habits of rushing, doing it quickly, getting it done, and getting on to the next thing. While going to church was calming, it was only one hour a week. That’s not enough to get used to being calm and quiet (and for me it was always upset in the middle by the angry sermons I had to sit through). 

But with Judaism (at least as I’m practice it), it’s not about rushing out of bed and running around like a headless chicken trying to get six things done before breakfast so that things are always perfect. It’s about staying in bed when I wake long enough to remember to say the Modeh Ani before I get out of bed. It’s about taking the time to remember to say the brachot over my morning coffee. It’s about remembering to slow down and take time so that those become things I remember before I need to do them, not after. It’s about taking an entire 24-hour period every week to NOT rush, to NOT hurry, and to let that peacefulness carry over into the rest of the week. It’s the complete opposite of what I was raised with – reflection, rather than rushing.

The rushing seemed to me to be required. If you aren’t running around “looking busy,” you’re lazy, aren’t you? But then I wonder how many people would call a Buddhist monk “lazy” for his meditation practices. I know a few Westerners who probably would, but that’s not the point here. The Type-A personality should not be setting the standard for what reasonable effort looks like – they’re at one end of a very long spectrum. It is possible to be unrushed and not be automatically lazy. It is possible to take time to think and contemplate and not be lazy. 

And it is all right to take a day where rest, contemplation, consideration and thought take precedence over running around trying to do everything all at once. It is all right to live by the spirit of the rules as much as, if not more than, their letter. A blogger I follow on Facebook calls this “living hands-free” – to stop worrying so much about what everyone will think and start focusing on the moment, the process, rather than the goal. 

This is still very hard for me to grasp. We live in a culture that values speed and efficiency and the goal over reflection and deliberation and the process. But living a hands-free kind of life – which for me, more and more, means a Jewish life – demands adherence to the spirit of the rules over the letter of the rules, more often than not. It’s also about bringing that sense of reflection and consideration into the rest of the week, not just leaving it on Shabbat. I had had an entire week of no reflection or consideration, of feeling rushed, of trying to do too much at once, and I paid for it on Friday evening when things finally fell apart because I couldn’t keep all those balls in the air and the plates all spinning at the same time. 

This week, I will forgive myself for dropping the ball. This week, I will not punish myself for taking time to reflect and consider. This week, I will work on reducing my need to live up to every rule and stress myself out by rushing through every process. This week I will make room for contemplation. 

And next week will take care of itself. It always does – have you ever noticed that? 

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“Deserve” is a Toxic Word

22 Tamuz 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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From My Readings: Leonard Epstein, Chapter 3 – G-d and the Creation of the World

9 Tamuz 5774

In this chapter, Epstein asks us to look at possible explanations for the creation of the world (and, by extension, the universe) that will both allow for what we know from science and what the Bible tells us G-d did. Epstein’s discussion points out that G-d creating the universe implies a moral dimension to the universe, and that the idea that G-d is simply a First Cause (as Deism posits) is antithetical to Jewish thought, because Jews see G-d as involved with humanity, not separate from it.

My take on that, going back to my discussion of Kushner’s view of the limitations on G-d’s omnipotence due to natural law and free will, is that you can be involved without interfering directly. Think of the universe as G-d’s petri dish, if you will. Any scientist worth his or her salt knows that once you start the experiment, you do not interfere with it if you want to see what comes out of your first principles when you started the experiment. Watch? Certainly. Record and learn? Definitely. But you don’t open up the petri dish and mess with what’s going on inside it. And this may be how G-d is involved with humanity at this point – he is watching what is happening as his experiment plays itself out in the petri dish called our universe.

So it is possible for G-d to be involved, then, while still not interfering. I kind of like the idea of G-d as a scientist, myself.

Epstein also discusses possible explanations that integrate both G-d and what we know from science when it comes to the creation of our universe.

First, there’s the idea of G-d as a First Cause that created everything through starting the Big Bang. This doesn’t explain or factor in G-d as involved with humanity, but Epstein also points out that even if we can’t prove that G-d was behind the Big Bang, we also can’t rule out that he might have been.

Second, there’s the idea of the “fine-tuned universe.” There are some characteristics of our universe that seem uniquely suited to life, and if these characteristics did not exist, life as we know it could not have come to exist. The distance of the Earth from the sun provides optimum temperature and living conditions here, but a difference of as little as 5 percent of that distance closer would scorch us off the face of the Earth, while 5 percent further would leave it frozen and unlivable. According to Epstein there are more than thirty different examples of the fine-tuned universe. This, again, does not prove that G-d exists, but it also means we can’t rule out the possibility that like any good scientist, he set up optimum physical conditions in the universal petri dish.

Finally, we have the worrisome fact that the world is random and chaotic – so does G-d, as Einstein once famously rejected, just “play dice with the universe”? Well, Epstein responds, the fact of the world being random and chaotic to us does not mean it’s random and chaotic to G-d. There’s also the fact that supposedly-random, supposedly-chaotic situations still produce predictable outcomes over time (Epstein uses the example of a gambling casino making a reliable profit). The fact that we can’t perceive the underlying order of the universe right now does not mean we never will. We may simply need better tools that have not yet been developed.

Epstein eventually comes to the conclusion that “We are left without an ultimate answer. There is no adequate explanation for creation. Everyone is left believing in some force beyond our understanding.” This is kind of where I am about G-d generally. Given that he can’t be understood with our limited human faculties, I have to accept that he is a “force beyond our understanding.” There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have fought that with every particle of my being because I found it offensive that there were things I could not understand with my limited human brain. I’m past that now, fortunately (and part of me actually finds it a bit childish and arrogant to have ever thought that I ought to be able to!).

In the first exercise of this chapter, Epstein asks us to find ways to connect with the world with wonder, rather than analysis. I will be doing that today and tomorrow, mindfully. A friend of mine on another site wrote about how one of his proofs for G-d is “that there exist things in this universe which are pointlessly beautiful.” He’s got a point, certainly. What is the point of the beauty of a sunset? And yet it is beautiful, for no apparently functional reason. While there are people who will insist that the beauty of a flower is completely functional, I haven’t seen any explanation for the function (or utility) of the beauty of a sunset.

But since it’s hard to write about that exercise (since it’s more experiential than analytical), I’m going to look at Epstein’s next exercise, which goes like this:

“Consider all the options about understanding natural evil. Is there no [G-d]? Is there the traditional [G-d] who is all-powerful and all-good and therefore responsible for natural evil but whose ways we don’t understand? Did [G-d] create the natural world in a way that would inevitably lead to life but which isn’t controlled?”

Interestingly, I think I’ve addressed these in prior posts. At this point, I believe there is a G-d, at least in an agnostic way – I do not have beliefs about his specifics, but I do believe he exists. The reasons why would not satisfy any scientist because they’re experiential, but I still believe he exists. I dealt with the all-powerful issue in posts about Kushner’s work where we find logical reasons why G-d was all-powerful when he first put the universe in motion, but how some of the things he gave us (natural law, free will) now act as controls on his power. And because he started us out with optimum physical conditions and is now letting the experiment run its course, of course it isn’t controlled except beyond the controls of natural law and of moral decisions by those who can exercise our free will – in a word, humans.

I’ll come back to Epstein again tomorrow. For now, though, I’d like to have your thoughts on this as well. Does it bother you that we do not have, as Epstein says, an “adequate explanation for creation”? If it does, why? If not, why not?

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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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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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Hating Ourselves Into Righteousness

A friend of mine who is a Health At Every Size advocate recently posted this to her blog: “I cannot state how strongly I disagree with the idea that we can hate our bodies into health.”

I think this applies equally to our souls – we cannot hate our souls into righteousness. Yet how many of us follow practices that are equivalent to trying to do just that? How many of us, when we make a mistake, spend a disproportionate amount of time berating ourselves for the mistake? How often do you find yourself saying “I’m such a sinner, I’m so bad, I’m so evil, I’m so wrong, I’m so stupid, I’m an idiot”?

If you’re like me, probably you do this a lot. In fact, one of the things that attracts me so much to Judaism is that it has set procedures for dealing with this kind of pain – procedures that are meaningful. You made a mistake? Do what you can to correct it and make amends to those you harmed by the mistake. And then you let it go and move on.

One thing that we often forget, though, is that this includes ourselves. When we make a mistake and we’re the only one affected by it, too many of us then beat ourselves up for some period of time for having made it. To me, this is trying to hate our souls into righteousness. It’s a form of lashon hara.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in The Book of Jewish Values, makes this the topic of Day 321 (p. 441-442): “Don’t speak lashon hara about yourself.” This is one of those values that, for me, is very difficult to follow. I was raised by a perfectionist to be a perfectionist, and I was always told that nothing less than perfection was acceptable. (This is what happens when you have a parent with a personality disorder.) As a result, I tend to beat myself up. A lot. For example, I tend to think that once I’ve made a mistake, it’s irreconcilable and irretrievable – that because I made a mistake, others will always think less of me and will always remember it. I believe that I am “not enough” in a hundred different ways. I tend to think I’m unworthy of people’s time, attention, and love – even my own. I was even raised to believe that this was the right thing to do, because without constant reminders of how bad I am, how can I ever improve? I am my own sharpest and most merciless critic. So I’m certainly guilty of performing lashon hara against myself.

But Telushkin points out that that’s just as wrong as beating someone else up with words:

While it is good to be humble […], being modest does not mean denying one’s virtues or disparaging oneself. The Torah verse that explicitly commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) implicitly commands us to love ourselves. And just as you would not wish to hear others speaking ill of someone whom you love, so too should you not speak ill of someone you are supposed to love: yourself. 

As his example in this day’s lesson, Telushkin tells about a rabbi who was corrected by someone else for speaking negatively about himself. When the corrector found out who the rabbi was, he tried to apologize, but the rabbi said “You have no reason to request forgiveness […] On the contrary, I learned from you an important lesson. For decades, I’ve been teaching people not to speak lashon hara about others. Now I’ve learned that it’s also wrong to speak lashon hara about yourself” (Telushkin, p. 441).

Telushkin’s point is valid, certainly. But for many people, the idea of loving the self is difficult. In many sects of Christianity, the self is considered a sinful thing by definition. Moray Allan, while an MA student in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge, begins an essay on this topic by saying “Christianity has often been understood as demanding not self-knowledge, but self-abandonment. The self has been understood as necessarily imperfect, so corrupt that it is worthless: in seeking Christ Christians may abandon themselves, condemning the self and attempting to discard its influence. They may feel that it is impossible both to express the individual self and to emulate Christ”.* So this idea that we should love the self, and ourselves, is sometimes a difficult lesson to learn, especially in a heavily Christian-influenced society where the self is viewed as sinful by definition.

Allan goes on to cite Augustine’s view that even when we have a positive view of the self, the self should come second to G-d. Augustine feels, according to Allan: “[H]is very identity is subsumed in G-d, for he cannot achieve anything independently”.

Both of these views, to me, seem to set us up for failure. On the one hand, the self is so vile we must reject it; on the other, the self is not really important enough to matter in the long run. In both cases, I think this sets us up to continually speak lashon hara against the self.

This brings me back to Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, again. Brown has experience with trying to abuse herself into perfection; indeed, it is the basis of her life work. Brown said that what originally attracted her to social work research on shame was the idea that if you can measure it, you can control it and put it in a box. As she says in one of her speeches,** “There are people who say “Life’s messy. Love it.” And I’m more like “Life’s messy. Clean it up, organize it, and put it into a bento box.” When she discovered that people who could “roll with” shame and get through it were people who were the opposite of her, it devastated her, because those were generally the people who said “Life’s messy. Love it.” The acts of cleaning up the messy, organizing it, and putting into a bento box came with a huge helping of shame and self-abuse. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown describes it like this:

“I thought I’d find that Wholehearted people were just like me and doing all of the same things I was doing: working hard, following the rules, doing it until I got it right, always trying to know myself better, raising my kids exactly by the books…” (Brown, Kindle Location 89/2245)

In doing these things, Brown found herself automatically blaming and shaming herself for not living up to the standards set by the rules and by the books. She found herself saying things like “When I’m good enough/thin enough/smart enough” to justify why she denied herself things that were pleasurable. Over the next year-plus, she went into therapy to deal with the reasons she felt she had to be perfect. Then, over a six-year period, she wrote three books on the topic of shame and perfectionism – how damaging shame is, how impossible perfection is, and how the combination of the two can wreck our ability to be kind to ourselves or to anyone else.

Since the first and most important Jewish value is to be kind, I think that this is kind of important for Jews (whether JBB or JBC) to learn about. Telushkin’s statement that we must not practice lashon hara against anyone, including ourselves, is revelatory.

How do you practice lashon hara against yourself? What do you plan to do today to stop doing that?

 I wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll be back on Sunday morning.

*Allan’s full essay can be found here: http://jcsu.jesus.cam.ac.uk/~mma29/essays/speakingself/

** Brown’s speech can be found here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-146506

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From My Readings: The Book of Jewish Values by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown

21 Sivan 5774

In The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Telushkin gives us a full year of Jewish values to consider throughout the year – one per day. Telushkin’s plan is that each week’s worth of values can and should form the discussion topics on Shabbat for that week.

I will not be discussing each and every value in this blog, but I find that a third of the way through the book, many of them are tugging at me to write about my own experiences and expectations of them. Today, I’m going to write about kindness.

The Day 4 topic is titled “What Would God Want Me To Do?” According to Telushkin, the value of charity – one of the most important values in Jewish thought and practice – is still superseded by the value of kindness. Kindness can take many different forms, from spending time with a sick neighbor to helping someone carry a load that is too heavy for them, even if doing so might inconvenience us. One might think of kindness as “the charity of our time,” because kindness may take no money but significant time.

In my experience, I have not always been kind to others. I have a tendency to get irritated with people who argue with me, or who insist on small changes to something I’ve already completed. Students who grade-grub for an extra point or two, or for an increase in their grade, are a special pet peeve of mine.

This ties in with a second value that Telushkin talks about on Day 33, from the Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, that states, in effect, “the lesson to be learned from G-d having started humanity with Adam, a single human being, is that each person represents a whole world, and each individual possesses infinite value” (Telushkin, p. 48). In this lesson, Telushkin points out that every profession gives its practitioners the opportunity to treat others like those who have infinite value. As a teacher, I have the opportunity every day to do this, and I admit that in the morass of grading and planning, I often forget that students are real people who may not give me their best, or who try but do not achieve what’s expected. But these students can still be crushed if I do not acknowledge their hard work even if they miss the mark. And this is something I need to work on.

How to work on it comes from a different source: Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D. in social work and has done extensive research on the issue of shame – and how to deal with it. One of the things Brown talks about in this book is that when you’re giving feedback to people (something teachers have to do all the time), you need to meet others as equals instead of pulling rank. This sounds, to me, very similar to the value of finding infinite value in others that Telushkin discusses in Day 33. It also means making myself vulnerable to the person to whom I’m giving feedback. Fortunately, Brown provides several ways to accomplish this in her book.

First, she says to give the person whom you have to critique three strengths about what they did, and one opportunity to improve it (Brown, p. 200). I’m thinking of a student last semester who wrote a passionate paper about a topic that was obviously near and dear to their heart. The paper had multiple problems, but the passion the writer had for the topic was very clear. That would be one of the strengths I would emphasize in any future conversations about this paper. The opportunity – how to improve – would be along the lines of “Remember that you are supporting an argument, not just giving an historical record of this topic,” and then some positive steps to take to accomplish that opportunity.

I plan to incorporate this feedback into any future paper feedback that I give to my students, especially my online students.

The second technique that Brown recommends is what she calls  “giving engaged feedback” (brown, p. 202-204). This ties in with the kindness issue in Telushkin’s Day 4 topic. The steps in giving engaged feedback include sitting next to, rather than across from, the person whom you’re giving feedback to; putting the problem in front of us both; listening, asking questions, and accepting that I might not fully get what the issue really is; acknowledging what worked instead of picking apart errors; recognizing strengths and how they can be used to address problems; holding the other person accountable without shaming or blaming; owning my part of the problem; thanking them for their efforts rather than criticizing them for their failings; talking to them about how these changes will lead to growth and opportunity; and finally, modeling the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from them (Brown, p. 203).

This only works well in an in-person situation, but I’m looking already for ways to adapt this to an e-mail or online interaction, and see how close I can get to the same effects when my student cannot come to office hours.

Brown also warns: “[I]f I feel self-righteous, it means I’m afraid […] of being wrong, making someone angry, or getting blamed” (Brown, p. 202). And G-d knows that I’ve felt plenty self-righteous when grading my students. Part of that self-righteousness expresses itself as exasperation, part as impatience, and part as anger that they apparently didn’t listen. But none of that lets me off the hook of being kind in the feedback I give, even as I have to be honest. Honesty doesn’t include sarcasm or sharp words.

Which brings us back to Telushkin and these two Jewish values of kindness and professional courtesy towards others. One of the things that makes us pull away from kindness is the fear of making ourselves vulnerable to the person we’re being kind to, no matter what form that kindness takes. A teacher not picking a paper apart for its errors risks being seen as a softy or a pushover; a person who helps their roommate out of a financial jam risks being seen as a soft touch. But kindness is, in part, always a risk. And G-d requires us to do it anyway. G-d requires us to be vulnerable when performing this mitzvah.

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