Tag Archives: reflections on Judaism

Moving Up the Ladder, or, the Foundation of My Yiddishkeit

17 Sivan 5774

I read a fair number of blogs. Some of them are written by gerim, some baalei teshuva, some born-Jews. And all of them identify as Jewish, or at least Jew-ish.

Identity is a problem for many Jews – gerim and by-birth alike. Gerim struggle with being legitimately Jewish, being Jewish “enough,” fitting into a community and a practice that they did not grow up with, and other issues of being a newcomer in a new world. The baal teshuva (Jew by birth who was secular and is now becoming a religious Jew) faces similar issues to gerim in many ways. Jews by birth have their own problems, including (perhaps) being born into a Jewish culture that has narrow definitions of observance and struggling to fit inside those definitions.

Essentially, most Jews are striving for a static, unchanging, dependable picture of what it means to be a “good Jew” – a standard that, once met, fixes these problems.

But what does it really mean to be a Jew? (And yes, we’re back to that again, because it’s  a perennial question for gerim, baalei teshuva, and even for born-Jews.)  In this post, I’m going to draw together a few posts I’ve read in the last few days, to kind of synthesize this idea that it might be a good idea to know, as a Jew, what the basis of your Judaism – your Yiddishkeit – is, as well as a suggestion for how to feel “more Jewish” in the future.

YaelUniversity recently worried in her blog about not being “Jewish enough.” It felt, to me, like she was buying into the “if-I’m-not-Orthodox-I’m-not-doing-it-right” default, which is a sad thing for anyone to feel. Here’s what I told her:

I don’t think you’re a bad convert. I think you’re a Jew, who is struggling with G-d and with Judaism as so many of us (both gerim and JBB) do. But I also wanted to ask you what your underlying concept of Judaism is, because that can often be a guide to what practices are meaningful for you. For me, it can be summed up in about three quotes and Scripture verses:

Hillel: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; to do justice, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” (That’s verse 6:8 of Micah.)

Hillel again: “Judge not your friend till you stand in his place.”

As you can see, the thing that draws me to Judaism as a Jew by choice is the ethics. If you are practicing Jewish ethics, aren’t you practicing Judaism? And as far as passing on a sense of Jewish identity to your kids, well – holidays. Shabbat observance (as well as you can). Learning Hebrew, when and as you can. Hebrew school. And so forth.

Don’t knock the stories, either! Story is how community is passed on. By all means, tell your little ones the stories. Let them identify with the characters. As they get older, start asking them about the stories – how would they have done things differently if they had been Jacob, or Sarah, or Rachel? Ask them questions and tie them back to the stories. Tie them to Jewish ethics. Let them ask questions! It will give them the rich history of our people to draw upon as they become Jewish adults.

Identity develops from practice, and Judaism is all about practice. Right now, I take intense joy in saying the brachot over meals, saying the Sh’ma morning and night, finding reasons to say the shehecheyanu. I find a deep sense of identity in music – both the music sung at shul and the music of Jewish and Israeli pop artists. I find a deep sense of identity in meditating on the name I have chosen and will one day bear, and what it means, and why I chose it, and what that means for my own Jewish practice. I wear a Mogen David and a kippah. I eat mindfully. I think before I speak. I study Torah as often as I can.

I find that Micah, more than anything, is guiding me. I am working on doing justice, showing mercy, and walking humbly with G-d.

I find echoes of the idea of a “good Jew” identity as a static, unchanging thing in a  recent blog post by Pop Chassid:

“[W]e want, we so badly want, to believe that the growth stops at some point, that we can turn around to say to everyone, “Okay, this is who I am.”

“The truth is, I am sure this applies to people who have grown up religious just as much as it happens to people who have taken it on later in life.  This desire to say, “I am this thing.”

“We want, in other words, to slip back into our old ways, to embrace our desire to freeze the world.”

I think Pop Chassid has this right. We don’t want change. We want stability. To us, an identity has to be unchanging to be stable or correct.

But isn’t it the actions – the practice – that really make the Jew? Isn’t it what we do that we’re judged on? And before we get into an argument about who’s more “observant,” I’ll just share this little story I found (and shared on Pop Chassid’s blog as part of a comment):

I am reminded of a story about a Chassidic Rabbi whose students tried to stump him with this whole “orthodox” thing – although they didn’t use that word. The story goes that they came to him, positing the idea that the 613 mitzvot are like the rungs on a ladder reaching to heaven. One man keeps more of the mitzvot than another, and so is higher up on the ladder. And so, Rabbi, they ask: “Who in the eyes of G-d is higher?”

The rabbi considered the question, and then said “I cannot answer you. You have not given me enough information, because you have not told me which of the men is moving upward.”

Perhaps it would make more sense to look at our Yiddishkeit as something that evolves and is created daily, through our practice, rather than an unchanging, static thing where we can rest on our laurels and not have to work at it anymore (on the one hand), or a standard of perfection that we can never live up to (on the other).

Another blogger I follow, Ayalon Eliach, is in rabbinical school, and wrote recently about why he has chosen to be a rabbi. In some frustration, I think, he said:

“I am heavily influenced by Victor Frankl, who believed that people may enhance the quality of their lives by focusing on finding “meaning.”  Personally, I find meaning when I engage with others over questions about our role in this world; when I take part in movements to better this planet; and when I reflect on my interconnectedness with the universe.  And while we all find meaning in different ways, feeling that we are a part of something greater than ourselves seems to be a common denominator. […]

“Unfortunately, most forms of Jewish expression today have failed to offer that response.  Instead, they have fetishized dogma, the minutia of praxis, or hollow ritual.  I believe the time has come to offer new approaches that focus on connectedness, spirituality, and reinvigorated tradition.  I want to draw on my personal experiences to help create these alternatives.”

I responded to that post, saying that what I’m seeing in many sources both expected and unexpected is a push to change Judaism in order to make it thrive, not just survive. Inspired by him and by Pop Chassid, I said that the questions need to change from “Are you a good Jew?” to “Is being a Jew/practicing Judaism helping you to be a better person/change the world/make a difference?” Until we do that, Judaism will continue to seem like an outdated tradition.

So I ask my wider audience:

1. What is the basis of your Yiddishkeit?

2. In your own opinion, are you sitting in a static place on the ladder? Or are you trying to continually move upward?

3. What are you doing to move upward today?

As I said above, the basis of my Yiddishkeit is the ethics. And I am trying to continually move upward on the ladder. For me, I realized on Wednesday last week that I had memorized all the brachot for before-meals, as well as the shehecheyanu and the short version of the Sh’ma. I’m now working on memorizing the brachot for after the meal. I’m also working my way through the book on how to read Hebrew that my rabbi loaned me. That’s how I’m working to move upward this week.

I’ll be interested in your answers, if you wish to share them.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism

When HaShem Tapped Me On the Shoulder

14 Sivan 5774

It occurs to me that I should talk about the spiritual helicopters.

Let’s start with my first encounter with anyone Jewish. I was about eight, I think. I didn’t grow up in the Northeast or any big city area with a big Jewish presence, so for me Jews were oddities that I wanted to understand. I heard a couple of boys at school making fun of the little girl with the six-pointed star necklace, and I found out she was a Jew. At church (at the time, the Crystal Cathedral was “church”) I heard a Sunday School teacher saying that the Jews were going to go to hell for killing Jesus if they didn’t get saved. I was pretty upset, since the little girl at school seemed like a nice person. So I went to my Dad and asked him what this all meant.

He told me, quite gravely, that the Jews had kept their covenant with G-d and that there was no good reason why they should go to hell just because some bigoted people wanted to blame the entire Jewish people for something that only a few of them did. Then he gave me my first copy of the Diary of Anne Frank.

I read that book and I wept. How could anyone be okay with what had happened to Anne? How could anyone be okay with letting the government take people away from their families or put them in camps to let them die? I couldn’t fathom it. But as a kid who was also on the outs with everyone at school at that point because I was smart and queer and it was obvious, I identified strongly with Anne and Peter and the other kids in Het Achterhuis.

From time to time over the years, I’d encounter Jewish characters in books or movies and immediately be drawn to them. I remember them, even if I don’t remember anything else about the books. Abie, in The Great Brain, who was assumed by everyone in the town to be rich because he was Jewish, and who died of starvation because nobody was patronizing his store – he was one of the ones I remember well, and with pain. Many, many characters in Judy Blume novels were Jewish as well, as were several in Paula Danziger novels. Both the main character and the bullied girl in Blubber, for instance, were Jewish.

By the time I was in my teens, I was reading Stephen King, and I was drawn to the characters of Stanley Uris and his wife in IT. I was also revolted by the kid and the Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil. In my 20s there was a character in this movie who was a Jewish kid in an all-Protestant 1950s prep school for boys. A character in that book who was careful to keep his Mogen David tucked under his collar. I saw Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. The character I keyholed in on in Ryan was not Tom Hanks or Leonardo diCaprio – it was Adam Goldberg, who played the Jewish private Mellish. Schindler’s List is one I still, to this day, cannot talk about. It hit me so powerfully that tears come to my eyes every time I think about it.

But that’s all groundwork and background, I think. I’m not sure HaShem was tapping my shoulder at that point. It’s just that my first deep identification with the Jewish people was that feeling of ostracism. Of being different. Of being part of a people set apart and special and reviled and persecuted all at once. I had that, being queer and smart and fat and socially slow due to the autism. I know what that’s like. I get it. I always did.

In my twenties, I had a Jewish friend  – a friend of my ex-spouse’s – for a while, and a friend of my own who was in an intermarriage but was not herself Jewish. I went to the second friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, and wished I could understand the Hebrew he was chanting. I went to the first friend’s wedding and marveled at the ceremony and ritual that seemed so real and majestic. In my thirties, I discovered that many of my friends in far-flung areas were Jews: friends in Boston, friends in Texas, friends in San Francisco.

But I don’t think HaShem started tapping me on the shoulder until my father died just over five years ago. I wrote about this in my post on ritual: I wished I was a Jew then, so I could sit shiva. That was probably the first real tap on the shoulder. But I had closed my ears to G-d at that point.

As I’ve said before, I go on a hunt for G-d every year around my birthday. Not this past spring, but the spring prior to that, I found myself reading John Shelby Spong’s book Jesus for the Non-Religious, which is a deconstruction of the Jesus-as-G-d myth.

Remember, in every Christian church, there’s a huge emphasis on affirmation of belief – of saying you believe. The most constant demand for that, in my experience, was the Nicene Creed, which spells out what you are required to believe, including this:

– There is one G-d, the Father Almighty.

– Except there isn’t, because Jesus was also G-d. Oh, but he’s “one in being” with the Father.

– Also, did we mention the Holy Spirit, who somehow “proceeds” from the Father and the Son? The one who’s spoken through the prophets?

– But they’re all one G-d, you know?

Yeah. To me it sounds ridiculous now. But when you’re raised Catholic, you say it at every Mass you go to. It’s part of the service. It’s not optional.

In his book, Spong pointed out that the entire Jesus story, if you put the Gospels and other New Testament books in the order they were written, becomes gradually more and more insistent on his divinity and G-dness, and bends itself more and more into pretzels trying to tie his life to the Hebrew scriptures so that he can be the Meshiach. But – and this was the kicker for me, that absolutely knocked the struts out from under whatever was left of the Jesus story that I still held on to – those stories were and are written in an order that follows the Jewish liturgical year.

That means that it’s very likely that the Jewish followers of Yeshua ben Yosef, the rabbi and teacher, simply substituted their stories about him for the haftarah readings at synagogue services.

To me, that was a helicopter approximately the size of Texas, sweeping away the last vestiges not just of the Jesus myth but the imperative to believe in it with the force of its propeller’s wind. It finished any belief in Jesus that I might have had. He was a man – a rabbi – and I had no obligation to believe anything beyond that about him.

So, that brings us to this year.

I have never trusted my feelings, because when you have a narcissistic mother you learn not to. G-d mostly talks to us through feelings, so I was functionally spiritually deaf. But in learning about and processing the abuse, I began to realize that there were all kinds of signals that I had been missing, or ignoring, like the fact that I had come out and claimed my real self thirteen years ago, after staying functionally a child through my twenties due to pain and abuse and other problems. (A Jewish friend of mine said “Happy bar mitzvah!” when I pointed out that helicopter.) I read about an acquaintance’s Seder plans, and felt a strong pull to go to one. And then I did go to one. And then I felt like I was home, like this was me.

I started reading online blogs about Judaism. I found Mike’s blog at Chicago Carless and wept when I read his post about G-d being on the Brown Line and finding Him there. I identified so deeply with Mike’s journey that I was shocked at myself. And in reading about Judaism, I found everything I had looked for and never found anywhere else: an ethical structure that made sense. A G-d that made sense. The right to doubt. The right to disagree and still be part of the group. Ritual. Music. Tradition. It was all there, just waiting for me to wake up and say yes to it.

I started this blog a few weeks later. Up until that point I’d been cagey on my Facebook and other social media, trying to pretend that it was going to go away. But it didn’t go away. The pull kept getting stronger, and stronger. Finally I had to put it somewhere. I think I opened my first account on a Jews-by-choice forum somewhere around the 21st of April, the day after the Seder I went to for Pesach. Eventually I came here.

When I hesitantly started to ask friends about Judaism, and especially when that whole “fear G-d” thing was blown out of the water at the Seder, there was no going back. I started reading Telushkin the very next week.

Another spiritual helicopter: I’m two blocks away from an open, accepting, interfaith-tolerant, GLBT-welcoming temple. I can WALK there. It’s like G-d was saying “Hey, you have a place you can go even if your partner needs the car.” That, I can’t ignore, can I?

It really was like HaShem had been tapping me on the shoulder but, like Samuel, I couldn’t figure out who it was or if it was a real thing, so I ignored it. But thankfully, HaShem is patient. He can wait until you figure it out.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Hurdles on the Path to Conversion

7 Sivan 5774

Conversion is an exhilarating process, no doubt about it. I’ve been happier, calmer, and more focused ever since I realized that I have a yiddishe neshama.

But like all things that are exhilarating, it’s not totally a happy experience. It’s like a roller coaster – there are scary parts and parts that are hard to deal with, too. Along the way, there are challenges that you have to face in order to get to where you want to be. It’s kind of like that “fear G-d” thing that I wrote about after the Seder: the word in Hebrew actually means something more like “be overwhelmed” – but being in fear is part of being overwhelmed, even if it’s not the main thing.

Like many other bloggers who have written about their first realization that they had a Jewish soul, I knew that I was Jewish as soon as I started to look into it seriously. I knew this was who and what I was supposed to be. The ethics made sense, the beliefs made sense, the theology even made sense.

Putting it into practice, however, has been a little harder than just realizing that this was and is who I am. Some of these challenges are what this post is about. I’m sure there will be more as I go along, but I’ll just list the main ones, for now:

1. Practicing what I believe instead of just saying I believe it. As I wrote about yesterday, learning what forgiveness and apology mean in Judaism, and really putting them into practice, has been humbling. I’m a grudge-holder. I tend to hold on to grudges for years and years, even after I’ve received an apology. Now that I’m actively converting to Judaism, I cannot do that any more. I’m going to have a lot of people to reconcile with this coming Yom Kippur for a lot of different reasons, and I know that I’m going to writhe inside while I’m apologizing to many of them for what I’ve done and said over the years. But that’s what happens when you run up a big debt: it eventually and always comes due.

Just in the last day, I’ve had to throttle the bad feelings I was holding on to about the person I apologized to the day before yesterday. I’ve had to remind myself: we apologized to each other and now it’s over. I don’t get to remind myself of what was said or done before the apology and forgiveness. I have to actively keep forgiving until I can stop thinking about what led to the forgiveness, even if it takes the rest of my life.

Lashon hara is another thing I have to work on. I tend to be very ascerbic about people when I’m annoyed, but that’s lashon hara almost by definition, and I have to cut it out. I’ve started installing something of a censor on my mouth and my hands, and keeping more of my opinions about other people to myself. I’m trying to use the “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary? At least two of these must apply before you say it” metric for saying anything about another person before I open my mouth or start posting to Facebook. But this is a thing I will always have to work on, and I accept that.

This is one of those challenges that says “you must change the way you’ve always done or thought about this issue, because the way you are expected to do it or think it is different now.” This one, so far, has been the roughest one for me to accept. Learning that G-d is not what the Christian churches represented to me was surprising, but a relief. Learning that thoughts are not sins until and unless you speak them and/or act on them was surprising, but a relief. Learning that in Judaism, you really do have to put your money where your mouth is – you can’t just pay it lip service – was humbling and scary.

2. Who is a “real Jew?” I’m currently converting Reform, because converting Orthodox or Conservative would make it impossible for me to live the life I am supposed to live. I don’t think that agreeing to laws I can’t follow (for example, kashrut) is honest, but many if not most Conservative (and all Orthodox) temples would be very not-okay with me not following those laws, pikuach nefesh all aside. My current Conserva-form temple may be unusual in that they accept interfaith and LGBT folks, and I may end up converting Conservative if this rabbi believes he can guide me through the process with a clear conscience, but it will have to be with the understanding that there are some mitzvot I will never be able to perform.

To some Jews (I’m looking at you, ultra-Orthodox) this means that I’m not going to be a “real Jew,” and that hurts. I refuse to believe that Orthodoxy is somehow a “more real” practice than Reform or Conservative Judaism, but there will always be people who feel the need to reject my conversion or my practice as somehow substandard or incomplete.

Dealing with being othered and seen as less-than has been, so far, coming at me from inside the Jewish community rather than outside it. On no less than three different message boards, I’ve been told that the only “real” Jewish conversion is an Orthodox conversion. We all know how I feel about that, but it’s hard to run into this kind of bigotry and rejection inside my chosen community.

3. Am I worthy? The whole presumption thing is a big one for me. The “Am I really worthy of this? Do I really deserve this?” still comes up even now, and probably will until I’ve worked with a rabbi for a while. Every time I take another step closer, I have to actively fight that feeling of not-deserving, of unworthiness. And the othering from the Orthodox folks I mentioned above isn’t helping me shed it. On the other hand, I’m as stubborn as a mule when I want something and I think someone’s trying to keep me from it, so in some ways fighting that feeling is easier when there’s an outside person trying to impose it on me. Being brave enough to reach out to the rabbi and to go to services was one way of fighting that feeling.

4. Coming out as a believer. This one is especially hard for me. People who start out as believers and convert to a different belief system often face rejection, blame, and disappointment from their former belief community. It’s rare, however, that they get challenged on their belief in G-d (apart from the Christian who converts to Judaism and has to explain to their parents that no, they don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah or the son of G-d). I’m going to be coming out to a lot of atheist friends and rejecting their premise that there is no G-d. I am certain I will lose friends over this. This is the one that my mind and soul are still shying away from, because I know it’s going to hurt. I am trying not to pre-judge any of my atheist friends, but there are several who have made very cutting comments about believers on their blogs or on Facebook just in the last few weeks, and I’m trying to reconcile myself to the fact that these folks may not be my friends for much longer. As I said to a friend who is in the know the other day in chat, I’m not afraid of coming out as Jewish – just as theist.

This is especially hard because I still have doubt sometimes too. I still wonder sometimes if I’m making it all up in my head. The thing is, in Judaism it’s okay to have doubt – one of the big attractors for me! – but it’s going to make it harder to defend this change to my atheist friends. It’s also going to be hard because many of them have a bias towards interpreting Jewish scriptures literally and demanding that we provide literal, empirical evidence for events that many Jews understand are figurative stories to make a point about the human condition.

I have to learn – and this is forcing me to learn – that what I can’t change, I must accept. And if I can’t accept, I must endure and go on in spite of it. Yes, it will hurt me, but I doubt it will kill me. And I have to get good with that in ways I’ve never really considered before.

5. What being a Jew means to me. Defining the boundaries of my own Jewish practice has been interesting. Michael at Chicago Carless takes great comfort in davening, laying tefillin, and saying the brachot over meals. Another blogger I know finds that kashrut is especially meaningful to her and can’t understand how anyone who calls themselves Jewish can be Jewish if they don’t keep kashrut. I don’t feel right about laying tefillin, yet, and maybe not ever (sensory processing problems whee). I don’t keep kashrut because of medical issues.

But I pray quietly when I get up and when I go to bed; I try to remember to say the brachot over meals; I am wearing a kippah more and more often now. I am going to go to Shabbat services every Friday that I can, and on Saturdays when possible. I am going to learn how to make challah that is both gluten/grain-free and lighter weight than the current bricks I’ve been turning out. After today’s visit to Fairfax and Pico, (I hope) I am going to wear an obvious (not big-like-a-dinner-plate, but not hidden-under-my-shirt either) Mogen David. I am reading every book I can get my hands on to find out more about Judaism from all points of view. Oh, and of course, I’m putting the hard things into practice like forgiveness, apology, letting go of grudges, and avoiding lashon hara.

And I think one of the major parts of my practice is going to be study. Lots of study. Torah study, Talmudic study, learning to read and speak Hebrew – these are going to be the meaningful things that really make my Judaism mine. A friend said to my partner that she was so pleased he was supporting me in this, and he said “Well, he’s a scholar. This is what’s right for him.”

Now, does that look “Jewish” to others? I don’t know. And I do care, I admit it. I’m not so far along that I can just decide not to care what others think of my Judaism. But I have to remember that nobody else gets to define my Jewish practice or my Judaism. I am the one who gets to define it – the one who has to define it. And the way I’m defining it is mainly through Micah’s delimiters: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my G-d. Praying and saying the brachot, wearing a kippah and a Mogen David, attending services and being part of the community are the part where I “walk humbly.” Making a point of doing the hard things like avoiding lashon hara, learning to truly apologize and forgive, and putting my actions where my mouth is, are “doing justice.” And being kinder to myself as well as to others – that’s the “love mercy” part.

I’m sure that I’ll run into other hurdles on this path, but right now these are the ones I’m in training to overcome.

This will probably be the last post until after Shabbat is over, so I wish you all a very good erev Shabbat. See you Saturday night or Sunday!

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism

Let’s Talk About Atheism.

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable being a closeted Jew-ish (and newly religious) person. (I will use that word, “Jew-ish”, with the pronounced hyphen, to describe myself until such time as I get my mikveh dip.) Part of the discomfort is hearing all the arguments that I used to make against religion and theism generally, and Christianity in particular, being raised in current posts by atheist friends of mine on LJ and Facebook. And since many of them are poking at stories in the Tanakh (the “Old Testament,” for the non-Jewish readers in the blogging audience), they are also arguments against Judaism.

Although I used to be an atheist, I never stopped being a traditionalist. This might make me sound like I should be a political conservative, but it didn’t actually affect me that way. I am a liberal and I always will be, but tradition is important to me. Community is important to me. I’ve always looked at the American push for individualism and “go it alone” and “look out for Number One” with a bit of a fisheye. In many ways, the values of Judaism and the values of liberalism go right together. The concept of tikkun olam, “repair the world,” is inherently a liberal value, as are the ideals of community support and tradition.

While I don’t agree with his conclusions, I find Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s article “The Real Reason Why Jews are Liberals” makes some cogent points about this connection.

Judaism is an ideology devoted to the betterment of the human condition based upon values and goals that are fundamentally liberal.

Goldson also points out that liberalism and conservatism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are inextricably tied to one another. They inform one another. Conservatism that never allows change becomes stagnant and brittle, and cannot survive. Liberalism that has no basis in tradition or a shared value system goes off the rails and crashes. So, both are needed.

The problem is, both conservatives and liberals are fighting caricatures of their opposite poles. Conservatives think that liberalism has no values; liberalism finds many of the values of conservatism abhorrent or outdated. And yet when I look at liberal positions, the best and most enduring ones are rooted in already-established conservative traditions: community, treating each other compassionately, living up to our obligations to those who serve, including people in the traditions that create community (marriage, religious practice, creation of family, meaningful work).

So I think that the practice of Judaism at its best and most honest is an inherently liberal practice, based in a set of conservative values that changes slowly over time in response to changing cultural conditions.

I’ve never met a conservative atheist. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; I’ve just never met one. But I think that most modern atheists tend to go right off the rails because they see no value in tradition and they’d like to sweep it all up and throw it into the dustbin of history, where they feel it belongs. This isn’t to say that atheists don’t hold important and moral values – they do – but they miss the point of tradition and history and often say it’s just not important. I disagree with them on this point, obviously.

But I can also understand why atheists demonize religion and theism. I did it myself, not so long ago, and it’s easy to do. Atheists tend to be surface readers. They look only at the letter of the laws and the literal descriptions of the histories, without knowing the spirit of the laws or the backstory/context of the histories. They also tend to ignore practice for belief or history, thinking that the entire religion must be judged only on its beliefs or histories, and ignoring what the members of that religion do in their day-to-day lives.

For example, I recently saw a meme here on WordPress that ranted about how Judaism implied that it allowed child sacrifice (not to mention blind obedience to G-d), and referenced the Abraham and Isaac story as a supporting point.

I’ve edited to add the actual story from Torah, for context. It is from the Torah parshah called Vayeira, which spans Genesis 18:1 to 22:24. This particular story is Genesis 22:1-19, and is known by most Jews as “The Binding of Isaac,” or the Akedah.

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. 2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. 3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? 8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, 16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

When you read only the words of the Torah on this story, it’s easy to get the idea that G-d was demanding blind obedience while also commanding the horrific act of child sacrifice. I know that this looks very problematic.

But there’s backstory there that you can’t get just from those verses. There’s context that changes the entire meaning of the story. The ancient Hebrews lived in a time and place where child sacrifice to deities was routine, so for Abraham, the initial command from G-d to take his son up on the mountain and sacrifice him was, if certainly devastating, not entirely unexpected. But in this story, G-d is actually providing Abraham (who had been Abram, a pagan, up until G-d called him to found the Jewish people) with a kind of logical proof: Yes, everyone else does this, but from now on the Hebrews will not. Yes, you were willing to when I commanded you to, and for that you are blessed, but as you see, I’m not that much of a jerk. You and your descendants will never know the loss of your children as meaningless sacrifices; their lives and deaths will have some greater meaning.

Now, many atheists will insist that that doesn’t matter and G-d should not have demanded this of Abraham in the first place – he could have just said “So, you know how the other people around here sacrifice their children? Don’t do that.” And that can certainly be argued. But what do people remember more? An object lesson, or a decree?

As a teacher, I’d say that people tend to remember the object lesson far more than the decree. Despite the decree in my syllabus that plagiarism results in an automatic zero on the assignment, I have had students every term who have plagiarized on their papers “because everyone else does it.” Yep, and when you get caught doing it, you get a zero on your paper. Of course these students come begging for another chance and I routinely deny them that chance. Do they remember, the next time they write a paper, that they cannot simply copy from websites? I’d bet they do.

Abraham lived in a culture where it was normative to sacrifice your kids when things got bad. Absent the object lesson, he might have dragged Isaac to an altar at another time when things got bad, unless G-d had put him in the position of being ordered to do it and then reprieved from it. He had to experience it to understand it. He had to gain experiential, not just theoretical, knowledge of it to really get what G-d was driving at, in the same way that some of my students have to gain experiential knowledge that cheating will result in a zero.

But those who read only the surface of the text never get that far. Most of the time, atheists are simply cherry-picking theist scriptures to find “zinger verses,” without understanding the background of those verses. This is something I wouldn’t put up with in my students, and I’m ashamed and appalled that I ever allowed myself to do it, either. Doing this is simply making a caricature of theism. It’s literal-mindedness taken to an extreme.

Are there a lot of very violent stories in the Torah? Yes. Why? Because the people of that time lived in a harsh world and a harsh culture, and let’s face it – they still had a lot of growing up to do. (And let’s not kid ourselves; if the human race should last so long, our two-millenia-hence descendants will look back on our histories of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq with the same kind of horror that we look back on Jericho, Sodom, and so forth. We’re not as civilized as we like to pretend we are.) Judging the current religion and its practices based on its historical flaws is like judging someone who’s in their 40s for the dumb things they did when they were 15. Atheists who judge religion based only on the religion’s starting point are not being honest in their analysis.

But one of the best things about the Torah is that, given this harsh context, the people in it are not perfect paragons of virtue. They are dysfunctional. They are real people, dealing with real problems. Their stories express the truths of the human condition. Yes, Abraham could have just said to his people: “We don’t sacrifice our kids, even though the other tribes do.” Or he could have said, “I went up there to sacrifice my son Isaac, and G-d told me not to do it. Thus we know by G-d’s demonstration to me that we are not child-killers, and that he has better expectations for us than that when times get tough.” Most people tend to take the second version of the commandment more seriously than the first.

Or we could just lean on the atheistic caricature of what happened and say “G-d set him up for a harsh test of obedience because G-d was being a jerk.” Well, okay, if you want to believe that, you can – but that’s only the surface of what was going on here. It’s a caricature and it misses the deeper meaning. By making a caricature of theism, atheists are simply setting up a strawman. By only looking at the surface, they miss the deeper point. And certainly, that’s their right – but I do not have to listen to them or take it seriously.

It’s human to make caricatures of things we don’t like. I do it myself, and have done it recently. The person to whom I needed to apologize yesterday had become a caricature in my head, and that was unfair to them. I was judging them based on my own assumptions about them instead of discovering the truth (and I’ll be writing another post on why I feel that this was lashon hara on my part, later on). But part of the Torah is about us striving to be more than human – to look to our better nature and keep on enacting it, instead of giving in to our weaker side.

Knowing this makes it easier to contemplate coming out as a Jew-ish person on my Facebook page and my LiveJournal account. Knowing why some people reject theism based on the caricatures in their heads makes it easier to understand how and why some of my friends are going to reject me when I come out. But I also know that I’m going to lose friends when I do it, for the same reasons that I once rejected my religious friends. And I just hope that someday they will understand that it was a caricature that they were fighting, not the reality. It took me long enough; I am willing to give them time to come to the same conclusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s Erev Shavuot – Chag Sameach!

5 Sivan 5774

(Literally, “Good Festival” in Hebrew – and according to JewFaq.org, it’s one of the three times during the year when it’s most appropriate to say that – Pesach and Sukkot being the other two.)

I’m done with my grading for the spring classes (thanks to some help) and today I file grades, and I’ll be done with that mishegaas finally. From now on I just have to keep up with the online intersession class. This also means I can start writing again; something I’ve been putting off due to the whirlwind of classes and students.

I’ve heard back from the rabbi and we’ve finalized a date for a first meeting – next Tuesday, June 10th (12 Sivan). I’m excited and nervous, and making lists of the books I’ve read and trying to come up with good questions to ask. Anyone have suggestions?

My partner linked something on my Facebook wall about Shavuot this morning, and wished me a happy Shavuot when he got to work and sent me his usual “I made it, I’m safe, love you, have a good day” text. My best friend was over yesterday and she brought me a Mogen David to wear until we make it to the Fairfax district on Friday morning, as well as giving me a gorgeous set of tallit clips that, she says, “ought to be used.” (Yes, I am verklempt.)

Tonight I’m going to be at temple, studying Torah until I get tired, and then I’ll come home and sleep the sleep of the exhausted. But in between now and then, I’m going to make at least one loaf of my grain-free challah so I can take it with me to the study session at temple (because I should provide the noshes I can eat instead of expecting anyone else to, that’s why), and plan out cooking for tomorrow and Thursday. My partner, unfortunately, works the swing shift both days so he won’t be home to have dinner, but there will be leftovers.

Apart from food, I want to talk a little bit about what this day means to me as a Jew-by-choice. Shavuot is one of those smaller holidays, from what I’ve read, and many secular Jews who still celebrate Pesach and Yom Kippur don’t observe it. I think that’s a little sad, considering it’s the day we observe the Jewish people’s receipt of the Torah. But it’s also a harvest festival – the bringing of the first fruits – and a celebration of what Jews do best: study and learn.

There are reasons that children are often introduced to Torah study on Shavuot, and why (from what I understand) graduation from Hebrew school and confirmation ceremonies happen on or near Shavuot. So it’s not just a celebration of the harvest or the day that Jews became the Chosen People. It’s also a celebration of the ongoing need to study and learn. Although there are no specific mitzvot associated with Shavuot, I think an argument could be made that the mitzvot associated with Torah study are central to it.

As an academic, I think that Shavuot may hold a special place in my heart as I develop as a Jew. In a month or so I’ll celebrate the second anniversary of my dissertation defense, and that’s a big deal to me. I teach and learn for a living as a college professor (adjunct or not, I’m still a professor). Shavuot, for me, may become the day that I reaffirm my commitment not just to the Torah and to the Jewish people (although that’s a big part of it) but to studying, teaching, and learning as my life-work.

So have a blintz and pick up your Torah, and chag sameach to you all.

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What are you doing this Sivan?

Rabbi Adar wished us all a Rosh Chodesh Sivan the other day, and asked us what our Sivan was going to look like this year.

Well, I have grades to file this week and an online intersession class to teach through the end of June, so I’m still going to have regular work to do. In terms of leisure, I’m also going to be at West Hollywood Pride next weekend and at a couple of events for my medieval recreation group, including a heralds’ conference in Las Vegas, mid-month. Professionally, I also have research to work on – interviews with college athletes for a paper that a friend of mine and I are presenting in August. This means that most of my Sivan will be dedicated to learning and studying – which is what I love, anyway. I plan to get better about my morning prayer practices (I’m still hit-and-miss) and once that’s an established habit, I’ll move into weekly Torah study. Eventually I’d like to start studying Talmud, too, but I’m not there yet. One step at a time, right?

I am excited this week as my Jewish best friend is taking me to the Fairfax district in Los Angeles on Friday, and I am going to get my first kippah and my first Mogen David. There’s one I’d really like to get later (it’s the Mogen David inside a ring that is engraved with the Sh’ma), but for now I’ll look for something relatively understated.

I’m beginning to feel the rhythm of Jewish practice and the Jewish year. Already it’s important to me to observe Shabbat prayers on Friday nights, and to take it easy on myself on Saturday, with some attention paid to prayer and study. I plan to get my grading done today and tomorrow so that I can keep up on the intersession course each day from now on, instead of having myself piled-on at the end of the semester or week. I have to find a way to remember to say the brachot before I start eating, though. Usually I remember about halfway through the meal. Oops.

I don’t know what, if anything, I can do for Shavuot besides attend services on Wednesday and Thursday morning, but I will do at least that much. The traditional dairy-only meals may be damaging to my blood sugar, so I don’t think I can do that (but eggs and cheese might be a possible workaround – we’ll see), but since it’s a minhag rather than a mitzvah, I will try not to feel guilty about it if I can’t do it. Edited to add: It looks like challah is also a traditional Shavuot food, so I suppose I’ll be baking on Tuesday if the small mold and the new whisks get here soon enough.

I’m also out of town twice this month on Shabbat, so I will simply have a quiet prayer time for myself and not let myself worry about doing everything exactly right.

 

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Trolling for Topics

So I find myself at a bit of a loss for what to write about lately. Part of this is work – I’m trying to finish up the semester – and part of this is just the general ennui I usually find myself sitting in around this time of year. But the main thing is that right now, I’m sort of scrounging for new topics.

So I put this out to my readers: give me a topic to write a blog post about – something related to the process of conversion – and I’ll do my best to give you a blog post on that topic, how’s that?

I am not completely at a loss for topics. For one, I heard back from the rabbi that I e-mailed, and I’m going to e-mail him back today to schedule an appointment for early next week. I’ll write about that meeting after it happens, obviously. I’ve also got books I’m reading that I want to write about, eventually. I’m going to be putting together a Shabbat dinner on Friday (tomorrow) for the first time, so that might be something I want to write about. But otherwise, I’m at a bit of a loss.

So tell me. What would you like to see me write about here? Lay it on me.

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Special Edition Drash: The Gratitude You Don’t Want To Offer

One of the things that friends of mine will probably find disturbing about my conversion – even though I’m converting Reform – is that many of the Hebrew scriptures can be seen as outdated, sexist, racist, etc. But in light of the shootings this weekend, an Orthodox friend of mine linked to this article on two verses of the male morning prayers and what they should mean today, and I think it’s worth a read. 

The Gratitude You Don’t Want To Offer

And here’s the kicker quote:

These blessings are problematic on their face because they imply that there are classes of people somehow “less than” the assumed default, namely, the free male generally reciting them. In fact, though, these blessings do accurately represent life. If they disturb us, it is not because they are a vestige of an older, less moral world; it is because they are still true. They are a daily reminder of the privileged life that so many people enjoy, not because of what they have accomplished, but by the accident of birth. As we recite them, our job is to appreciate these very real societal fault lines, offer gratitude for winning the genetic lottery, and then feel the imperative for meaningful action to address the injustices they reflect.

I approve wholeheartedly of this man’s introspection on what these verses could mean.

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Wrestling Match #8: Sin

26 Iyyar 5774

This is one of the things I have had the most trouble with: sin.

In Christianity, sin is mainly something you do against G-d. You disobey, or you break commandments, or whatever. But you also have original sin – sin that you get because you were descended from Adam, and he sinned, so that means until you’re baptized, YOU carry ADAM’s sin.

Apparently Judaism isn’t cool with that. And there’s exactly one time per year when sins against G-d are even talked about: Yom Kippur.

Most sins are the sins you commit against other people. These may also be broken commandments/mitzvot, but the main issue is: you hurt someone else either by what you did or by what you didn’t do. Another human being. Not cool. Cut it out, apologize to the person you harmed, make amends, and don’t do it again.

However, this seems to leave out things you do that don’t actually harm anyone, but that are supposedly “morally” wrong. For example: where does consent come into play? Does consent mitigate sin? If (for example) a married couple likes to play spanking games, does the spankee’s consent mitigate or eliminate the spanker’s sin? I can’t find clear answers for this kind of thing, even in Reform Judaism writings, although there are opinions available on the web.

There does seem to be a rabbinic argument in favor of polyamory (look up Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NYC), and the main points are listed at AhavaRaba, or “Big Love” in Hebrew (roughly), which is an email list for poly Jews. I will be adding myself to that list at some point, I’m sure.

And we’ve already discussed the homosexuality question in the drash I posted a few weeks ago (see “The Verses That Won’t Let People Live“), so I don’t need to go into that, I don’t think.

Part of what I’m wrestling with here is just the idea that some of the things I do or like might be things that HaShem really doesn’t care about. As someone raised in several faith traditions where even my thoughts (never mind my actions) could be sinful, this is hard to wrap my head around. In Catholicism, you confess everything, even if it was only a thought. In Judaism, it seems, your confessions are mostly to the people who were harmed by your action or inaction, and a once-a-year apology to G-d for the mistakes you’ve made and the offenses you’ve made against him alone.

Any thoughts? This is one place I can’t seem to find a lot of guidance.

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