Tag Archives: theology

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?



Filed under Judaism

Do Not Stand Idly By: Being A Jew Who Picks and Chooses

18 Sivan 5774

I recently found a wonderful article by Rabbi Maurice Harris on MyJewishLearning.com. I’ve been struggling with the idea that you have to keep and observe every single one of the mitzvot or you are not a good Jew. But Rabbi Harris gives a really, REALLY good reason for rejecting some of the Leviticus laws that require us to be sexist, racist, or homophobic. He says:

“I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).

“Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.”

Now, Judaism has certainly carved out some exceptions to reduce harm that might be caused by religious beliefs. Pikuach nefesh deals with some of the mitzvot that are harmful for Jews in certain health situations, as well as prioritizing life over almost any of the mitzvot. I believe there is also a ruling somewhere that says that financial hardship is a reason not to perform certain mitzvot. And there’s definitely a rabbinic doctrine of human dignity before rules whenever possible.

But that is still a powerful, powerful – and true! – statement for Rabbi Harris to make. “I was just following orders” is not an excuse for following rules that harm real people, even if the orders supposedly came from G-d.

I don’t believe that it is a mitzvah to condemn someone for their gender, their gender identity, their sexual orientation or their race. I don’t believe that HaShem actually wants that. I believe that while many of our traditions are good and should be preserved, some of them are harmful and should be set aside. Keshet, the organization that is working for full equality for LGBT Jews, has a signature drive called Do Not Stand Idly By, a pledge to speak out against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and harassment in the Jewish community. (By the way, I urge you to sign it.)

I’m now going to switch to a discussion of Rabbi Kushner’s book How Good Do We Have To Be? that I referenced in another post, because Kushner also has some important things to say about this whole rule-bound thing.

I quote:

“To say that we are destined to lose G-d’s love or to go to Hell because of our sins is not a statement about us but about G-d, about the tentative nature of G-d’s love and the conditional nature of G-d’s forgiveness. It is a claim that G-d expects perfection from us and will settle for nothing less […] I strenuously reject [this idea]. If I am capable of forgiveness, of recognizing intermittent weakness in good people or good intentions gone astray in myself and others, how can G-d not be capable of at least as much?”

Too many times, people who cling to every rule teach us that everything about us is sinful, that we are sinners, that we are fundamentally wrong because we are not obeying each and every rule and performing every mitzvah perfectly. Kushner and Harris are both arguing against this “marriage to the rules” instead of “paying attention to the people” mindset; Harris by saying that there’s no “I was just following orders” defense for harming people through obeying rules, and Kushner pointing out that G-d does not demand that we be perfect in order to be loved.

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, in his Orthodox-flavored tome Judaism for Everyone, points out that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than doing the wrong thing for the right reasons:

“[J]udaism insists that one must do a good deed even if it stems from improper or insincere motivation. Refraining from doing a good deed because we question our intention is the piety of fools.”

Kushner also points out this important fact: Religion, at its best, does not exist to carp at us and make us feel inadequate, or guilty, or wrong. It exists (or should) to tell us that even in our imperfection we are welcome. Even in our flawed humanness, we are acceptable.

We have a choice between being self-righteous and taking comfort in being the ones who do everything perfectly and perform all the mitzvot and never transgress a commandment (as impossible as that probably is), or in being the ones who trip, make mistakes, do dumb things, fall down, and get up again and make amends. Certainly the idea is not to say “Well, I can’t even try to perform X mitzvah” – but it is important to recognize, I think, whether some mitzvot are also gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness), or if they are simply relics of a time when the rules were more important than the people.

And then the question becomes: given the choice between following mitzvot that harm others (which, for me, is the same as standing idly by while our brothers’ blood is shed) or treating people with kindness, tolerance, and acceptance – well, which do you think is more important to HaShem in the long run? Which choice truly seeks to serve justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with our G-d?

I know my answer. Do you?

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Filed under Judaism

Commentary and Change

15 Sivan 5774

So, when I comment on some blogs, I use my Gravatar account, which is linked to my WordPress blog. But that’s fairly new. Some of the places I’m commenting these days don’t use Gravatar or WordPress. They allow Disqus, however.

Your internet history follows you around forever. Yes, you can friends-lock your Facebook, or your blog, but when you make a comment on someone else’s? It’s right there out in the open for everyone to see, nine times out of ten. Such is the case with Disqus.

I’ve used Disqus for a long time as a commenting program on many and varied sites. But as I told the rabbi on Tuesday when I met with him, part of my five years of hard atheism between the death of my father and, well, a few months ago, was picking fights with the religious. I did this on many websites and in many places. I lost a lot of friends, and I said a lot of things I am ashamed of and regret now. I have a lot to answer for when Yom Kippur rolls around.

Some who read my comments that I’ve made on these blogs now may follow my Disqus link back and read all my old comments from then. And they will find anti-religious, atheist, and anti-theist comments among them. And some of them may judge me for those comments, which were largely written in anger and in defensiveness. And some of those may think I haven’t really changed.

But change is the only constant in our lives, and I have changed. The last twelve months, and especially the last three months, have been a period of intense change and growth for me. There was a time when I felt anyone who was religious must not be very smart, and anyone who was theist was fooling themselves. But now I see it from another perspective. I no longer think that empirical evidence is the only “real” evidence – I accept experiential evidence, too. There was a time, not so long ago, that I would have agreed with a very religion-negative commenter on Pop Chassid’s blog, rather than with Pop Chassid. So yes, this is a fundamental change in me.

Only time will let me demonstrate that the change is real. I don’t expect anyone to accept that it is right off the bat. But I hope, over time, most will.

And while I’m at it: To those whom I have offended or hurt by my attitude and statements, I apologize. I ask for forgiveness, and the opportunity to make things right. I was in the wrong, and I know it now.

And that said, I’ll wish you all Shabbat Shalom. I’ll be back on Saturday night.

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Filed under Judaism, Teshuva, Wrestling Matches

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.


Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism

“Art thou jealous for my sake?” and Offense Kleptomania

When I put up my “Trolling for Topics” post a day or so ago, Rabbi Adar asked me to write about what part of the Torah is speaking to me right now. After some thought (and some searching through the Torah), I find in Numbers 11:27 – 11:29 this passage:

11:27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

11:28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: “My lord Moses, shut them in.”

11:29 And Moses said unto him: “Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”

I find this three-verse section of Parshah Beha’alotkha to be meaningful on several different levels.

First: we have an unnamed tattletale, running to tell Moses: “Hey, these guys Eldad and Medad are usurping your authority as the prophet of our people!” Second, we have Joshua the son of Nun taking this kid at his word and saying to Moses: “Yeah, you should shut them up and make them stop. Who do they think they are?”

And then we have Moses looking at Joshua like he’s grown a second head (work with me here, I’m envisioning this scene) and saying: “What, I should stop them from doing something that indicates they have G-d’s favor?”

I would think for most people, that’s the point of this passage: Moses saying “Hey, I wish all the people were prophets.” He’s pointing out that in this very rule-bound culture, this rule that the tattletale and Joshua think is being broken isn’t a rule that actually exists (much to the tattletale’s and Joshua’s chagrin, I’m sure). I can also envision him wishing that all the people being prophets were the case, if only to take some of the workload and distribute it around a bit.

But there’s one little line that I’m not sure many people notice, and that’s this one:

“Art thou jealous for my sake?”

Let’s look just at this part of this passage. Joshua’s concern seems to be “They’re usurping your place, Moses.” But by saying that, HE is usurping Moses’ place in an entirely different way, by being personally offended that anyone would dare do something that he would find offensive if he were Moses (or so Joshua apparently believes). He’s basically being offended for Moses, and by extension telling Moses “this is something you should be offended about,” instead of allowing Moses to decide whether or not he wants to be or needs to be offended about this. And Moses, bless him, calls him on it. “What, you think I can’t handle this? You think I need you to be angry on my behalf? You think I’m not capable of figuring out whether or not I need to be offended about this? You think I need you to speak for me?”

This very small part of this Torah passage speaks to me because I am, among many things, a social activist. In the not so far-off past, I have been known to do something which I have since labeled “offense kleptomania:” I find out that [insert minority that I’m not part of] has [trouble that I think I have the answer to], and I get outraged.

The problem is, many times, offense kleptomaniacs then get up on their soapboxes and start telling the people who are actually experiencing the trouble what they should do about it. Or, they claim to speak for the people who are experiencing the trouble, instead of allowing those folks to speak for themselves. In essence, offense kleptomaniacs try to take away both the autonomy and the voice of the people who are actually experiencing the problem – and many times do not even realize that that’s what they’re doing.

Now, being outraged by a trouble that someone who isn’t part of my group is suffering? That’s fine. That’s empathy. I would hope that non-Jews find the Holocaust just as horrifying as Jews do. I would hope that whites look at the situation that blacks often live in, in the ghettos, and are outraged by it. But the moment I move from being outraged about it to telling that person what to do about it, or speaking on their behalf without letting them speak for themselves? That’s over the line. That’s making an ass of myself. That’s offense kleptomania.

Now, offense kleptomaniacs often claim that they’re being allies with the oppressed or troubled person or group. It sounds great on the surface, but it doesn’t work so well when you look at it from the oppressed person’s point of view. There’s a difference between being an ally and being an overbearing git. One great example of this is what’s called “mansplaining,” when a man tells a woman (or a group of women) what they’re doing wrong and how they should change it in order to make the problem of sexism or misogyny go away, instead of hearing what the women are saying about the problem (and his role in it). I am thinking of the current #YesAllWomen firestorm that’s going on right now. As an ally, I can and should talk to other men, and tell them to quit derailing the conversation or redirecting it back to their own hurt feelings – to quit mansplaining. That’s me, as a member of the oppressing group, actively pushing away the ability to oppress and calling out anyone else who’s doing it. But as an ally, I do not get to tell women what they have to do, or how they have to do it, or why they have to do it. That’s not my place. It is not okay for me to be an offense kleptomaniac and say “Hey, when men treat women badly, that really offends me just like if I was a woman, so women, do this and this and that to fix it! Also, I’ll be a spokesman for women so that they don’t have to trouble their pretty little heads about it!” (I call this White Knight syndrome.)

Um, no. As a man, I do not have the right to be offended in this way. Women do. I can and should be offended that men make women anxious, nervous, scared, and uncomfortable, and I can and should call men out on it whenever they try to derail the conversation or mansplain. But the moment I say that women shouldn’t be afraid of ME because I’m not like that, or that it’s bigoted for them to assume a man does not have their best interests at heart? The moment I say that I’ll rescue women from this and solve all their problems for them? I’ve crossed the line. If I tell women to dress or act any differently, I’ve crossed the line. I’m being an offense kleptomaniac and usurping their right to be empowered decision-makers that have control over their own lives.

Another example of offense kleptomania are all these people who are not autistic (and often have no autistic people in their lives) who want to “raise autism awareness” and “find a cure.” If you talk to most adult autistics, we don’t want a cure. We just want to be supported so that we can live as normal a life as possible. But do you see any adult autistics on the board of any of these “Autism Crisis” groups? Not bloody likely. That’s why one of my mottoes is that Autism Speaks does not speak for me – even though they keep trying to speak over me, and keep trying to silence me and other neurodiversity advocates. They’re offense kleptomaniacs, plain and simple. They didn’t just cross the line; they left it way, way behind them and they probably don’t even know it’s there.

Joshua, too, crossed the line. Joshua was an offense kleptomaniac in this passage. You see, Joshua had no right to be jealous (offended) that Moses’ authority was supposedly being usurped by these two guys prophesying. Notice, too, that Joshua answered our unnamed tattletale for Moses, instead of letting Moses speak for himself, by demanding that Moses “do something” about the perceived problem. That was Moses’ decision, not Joshua’s, and Moses called him on it.

Now, we don’t get to know what Joshua’s reaction was to being called on it, but I do wonder. Did he try to mansplain to Moses why Joshua had every right to demand that Moses do something about this perceived problem? Did he listen and say “Okay, I’m sorry, I was over the line?” We don’t know. From his reaction, though, it sure looks like Joshua was offended because the authority figure he respected was being challenged, and he wasn’t good with that.

Notice, too, that Joshua made a mountain out of a molehill here. Instead of taking Moses’ big-picture view – wouldn’t it be great if G-d spoke directly to ALL the people? – he took a narrow view: A rule is being broken and that’s not okay (even though, as it turns out, there was no rule being broken). G-d calls us to look beyond our narrow view every time he commands us to welcome the stranger, doesn’t he? The narrow view is not Jewish. It’s human, certainly, but we’re expected to rise above that.

So in this short passage, G-d is calling on us to do several things:

1. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but you cannot insert yourself into a situation where you have no place. Joshua did that (as did our unnamed tattletale) and Moses, fortunately, called them out on it and said “Not cool, guys.”

2. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but unless you’re actually the target of the offensive thing, you may not speak for those who actually are offended. You may not take away their voice or their autonomy.

3. Take the broader view. Is this actually offensive, or are you making it bigger than it needs to be? What’s more important – rules, or human beings? Social standards, or people? Take a breath, chill out, and consider before you fly off the handle and make things worse.

Yeah. That’s what I have to say about that.


Filed under Drashot, Judaism

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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Filed under Drashot, Judaism

Hagah #3: The Law – Spirit and Letter

18 Iyyar 5774

I grew up in a rule-bound religion, with the emphasis on following the rules, rather than understanding their intent or their spirit. In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t leave much wiggle room for people who don’t fit inside what is actually a very narrow rule set.

Every religious movement has its rules lawyers: the people who, when faced with a hard question, will check the rule book. Indeed, this phenomenon goes beyond religious groups to cultures, societies, and nations. It becomes more prominent when the rules are written down, but even when most of the law is unwritten, there will be people who push for strict adherence to it.

I will use the gay community and its norms as an example of this rules-lawyering. The modern gay male community, at least the one that is most prominent and visible, has a very distinct “look”: Young (under 30 years old), white, athletic, well-off. In recent years, “straight-acting” has been added to this list “what gay males are like.” Queeniness and effeminacy are no longer considered appropriate. In this most visible of all the gay communities, you are expected to work hard and play hard, be sexually active and attractive, find social activity to be extremely important… Well, you get the picture.

None of these norms are written down anywhere, except in books of comedy about the gay community.  But they are enforced in dozens of subtle and unsubtle ways, including being part of the in crowd this week and on the outs next week.

However, adherence to these norms is only the surface of what it means to be a gay male. Being gay is not about following these norms; it is about being attracted to people of the same gender. As a mid 40s, heavyset, un-athletic, slightly queeny gay male, I don’t fit the “letter” of gay community norms, but I absolutely fit the spirit of them. Men are hot.

But even if you fit the spirit of the norms, if you’re attracted in any way to people who are the opposite gender, you are told that you’re not really queer, or to get off the fence. I still respond “gay” about half the time when asked what my sexual orientation is, because in the main I’m attracted to other men. My female partner is a rarity for me.

Some gay men can’t handle the idea that I have a girlfriend. In their heads that fundamentally makes me not gay. In their heads, anyone who is ever attracted to someone of the opposite gender cannot be gay. (I suppose they’ve never heard of the Kinsey scale.) But I’m still gay, for all that. I had to figure out which sub-community of the gay community I actually belonged to when I first came out. I found it–the bear community–but it took a while, and in the meantime I wondered how I would ever meet the standards set by those unwritten rules.

Finding out that I didn’t have to meet them once I found the bear community was a relief. But there will always be gay men who judge anyone who doesn’t fit those standard norms as “not really gay.” And I just have to live with that, while continuing on as the gay man that I am.

In the same way, there will always be Orthodox Jews who have decided that halachic orthodoxy is the only right way to be a Jew, and who will reject me because I do not fit the letter of their laws – they feel that I am not halachically acceptable. That still doesn’t make me any less of a Jew, however. They may never accept me, but I don’t need them to accept me. I just need my sub-community of Judaism to accept me.

I affirm that G-d is One. I affirm that we received the Torah at Sinai. But I also affirm that halacha is as much about the spirit of the law as it is about the letter of the law: to do what is right, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with our G-d, in the words of Micah. What “right” is cannot be solely tied to a narrow, letter-only interpretation of the Torah. There will be times when we must work on Shabbat. There will be times when we cannot keep kashrut. And many of the texts which do not let people live must be understood for what they are: a product of their time, written down by men who tried to understand G-d as best they could, and who ended up putting G-d in a box.

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Filed under Conversion Process, GLBT, Hagah, Identities, Judaism

Siyachot (Conversations) #1: Putting G-d in a box

17 Iyyar 5774

I have been preached at quite a bit in my time. Just in the last two days I’ve had a response from an Orthodox convert on a board for Jews by choice, insisting that only the Orthodox conversion process is “real” and that there are no “movements” of the Torah – and by extension saying that any conversion that isn’t Orthodox is invalid and not Jewish; and another response from my Christian correspondent (on the board I am part of for people with personality disordered parents, friends, coworkers, and other associates), asking me questions that, while not as preachy as those of the Orthodox person, still make me almost as annoyed.

It should be obvious why I’m annoyed with the Orthodox person. People who say, “my way is the only right way” are people that I do my best to find a legitimate way to flunk if they’re my students. I don’t put up with absolutism. About the other, I’m annoyed because I’m not sure what the Christian correspondent wants, but all my past experiences say “she’s trying to make you turn away from this path that you have chosen.” Several codewords in what she writes jump out at me as “evangelical” and thus more than a little bit pushy. As an example, the word “Biblical” seems to be one of her favorite words. I don’t know of any other group that over-uses the word the way that evangelicals do. So that, already, has me a bit on edge.

As a result, I’m hesitant to go into too much detail with her about this process. Instead, I’ll put most of that here. I’ve also told the Orthodox person on the convert board that I will not be responding to them further, but I do want to address some of the things they said here as well.

See, here’s the thing. This is my process, and mine alone. I have to justify it to my Rabbi, and to my beit din. I don’t have to justify it to some random Orthodox person who has apparently decided, like so many fundamentalists, to try to put G-d in a box. Nor do I have to justify it to someone who is trying to put G-d into the evangelical Christian box. I will give an example of each, so that you’re all on the same page with me.

Here’s a quote from the Orthodox person:

your conversion studies are conveniently leaving out that G-d is eternal and does not change and the Torah likewise is eternal.

Notice the box? Right there: “G-d is eternal and does not change.” Really now? Where exactly is that written? Certainly we say in the Shema, “G-d is One,” but that does not necessarily mean unchanging. The eternal part, I will buy. The unchanging part? Not so much. Last I checked, anything that doesn’t change, dies. And that bit about the Torah not changing – no, but it’s open to interpretation, or we would not have the Talmud.

In reading more of the Orthodox person’s response to me, I find a lot of concern for the rules, and hardly any concern for human beings. That rigidity is a huge turnoff for me. And like many Orthodox, this person equates Orthodox with observant, which means there’s no talking to them. I doubt that the rabbi that I choose to help me through my conversion process will have a problem with me saying “I’m not interested in dealing with that question.”

And regardless of what Mr. or Ms. Orthodox thinks, I will still be a Jew at the end of my process, whether they like it or not. Their argument comes across like an Amish person telling a Mennonite that they’re a heretic. While the Amish may believe that, the Mennonite does not have to take it seriously.

On the other hand, here’s a quote from the Christian person, after I sent her Rabbi Bardin’s explanation of why Eve ate the apple, which goes like this:

“Imagine,” Bardin taught, “that a young woman marries a young man whose father is president of a large company. After the marriage, the father makes the son a vice-president and gives him a large salary, but because he has no work experience, the father gives him no responsibilities. Every week, the young man draws a large check, but he has nothing to do. His wife soon realizes that she is not married to a man but to a boy, and that as long as her husband stays in his father’s firm, he will always be a boy. So she forces him to quit his job, give up his security, go to another city, and start out on his own. That,” Bardin concluded, “is the reason Eve ate from the tree.”

My Christian correspondent objected: “in this analogy, Eve ends up being wiser than G-d.” (When I shared this with my Jewish best friend, she said wryly, “No, just wiser than Adam.”)

My correspondent then goes on to say that by using this analogy, I am putting G-d in a box – the box of “why bother following him or worshiping him if Eve is smarter than G-d?” Never mind that the point I was trying to make is that most Jews don’t really see the story of Adam and Eve in the garden as all that serious, while for Christians it’s the origin of the Fall and original sin and all the attendant bad effects.

But here my Christian correspondent is also putting G-d in a box: this box is one where G-d is perfect and infinite, one that we finite, fallible humans might not understand or accept.

This correspondent has been really concerned, throughout our entire conversation, that I get the “facts” about G-d. A lot of times this ends with a reference to “Biblical” reasoning. Whenever I tell her that I’m not interested in Christianity because of [insert reason here], for response is invariably, “Well, that reason is not really Biblical.”

The problem is, I don’t care if it’s Biblical. It is still a valid reason for me to say I’m not a Christian and never will be.

As another example, my Christian correspondent asks:

How do you determine what to incorporate into your idea of G-d? … what measuring stick do you use to determine which of your feelings about G-d are valid?  Where do the Hebrew Scriptures fit in, since you don’t see them as all literally true?

Neither of my correspondents seem to understand my position on G-d; the Orthodox because they’ve decided that their position is the only correct position, and the Christian because she seems to think I’m still trying to understand G-d. Neither of them is correct.

What I have discovered is that I don’t need to understand G-d. I just need to know that G-d is there. My concept of G-d is that he’s there. Period. Full stop. If I had to do anything boxlike, I would say that the way G-d is represented in the Hebrew scriptures fits with my intuitive understanding of what he is, which is why I feel called to Judaism. I shy away from a point-by-point list because I don’t want to put G-d in a box.

Personally, I believe that both my correspondents are incorrect in their views, but mainly because both of them like to have G-d in a box. I’ve given up my need to put him in a box. I don’t need to know the specifics.

Both of them seem to think that that’s the important thing: getting the specifics. But all the mystery of G-d is destroyed if we try to get at them.

I tried that for years, but I’m over it now.



Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism, Siyachot

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

15 Iyyar 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Conversion Process, Drashot, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Wrestling Match #4: Comprehending G-d

10 Iyyar 5774

Until I discovered Judaism, I was an atheist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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