Because God

It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…

Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?

‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ (#25), Jan. 12, 2019

Not long after completing my year of mourning, I joined a Talmud class taught by a friend of mine, a young rabbi.

At first, I felt reignited. Years had passed since I’d last studied Talmud, and my year-long kaddish writing project, which had been firmly grounded in Jewish learning, had whetted my yen.

Soon after, I was struggling.

After my year of self-directed reading and reflection, the group learning felt inhibiting.

I tend to pick apart the letters and roots of words, to compare them to other languages and time periods; I also delight in grammar and sentence structure. The words and their personal relationships are beautiful to me. Which of them are intimate lovers? Which are parent and child?

Beyond this, I’m not one to inherently accept the ancient sages’ interpretations of the text, and they are often wont to make their cases precisely by playing with words and language. (I still recall my disagreement with the great Rashi over his language-based interpretation of Psalm 119:113.)

It soon became apparent that our group’s goals conflicted with my learning style. The rabbi was aiming to cover particular Talmudic passages (known as sugyot) during class time, and my nitpicking was impeding us.

Now, there are those for whom the holiness they experience in the study of traditional texts is motivating. Given my close relationship with Rabbi Daniel Landes, for example, himself a teacher of Talmud for nearly half a century, I know that he experiences the (self-)revelation of and by God bursting forth from the Torah. This, he explains, is how he teaches his students.

If revelation is not bursting forth from the Torah, he asks, why bother?

Why indeed? I ask myself because the truth is that I do not experience God in Talmud study. Perhaps I do not experience God at all, and certainly not bursting forth from anywhere.

There were times in years past when I managed to convince myself that I was “experiencing” God, but those moments were very few and were primarily born of my desire to motivate myself to adhere to the strictures of a religious Jewish lifestyle. That’s really what it came down to.

Some people, at birth, are dealt external factors like religious upbringings and parental expectations, drawing them to religious observance. For others, like me, every step towards greater observance of halakha is inevitably another step away from even the most understanding of non-traditional families.

Nevertheless, I am motivated, to an extent, to observe Shabbat traditionally, to live in Israel, to engage with Jewish texts, etc. I regard world Jewry as my far-extended family; and preserving our heritage and sense of peoplehood is, therefore, of utmost importance. Given, there are many different strategies for instilling children with strong Jewish identities; but I am convinced that a family’s commitments to Shabbat observance and residing in Israel are the most effective.

The problem, of course, is that most strategies arising from such a motivation as mine are prone to falling apart because they don’t necessarily infuse religious practices with meaning. In other words, going through the motions only because they happen to belong to one’s own people rings hollow. Why, as Rabbi Landes would ask, bother?

Let’s consider Shabbat, for example. If I am only keeping the Sabbath to inculcate my daughter with the values of Jewish tradition, family time, and [invaluable] weekly respite from our daily commutes along the information superhighway, what’s to stop me from breaking the Sabbath when she isn’t looking? After all, my personal desecration of Shabbat could be subtle; it could go unnoticed, leaving my daughter’s experience of the ‘Day of Rest’ intact.

Text study is much worse.

Whereas most religious observances are performed in family or community, and a simple Jew may find or assign plausible personal meanings to such lifestyle choices in these contexts, traditional text study is only inherently appealing to the devout and the bookish.

Actually, this is untrue. Most students of Talmud sit in seas of other talmidim, awash in a self-reinforcing Torah culture, buttressed by the talmidim’s families and communities. They need not actually reflect upon what they believe in or be inclined towards study; it’s enough for most to “know” that they are playing out their heavenly assigned roles in perpetuating the culture of their ancestors.

So my quandary bears framing:

Given that neither my family, nor my community, encourage me to learn Torah, and given that I do not experience God bursting forth from the texts of my beloved heritage…

In fact, given that I don’t think God actually cares whether or not I am studying Torah, and given that I don’t think God is in any way invested in the banal details of the Jewish religious laws that I am studying under my friend’s kind and knowing guidance…

What
is
left
for
me?

I don’t wish that I believed in God’s investment in our lives for Truth’s sake (because this isn’t true), but it would certainly make my commitment to living a religious lifestyle so much easier for me. Alas.

“Because God” is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom,
but my heart rejects it,
and it’s not for lack of trying.

I’m 40 now. There are people in our learning group who are younger than I am and seem enthusiastic towards and energized by Talmud study. They remind me of myself when I was in my mid- to late twenties and early thirties… back when I was occasionally able to convince myself that I was experiencing God for a moment.

For me, the dry, technical details in the text are just that – dry and technical. All too rapidly, they dissolve upon the roof of my mouth like communion wafers. Now, that’s not to say that they have a bit of the devil in them,
but they don’t contain God either.

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