Nistar

Mare, or: Reflection

I wade here then swim near
Not myself- who's that there?
Can't be me; won't free me
Else, I'd float out to see
            No windows- no wind blows
            Stale thoughts heave in death throes
            This place's strange faces
            Packed in spaces tightly

Swift pacing, mind racing
Dreams fleeted yet chasing
Depleted, now seated,
Truth meted to me
            In pieces, heart ceases
            As time's s~l~o~w~flow~increases
            Mirroring their familiar
            Conciliar decree

Stern strangers, deranged- Or?
Portending no danger to
An ending upending their
Unbending decree
            As my eyes recognize them
            And my thoughts humanize them
            I realize now 
            that the stranger
            in my mirror
            is me

H/T @KK

Mourners relate to mourners

On a bright Thursday in August of 2014, my wife and I attended a beautiful Israeli wedding. It was a lovely outdoor wedding at ‘the Moshav’. We still remember the year of the event because it so happened that my wife was pregnant with our daughter at the time.

The chuppah (wedding canopy)

The bride was an olah (immigrant to Israel) from England, and the groom- an oleh from the USA. The sweet couple’s faces radiated sheer, loving contentment. Both of their families had flown in for the occasion, and they too exuded a glowing, collective warmth and welcoming joy towards all of us in attendance.

As per Jewish tradition, friends and community members hosted meals to honor the young couple for seven days following the wedding. These were the traditional ‘sheva brachot’ (seven blessings) meals prescribed by Jewish tradition, which holds that for seven days following the wedding, the bride and groom are to be treated like a queen and king and are to be invited to the home of a different friend or relative every evening for a large, celebratory meal.

That week sped by, and the following weekend arrived. The young couple and their parents went off, as planned, to spend Shabbat together in the Golan, near Lake Kinneret for some peaceful away time. The Golan offers countless fantastic hiking trails, and the newlyweds were so looking forward to exploring the luscious green mountains.

Early the following week, we learned that the groom’s father had died in a hiking accident.


I had met the groom in 2010, and we had studied Torah in the same beit midrash (house of [Torah] study) for two years. Afterwards, we had him over for Shabbat when he was off duty from the IDF, which he joined after completing his Torah studies and repatriating to Israel; and we shared Shabbat meals with him and his wife on several occasions.

He was among the gentlest and most earnest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I always enjoyed our interactions; but, having said that, we had never been especially close… although part of me hoped that we might become better friends once it became apparent that we had both decided to make our ways in Israel, away from our families in the USA.

His father’s unexpected death, following upon the heels of his beautiful, joyful wedding, rocked me. I couldn’t fathom his pain, nor the inky clinging shadow that would hang forever over his wedding memories.

Back then, before my father died (July 2018), I had almost no understanding of Jewish mourning traditions, which I would only become familiar with a few years later during my own kaddish journey. I understood the basics only vaguely.

Having been raised in a secular family, I hadn’t yet grasped how expected and normal it is in traditional Jewish culture to visit mourners during the week following the funeral (this is called ‘shiva’) to lend support. I didn’t appreciate how helpful it is to assist mourners in forming daily prayer quorums so that they can recite the mourner’s kaddish, the recitation of which requires that ten adult Jews be present. I felt incredibly awkward… who was I to intrude upon his grief? What consolation could I possibly provide?

I recall that week being very busy for me at work, and I suppose that I could make excuses as to why I didn’t pay my friend a shiva call, but ultimately – I simply didn’t know how to act appropriately. And… perhaps I was afraid of facing him in his grief.

Regardless, I didn’t pay a visit.


I could give other examples of my inability to relate to the grief of others, for I had encountered many who had lost parents, siblings, and even children… but suffice it to say that those memories of my obtuseness have taken on a particularly sharp, stinging aftertaste in the 2+ years since Papa’s death.

Towards the end of my first year of mourning, I confronted this change in myself:

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

I’m being somewhat hard on myself, as is my tendency, but I am aware that what I’ve described is not entirely unlike any other major life-changing experience. Let’s take parenthood, for example.

While I’ve always enjoyed playing with children, babysitting, and working at various children’s summer programs, I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their offspring’s developments. Little Mary started walking? Great! Little Ahmed drew a car? That’s… wonderful… Little Hannah won the state spelling bee? … Hooray! … that’s…

I never much cared to hear parents chattering excitedly about their children’s developments – until I had a daughter; and suddenly, everything about child development was interesting. I could compare notes with other parents for hours. I could relate to their prides, their anxieties, their excitements…

That’s also how it is when you lose a loved one. It’s the club that nobody wants to join and nobody can quit. After Papa died:

… friends and family reached out to me in love. I was struck at how many of those conversations shifted away from my own father’s death, towards the piercing memories, the simmering hurts, and the irrecoverable losses of my comforters.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #9, Oct. 5, 2018

Parents relate to parents; mourners relate to mourners.

Ethical will: Impartiality

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish 45’, May 30, 2019

During my kaddish journey following Papa’s death, I struggled with being judgmental of myself. In fact, this was one of the primary impetuses behind that yearlong writing project… Frankly, I had been feeling FAKE by going through the motions of communal mourning rituals with my religious community, while lacking faith in a personal Higher Power. I knew that that Papa would never have wanted that, nor respected it, and I couldn’t stand it either… so I began to share my truth.

It has been my experience that those of us who are most judgmental of ourselves also tend to be judgmental of others. A particular acquaintance of mine struggles with this more than anyone else I’ve known, and while many of the sentiments that he articulates are off-putting to me, my own inclination towards stinging judgmentalism permits me to empathize with and pity him. In his brutal judgments of others, I hear his impossible expectations of himself. His harsh judgmentalism puts my own into perspective.

The funny thing about [my] judgmentalism is that there’s always somebody for me to judge.

When I was more committed to Jewish tradition as an expression of God’s will, when I was praying three times daily and very careful never to eat any food that wasn’t certified kosher, when I felt more certain of my faith… I found myself having to withhold many a comment about those who were less observant.

On the other hand, now that my personal commitment to daily religious observance has slipped, now that I have strongly embraced my skepticism and doubts, now that I see tradition as almost entirely an expression of human needs and experiences… I find myself judging those who believe in Something that they cannot prove.

This reminds me of a popular adage I’ve oft heard in Jewish educational circles:

Anyone to my right is a zealot; anyone to my left is a heretic.


Now, the Torah, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a legal tradition at its core. The ancient Israelites lived their lives according to what they believed to be God’s Word, and they established judicial courts accordingly to adjudicate the inevitable disputes.

Somewhat as an aside, it was Moses‘ father-in-law Jethro, a non-Israelite, who first suggested the establishment of a hierarchical court system, rather than leaving Moses to shoulder the burden of adjudication on his own. Notably, according to Jewish doctrine, only Jews are obligated to live their lives according to God’s Torah, but gentiles are still considered obligated to abide by the seven Noahide laws, one of which is: the establishment of courts of justice.

It’s clear that judgment has an important place in Judaism. Indeed, Deuteronomy 16:19-20 is written as follows:

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃ You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

These two verses, I find, are very instructive for us. For me, they are something to aspire to.

On the one hand, verse 20 makes it clear that we Jews ought to pursue justice. This is part and parcel of Torah. Through this lens, I am able to recognize and appreciate that judgmentalism isn’t inherently bad, although it certainly may be painful for me.

Verse 19 serves to clarify the ideal of judgment for me. Yes, we must pursue justice, but how does one do so? The answer: ‘you shall show no partiality’.

In other words, yes, we are creatures of judgment, and, yes, this may be not only natural but correct. However, we must always recognize and acknowledge our biases, and these biases are more than likely to shift over time, further highlighting their subjectiveness. So we must, of necessity, ask ourselves, “How would I describe my perspective? Who do I perceive to be different than myself and in what ways? And- how am I intuitively inclined to regard them?”


On a personal note, I am finding that the struggle of being judgmental has not gotten any easier for me emotionally over the years. However, the more I have been able to recognize and acknowledge my own mistakes and failures, the more I find myself capable of understanding the human failings of others.

To India (and others) with love

How did I end up on WordPress?

The Times of Israel website is an international news portal, read by millions of people around the world every month, and, of course, the percentage of its readership that is Jewish is particularly high, as one would probably expect.

Given this, I naturally decided to publish my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series there following my father’s death. The decision was an instinctive one.

Later, after I’d completed my year of reciting kaddish, I eventually decided to transfer the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ to this personal WordPress blog, primarily so that I, my family, and our friends could more readily browse and navigate my yearlong kaddish journey in honor of Papa.


The WordPress that readers do not see

WordPress, WordPress, WordPress.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less in 2020.

In a world of soundbites, Tweets and Instagram posts, I rejected those limited mediums in favor of substance. I’ve always been a writer at heart; blogging came naturally to me. But- inescapably- today’s WordPress is just another node on the social network.

Those of you who don’t blog on WordPress wouldn’t know that WordPress encourages its bloggers to create Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogs, as well as to monetize our blogs in various ways. It also goes a step further – the website provides us with readership statistics. Look how many people have viewed your blog today! Look how many people have commented! Look have many people have ‘liked’ one of your posts! Look! Look! Look!

Look to see what countries most of your views are coming from! Look! Look! Look!

In any case, I don’t quite understand it, but it seems that most of my views are coming from India and surrounding countries.


Would you like to understand me?

And, so, I find myself in an unexpected position, as everything I write is from a distinctly Jewish perspective. I don’t have any personal connection to India (although I ❤️ Indian food), but apparently many residents of India, among others throughout Asia, find my content intriguing.

On the one hand, some ideas and values are universal, and I relish discussions on culture, religion, and politics across international borders. On the other hand, being committedly Jewish is a very particular experience in some very fundamental ways, and I’d like to expound upon some of these for my new readers. Based upon our interactions, it would seem that you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from.

Below are some preliminary personal reflections on how I relate to being a Jew.


Judaism: not a “religion”

Much of this feels odd for me to write because it’s all so ingrained in me, but, still, let’s lay out some basics.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that Judaism is unlike every other “religion” that I am aware of in one very specific way (feel free to challenge me with contradictory evidence). The reason I put the word “religion” in quotes is – Judaism is not really a religion. Or, rather, if you want to insist that it is a “religion” (as some do), then you must make a distinction between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”.

In Russian, for example (but not in colloquial American English), there rightly exist two separate terms: 1) Yevrei (A Hebrew; a Jew by nationality) and 2) Iudei (A person of the Jewish faith). A Yevrei is analogous to an Indian, and a Iudei is akin to a person of the Hindu faith.

For the vast majority of Jewish history, no such distinction existed because, as I’ve written, previous to the Jewish Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries:

… one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion.

The more curious among you may be interested to know that a Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch Republic) was the first Jew to publicly challenge the basic tenets of Jewish faith, including the core doctrine that the Torah is of Divine origin. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and the Jewish community expelled him for his iconoclastic views. In those times, a Jew could not declare his rejection of the Jewish faith and expect to remain in the Jewish fold.

In the modern day, this is no longer an issue outside of the most traditional circles. Many Jews comfortably identify as agnostics or atheists, while maintaining their cultural Jewish identities and even affiliating with Jewish religious communities. In many conversations of mine with religious people of other faith traditions, I have found that this concept is very challenging for them. Can there be such a thing as an atheist Christian or Muslim?


Peoplehood: a primary facet of Jewish identity

Personally, I have always felt very comfortable in my skin as a Jew, and I was always proud of my ethnic identity even as a child, long, long before I decided that it bore deep exploration.

As I have explored the many facets of Jewish identity over the years, as well as my respective degrees of attachment to them, my thinking has gradually evolved, and ultimately, I’ve come to some fairly straightforward understandings of myself.


An understanding of peoplehood as extended family

I had a wonderful conversation not so long ago with somebody who had converted to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion process. Of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy (in all its variants) is the most legalistic. It is the most committed to the observance of halakhah, which is Jewish religious law.

Orthodoxy (and Conservative Judaism as well) maintains the traditional legal definition of ‘Who is a Jew’, which is as follows: one must either 1) be born to a Jewish mother, or 2) convert to Judaism before a council of 3 adult Jewish males who committedly live according to halakhah.

The Orthodox convert with whom I was conversing laid out the following train of thought for me:

  1. Halakhah is God’s Law.
  2. God’s Law defines who is a Jew, including the setting of the standards for conversion to Judaism.
  3. Conversions to Judaism performed according to halakhah are legitimate, and conversions conducted by other standards are illegitimate. (Reform Judaism, for example, does not consider halakhah binding.)
  4. Any understanding of Jewish group identity not based upon God’s Law is inherently unreliable and based upon human, limited biases.
  5. These limited human biases regarding the matter of “Who is a Jew” ultimately have no bearing upon “true reality” (which is entirely defined by God’s will) and boil down to nothing more than mere human racism.

In the interest of dialogue, I responded as follows:

  1. It is natural to love one’s family, including family members who may have different ethnic identities than one has him/herself.
  2. According to Jewish tradition and religious doctrine, the Jewish people are the descendants of our forefather Abraham and foremother Sarah, and this, according to our tradition, includes all converts throughout the centuries.
  3. It is therefore no more racist for a Jew to have a special love for his/her people than it would be for someone to love their extended family, and neither halakhah nor God need enter into this equation.

That’s how I see it. The Jewish people are an extended family.

By the way, there is another simple reason why my love of the Jewish people is not racist: conversion. Simple put, the Jews have never been an exclusive club. While we are, indeed, a people, any human being on earth can join our tribe.


An understanding of peoplehood as another step beyond the monkeysphere

Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s a very important concept, otherwise known as the monkeysphere. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person… Humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships…

150 stable relationships is the average limit for us humans, but that’s not to say that all of those relationships are equally meaningful to us. Within our respective monkeyspheres, we usually care most about our nuclear family members, then our friends, and then our communities, right?

Of course, we humans are also naturally concerned with other human beings far beyond our monkeyspheres. For example, we are likely to be concerned with the well-being of other people in the cities and countries where we reside. Many of us are even concerned with all of humanity’s well-being – otherwise why would one be concerned about global pollution and carbon emissions?

There is clearly a spectrum for every one of us, ranging from the most particular to the most universal relationships, and one of my rabbis once made a beautiful point to me in this vein, regarding the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Essentially, he explained, our universal concern for others throughout the world is grounded in our ability to empathize with and appreciate the worth of every individual human being. We are capable of relating to the humanity of those whom we will never meet because we intimately recognize the humanity of those who are within our monkeyspheres, and we intuitively understand that all humans have close, stable relationships with other humans – just as we do ourselves.

If we take this a step farther, we can make the following argument: our relationships with our nuclear families inform our relationships with our circles of friends, which in turn inform our relationships with our communities, which in turn inform our relationships with those who live in our cities, etc., etc.

Essentially, each of our spheres of concern allow our limited human minds to grasp the concept of the next larger sphere beyond it. One cannot truly be universally concerned for all of humanity if one does not first understand the experiences of being human and of maintaining close human relationships.

My relationship to my people is one of my many spheres of concern. Because of this relationship, I am better able to value your humanity, dear Reader, even if we’ll never meet.

By the way, the fact that my people live throughout the world in different countries and cultures makes it all the easier for me to relate to people who may have very different life experiences than my own.


Carrying my people with me everywhere

At its core, the Torah has always been a legal system. Regardless of whether it is of Divine origin or not, it is the Law that we have lived by since first becoming an independent nation. Of course, we became a nation some three millennia ago – at a time when all nations were known by their gods; and the One God, the Creator of the Universe, was, for the ancient Israelites, their Monarch.

There was a time when I had convinced myself of the Torah’s Divine origin. I believed that, ultimately, all of halakhic practice came from God, and that I was obligated by God to adhere to it.

After a year of studying Torah in Jerusalem, I traveled to Russia for a summer to work at a JAFI children’s camp. There, I was one of only two observant people on staff (the other was my not-yet-wife). We two were the only ones limiting ourselves to kosher food, and I was the only one who prayed three times a day, donning phylacteries and prayer shawl every morning.

Even back then, believing as I did that I was following God’s will, the experience of committedly adhering to the traditional Jewish way of life in the diaspora left me with an unexpected insight, which had nothing to do with the spiritual or the supernatural.

In a substantive way, our lives in our respective countries are defined by local legal systems, languages, and popular cultures. Humans are of particular nationalities while they live in their home countries, but once they emigrate, how many future generations maintain the nationalities of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? Let’s say a couple moves from India to the USA. How strongly will their American-born children identify as Indian? What about their American-born grandchildren?

Every summer that I traveled to work in Russia, the traditions of the Jewish people surrounded me like a bubble, reinforcing my national identity. One who follows the traditions of the Torah can never fully assimilate into another culture; (s)he can never cease identifying as a member of the Jewish people, even as (s)he may very strongly identify with the country in which (s)he resides.

As a Jew who finds tremendous personal meaning in his ties to the Jewish people, the calculus is quite simple.

Bhagavad Gita Verse 34, Chapter 6

Below is a truth that transcends cultures, which reminds me of a limerick that I wrote:

Swift swish-swishing tails and sure fins
Gliding right through the shipwreck within
Bumping up against walls
As there’s something that calls
Past bones round of my small cranium


A simple, modern translation and explanation of the Bhagavad Gita with shloka (verse) meaning

chanchalam hi manaha krishna pramaathi balavaddrudham |
tasyaaham nigraham manye vaayoriva sudushkaram || 34 ||

 
For, the mind is fickle, rebellious, strong and stubborn, O Krishna. To control it, I think, is as arduous as the wind.
 
chanchalam : fickle
hi : for
manaha : mind is
krishna : O Krishna
pramaathi : rebellious
balavat : strong
drudham : stubborn
tasya : it
aham : I
nigraham : control
manye : think
vaayoho : the wind
iva : like
sudushkaram : arduous
 
Arjuna further elaborates on the difficulty of controlling the mind for meditation to Shri Krishna. He says that it is as difficult as trying to harness the wind. Why is that so? The mind is fickle, rebellious, strong and stubborn. It will refuse any attempt to be controlled.
 
Shri Krishna had acknowledged the fickle nature of the mind in previous shlokas. We oursleves have…

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Together, or: Eventually

                                         there
                    you are 

                              stretching upwards and sideways
                                           squirming wriggling everywhere
                                        going 
                 nowhere 

           even the walls are beyond
                            you 
                         are trapped in a narrow cup

        going nowhere
but down down down
                    and out 
                              eventually

                              but
         we do 
have a bit of time together, don't we?
stay with me for Shabbat, won't you?

I hope you won't go out like last time

black wick stuck in the stiff cold wax
suffocated by frozen white bubbles I 
was not at all ready for your absence