With, or: Without them

I want to want repentance
I want to want God
I want to want to pray at all
But that is all I've got

A Jew can just excuse himself
A Jew can disbelieve
A Jew can just participate
To find some small relief

Ours is not a religion
Ours is not merely faith
Ours is not in our hearts or minds
It's in our DNA

I'm there because they draw me there
I'm there because of them
I'm there because of smiles and hugs
Where I don't feel condemned

Sometimes I recite all the words
Sometimes I do as they
Sometimes I feel that God has heard
For that is what they say

Community grants me peoplehood
Community grants excuse
Community grants permission
To pray to "You Know Who"

Believe I not in Yom Kippur
Believe not in the least
Believe absent community -
- I'm barely sorry beast

Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

Resting on Religious Laurels

Given that I was raised in a secular Jewish family, I give myself credit for observing the religious laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Also, given that I was raised in the United States of America, I give myself credit for bringing my daughter up in the State of Israel. Bully for me.

I am, somewhat inexplicably, a tremendously proud Jew.

This is not to say that we Jews shouldn’t be proud of our ancient tradition, storied history, and civilization-shaping impact. We absolutely, very much should be. Nevertheless, given the West’s ethos of universalism today, particularly in the USA where I was raised, many Jewish moderns are not much interested in their roots. In this context, I would describe the extent of my Jewish pride as ‘inexplicable’ to me.

Once, more than a decade ago, I was told that living as a religious Jew in modern society is a countercultural choice. This came as a surprise to me – what was countercultural about actively seeking a meaningful connection with one’s heritage? I had never considered that my fascination with Judaism might be inconsonant with the 21st century West. Over the years, however, that innocently seeded idea wormed its way through my mind’s soil, gradually extending and deepening its roots.

* * *

God knows I’ve had my religious ups and downs.

Before Papa died in the summer of 2018, I had been going through a three year period of religious crisis, and I was suffering for lack of connection to my Jewish community. My soul’s pain was endless, but I couldn’t bring myself to pray. That’s hard for me to share, but it’s true.

Nevertheless, after learning of Papa’s death, I realized that I had to take the recitation of the orphan’s kaddish upon myself, as expected by Jewish tradition of a son. I couldn’t fathom the guilt I would certainly feel if I chose to pass on the once-in-a-lifetime year of mourning for my father. What would all of my Jewish studies and explorations have amounted to if I had opted out of this custom?

Kaddish recitation for a deceased parent involves eleven months of thrice daily prayers with a quorum of ten Jewish adults, usually at a synagogue. Listing all of the many reasons why this was challenging for me would require an entire blog post, but one stood out. I felt like an utter fake, praying daily at synagogues with various groups of seriously committed Jews. What the hell was I doing?

My rationality demanded that I mark the experience with my own words, which were, and remain, less than faithful. Once I began writing that year, 30 days after burying my father, I found that I couldn’t help but continue to pour myself entirely into my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’. The project indeed sustained me – I made it through the entirety of that kaddish year. Those many personal reflections and deep doubts, bared so publicly, preserved my sanity.

But later there would come consequences.

* * *

Firstly, looking back at it, I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience, the most powerful one of my four decades. Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

Secondly, unlike the experience of my three-year spiritual drought, which ended with Papa’s death, I no longer seriously aspire towards a connection with any concept I have remaining of the Divine. Given the perhaps inevitable route and landing-place of my kaddish odyssey, which saw me chasing after my inner demons and angels alike that year, I have ceased believing that such a thing is even plausible. It is my responsibility to myself to create meaning, but that’s easier said than done.

* * *

I suppose that, like any other not-so-devout Jew, I was heading for disappointment after the daily intensity of my kaddish journey, but I couldn’t see it looming.

At first I continued attending services every day, deliberately focusing on the kaddishes recited by those who were in mourning. I would respond to them forcefully, as the Talmud suggests but hardly anybody does:

אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up
Tractate Shabbat 119b

Somehow, by centering myself and responding loudly, I felt that I was still a participant in the prescribed mourning process, despite having concluded my designated year of kaddish.

Then winter rolled around and the rains came. During my year of kaddish, I would walk with my trench coat and umbrella through the rain to shul, splashing determinedly through the puddles, but I was no longer expected to… and, besides… we had switched apartments and the walk was slightly longer now…

I didn’t want to admit it, but my will to attend daily prayers was fading. Then, out of the blue, a pandemic broke out: COVID-19, they called it.

Everything changed. At first prayer services were cancelled indefinitely. Eventually, they were held again in smaller numbers and only outdoors. All attendees had to wear face masks and sit two meters apart from one another. I attended morning services on Shabbat thrice this summer – twice to honor two friends’ deceased parents and once to honor my own Papa on the 2nd anniversary of his death… but it seemed that the flitting flies enjoyed the sun’s warm morning rays more than I did.

* * *

The line between truth and excuse can be a fine one, and perhaps I have crossed it.

Pandemic, relative inconvenience and discomfort, the near sublimation of my beloved prayer community… Beyond my kaddish recitations, I used to find the motivation to attend services in the company of my friends and acquaintances.

And, of course, how can I doubt the earnestness of my commitment to Judaism? Haven’t I chosen to make my life in Israel? Haven’t I adopted religious Sabbath observance? Haven’t I… Haven’t I… Haven’t I…?

Hey, look at me! I’m honoring Papa!

My second annual kiddush on Shabbat in memory of Papa was a success. Our early morning prayer community isn’t very big (because not a lot of people like waking up so early on Saturdays), and therefore our kiddushes are intimate affairs of twenty to thirty people. By those metrics, the attendance on Saturday was great. Some friends even showed up who had been unable to attend services beforehand, as did my rabbi.

In fact, I could tell that many of our kiddush regulars BCE (Before COVID-19 Era) were very happy to show up and enjoy the camaraderie with their friends. This is the way it used to be every week; this is the way it should be; this is the way we want it to be – now I know for certain that it’s not just me.

* * *

Papa, as I’ve written and said many a time before, did not stand on ceremony, nor need it. He wouldn’t have expected me, nor wanted me to host an annual kiddush in his honor, and I can’t truly claim that I did it for him – it was really for myself. At the event, I said as much, and I added that none of our traditions or rituals are necessary for us to be good people – that may be one of the truest lessons that I learned from both of my parents.

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel that all of my writing, my hosting of kiddushes, and my bringing attention to how I continue to honor Papa are largely to make myself look good in the eyes of others. On the other hand, A) that’s not my only motivation, B) I don’t know how else to memorialize him, and C) doing these things keeps me from slipping into a dark depression.

* * *

Yesterday I went out and purchased a memorial candle holder for Papa’s yahrzeit, which will be from Wednesday night to Thursday night this week.

Mama gave me the idea because she’d found a candle holder online made by the same artist. Hers is wooden and hand painted with an image of Jerusalem, which, for all of us, is a reminder of Papa’s great love for this holy city.

My candle holder is blue, which was Papa’s favorite color, as he once informed my daughter, and it’s made of metal – a different medium. I like the metal, unpainted pieces more than the wooden art, but that’s just a matter of taste.

This coming Wednesday evening, we will light the candle, and we’re thinking of going out to a local café for dinner and dessert. I want to do something that my daughter will remember, and this would be the first time that the three of us have gone out together since the COVID-19 pandemic first exploded back in March. Also, I think that Papa would be happy to know that we’re doing something fun together in his memory.