Belief chooses you

You don’t choose what to believe. Belief chooses you.

Steven Galloway (1975-)

This particular quote is one that speaks to me at a deep level.

I often find myself both amazed by and impressed with those who hold earnest beliefs in supernatural and/or divine forces. When I reflect upon those with true faith, I find myself torn between jealousy and bafflement. It would be profoundly comforting and lovely to believe that humankind’s existence has some inherent purpose, but I don’t.

Having dedicated years of my life to studying Judaism, I had opportunity to explore various spiritual practices and related ancient texts; but ultimately, upon serious reflection, I remain more compelled by my secular Papa’s perspective than any other. It bears noting that Papa was by far one of the most honorable and ethical people that I have ever known, regardless of his faith or lack thereof.

Absent supernatural forces, the notion of a big bang makes little sense to me, but nothing has led me to believe that any supernatural force is involved in or even interested in our lives.

Ultimately, it is my understanding that some people are simply more “wired” for faith than others – we do not choose our beliefs. Inclination towards belief is merely one of sundry character traits that one could possess.

First grade for my Israeli daughter

Thank goodness for Israel

Moving [back] to Israel as an adult has had its ups and downs for me, but I can honestly say that I’ve never doubted my decision for one simple reason: our daughter’s Jewish upbringing and education.

I’ve written in the past about the simple comfort and fulfilment of living as a Jew in the Jewish State:

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays…

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere…

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.


A moment of truth

Our daughter will be entering first grade next year.

This means that we will be selecting a school for her and thus making the first of several major decisions governing her education. In Israel, the education system consists of three tiers: primary (grades 1–6), middle school (grades 7–9) and high school (grades 10–12). The major decisions about schooling have to be made for 1st grade and 7th grade.

If any of you would like to know about the different tracks of Jewish education available here in Israel, you can take a look at what I wrote in a previous post of mine; I laid everything out there. As always, if you are curious to know more, I would be happy to answer your questions. However, for the purposes of this post, only two school systems are relevant for us:

  1. State-Secular;
  2. State-Orthodox

Nota bene:

Most people in Israel would translate ‘State-Orthodox’ as: ‘State-Religious’, but this is not quite accurate. For historic and political reasons, the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform, and others) continue to have a very limited footprint in Israel. For this reason, the Hebrew word ‘dati’, which means: ‘religious’ has long come to mean: ‘Orthodox’ in the minds of Hebrew speakers.

However, in reality, an individual could be a ‘religious Conservative’ or ‘religious Reform’ Jew, and(!) one could also be a ‘non-religious Orthodox’ Jew. This is why I more accurately term Israel’s ‘religious’ Jewish schools as: ‘Orthodox’, for they only represent a very limited range of flavors of Jewish religious expression.

This may be a lot to take in for those who are not very familiar with Jewish life and culture, but if you have any questions for me – I will do my best to answer them.


So… our two school options are:

State-Secular

State-secular elementary and high schools provide a general studies education, including a minimal amount of Tanakh (Bible) study. Some of these schools offer a limited Jewish enrichment program.

State-Orthodox

State-Orthodox elementary and high schools offer a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies. There is a commitment to both a Torah-observant lifestyle and to the values of religious Zionism.


Our take on Jewish tradition

Despite observing the Sabbath and keeping a kosher kitchen, my wife and I are very non-ideological. We don’t believe that all Jews “have to” follow traditional Torah law. We don’t think that being “religious” or being “Jewish” necessarily makes one “good”. At home, we don’t require our daughter to participate in any religious norms and rituals unless her choices would affect the entire household.

Both of us, having had secular or non-Jewish upbringings, chose for ourselves to live our lives according to Jewish tradition. Our extended families are mostly comprised of non-religious Jews and gentiles, and we embrace them as they are, just as they do us.

Personally, I harbor deep skepticism about the theological underpinnings of all faiths, as well as of the involvement of any supernatural power in our lives. My wife is definitely more of a theist than I am, but she’s very much a pluralist, in the sense that she doesn’t believe that any particular religion has a monopoly on humankind’s access to the Almighty.

Still, for ourselves, we have chosen to live in Israel because we love being Jews. We are proud of our national identity and ancestries. We both find great beauty in many of our rituals and holidays, and we are both reluctant to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to Jewish tradition.


Our take on secularism

Neither one of us is uncomfortable with secular life. Most of our friends and family, as it happens, are not religious by their own definitions.

Also, by virtue of our daughter growing up in Israel, it’s highly unlikely that she would marry a non-Jew, which is of concern to me in particular. In principle, therefore, why should it matter how familiar she becomes with Jewish texts and history? Her national identity is essentially guaranteed.

The reality is that the level of ignorance among secular Jewish Israelis on all subjects related to traditional Judaism is very high. They would be, of course, able to navigate the Torah and other historic Jewish texts in their original forms because their fluency in modern Hebrew would enable them to decipher Biblical Hebrew and its later incarnations… but they usually don’t care to do so.

Sadly, we live in a very polarized and reactionary world, and this is no less true of religion than it is of politics. State and religion are not separate in Israel and infringe upon the lives of its secular citizens, and Orthodoxy is broadly accepted in Israeli society as the “one true faith”, so many secular Israeli Jews are turned off to Judaism as a historic way of life. By virtue of living in Israel, they are members of a predominantly Jewish society and participate in what one might call “social” religion, but I dare say that for most of them, being Jewish in the Jewish State is not so much their choice as their default.

Now, I well know that this is a controversial thing to say, and there are plenty of people who will disagree with me. And, yes, I am aware of the growing trend among some young secular Israelis to study traditional Jewish texts and incorporate Jewish rituals into their lives. Still, I maintain that this is a tiny minority in Israel, and I believe that my perspective is borne out in the curriculum taught to secular Israeli school children, which contributes to their general ignorance of traditional Judaism.


But, but…

But the Orthodox schools are run by Orthodox Jews.

😮‍💨

I cannot speak to other religious communities, but I assume that the following also holds true outside of the Jewish world: Jewish religious schools are operated by and taught by people who are more religiously conservative and less favorably predisposed towards secularism and skepticism than the families who send their children to these schools.

Prayer is obligatory, girls are required to wear skirts, classes are only co-ed until 4th or 6th grade, and the Torah is taught to the students as the undeniable Truth, rather than as a historical cultural document.

Ugh.

Now, luckily for us, we live in Jerusalem. Living here is expensive, but there are great advantages, including a wider range of religious communities than can be found in many other places throughout Israel. This means that several of the local Orthodox schools are somewhat religiously liberal, given the communities that they serve. This means that in our neighborhood we are not the only ones with one foot firmly planted in the non-religious world. This means that teachers are somewhat more prepared for students and parents to push back on them.

We’ve done our research, and it seems that there are three or four Orthodox schools in the area that are open-minded enough for our tastes. That is exactly the number of schools we are required to register for, so we are not left with any flexibility (outside of Jerusalem, we would have even fewer suitable alternatives, if any at all). Hopefully these schools are good enough. Hopefully our daughter will be okay.


Providing what we cannot give

Ultimately, parents supplement their children’s school educations, and the reality is that we cannot give our daughter the substantive Jewish education that we never received ourselves.

That is what it comes down to.

Priorities.

When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

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?

The rabbi that ruined my Judaism

For people of faith, or for those with traditional bents, there’s a real danger in getting to know their clergy too well.

* * *

It began years ago when the rabbi said, “Fuck.”

I was stunned at first but didn’t show it – I just nodded and responded appropriately. After all, the profanity wasn’t aimed at me – in a moment of anger, the rabbi had been expressing his frustration at somebody else’s ineptitude.

Actually, I was very pleased. It felt to me a sign of trust. The rabbi was comfortable enough to speak freely in my presence; he wasn’t playing a role of any sort; he was acting much like any other normal human being would be under trying circumstances.

Me? I often curse under my breath when I’m upset and even struggle with whether or not to include profanity in my writing. To what extent should my prose and poetry reflect my natural, spoken voice? Am I demeaning myself by using unseemly language? Papa, for example, used to curse in my presence, and this only amused me… but I find myself very reluctant to do so around my daughter.

… [Papa] also had a very crass sense of humor and many of his most common expressions were quite inappropriate. In fact, I recall him saying (on more than one occasion) that I should know how to curse in Russian.

The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist #27, Jan. 18, 2019

In any case, the cursing was only the beginning of it.

* * *

The most professionally successful clergy are those who are best at promoting themselves. If one ends up on the receiving end of their self-marketing, one may well become convinced that these particular clergypeople are agents of Truth, a profound solace in our whirling world. Such individuals are likely to eventually find themselves paying part of those clergypeople’s salaries.

Rarely is the successful clergyperson alone in buffing and selling her image. The more successful the religious leader, the less likely that is. In today’s seemingly endless torrent of media and online communications, many clergy increasingly rely upon marketing professionals. These are the ‘disseminators’, for lack of a better word; and the most effective among them tend to have close access to their clients: the clergy.

I have been a rabbi’s most trusted disseminator and have been a part of marketing religious wisdom and solace. Now I can never unsee religion for what it is: a product.

* * *

In the modern world, marketing is everything because everything (and everybody) has become a product. Donald Trump became President of the United States of America by capitalizing on his most precious asset, one in which he had invested for many decades more than in any other, namely: his brand. It’s not entirely fair of me to expect more of religion than I do of sundry other products, but in this I am not alone. Consider, after all, religion’s ultimate claim and the ramifications thereof.

* * *

Actually, I love the rabbi to this day and do not fault him in the slightest for ruining my foolish naiveté. True faith doesn’t require any facade, but apparently I do. The rabbi himself is a true mensch – he does the title ‘Rabbi’ great honor. In his case, the marketing pitch was honest: the rabbi possesses love of God, kindheartedness, wisdom, open-mindedness, knowledge, and much, much more. He supports and teaches countless people.

But it wasn’t just my ‘dissemination’ experience that did it… it was also the learning.

* * *

As sincere and learned as a religious leader may be, the tools of his trade are most effective when his laity is unlearned. The more comfortable one feels with religious texts and teachings, the more one comes to realize that today’s clergypeople (and the generations before them) are ultimately manipulating traditional sources to imbue their personal beliefs with “Divine” (or at least “ancient”) validity.

Having heard rabbis all over the political spectrum using source texts to make their cases or promote their causes, and having read many of the same sources in their original contexts, changed me profoundly. Clearly, there was either no “Truth” at all, or else the “Truth” can only provide humankind with a mere handful of very basic principles.

Also, while I was decently adept at learning the original sources (in Hebrew or Aramaic), I was especially good at splicing them together to imbue my own ideas with seeming validity. After the nth occasion of receiving compliments upon my interpretations of religious sources, I became increasingly cynical, for I knew that I was no rabbi.

I was no rabbi, but I realized that with my marketing and speaking skills, I had the capacity to become a professionally successful charlatan like so many others. Also, I came to understand how false many religious leaders truly are, and my cynicism morphed into deep-seated suspicion.

* * *

I don’t actually blame the rabbi, but for people of faith, or for those with traditional bents, there’s a real danger in getting to know their clergy too well.