HaShem, or: Elohim

She deserves a poem true 
Her faithfulness confuses
me
    Just yesterday after pre-
school
I'd picked her 
up 
    -my pup- 
    she spoke with such indignity
about a friend -a six-year-
old- who wrote God's name 
and 
    "put an 'X'"
"Do you mean she crossed it out?"
"Yes and said her fam-
ily
    does not believe, nor she
    but that's not why she doesn't"
"Which name did she 
write? was it 'HaShem'?" "No
    she crossed out 'Elohim'
    and showed her friends"
"So what do you think about that?"
"How can she-
    we must respect-
    our teachers and our parents 
are
    in charge
but God is the most 
powerful he's in charge 
    of every-
thing"
Why is my child 
    so...
Where does she get...
"Yes, that is what some 
    people 
think" "Well 
our teacher says that we should 
believe in God" At a 
    state-secular 
pre-
school! And -then- today 
before pre-
school: "If God can speak to any-
    one, that means He can speak
    all languages!"
"Well, yes..."
Perhaps this is a poem, 
for-
    perhaps it's faith 
that's
    po-
  et-
  ry-

Today, for d’Verse’s “Open Link Night”, I’d like to share a poem that I wrote last June, a couple of months after creating this blog.

I decided to share this poem because recently I’ve been writing a lot about my daughter on this blog. She is now 6-years-old. When this was written, she was 5⅓-years-old… and to this day, she maintains her fascination with the concept of God and insists that she believes everything that is written in the Torah. Suffice it to say that she doesn’t get such ideas from me.

Deed, not Creed?

The rhyme that stuck

Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.

When I first heard this said to me some 2½ decades ago, I had no idea what my Hebrew high school teacher Rabbi Witty meant by it, but the rhyme stuck with me.


Hebrew high school?

I attended public school throughout my childhood, and, like many of my American Jewish contemporaries, I was also enrolled in an afterschool program that met three times weekly at the synagogue. This is known as Hebrew school.

Now, most of the children who attended Hebrew school did so for one simple reason: the shul’s (synagogue’s) policy was that only those who attended Hebrew school until the date of their bar/bat mitzvahs could mark these events within the community. That’s why many Hebrew school students dropped out in the 7th grade; that’s why less than half remained for the Hebrew high school program, which began the following year.

Even in Hebrew high school, there were plenty of students attending against their wills. Their parents pressured them to go – so they went. My Papa, on the other hand, thought it was a total waste of time. “What are you learning there?” he would ask me; and my answers were always lacking. Still, I remained one of the few students who loved going to Hebrew school, and I continued attending until I left for college.

To a large extent, Papa was correct. Compared to what I would eventually learn about Judaism as an adult (once I began proactively seeking my own Jewish way), most of my takeaways from Hebrew school, even after those many years, were not much more than fluff. Upon graduation, my Hebrew was poor, and I remained incapable of navigating any of the foundational Jewish texts, such as the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud.

Now, clearly, our Hebrew school teachers were well aware of this. They knew that the majority of their students came from fairly secular homes and were largely ignorant of Judaism. The sarcastic and dry Rabbi Witty (one of my favorite Hebrew high school teachers) understood his goal well: to plant the seeds of curiosity within his students. He knew that the substance of our Hebrew school studies left much to be desired; and he aimed, therefore, to plant germs of Jewish wisdom in our minds that would hopefully take root and sprout up at some point in the future.

“Remember, David,” said Rabbi Witty as he adjusted his belt buckle, “Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.”


Huh? Deed? Not creed?

Yep.

In fact, this saying actually encapsulates one of the major points of Christianity’s departure from Judaism, for Judaism, you see, has always been all about the Law.

[In Judaism] there are thus religious acts as well as religious knowledge. The religious acts… are disciplinary and educative. They train the soul to reverence. Religious knowledge tells us about the subject of that reverence, and inclines the mind to love. The sanctions of the law are thus for the purpose of spiritual education…

… St. Paul, too, believed that only with the coming of the Messiah will a change take place in human nature which will make the deterrent of the law superfluous, but since he believed that the Messiah has come already, that Jesus was the Messiah, the continuation of the practice of the law was regarded by him as a denial of Jesus’ messianity. It was either the law or Jesus.

Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7

In principle, you see, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, one is true to the Jewish faith if one practices Judaism. One must eat kosher food, pray thrice daily, observe the Sabbath, separate wool from linen, etc., etc., and these daily acts are the very building blocks of traditional Jewish life. In a certain sense, certainly from the perspective of Zvi Kolitz (above), traditional Judaism is designed for skeptics like me, for the law “trains the soul to reverence.”

Traditional Judaism does not assume that a human being inherently believes in God, let alone loves God. Rather, it assumes that one must be trained to do so. And – if one never comes to believe but continues adhering to the law, one remains, according to traditional Judaism, a member of the Jewish people in good standing.

Now, my own faith journey has been up, down, and all around. For some periods, I managed to convince myself that I believe in God, and at other times (like the last few years) I’ve had seemingly insurmountable difficulty believing in a supernatural force that is somehow involved in or even invested in the lives of human beings at all.

Still, in theory, if I were to somehow become convinced of a personal God’s existence again, that would be wonderful. I do remain open to that possibility, and therefore the traditional Jewish approach works well for me – I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.


The skeptic’s social problem

When it comes to my personal life, holding fast to the law, or at least holding it up as a standard to live by, works well. That’s not to say that I don’t break the law in multiple ways daily, but I am always keenly aware of it; I always think about it; I always ask myself if I couldn’t be more loyal to it. I always wish that I wanted to follow it more.

However, despite my earnest commitment to traditional Judaism, I have consistently found that expressing my religious skepticism regarding the possible existence of an involved, invested God in a communal setting in the Orthodox Jewish community inevitably results in awkwardness.

In private interpersonal interactions, it’s usually acceptable for me to express my beliefs honestly, in the sense that people don’t tend to take offense; but more often than not my fellow interlocutors will either attempt to convince me of their beliefs in God, or else they will suggest that I should continue along the traditional religious path and will eventually discover God for myself. In both such cases, I feel unheard and intellectually disrespected.

Online, I participate in several very respectful, intellectual, and active discussion forums for Jews who are skeptics; Jews who were once religious and left the fold; Jews who are religious both in outlook and in practice; and Jews who have come to believe in God over time. These forums are much more accepting and intellectually engaging than anything I have encountered in the real world. Through them, I have discovered some amazing Jewish bloggers who write about their struggles with faith, many of whom are anonymous for fear of being ostracized in their real lives.

For example, I came across an ultra-Orthodox blogger who calls himself ‘A Jew With Questions’ who continues to reside in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but harbors theological doubts. He writes:

I am an American Charedi Jew living in Israel who is going through a crisis of faith. In short, I have a hard time believing in Orthodox Judaism due to the many questions that I have…

The purpose of this blog is to express these doubts and hopefully get some answers or at least conversation from commenters. One of the biggest problems that I have is that I have no one to talk to.  In many ways I am very lonely. My wife is a true believer in Hashem, and she constantly talks about emuna. My children go to Charedi schools and have been brainwashed by the Charedi educational system. My friends, chavrusas etc. are all true believers and would not listen or understand if I talked to them…

‘A Jew With Questions’, June 13, 2016

Now, I affiliate with the more religiously liberal and intellectually open end of the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, but despite the modern-mindedness of most such communities, I find serious, respectful discussions about my deep skepticism in God’s involvement not so easy to come by without uncomfortable looks and pregnant pauses.


The crux

A friend of mine has asked me on more than occasion why it matters to me what the members of my extended community believe. In part, it’s a matter of loneliness, just as it is for ‘A Jew With Questions’.

However, among other things, it’s also a matter of my deep disillusionment with traditional Judaism in lived experience. I’ve already written a blog post titled ‘Because God’, which I won’t rehash here, but it comes down to the following:

‘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…

-Me, ‘Because God’, May 22, 2020

Upon reflection, I find the irony of humanity’s limitations in this context to be quite stinging.

Whereas I believe that Jewish law should be a means to “train the soul to reverence”, as Zvi Kolitz suggested (and therefore its practitioners should have no reason whatsoever to be threatened by a broad range of levels of belief within their communities), instead, most of its adherents seem to want/need to approach the system from exactly the opposite direction.

Namely: if those who follow the law cannot convince themselves that Hashem exists; that God is involved in their lives; that God wants them to observe the law… then it may turn out that they lack the motivation to follow Jewish law… and… well, frankly, I think they are afraid to face that possibility.

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.

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.

Holier, or: Fragile

Your little face
Might just be proof for me of God's good grace
You utterly bewitch me
Your fancies so enrich me
I want to be

Your Abba'chka...
How can I assure you
That there's a God 
Though I s'pose you do not need it
You naturally believe it...
Holier than me

My Dear Baby
I so fear when you'll learn about "maybe"
The hurts you'll know as onwards grow
For much of life is simply show

My Dear Baby
I don't wanna say 
He ain't there for me

Every day
I watch you read and sing and learn and play
Your birth gave me such purpose
Of this I'm fully certain
That I've so changed

My love for you
It flows red hot and it is bursting through...
Wish I could protect you from painful disappointment
When He misses His appointment
But still I'll be

Your Abba'chka...
How can I assure you
That there is a God
Though I s'pose you do not need it
You naturally believe it...
Holier than me

Your childish purity
I cannot see Whom your eyes see
But whenever you need me
That's where I'll be

My lack of reverence

I used to have reverence for rabbis, but I barely remember it.

Last night I was at a wonderful rooftop get-together for a friend of mine (‘C5’) who just recently made Aliyah (repatriated to Israel as a Jew). It was lovely, particularly for me because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter recently and needed some space. Chips, beer, and engaging conversation reenergized me.

This friend was a member of my Talmud class last year, as was another friend (‘A5’) who attended the celebration. Both of these friends plan to continue studying Talmud under the young rabbi this coming year, unlike me. They’re both very religious and religiously-oriented… and SO [damned] respectful.

My young rabbi friend (our Talmud teacher) joined us on the roof later in the evening, and suddenly my friends’ and another young woman’s tones changed.

Should I cover my shoulders? I didn’t know that you had invited a rabbi.
Is it okay that we’re drinking?
Oh no… do you think he’ll be offended that I’m wearing pants tonight? I left my skirt at home!

I was startled. Really? He’s our age – a really cool guy and a friend of ours. Don’t worry about it guys, seriously!

Then, seemingly somewhat inebriated, ‘C5’ asked the young rabbi some serious questions about sexuality vis-à-vis rabbinic sensibilities and proceeded to share a brief reflection of his regarding his appreciation for the depths of the young rabbi’s humanity, open-mindedness, and inspirational teachings. ‘A5’, who was sober, also shared some very personal thoughts and nodded in agreement to ‘C5’s words. It was sweet and unexpected.

* * *

There was a time, certainly less than ten years ago, when I would turn humbly to rabbis for direction – a time when I specifically desired to hear learned rabbinic perspectives – a time when the words of Torah scholars carried more weight than those of the laity – a time when I was apprehensive of their answers but yearned for their affirmations.

And now that is all gone. No reverence remains in me.

I barely believe in a God who cares about my actions. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that rabbis are any wiser about the nuances of human nature than other learned, experienced people. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that there is anything worth believing in that we cannot perceive in our daily, earthly lives. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe in anything.

And while there are many reasons that I’ve decided not to continue with the young rabbi’s Talmud class, one reason is that I am repelled by various faith statements that I heard in the shiur. It’s nice that other people believe, truly, but one may keep it to one’s self unless somebody engages them in a conversation about religious beliefs.

I believe that reciting the Book of Psalms does nothing at all for your mother-in-law’s health; sharing your dubious religious convictions alienates me. Further, I don’t want blessings on my behalf after we’ve eaten cookies. I don’t want traditional statements of intent on my behalf before we engage in Talmud study. It’s all sheer bunk, I maintain, and believing in it doesn’t imbue one with holiness, wisdom, righteousness, or truth; and- such nonsense only distracts me from serious Torah study.

I do respect the young rabbi greatly – as much as I would any other seriously committed and capable professional in any line of work. Also, I consider him a close friend, greatly enjoy spending time with him, and would go out of my way for him without a moment’s hesitancy. But. I don’t revere him. And. I don’t revere what he stands for.

Also, I must add that I have studied Talmud with a number of learned and amazing instructors… and no theological assertions were ever woven into any of my previous classes. They are, at minimum, not necessary.

* * *

Next year I will instead be taking a class on theology with Rabbi Daniel Landes. I rather enjoy discussions about God and the supernatural when I deliberately choose to engage in them – and when there is room for me to inject my doubts and reservations into our classroom discussions.