Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.-Norman Cousins (1915-90)
Since my return to blogging in April 2020, following my year of mourning for Papa, I have searched for interesting and likeminded blogs with themes similar to my Skeptic’s Kaddish.
Just recently I was very gratified to come across a blog by Amanda Achtman called ‘Dying to Meet You’, in which she has taken to blogging daily in 2021 about death from an interfaith Christian-Jewish perspective.
The short video below is one that I found through Amanda’s blog. I was already familiar with this Jewish folktale, but I consider it a powerfully poignant and important lesson and often reflect upon it, for it applies to all of humankind. I’m very thankful to be able to share it with all of you here, on The Skeptic’s Kaddish:
Edward Reichman was an Israeli billionaire and philanthropist who died a few years ago. When he passed away, he left a great fortune worth billions of dollars.
He left his family with two wills and instructions that one be opened immediately after his death and the other be opened 30 days after his death.
Among his requests in the first will was that he asked that he be buried with a specific pair of socks that he owned. However, despite the family’s best efforts, the burial organizers refused to let Mr. Reichman be buried with his socks on, as it was against Jewish law – one may not be buried with any item of clothing.
The family argued that Mr. Reichman was a very learned, religious person, and that he must have had a good reason for wanting to do this; however, as the rabbi explained to the family, “Although your father left that request when he was in this world, now that he is in the World of Truth, he surely understands that it is in his best interests to be buried without his socks.”
So – he was buried without his socks.
30 days later, the family opened the second will that allotted his wealth. In the letter, it read: “My dear children, by now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to understand that a man can have 1 billion dollars in this world, but in the end, he can’t even take with him his favorite pair of socks!”
What really matters in life is not how much money you have in your pocket, nor how successful you are, but rather the good you can bring to this world; that is all you can really take with you, and that is all that will really live on.
‘Beyond Meaning or The Resolution of Opposites’
– a d’Verse poetics prompt
For the listener, who listens in the snow,-Wallace Stevens, ‘The Snow Man’
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Harkened through the snows of New Jersey, Heeded through the storms of Cleveland, Purest nothing, on nothing, absorbed me, Sheerest nothing, on nothing, I am Upon nothing, nothing I, one/dering About nothing, not touched much by snow, Where nothings, together, not nothing, Where something within ached to go, Nothing, listened, through blustery blizzards, Whispering, nothing, nothing, here I am Through cold nothing, I heard, I shivered, Something, mine, called [from] Jerusalem.
The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Beyond Meaning or The Resolution of Opposites’ prompt.
The writing challenge: We were to focus on the theme of ‘paradox’ and select one of the following to build poems around, of which I selected #2:
1. Here are some lines from Paul Dunbar’s The Paradox: – select ONE and build your poem around it.
- I am thy fool in the morning, thou art my slave in the night.
- I am the mother of sorrows; I am the ender of grief;
- I am the bud and the blossom, I am the late-falling leaf
2. Take the last lines of Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man and write a poem that is imbued with the existential paradox implied there. [the meaning of which is the ridding of our usual human observation and viewing winter as a ‘man of snow’ not a snowman! (more HERE)]
- For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I had an unexpected flash of insight the other day regarding the following themes:
- My Jewish identity
- Living in Israel
- Blogging on WordPress
My Jewish identity
While I only encountered Orthodox Judaism and gradually began to adopt a religious lifestyle in college, I have always strongly identified as a Jew. If I were to sort the many facets of my identity out into a hierarchy, I would put the label ‘human’ at the very top. My second tier would include: ‘brother’, ‘father’, ‘heteronormative male’. ‘husband’, ‘Jew’, and ‘son’ in no particular order.
For several reasons, the many strictures of religious Jewish life have always appealed to me. In part, I feel that I am simply being outwardly true to my core identity by presenting myself as a Jew publicly in the most apparent way possible.
Mind you, I began college more than twenty years ago; and my religious journey has had many ups and downs in the many years since. There were periods when I reverted to a secular lifestyle, and there were periods when I managed to convince myself that the God of the Torah existed and strived to follow His laws to my utmost accordingly.
I have been up, down, and all around on the spectrum of religious Judaism. However, throughout those years during which I turned back towards secularism, I always missed the outward trappings of traditional observance. The personal inconveniences of keeping strictly kosher, keeping Shabbat traditionally, praying thrice daily, etc., never bothered me ~ it was, rather, always a question of the extent to which any of these practices actually mattered.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that while I never minded the demands that traditional Judaism made upon my life, I did find myself wishing that my religious lifestyle wouldn’t create such barriers between me and all other human beings on earth who were not attempting to live a traditional Torah lifestyle.
Living in Israel
Not religiously comfortable for all Jews
From a religious perspective, Israel is not necessarily a comfortable place for all Jews to live.
For political and historical reasons, the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox, rather than heterodox (Conservative, Reform, etc.), and its religious monopoly over Jewish life operates with the full weight of the government behind it. For example, Jewish weddings performed in Israel outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate are granted no legal status (and civil marriage does not exist). Also, the Chief Rabbinate’s state-empowered religious monopoly grants it the exclusive right to certify Israel’s food establishments as “kosher”, unlike everywhere else in the world.
Also, questions of Jewish status are decided by the Chief Rabbinate for religious purposes. This decides whether or not citizens of Israel can get married in Israel at all, where they can be buried when they die, etc., etc. Therefore, Israeli citizens whose mothers are not Jewish, as required by religious law, are considered “not Jewish” by the Chief Rabbinate, and they cannot legally marry Jews in Israel without first undergoing religious conversions under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (even if they are secular).
Religiously comfortable for me
While I 100% oppose these infringements and all others on freedom of religion in Israel, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious Jewish life does not much inconvenience me on a personal level because I happen to live an Orthodox lifestyle (my wedding, for example, was conducted through the Chief Rabbinate).
Also, while I have explored and flirted with non-Orthodox religious communities, they do not feel like home to me personally. Therefore, as the vast majority of Israeli synagogues are Orthodox, my religious preferences are not marginalized in most public prayer spaces. Further, even when my commitment to my religious practices vacillates, it is always fluctuating on the spectrum between Jewish secularism and Orthodoxy, both of which are mainstream in Israeli society.
All of this is to say that I feel very at home in Israel from a religious perspective. Kosher food is – and kosher food establishments are – abundant, synagogues are available everywhere, the national holidays are my own religious holidays, etc., etc.
Living here in Israel (especially in Jerusalem) dramatically lowers the religious barriers between me and all the other people around me.
Blogging on WordPress
I have been increasingly enjoying the sense of community that I have discovered here on WordPress.
Bloggers from around the world share with – and are supportive of – one another, and for the first time since moving to Israel I have been feeling significantly less divorced from global society, which is predominantly not Jewish.
The unexpected insight that I had last week is that our virtual WordPress community grants me something not entirely dissimilar from that which living in Israel grants me: a sense of normalcy.
Of course, I am aware this comparison has many flaws. For one, every blogger chooses whom to interact with on their blog and on other people’s blogs. My virtual community is entirely self-selected and filtered according my preferences… and, of course, writing and reading blog posts is a far cry from in-person interactions… but… well…
Here on WordPress, I feel simply human.
I sit and write about the Playmobil toys scattered on the floor; stuffed animals, pillows on the sofa; markers, colored pencils on the table; Disney princess dolls and plastic ponies everywhere; a 3D Disney castle puzzle in front of me, fully constructed; fish in little aquarium, swimming around in all directions; bookshelf, full of books, toys, tchotchkes; colored balloons left over from our daughter's sixth birthday; gifts from parents, grandparents; traffic sounds from the left; the street not quite visible through the large rectangular flower grilled window; we sit quietly at our oval wooden table; we just woke up Friday morning; already we are, each of us, busy with projects; paint by numbers, color within the lines, compose
The writing challenge: Bring us to a time and place in your poem. Give us the smells, sights and sounds of your setting. Note that settings can be real or fictional, or a combination of both real and fictional elements.
N.B. On Shabbat, which begins at sunset on Friday and ends upon sunset on Saturday, Jews traditionally do not write, paint, nor use electronic devices (among other restrictions). In essence, according to Jewish tradition, we are not to “create” on Shabbat. Therefore, Friday mornings are the perfect time to engage in our respective creative projects.
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?
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…–Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7
… 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.
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.
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.
Initially, I intended not to mark this milestone for ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ publicly because… well… it rather feels to me like I’m flaunting this achievement. However, I have been seriously reconsidering this thinking because of my strong sense of community here on WordPress. I sincerely hope that none of you find this post to be in poor taste.
You see, I have decided to share this with you because this is actually our milestone, rather than mine; and I don’t take you for granted.
It’s also that blogging is, by its very nature, a deliberately interactive form of writing. Publishing is instantaneous, and the discussions that ensue in the comments sections are just as significant as the posts themselves, if not more so. Personally, I often find myself perusing the comment sections of other people’s blog posts even before I read the entries above them.
My ulterior motive for posting this update is that I would be especially happy to hear from you about what kind of content you, my community, would like me to create. I love writing, and I have been ever so greatly enjoying this blogging project, but there is no question that you and our relationship are the reason why I haven’t been writing in a private journal instead of a blog. Connecting with you is deeply important to me.
Friends, I appreciate you, and I profoundly appreciate our meaningful interactions.
Thank you very much.