Jewish and normal

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.

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.

“…Two minutes of silence”

Suzette often posts quotes that I connect with, but certainly some more than others. This quote from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (whom I hadn’t known of) really speaks to me.

In fact, I recently wrote a micropoem about the special silence of the night, which I have scheduled to be published on my Twitter account tomorrow.

It goes like this:

Envelopes night's stillness
Buzzes air stone pump
Empties mind of distractions
Come words in their correct
Order only
at night
Clacks
the keyboard

Such lovely
Lovely silence ~aloneness

Hides moon behind cloud
Understands poetry

perfectly

Itself

Suzette B's Blog

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

“Creativity can only come from silence. If we maintain two minutes of silence every day, then we will see that a whole new dimension of life opens up.”

― Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

View original post

1,000 – Thank You!

Friends,

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.

Sincerely,
David

Wherefore ‘ben Alexander’?

Some basics of Jewish names

Most Jewish people have Jewish names, which they use in religious contexts, although they do not necessarily go by them in public. Some Jewish names like mine (David) are universal enough, but others do not roll off the gentile tongue so easily. Jewish names are typically of Jewish languages: primarily Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino.

Of course, as many Jews are secular; non-practicing; or unaffiliated with religious community, their Jewish names are not particularly relevant in their daily or weekly lives. It’s the Jews who somewhat regularly attend synagogue services who are most often called by their Jewish names.

Now, in the traditional religious context, one is not simply known by his/her Jewish first name. One is known as [first name] [son/daughter of] [parent’s name]. For prayers of healing, I would be called David [son of] [mother’s name]. When I am called to make a blessing upon the Torah scroll at the synagogue, I am traditionally called David [son of] [father’s name].

One notable thing regarding my personal Jewish identity is that neither of my parents were assigned specifically Jewish names at birth because they were both born into the militantly secular and institutionally antisemitic USSR; for the most part, Jews in the USSR were inclined to downplay their Jewish identities. My Mama is Svetlana. My Papa was Alexander.


‘ben Alexander’

As an adult, I became religious, and that’s when being called up to make blessings upon the Torah scroll at shul became relevant to me.

At the first, as I was learning the ropes, I was rather self-conscious about being called up as David [son of] Alexander. Nobody else in any of my Jewish communities had such a Jewish name, nor a father with such a Jewish name as Alexander. Being called David [son of] Svetlana would be even more uncommon, but I have never been sick enough to need or request prayers for health – so that situation has yet to arise.

Anyway, my proclivity for Jewish tradition and active involvement in religious Jewish community ultimately caused me to internalize Papa’s name as a significant part of my identity. His name was officially part of my name; and… perhaps you’ve already surmised that the Hebrew for [son of] is [‘ben’].

I am, therefore, the Jew known as David ben Alexander.


‘Alexander’

The Legend of the Gordian Knot

Papa the mathematician launched his educational mathematics website in 1996, shortly after the Internet had made its way into people’s homes around the world. But what to call it?

At the time, we were living on a street called Alexander Road, which amused Papa and somewhat excited his imagination; and he decided to call his website and company ‘Cut the Knot’ after the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. Papa’s vision was to present mathematics as only seemingly impossible to conquer. Much like the Gordian Knot, which Alexander the Great cleverly sliced apart, Papa believed that mathematics riddles all had comprehensible, straightforward solutions.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Eastern Europeans

I’ve come to learn that in Eastern Europe, some non-Jewish names are more common among Jews than others. To the trained ear, such names suggest that their owners could very well be Jewish. Boris, Mark, and Alexander are such names. (Other gentile names generally trigger the opposite assumption… for example: Fyodor, Nikolai, Vasily.)

I never thought to discuss Papa’s name with him, but he would certainly have been sensitive to this cultural nuance.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Jews

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I learned this, but it turns out that the name Alexander is, surprisingly, a Jewish name, even though it is of distinctly Greek origin; and – it entered Jewish culture because of Alexander the Great.

In the Talmud there is a popular Jewish story about an interaction between Alexander the Great and the Jewish High Priest Simeon the Just, in which Alexander bowed down to the Jew (Tractate Yoma 69a):

בעשרים וחמשה [בטבת] יום הר גרזים [הוא] דלא למספד יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלהינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתנו להם באו והודיעו את שמעון הצדיק מה עשה לבש בגדי כהונה ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה ומיקירי ישראל עמו ואבוקות של אור בידיהן וכל הלילה הללו הולכים מצד זה והללו הולכים מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם מי הללו אמרו לו יהודים שמרדו בך כיון שהגיע לאנטיפטרס זרחה חמה ופגעו זה בזה כיון שראה לשמעון הצדיק ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לפניו אמרו לו מלך גדול כמותך ישתחוה ליהודי זה אמר להם דמות דיוקנו של זה מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי The twenty-fifth of Tebeth is the day of Mount Gerizim, on which no mourning is permitted. It is the day on which the Cutheans demanded the House of our God from Alexander the Macedonian so as to destroy it, and he had given them the permission, whereupon some people came and informed Simeon the Just. What did the latter do? He put on his priestly garments, robed himself in priestly garments, some of the noblemen of Israel went with him carrying fiery torches in their hands, they walked all the night, some walking on one side and others on the other side, until the dawn rose. When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them: Who are these [the Samaritans]? They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you. As he reached Antipatris, the sun having shone forth, they met. When he saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. They said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew? He answered: His image it is which wins for me in all my battles.

In brief, Alexander the Great bowed to the Jewish High Priest because the image of the Priest’s face would appear before him before his battles, leading him to victory when he was on the battlefields. Ultimately, according to legend, Alexander the Great left the Holy Temple in Jerusalem be.

Further adds Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin:

… for memorializing the occasion, [Simeon the Just] suggested… [that] all male [Jewish priests] born that year would be named “Alexander.”

Alexander liked the idea, and the Jews, who were very thankful to Alexander for all that he did for them, including sparing the Holy Temple from destruction, gratefully named their children after him. Thus, the name Alexander forever became a Jewish name.

‘Why Is Alexander a Jewish Name?’ by Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin

I actually have no idea if Papa knew about this Talmudic story, but I get a real kick out of the fact that Papa’s name is, indeed, a Jewish one; and not only that – Papa’s name became a Jewish name because of the same great conqueror who inspired the culmination of Papa’s lifework: ‘Cut the Knot’.


Ben Alexander’ or ‘ben Alexander’

I haven’t made mention of this before, but I actually created this WordPress account in 2012, long before Papa died – long before I became ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’. Back then, my blog had a rather uninspired Jewish blog name; and – back then I was blogging anonymously.

I have always enjoyed writing, but it’s only been in the past several years that I’ve felt comfortable enough in my own voice to blog so very publicly about sensitive personal matters under my own name. Back in 2012, I deliberately called myself ‘Ben Alexander’ so that nobody would find me out. I deliberately chose it as my pen name, knowing that most people would parse ‘Ben’ as a common English name. That’s why I capitalized it back when.

Then – in April of 2020 when I was transferring the many posts I had written about reciting kaddish for Papa to this website, I made a seemingly slight change to my handle. I changed the first letter to lower case, rendering myself ‘ben Alexander’, and thereby deemphasizing the ‘Ben’.

Of course, people still continue to assume that my full name is actually ‘Ben Alexander’, but that is okay with me. For those who are curious enough to explore my website and get to know me, I have an ‘about’ page with my full name available therein. I am, as they say, hiding in plain sight.

This version of my name continues to feel so very right and comfortable… I am deeply proud to be known as:

David ben Alexander.

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.

Homunculus of death

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 thought of my above words (which I wrote towards the end of my year of mourning for Papa) just recently because I’d noticed an unexpected degree of darkness and morbidity increasingly manifesting itself through my Twitter poetry.

Inspired by Ingrid, a fellow poet-blogger, I created this Twitter account and began writing daily Twitter poems at the turn of the year. At first, it seemed a light, creative exercise for me – a way to get my juices flowing. Now, having written more than two weeks of Twitter poems, I am glad I took the challenge – for reasons unforeseen.

Obviously, Twitter poetry is short. From a technical perspective, this requires that poets consider every word; every syllable; every letter. I knew this, and I do, expectedly, savor the difficulty of producing snippets of lines and verses that resonate. It’s not so easy, and it’s often frustrating to have my poetry limited by length, but it’s been very, very rewarding.

However, as I mentioned, there is something much deeper that I’ve been noticing. The terseness of these poems is actually – liberating. You see, this medium encourages me to spit out ideas without expounding upon them, very much unlike this blog post, in which I want to explore a new idea of mine with you in some depth. Twitter’s restrictions, I am finding, have been freeing me – from myself.

Unlike some other mourners that I’ve known, I would not say that something died in me when Papa passed away. Rather, I would say that something new took root – something was born within me that day – an unrelenting and unsparing dreadful little homunculus. Ever since, this somber fellow has colored all of my thoughts in shades of death, but whenever I have attempted to express these morbid thoughts in verse or prose my mind has quickly taken over from the gloomy creature in an attempt to beautify, contextualize, or rationalize them…


But Twitter won’t allow this

Twitter simply doesn’t permit my mind the space it needs to blunt the heartache caused me by the homunculus. The creature eagerly spits out its ceaseless death and fatalism, and, finding purchase in the Twitterverse, its words sit there, raw and unanswerable.

Now, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unhappy person; I am blessed in many, many ways, and I love being alive. Still, my perception of the world ever since Papa died bears a deep, flapping, shadowy gash, which the homunculus of death is constantly drawn towards. It simply won’t let me ignore the wound. The gash cannot be unseen, and the homunculus will not be subdued.

And… so… it seems a healthy thing to me to allow my homunculus free rein over my Twitter account, whenever it so desires. I cannot deny the horrid little beast’s existence, nor should I, for it is a part of me.

Perhaps, by reading its Twitter poetry, I will be better able to understand its mind – and my own.