Blemished mourning

Through the cracks

After Papa died in the summer of 2018, I was intent on chronicling my year of mourning as thoroughly as possible; but, unavoidably, many of my kaddish experiences fell through the cracks between my blog posts… I had neither the bandwidth nor the time necessary to cover every significant moment.

Each kaddish blog post of mine took on a life of its own. I would begin by recording some preliminary thoughts and then allow my reflections on the Jewish texts I’d been exploring to guide my hands across the keyboard. Usually, I would reach “the end” of every blog post upon realizing that it was complete… but there was always, always more to be written.

That’s part of why I’m blogging to this day.

Week after week I remember telling myself that I would include those inevitably omitted moments in future blog posts… but I could never quite keep up with life, and my project was, naturally, limited to my one year of mourning.

Admittedly, there were certain things that I was uncomfortable sharing publicly during that painful period, such as my decision not to recite kaddish for Babushka, my mother’s mother, who died several months after my Papa did… And some of those reflections, perhaps, I will never share.

There was one particular incident, however, that I very much did want to reflect upon in my Skeptic’s Kaddish series, which I never got around to because of timing.


Jewish tradition

The traditional Jewish mourning period for a parent is twelve Hebrew months, unlike the mourning period for other immediate family members, which lasts for only thirty days.

The first seven days after the funeral are known as the shiva, and these are the most restrictive days. Mourners stay at home during that period, seated on low stools and accepting visitors who come to comfort them. Following is the remainder of the first 30 days, called shloshim (literally: thirty), during which many restrictions remain, including not shaving and not getting a haircut.

After the shloshim, those mourning a parent continue reciting the mourner’s kaddish daily in a prayer quorum, usually for a total of eleven months, and several restrictions remain. These include not purchasing new clothing; not attending celebratory events; and not listening to live music.


The blemish

I had no difficulty in avoiding the purchase of new clothing, and I was mindful to avoid attending celebratory events. For example, my friend Arielle’s son Lavie was born during my kaddish year, and while I was excited to attend his ritual circumcision, I dutifully departed before the celebratory meal that followed.

Throughout the course of that year, I thought through potential challenges to my mourning practices in advance, and I conscientiously avoided missteps. The family outing that led to my mistake had been entirely unplanned.

Israel Independence Day, a Spring holiday, was several days before my flight to America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone in May 2019. We’d had no particular plans to celebrate, beyond watching the fireworks from afar and enjoying a family dinner at home, but my wife spontaneously suggested that we take our then 4¼-year-old daughter to watch the fireworks up close.

We were concerned because of the late hour but somehow managed to coax her into taking an afternoon nap so that she wouldn’t be overtired at night; then we were off, with her perched upon my shoulders.

My Jerusalem stone

At the time, I was also very preoccupied with the upcoming unveiling. In fact, when we arrived at Papa’s beloved Promenade for the fireworks, I took that opportunity to search for a Jerusalem stone, thinking about how I might place it atop his tombstone in a few days time.

This took place during my eleventh and final month of daily kaddish recitations, and I was emotionally and physically worn out. When the renowned Shalva Band, a group of disabled musicians, started playing beneath the fireworks, I was pleased to see them live, for I’d read so much about them in the press; and when the lead singer, a blind woman, joked that we would have to describe the fireworks display to her, I recall being very amused.


My realization

Days later, at home with my brother and my mother in New Jersey, it hit me. I had accidentally listened to live music during my year of mourning.

My brother and I were downstairs in the basement, discussing Jewish mourning traditions, when it dawned on me; I actually needed a minute to process this realization. “Oh…. shit.” In truth, I didn’t have any feelings of guilt because my error had been inadvertent; and I knew that I had been trying my best. Still, I did experience a pang of regret over having blemished my year of mourning… after having invested so much of myself in prayer, study, and tradition.


Today

Today, I find myself thankful for this memory… It has become one of many that I continue to reflect upon; and in retrospect, I’m actually pleased that my year of mourning for Papa was imperfect – because that is a reflection of myself.

To India (and others) with love

How did I end up on WordPress?

The Times of Israel website is an international news portal, read by millions of people around the world every month, and, of course, the percentage of its readership that is Jewish is particularly high, as one would probably expect.

Given this, I naturally decided to publish my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series there following my father’s death. The decision was an instinctive one.

Later, after I’d completed my year of reciting kaddish, I eventually decided to transfer the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ to this personal WordPress blog, primarily so that I, my family, and our friends could more readily browse and navigate my yearlong kaddish journey in honor of Papa.


The WordPress that readers do not see

WordPress, WordPress, WordPress.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less in 2020.

In a world of soundbites, Tweets and Instagram posts, I rejected those limited mediums in favor of substance. I’ve always been a writer at heart; blogging came naturally to me. But- inescapably- today’s WordPress is just another node on the social network.

Those of you who don’t blog on WordPress wouldn’t know that WordPress encourages its bloggers to create Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogs, as well as to monetize our blogs in various ways. It also goes a step further – the website provides us with readership statistics. Look how many people have viewed your blog today! Look how many people have commented! Look have many people have ‘liked’ one of your posts! Look! Look! Look!

Look to see what countries most of your views are coming from! Look! Look! Look!

In any case, I don’t quite understand it, but it seems that most of my views are coming from India and surrounding countries.


Would you like to understand me?

And, so, I find myself in an unexpected position, as everything I write is from a distinctly Jewish perspective. I don’t have any personal connection to India (although I ❤️ Indian food), but apparently many residents of India, among others throughout Asia, find my content intriguing.

On the one hand, some ideas and values are universal, and I relish discussions on culture, religion, and politics across international borders. On the other hand, being committedly Jewish is a very particular experience in some very fundamental ways, and I’d like to expound upon some of these for my new readers. Based upon our interactions, it would seem that you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from.

Below are some preliminary personal reflections on how I relate to being a Jew.


Judaism: not a “religion”

Much of this feels odd for me to write because it’s all so ingrained in me, but, still, let’s lay out some basics.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that Judaism is unlike every other “religion” that I am aware of in one very specific way (feel free to challenge me with contradictory evidence). The reason I put the word “religion” in quotes is – Judaism is not really a religion. Or, rather, if you want to insist that it is a “religion” (as some do), then you must make a distinction between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”.

In Russian, for example (but not in colloquial American English), there rightly exist two separate terms: 1) Yevrei (A Hebrew; a Jew by nationality) and 2) Iudei (A person of the Jewish faith). A Yevrei is analogous to an Indian, and a Iudei is akin to a person of the Hindu faith.

For the vast majority of Jewish history, no such distinction existed because, as I’ve written, previous to the Jewish Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries:

… one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion.

The more curious among you may be interested to know that a Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch Republic) was the first Jew to publicly challenge the basic tenets of Jewish faith, including the core doctrine that the Torah is of Divine origin. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and the Jewish community expelled him for his iconoclastic views. In those times, a Jew could not declare his rejection of the Jewish faith and expect to remain in the Jewish fold.

In the modern day, this is no longer an issue outside of the most traditional circles. Many Jews comfortably identify as agnostics or atheists, while maintaining their cultural Jewish identities and even affiliating with Jewish religious communities. In many conversations of mine with religious people of other faith traditions, I have found that this concept is very challenging for them. Can there be such a thing as an atheist Christian or Muslim?


Peoplehood: a primary facet of Jewish identity

Personally, I have always felt very comfortable in my skin as a Jew, and I was always proud of my ethnic identity even as a child, long, long before I decided that it bore deep exploration.

As I have explored the many facets of Jewish identity over the years, as well as my respective degrees of attachment to them, my thinking has gradually evolved, and ultimately, I’ve come to some fairly straightforward understandings of myself.


An understanding of peoplehood as extended family

I had a wonderful conversation not so long ago with somebody who had converted to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion process. Of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy (in all its variants) is the most legalistic. It is the most committed to the observance of halakhah, which is Jewish religious law.

Orthodoxy (and Conservative Judaism as well) maintains the traditional legal definition of ‘Who is a Jew’, which is as follows: one must either 1) be born to a Jewish mother, or 2) convert to Judaism before a council of 3 adult Jewish males who committedly live according to halakhah.

The Orthodox convert with whom I was conversing laid out the following train of thought for me:

  1. Halakhah is God’s Law.
  2. God’s Law defines who is a Jew, including the setting of the standards for conversion to Judaism.
  3. Conversions to Judaism performed according to halakhah are legitimate, and conversions conducted by other standards are illegitimate. (Reform Judaism, for example, does not consider halakhah binding.)
  4. Any understanding of Jewish group identity not based upon God’s Law is inherently unreliable and based upon human, limited biases.
  5. These limited human biases regarding the matter of “Who is a Jew” ultimately have no bearing upon “true reality” (which is entirely defined by God’s will) and boil down to nothing more than mere human racism.

In the interest of dialogue, I responded as follows:

  1. It is natural to love one’s family, including family members who may have different ethnic identities than one has him/herself.
  2. According to Jewish tradition and religious doctrine, the Jewish people are the descendants of our forefather Abraham and foremother Sarah, and this, according to our tradition, includes all converts throughout the centuries.
  3. It is therefore no more racist for a Jew to have a special love for his/her people than it would be for someone to love their extended family, and neither halakhah nor God need enter into this equation.

That’s how I see it. The Jewish people are an extended family.

By the way, there is another simple reason why my love of the Jewish people is not racist: conversion. Simple put, the Jews have never been an exclusive club. While we are, indeed, a people, any human being on earth can join our tribe.


An understanding of peoplehood as another step beyond the monkeysphere

Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s a very important concept, otherwise known as the monkeysphere. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person… Humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships…

150 stable relationships is the average limit for us humans, but that’s not to say that all of those relationships are equally meaningful to us. Within our respective monkeyspheres, we usually care most about our nuclear family members, then our friends, and then our communities, right?

Of course, we humans are also naturally concerned with other human beings far beyond our monkeyspheres. For example, we are likely to be concerned with the well-being of other people in the cities and countries where we reside. Many of us are even concerned with all of humanity’s well-being – otherwise why would one be concerned about global pollution and carbon emissions?

There is clearly a spectrum for every one of us, ranging from the most particular to the most universal relationships, and one of my rabbis once made a beautiful point to me in this vein, regarding the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Essentially, he explained, our universal concern for others throughout the world is grounded in our ability to empathize with and appreciate the worth of every individual human being. We are capable of relating to the humanity of those whom we will never meet because we intimately recognize the humanity of those who are within our monkeyspheres, and we intuitively understand that all humans have close, stable relationships with other humans – just as we do ourselves.

If we take this a step farther, we can make the following argument: our relationships with our nuclear families inform our relationships with our circles of friends, which in turn inform our relationships with our communities, which in turn inform our relationships with those who live in our cities, etc., etc.

Essentially, each of our spheres of concern allow our limited human minds to grasp the concept of the next larger sphere beyond it. One cannot truly be universally concerned for all of humanity if one does not first understand the experiences of being human and of maintaining close human relationships.

My relationship to my people is one of my many spheres of concern. Because of this relationship, I am better able to value your humanity, dear Reader, even if we’ll never meet.

By the way, the fact that my people live throughout the world in different countries and cultures makes it all the easier for me to relate to people who may have very different life experiences than my own.


Carrying my people with me everywhere

At its core, the Torah has always been a legal system. Regardless of whether it is of Divine origin or not, it is the Law that we have lived by since first becoming an independent nation. Of course, we became a nation some three millennia ago – at a time when all nations were known by their gods; and the One God, the Creator of the Universe, was, for the ancient Israelites, their Monarch.

There was a time when I had convinced myself of the Torah’s Divine origin. I believed that, ultimately, all of halakhic practice came from God, and that I was obligated by God to adhere to it.

After a year of studying Torah in Jerusalem, I traveled to Russia for a summer to work at a JAFI children’s camp. There, I was one of only two observant people on staff (the other was my not-yet-wife). We two were the only ones limiting ourselves to kosher food, and I was the only one who prayed three times a day, donning phylacteries and prayer shawl every morning.

Even back then, believing as I did that I was following God’s will, the experience of committedly adhering to the traditional Jewish way of life in the diaspora left me with an unexpected insight, which had nothing to do with the spiritual or the supernatural.

In a substantive way, our lives in our respective countries are defined by local legal systems, languages, and popular cultures. Humans are of particular nationalities while they live in their home countries, but once they emigrate, how many future generations maintain the nationalities of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? Let’s say a couple moves from India to the USA. How strongly will their American-born children identify as Indian? What about their American-born grandchildren?

Every summer that I traveled to work in Russia, the traditions of the Jewish people surrounded me like a bubble, reinforcing my national identity. One who follows the traditions of the Torah can never fully assimilate into another culture; (s)he can never cease identifying as a member of the Jewish people, even as (s)he may very strongly identify with the country in which (s)he resides.

As a Jew who finds tremendous personal meaning in his ties to the Jewish people, the calculus is quite simple.

Disillusionment

Some cultural aspects of Orthodox Judaism require a lot of explanation, which makes them challenging to write about with accuracy and general appeal both. Also, I am no authority on this subject and am sure to miss some pertinent points in any explanation that I offer.

Nevertheless, I want to try, to the best of my ability, to describe some of the historic developments behind a particular facet of Orthodox Judaism: the tendency of the vast majority of today’s Orthodox rabbis to make religiously conservative rulings on matters of halakhah (Jewish law). These include:

I also want to touch upon a related subject that is very personal to me: the minority of modern day Orthodox halakhic authorities who tend to make religiously liberal rulings.

I will attempt to paint this composition in broad strokes, but even so I will have to cover much more canvas that I prefer.

* * *

Setting the stage:
The Mishnah & Talmud

Let’s set the stage somewhat for the Jewishly uninitiated.

Jewish Orthodoxy operates under a few fundamental premises. First and foremost, there exists a single omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. This God personally gave the Torah to the Jewish people some three thousand years ago, which is ostensibly the basis for all Jewish religious laws that developed throughout the subsequent centuries.

Secondly, according to mainstream doctrine, the Torah given by God was not limited to merely the Pentateuch, which is traditionally known as the ‘Written Torah’. God’s Torah also includes what is popularly called the ‘Oral Torah’, which was intended to never be written down – a tradition to be passed down orally from generation to generation. The ‘Oral Torah’ is considered to be as authoritative as the ‘Written Torah’.

As human history had it, the ‘Oral Torah’ ceased being oral when Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (Judea, ~135 to ~217 CE) compiled and redacted the six orders of the Mishnah some time around 200 CE. This was done to preserve the ‘Oral Torah’ in the face of persecution at Roman hands. The rabbis feared that the oral traditions from the 2nd Temple period would be lost, and so the Mishnah thus became the authoritative source for all developments in ‘Oral Torah’. Following this, the next major, authoritative written work of ‘Oral Torah’ became the Babylonian Talmud, written and compiled in exile at around 500 CE.

The Talmud, which expounded upon the Mishnah, became the primary religious text upon which further works of Halakhah (Jewish law) were anchored, and it remains so to this day. Certain Halakhic codes of the medieval period are widely held as particularly authoritative to this day, but these differ among different Orthodox Jewish communities (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite).

It’s important to understand that while nobody denies that the Mishnah and the Talmud were written by humans, Orthodox doctrine maintains that these are part of an unbroken chain of transmission (from teacher to student) of the Divine ‘Oral Torah’, which is intended as an interpretive tradition. Accordingly, God’s Torah contains many levels of interpretation, and later generations of Torah scholars have been left to discover those that have not yet been revealed.

* * *

Fast forward to early modernity:
Jewish Emancipation in Europe

There exist real distinctions between the way most modern day Orthodox rabbis tend to make halakhic rulings versus how this was done for many centuries. Why?

It’s important to understand that before the Jewish Emancipation, during the Age of Enlightenment, the non-Orthodox movements (precursors to today’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, etc.) did not exist. Nor did Orthodox Judaism exist, as the precursors to both ultra-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy were also born during that era. These distinct approaches to Judaism all came about as modern religious responses to the European Jews’ historic abandonment of their ghettos and integration into 18th and 19th century gentile society.

The Emancipation and the resulting births of these Jewish religious denominations had at least two major ramifications upon rabbis’ religious approaches.

Firstly, Jews were no longer living in insular Jewish communities under local religious leaders. Following the Emancipation, rabbis could only exert religious authority over those who accepted it from them. Previous to that period, one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion. Afterwards, identifying as a Jew became a matter of choice, with assimilation offering the Jews great social and economic benefits. Rabbis had to become convincing or become irrelevant.

Secondly, the newly born heterodox and Orthodox denominations locked horns in endless religious and political battles for the future of Judaism’s soul, thereby shaping their respective positions and practices. Heterodox Jews deliberately wanted to be identified primarily as Europeans (‘not Orthodox’) in order to integrate into gentile Europe while maintaining elements of their Jewish identities.

Inversely, Orthodox communities were deliberate in rejecting “illegitimate” heterodox religious practices, which they considered outside the traditional framework of ‘Oral Torah’. Neither group wanted to validate the other, and therefore, at least in part, each came to be defined by its rejection of the other.

Both of these factors hold true today, but further, more recent historic changes transpired that also deeply influenced the dynamics behind modern rabbinic rulemaking, as well as the relationships between rabbis and the Jewish laity.

* * *

More recently…
The Holocaust

For the purposes of this particular post, I want to make one very particular point about the implications of the decimation of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis: that murder of six million Jews was no less than the complete destruction of the vast majority of Orthodox communities in Europe, along with their respective religious traditions.

Thus, for example, whereas the laity of Europe’s Litvishe (non-Hasidic Orthodox) Jewish communities once maintained their kosher kitchens without having to consult their rabbis over every little nuance, those ageless family traditions that had been passed down from mothers to their daughters through the many generations, were erased. Beyond this, the vast majority of religiously literate European Jews (who could navigate the Talmud and the Mishnah) were forever lost to us.

In short, after the Holocaust came to its gruesome end, Jews who wished to live according to Halakhah were almost entirely reliant upon rabbis for religious rulings pertaining to their daily lives, as their families’ traditions had been murdered, along with their parents, grandparents, and most of learned European Jewry.

* * *

Even more recently…
The Internet

Historically speaking, halakhic rulings were made locally. These included rulings on Jewish conversions (a particularly touchy political subject today), but they essentially covered all areas of Jewish communal, family and personal life.

For centuries, local rabbis issued religious rulings according to the realities and needs of their respective communities and of the individuals who came to them for religious guidance. Their rulings would account for the nuances of situations that went beyond the prescriptions of popularly accepted halakhic codes, sometimes even ruling against the codes’ instructions; but the local decisor’s’ wisdom, learning, and authority was accepted, respected, and implemented by his community.

Certainly, rabbis of different communities had disputes about their respective religious rulings and communities’ ways of practice; and many such disagreements were recorded and preserved in pieces of correspondence between scholars. Nevertheless, nobody would have thought to say that one rabbi’s rulings were illegitimate – every single rabbi was considered a link in the chain of Jewish interpretive oral tradition.

Then came the Jewish Emancipation, as mentioned, and that historic paradigm shift began to unfold. Given the newfound mobility of European Jewry, its members could select the rabbis and communities that most suited their personal preferences, and Orthodox rabbis found themselves judged, in part, by their stances towards non-Orthodox Judaism and gentile society.

Hardline religious stances in the Orthodox Jewish community came to carry an air of ‘authenticity’, which later gained further traction after the devastation of the Holocaust when those wishing to abide by Halakhah were left reliant upon religious leaders intent upon rebuilding a traditional, Torah-based Jewish society.

Broadly speaking, Orthodox rabbinic leaders gradually succeeded at refounding Orthodoxy following the Holocaust, and, in a lot of ways, it came to thrive as a counterculture in the increasingly permissive West. However, rabbis continued to be judged by the laity and by other rabbis on the basis of their ‘commitments’ to ‘authentic’ Torah (juxtaposed with modernity, secularism, and non-Orthodoxy), and much of the shell-shocked post-war Orthodox community was distrustful of non-Jewish cultural influences.

Then, some decades later, with the advent and eventual global adoption of the Internet, nearly limitless information became instantly available to everybody. This included news of rabbinical rulings, the majority of which had been becoming increasingly monolithic in the decades following the Holocaust. Most Orthodox rabbis that wanted to keep their jobs had to toe the majority’s line, else the global Orthodox community would learn of their ‘heresies’ (I invoke this word with irony), and they would face immediate backlash.

* * *

Too long; not long enough

This post is both too long and not long enough, but I did my best, given the medium, to fill in large sections of the picture. In truth, there are many more factors that I haven’t touched upon, such as:

  • The power dynamic at play between the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel and Orthodoxy in the diaspora…
  • The politics at play between rabbinical associations representing the various religious denominations…
  • The implications of traditional Jewish texts becoming available, often with accessible translations, via the Internet…

* * *

My eventual disillusionment with Torah and rabbis in general

I used to peripherally occupy and aspire to a particular Jewish space, which was that of modern-minded, intellectually honest Orthodoxy. My community was committed to religious observance, traditional Jewish text study, open channels of communications with those who held differing views, and the modern sensibilities of civil rights and human dignity.

Broadly speaking, we were, as a group, turned off to the kneejerk restrictive religious rulings representative of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis. This became increasingly true as we poured through Halakhic texts together, learning that lenient positions existed within Jewish tradition, and realizing that many mainstream Orthodox religious rulings and social norms are not required by Jewish law.

Unfortunately for me, as I developed close relationships with some intellectual, religiously lenient rabbis, I found that a good number of them were also prone to issuing kneejerk religious rulings, which were flexible, rather than restrictive.

I came to understand that intellectual religious leaders could justify nearly any interpretation of Torah, meaning that they were ultimately playing with traditional Jewish texts to provide religious bases for their personal sensibilities. For these Orthodox rabbis who sincerely consider themselves links in the chain of interpretative Jewish oral tradition, their rulings are as legitimate as those of any other intellectual, knowledgeable Torah scholar… I am not doubting their intentions or commitments to God and the Jewish people, but I have come to profoundly doubt the Divine essence, root, and purpose of the system that all of these rabbis are committed to.

If Torah can be nearly anything, then what is Torah? And – if Torah reflects the restrictive majority’s views, then what is Torah to me?