She draws me;
Jews' age-old decree;
Through her we
are set free
for our holy day weekly ~
we simply can be
I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)
According to most traditional interpretations of Jewish religious law, Jews are forbidden from using electronic devices (such as computers, cell phones, etc.) on the Sabbath. This has its benefits and its drawbacks.
Papa died in July of 2018. I started blogging about my journey of mourning (i.e. kaddish) that August. That year was very intensive for me; I produced a great deal of content based upon numerous readings; research; reflections; recollections; conversations; and, yes, prayer. The kaddish, after all, is a prayer.
I have written so much about kaddish that I won’t belabor the following point; I will simply spell it out: traditionally, the kaddish doxologyis only recited among other Jews in a prayer quorum of ten adults. In other words, upon losing a loved one, those Jews who are inclined towards tradition will [at least attempt to] attend prayer services at a synagogue on a daily basis so that they can recite kaddish in memory and honor of their deceased loved ones.
My kaddish year ended in the summer of 2019. The global pandemic began less than one year later. By coincidence, I launched this blog at around at that time.
COVID-19 & kaddish
Even after I completed my year of mourning; even after I had recited my final kaddish; even after I had stopped researching and blogging about my experience of Jewish mourning… I couldn’t stop.
I conducted Google searches on kaddish every day; I continued looking for other kaddish bloggers; I continued thinking about Jewish mourning… I couldn’t stop myself. That is, to a large extent, why I decided to create this blog – I desperately needed some sort of outlet.
Obsessed with kaddish as I was, you can guess what I first thought of when all of the shuls (synagogues) were shuttered due to COVID-19. I immediately thought:
“Oh no – those poor mourners!” and:
“Thank God I completed my year of kaddish recitations before the pandemic hit – I would have been so lost that year without the structure of Jewish tradition. What would I have written about without reciting kaddish? What would I have reflected upon? Whom would I have exchanged my doubts with?”
You see, as much I made my traditional year of kaddish a uniquely personalized spiritual expedition (and, at that, one that embraced my theological skepticism), it wouldn’t have been much of a journey without the traditional Jewish framework that has served us for centuries. Sure, I went beyond the demands of Jewish tradition… but it was always-always dependably present in my daily life, ever beckoning for my reactions to its expectations.
COVID-19 upended human lives in sundry ways all around the world. For Jewish mourners, one of the greatest fatalities of the pandemic was the opportunity to recite the mourner’s kaddish for their loved ones. Synagogues were closed, prayer quorums were limited in number of attendees, and many Jewish mourners were left without their communities – and without their kaddish.
Alternatives to traditional kaddish
The pandemic forced people to get creative, and various alternatives to traditional kaddish recitation were proposed by various Jewish leaders and communities. Of course, different denominations took different approaches, as was to be expected.
The religiously liberal Jewish denominations generally accepted the idea that prayer services could be conducted online, rather than in person, and their religious authorities ruled that a virtual prayer quorum would suffice for the purposes of permitting mourners to recite kaddish. In the Orthodox world, opinions were divided, with most communities rejecting the religious validity of online prayer quorums.
Given my fascination and deep investment in the concept of kaddish, read everything that I could find on the subject; and I came across an article written by a young Orthodox rabbi who works at Brandeis University. Rabbi Seth Winberg published an opinion piece in the JTA, in which he suggested that Jewish tradition had long provided alternatives for kaddish in the absence of a minyan (prayer quorum):
Our ancestors created legitimate substitutions for Kaddish when a minyan wasn’t available, or when someone arrived late to shul, by using biblical verses with words similar to Kaddish — and we would do well to avail ourselves of those solutions now.
Rabbi Winberg wrote of “a modified version of the traditional prayer” which could be recited “privately at home,” and, curious, I reached out to him, requesting a copy of that 12th-13th century text, which he ever so kindly provided to me.
This prayer is very little known, or, at least, it certainly was before the pandemic broke out (and probably still is). In fact, I haven’t seen it included in a single Jewish prayerbook.
Anniversaries of Papa’s death
Last summer, when it came time for the 2nd anniversary of Papa’s death, Israel had entered its 2nd lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 1st lockdown, I remember hoping that we would come out of it in time for me to host a kiddush (refreshments after prayer services on Shabbat) in Papa’s honor. Naively, I never expected another lockdown.
To me, at that time, the shuttering of our synagogue was a temporary measure. To my mind, the dissolution of my Shabbat prayer community was also temporary. Thus, despite the 2nd lockdown, I invited my acquaintances and friends from my formerly existent prayer community to a kiddush in the park after services – back then, I was still relating to our weekly prayer quorum as merely having lapsed, rather than being gone.
Today, based upon Israel’s current reality, it seems possible that my Shabbat prayer community will gradually reconstitute itself, but most of its members have yet to return. The attendance and camaraderie today are shadows of what they once were. Israel’s situation is improving, but the way back to “normalcy” will be slow and long. Things will likely never be what they once were.
In any case, while I allow myself some optimism for the future, my Shabbat community does not currently exist as it did once. And, unlike last year, I don’t particularly want to host a kiddush in the park for a community that hasn’t been part of my life for more than a year. That feels unnatural to me.
“Kaddish for an individual”
Papa certainly wouldn’t have cared about me reciting kaddish for him on his yahrzeit. If anything, as I’ve said, he would have appreciated the idea of his loved ones enjoying themselves in his memory.
Last year, I somewhat accidentally missed reciting kaddish on the anniversary of Papa’s death. This year, I may do so deliberately. As I wrote last year, my practical Papa would not have cared. Perhaps we’ll mark his passing at a local waffle café that our daughter loves, just as we did last year. Afterwards, I’ll probably light a candle.
In terms of reciting kaddish, I may recite the prayer that Rabbi Winberg introduced me to – the kaddish for the individual. Technically, that prayer was designed for circumstances in which one is not able to join a full prayer quorum (which is traditionally required for kaddish recitation), but I can use it for my own purposes without breaking with Jewish tradition.
Tassels swinging as they walk
to the Wall on Saturdays;
perhaps not. It depends,
you know. Some wear frock
coats so you wouldn't
plus- tassels probably don't swing much under heavy polyester.
I went abroad
to teach a group of secular Jews
in Georgia. The
country. I wore my skullcap (that's
not what I call it) and
only ate kosher food. They asked me all about ultra-
Orthodoxy. I'm no authority. No
insider. Most of that community sees
me as no
different than secular
Jews, perhaps "worse".
Complicated to explain
without getting into theology.
Hard to explain even
to Jews. Moving
with them in holy Jerusalem;
a large group assembles on Saturdays
near my former downtown apartment to block
traffic. My secular father found
this fascinating, as he did
nearly everything; my wife
found it degrading. Me too.
Most who protest weekly
wear those frock coats,
indicating membership in a Hasidic sect. Those who
wear modern black
are of the "Lithuanian" ultra-
Orthodox persuasion, which, only several centuries ago,
Now they're united in Israel's parliament
against serving in the
defense forces, despite
living under their protection.
Difficult not to let
bias show like my epidermis.
to stick to the facts, Sir, Ma'am. That's what I am
here for. Not so sexy
writing about Jews; not
something the world cares to know about.
Some, mostly Hasidic,
will never, ever see my words online because their rabbis
forbid Internet access. Oh.
Those tassels are actually fringes,
tzitzit in Hebrew,
which I wear, sometimes
for months at a stretch, until I tire
through a religious crisis. Those frock coats?
Bekishes. Never worn one, nor
want to. It's ironic (
that they adopted the dress of non-
Jews in the Czarist
era and claim today that it's authentic Jewish garb.
I wouldn't wear that, even to cover
but I'm not trying
women don't wear pants and cover their hair upon marriage.
Some wear wigs; but some heed rabbis who rule:
never mind. Just the facts, Ma'am, Sir.
My skull cap is a kippah; that's
dome. Many call it
yarmulke. That's Yiddish. The majority who speak Yiddish
are Hasidic. The majority
who speak modern Hebrew
Jews' exteriors once mattered more
to me. I saw wisdom in beards;
now I have one;
it's meaningless. I once asked a rabbi why he didn't have one.
He'd never thought
about it; I felt foolish. Still
do. If tzitzit are concealed
by bekishes, you'll
note ear locks swinging as they
walk to the Wall on Saturdays;
perhaps not, but most Hasidic males have them. I
don't. I do
have insight into their
lifestyles, as I've studied
them; we share
a heritage and religious texts.
The rub is that most
of the world sees me and assumes I am one. I
For today’s d’Verse open link, I’ve decided to share a free verse poem that I wrote ten months ago, not long after I created this blog.
I rarely write free verse, although I think I should do more of it… but I struggle with poetry that doesn’t have any rules attached to it. What is it exactly that makes the above staggered sequence of words a poem?
Rather recently, I heard a young rabbi, a friend of mine, discussing monotheism with one of his Talmud students. She had been troubled by the line of religious reasoning that he’d espoused to the class; and she challenged him on the supposedly unique righteousness of monotheism.
His responses to her, I believe, were fairly reasonable.
Monotheism & me
The only concept of a supernatural being that I can wrap my mind or heart around is a single, omnipotent, and unknowable one. The existence of a creator of the universe is more plausible to me than a ‘Big Bang’, but I also put a very heavy emphasis on this being’s unknowable nature, far, far, far beyond possible human comprehension and our senses.
To be fair, I was born and raised a Jew, and my monotheistic beliefs (which are not entirely mainstream within the traditional Jewish community because I don’t much believe in a God who cares about anyone or involves himself in the lives of human beings) are clearly a product of my heritage and upbringing. If I had been born and raised elsewhere (India, for example), I very likely would have come to believe in polytheism. Still, this is where I stand.
Incidentally, this happens to be one challenge I have come to for those of any Abrahamic faith – why would God only be motivated to share Ultimate Truth (and therefore: Salvation) with a limited number of human beings in only one corner of the world? No answer to this question that I have come across has satisfied me.
Two arguments for pure monotheism
The young rabbi made several arguments for monotheism over polytheism, two of which especially resonate with me:
Monotheism encourages personal responsibility because there is only one Divine address to which one can address one’s grievances and desires. If prayer and penitence do not bring the desired results, one can then only find solutions on one’s own;
Pure monotheism rejects all images of God, whereas the majority of gods of polytheistic faiths have bodies that resemble those of human beings. In this way, polytheistic faiths encourage, albeit perhaps unintentionally, the worship of humankind itself.
These arguments, as I noted, work for me… but only intellectually and theoretically.
Monotheism in the real world
All of this theory utterly falls apart when I consider the behavior of human beings around the globe throughout all of history. Are polytheists more or less moral because of their beliefs? Are monotheists? Are atheists? Simply – no. No, not at all.
In fact, that’s not even to mention those people of all faiths who act horribly and evilly towards others. Anyone of any faith can perpetrate evil.
These have been my observations over the course of my four decades, and I consider myself a fairly well informed and well read person. Human beings have been arguing over and killing one another over faith for thousands of years, but ~ ultimately? What’s the point? What difference does it make in the real world? Who can truly claim that their chosen faith produces kinder, better people or a kinder, better world?
Thus, while I view existence through a strictly monotheistic lens, and while I can make some logical and reasonable arguments to support my faith perspective, none of that is to say that my beliefs are better than anybody else’s – neither I nor any other person who shares my religious views is inherently better than any other human being; and I wouldn’t necessarily assume that anyone who shares my monotheistic views is moral, kind, or just. Some are; others, unfortunately, are not.
And… then there’s professional monotheism
Disappointingly, I have found that I must always take everything that any religious leader espouses with several grains of salt.
This particular young rabbi, before he joined the clergy, was simply my friend; and he used to speak with others about his own deep doubts in his faith convictions (which he had been raised into, for his extended family is all Orthodox, and his father too is an Orthodox rabbi). He used to struggle with whether Judaism was indeed the Truest faith. He used to be forthcoming about doubting his connection to God and wonder about whether God was listening to him at all. This struggle of his over his religious views was profoundly compelling to me – it was relatable – it drew me… and I felt that it fed our friendship.
Then my friend became a rabbi and decided, it seems, that it was incumbent upon him to promote traditional Jewish monotheism as the most moral faith, regardless of the evidence…
And, ever since then, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to speak with him about matters of faith at all 😞
On Jewish holidays I must
draft poetry in my head
For lack of laptop, I dare trust
my memory instead
This Passover, I did not just
hanker for leavened bread
Still, all last night, I long discussed
the Exodus instead...
And now I type, ere neurons rust,
and soon I'm off to bed!
Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of movies online, which I haven’t seen for many years. It amazes me how little I remember of them; in many cases, it’s as though I’m watching these flicks for the first time all over again. Among them has been a popular cult classic, which I watched years ago (in 1998) when it was first released: ‘The Big Lebowski’.
This movie is full of hilarious moments and running gags.
One of these is that of supporting character Walter’s (John Goodman) commitment to his Jewish conversion, which he underwent back when he married his ex-wife. This character is a right-wing veteran of the Vietnam War with an explosive temper and propensity towards violence (he probably suffers from PTSD); and he is also, unexpectedly, as he puts it: shomer fucking Shabbas!
From a Jewish perspective (mine), one of the elements that makes this so hilarious is just how accurate Walter’s description of traditional Shabbasobservance (I pronounce it ‘Shabbat’, btw, as it is pronounced in modern Israeli Hebrew) really is. Have a quick listen to this Jewish Supercut of the Big Lebowski below. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, the word ‘roll’ in this context refers to bowling, which is the main character’s recreational activity of choice.
Walter: I DON’T ROLL ON SHABBAS! … Donny:How come you don’t roll on Saturday, Walter? Walter: I’m shomer Shabbas. Donny: What’s that, Walter? Walter: Saturday Donny, is Shabbas. The Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t work, I um, don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit DON’T FUCKING ROLL! Donny: Sheesh Walter:SHOMER SHABBAS! … Walter:Shomer fucking Shabbas! … Donny: Hey Walter, if you can’t ride in a car, how do you get around on Shabbas—
Shomer fucking Shabbas!
Yes, really: We don’t flip light switches
Living in Jerusalem, as I do, it’s entirely normative to observe Shabbat. The weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday (Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday), and most who do not observe Shabbat have at least a general concept of what it is.
In principle, I would describe Shabbat as a day during which those who observe it refrain from engaging in physically creative activities (although procreation is encouraged). We aim to avoid causing physical changes to the world and focus ourselves, instead, upon spirituality, family, and the intangible.
The specifics of the restrictions that apply to the traditional Jewish observance of Shabbat were developed by our sages throughout the course of many centuries, and they are based primarily upon those physical acts that were necessary for the construction of the portable Tabernacle, which God instructed the Israelites to build after they had left Egypt.
Without getting into much detail, the Sages determined that there were a total of 39 categories of physical labor that cover the many restrictions of the Sabbath. One of these 39 categories is: the lighting of a fire, and another one is: the extinguishing of a fire.
Now, modern technology, and electricity in particular, was a game changer for the rabbis. When electricity entered people’s homes, the rabbis had to decide whether or not to permit its use on Shabbat, and ultimately the accepted mainstream ruling in the Orthodox Jewish community became that a spark of electricity is like a spark of fire, meaning, for example, that it is forbidden to flip light switches on and off on Shabbat.
Of course, from a scientific perspective, this is nonsense. Electricity is not fire.
A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is.
Regardless, this religious ruling took root and remains the norm today among the vast majority of Sabbath observant Jews. I do not flip light switches on Shabbat; I do not use my phone; I do not use my computer; etc.
I don’t blog on Shabbas
The lived experience
Growing up as a secular Jew, I knew nothing of these Shabbat-related norms, which is why it strikes me that some of you may find this intriguing. Actually, I first began thinking about writing this blog post after creating a Twitter account for myself in order to publish daily micropoems in 2021. After all, January 2nd was a Saturday:
To be honest, I am not interested in getting into the nitty gritty of Jewish religious law. Rather, I simply want to provide a sense of what our lived Shabbat is like. We have many religious restrictions, but the one which I think would be the most obvious to an outside observer is the limitation on using electricity.
From a technical perspective, it is very simple: instead of flipping light switches on Shabbat, we set timers for all of the electric devices and appliances that we need. Lamps and fans are set to timers, for example, as is our electric hot plate (‘platta’ in Hebrew) for heating up food for Sabbath meals. The food itself must be prepared before Shabbat but can be warmed up on the Day of Rest. Essentially, we cannot cause physical changes on Shabbat, but if we set timers before Shabbat, that’s kosher because the cause of the physical change occurred before Shabbat. Simple, right?
But providing you with this technical illustration is not my reason for writing this blog post. What I really want to do is describe, briefly, the impact of this lifestyle upon our family life.
Like many of you, my wife and I spend most of our days behind computer screens; also, our six-year-old loves watching Disney movies and other videos, having screen time with her extended family in Russia and the USA, writing prose and poetry on a computer, and playing the video games installed on her children’s camera (clever marketing idea, right?).
It’s not that we don’t do other things; it’s just that our telephones and computers occupy a tremendous amount of space in our lives. And – they serve to separate us from one another because we often end up interacting with our electronic devices instead of interacting with one another.
On Shabbat, on the other hand, we spend all day together (especially this last year of global pandemic when we haven’t gone to synagogue and haven’t been invited to friends’ Sabbath meals), and the quality family time is priceless, especially from a parenting perspective. We play card and board games, read books, horse around in the bedroom, etc., and I am certain that this unplugging is very healthy for us all. Of course, we do all get to missing our shows and news websites during those 25 hours every week, but I cannot think of many other facets of traditional Jewish life that have come to be so relevant in this modern era.
The sages who ruled against using electricity could not have foreseen this 21st century reality, and I still disagree with the logic they employed in issuing their religious rulings against it. However, truth be told, I don’t really care about that at all. Shabbat, as I have come to know it and live it, is one of the best parts of traditional Jewish life for me.
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…