The “synagogue of Satan”

A story of a much younger me.

Memories of the exuberance of my first year of college stay with me. I remember how exciting it was to sit down with a new friend at a café right across the street from our dormitory. How adult we thought ourselves, as we ordered our chai lattes (that was the first time I’d ever had one). Everything was so new and fun.

My new friend Adam was a devout Christian, having grown up in the ‘Church of Christ’ in Dayton, Ohio. He was truly a pure soul with deep faith. We became fast friends, and as I was often attending social events organized by our local chapter of the Jewish fraternity, he would cheerfully come along with me and hang out with the Jewish fraternity brothers, totally at ease in our company. Antisemitism was not in his heart; in fact, he hadn’t had any Jewish friends until coming to college.

The brothers extended a bid to him, as they did to all the other freshmen who were interested in joining. While the international ΑΕΠ fraternity is culturally Jewish, many chapters have non-Jewish members, and ours was no exception.

Adam, after some consideration, accepted the invitation and became one of my pledge brothers (probationary members). In fact, he was one of two Christian pledges that year (the other, Kenneth, was a Catholic). Sadly, when the pledge period ended some five weeks later, Adam dropped out due to religious considerations after he’d consulted with his family.


The incident

One incident involving Adam remains unforgettable to me.

Before Thanksgiving break, Adam and I were hanging out in my dorm room when he started to cry. I was shocked. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You’re such a good person,” he responded between sobs, “I don’t understand how you can be going to hell.”

I remember talking to him, reeling from the realization that my friend actually believed I would be sentenced to eternal damnation for being Jewish. I told him that I was sorry he felt this way, but there simply wasn’t anything I could do about it. I was a Jew, and my belief system was different than his. Judaism doesn’t put much emphasis on an afterlife, and the concept of hell is not part of our faith.

Following that exchange, I was deeply shaken.

I went over to speak with Kenneth, my other Christian pledge brother, who told me that while he too believed that Christ is the Messiah, it was his belief that those who do not currently accept Jesus as God cannot be faulted. His view was that once Jesus returned, all of humanity would be expected to accept him, and only those who continued to reject him would be damned to hell. Ken’s understanding made more sense to me.

Interestingly, after we’d returned from Thanksgiving break, Adam had also found peace after consulting with his family’s pastor, and he’d somehow decided that I wouldn’t necessarily be going to hell… Our friendly relationship continued, but neither of us ever broached the subject again, and we didn’t spend as much time together as we once had. After that first semester, Adam left our university, and I never saw him again; I think he transferred to a Christian seminary.

That was more than two decades ago.


My take

I have never had a problem being friends with anybody who doesn’t have a problem with me.

Here in Israel, I very happily wish all of the Muslims I interact with a ‘blessed Friday (جمعة مباركة) and ‘generous Ramadan (رمضان كريم). I have fewer interactions with Christians in person nowadays, but I’m happy to wish any that I meet a ‘Merry Christmas’, and I once attended Christmas services at a Lutheran church in the Old City of Jerusalem with friends of mine.

I’m always curious to understand other people’s faiths and cultures and am eager to engage them in conversations about our respective worldviews.

Notre Dame de Paris. 3rd statue (from left to right) on the West Entrance, source: Wikipedia

Since college, I’ve learned quite a great deal about Judaism, and while I am no scholar, I have a solid understanding of the history between Jews and Christians throughout the centuries. I am aware, for example, of the beliefs represented by the crowned Ecclesia and the blind, defeated Synagoga statues, which feature prominently before some of the medieval churches that I’ve visited. In truth, I find such beliefs more a curiosity than offensive. After all, I walk the earth as a proud Jew, and I don’t feel defeated in the slightest (quite the opposite).

In short, a person’s humanity is of much more interest to me than their religious affiliation. In my four decades, I have met wonderful people of many different faiths (and many of no faith at all); and I have also encountered some horrible people who earnestly couch their xenophobia and horrid behaviors in religious language.


The Blogosphere

I created this blog for myself, my friends, and my family, giving no thought to other people’s blogs, intending only to pour out my thoughts and centralize the 51 posts that comprise my kaddish journey following Papa’s death.

Inevitably, I suppose, other bloggers began interacting with me, and I was drawn to read their pieces of prose and poetry. Many of our subsequent online interactions have been very rewarding and have fueled some interesting thoughts.

Among these new online friends, there are some devout Christians who write about their beliefs, and I’ve found none so sincere as Steven Colborne from London. I find his deep faith and daily drive to unravel the big questions of the universe very moving, even though he and I are of different faiths (and mine, unlike his, is uncertain).

Just two days ago, on Friday, Steven published a post titled ‘The Synagogue of Satan’, and before I’d even noticed it, he sent me the following e-mail (shared with his permission):

Hey David,
Just wanted to say hi and send my love.
I know the blog post I published this morning could be thought provoking for you. It is posted with the utmost respect for you and for the Jewish people. My intention is always to share the whole of Scripture to everyone who’s interested, because this is what I understand I am called to do by Jesus, who I understand to be God’s Messiah, and indeed God himself.
Have a wonderful day, friend.
Peace be with you! Shalom.
Steven

I was busy shopping for Shabbat on Friday (during the Winter months, Shabbat starts earlier so Fridays are quite busy with preparations), and I didn’t have much time to engage with Steven, but I shot off a quick response, letting him know that I was not offended in the slightest. Now, some hours after Shabbat has gone out here in Jerusalem, and I’ve had more opportunity to sit down and reflect upon Steven’s words, I want to offer him a simple, Jewish response:

Dear Steven,
I consider you a true mensch.
Shavua Tov,
David

Ethical will: Impartiality

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish 45’, May 30, 2019

During my kaddish journey following Papa’s death, I struggled with being judgmental of myself. In fact, this was one of the primary impetuses behind that yearlong writing project… Frankly, I had been feeling FAKE by going through the motions of communal mourning rituals with my religious community, while lacking faith in a personal Higher Power. I knew that that Papa would never have wanted that, nor respected it, and I couldn’t stand it either… so I began to share my truth.

It has been my experience that those of us who are most judgmental of ourselves also tend to be judgmental of others. A particular acquaintance of mine struggles with this more than anyone else I’ve known, and while many of the sentiments that he articulates are off-putting to me, my own inclination towards stinging judgmentalism permits me to empathize with and pity him. In his brutal judgments of others, I hear his impossible expectations of himself. His harsh judgmentalism puts my own into perspective.

The funny thing about [my] judgmentalism is that there’s always somebody for me to judge.

When I was more committed to Jewish tradition as an expression of God’s will, when I was praying three times daily and very careful never to eat any food that wasn’t certified kosher, when I felt more certain of my faith… I found myself having to withhold many a comment about those who were less observant.

On the other hand, now that my personal commitment to daily religious observance has slipped, now that I have strongly embraced my skepticism and doubts, now that I see tradition as almost entirely an expression of human needs and experiences… I find myself judging those who believe in Something that they cannot prove.

This reminds me of a popular adage I’ve oft heard in Jewish educational circles:

Anyone to my right is a zealot; anyone to my left is a heretic.


Now, the Torah, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a legal tradition at its core. The ancient Israelites lived their lives according to what they believed to be God’s Word, and they established judicial courts accordingly to adjudicate the inevitable disputes.

Somewhat as an aside, it was Moses‘ father-in-law Jethro, a non-Israelite, who first suggested the establishment of a hierarchical court system, rather than leaving Moses to shoulder the burden of adjudication on his own. Notably, according to Jewish doctrine, only Jews are obligated to live their lives according to God’s Torah, but gentiles are still considered obligated to abide by the seven Noahide laws, one of which is: the establishment of courts of justice.

It’s clear that judgment has an important place in Judaism. Indeed, Deuteronomy 16:19-20 is written as follows:

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃ You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

These two verses, I find, are very instructive for us. For me, they are something to aspire to.

On the one hand, verse 20 makes it clear that we Jews ought to pursue justice. This is part and parcel of Torah. Through this lens, I am able to recognize and appreciate that judgmentalism isn’t inherently bad, although it certainly may be painful for me.

Verse 19 serves to clarify the ideal of judgment for me. Yes, we must pursue justice, but how does one do so? The answer: ‘you shall show no partiality’.

In other words, yes, we are creatures of judgment, and, yes, this may be not only natural but correct. However, we must always recognize and acknowledge our biases, and these biases are more than likely to shift over time, further highlighting their subjectiveness. So we must, of necessity, ask ourselves, “How would I describe my perspective? Who do I perceive to be different than myself and in what ways? And- how am I intuitively inclined to regard them?”


On a personal note, I am finding that the struggle of being judgmental has not gotten any easier for me emotionally over the years. However, the more I have been able to recognize and acknowledge my own mistakes and failures, the more I find myself capable of understanding the human failings of others.

Bhagavad Gita Verse 34, Chapter 6

Below is a truth that transcends cultures, which reminds me of a limerick that I wrote:

Swift swish-swishing tails and sure fins
Gliding right through the shipwreck within
Bumping up against walls
As there’s something that calls
Past bones round of my small cranium


A simple, modern translation and explanation of the Bhagavad Gita with shloka (verse) meaning

chanchalam hi manaha krishna pramaathi balavaddrudham |
tasyaaham nigraham manye vaayoriva sudushkaram || 34 ||

 
For, the mind is fickle, rebellious, strong and stubborn, O Krishna. To control it, I think, is as arduous as the wind.
 
chanchalam : fickle
hi : for
manaha : mind is
krishna : O Krishna
pramaathi : rebellious
balavat : strong
drudham : stubborn
tasya : it
aham : I
nigraham : control
manye : think
vaayoho : the wind
iva : like
sudushkaram : arduous
 
Arjuna further elaborates on the difficulty of controlling the mind for meditation to Shri Krishna. He says that it is as difficult as trying to harness the wind. Why is that so? The mind is fickle, rebellious, strong and stubborn. It will refuse any attempt to be controlled.
 
Shri Krishna had acknowledged the fickle nature of the mind in previous shlokas. We oursleves have…

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Israel, the secular elephant

Would I have embraced the path of religious skepticism to this extent if I had remained in the USA instead of making my home in Israel? I’m inclined to think not, and it troubles me.

* * *

After the secular Jewish upbringing of my youth, I inadvertently discovered Orthodox Judaism as a college freshman in Cleveland, OH, seeking to make connections with any and all other Jews in the face of what felt to me a dearth of Jewish life on campus. I feared, subconsciously, becoming unmoored from my ‘Jewishness’ in the absence of fellow tribesmen.

This experience, I would come to realize years later, was emblematic of Jewish life outside of Israel:

  1. In most places on earth, maintaining one’s Jewish connection and identity necessitates deliberately affiliating with other Jewish people and communities.
  2. Modern day Jewish communities are primarily religious ones, identified by denominational affiliations.

In the years following college and graduate school, I took the opportunity to explore Jewish communities of different stripes, hoping to find my home among them – not only socially but also in terms of religious values, practices, and beliefs.

* * *

It’s important to understand that I was raised with very strong ties to Israel, which profoundly shaped my concept of Jewishness as a child.

Before repatriating to Israel in the mid-70’s, my parents both lived secular lives, as was the default in the USSR. Mama and Papa didn’t become religious in their new home, but they were exposed to traditional Jewish texts and holidays, and they embraced Jewish traditions.

While I was raised in the USA, my cousins grew up in Israel; my parents and I would visit them every few years. Although I didn’t reflect much upon this as a child, my cousins’ lives were much different than my own, Jewishly speaking. In the USA, my secular parents had joined a synagogue, and I attended Hebrew school in the afternoons; my cousins, on the other hand, were not connected to any particular community, but they resided in the Jewish State.

The differences went beyond mere affiliation. Unlike our extended family in Israel,

… our concept of Pesach was grounded in tradition; our seder went beyond simply putting a seder plate on the table.

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #10, Oct. 14, 2018

If we had remained in Israel, instead of moving to the USA when I was but a toddler, I dare say that we would have celebrated Passover with our extended family every single year; and we would not have been able to delve into the texts of the haggadah as much as Papa loved to do.

* * *

More likely than not, had my parents and I remained in Israel I would never have developed such a fascination for Judaism as a religion. I would have grown up much like my cousins – a secular Jew in Israel. I would never have worried about losing my ‘Jewishness’, such as it might have been, and never would have felt the need to affiliate myself with a Jewish community.

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays. The symbols of government are all Jewish: the Star of David in the center of the Israeli flag, the 120 members of our Knesset, etc., etc. Also, ~¾ of Israeli citizens are registered as Jewish by the civil government so most of them end up marrying other Jews by default.

Suffice it to say that Jews living in Israel are secure in their Jewish identities, regardless of the degrees to which their personal and family lives are guided by Jewish values and traditions.

* * *

Unfortunately, this security comes with a profound down side, which is that for many secular Israeli Jews – living here in the Jewish State is the primary or even sole Jewish facet of their lives. For too many residents, speaking Hebrew, serving in the Israeli Defense Force, and raising their children in Israel has become the totality of their ‘Jewishness’.

So… what becomes of their Jewish identities when these secular Jews move abroad? Well, many of them come to discover that their children, raised in the Diaspora, feel neither particularly Israeli nor particularly Jewish.

Even for those who remain in Israel, there is a bit of a hollowness to their ‘Jewishness’. Many take the existence of the country for granted and feel no particular attachment to the Land we live on. If the State of Israel had been founded in Uganda in 1903, such Israeli Jews would not have felt much different about their attachment to the Jewish State.

Essentially, with no fear of assimilation to drive them, most Israeli Jews are complacent about their Jewish identities. Many are even apathetic.

* * *

Having grown up in the USA, I have had many an encounter with assimilated Jewish people of all ages and generations – some have been 1st generation Americans and some have lived in the States for multiple generations.

I spent more than a decade, beginning with my earliest college days, trying to find my place among the many models of Jewish community in the USA, in an attempt to buttress my Diaspora ‘Jewishness’. Ultimately, my search led me back to Israel.

And now – here I am – living in Israel, raising my family in Israel. Here I am – observing Shabbat in a more or less traditional manner. Here I am – with access to untold numbers of synagogues, Jewish resources, rabbis, etc. Here I am – within walking distance of the very heart of the ancient Israelite kingdom –

And, increasingly, I am struggling to maintain my motivation – to live a religious Jewish life.

* * *

It’s so damn’d powerful, this experience of living in the Holy Land. It’s actually intoxicating in its mundanity. Being Jewish here – in Israel – in Jerusalem – requires nary a thought, nary an effort.

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere. While attending her state-secular preschool, my daughter learns about the Torah, the Jewish holidays, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She need never attend an afternoon Hebrew school program, as I did (nor do I think there is such a thing in this country).

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.

To be honest, I feel foolish writing about this because I’ve “known” this all my life. “Everyone” knows that being Jewish in Israel is fundamentally different than anywhere else in the world, certainly anyone concerned with Jewish identity. And yet – the actual power of living immersed in Israeli Jewish society is not one that I can convey fully even to the most committed Diaspora Jew. In Israel, ‘Jewishness’ is in my every step and fills my lungs to capacity.

And I am scared. I am scared for myself and especially for my daughter.

What if we succumb to the State and become complacent Israeli Jews?

The rabbi that ruined my Judaism

For people of faith, or for those with traditional bents, there’s a real danger in getting to know their clergy too well.

* * *

It began years ago when the rabbi said, “Fuck.”

I was stunned at first but didn’t show it – I just nodded and responded appropriately. After all, the profanity wasn’t aimed at me – in a moment of anger, the rabbi had been expressing his frustration at somebody else’s ineptitude.

Actually, I was very pleased. It felt to me a sign of trust. The rabbi was comfortable enough to speak freely in my presence; he wasn’t playing a role of any sort; he was acting much like any other normal human being would be under trying circumstances.

Me? I often curse under my breath when I’m upset and even struggle with whether or not to include profanity in my writing. To what extent should my prose and poetry reflect my natural, spoken voice? Am I demeaning myself by using unseemly language? Papa, for example, used to curse in my presence, and this only amused me… but I find myself very reluctant to do so around my daughter.

… [Papa] also had a very crass sense of humor and many of his most common expressions were quite inappropriate. In fact, I recall him saying (on more than one occasion) that I should know how to curse in Russian.

The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist #27, Jan. 18, 2019

In any case, the cursing was only the beginning of it.

* * *

The most professionally successful clergy are those who are best at promoting themselves. If one ends up on the receiving end of their self-marketing, one may well become convinced that these particular clergypeople are agents of Truth, a profound solace in our whirling world. Such individuals are likely to eventually find themselves paying part of those clergypeople’s salaries.

Rarely is the successful clergyperson alone in buffing and selling her image. The more successful the religious leader, the less likely that is. In today’s seemingly endless torrent of media and online communications, many clergy increasingly rely upon marketing professionals. These are the ‘disseminators’, for lack of a better word; and the most effective among them tend to have close access to their clients: the clergy.

I have been a rabbi’s most trusted disseminator and have been a part of marketing religious wisdom and solace. Now I can never unsee religion for what it is: a product.

* * *

In the modern world, marketing is everything because everything (and everybody) has become a product. Donald Trump became President of the United States of America by capitalizing on his most precious asset, one in which he had invested for many decades more than in any other, namely: his brand. It’s not entirely fair of me to expect more of religion than I do of sundry other products, but in this I am not alone. Consider, after all, religion’s ultimate claim and the ramifications thereof.

* * *

Actually, I love the rabbi to this day and do not fault him in the slightest for ruining my foolish naiveté. True faith doesn’t require any facade, but apparently I do. The rabbi himself is a true mensch – he does the title ‘Rabbi’ great honor. In his case, the marketing pitch was honest: the rabbi possesses love of God, kindheartedness, wisdom, open-mindedness, knowledge, and much, much more. He supports and teaches countless people.

But it wasn’t just my ‘dissemination’ experience that did it… it was also the learning.

* * *

As sincere and learned as a religious leader may be, the tools of his trade are most effective when his laity is unlearned. The more comfortable one feels with religious texts and teachings, the more one comes to realize that today’s clergypeople (and the generations before them) are ultimately manipulating traditional sources to imbue their personal beliefs with “Divine” (or at least “ancient”) validity.

Having heard rabbis all over the political spectrum using source texts to make their cases or promote their causes, and having read many of the same sources in their original contexts, changed me profoundly. Clearly, there was either no “Truth” at all, or else the “Truth” can only provide humankind with a mere handful of very basic principles.

Also, while I was decently adept at learning the original sources (in Hebrew or Aramaic), I was especially good at splicing them together to imbue my own ideas with seeming validity. After the nth occasion of receiving compliments upon my interpretations of religious sources, I became increasingly cynical, for I knew that I was no rabbi.

I was no rabbi, but I realized that with my marketing and speaking skills, I had the capacity to become a professionally successful charlatan like so many others. Also, I came to understand how false many religious leaders truly are, and my cynicism morphed into deep-seated suspicion.

* * *

I don’t actually blame the rabbi, but for people of faith, or for those with traditional bents, there’s a real danger in getting to know their clergy too well.