Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

Holier, or: Fragile

Your little face
Might just be proof for me of God's good grace
You utterly bewitch me
Your fancies so enrich me
I want to be

Your Abba'chka...
How can I assure you
That there's a God 
Though I s'pose you do not need it
You naturally believe it...
Holier than me

My Dear Baby
I so fear when you'll learn about "maybe"
The hurts you'll know as onwards grow
For much of life is simply show

My Dear Baby
I don't wanna say 
He ain't there for me

Every day
I watch you read and sing and learn and play
Your birth gave me such purpose
Of this I'm fully certain
That I've so changed

My love for you
It flows red hot and it is bursting through...
Wish I could protect you from painful disappointment
When He misses His appointment
But still I'll be

Your Abba'chka...
How can I assure you
That there is a God
Though I s'pose you do not need it
You naturally believe it...
Holier than me

Your childish purity
I cannot see Whom your eyes see
But whenever you need me
That's where I'll be

My lack of reverence

I used to have reverence for rabbis, but I barely remember it.

Last night I was at a wonderful rooftop get-together for a friend of mine (‘C5’) who just recently made Aliyah (repatriated to Israel as a Jew). It was lovely, particularly for me because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter recently and needed some space. Chips, beer, and engaging conversation reenergized me.

This friend was a member of my Talmud class last year, as was another friend (‘A5’) who attended the celebration. Both of these friends plan to continue studying Talmud under the young rabbi this coming year, unlike me. They’re both very religious and religiously-oriented… and SO [damned] respectful.

My young rabbi friend (our Talmud teacher) joined us on the roof later in the evening, and suddenly my friends’ and another young woman’s tones changed.

Should I cover my shoulders? I didn’t know that you had invited a rabbi.
Is it okay that we’re drinking?
Oh no… do you think he’ll be offended that I’m wearing pants tonight? I left my skirt at home!

I was startled. Really? He’s our age – a really cool guy and a friend of ours. Don’t worry about it guys, seriously!

Then, seemingly somewhat inebriated, ‘C5’ asked the young rabbi some serious questions about sexuality vis-à-vis rabbinic sensibilities and proceeded to share a brief reflection of his regarding his appreciation for the depths of the young rabbi’s humanity, open-mindedness, and inspirational teachings. ‘A5’, who was sober, also shared some very personal thoughts and nodded in agreement to ‘C5’s words. It was sweet and unexpected.

* * *

There was a time, certainly less than ten years ago, when I would turn humbly to rabbis for direction – a time when I specifically desired to hear learned rabbinic perspectives – a time when the words of Torah scholars carried more weight than those of the laity – a time when I was apprehensive of their answers but yearned for their affirmations.

And now that is all gone. No reverence remains in me.

I barely believe in a God who cares about my actions. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that rabbis are any wiser about the nuances of human nature than other learned, experienced people. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that there is anything worth believing in that we cannot perceive in our daily, earthly lives. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe in anything.

And while there are many reasons that I’ve decided not to continue with the young rabbi’s Talmud class, one reason is that I am repelled by various faith statements that I heard in the shiur. It’s nice that other people believe, truly, but one may keep it to one’s self unless somebody engages them in a conversation about religious beliefs.

I believe that reciting the Book of Psalms does nothing at all for your mother-in-law’s health; sharing your dubious religious convictions alienates me. Further, I don’t want blessings on my behalf after we’ve eaten cookies. I don’t want traditional statements of intent on my behalf before we engage in Talmud study. It’s all sheer bunk, I maintain, and believing in it doesn’t imbue one with holiness, wisdom, righteousness, or truth; and- such nonsense only distracts me from serious Torah study.

I do respect the young rabbi greatly – as much as I would any other seriously committed and capable professional in any line of work. Also, I consider him a close friend, greatly enjoy spending time with him, and would go out of my way for him without a moment’s hesitancy. But. I don’t revere him. And. I don’t revere what he stands for.

Also, I must add that I have studied Talmud with a number of learned and amazing instructors… and no theological assertions were ever woven into any of my previous classes. They are, at minimum, not necessary.

* * *

Next year I will instead be taking a class on theology with Rabbi Daniel Landes. I rather enjoy discussions about God and the supernatural when I deliberately choose to engage in them – and when there is room for me to inject my doubts and reservations into our classroom discussions.

Skepticism feeding skepticism

There are loops in life that we get stuck in. Sometimes, of our own creation.

When I began my original Skeptic’s Kaddish series, following the death of my Papa, the title of the series came to me after fishing through my mind for several minutes. At first, I resisted the idea because it felt much too ungainly, but it was truly the most accurate description of my project at the start. The full title was ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist’. I – a skeptic; my father – an atheist.

Declaring myself a skeptic at the outset burst the floodgates. What did I have to lose at that point? I was no longer pretending, even to myself.

* * *

I’m not sure that I know what a religious experience is, but I imagine that it is something like maintaining this blog because my writing process allows me to make meaning of not living up to my religious ideals. As I board this train of thought, I realize: I don’t even know what my religious ideals are anymore.

Well, at least I own that – here at the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’.

There’s also the matter of connection, which religious experiences grant. Connection to… you name it. Writing publicly makes me feel connected. To… myself. To… you. To… Whoever happens to be out there.

* * *

Early on in my kaddish journey, I came to a realization. I might call it powerful, and perhaps it was, but I feel as though my “realizations” are too often obvious to everyone but me.

I realized that by writing about Papa, I was taking a hand in shaping the very little that remained of him – namely the collective memory of him. The dead cannot defend themselves. They can’t respond to our discussions about them; and their limited influence over how they are perceived only diminishes over time. This is true of even the most famous people. [A sudden thought: Perhaps it’s even more true for famous people who are turned into symbols.]

All that remains are memories, but not only mine, and I do not seek to limit my father to my reflections.

Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #9, Oct. 5, 2018

This was a humbling thought. In sorting through my own feelings and recollections publicly, I was also shaping other people’s impressions of my father.

* * *

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this loop that I’ve created.

It began honestly enough, and I continue to strive to be true. This blog began as the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ because, quite simply, I am [still] a skeptic-

  • When my 5½-year-old tells me that she believes in God’s omnibenevolence (a word I taught her), I don’t discourage her from this. I support her budding theology, with the caveat that “some people share your beliefs and others don’t.” However, I find myself having to bite my tongue to prevent myself from responding to her too mordantly.
  • I recently discovered several online groups for earnest, informed discussions of Judaism between Orthodox Jews and others who have left Orthodoxy, and I find myself significantly more convinced by the formerly Orthodox people’s arguments than those of our believing brethren.

* * *

However, I have come to wonder about the extent to which I have boxed myself into a corner. My reflections always begin from the point of skepticism – after all, this is the “Skeptic’s” kaddish, is it not?

I imagine that commentators and writers of all bents pigeonhole themselves once they’ve established their readerships or audiences… but my blogging is personal, not professional, so I’m not concerned with what others think. Rather, I think, it’s that the label allows me to feel clever. “Look at me,” says my handle, “I’m knowledgeable enough about Judaism to be skeptical of it. Look at me; I’m a serious thinker.”

My blog discourages me from believing, for how would I distinguish myself if I did?

* * *

These words remain mine to write, as I yet live…

But have they come to defined me?

Tech support, or: Emet (compiled)

A mystical Rabbi from Prague 
Taught philosophy weekly by vlog; 
'Twas recorded by Golem, 
Who managed the forum 
From the back of Old-New Synagogue

The great Sage, in slow, measured breaths 
Gave new meanings to old Shibboleths 
But this so flustered Golem 
That none could control him 
And the truth thus became Golem's death

Came the wild hordes of Gog and Magog, 
Cheering Golem's destruction in Prague; 
Death had come of God's truth 
When self-doubt conquered youth; 
Redemption- could emerge from Man's fog

From below, Golem heard the great war, 
Grasping then that the truth was much more 
Than a threat to forfend, 
But a gift to defend, 
He arose from the ground and the gore

Thus was Golem's resurrection - 
For he was, like men true, a good son; 
He thwarted God's plan 
By safeguarding Man, 
Thus achieving his own redemption

There, or: Here?

I.

  Some day, 
 I'll die, 
and this,

  perhaps, 
 will be 
my parting kiss
          to those alive, 
        to those not yet,
          to fulfilled hopes,
        to worn regrets;

  and you,
 I think,
will live

  because
 you've yet
so much to give
          to dearest friends,
        to family,
          to unmet dreams,
        to memories


II.

  and then,
 a day
will come -

  your time
 to part
for Where all's from
          to the Unknown
        to Where there is no time,
          no rhyme, 
          no yours and mine,
        to Where all goes, but no one knows
      about 
        'til he's arrived

There


III.
 
It's all a mess here;
There? Who knows? Where
where can be described in tastes and colors
sensations -
that's not There. Where
where can be conveyed in lines and stanzas
images -
that's not There. Where
where can be perceived by mind and senses
faculties -
that's not There. Where -

Where indeed?  

IV. There once was a great rabbi who taught that the Place can only be described in the negative because He would otherwise be limited. In Jewish tradition, those who are mourning their loved ones are told: May the Place comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem –

Where indeed?