Jewish and normal

I had an unexpected flash of insight the other day regarding the following themes:

  • My Jewish identity
  • Living in Israel
  • Blogging on WordPress

My Jewish identity

While I only encountered Orthodox Judaism and gradually began to adopt a religious lifestyle in college, I have always strongly identified as a Jew. If I were to sort the many facets of my identity out into a hierarchy, I would put the label ‘human’ at the very top. My second tier would include: ‘brother’, ‘father’, ‘heteronormative male’. ‘husband’, ‘Jew’, and ‘son’ in no particular order.

For several reasons, the many strictures of religious Jewish life have always appealed to me. In part, I feel that I am simply being outwardly true to my core identity by presenting myself as a Jew publicly in the most apparent way possible.

Mind you, I began college more than twenty years ago; and my religious journey has had many ups and downs in the many years since. There were periods when I reverted to a secular lifestyle, and there were periods when I managed to convince myself that the God of the Torah existed and strived to follow His laws to my utmost accordingly.

I have been up, down, and all around on the spectrum of religious Judaism. However, throughout those years during which I turned back towards secularism, I always missed the outward trappings of traditional observance. The personal inconveniences of keeping strictly kosher, keeping Shabbat traditionally, praying thrice daily, etc., never bothered me ~ it was, rather, always a question of the extent to which any of these practices actually mattered.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that while I never minded the demands that traditional Judaism made upon my life, I did find myself wishing that my religious lifestyle wouldn’t create such barriers between me and all other human beings on earth who were not attempting to live a traditional Torah lifestyle.


Living in Israel

Not religiously comfortable for all Jews

From a religious perspective, Israel is not necessarily a comfortable place for all Jews to live.

For political and historical reasons, the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox, rather than heterodox (Conservative, Reform, etc.), and its religious monopoly over Jewish life operates with the full weight of the government behind it. For example, Jewish weddings performed in Israel outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate are granted no legal status (and civil marriage does not exist). Also, the Chief Rabbinate’s state-empowered religious monopoly grants it the exclusive right to certify Israel’s food establishments as “kosher”, unlike everywhere else in the world.

Also, questions of Jewish status are decided by the Chief Rabbinate for religious purposes. This decides whether or not citizens of Israel can get married in Israel at all, where they can be buried when they die, etc., etc. Therefore, Israeli citizens whose mothers are not Jewish, as required by religious law, are considered “not Jewish” by the Chief Rabbinate, and they cannot legally marry Jews in Israel without first undergoing religious conversions under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (even if they are secular).

Religiously comfortable for me

While I 100% oppose these infringements and all others on freedom of religion in Israel, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious Jewish life does not much inconvenience me on a personal level because I happen to live an Orthodox lifestyle (my wedding, for example, was conducted through the Chief Rabbinate).

Also, while I have explored and flirted with non-Orthodox religious communities, they do not feel like home to me personally. Therefore, as the vast majority of Israeli synagogues are Orthodox, my religious preferences are not marginalized in most public prayer spaces. Further, even when my commitment to my religious practices vacillates, it is always fluctuating on the spectrum between Jewish secularism and Orthodoxy, both of which are mainstream in Israeli society.

All of this is to say that I feel very at home in Israel from a religious perspective. Kosher food is – and kosher food establishments are – abundant, synagogues are available everywhere, the national holidays are my own religious holidays, etc., etc.

Living here in Israel (especially in Jerusalem) dramatically lowers the religious barriers between me and all the other people around me.


Blogging on WordPress

I have been increasingly enjoying the sense of community that I have discovered here on WordPress.

Bloggers from around the world share with – and are supportive of – one another, and for the first time since moving to Israel I have been feeling significantly less divorced from global society, which is predominantly not Jewish.

The unexpected insight that I had last week is that our virtual WordPress community grants me something not entirely dissimilar from that which living in Israel grants me: a sense of normalcy.

Of course, I am aware this comparison has many flaws. For one, every blogger chooses whom to interact with on their blog and on other people’s blogs. My virtual community is entirely self-selected and filtered according my preferences… and, of course, writing and reading blog posts is a far cry from in-person interactions… but… well…

Here on WordPress, I feel simply human.

Deed, not Creed?

The rhyme that stuck

Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.

When I first heard this said to me some 2½ decades ago, I had no idea what my Hebrew high school teacher Rabbi Witty meant by it, but the rhyme stuck with me.


Hebrew high school?

I attended public school throughout my childhood, and, like many of my American Jewish contemporaries, I was also enrolled in an afterschool program that met three times weekly at the synagogue. This is known as Hebrew school.

Now, most of the children who attended Hebrew school did so for one simple reason: the shul’s (synagogue’s) policy was that only those who attended Hebrew school until the date of their bar/bat mitzvahs could mark these events within the community. That’s why many Hebrew school students dropped out in the 7th grade; that’s why less than half remained for the Hebrew high school program, which began the following year.

Even in Hebrew high school, there were plenty of students attending against their wills. Their parents pressured them to go – so they went. My Papa, on the other hand, thought it was a total waste of time. “What are you learning there?” he would ask me; and my answers were always lacking. Still, I remained one of the few students who loved going to Hebrew school, and I continued attending until I left for college.

To a large extent, Papa was correct. Compared to what I would eventually learn about Judaism as an adult (once I began proactively seeking my own Jewish way), most of my takeaways from Hebrew school, even after those many years, were not much more than fluff. Upon graduation, my Hebrew was poor, and I remained incapable of navigating any of the foundational Jewish texts, such as the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud.

Now, clearly, our Hebrew school teachers were well aware of this. They knew that the majority of their students came from fairly secular homes and were largely ignorant of Judaism. The sarcastic and dry Rabbi Witty (one of my favorite Hebrew high school teachers) understood his goal well: to plant the seeds of curiosity within his students. He knew that the substance of our Hebrew school studies left much to be desired; and he aimed, therefore, to plant germs of Jewish wisdom in our minds that would hopefully take root and sprout up at some point in the future.

“Remember, David,” said Rabbi Witty as he adjusted his belt buckle, “Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.”


Huh? Deed? Not creed?

Yep.

In fact, this saying actually encapsulates one of the major points of Christianity’s departure from Judaism, for Judaism, you see, has always been all about the Law.

[In Judaism] there are thus religious acts as well as religious knowledge. The religious acts… are disciplinary and educative. They train the soul to reverence. Religious knowledge tells us about the subject of that reverence, and inclines the mind to love. The sanctions of the law are thus for the purpose of spiritual education…

… St. Paul, too, believed that only with the coming of the Messiah will a change take place in human nature which will make the deterrent of the law superfluous, but since he believed that the Messiah has come already, that Jesus was the Messiah, the continuation of the practice of the law was regarded by him as a denial of Jesus’ messianity. It was either the law or Jesus.

Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7

In principle, you see, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, one is true to the Jewish faith if one practices Judaism. One must eat kosher food, pray thrice daily, observe the Sabbath, separate wool from linen, etc., etc., and these daily acts are the very building blocks of traditional Jewish life. In a certain sense, certainly from the perspective of Zvi Kolitz (above), traditional Judaism is designed for skeptics like me, for the law “trains the soul to reverence.”

Traditional Judaism does not assume that a human being inherently believes in God, let alone loves God. Rather, it assumes that one must be trained to do so. And – if one never comes to believe but continues adhering to the law, one remains, according to traditional Judaism, a member of the Jewish people in good standing.

Now, my own faith journey has been up, down, and all around. For some periods, I managed to convince myself that I believe in God, and at other times (like the last few years) I’ve had seemingly insurmountable difficulty believing in a supernatural force that is somehow involved in or even invested in the lives of human beings at all.

Still, in theory, if I were to somehow become convinced of a personal God’s existence again, that would be wonderful. I do remain open to that possibility, and therefore the traditional Jewish approach works well for me – I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.


The skeptic’s social problem

When it comes to my personal life, holding fast to the law, or at least holding it up as a standard to live by, works well. That’s not to say that I don’t break the law in multiple ways daily, but I am always keenly aware of it; I always think about it; I always ask myself if I couldn’t be more loyal to it. I always wish that I wanted to follow it more.

However, despite my earnest commitment to traditional Judaism, I have consistently found that expressing my religious skepticism regarding the possible existence of an involved, invested God in a communal setting in the Orthodox Jewish community inevitably results in awkwardness.

In private interpersonal interactions, it’s usually acceptable for me to express my beliefs honestly, in the sense that people don’t tend to take offense; but more often than not my fellow interlocutors will either attempt to convince me of their beliefs in God, or else they will suggest that I should continue along the traditional religious path and will eventually discover God for myself. In both such cases, I feel unheard and intellectually disrespected.

Online, I participate in several very respectful, intellectual, and active discussion forums for Jews who are skeptics; Jews who were once religious and left the fold; Jews who are religious both in outlook and in practice; and Jews who have come to believe in God over time. These forums are much more accepting and intellectually engaging than anything I have encountered in the real world. Through them, I have discovered some amazing Jewish bloggers who write about their struggles with faith, many of whom are anonymous for fear of being ostracized in their real lives.

For example, I came across an ultra-Orthodox blogger who calls himself ‘A Jew With Questions’ who continues to reside in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but harbors theological doubts. He writes:

I am an American Charedi Jew living in Israel who is going through a crisis of faith. In short, I have a hard time believing in Orthodox Judaism due to the many questions that I have…

The purpose of this blog is to express these doubts and hopefully get some answers or at least conversation from commenters. One of the biggest problems that I have is that I have no one to talk to.  In many ways I am very lonely. My wife is a true believer in Hashem, and she constantly talks about emuna. My children go to Charedi schools and have been brainwashed by the Charedi educational system. My friends, chavrusas etc. are all true believers and would not listen or understand if I talked to them…

‘A Jew With Questions’, June 13, 2016

Now, I affiliate with the more religiously liberal and intellectually open end of the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, but despite the modern-mindedness of most such communities, I find serious, respectful discussions about my deep skepticism in God’s involvement not so easy to come by without uncomfortable looks and pregnant pauses.


The crux

A friend of mine has asked me on more than occasion why it matters to me what the members of my extended community believe. In part, it’s a matter of loneliness, just as it is for ‘A Jew With Questions’.

However, among other things, it’s also a matter of my deep disillusionment with traditional Judaism in lived experience. I’ve already written a blog post titled ‘Because God’, which I won’t rehash here, but it comes down to the following:

‘Because God’ is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom…

-Me, ‘Because God’, May 22, 2020

Upon reflection, I find the irony of humanity’s limitations in this context to be quite stinging.

Whereas I believe that Jewish law should be a means to “train the soul to reverence”, as Zvi Kolitz suggested (and therefore its practitioners should have no reason whatsoever to be threatened by a broad range of levels of belief within their communities), instead, most of its adherents seem to want/need to approach the system from exactly the opposite direction.

Namely: if those who follow the law cannot convince themselves that Hashem exists; that God is involved in their lives; that God wants them to observe the law… then it may turn out that they lack the motivation to follow Jewish law… and… well, frankly, I think they are afraid to face that possibility.

Wherefore ‘ben Alexander’?

Some basics of Jewish names

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

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

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

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


‘ben Alexander’

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

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

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

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


‘Alexander’

The Legend of the Gordian Knot

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

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

The name ‘Alexander’ among Eastern Europeans

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

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

The name ‘Alexander’ among Jews

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

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

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

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

Further adds Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin:

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

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

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

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


Ben Alexander’ or ‘ben Alexander’

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

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

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

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

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

David ben Alexander.

Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)


Loving-kindness ≠ charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root dq (צדק), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.


My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

Together, or: Eventually

                                         there
                    you are 

                              stretching upwards and sideways
                                           squirming wriggling everywhere
                                        going 
                 nowhere 

           even the walls are beyond
                            you 
                         are trapped in a narrow cup

        going nowhere
but down down down
                    and out 
                              eventually

                              but
         we do 
have a bit of time together, don't we?
stay with me for Shabbat, won't you?

I hope you won't go out like last time

black wick stuck in the stiff cold wax
suffocated by frozen white bubbles I 
was not at all ready for your absence 

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?