Friday, December 21, 2007

Why I Haven't Told: The Self, Divided

Slowly I’m coming to the realization that my situation is more complex than I originally thought. I’ve tried, but haven’t been able to tell my parents and the more I think about it, the more I realize that my reluctance is not just related to my cowardice (although I’m sure that factors into it, too).

The truth is that I’m really torn. In addition to my intellectual problems with Judaism, and all of the things I find problematic within its social structures, there is also so much that I love about being part of the Orthodox community. So much that I’m not sure I could just let go of.

I’m using this entry as a way to organize my thoughts on this – a way to understand what it is that I love and what I find problematic. So here goes nothing…

I’ll start with what I love:

--Shabbos. Whenever I decide not to keep it (this happens more and more frequently lately), it honestly makes me feel empty. Sure, I can go to the mall or to some concert I wanted to go to, I can watch whatever came from Netflix on Friday afternoon. But the thing is, growing up, my parents always made Shabbos such a beautiful experience. And even when I got older, the day provided a space for real bonding with friends (one uninterrupted by ringing cell phones, laptops, TV shows, etc.). As tempting as it is to live one weekend here or there without it, going Shabbos-free for life seems like a colorless existence to me.

--Holidays. The best memories of my childhood are the scents, colors, textures of the Jewish holidays.I know this seems related to the Shabbos thing, and I suppose it is, but most secular celebrations of Jewish holidays that I’ve been to don’t cut it for me. This past Sukkos, in particular, I found myself in a crisis. Faced with the prospect of a three-day Yom Tov, I decided that I would let myself just chill for those few days and maybe attend a Sukkos dinner at the Conservative synagogue. The whole experience left me so sad, there aren’t words to describe it.

--Community. Yeah, I know you can find this anywhere. Community is not exclusive to the Jewish world. But to me, there’s something really nice about the way the MO Jewish community functions, especially when combined with what I love about Shabbos and the holidays.

But I conflict greatly with the MO community in terms of the things I believe in. Some of these are:

--God. I’m an agnostic, not an atheist, but I definitely lean more towards the atheist side these days. And God’s a huge issue. If you don’t believe in it, why are you practicing all of these rituals?

--Torah. Even if I could make that jump from agnostic to believer, I can’t believe that a book with so many inaccuracies and morally problematic (for me) ideas could be divine. And unlike others for whom this doesn’t matter, it’s pretty crucial for me.

--A Definition of Morality. Mine differs pretty greatly from that of most MO Jews I’ve met (even some of the most vehemently modern ones). I don’t see how I can live within a system with such strict gender divisions and with such a heteronormative culture. While I can admit that Judaism’s morality may have pretty progressive at one point in time, today it just doesn’t measure up in my eyes.

--Set Expectations/Normalcy. (Linked, definitely, to morality) Again, not limited to the Jewish community – and certainly not inherent in Judaism as a religion – but prevalent in most MO Jewish communities I’ve been to. That is, there is an idea that your life will follow a certain course and that course is even more limiting that the “normal” course proscribed by contemporary secular society (which is already quite limiting!). “What?! You’re 28 and not married? Oy!”

This is just a starting point. There’s so much more to say. But in the end, what I’m trying to get at is that it’s not just the problem of how to tell my parents, it’s the problem of how to tell myself. Because I actually feel like there are two sides of me at war here, and I’m not sure which way to turn.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Racism in the Jewish World

I really can't understand racist Jews. Not those who are blind to their own racism ("I'm not a racist, but all [X race] ...") and certainly not those who are openly, admittedly racist.

I know this is an obvious point that's been reiterated time and again by others like me, but I just need to vent.

Because, as it turns out, one of my good friends who I've known for quite some time has a racist streak to her. How this managed to escape my notice for so long, I have no clue. And it bothers the hell out of me.

When we know what it is to be grouped as a racial category and discriminated against, how can we justify doing the same to others? It seems so blatantly obvious to me, I really can't fathom how intelligent people in 2007 can think otherwise -- how they can continue to live with themselves spouting the racist philosophy that they do.

I'll riff a little...

For some more "enlightened" Jews, making the kind of racist comments made by this particular friend would be unthinkable, because they were made in regards to Hispanics. Trade that classification in for Arabs, however, and you'd find a much larger contingent of our community who are willing to group the whole race together and disparage their supposed collective racial attributes.

I know that there are a lot of intense emotional responses to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but I don't think that excuses blatant racism or even not-so-blatant racism. And yet, even in the most liberal of circles, these kinds of attitudes seem widespread.

Yeah, nothing surprising in this post, I s'pose. Just me being pissed off.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

STRESSED OUT (Or, Starting the Conversation)

Lately, I have become increasingly stressed out to the point that stress seems almost a normal state of being.

And here's the thing - the consensus from the comments on my last post was that I was not, indeed, a hypocrite. Which is nice to know, but it doesn't help the stress. The more sure I am that I don't believe in the basic premises Judaism and the more I find myself breaking with Jewish law, the more upset (which translates into stress) I become that I'm not being honest with my friends and (more importantly) my parents and siblings.

But I don't even know where or how to begin such a conversation. Sometimes I think my mother suspects it by the kinds of questions she asks me and the tone in which she asks them ("Where did you get food on your trip to [place without a Jewish community]? What did you do for Shabbos?").

I have no problem arguing with my parents about political or social issues and do so all the time. But the second I even think about broaching the topic of Judaism, I feel queasy. I can almost see the look of anguish on their faces. My parents are baal tshuva and they have become increasingly more religious throughout the years. My siblings all became more religious than we were raised to be. I'm already the "black sheep" because I'm "modern" but I'm terrified of how hurt my parents would be if I came out as an agnostic (or how infrequently my siblings would talk to me).

But I'm 28 already. And I feel a little bit paralyzed, like I can't really start life unless I can start it on my own grounds. And somehow, even though I've already done a thousand different things with my life, I feel like I'm not really living freely unless I come clean to my parents.

But how do I start that conversation?

Saturday, December 1, 2007


So I was at my (non-religious) aunt's house the past few days...and I've been telling her what I've been thinking about everything in terms of religion lately. She was pretty supportive when we were talking...

But later, she was in a bad mood (my aunt's a bit of a character) and she snapped at me, "At least I'm not a hypocrite like you..."

Well I know that I'm being a bit hypocritical, because I don't actually believe in what I'm doing (or in certain cases, am pretending to do/believe in), but at the same time, I feel a certain drive to protect my parents' feelings as well as a draw to certain aspects and traditions of the religion.

I'm also trying to be okay with it by believing that I will tell my parents at some point in the future...

Anyway, just wondering how the rest of you feel on this issue. Do you feel like a hypocrite? If so, how do you deal?

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Feminist Orthodoxy

This post is inspired by a conversation I’ve been having in the comments thread on XGH's blog.

This is not going to be about my struggles with gender and Judaism. Believe me, I’ve struggled with these. In my teenage years and adulthood, I’ve become painfully aware of what the “separate but equally as special” dictum that many traditionally minded OJs hold really means for women.

But that story and analysis is for a different post and a different time.

This post is about potential and the future.

I’ll reiterate one point first: my problems with OJ (which, granted, I haven’t gone into in any real detail here yet) are NOT limited to gender-related issues. They stretch far beyond this.

That said, if my problems were limited to gender, I think that in 2007 I might have some hope.

It is still quite far from solving everything for me, but I see a lot of promise in the recent introduction of feminist ideology into OJ. Organizations like JOFA and women like Blu Greenberg and Tamar Ross, to my mind, are pushing in the right direction and making much needed advances.

Whether or not they are directly influenced by feminist theory, many OJ women feel a divide between their lives in the secular and religious spheres. These are educated, intelligent women who want to participate more actively in their religion – in addition to their mitzvot they are already performing as women.

Furthermore, they are women who see a real benefit in having a more active female presence in OJ overall. The ordination (?not sure if that’s the right word?) of yoatzot is one example of how this is true.

In the aforementioned conversation that I was having with “Dude” on XGH’s blog, “Dude” said that a feminist OJ is silly/childish, goes against the historical Jewish perspective, and ultimately makes a mockery of halachic flexibility.

I argued that there are precedents for this kind of female role – think Devorah, Bruriah – but they have just been downplayed. With the story of a female judge in Tanach itself, how can anyone argue that there can’t be any place for a woman in Judaism outside her home?

What I find most discouraging is that fact that Dude’s attitude isn’t an anomaly; rejection and disparagement of a more feminist OJ is widespread. The only reason I can come up with for this is knee-jerk sexism; these people feel afraid – like their world, religion, etc., is going to fall apart if such changes are made.

The craziest thing to me about this attitude is that feminist OJ’s changes don’t (in general) violate halacha. In fact, these women have such great respect for halacha that they really only institute rituals that are okay by halachic standards – after speaking with rabbis – when some of them would really want much more radical changes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Judaism in a Void

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to dream of taking off and moving to one of these remote (rural?) towns in the middle of the country. I grew up right near a big city, spent my college years in an urban environment, and really, I just wanted a change.

Anyway, my parents' and OJ friends would always react to these dreams with a standard line: "Well, as long as there's a Jewish community there..." And since I wasn't out about my skepticism, I would always mumble something about Chabad.

And then I went to graduate school. Unsurprisingly, I chose a program that was out in a small college town with a tiny OJ population. In fact, the entire OJ population consisted of the Chabad rabbi, rebbetzin, two families (college profs), and a smattering (maybe 10?) of students - most of whom had become OJ through Chabad.

Funny thing about this, though, was that while I was one of two Jews in my entire department (the other knew next to nothing about Judaism), I actually got more religious during that time period.

Or maybe religious is the wrong word. Because my level of OJ observance plummeted in many ways and I continued to be skeptical of OJ and question many of its assumptions. But for the first time in a long time, I felt Jewish and proud to be Jewish. Not only that, but the traditions themselves became a lot more meaningful to me. And I went to Chabad nearly every weekend (yeah, yeah...I know they're theologically sketchy). This, even though I had a good social life with the other non-Jewish graduate students.

It's now been several years since I graduated and I've moved to NY. Here, with my very sincere MO roommate, my OJ friends, and OJism all around me, I find so much of my enchantment and pride that I had in graduate school is gone. Of course, there are still aspects of OJ that I value and connect with, but they are fewer and the level of connection is weaker. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. At the very least, it means my intellectual processes and my feelings are (relatively) on the same page.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Figuring it Out (Or Trying, Anyway)

So here's where I am.

I'm 28 years old. It's been more than 14 years since the first time I intentionally ate non-kosher (unless you count gum, in which case it's been about 20 years). It's about 12 years since the first time I broke Shabbos.

Back then, it was different though. While I questioned the idea of God, the idea of religion, these acts were more about rebellion...and occasionally even about fitting in. I was brought up in a Modern Orthodox home, with ba'al tshuva parents and, at about 14 years old, it started to feel like my life (in more ways than just religiously) no longer fit me.

When I was 18, I went to seminary (like so many others from my circles) -- and while I never became really frum per se, I did stop eating non-kosher, started keeping Shabbos, perhaps more significantly, started believing in the premises of Orthodox Judaism.

Of course I always still questioned. In seminary, for example, I tried asking my rabbis & teachers about things that still bothered me -- the fact that our religion commanded us to commit genocide, most specifically--the fact that the Torah seemed to talk about women like second class citizens. Again and again, I was told that this wasn't the time for these questions (especially about Amalek!) or given explanations that didn't really work for me (women are different, special -- and the Torah understands that about us; but I didn't feel very different).

Slowly, through college and later through graduate school, I began questioning even more -- reading, talking to other Ortho Jews, people of other faiths, etc. -- and what had seemed to make total sense a few years earlier, no longer did. It got to the point where I couldn't even reconcile the idea of God's existence anymore (I'm currently an agnostic).

But it was more complicated than just that. Because for all the theological, philosophical, and feminist issues I had with Orthodox Judaism, I have mixed feelings about it. That is, many of the beliefs it espouses are ones I (sometimes vehemently) disagree with. But I often feel a strong emotional connection to its traditions and community. And I don't, for the most part, dislike day-to-day existence as a Modern Orthodox Jew. (The phrase "for the most part," of course, is problematic when you're dealing with Judaism.) So I've been living -- outwardly, anyway (occasionally I've moved into the more Conservative/Conservadox realm) -- as what others in the blog world have called "Orthoprax" for a while now. This is because of the aforementioned emotions, as well as the fact that I don't want to alienate my parents and siblings.

I guess none of this would be such a problem if I didn't have these nagging ethical/intellectual problems with OJ...and if I didn't have to qualify the above emotional justification with the phrase "for the most part." Lately, these issues have become more problematic as I read and experience more.

This blog is in response to a few months of reading other OTD or skeptic blogs, specifically a recent entry by Going Going Gone in which she noted the lack of female bloggers on this topic. Hopefully, like it has done for others before me, this blog will help me sort out my thoughts.