Monday, December 29, 2008

Memes: They're Kinda Hard to Do When You Don't Want to Disclose Your Identity

...but here it goes anyway... :-)
Tagged by DYS.

a) Link to your blogger and list these rules on your blog

b) Share 7 facts about yourself, some random, some weird

c) Tag 7 people (if possible) at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs

d) Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs

Hmm. Okay. First things first: I'm changing the rules. (What are skeptic blogs for if not to change the rules?!) I'm not going to tag seven people. But if you read this, like doing this sort of thing, and want to do one on your blog, feel free, and let me know.

I accepted this tag because of the challenge it poses - sharing seven random/weird facts about myself without making my identity too obvious. While my life abounds with random and weird facts, most of them are so random and weird as to make who I am very obvious to anyone who knows me. So here goes my best shot at more obscure/less obvious random and weird facts:

1) When I was in junior high, I used to blast "Every Breath You Take" by the Police, sit on my bed looking at old photos, get nostalgic for my childhood (at the whopping age of 12!), and cry.

2) I am currently eating a cinnamon coffee cake from Starbucks. I don't really like Starbucks but someone gave me a $20 card for Chanukah, so Starbucks it was...

3) I was terrified of dogs and cats until I was a teenager. Even then, and even as I thought they looked really cute, I was still a bit scared of cats until much later (my late teens? early 20s?). Now, I have no idea what made me scared.

4) I like the experience of watching/reading the same movies and books over and over more than I like the experience of watching/reading new ones. That said, I try to steer myself away from this tendency because I also want to broaden my horizons.

5) The first time that I consciously violated halacha, I was in elementary school. My friend offered me a piece of non-kosher gum (which her parents allowed, but mine didn't) and I took it. Years later, when I was at my most religious point, I had trouble turning down non-kosher gum.

6) Yesterday, I found a pack of hot dogs at the back of my freezer with an October 2007 sell by date. Gross.

7) Even though I've lost touch with most of them, I can still tell you the birthdays and (probably long-defunct) phone numbers of anyone I was good friends with from elementary school through high school.

That wasn't so bad! Anyone else want to take a stab at one of these?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tradition in Non-Traditional Ways

Recently I went to a Conservative Friday night service. Excluding one Conservative bar mitzvah I went to as a kid (and a Reconstructionist funeral...not sure if that counts), this was the first non-Orthodox service I've ever attended.

A girl I'd met a few weeks ago who grew up Conservative had asked me if I wanted to come with her to services once in a while. I told her I was all for it. I'm definitely curious to see what other ways I can continue to feel connected to my Jewishness that might be more in line with my beliefs.

So she took me. She'd never been to this service. It caters to the 20s-30s set, is egalitarian, led by a female rabbi, and sees itself as traditional.

For me, the whole experience was a lot less strange than I thought it would be. Maybe it was because it felt more like an informal prayer group than a formal service, maybe it was because I was seated next to women, but for some reason davening without a mechitzah did not feel weird at all. (Even more bizarre, because when I was at my friend's Christian wedding a few months ago, sitting next to men did feel weird.) In fact, it was nice to feel like I counted, nice to feel like I was really part of things.

Nor, for that matter, did it feel strange to have a female rabbi. Again, this might have been because of the informality of the service. Still, I really liked her. She seemed so excited about everything and she gave a d'var torah that was actually interesting. Not to say that I've never liked a male rabbi before. But there's always been that distance that I've had to keep from them - not a "respect the rabbi" distance (which I did feel with this rabbi, too), but a gender distance, which was suddenly gone.

Two other things did strike me, one of which I liked, and one of which I didn't.

The first - and this, although I found it a bit jarring, I liked - was the addition of the word "imahot" wherever "avot" is usually said, as well as the names of the imahot, wherever the names of the avot are said. Yeah, it made me stumble over chunks of davening, which I've long ago memorized and can repeat by rote. But that feeling was nice because it made me think about what I was doing and what I was saying... And also, though I identify as a feminist, I'd never even noticed how many times it says "avot" or their names without mentioning the imahot. Admittedly, it feels kind of artificial, but not in a bad way. And if I went to such services enough, I'm sure it would begin to feel pretty natural.

The thing I really didn't like (interestingly enough, my friend didn't like it either) was the fact that this service switched off between English and Hebrew. I understand that idea behind it. I get it, I really do. But it sounds awful and it feels awkward... And yeah, I'm spoiled in a way, because I know Hebrew so I understand what I'm saying even when it's not in translation. But I think if I'm going to find one of these groups in which I feel comfortable, it'll have to be entirely in Hebrew.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Further & Further Away

What's strange lately, is this feeling that I've moved so far away from the OJ train of thought with which I was raised, that I can't even understand it anymore. In fact, sometimes, I can't even anticipate it.

What I mean by that: when my friends/family talk about consulting a rabbi regarding certain everyday, not necessarily "Jewish-y" (i.e., kashrut-related, etc.) issues in their lives, I find myself completely taken aback. It doesn't even occur to me to expect it anymore.

Also, I find myself shocked at the idea that people I know take Tanach literally. For example, I was at my boyfriend's house a few weeks ago, and his parents and their guests began talking about Ma'arat Hamachpelah - how one of them found out it wasn't the original site and was very disappointed. I sat there for five minutes just shocked out of my mind that all of the people around me were 100% sure that Avraham, Sarah, etc., even existed!

And here's the thing: I know I shouldn't be shocked that these things are the case. These things are pretty much the standard across most OJ people I know. But it's like I've become so involved in my own analysis of the religion, and have been living so much of my life out of the OJ context, that I've completely forgotten that most OJ people aren't questioning the precepts of OJ. Strange.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tradition for Tradition's Sake?

So, tradition…

These days, when someone asks me to define myself religiously – i.e., put myself into a category – I usually tell them I prefer not to. I mean, I can’t call myself Orthodox in good faith anymore.

But am I Conservative? Conservadox? Well, not really…

If pressed, I’d probably say I’m Traditional. I like it because it’s not a category that most people use on its own when talking about Judaism – although there are a few synagogues that bill themselves simply as “Traditional.”

But also, I like it, because it’s the closest thing to the truth. I’m an agnostic, I definitely don’t buy into the idea of Torah Min Hashamayim, nor do I buy into the importance and/or infallibility of rabbinic law.

That said, Jewish traditions mean something to me. I’ve never really been sure why – maybe because my parents raised me in a house where Judaism, Shabbos, and the holidays were beautiful things, maybe it’s because of some idea of cultural heritage… I’m not sure the “why” matters, though. It’s just the way things are.

But there are limits to my traditionalism. That is, where aspects of the tradition seem immoral to me, or seem to uphold values that I see as immoral, I can’t be okay with it. Rather, I’m as traditional as possible within certain limits, but I’m not an advocate of “tradition for tradition’s sake” when such a policy holds back social progress or justice. In fact, even if tradition simply contradicts a belief that I have, I can’t stand behind that tradition.

In other words: for me, tradition is a luxury, not a necessity. I stand behind specific traditions because I find them valuable. Where a specific tradition ceases to have meaning – or begins to have an offensive meaning – I’m not interested in perpetuating it.

A few weeks ago, Product and I had a bit of a back-and-forth about the blog entry I’d written on my Christian friend’s wedding. He couldn’t understand why I’d be offended or uncomfortable with Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremonies.

In an e-mail to me, he wrote, “I don’t have a problem with marriages done the Orthodox way. You see? So many things we do are rooted in historic customs, principles, and beliefs we no longer believe in, but we continue doing it anyway.”

Here, to a certain extent I agree with him. I try to make Jewish holidays special, to celebrate them in ways my ancestors celebrated them. So do I eat matzah on Pesach because I believe that God took the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and they left in such a hurry that the bread didn’t have time to rise? No. I eat it because my grandparents ate it, because I grew up eating it. I eat it for a similar reason (though on a deeper and more significant level) that I watch fireworks on July 4th. Because it means something to me. Because it feels good. Because some of the lessons from the Passover story – the value of freedom, the horror of being persecuted – have value for me. And yes, finally, because being from a line of Jews who’ve done these things for centuries means something to me. In a cultural heritage sort of way.

But that doesn’t mean that when a tradition comes into conflict with my values – as does an Orthodox wedding ceremony – that I will just accept it because it’s tradition. On the contrary! I do think the Orthodox ceremony has some nice symbols – the chupah, for example. And I would like to see a perpetuation of those traditions. But in terms of the silent women, the enforced passivity of the women involved – I am not okay with that. Sure, if the people getting married feel that those customs reflect their values, they should keep it up. But for so many of us, it’s completely contradictory to how we see the world, even to how we see marriage.

Product made a point in a blog post* he wrote on the subject that, in Orthodox Judaism, women are consecrated to their husbands but not vice versa. I know this to be true and it’s a problem. Even if it’s only a technicality, it’s a technicality that has practical implications (think agunot).

Regarding my post, again, Product questioned my critique of the reading given during the Christian wedding. I had called the passage (at least in the way it was excerpted) misogynist. He felt I needn’t be offended by such passages (an aside, the groom was as well) because when they were originally written, they reflected the values of the time, and nobody was offended.

In his email to me, he elaborated: “I recently watched the Godfather series; I think it was shot in the 50’s. In Godfather I, the Godfather calls all colored people animals and in Godfather II, Michael is rebuked for trusting a Jew. Was I appalled? No. Neither should the black folks be offended. We all know that at the time Anti-Semitic and racist statements were acceptable. I’m not worried, because I know such lines would be censored from today’s movies.”

His supposition of when the movies were made is wrong (they were made in the ‘70s), but let’s just assume for a moment that they were actually shot in the ‘50s and that the values expressed within the movies reflected those of the societies around them (I don’t think it’s quite that simple even if they had been made in the '50s, but I’m making a hypothetical case). In such a case, I think it’s true that one should be able to watch such a film without being offended (the way, for example, I can read 19th century texts about women’s “proper roles” without being offended. In fact, I’m not really offended when I read sexist remarks in the Tanach – it only serves as evidence for me that it’s a biased, human-written text).

However, watching these films is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about choosing that specific quote to read aloud in a modern day context. That is, imagine if someone stood up at a Jewish benefit and read the anti-Semitic section of the script from Godfather II. Unless he/she was doing so as part of a speech on the history of anti-Semitism, the attendees would all be appalled, and rightly so!

Tradition and traditional texts, by extension, have their limits. When they're quoted or referred to as a way to uphold sexist/racist/anti-Semitic values in modern day society, it is not okay.

Ultimately, Product closed his email by expounding upon what he saw as the “fundamental problem with Reform Judaism.” That is, that “[r]eligion practices the word of God, whether you believe in it or not. A religion that claims to be man-made is not a religion. When you start to accommodate religion to suit contemporary beliefs, you pull the floor from underneath your feet. Instead, let religion be the original that it is, and you have three options. You can take it, leave it, or throw it away. You can practice it, leave it in synagogue and visit whenever you feel like it, or hate it and reject anything that resembles it. The point is, don’t change it or you will mess the whole thing up.”

While not a proponent of Reform Judaism, I respectfully disagree with Product’s opinion here. I don’t think you compromise the whole thing by changing pieces of it. Not that this is relevant to my life – but even the most extreme brands of Orthodox Judaism don’t claim to be fully the word of God. In fact, most of the things I find to be in conflict with my value system don’t claim to be the word of God (there are, of course, exceptions to this rule). The reason for that is because Judaism – yes, even Orthodox Judaism – is an organic, evolving thing. The rulings of rabbis, even as they try to stay as close as possible to the original texts, have always been informed by the societies around them. How else to explain Rav Gershom’s edict against polygamy? This one instance is more obvious than some others, but if you look closely, these outside influences become more and more clear.

Obviously, the happenings within Orthodoxy are less relevant to my life now that I’ve (sort of) made the decisions that I have. But really my point is that I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong or threatening about adapting traditions. And I do think there can be harm done by simply valuing “tradition for tradition’s sake” without any critical analysis. Perhaps more on this another time…

*Yes, Product's blog is in Yiddish, a language which I don't understand. However, he sent me a translation of the post and it's really very interesting. Perhaps he will post that translation on his blog?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Quick Rant, Just 'Cuz

I'll be posting a more extensive post about tradition and such things later this week, but this whole election has brought out the worst in some people...and I needed to here it goes.

Was hanging out with an all-Jewish (mostly MO or just straight up O) crowd today. Almost everyone besides me was a McCain supporter. That was fine with me until the reason for their support (or, at least one person's support) was vocalized. This person said, "I would've voted for Obama if he wasn't a black Arab."

This reason? Really not okay with me. I had to bite my lip hard to keep from exploding. Racism disgusts me. The end.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Plural God

So many of the Hebrew words we used to talk about God are all in the plural -- Elohim, Adonai (rather than adoni), Tzva'ot.

For a religion that's so staunchly monotheistic, this seems really peculiar to me. I really don't know what to make of this - except maybe to think that it's a relic from the polytheistic religions upon which Judaism was built. The thing about it that most puzzles me is that it sounds so Christian - a single God who we talk about in the plural?

How does Orthodox Judaism talk about this, if at all? Anyone know?

Friday, October 24, 2008

My First Christian Wedding

In the last ten years, I’ve been to a lot of weddings. I’m not sure of the exact number, but a fair estimate would be sixty. All but two of these were (some degree of) Orthodox Jewish, at least in terms of the ceremony (i.e., sometimes the bride and groom were not Orthodox and there was minimal Jewish dancing during the party).

The first of these was my cousin’s – which I blogged about here.

The second was a few weeks ago. One of my best friends from graduate school – a devout Protestant (Baptist) – got married in a church.

As you might imagine, this was quite different from the other weddings I’ve been to. To a certain degree that difference was just sort of a novelty. It was pretty cool being at a wedding where a lot of the things that they did looked a lot like what you see in the movies.

But more importantly, the wedding provided me with a point of comparison for a clearer view of Orthodox Jewish weddings.

Let me first make a disclaimer: I am not a fan of the OJ wedding ceremony/view of marriage. Things I really don’t like:

#1 – The power structure built into OJ marriages. Namely, the whole issue of get/agunah. Even as many couples don’t get divorced, the fact that that’s built in to the marriage is just plain awful. Yes, I know there are pre-nups, etc., that can all but eliminate the problem, but sometimes they don’t work.

#2 – The actual ceremony itself, wherein the woman never opens her mouth the entire time. And remains passive. Moreover (and this is really just an extension of what I find problematic about OJ, more generally), the fact that no woman ever actively participates in the ceremony in a meaningful way. Those who read the sheva brachot, the mesader k’dushin, the witnesses, etc., are all men.

#3 – This is obviously cultural and not because of any halacha – but I cannot stand the size and the gaudiness of OJ weddings. This can definitely be changed. Come on, people - let’s do it!

This disclaimer out of the way, here’s my analysis of my first Christian wedding / being in a church:

The Rituals are Tailored by the Bride and Groom
Before we even went in, I was talking to another Christian friend of mine who made it quite clear that there is no one way to have a Protestant ceremony (probably not quite as true for a Catholic ceremony). The bride and groom design the ceremony themselves.

This was a pretty cool aspect of the wedding, because you really got the feeling that the ceremony was reflective of the people getting married. For instance, this particular couple is very musical – and the whole ceremony was filled with people singing. The groom sang the bride down the aisle, the bride sang to the groom later on, the parents sang to the couple, etc.

Women and Men Sitting Together!
And I didn’t notice any members of the opposite sex checking each other out. Or doing anything else inappropriate. In fact, the attendees were much more attentive to the ceremony than any of those I’ve seen at OJ weddings/shuls/etc. (i.e., they were actually quiet).

The Bride Participates in the Same Way as the Groom
For me, this was huge. She sang to him just as he sang to her. She said her vow as did he. She was clearly an equal, active partner in the ceremony. And not in some sort of trite or representational sort of way (i.e., the only way I could ever even conceive of an OJ rabbi allowing bridal participation in the ceremony). If she didn’t say her vow, they wouldn’t have been considered married.

Other Women Participate
His parents sang together, her sister lit the “unity candle” (something I’ll come back to), a woman read the scripture. And there was absolutely nothing shocking about it. This is a very traditional church. But they have no concept that such female participation as I’ve described could even be questionable. This put into strict relief the attitudes of OJ.

Women Sing!
Okay, again, this was just so unusual for me – to be in a place where people are really, really religious – and then to have women just get up and sing. It shows how much OJ has influenced the way I think. There is no conception of this as anything even remotely sexual or immodest.

There’s Still Misogyny
One step back: this Christian ceremony wasn't perfect.

When the woman stood up to read scripture, she read two pieces – one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The first was the verse from Bereishit where God tells Adam to leave his mother and father and cling to his wife. Not really problematic from my perspective, except that (a problem I have with most of Tanach) it’s phrased in terms of the man.

The New Testament passage, however, I found offensive even though it’s directed both men and women.

The verse went something like, “Wives, submit to your husbands. (…) Husbands, love your wives.”

Later, a Catholic friend told me that this was removed from its context in which it comes across as considerably less sexist. This may or may not be true – I’m not sure. However, the fact that is that it was read in a way that seemed to uphold contemporary sexism bothered me. And it apparently bothered my friend (the groom) too – he told me later that he didn’t know they were going to read that passage and that he felt it wasn’t reflective of his own views on marriage.

Everyone (or, at least most people) Present Can Understand What’s Going On
Even as there was a part that I found offensive, the point was, I could understand it. It was in English.

This is totally different from an OJ ceremony.

When I was younger – before I understood what it meant – I used to sit with bated breath when they would read the ketubah out loud. It would give me chills to hear the bride and groom’s Hebrew names and the name of whatever town it was being held in. Of course, since it is in Aramaic, I didn’t understand the rest of the ketubah at all.

Whether or not you have problems with the OJ ceremony (and I don’t have problems with the ketubah itself – it’s put in place to protect the woman – only with the laws of marriage that necessitate it and are therefore present in its language), the ketubah is not really a romantic document. It’s legalistic and talks about things like the husband’s responsibility to provide the wife with necessities – including sex. If they read it in a literal English translation, I might even find it to be an awkward moment.

Because the Christian ceremony is conducted in English, people present – whether they find the goings on romantic, offensive, strange, etc., – understand everything that’s going on.

Cool Ritual
The one thing they did that was pretty awesome, was the lighting of the Unity Candle. After the respective parents lit one candle each, the bride and groom took one (apparently representative of their souls) and together lit a new candle in the middle.

I just really, really liked this.

Oh yeah, it was Small. And Not Even a Little Bit Gaudy
There were maybe just over a hundred people there (one of my friends commented that this was big!), people were dressed formally but not uber-fancy (though this may have something to do with the location; I have a feeling if it was a Christian wedding in New York, it might be more showy), and the party was low-key but still lots of fun (I would venture to say maybe even more fun!).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Yom Kippur: Setting Precedents for Myself

For the first time, I made the conscious decision not to fast (in the Orthodox definition of the word) on Yom Kippur. I've broken the fast in previous years when I got so sick (i.e., hypoglycemia) that I had little choice. But this year, in the vein of my recent Tisha B'Av experience, I decided to stick with my definition of fasting. It was harder because I was at my parents' house, and I didn't want them to know -- I ended up just sneaking a granola bar, water, and one roll while no one was looking. It was a lot less torturous.

That said, it was also a lot less meaningful than Tisha B'Av -- really because, as an agnostic, I just don't see as much meaning in Yom Kippur (as a holiday between man & a god I'm not sure exists) as I do in Tisha B'Av (as a commemoration of all the Jewish suffering that's occurred during the ages). Still, I'd feel strange not marking Yom Kippur at all...

I do have to say that, as of now, I plan on keeping both major fast days in this way for the foreseeable future. It's the only way it's really manageable for me, and the only way it could possibly have any meaning beyond a 25-hour obsession with my stomach.

Also, since the last blog entry, I attended a Christian wedding (in a church) for the first time ever. I will blog about this within the next week or so.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Time to Socialize?: Some Thoughts about Conversations during Shul/Rituals/Ceremonies

A (non-Jewish) co-worker of mine was telling me about an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah she attended over the weekend. Her observation: the congregants seemed much less respectful of the rituals taking place than she’d expected from such a religious ceremony. All around her, everyone was talking to each other – regardless of whether the Bar Mitzvah boy was reading from the Torah, the rabbi was giving a speech, etc.. She found it appalling.

I have to say, I was less than shocked. Though, admittedly, I haven’t been to shul in quite a while, when I used to go regularly to my parents’ MO shul, the chatting was so loud and constant, it required more than a few “shush”ings from the gabbai. Indeed, several years ago, the shul sent out a letter to all families requesting that everyone be quiet during services.

My favorite of such moments:

When I was 19, a bit more religious than I am now, I was sitting in shul next to my mother. During the entire Torah reading and davening, two women in front of me were chatting away, rather loudly. Then, the president got up to read the announcements and the two women to their right began to talk (quietly). One of the first two (chatting-during-davening) women quickly got annoyed and turned to the newest chatter with a loud, “Shush!”

Back to the general topic of talking during ritual/ceremonies: While I haven’t attended that many yeshivish-type shuls to discuss their in-shul chatting or lack thereof, I have been to numerous yeshivish (as well as MO) weddings. And one thing I can say: although there have been a few exceptions to this rule, generally speaking I’ve found that the more religious (/to the right/yeshivish) the wedding, the more (and louder) the chatting.

[I can’t confirm if this is true in shuls, too? Anyone else?]

It seems so paradoxical: why would the more fervently religious have such a propensity to talk at these seemingly sacred rituals? The first thing that popped into my mind is that the more “religious” (scare quotes deliberate) you are, the more weddings / bar & bat mitzvahs / services / rituals you’ve been to. (The number of wedding/bar & bat mitzvahs one is invited to tends to increase in Orthodox circles. See previous post for more on this.) Thus, each one becomes less special/sacred, as it were.

Maybe, though I’m not sure. Other speculations?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Intermarriage

I'll start with a little context: a week ago, I attended my cousin's wedding. He married a lapsed Catholic who will not be converting. I celebrated with him. I was as happy for them as I am when I watch two Jewish friends get married.

So, intermarriage: It's one of the biggest taboos I can think of. When, as a teenager, I started to "rebel" and hang out with the non-Jewish kids in my neighborhood, my dad sat me down for a dramatic talk about why I shouldn't date the non-Jewish guys. A lot of the focus was on past Jewish suffering - especially the fact that my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and that all her family had been killed in the Holocaust.

This, my father communicated to me without actually using these words:
If all these people died in the name of being Jewish, it's wrong for you to just give it up by inter-dating (presumably followed by intermarrying).

This lesson sunk deep. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, it was compounded by the statistics I would hear in school, at Shabbos tables, in newspapers. "Intermarriage and assimilation are the new genocide," they would say, "Today we are submitting ourselves to a Holocaust-by-choice." And then, the resulting fever: "KIRUV! KIRUV! KIRUV!"

I can remember my own feelings at the mention of someone who was intermarrying - it was this deep ache, this feeling of loss, an almost-panic.

Well, it's been a long road, but here I am, now 29 and not even phased by the idea of my cousin's intermarriage. A few relevant details: he was raised all but completely non-religious (my mom's a baal teshuva), he's currently even less religious than he was growing up. His wife, though brought up Catholic, is similarly non-religious. They share the same values, the same understandings of life, and they make an adorable couple. They dated for six years and have been living together for nearly two.

Of course, my sisters (who are both ultra-frum) didn't come -- even though my cousin & his wife came to their weddings. My parents came, but I recently found out that they came only because my aunt threatened to stop speaking to them if they didn't.

Like I said, having once been theologically closer to where my sisters are now, I know what they feel. That said, I really don't understand the line of thinking anymore. It's so strange to me to disapprove of a marriage simply because of the religious affiliation or lack thereof of one of the parties. My cousin, in many ways, is like a brother to me and I just can't imagine not being happy for his happiness.

One other note on the whole ceremony: I've never been to a secular wedding before. Never, really, even been to a non-Orthodox wedding before. (I will be going to a Christian wedding at the end of the month, though! I'm sure I'll blog about that one, too...) The ceremony was amazing in that it actually involved equal, vocal participation from the bride. This is one thing I absolutely cannot stand about Orthodox weddings - the bride shows up, circles, accepts a ring, drinks from a glass, and never speaks. Also: I (as well as 4 other men & women) was given a poem to read at the ceremony. So cool to actually participate!!

It was also just so much more intimate a ceremony. While large weddings aren't part of the Jewish law in any way, if you were ignorant of that fact, you'd be justified in believing that they are. I've never been to (or heard of) an OJ wedding that had an invite list smaller than 200. My cousin's wedding, with an invite list of 110, was large for his circles. What this meant? I actually got to talk to and celebrate with the bride and groom.

In contrast, I attended an OJ wedding this weekend where I got about five minutes dancing and a quick hello before the bedekin with the bride. And she was my good friend! If nothing else, the OJ community needs to do something about the sheer size of these weddings. They are nauseatingly large. I'm personally prepared not to be offended when I don't get invited to a friend's small wedding.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tisha B'av with Food

Okay, so fine, I'm an agnostic. I don't really feel God or spirituality the way other people seem to.

And I'm not really sad about the absence of a Temple in Israel. (In fact, I think I'd be more disturbed than anything about things like animal sacrifices that are supposed to take place there.)

That said, as I wrote in my last post, I do find meaning in Tisha B'av - in remembering the loss and suffering of so many of my ancestors, in so many places, generations. But I've never been able to experience that meaningfulness because my body simply shuts down without food (see previous post for more specific details).

So this Tisha B'av, I ate.

I limited myself: only plain bread, plain pasta, juice, and water.

I didn't play any of those games where you only eat a morsel every minute or so. I didn't think that sort of activity would help add meaning to the day -- it seems like it would only serve to make me focus even more on food, etc.

I have to say that this was the most meaningful Tisha B'av, most meaningful fast day actually, I've ever had. And that includes all of those I observed when I was more religious that I am now.
It was a "fast" the way the Christians define it during Lent (only, I guess, more extreme). Every time I opened the refrigerator, I had to stop myself from taking what I really wanted - and then, got to think about why I was doing that.

And that's the thing: I was mentally present enough to think about it. Completely incredible, for me, at least.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Being Decisive: Tisha B'av

Even in my least religious moments, I've always seen a justification for fasting on Tisha B'av.

Unlike Yom Kippur, it doesn't necessarily (at least the way I understand it) have to do with a belief in God. Well, I suppose the idea really is that in the end God's going to bring moshiach... But what I mean is - you needn't believe in God for Tisha B'av to have meaning.

The fast day is all about remembering and mourning all the tragedies in our nation's history - more specifically, about morning the tragedies of our ancestors. I've always understood it that way. And so it always made sense to me to follow it.

But here's the thing: fasting makes me sick. More than anybody else I know. While no doctor has ever told me not to fast (I've never asked!), I have a tendency to become hypoglycemic, and fasting means that I literally cannot move from the couch for at least the last 10 hours. It also means a good 10 hour recovery time post-fast.

Last year, I had a particularly bad attack of hypoglycemia, broke my fast on orange juice, and then continued to fast afterward.

But this year, I'm making the decision before the fast even begins that I will not fast. I won't go out, party, and order myself a chocolate cheese cake either, but I won't fast.

I'm going to commemorate the day in my own way - keep things serious, eat only as much as necessary. But I don't see the point anymore of following the tradition as is, simply because it's tradition, if the said tradition renders me completely and utterly unable to move.

And I think, just maybe, this is the way the rest of my outlook on Judaism/tradition/what-the- hell-I'm-going-to-do-with-my-life-religiously is starting to shape up. We shall see.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Death & Skepticism

One of my co-workers recently passed away. He was young (in his early 40s).

I find it really difficult to deal with death as a skeptic/agnostic. So much more so than when I believed. Heaven/the idea that they're still watching & still exist are gone. And it all becomes so meaningless.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Little OJ Girl Who Lives in My Brain

On my way home yesterday, I had a realization:

There's no reason I have to be certain of where I eventually want to be in terms of Judaism, or even exactly where I am right now, to be open about said status with family and/or friends.

I can tell them I'm unsure. I can tell them I don't know if I can be Orthodox, that I'm not really Orthodox now, that I might or might not be Orthodox in the future. That I value our tradition and love so many things about it, but am not sure I believe in a lot of the concepts that undergird them.

But I haven't. And I'm not sure I will.


Well, here's the second realization:

No matter what I've done, what I've learned that has contradicted OJ, etc., deep down there's this insistence somewhere inside of me that being "non-religious" (in the OJ usage of the term) is bad, wrong, and something of which I should be ashamed.

It's almost like I have a much younger, Orthodox version of myself living inside my brain, full of all the contentions she's been taught, and she won't leave me alone.

Basically: I haven't been able to accept myself as non-Orthodox or even questioning Orthodoxy because a part of me is still convinced that such a designation would make me a BAD person.

And how can I ask my parents and friends to accept me as I am if I haven't yet accepted my own thoughts and my own choices as legitimate?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Obama or Not: A Different OJ Approach

I've grown very used to OJs declaring that they will not vote for Obama - even if they agree with most of his stances (even if they are usually liberal, blah, blah, blah) - because they feel that McCain is more pro-Israel.

(I won't go into my whole shpiel on single-issue voting right now -- or my stance on the current election, but perhaps one day...)

So used to it, in fact, that I've come to expect it (as I did in the '04 elections - which was, in my mind, a MUCH sadder example of this).

Therefore, I was completely shocked when my (very frum) friend and her husband declared that they plan to vote for Obama.

(Preface: These particular friends aren't the intellectual type and from my experiences with them, usually just fall in line with what their rabbis say.)

Then, in front of a whole room full of other OJ's, she admitted that she thought McCain might be better for Israel than Obama, but that she wouldn't vote based solely on Israel because (drumroll...)

And I quote:
"Hashem protects Israel no matter what. We don't need to worry about presidents and the US government. What happens in Israel has nothing to do with the US government, only to do with if we are good Jews or not."

This rationale for not voting solely on Israel BLEW MY MIND. I've never heard any other OJ say anything like this.

She's basically taken one part of OJ philosophy and pitted it against the "accepted wisdom" of many contemporary Orthodox rabbis/Jews. Crazy!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The "Everybody Hates Us" Complex

Recently, Six Months posted about how she was taught in school that all non-Jews secretly hate Jews no matter how much they pretend otherwise. She wrote:

"In school, it was drummed into our heads that 'the goyim' are only interested in hating us and killing us as quickly as possible. 'If they could get you alone for a second and weren't afraid of being arrested for it, they'd kill you without even thinking about it,' we were told. 'And don't be fooled by the 'kind' grocer in the store or the 'nice' postman who delivers your mail. They just want to get rid of you too.' Where do they get this nonsense from?"

From my understanding, her upbringing was much more Ultra-Orthodox than mine. The day school I attended was quite modern (co-ed, even in high school), I grew up going to a Young Israel, was brought up in a world where it was completely acceptable to wear pants/shorts and go mixed swimming.

That said, I was completely raised with the same idea - that ALL non-Jews secretly hated me, just because I was a Jew. That should the law change, should they be given the opportunity, they would kill me without thinking about it. This was the ideology spouted by some of my (probably Ultra-Orthodox) teachers at my very Modern Orthodox school!!!

I don't think I ever really believed this. Probably because, in some capacity, I always had non-Jewish friends or contact with non-Jewish people.

Now I understand that there's a ridiculous amount of precedent for serious anti-Semitism, serious amounts of "friendly" non-Jews turning around and hating/hurting/killing their Jewish neighbors when the times allowed for it. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and she had some pretty awful stories about these types of situations that were far from unique.

But it's so important not to forget that this doesn't represent ALL non-Jews. That even in the most vile of times - in Nazi Germany - not only were there non-Jews who disapproved of the Nazi agenda, but there were some who even UNNECESSARILY risked their own lives to save Jews.

How many of us would do the same in a world where another ethnic group was being persecuted? Or not just persecuted but murdered? In a world where if we tried to save members of that ethnic group, we and all our family could be killed?

The mere existence of such "righteous gentiles" stands to disprove all of these theories about non-Jews that I was taught as late as the 1990s.

Not only that, but by perpetuating these ideas from generation to generation, we exacerbate the problem. To wit: if we're scared to talk to non-Jews, we don't; thus, they come to see as "other" (in the same way that we see them); ultimately, they come to hate us (or certainly not risk their lives to save us, if such a situation comes to pass).

It's all about honest dialogue and friendship.

Friday, May 30, 2008

On Cheeseburgers and the Treif-Stigma

For the last few days, I have had a ridiculously intense urge to eat a cheeseburger. Maybe even a bacon cheeseburger.

Note: I have never eaten a cheeseburger or bacon before.
Note 2: I have, however, eaten cheese together with meat - albeit a long time ago & accidentally (at least initially; I was eating lasagna - I didn't realize it had meat in it until almost the end).
Note 3: I once - again, accidentally - ate a piece of ham that was stuck to the bottom of my cream cheese bagel. It was nothing special.
Note 4: For some reason (maybe halakhic definitions, because I'm apparently ridiculous like that), I haven't had a problem with eating chicken and cheese together for a while (except, of course, the periods of time during which I've decided that I wanted to keep strictly kosher. I'm apparently religiously schizophrenic).

Here's the thing: WHY DO I CARE?

In other words, what's with my insistence to resist the temptation when I don't even believe?

I am so bizarre.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Faith & the Inexplicable

Many people base their religious faith on the fact that something in the world remains inexplicable. They reason that since something seems too complicated, too coincidental, or just plain weird, it must show the hand of God.

When I read articles like this - May 19, 1780: Darkness at Noon Enshrouds New England - I wonder if such people see themselves in it or question their own logic at all.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I'm Tired Of... (A Rant/List)

-- Uncertainty. Of vacillating between MO & non-O over and over again.

-- Covering my tracks from the people who would be crushed by my vacillations.

-- Reading religious opinions that are presented as facts.

-- The religious norm of all the "M"O people that I know -- which is moving further and further to the right.

-- My own emotional attachment to things I know, rationally, make no sense.

-- The cover-ups and lies used to hide immorality within a community of people who claim to be certain about religion. If they can't see that their lies allow innocent people to be hurt, aren't they at least scared that God will punish them for their lies?

-- The fact that I've been reading these blogs for over a year and lots of books on Judaism for half a year and have still come to no conclusion about where I want to go from here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

That Time of Year Again? Ugh.

Yeah, one of the things that prevents me from letting go of Judaism entirely is its holidays. I love Jewish holidays. With one exception: Pesach.

Things I do not love about Pesach:

1. The guilt trip that goes on in my brain, whereby I can still hear all my elementary & high school teachers implying that anyone who does not follow every single stringency when it comes to Pesach will be cut off from the Jewish people/burn in Hell.

2. Pesach cleaning. It's not the good kind of cleaning. It's all panic, anxiety, and OCD scrubbing.

3. Eight days of a malnourished me. Because I'm all about carbohydrates. And when I eat mostly protein (as will happen on Pesach, lest I get a stomach ache from too much matzah/potato starch), I never really feel full.

4. Kitniyot. Seriously?!?! On Pesach, I lament my Ashkenaz background. But honestly, why do we even have to keep this? What's the deal? Pesach is already so excessive, what's with this extra (ridiculously huge) restriction?

Monday, April 7, 2008

On the Other Side of the Mechitzah

A few days ago, I attended an event organized for people from Chasidic backgrounds who are becoming "modern" and trying to integrate themselves into secular society.

(I'm being especially cautious with this post, as I don't believe there to be many such events [correct me if I'm wrong!] and I do want to remain anonymous.)

My presence there, obviously, was somewhat accidental. I came with a friend whose friend had once been in the abovementioned situation. I was an anomaly there, having come from a Modern Orthodox background. In this way, I was really just a spectator of sorts -- and possibly shouldn't have been there. That said, it was one of the most interesting experiences I've had in the recent weeks.

It was eye-opening to come face-to-face with girls changing from skirts into pants in the bathroom stalls, guys who grew up in America speaking English haltingly, men with payes and women dancing Jewish-style together to Jewish music.

What was strangest for me, though, was that the whole experience was religiously uplifting to me. It had been a long time since I'd been somewhere with so many people singing and playing Jewish music with such exuberance and joy. And it was (unsurprisingly) the first time that I ever found myself dancing in a circle with Chasidic-looking men. In fact, it was really one of the first times I ever interacted with men like these.

The dancing, in particular, was amazing. I've yet to find a women's section with truly exuberant dancing. Maybe it's our own fault, maybe it's the way we were raised, maybe it's the space constraints of women's sections in general. All I know is, with the exception of a few weddings, I've never experienced the kind of dancing I did at this event (and weddings are kind of different, because the focus is on a person, rather than the dancing itself -- and rarely does the exuberant dancing include more than the inner circle of 5-8 people).

For me, this kind of dancing has always been something to stare at from above - or through the mechitzah. I remember specifically, one time in Tzfat, being taken to one of these shuls where the dancing was supposed to be fantastic. Everyone had told me about it, and I was eager to go. When I got there, though, all I found was a horde of women crowded up against the mechitzah, pulling back the little lace curtains, and staring two stories down at the men.

But at this event, it was suddenly like I'd crossed over to the men's section - to the ground floor of the shul in Tzfat - the focal point of the activity. And it felt overwhelming. And it felt uplifting. And it felt beautiful.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Religious Questioning & The State of Israel

An old friend of mine with whom I've recently gotten back into contact has also "lost her religion" - to a far greater extent than I have.

While she still enjoys aspects of Jewish culture (i.e., food, music, literature, etc.), she's completely rejected anything to do with Judaism (as in the religion). Questioning religion, for her, was only a part of questioning the entire value system in which she was raised. Much like me, she was raised to be a Zionist, went to Israel for the year, went to religious Zionist camps, etc. And so, Zionism was one of the value systems which she questioned and ultimately rejected.

She's now not only pro-Palestinian, but actually anti-Israel.

I have always been more "liberal" in my Zionism than others. By that, I mean that I've always been appalled by people who implied or openly stated that the Palestinians had no legitimate side. Even as I saw certain Palestinian tactics as murderous and unethical, I've never been able to understand some people's reactions to them. One really otherwise-sweet girl in my seminary, for example, declared that if she had a machine gun, she would walk into East Jerusalem and open fire. This - and all of those people I would meet who espoused Kahane-esque philosophies - was completely incomprehensible to me. I always believed, you can't lump a nation/race all together and say they are all evil and all deserve to die. (That is, at the end of the day, the biggest problem I have with the biblical injunction to eradicate Amalek.)

It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I actually began to read literature written about and from the Palestinian viewpoint.

Up until that point, I had always been taught as though Israel had never done anything wrong EVER (almost certainly a mistake from an educational standpoint). That every piece of land acquired by the State of Israel was done so either by purchase from absentee landlords (thus, the problem was with angry tenants, as it was) or by humane methods after the UN Resolution.

When I found out that this wasn't always the case, I was left really confused. In addition to this, because I was simultaneously questioning whether the Torah was true, I wasn't really sure how the State of Israel could be justified. If God didn't give us the land, what claim did we have to it?

Of course, the literature I was reading was very one-sided and written from an emotional perspective. And though I have since come to see things differently, for a while (maybe a year or two), I felt really strange about my allegiance to Israel. So much so, that I couldn't even bring myself to say the word "Israel" around non-Jewish people without a queasy feeling in the bottom of my stomach. That said, for some reason, I still felt really attached the country itself. When I did visit, it still felt good in that way that it always had. And I couldn't (and didn't want to) imagine a world without Israel.

Interestingly enough, it took conversations with an Evangelical Christian Zionist to balance out my perspective again.

From these conversations, I have since come to the understanding that while Israel was not ethical in every decision it has made, no country can make such a claim. Yes, there were Palestinians exiled in unfair and inhumane ways. Yes, that's awful. But Israel has been ethical in many of its decisions. And those instances in which it has not been ethical do not revoke its right to exist.

The original settlements and the subsequent founding of the State of Israel were at least partially premised on the idea that in this hostile world, Jews needed their own homeland. And world events (pogroms, the Holocaust, and other persecutions) supported this thesis. If we look at Middle Eastern countries and/or certain European countries, today's world events still point to this need.

I'm rambling, admittedly, but it really made me feel strange to talk to this girl who now believes that the State of Israel should not exist -- especially at this point in the evolution of my belief system. She says that unless we look to the Bible, we have no claim to this land (implicit in her statement is that the Bible is not a valid source).

Now, I don't really want to use the Bible as a source either for such disputes. But certainly, if the Jews are to choose any land for the purpose described above, we do at least have a historic connection to the land.

I don't even know if that's important, though. In my mind, what it comes down to, is that she's now arguing for something completely unethical. There are generations of Israelis who have now grown up in this land, who own property, who understand this as their home. How would removing these people be ethical when removing Arabs from their homes was not? Can we correct something that was unethical (from her perspective) in the past by doing something equally as unethical today? Following her line of reasoning, to me, would be equivalent to arguing that we should remove the residents of the American West and give all the land to the Native Americans.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

It's so strange. The more I read, the less convinced I become in the divinity of the Torah, God, the Orthodox interpretation of Judaism.

And yet...

For the past two+ months, suddenly, I've been becoming more and more Orthodox, at least in terms of practice.

By that, I mean I've been (for the most part) keeping kosher & Shabbos diligently.

And the thing is - I'm not even sure why. Or rather, I know why I've been keeping Shabbos. I enjoy it. For the most part, it really does something for me. (See here.)

But I have absolutely no idea why I've been abstaining from eating in non-kosher restaurants. I was back and forth on this for a while -- but for a really long time, I was doing the keep-a-kosher-kitchen, eat kosher around those who would otherwise be upset (i.e., family and certain religious friends), and otherwise eat out non-kosher (vegetarian, for the most part).

It's so strange. And so contrary to what's been going on in my brain. I'm not really sure why this is happening at all.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kosher vs. Kosher; Religious vs. Religious

The NY Times Dining section recently printed a review by Frank Bruni of the newly opened Second Avenue Deli. In his review, he writes, "The restaurant remains kosher." In response to another writer's reaction, "Because it is open on the Sabbath, almost no observant Jew would consider it kosher," Bruni wrote, "A Kosher Quibble" in which he tries to fetter out the definition of kosher.

What was most interesting to me (though not particularly surprising) was the slew of response from Orthodox Jews. Their definition of kosher, of course, includes the fact a Jewish-owned restaurant must be closed on Shabbos (or keeping the laws of Shabbos during food preparation).

What I do find noteworthy (although again, not surprising) is their oresponses almost all assume a strict dichotomy between "religious Jews" (i.e., Orthodox) and "non-religious Jews" (i.e., non-Orthodox). It is inconceivable to them that being a religious Jew could mean anything but keeping Orthodox strictures.

When I was a kid, my parents used to correct me when I called someone "not religious," telling me to refer to them as "non-observant" instead. I don't think that term actually fixes the problem. "Observant," I suppose, is taken to mean, "observing the laws of the Torah." So, in theory -- by my parents' assumption, someone could be religious (i.e., believe in God, attend services, have holiday celebrations, etc.) but not observant of the Torah and/or rabbinic laws.
But whether or not Orthodox Jews agree with them, there is a system of Conservative Jewish halacha...and if a Conservative Jew follows that halacha, they are being observant Jews.

Monday, January 28, 2008


The reading project:

I'm still pretty knee-deep in this; I've been taking notes - writing down questions, thoughts, interesting quotes - on most of the books I've read. When I have time, hopefully, I will post some of the more relevant notes up here.

Reunions / Homosexuality & Orthodox Judaism:

A friend recently called my attention to the Flatbush reunion story. It seems a lot like the Noah Feldman article from a while back...

I understand that the schools promote a certain ideology, but it seems strange to me that this stretches beyond the bounds of educating the children currently in their schools. In other words, while I certainly don't agree with the schools' viewpoints & I don't condone what Feldman's school (allegedly -- some claim it wasn't as he said) did to the group photo, this latest story seems to make even less sense to me.

What I mean:
Okay, Flatbush strongly disagrees with how this particular alumnus is living his life. But a reunion isn't a newsletter. I'm not really sure how allowing the partner to come to the reunion translates into condoning his lifestyle choice.

The whole thing just seems weird to me. Granted, I don't subscribe to the belief system that says homosexuality is wrong. But to me, a reunion is just for the alumni to get together, reminisce, reconnect, etc.. The reunion might also be used to procure donations for the school and photographs of the reunion might later be used to promote the school's image, but the reunion itself should be about the alumni (whoever they turned out to be), not the school.

Of course, this issue also serves to highlight one reason I feel highly uncomfortable being part of the OJ community. Most OJs I've talked to have argued that there's no way OJ (and as an extention of that, OJ schools) can accept homosexuality as it is biblically forbidden. And they're right; it is biblically forbidden. It would require a revision in the way I think about Tanach's role in Judaism for me to be able to reconcile this. And if I accepted that revised way of thinking about the Tanach, would I still be considered Orthodox?

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Note About the Silence

Over the past few weeks I've just been trying to figure myself out. As I said in the previous post, I'm a more than a little bit confused about what I actually want. This is still the case. I'm currently engaging in a full-fledged, intensive reading project and looking around me to see what my real options are.

More to come on all of this.