Oh boy. This has been a long time coming…it has been brewing and fermenting inside of me for at least eight years. The problem with having a deeply held change of belief when you are well into middle age is that you risk pulling your entire family off balance and I’m not sure that’s fair. The benefit of having a deeply held change of belief when you are of that age is that you know you’ll be just fine without the nodding approval of your social community.
Now, I’m not talking about a mid-life crisis. I have no desire to leave my beloved husband, get a facelift or start wearing clothes that my teenager would love. It is worse than that. I am falling out of my religion.
I converted to Judaism as an adult and have spent the past 20 plus years living a Modern Orthodox life. Modern means I engage fully with the secular world. Orthodox means I follow traditional Jewish law. I keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, and follow the exacting details on how to properly commemorate each Jewish holiday according to halachic (or Jewish legal) requirements. I had two conversions and two weddings before I had a child to ensure that her authenticity as a Jew could never be questioned. I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars sending my daughter to a Jewish preschool, elementary and now secondary school. I work in the Jewish community — all nonprofit Jewish organizations — through which I felt that I was serving a larger purpose than bringing funds into our household. Each of these was no small investment of heart and soul.
And yet, as I reached each milestone in our Jewish lives (eg. marriage, Sophie’s birth, my own and my daughter’s bat mitzvah) I was falling further and further away from my own sense of what God is and what God wants of us. There are 3 parts to this perspective.
1. The Jewish Law
The more I did in terms of learning about and following the minutia of Jewish law, the more absurd I felt. I speak only for myself and I feel nothing but love and respect for my friends, those I love deeply, who are seriously and thoughtfully committed to upholding this millennium long legal tradition. It just does not (nor ever did) resonate with me and the idea of God. Because this is a blog post, and not an academic or philosophical essay, I cannot provide a lengthy argument about the very good reasons why many people, much more intelligent than me, live their lives according to rabbinic interpretation of biblical law. I can only address my instinctive pull-back from their (by “their” I mean the early rabbis and later rabbinic authorities) process of understanding of God’s rule of life.
Let me provide just one example, of the hundreds I have, of what I find absurd. There 39 categories of work that are forbidden on the Sabbath. Their origin can be found in the types of work it took to create the Mishkan (the movable temple in the desert) during the exodus from Egypt, before the Jews reached Israel. For example, because sewing was done on the tapestries and cloth, no sewing is allowed. This one category, over time, has expanded (through rabbinic interpretation) to include anything that might fall into the category of “sewing” or combining two objects to form one. The following is a prohibition found under the expanded category of sewing:
“Diapers with adhesive tape should be opened before Shabbat. Taping the diaper onto a baby is permitted, as it is meant to be temporary. You should be careful when removing a soiled diaper not to close the tabs around the diaper, since they will remain that way permanently in the garbage. Diapers with velcro tabs are permitted because velcro achieves its stickiness by hooking, not by gluing. Today, most diapers are manufactured with a combination of velcro and adhesive tabs. Therefore, l’chatchila, one should be careful to open them before Shabbat and not re-stick the tabs when disposing.”
The idea of this categorical expansion is to “build a fence around the Torah” – to protect ourselves from coming too close to breaking law by taking an extra step in preventing any violation.
That sounds reasonable, you may say. Don’t put the realm of error in your way and steer clear of doing the wrong thing. This process effects every, single minutia of your life. Every. Single. One. Here is how it can play out when taken to basic levels of Orthodox law: you cannot rip toilet paper from the roll when you are in the bathroom on Shabbat. Well, you can, according to my early Chabad rabbi if “you use your non-dominant hand and pull it/tear it in such a manner that it is completely different from normal — like up and towards the wall instead of down and away. But that is ONLY allowed if there is no other choice.” What would be your other choice? There are several. You could prepare before Shabbat and pre-rip many, many squares of toilet paper (as women do for paper towels in the kitchen as well). Or, buy the very expensive toilet paper that comes in separate sheets, as they offer in all the Orthodox synagogues I’ve been in. Or, use facial tissue and clog up your pipes. You get the idea. My view of God just isn’t one in which toilet paper plays a role in the list of really important things. Or in the list of things other observant Jews should judge you upon.
Which brings me to:
2. The Intellect
There is the well-known description of the Jewish people as “the people of the book.” It is an accurate stereotype; it is true. It is not just The Book (the Torah) but many books and there is great emphasis placed on reading, learning, and understanding law. Sadly, this has been “for men only” for much of our history, but that is changing and women are now forging their own path. In any case, there is little argument that the Jewish culture has produced an over-representative number of brilliant Nobel prize winners, philosophers, legal minds, scientists, musicians, and other cultural icons. We value intelligence and I am grateful for it. I diverge though when it comes to Jewish law and, particularly, rabbinic interpretation of what is written in the Torah (you’ll note that theme…).
Rabbis have become so adept at arguing law, they it seems to go beyond rational and right into the absurd. If there is a loophole for the outcome they’d like, they find it. If there is a loophole for an outcome they don’t particularly like, it will be crushed (I’m thinking about the woman trapped in a marriage because her husband won’t give her a Jewish divorce). I won’t say it is arbitrary, but it is so focused on the minutia that the the ethics seems to get lost. God seems to get lost. There are literally centuries of back and forth over a single word – one single word – and its meaning. Arguments and shaming others over which rabbi they hold to, over whose interpretation is the true meaning of God. This is frustrating to me when the big picture is often ignored in this debate. That big picture to me is the reason I converted in the first place. That big Judaic picture has to do with 1) how we bring justice into the world, 2) how we treat other humans with dignity and kindness and 3) how we respect life itself. Life is precious. Dignity is precious. Justice is precious. Truth is all.
3. The People
Okay, I know the line: Some of my best friends are Jewish. And yes, they are. They are wholeheartedly, proudly, joyously Jewish. And I love them beyond measure. But some of my acquaintances, and for sure many rabbis in my life, have been deceptive, thieves, and in once case, a child porn viewer. I know many of them through close family relationships and more than one has been my boss. I remember once someone told me, when I argued about a rabbi’s decision to punish a parent because of their child’s crime, that I needed to leave the “moral authority” to the rabbis where it belonged. I was beyond angry and I realized on that day that I had given my spiritual direction over to men. Modern men. Ancient men. Ethical men. Unethical men. It was going to stop right there.
There are exactly three rabbis that I know well that I trust with the “big Judaic picture.” That’s three out of the many that I’ve met during my 20 plus years of working in the Jewish community. And one of them was so badly mistreated by my community that I don’t blame him for leaving. (I don’t know if that had anything to do with his move, but I would guess it’s a variable.) The true Jewish souls, in my mind, are the friends I’ve made who don’t hold their “I’M OBSERVANT” sign over their heads in righteous self-assurance and who quietly work on the parts of the world that I think God wants us to focus on. Feeding those in need, visiting the sick, looking out for others who are quietly struggling, giving generously of their time, their heart and their soul. So, it’s the Shepherds who definitely turned this sheep away–not the flock.
Okay. So my daughter is 16 and I brought her into this observant life. What do I do? How do I turn my world upside down without deep and sincere consideration for her? For her educational, social, religious and spiritual life as it exists today? I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m stymied and I need help.
I do know that intellectually and spiritually I do not believe the correctness or authority of rabbinic interpretation. I came to Judaism because of those big ideals I mentioned before –not because of a relationship with God per se — but because of the deeply beautiful, centuries long Jewish love affair with the profound preciousness of life. From Deuteronomy: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” Choose Life. It is my own piece of Torah.
For now, I will continue to be faithful in my practice (I still keep Shabbat, still keep kosher, etc.) so that my husband and daughter can continue as they are in our community but I’m certainly seeking a different life in my heart.