o .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

My Photo

"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

How I Became Frum (A TMI Production)

I was raised lukewarm Conservative. We didn't keep kosher, but we didn't eat meat and dairy together at the same table. We put away the bread and cookies during Passover, but that was about it. When we hit the Bar/Bat Mitzvah cycle (I'm the oldest of four, so it was from when I was 12 until after my youngest sister was 13 -- that'd be about 8 years all told), we started going to synagogue on most Saturday mornings. But then we'd usually drive over to a deli and have lunch afterwards.

My Dad's brother's family were much more observant. I thought of them as Orthodox, even though they weren't. We'd go to our grandparents' country club on Mother's Day and Father's Day, and they all ate there. Of course, I'd eat ribs, and my cousins generally didn't, but they didn't have any problem eating there. They did keep kosher in their home, though. My Dad grew up doing that, and while he didn't keep it up, his brother did.

I went to Hebrew school starting in third grade. That's pretty much normal. You go for five years, called aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet and heh, and that gets you from third grade through seventh grade. At that point, you're 13, and Jewish education is no longer necessary. Boys and girls both had their Ba* Mitzvah ceremonies at 13, and once that was done with and the gifts received, there really wasn't much of a point.

Of course, I continued after 7th grade, but it had nothing to do with really being interested. On the contrary. I was a pain in the butt to my Hebrew school teachers. I got expelled from Hebrew school halfway through gimmel, and again, halfway through dalet. In both cases, my parents got me a tutor to finish out the year. And in heh, they didn't even waste time trying. It was a tutor from the get-go. But I had to have a minimum of six hours of Jewish studies a week in order to go to Camp Ramah.

Ramah is the flagship camp of the Conservative movement. It defies understanding. It's kind of like a cult in the way that former Ramahniks never get over it. I've met ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem whose eyes light up when they have a chance to talk with other ex-Ramahniks. In the summer of 2004, I went up to Wisconsin for my Nivonim 25th Reunion. Nivonim is the name of the oldest eidah, or age group, at Ramah in Wisconsin, and I was in Nivonim in 1979. I was 16. And 25 years later, it was like I'd never left. Friends of mine were there who I'd known since my first summer at camp, in 1975. We sang songs from our eidah play, and even did some of the dances, which we still remembered. Which we'll never forget.

Some of them are still Conservative. Some are Reform. Others, like me, became frum. But none of it mattered that weekend.

I grew up at Ramah. My life consisted of two months a year. The other ten were just surviving and waiting for summer to come around again. I learned an amorphous love of Judaism there. But it was amorphous. Because the Judaism I learned at camp was like fog. I was on staff at Ramah for four summers, the first two on cabin staff. We were told (like most counselors) that Shabbat observance in the cabin was up to us. Some summers, the rule was that we'd leave the lights on in the cabin when we went down to the lake for Friday night services, and after we'd changed into our pajamas later that night, we'd turn the lights off, and they'd stay off until after Shabbat was over. Sometimes it was different. Sometimes we were allowed to use flashlights to read with after lights out on Friday nights, sometimes we were only allowed to do so under our covers (so as not to offend those who felt it was wrong) and sometimes we were allowed to do as we wished. Not Judaism by any stretch of the imagination, but that thing that we loved so much up at camp was labeled as "Judaism", and so we thought that it was Judaism that we loved.

As you'll probably have figured out, I went to public school. Otherwise, I wouldn't have needed to go to Hebrew school. I had cousins who went to Solomon Schechter (Conservative), and the cousins I mentioned earlier went to a school called Anshe Emet, which was probably also Conservative. Those cousins, however, went to a Jewish day school for high school, called Ida Crown Jewish Academy. I actually live around the corner from that school now. It was sometimes called ICJA, but those who know it just call it "the Academy".

My parents had suggested that I go there when it was time for high school. I don't know what they were thinking, other than that it might be better for me socially. The whole school had maybe 250 kids in four grades, which was quite different than the couple of thousands of kids at Highland Park High School, where I wound up freshman year. I told my parents in no uncertain terms that there wasn't a chance in hell of them getting me to go to an Orthodox day school.

High school sucked. But then, school sucked. It was just something you had to do. But there were limits. I was a very shy child. No, really. Stop laughing. I was so painfully shy that the idea of talking with other people was torture. The idea of speaking to a group of people was something I'd rather have died than do. But I wasn't going to be given a choice, it seemed. When I went to put my sophomore year schedule together, I ran into the public speaking requirement.

It seemed that I needed to take Speech. Oh, I didn't necessarily have to take it first semester (if I'm remembering correctly), but I did have to take it my sophomore year. My first inclination was to find a way out of it. I'm actually quite skilled at such things, and if there'd been any way out, I would have found it.

And, in fact, there was. And I did. I went to my parents, and said, "You know... I've been thinking about the Academy. You may have had a point. I think maybe it would be good for me. Let's look into it." And I spent the next three years at good old ICJA.

And no, I didn't tell them why I'd really switched high schools. Not for at least the next 15 years, at any rate.

Being a Conservative Jew at an Orthodox day school was... interesting. I remember one day raising my hand in class and saying, "But Rabbi Berger, I don't have to keep kosher. I'm Conservative." I actually didn't get kicked out of class for that. And my senior year in high school, when we got a new principal who wanted to make the Academy much more yeshiva-like, I had the distinction of being the first student in the school to have a run-in with him. I remember him trying to disqualify all non-observant students from the National Honor Society. The requirements for getting into the NHS were (1) good grades, (2) good extracurriculars, and (3) good moral character. His claim was that being non-observant at an Orthodox day school was ispo facto a sign of poor moral character. I found the whole brouhaha sort of amusing, since it didn't concern me in the slightest. I was out of the running on all three counts even without taking observance into account. But if anything, it increased my impatience with Orthodox Judaism.

Finally, I escaped, and diploma in hand, I went to Washington University in St. Louis. The only one of the four colleges I'd applied to that accepted me. University of Illinois didn't, because they use class rank percentile as a criterion, and my class rank was 30/60. Had I applied to Arts and Sciences, I would have gotten in. But I'd applied to the Engineering School, so I was out of luck. MIT didn't, because... well, who are we kidding. I was smart, but I was lazy. That was never going to happen. I don't remember the other school. Case Western, maybe? But it was Washington University, which, ironically enough, was where our new high school principal had come from (more about that later)

I hated Jewish history in high school. We had to take a year and a half of it, and while it never made me think about slitting my wrists (much), it was just deadly boring to me. But the summer between high school and college was the summer I was a junior counselor up at camp. And the other counselor had pitched this idea of us reading the kids (we had 11-12 year olds) Chaim Potok's The Chosen at bed time. Every night, we'd have one of the kids who hadn't fallen asleep halfway through the night before give a little recap, and then we'd read them about 20 pages of the book. It took maybe 3-4 days before I got impatient and read the book in the middle of the afternoon. I absolutely love it. It's tripe, and dishonest tripe to boot, but I didn't know that, and the writing was magnificent. I recommend it to anyone (with the caveat that Potok, a Conservative rabbi himself, is lying through his teeth about... well, about almost everything he says about Orthodox Judaism).

I quickly hit the camp library, and in about a week, I'd finished The Promise (the sequel to The Chosen), My Name is Asher Lev, and In the Beginning. That exhausted Potok's fiction in 1981, at least what I could find. After camp was over, I went looking, and found that his only other book was Wanderings, a Potokian history of the Jews. Needless to say, it was entrancing. Whatever else I might say about Potok, he was a gifted writer, and Wanderings was amazing. So when I got to college, I signed up for a course entitled Jewish History from Antiquity, taught by Rabbi Joe Rosenbloom, a Classics professor who was also the rabbi of a Reform temple in the area.

Ah, Joe Rosenbloom. I owe him so much. He was so very, very offensive. From the first day of classes, he did his best to be provocative. He taught us all about the J, E, D and P sources that sewed the Torah together clumsily out of patchwork legends. He couldn't say enough bad about Judaism. Did I mention that he was offensive? I mean, I'd gone to Ramah, and I thought I loved Judaism. And Holy Joe was shredding it. And his logic was poor. He'd been doing it for far too long (though I suspect he was probably around the same age I am now). He was so used to taking his own rhetoric for granted that he didn't realize that he had to actually prove his claims.

But if you remember, I mentioned that I was shy. Oh, I could act up in class, but I didn't like actually talking in front of people. And yet, someone had to argue with this guy. And no one else was doing it. So I did. I argued with him incessently. And I spent much of my time in the university library and the Hillel House library, reading up on Judaism, so that I wouldn't make too big a fool of myself in class. I soaked it up like a sponge.

As I mentioned, Wash U was where my senior year principal had come from. He was an Orthodox rabbi and a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. And when he left Wash U, there really wasn't much left in the way of Orthodox Judaism there. There was a kosher meal program through the Hillel House, and I remember the little styrofoam containers with the equivalent of airplane meals in them. And there were Orthodox services at Hillel every Shabbat morning, though the Conservative Hillel director was always trying to get this "Mechitza Minyan" to cut back to every other week, so as not to conflict with the every-other-week Egalitarian Minyan. He eventually succeeded, but it was close to the end of my senior year.

I got involved with the Mechitza Minyan, not because I had any interest in the Hillel House, but because of my cousin. Right, the same cousins again. Of the three kids in their family, one was 5 years older than me, and one was 3 years older than me, and the two of them went to Wash U. That was actually how we got that new principal. My uncle (their father) was the president of the board of ICJA when the principal retired, and it was my cousins who brought the new principal to the attention of the board. Irony abounds in my life, and this was such a small example of it.

But my freshman year, the cousin who was 3 years older than me was finishing her last semester of college before graduating early and getting married to a rotten homophobic jerk who didn't seem so bad at the time.

I've always had a weakness for these cousins. All three of them. I could never say "no" to them, for some reason. And when she called me and asked me if I wanted to come to dinner with the kosher meal folks on Friday night, I said yes, even though I really, really didn't want to. And it turned out that there was something I was able to do that they really needed, so I started going to the Mechitza Minyan. Most of the time.

I don't remember if I was the only non-observant regular there, but I may have been. And it didn't really matter to me. I went on doing battle with Joe Rosenbloom, and I went on reading up on Judaism. I avoided talking with the other Mechitza Minyan folks about it, because I knew they'd just try and get me to be religious, which was not something that interested me. My best friend in high school invited me to her house for Shabbat a million times (give or take) while we were in high school, and I never went, for pretty much the same reason. I didn't want to give offense, but there was no way in hell I was going to do that religious stuff.

By the end of my freshman year, I pretty much knew enough to convince me that Judaism was true. I'd found out that Orthodox Judaism holds that the Oral Torah came from Sinai, and was not, as I'd been told at Camp Ramah, invented by the rabbis to explain the Written Torah. I was very angry when I found this out, because I felt (as I still do) that I'd been deceived intentionally. That I'd been told this lie about Orthodoxy so that I wouldn't take too close a look at it. But I still hadn't connected what I'd come to know with my own actions.

And then, calamity. Rabbi Meir Kahane came to speak at Wash U. This was in the spring of 1982, and I insisted that all my friends come with me to hear the "Jewish terrorist" speak. All I knew about Rav Kahane was... well, nothing, really. But I'd heard that he was willing to kick the rear ends of people who gave Jews a hard time, and I thought that was cool. Imagine my surprise when he barely mentioned the Arab-Israeli conflict or the JDL. Instead, he spoke about Jewish identity. He killed me. Life as I knew it? Well, he pretty much destroyed it.

Metaphorically speaking, Rav Kahane opened up my skull, took all the threads of knowledge that I'd acquired, and carefully tied them together. In a way that made it impossible for me to continue to ignore what I knew. He held up a mirror and forced me to see that I was acting against my own principles. To say that it was upsetting would be a gross understatement.

Six years later, after I was married and living in Israel, I was talking with my father on the telephone. I'll always remember him saying, "I don't get it. You have the worst authority problem of anyone I've met in my life. Of all the things you could have done, becoming an Orthodox Jew just makes absolutely no sense to me." And it still doesn't. I think it's a lot easier for him to deal with my being gay than my being frum.

It took me about four years to really become observant. I used to go to the Mechitza Minyan Shabbat mornings and then walk over to the local science fiction bookstore. It took me a long time to stop going to the Umrathskeller for their amazing half-pound Ratburgers and french fried mushrooms. It's hard to make that kind of change. And it's a lot like coming out. People look at you differently. It's uncomfortable.

And I'm not a social person. Oh, I know people who've been invited for Shabbat and gotten all gooey about how warm and fuzzy it all is. I've never understood that. If I had my druthers, I wouldn't be Jewish. I didn't choose it, and I wouldn't choose it. But it's what I am, and what I know convinces me that there are right things and wrong things for me to do. And like it or not, it is what it is.

That's one of the reasons I get a kick out of people like Nonny/Anon-sensical/Anonymous, who think I'm frum because it's all cozy and safe. They can't conceive of someone actually being frum because they're convinced that it's true and necessary. They don't want to see it as true or necessary. It's easier for them to blow off if it's just made-up silliness. And while that'd be nice, it just isn't so.

Oh, just as a postscript, while I was in college, when I found out that there was no Orthodox Jewish anything on campus (except for Aish HaTorah, and the less said about the Aish reps at Wash U at that time, the better), I was a bit upset. Next time I was home for vacation, I drove to the Academy, and found the principal in the library. I walked right up to him and said, "Why are you here?" Needless to say, he was a little confused. So I elaborated. "We need you at Wash U. You left a vacuum. People don't like you here, and you know it. You're trying to bend the Academy into something it's not, and you're doing it at our cost." All he could say was that he'd felt a "calling" to be a high school headmaster. Gah. And as irony would have it, he's now on staff at CLAL, the liberal, Jewishy organization I had so many lovely things to say about it a few posts ago. Go figure. I guess it's a lucky thing we didn't collide as we passed each other.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Israel and Amalek

We're coming up on Purim, and some thing have to be said. Purim, we're told, will be with us even after all other post-biblical holidays are no longer celebrated. And there's a solid reason for that.

Judaism is about making distinctions. Distinctions between sacred and secular, between light and dark, between Jews and non-Jews, between male and female, between good and evil. We don't blur distinctions; we shine a spotlight on them and learn from them. And in a system like that, polar opposites can teach the most.

Israel and Amalek are polar opposites. The concepts of Israel and Amalek, at any rate. Not all Jews live up to the concept of Israel, and not all Amalekites (at least in principle) are exemplars of the Amalekite worldview.

On Shabbat Zachor, we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19 as an extra reading:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you left Egypt. How they happened upon you on the way, how having no fear of God, they cut off the stragglers among you while you were tired and weary. And it will be when Hashem your God has given you respite from all your enemies all around, in the land which Hashem your God gives to you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall erase the name of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget.
The rabbis talk about the statement "How they happened upon you." The Hebrew is asher korcha. The verb kor can mean "happen", and it can mean "cold". The rabbis explain that when we left Egypt, we were golden. The plagues didn't take place in Egypt alone, but the world over. And people were terrified. At that point, we could have walked into Canaan and seen nothing but the afterimages of the Canaanites as they booked out of there. If not for Amalek.

When Amalek attacked us, even though we beat them in battle, they demonstrated that we could be attacked. They destroyed the mystique. They turned our miraculous escape from Egypt into something prosaic. The rabbis say that the word kor is used here because they "cooled us down". They turned us from a burning star that no one would have dared touch into just another tribe of people. A huge one, granted, but killable like anyone else.

The truth is, both meanings of the word kor are correct in this case. Because that's the entire idea of happenstance. Amalek made it look as though the Exodus "just happened." No big deal.

In Parashat Bechukotai (the last parasha of Leviticus), Hashem tells us what will happen if we blow Him and His mitzvot off. And He uses an unusual term in doing so. In Leviticus 26:21, after having warned us of the bad things that would happen to us if we didn't keep Hashem's Torah, He goes on to say:

And if you walk with Me in keri, and don't feel like obeying Me, I will increase the punishment for your sins sevenfold.
What is keri? Some translations render it as "indifference". Others as "happenstance". Still others as "contrariness" (though I can't imagine where that came from). It is the same word as the kor in asher korcha. It is the act of making something important and fundamental into something that "just happened." As Bechukotai continues, Hashem keeps upping the ante. "If you continue acting as though all of this is just happenstance, then I will let the fires of happenstance take you." Over and over. And Hashem certainly had us pegged correctly. Because that is our biggest weakness: Refusing to see Hashem's Hand in the events that we experience. Being "realistic" when it's just not appropriate.

We were born--as a nation--in the midst of miracles. We have survived--as a nation--through more miracles. To be "realistic" in the way that some people want is anything but. It is a denial of reality, and a denial of Hashem. And Hashem told us that if He allows bad things to happen to us and we refuse to see His Hand in it, it would get worse, and worse, and worse, until eventually we woke up to what was happening, and returned to Him.

In the story of Esther, Haman is an Amalekite. But that's the smallest part of why Purim is about the eternal conflict between the opposing concepts of Israel and Amalek. The scroll of Esther does not contain Hashem's Name. Not even once. The entire story can be read as though it was nothing more than politics. Mordechai and Esther maneuvered within the system, and managed to save the Jews from annihilation. Luck and political savvy saved us. It's possible to read the story that way, but, as the saying goes, that would be wrong.

The Purim story is all about seeing Hashem even in the most prosaic of experiences. That is the concept of Israel. The concept of Amalek, by way of extreme contrast, is about seeing happenstance in the most miraculous of occurances. The rabbis tell us that after the Flood in the days of Noah, some people worked out that the Flood had happened 1656 years after Creation. They came up with a brilliant theory. "The world floods," they suggested, "every 1656 years. It's a natural phenomenon, and all we need to do is come up with a way to protect ourselves every millenium and a half." The nation of Amalek hadn't come into being yet, but the concept of Amalek was already going strong.

Israel looks at Esther being in the right place at the right time, and sees a miracle. Amalek looks at the tiny State of Israel defeating enormous Arab armies in six days and sees military skill. Israel sees the sacred even in the profane. Amalek sees the profane even in the sacred.

And that's why Purim will always be with us. Because it isn't about Mordechai and Esther and Ahasuerus and Haman. It's about the single most important concept in all of Judaism. Knowing Hashem. Seeing Hashem through His influence in the world. Recognizing that there's more to reality than what you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Today, Orthodox Jews are divided into those with an Israelite outlook and those with an Amalekite outlook. And this is the point where some readers are going to get really annoyed. Orthodox Jews get up in the morning and pray to Hashem. And in the prayers, we say these words from Psalms 20:8-9:

These [come] with chariots, and these [come] with horses, but we make mention of the Name of Hashem our God. These bend and fall, but we rise up and are encouraged.
How many people take these words to heart when they say them? How many take them seriously in a practical sense? And how many walk out saying, "We have to get America to help Israel, because Israel cannot stand alone." They can be the most ritually observant and stringent of Jews, but when they insist on "practicality" of that sort, they are adopting the Amalekite worldview.

Is it easy to set practical considerations aside? Not at all. But it is the very reason for our existence. It is the core concept of Torah and Judaism, and it is the single most important thing for Jews to understand today.