Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More Questions than Answers

Note:  The essay below was written in conjunction with my earlier essay "Jew by Choice."  Here, as in my previous essay, I am attempting to answer, for me, just what it means to be Jewish, just how it is that we can connect to our faith, our community.  Most, I hope to find some answers to just how I can teach this to my son, pass it on so that he can find and foster that connection himself.  It is my hope that this essay will serve as a springboard for a dialog, so that we all learn from each other.  I may not have all the answers, and I'm certainly learning a lot of questions.  I am hoping you all can help shine a light for us all.  


So, on the first Sunday of the last year that I taught religious school, I challenged my seventh grade students:  "How do you have a conversation with God in the 21st century? Do you even have a conversation at all? How do you come to God when life is good? More, how do you come to God in times of anger or sadness or despair, when all you want to do is curse at God? How do you connect to Judaism?"

Being a fan of symmetry and neatly wrapped boxes, on the last Sunday of the last year that I taught religious school, I asked them: "What is it that connects you?  To Judaism, to God?  Are you connected?  What does it mean, to be a Jew?"

I don't know that I have answers any more now than I did when I started that year.  For that matter,  any more than I did when I lost God, when I was convinced that God had lost me, or any more than when I felt sheltered and carried gently in the palm of God's hand. But I know now, I think, what connects me.  I know, now, what binds me to my faith.

Hooray for me (she said, somewhat dryly) (after all, this is not about me).  But still I ask myself  "Have I done enough? Have I, have we, the community that surrounds and supports these questing, growing, questioning minds--- have we given them enough, to anchor them in their doubt and disbelief, to strengthen them in their journey to adulthood? Will they, too, become Jews by choice?"

I look at my son, who, at thirteen,  is right there: a jumble of belief and doubt and cynicism and hope, so ready to believe, so fearful of his honest disbelief.  What can I give him, that he will choose to be a Jew?  Around and around I go, on a merry-go-round of ask-and-answer.  And every so often, I'm lucky enough to stop long enough to hear enough from others who ride their own merry-go-rounds of hope and doubt and faith and love.

It lets me know, if nothing else, that I'm asking the right questions.  At least, that we are all asking a lot of the same questions.  And we're finding some... if not answers, then at least a little bit of clarity.  And so I can say: what does it take to be enough?  And I can start to hear the tin calliope merry-go-round music of an answer coming back to me:

It's about passion, I think.  My passion.  Our passion.  The passion and joy and exuberance of being Jewish: of study and community and service and prayer and family and God.  It's choosing and being engaged in the choice.  It's mindful and sometimes hard and sometimes frustrating and always, always--- it is ok to be passionate.  It's good to find the wonder and sense the awe of who we are and where we fit.  Judaism can be an intellectual pursuit.  But it is so much more; can be so much more.  If we allow it.  If we let it.  How can we not show that?  How can we not share that?

But wait-- there's more (she said with a cockeyed smile).  It's also about obligation.  We spend so much time sheltering our young, of giving and teaching and doing for them, we don't always remember to teach them their obligation to us, their community.  We don't always show them that there is as much joy, as much passion in obligation and service outwards as there is in being served.  God has taught us that lesson well: we are commanded to serve, we are bound by our obligations one to another, to our community and to God. It is that obligation that helps give us all a framework of connection that can transcend doubt or disbelief.

Passion.  Obligation.  Joy.  God.  Beginning the conversation.  Being caught in the act-- of choosing, every day, to be a Jew.  What else, what else, what else?  What am I missing?  What are we missing?  I don't know it all, not by a long shot.  But I've learned that there are those who can fill in the blanks, if I ask. There are those who can help me find the questions, if I listen.

So-- I'm listening. I'm asking.  Is it enough?  Is there joy enough, wonder enough to bridge the doubt?  What connects us?  What will bind us, one to another and to God?  What words do I give to my son, so that he can find his own way to choose, every day, to be a Jew?

And finally, I offer a small prayer of my own: that we can all listen in wonder, ask in joy, choose in faith, dance with God.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jew By Choice

Editor's note: I wrote this several years ago for the URJ, proud to declare my Judaism for all the world to see. I am still a Jew by choice. I am also an American. The one has nothing to do with the other, and it frightens me, at a time of rising antisemitism and hatred, that anyone - especially our government, and this administration in particular - would declare my faith, my belief, my actions, seperate from my citizenship. It is too close to a declaration of divided loyalties, and this particular declaration goes so far as to tromp on civil liberties and the First amendment. The trop is all too familiar and leads to a path of violence and vitriol. 


I am a Jew by choice.

And before you ask - both my parents are Jewish.  One of my earliest memories is of being with my grandfather, sheltered by his tallit, as he gave the benediction to his congregation on Rosh Hashana. We celebrated the major Jewish holidays (the really, really major ones) (of course, there were only four holidays a year anyway-- Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Pesach; anything else being an esoteric holdover of a bygone age), mainly with a meal.  Occasionally, we even made it to synagogue.  

I was educated as a Jew, the full complement: Hebrew school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Sunday school and Sunday school on, well, Sundays, and eventually Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation classes. My parents dropped off, while they had a quiet Sunday morning, or a free hour or two on during the week in the late afternoon. I sat, every Saturday morning for almost a year, reading ancient Hebrew and what seemed like even more ancient English, littered with "thees" and "thous" and flowery beyond belief, alone among a handful of old men, as required by the dictates of my upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Alone, because my parents had other things to do.

I devoured religious school. I felt as if I had found the place where I belonged (had always belonged), a familiar and sheltering home, as we navigated through Jewish history and holidays. I ran through all the primers for Hebrew that our Rabbi could throw at me, so that by the time my family switched synagogues, I was a year ahead of the rest of the kids in my (secular school) grade.  And it wasn't just schooling.  There was youth group and music.  Debbie Friedman's (z"l) songs were fresh and new and grabbed something inside us, got our hands clapping and hearts soaring. We sang a new song to God, and did it with joy.

When I became a Bat Mitzvah (although, when I became a Bat Mitzvah, we still had  a Bat Mitzvah; there was none of this "becoming" stuff), -- from the bima (think: pulpit), as I gave my Bat Mitzvah speech-- I declared my parents to be Lox and Bagel Jews--- people who ate their way through Jewish culture, but who, when push came to shove, really felt more comfortable on the golf course than the sanctuary floor on a Saturday morning.  I further declared that I would never be like them (remember, I was a teenager).  Most important, I declared my intention, my desire, to become a rabbi.

All of my fervent declarations were met with a hearty chuckle, most especially from my parents. Although they were willing to play along with my more participatory adventures in Judaism, they drew the line at the rabbinate.  "That's really not a job for a nice Jewish girl," they told me.  Funny thing, it had nothing to do with the fact that I was a girl--- after all, we were living in the modern world of 1974, and women could do anything (sort of).  No, they didn't think the calling appropriate because they figured I'd never make enough money by praying professionally.

Like most teenagers, I was adamant, intractable, supercilious and superior.  At thirteen, I knew the answers to life, the universe and everything.

By fifteen, I knew that there was no God and that religion--- specifically Judaism--- was nonsense.  I refused to participate because I refused to be a hypocrite.  Of course, I still took off from school, and later, work, for all the major Jewish holidays, and ate all the major Jewish meals at their appointed times, each in its season.  I mean, really--- a girl has to eat, right?

From then unitl my early forties, I was a Jew by birth, and that's about it.  I did not disavow my Judaism, did not seek other religious options (though I flirted with alcohol as an emergency spiritual plan, then a kind of universal (not to be confused with Universalist) just-be-a-good-person, kind of peace-and-love amorphous spirituality that had no form, and certainly no God).  It was easier for me to be disconnected and contemptuous, and so I was.

Somewhere along my way, something happened, something changed.  Getting sober helped.  Getting married certainly didn't hurt.  Having a child pushed me over the edge, turned my contempt into something quite like hope.  Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon a small grace note of faith.

And now?  Now I am a Jew by choice.  Every day--- let me repeat that--- every day I choose to be a Jew.  Choose to engage and connect and participate and act and worship and pray as a Jew.  It is a conscious act, like the King who says to Scheherazade: "Good story.  I guess I won't kill you today. Maybe tomorrow."  Some days, I am the King; some Scheherazade.  I must both act and choose.  With that, I find a measure of peace, a sense of wonder, the joy of obligation and the freedom of service.

I still like riotous, raucous, chaotic family meals to celebrate the holidays.  But there is so much more, for me, to being Jewish.  It is family tradition and ritual, faith and intent.  It is cultural and religious and social.  It is how I live my life as an individual and as a member of a community. It is family meals and silent prayer.  It is difficult and simple and resonates within me and fills me with light.

I am a Jew because I act. I am a Jew because I choose.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fear, Faith and a Really Big Sea: Passover Reflections Redux, part 2

In the year since I first reposted this essay, I have had the opportunity to do lots of growing.  Lots of learning.  Lots and lots and lots. And lots.

And if you hear the slight sneer in the above, barest hint of cynical, condescending sarcasm, you know me too well or have read me too much.  I'm awesome at waxing profound, at descriptive and eloquent pain.  My best stuff is about stuck, and fear, and looking for paths in the darkness of my center.  Read any of the dozens of essays posted here and you will see that I'm a master of martyrdom, so noble in my doubt.

I can move you to tears with my prose.

Hell, I can move me to tears with my prose.

Don't get me wrong: I am not going for disingenuousness or emotional manipulation!  Everything I write is real and heartfelt and earned, painful tear by painful tear.  It can get a bit overwhelming.  I know; I've lived it.  And I can get a bit serious, a tad portentous.  (So much so that I use words like "portentous.")

So it comes as no little surprise, especially to me, that this year, life is...different.  This year, there is more hope than pain, more faith than doubt.  This year, I do not feel logy and wobbly as I approach the miracle that waits on the shores of that distant, ever-present and implacable sea. This year, I feel an expectant tingle, an eager anticipation of whatever happens next.  This year, I feel brave enough to leap.

The themes of my original post still ring true.  It's about fear.  It's about faith in the face of that fear.  It's about staring out at the vast and dark sea (of life, of the future, of the past-- pick a metaphor, any metaphor; they're all good, all true) and being stuck and being afraid and having faith.  It's about being forgiven, at last, and forgiving, all in the same breath.

So the year turns, as it always does, and time flows in some holy and sacred river, and it is, once again, Passover.  There is beauty in that cyclical passage of time.  There is grace in getting to this season, again, of God's redemption.  Once we wandered a dark and empty desert, and then were brought home.  Once we were slaves, now we are free.  

Here's what I wrote a couple of years ago:

I'm in one of those places: stuck, prickly, at the very edge of letting go, trembling with the effort to not tip over the edge into the abyss of the unknown, desperate to take that final leap of faith and soar towards light and wholeness. I am astounded, as always, when I think how inextricably intertwined my fear and my faith have become. I have heard (more times than I care to remember) that Fear (always pronounced with a capital F) is an absence of Faith. No. I think not. I demand Not. I am too intelligent--- God is too intelligent-- to demand unthinking blind faith like that, to insist that faith is a guard against fear.

Faith does not shield me from fear. Rather, it is a guard against Inaction. Fear is quite real. There are Monsters, real and scary. Always have been. They hide under beds and around corners, just out of sight. Barely glimpsed, more smoke and mirrors, but present nonetheless. Some are visible, some not so much. Some shout me down in the dark, loud and raucous and dissonant. Some whisper in my ear, sibilant and soothing, urging me to wander paths best left untraveled. Fear keeps the lights on at night and smells of sweat and tension and anxiety-- sharp and unpleasant. If the fear is great enough, it can keep me rooted and curled in on myself, covers pulled tightly over my head, unmoving. Paralyzed. Stuck. Tentative. Invisible.

But my faith: sweet and sure and graceful. It wraps around me like light, like breath, like life. It sometimes moves mountains. More often than not, it is just enough. Enough, not to beat back the darkness or vanquish the demons, but enough to put one foot in front of the other, to walk, however falteringly, forward. To know that, no matter what, I am enough, I will be ok.

And so, faith and grace being what they are, I think of my fear, and my stuckness, and I am reminded that it is Pesach (Passover). And in the midst of all of this darkness, there is also redemption, and release.

I got to tell the story of Nachshon at assembly a few Sundays ago at my synagogue. It is my favorite midrash, I think. (For those of you reading this who are now totally lost in the tangle of my narrative, a midrash is a rabbinic story, a device used to fill in some of the blanks and the holes in the Torah. Kinda folkloric, they are the stories behind the stories.) So, Nachshon-- he was a slave with all the other Israelites who found redemption at the hand of God. He was Let Go, with a capital L and a capital G, brought out with a Mighty Hand. He packed and didn't let the dough rise and ran, breathless and scared and grateful, away from the land of Pharaohs and pyramids and crocodiles and slavery--- ran into freedom.

And then he got to the sea. He and 600,000 other un-slaved people. Stopped cold by the Red Sea. It was huge, and liquid and deep. You couldn't see the other side. It was so big you couldn't see any sides. Just wet from here to... forever.

And behind him, when he (and 600,000 others) dared to peek: Pharaoh and his army of men and horses and chariots. And spears and swords and assorted sharp pointy things. We really can't forget the sharp pointy things. Even at a distance, the sharp pointy things loomed quite large in the eyes of Nachshon and his recently-freed brethren. Caught between the original rock anda hard place. Well, ok: between water and pointy metal stuff. At this point, I don't think anyone involved cared much about getting the metaphor exactly right. What they cared about was getting out from that perilous middle. Fast.

So Moses, because it was his job, went to have a chat with God. And just like that, Moses got an answer--- a Divine Instant Message. All that the Children of Israel needed to do: walk forward, into the Sea, that big, wet, deep forever sea. God would provide a way. "Trust Me," God seemed to say. "I got you this far, didn't I? I wouldn't let you fall now!"

And Nachshon and the 600,000 stood at the shivery edge of that Sea, staring at that infinite horizon in front and the pointy, roiling chaos of death and slavery behind them. And they stood. Planted. And let's face it: not just planted, but rooted in their fear and mistrust and doubt. They may have felt reassured by the image of God as a pillar of smoke or fire--- impressive pyrotechnics to be sure--- but the soldiers and the Sea were so there, so present, so much more real.

And then, in the midst of that fear and doubt, something changed. Nachshon, lately freed, trapped between death by water and death by bleeding, Nachshon leapt. He did the miraculous: he put one foot in front of the other and walked into the sea.  And the 600,000 held their collective breath, watching the scene unfold before them. Nachshon did what 600,000 could not  (or would not; that may be another blog altogether): he decided to believe, to have faith. To leap. And tho the water covered first his ankles, then knees, then chest, then kept rising, until he was almost swallowed whole, he kept walking, kept believing. And just when it seemed that Nachshon was a fool for his faith, would surely drown in that infinite forever sea, another miracle:

The waters parted.

The Sea split and Nachshon, so recently in over his head, he walked on dry land. And the 600,000 breathed again, in one relieved whoosh of air, and they found their own faith and followed Nachshon into and across the dry Sea to the other side.  And then the journey truly began...

I pray to have faith enough to walk into my own Sea--- of doubt and fear and darkness. I want to walk and feel the waters part, to be released from the tangled web of thought that holds me immobile and disconnected. I have learned, again and again, without fail: when I take that step, when I find the grace and the faith to put one foot in front of the other, to trust, as Nachshon did, I am carried forward, I am freed from my self-imposed bondage. I am enough, and I can walk again on dry land to freedom.

I think I am finally letting go, finally leaving the desert, stumbling at last along the narrow bridge to light and hope.  There is fear; yes.  But there is also faith and grace and redemption.  Even for me, there is redemption.

Once we were slaves, now we are free.

Chag Pesach Sameach.  Happy Passover.

09 April 2012
17 Nissan 5772