This is a picture of a certificate I got in the Hebrew year תשׁמא, or 5741 (1980) when I was 9 years old. My father found it in the attic. Apparently as a kid I dragged the family to 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights to get a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and at that time my father purchased a letter in a Torah on my behalf.
This certificate might not seem very significant to you but it matters to me a whole lot. It says that even if I am not religious (or observant, call it whatever you want) like my family raised me to be, that I still have a place in the Torah. The Torah, mind you, not just the Jewish community but the actual body of law that describes our contract with G-d.
Someone posted an excerpt on Facebook the other day with violent language from the parsha. At that time I wrote that we can’t possibly even try to understand what the literal words mean anymore. I say this not with any authority whatsoever, not as a rabbi and not as a scholar and not even as a man, for it is only men who are commanded to learn the Torah.
Rather I speak as a Jew who learned the principles of right living from my family and from Yeshiva and from whatever books and articles I may have picked up in my life. It’s just wrong to take excerpts from the hoy texts and use them to justify hating on religion.
That said, I cannot be considered a religious person. As I was telling my daughter the other day, religion means that you go along with the community. You may not agree with everything they do but you have to be a part of it, even if technically you could do something different.
The classic example we debate about is skirts versus pants for women. I’m sure you can bring me a thousand proofs that pants are halachically allowed. Having just spent 24 hours in Passaic, New Jersey, quite the hotbed of Orthodox Jewish living, I am telling you that if you want to be part of the Orthodox community you’ve got to live with wearing skirts. And not just any skirts, but skirts that cover the knee in a way that would be considered modest.
I had a good time with my family yesterday. My sister remarked half-jokingly that I was storing it all up so that I could write my blog today. I guess so, although that sounds very cold. Because this is what writers do, we sort of half-live life and half-watch ourselves living it so that we can turn around and tell you a story.
So mostly I was observing things, and also trying to come to terms with things, because one of the most painful aspects of my life right now is the feeling of being a “failure” when it comes to religion. If you weren’t raised Orthodox you can’t understand it, but it is a process akin to brainwashing. Every minute of every day is spent acculturating you to the group, convincing you that the group is right, teaching you how to be in the group, debating what the group says.
If you don’t want to be a part of it, then “something went wrong” and your family must have failed you.
But I am pretty sure now, as I leave my parents’ home, that my feelings about religion have nothing to do with any person or experience or failure on their functioning as indoctrinators into the system. I feel a little bit like Asher Lev in Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen, which if you haven’t read it, is about a Hasidic kid who is blessed with artistic talent.
In the book Asher Lev, who is quite devout, struggles with the fact that this demon, really, is inside of him and trying to get out, and it will take him away from religion. I think that writing is much the same thing. It’s like when you see the world from the perspective of the writing, you just can’t make the same judgment calls that religion does. The meaning of morality is whether your writing passes the litmus test of artistic truth. It isn’t what is written in the Chumash. And if you want to be religious, you cannot be an artist at the same time.
In Passaic I remarked that the streets seemed somehow smaller than I remembered. My parents’ house was smaller, though everything was placed just the same as the last time I was there. I can’t explain why my perception shifted.
I walked through this house inhabited by these people, really complete strangers to me in a way. I almost couldn’t recognize them as the same figures who had raised me as a child…in fact my memories of childhood are almost completely gone.
What I saw were two nice, well-intentioned people in a suburban neighborhood way too religiously suffocating for me to be there. There is a bond in the family that is a little hard to describe; I think all of us suffer from the same sense of dislocation, to varying degrees. But we don’t have the words to articulate it.
I literally dread going to shul this Rosh HaShanah, but I know that I will anyway. I will pay my respects to G-d. Not because I am part of the Orthodox community, or any community that I can explain with any meaning.
I will go because it’s Rosh HaShanah, and once a year, families go.
In my heart I know that G-d is a just and merciful originator of love for all of His creations. I have to believe that the way I was made is not an accident.
Doesn’t make it hurt any less when I ponder what a failure I am, what a true disappointment to my yeshiva teachers.
All opinions my own. Photo by me.
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