Sunday, January 14, 2007

I Write Into Silence

My posts are my thoughts, not my actions. I am a religious, committed Orthodox Jew. And I love God. And yet I think about defying Him, as I expressed. Or I pray in English rather than Hebrew, and admit my pride as a failing. Some of you are quite anxious about this, and seem to believe that I am irreligious or will be shortly, and counsel me to seek help, advice and so on and so forth from various leaders. Some of you even intimate my parents are to blame for such thoughts.

This is not so.

We cannot learn without asking questions, and we cannot learn without admitting that sometimes we want to revolt, rebel, provoke God's wrath, defy Him, in short, act from our own position of authority.

Perhaps not everyone feels this way. Why then, do I write about it? Why do I confess this? Why expose such vulnerabilities?

This is why.

    "A sober friend once said to me, "When I was still drinking, I was a sedated monster. After I got sober, I was just a monster." He told me about his monster. His sounded just like mine without quite so much mascara. When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are. The secrecy, the obfuscation, the fact that these monsters can only be hinted at, gives us the sense that they must be very bad indeed. But when people let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we've all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don't end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes.

    "We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words- not just into any words, but if we can, into rhythm and blues."

    ~Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, 198

I think that if we are truthful, we will be rewarded with truth.

There are some people who try to keep their doubts and confusion and their anger with God to themselves, because they have been taught to feel guilty about honestly expressing any of this. Perhaps they have been told it is a sin. They eat themselves up with guilt and pain and try to conform to the expectations others have of them. And I find that this often leads to resentment, and what is worse, self-loathing.

People often feel they are all alone. I must be the one who is messed up, crazy, because nobody else in my school/community/family sometimes wants to defy God, or thinks the way I do. That's the kind of thought that runs through our minds.

I think it's better if we own our thoughts. If there were an open forum for discussion. If someone would say, we find this idea difficult, or that idea problematic, or did you ever think about doing this? And to realize that other people did, or do, and that you're not alone, that you can be honest with one another without eliciting scorn or mockery or someone looking down at you and telling you that you're a sinner, would mean the world to you.

But we're not honest in that way. Especially not in school. Because we're all scared of what the other person will think. So we go on pretending that we're all secure, that none of us ever feel the desire to do something wrong, or if we do, it's because we're all sinners and bad people.

Lamott thinks differently. If we let out our monsters, she writes, we'll find that many of us share similar doubts, ideas, flaws or failings. And we'll take comfort in that, because we'll know that we're not alone, and we're not as bad as we thought we were.

And you know what happens when we explore our thoughts and feelings? When we dare to look places we hadn't looked before?

    "Truth, or reality, or whatever you want to call it is the bedrock of life. A black man at my church who is nearing one hundred thundered last Sunday, "God is your home," and I pass this on mostly because all of the interesting characters I've ever worked with-including myself- have had at their center a feeling of otherness, of homesickness. And it's wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people's baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home.

    "Look at the two extremes. Maybe you find truth in Samuel Beckett-that we're very much alone and it's all scary and annoying and it smells like dirty feet and the most you can hope for is that periodically someone will offer a hand or a rag or a tiny word of encouragement just when you're going under. The redemption in Beckett is so small: in the second act of Waiting for Godot, the barren dying twig of a tree has put out a leaf. Just one leaf. It's not much; still Beckett didn't commit suicide. He wrote.

    "Or maybe truth as you understand it is 180 degrees away- that God is everywhere and we are all where we're supposed to be and more will be revealed one day. Maybe you feel that Wordsworth was right, maybe Rumi, maybe Stephen Mitchell writing on Job: "The physical body is acknowledged as dust, the personal drama of delusion. It is as if the world we perceive through our senses, that whole gorgeous and terrible pageant, were the breath-thin surface of a bubble, and everything else, inside and outside, is pure radiance. Both suffering and joy come then like a brief reflection, and death like a pin."

    "But you can't get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don't have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in- then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home."

    ~Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, 201

So I write into silence.

I write this for myself as I was, the person who forbade myself to acknowledge thoughts or feelings that went contrary to something I was supposed to think or feel.

I write for those of you who will perhaps read this with shining eyes, realizing that you are not alone. I write for those of you who question. I write this so that you won't have to question yourself and doubt yourself and even hate yourself for being, as you've been told, a bad person, trying to hide your monster and believing that nobody else has a monster quite as evil as yours.

Because I do. And there are others who do, too, even if they can't admit it, or won't. We are good people, you and I, despite our monsters, and being good doesn't mean that we have no desire for the forbidden. Of course we do. How could we not?

The question is what we do with this desire. How we channel it. Whether we are honest about it.

I believe in honesty; I believe in writing the truth. I believe in tackling and confronting my anger and damage and grief, as Lamott would say. I believe in dealing with it, not avoiding it. Working with my thoughts, not pretending they don't exist.

And I believe in truth-seeking.

Inquiry into the arguments made against a religion are necessary for an examined understanding of the religion. From the little I read tonight, this is the premise of The Kuzari, which I hope will be helpful. But it does not end there. The problem is that I do not feel myself to be able to refute arguments until I have a complete understanding of Judaism, which I cannot acquire unless I achieve a very high level of learning. The search for truth is important nonetheless, which leads me to think that I may have to allow for questions that I cannot answer, the most maddening type of question.

Ideally, what I strive for is a deep belief and love for Judaism, but an examined Judaism. I want to search for the truth, and I mean to end up where I began, but stronger and far more qualified, having looked at the other avenues. I want to understand my commitment to Judaism and to understand why I am committed. I want to do so honestly.

I want to understand not only my view, but the views of others.

This is my truth-seeking. Welcome to the monsters; let's look behind the doors. Let us face everything with courage, and God will guide us on the journey.


Jewish Atheist said...

Great post. Looking forward to reading about your quest.

Anonymous said...

"Or I pray in English rather than Hebrew"

I'm sure I've told you this before: This is not a bad thing at all. In fact, I find this commendable. The fact that you can come up with a prayer that you find meaningful is something admirable, something to be proud of. The prescribed words lost significance in my eyes long ago, and I always add some sort of personal prayer of my own, and I say it in English. Praying in your own language, and saying what you actually feel is more meaningful than saying the same words everyone's been saying for hundreds of years. The amount of creativity and focus it takes to craft a personal prayer is immeasurable.

daat y said...

Read 'Yemei Zikaron' by the RovRYBS to didderentiate between 'gaus' and 'gaava.'Their letters are only different by the suf or heh at the end but they are worlds apart.The Rov davened in Hebrew.That does not stop you to add your own prayers in any other language.
I appreciate and commend your desire for truth ,as you know it is the seal of HKB"H.

daat y said...

With regard to openess of our feelings that is great-but should be done ,not alone, but with competent feedback and direction,lest you do not fool yourself .

Anonymous said...

Torah is truth said:" I urge you to enlist in the guidance of others who are older and wiser (yes, Chana, for you are aware that you do not know all), those who have found the truth, preferably that of Judaism. (Since you are already Jewish, why rock the boat?--that's a rhetorical question)

It does not have to be an old man with a long white beard, who you once termed as distant in a different post. It doesn't have to be a rabbi, per se. In fact, it doesn't have to be a man at all. But it should be someone who is strong in his or her beliefs and practices, someone who you think understands you and is willing to help you."
Please don't assume things about Chana . She can teach you a thing or two about Torah and/or Yiddishkeit in general.

daat y said...

'yemei zikaron' first chapter.

Anonymous said...


I believe you misunderstood me. I did not mean to imply that Chana is incompetent, nor did I mean to "assume" anything about Chana. In fact, I believe that Chana is extremely competent and extremely capable and extremely talented. On this I am sure we both agree.

What I meant when I suggested that Chana finds someone to guide her in her quest is as Daat Y said. As Daat Y put so concisely, all truth seekers need direction. Contrary to what Descartes (I think it was him) thought, man is not a tabula rusa. All people are biased one way or another, and yet all people are convinced that their truth is the only truth. And sometimes these biases can be blinding, whether the person recognizes it or not.

It is for this reason that I suggested to Chana to find someone who can guide her in her quest, a mentor if you will. Chana, if you will please remember, is only eighteen years old. That does not mean to look down upon this age, for indeed it is mature in itself. But this maturity is not enough to find truth on its own, for there are those who are 102 years wiser than her.

That being said, I think that all people can use guidance in all parts of their lives. That doesn't mean checking yourself into a psychologist's office every time you have a problem or fully submitting oneself to another's discretion. But unless you decide to live like Walden, people need people. Indeed, this is why Chana, and bloggers like you and me, post. We like to have our ideas heard and commented upon, we like to share with the world and recieve in return. In this sense, we can all--Chana included--benefit from guidance.

So my dear anonymous, I am distraught that we have reached such a misunderstanding over this point. Again, I don't think that Chana doesn't know anything about Yiddishkeit. In fact, I know Chana personally and do believe that she is very bright and knowledgable, etc. I am a faithful reader (well, sometimes :-) ) of her blog. But I do think that she needs, as we all need, some direction.

~Torah Is Truth~

Anonymous said...

Your acute self-awareness and bold candor are a breath of fresh air in the blogosphere.

Having said that, I believe you are misidentifying your monster. You identify open-mindedness to opposing, agnostic, or even atheistic religious views as the monster.

I beg to differ.

The monster is, instead, the possibilty that religion and the creator is really and absolutely true, and that we may have to commit our lives to such a truth. This is by far the most terrifying decision a person can ever make.

I do not disagree that facing the possibility of trading your family comfort for almost certain ostracization by peers and family (for adopting contrary religious views) is tantamount to facing a monster.

But, there are monsters and there are monsters. The monster you speak about is a midget. The giant monster, the really petrifying one from which 99% of grown ups flee is comitting wholeheartedly to religion.

Of course, most of our parents and colleauges may be "religious." But that's not really religion; that's empty goblygook. Most religious duties are performed in a merely perfunctory manner (Mitzvas Anashim Melumodo). Most of our religious life is performed out of rote, and was inculcated by family environment and peer pressure.

In my mind, the real monster is not the challenge or examination of religion. Instead, it is the fear of --as you put it so eloquently in your previous post -- "subjugation to G-D". What such a belief entails is truly scary; one who achieves such a state is the greatest hero of all.

The truly petrifying thought is allowing ourselves to internalize the idea that there is an Elokim Chaim, who loves us and who demands so much of us (though, ultimately, we profit the most from it --l'fum tzara agra). The demands such a truth places upon us is infinitely more traumatizing than de-legitimatization by family and peers. Ostracization by peers is a temporal and external event, with the protaganist usually able to find a substitute in like-minded people. The --oh so rare-- person who truly commits to living a Torah or religious life, with all and every one of its ramifications (don't look at me :) is the truly heroic and courageous. (Sorry for the preachy, patronizing and prosletyzing tone :). )

In my mind, the larger than life hero is someone who -- as opposed to the religious masses -- looks at religion in the eye and shakes it out for everything it's worth.

(Worry not. I don't plan on obnoxiously commenting on every post of yours :) . I have neither the time nor the patience (or the knowledge for that matter) to coherently opine on every pichefke you post. However, as the subject matter in your last two posts is something close to my heart, I took the liberty to suggest an alternative view.

Now don't you dare slack off!

Keep 'em coming! :) )

Chana said...

Torah is Truth,

You know me personally? This is a bit odd. I actually took your comment the way the Anonymous who defended me did, for which I thank him/ her.

Regarding direction- why don't my parents suffice? If you know me personally, you ought to know that I don't trust teachers for personal direction. I expect teachers to teach me material thoroughly and well, to help me understand various topics and sources, and to urge me to become more adept in their area of expertise. But asking teachers to "guide me" in the areas of life direction is not how I work; in fact, at this point in time it would take a miracle for me to "trust" my teachers' advice for my spiritual health.

It is the people who really know me, who choose to know me and whom I respect and known in return, that I turn to for guidance. My parents, for one. And one or two other extremely special people.

While it is gratifying to know you are worried about me, if you truly know me you ought to know that I cannot trust teachers for spiritual guidance, and what is more, you ought to know why.

Anonymous said...

thank you chana. i wish there were more like you. do not be afraid to daven in english. do not be afraid to question, but you know this. you are much older than your 18 years and i wish you the strength .. i do agree you need to find a mentor (pref female) who can help you. as you get older and the questions multiply and increase in complexity, having a trusted person beyond your parents or your current circle will help you about every and anything. you are a strong woman chana. never forget that.

Anonymous said...

Ah, were it that I had the time to read each and every one of your posts.... Oh, and you know what keeps those monsters squeezed into the confined spaces within brains, roaring within, and never getting the proper attention? It's the shidduchim thing, of course.