Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Letter For Rosh Hashana

Dear God,

It's Elul, and time for a confession. Why is it time? Because soon I will be in shul, struggling through another long day, with the air conditioner blasting, as I fidget and fumble my way through everything I must struggle to say in archaic, if beautiful, Hebrew words, so it's easier if I try to think about it and talk about it to you now, in English, when I have the words and the ability to articulate the problem.

Have I mentioned that I really don't like this religion? I don't. I don't like the fact that I need to twist my mind into three loops in order to understand anything in it, or the fact that what I would feel or reason on my own and what I must keep to as a Jew are at odds with one another. I am aware, and it has been explained to me, that the only way in which one's morals ought to derive is from your very Torah, and that there should be no divide between what one feels as a Jew and as a human being. And yet, for me, such a divide exists. So much so that I know in a heartbeat that were I not Jewish, I would have no problem whatsoever with anyone who committed anything which is currently categorized as a sin, so long as this was not an act that harmed society (in an actual way, by which I mean murder, not someone's kinky sexual practices or proclivities.) And it pains me when there is something that I know I would not only not see as a sin but be in the frontlines about, marching forward alongside everyone else, and the only reason I don't do that, or can't do that, is because I am Jewish and I believe this is true.

Therein lies the rub- I believe this religion is true. Perhaps more accurately, I believe you exist, and once I believe you exist as a God, I believe that you would have created something for us to do here on this Earth, because if not, I might as well believe that we all popped out of fairytale books, or are only somebody else's dream. And I believe that whatever it was you created for us to do is hard and difficult and therefore worth doing, because if it weren't, then what would be the point of everything? So the question then becomes: great, let's assume this religion is true, but what are the parameters of this religion? How do I know the chain of tradition is true, that all these men who were part of it were honest individuals whose integrity is intact and whose versions and understanding of the Torah and the texts we can trust?

It's too great a mind leap to suddenly assume that every single person who ever had anything to say about the Torah was a worthy and wonderful individual. Don't we think similarly about individuals of our time, and yet there are scandals about people all the time? So then someone will tell me not to judge the past by the present. And I hear that, I do, but during all those times in the past there were corrupt societies or informers or others who were involved in heinous activities just like we have today, so what's to stop there from having been corrupt individuals at some point or other? And the problem is, I've never really been taught or understood the halakhic system, so I don't understand how we are able to keep that out. For example, even if I assume all of Chazal were trustworthy and brilliant and to be held in the highest esteem, how does that translate to everybody else? And nowadays, to our venerable rabbis? Who do I trust and how and why and how much of this supposed tradition is really ours, versus being created out of a void, or from texts that were marred or otherwise confused. And in the midst of all this is my knowledge that I don't know enough to know the answers to these questions, but also the firm belief that if I were to know enough, I would be impressed by the intricacy but turned off by the cruelty of it.

Oh, is cruelty too strong a word? Can one not judge God to be cruel, because no standard of cruelty or goodness exists except by His word? And yet, in our own world, perhaps only as judged by our Western morality, which one can take as being bad or good as one wishes, this is cruel. The fact that a woman is chained to her husband and cannot divorce him is cruel, the fact that we don't allow homosexuals into our society is cruel; there is more that is cruel. And yet it is the halakha. And I have respect for the halakha. Which puts me in the frustrating position of having respect for something higher than me and yet being led, by something wild and unhappy within me, to want to throw it off, if only I could do it and mean it, to want to make it disappear, to live my life as I wish to live it and not constrained- even beautifully constrained- by these laws.

Why do I respect the halakha? What leads me to feel this respect? Perhaps it is the amount of thought that is involved in all the laws, the fact that they are not arbitrary, even if they are cruel. Each law is discussed, analyzed and debated to death in the Talmud, halakhic codices; nothing is taken for granted. So perhaps that is what I value- that others have also thought about these laws, that no one took them blindly. That discussions have been had, and that we continue to think over our religion and those discussions. And perhaps it is also that men who I see as being beautiful people achieved this respect for halakha, and so it is something I want to emulate as well. But I struggle with it, because at the same time that it exists, I wish it wouldn't. I wish I could throw it off and feel whole. But I know I would not feel whole. I would feel like someone who had forfeited the challenge, lost the game. I would have thrown it off, in defiance, but not because I did not believe it was true. I would believe it was true, but I would hate it, and throw it away because I hated it so much.

Why do you have me hate your law, God? Why do you make it at odds with what I naturally feel, with the fairness and justice I wish to extend to all? If it is true, should it not feel right to me? Shouldn't mind and heart and soul all conspire to serve you, in which case I should feel at ease when I do what is right, and at peace? And yet I am not at peace. Indeed, I am angry. I am angry and I follow the law. Except when I do not, of course, and that is when I sin. Yet when I sin it is not as a gesture of contempt for you so much as that again, what I do does not feel wrong; on the contrary, it feels pure. Because I mean it purely. And yet it is still wrong, per your law. Why cannot the mind, body and soul all work together?

What shall I ask of you, God? This is aside from asking for my life, when I stand before you to plead for it. What I shall ask of you is that you grant me the gift of fear, so that I fear you as I ought. Allow my body and soul and heart to be united in their service of you. Don't allow me to feel that something which is wrong is right, so that I be led astray through that. Allow me the ability to choose wisely and correctly, and to choose with understanding of the depths to which I rend or tear apart my soul or the world that I create when I choose falsely. Perhaps I am really asking you for eyes to see. Why should you grant all this to me, rather than forcing me to learn it on my own? I have no answer to that, except to request that you grant it to me of your own compassion. And because you know how troubling it is to be so divided in mind and heart. It is strange to feel that what one does is right, and yet know that per the halakha it is wrong. It is hard to act in such a case. Can you not make it a little easier on me?

Or perhaps this is all part of your test. Your tests always include my falling, and my failure. There is a logic to it. It teaches me never to judge anyone. It teaches me the strength of my own desire, and demonstrates to me that one can never measure another person's desire. It teaches me kindness because of my own understanding of what it means to struggle. It teaches me compassion. Perhaps you wish me to continue with my sins, because you know that in the long run, I will learn not to sin, and to do the impossible. But in that case, you have more faith in me than I do. I do not think I will reach that level, but perhaps you do. In which case, I imagine it is a long and winding road yet, littered with many more failures, that awaits me. It would be much easier if I knew there were only joys.

I think of Psalm 113 often, where we say that you " raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the needy out of the dunghill;/ That He may set him with princes, even with the princes of His people." Perhaps we can read this a little poetically. Not only do you raise the poor out of the dust, but perhaps also the ones who lack good deeds, those poor as well. Perhaps you raise those of us who are needy in that we lack good deeds and the correct way of relating to you, and even we you set upon thrones. I wonder what one has to do to achieve this throne. I wonder whether you will give it to me as a gift or if you will continue to make me struggle, never understanding, never knowing why you force these choices on me, these choices that are so hard to make, and at which I consistently fail. Is it your way of showing me that I am human? For you have shown that to me, over and over again, so that I lose everything and become what I hate most; even that you have made me, a hypocrite before you. If this is to teach me not to judge, you have taught me. But it seems still not well enough. There is more yet in store for me...at least know this. I think about the things you show me, the things you make me see. I do not blindly experience them. I think about them. I am not yet what I ought to be. But I think of You. Let this be in my merit.

Do you know the story of the rich man who was being judged on Rosh Hashana, where the mud that clung to the soles of the feet of the poor people who walked into his house was put on the scale and weighed on the scale in his merit? I would like to emulate that tradition. I would like to take the stand and testify for my brethren as well; I would like my weight on the scale. I would like to testify to the many things taught me by my friend Jordan, the love of Jewish teenagers praticed by my friend Marc, the thoughtfulness and pure intentions of many I have met, even if they happen to be very wrong in their conclusions. We are all tested by you, and I am sure we fail in many ways, yet not everything we do is wrong, and there is some good even in what leads us to our failure. I shall let you weigh that as well, before you decide. There are angels we have created, through our intentions, and even if not all of them are whole, let the angels of our friends support them, so that if my angel lacks lips to speak, and yours lacks legs to walk, mine shall carry yours and yours shall speak for mine. We have our deformed angels, created through our improper deeds, but we shall help one another, and with God to judge us, we shall band together, to persuade Him to let us live yet another year, so that we might fix our ways.

With that in mind and with the understanding that no doubt, I shall not have the patience or ability to articulate this on the actual day of judgement, when perhaps I most ought to, I remain,

Your loving, playful, and frustrating daughter,
Chana

33 comments:

Uri said...

Well thought-through and heartfelt.
May God grant you your requests.
Shana tovah!

Stern student said...

Chana,you wrote this so beautifully! You know,I see you in school where you give so much of yourself,your knowledge,your positive attitude. I read your meaningful articles in The Observer. I witness you take on the pain of the girls with broken engagements, pain of the girls from dysfunctional homes and for some reason I wasn't aware that you have your own struggles. You never let on that you need help . The struggles you are describing are more of an intellectual kind,constantly on your mind. Must be truly frustraiting. I hope that G-d addresses your requests in the letter and showers you with kindness,personal happiness and good friends.

partners @NCSY said...

I want to say two things here:

you are beautiful inside out;
thanks for all your guidance and care.

Chana,continue to be yourself,ask questions,the answers will be granted hopefully sooner than later.

Anonymous said...

Good luck Chana, but keep in mind that HKBH's desire for you may be to live with that dialectic for a long time.The Rav ZT"L often stressed that the purpose of religion was
not to make life simple. That true religion is nerve wracking...

Also I note you get a lot of positive strokes (well deserved) on this blog but keep in mind that a (wo)mans reach must always exceed his grasp else what's a heaven for

KT
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

Very interesting post. I have much more respect for an Orthodox Jew who wrestles with her faith than with one who doesn't. You are as honest an Orthodox writer as I've seen.

And yet, what will you do when you reach that choice? When it becomes clear that you are struggling to reconcile things which cannot be reconciled? Either Orthodox Judaism is true and gay sex is an abomination to God or it's not. People wrestle because they want both to be true, but they can't be.

Maybe you've got to destroy your father's idols to find the truth.

AK said...

Jewish Atheist said:

"Maybe you've got to destroy your father's idols to find the truth."

You are underestimating Chana's knowledge base and her commitment to Judaism.

Jewish Atheist said...

You are underestimating Chana's knowledge base and her commitment to Judaism.

You're probably right about her commitment, but she has more than enough knowledge.

Holy Hyrax said...

I wish Chana would respond to JA. He pointed out some interesting stuff

Anonymous said...

2 points

Chana, you should think about what is the source of your seeming cognitive dissonance (i.e. what is the source of the "morality" that seems to be at odds with what HKB"H tells you to do?

JA says "Either Orthodox Judaism is true and gay sex is an abomination to God or it's not. People wrestle because they want both to be true, but they can't be." What is the subject of "both to be true"?

KT
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

What is the subject of "both to be true"?

The two statements:

1) Orthodox Judaism is true.
2) Gay sex is an abomination to God.

I'm saying if 1 is true, 2 is true. (Technically 2 could be true even if 1 is not, but that wouldn't help Chana either.)

Jewish Atheist said...

Oops, I see what you're saying. My impression is that Chana wants to believe both "OJ is true" and "gay sex is NOT an abomination to God." Those are the two things that cannot both be true.

Anonymous said...

Jewish Atheist said...
Oops, I see what you're saying. My impression is that Chana wants to believe both "OJ is true" and "gay sex is NOT an abomination to God." Those are the two things that cannot both be true.
======================
JA,
That's what I thought. Logically however it could be that both are true and that the correct statement is that God wants us to treat X as an abomination in much the same way we might say we'd like to eat treif but what can we do.

That being said I understand the underlying tension being described (when are we capable of overcoming predilictions or forces "beyond our control" - e.g. mental illness) and have wrestled with this conundrum for many years. R' AL's ethic outside is of interest but doesn't solve it for me.

KT
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

Logically however it could be that both are true and that the correct statement is that God wants us to treat X as an abomination in much the same way we might say we'd like to eat treif but what can we do.

Right, but why? What are the positive effects of this compared to the negatives (sham marriages, teen suicide, irresponsible acting out, lives spent in misery, unrequited loves, etc.)

Leviticus 18:22 is just so much more consistent with the hypothesis "a man living thousands of years ago wrote this" than "the all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe wrote this." That's not to say one can't still believe in God and even in some form of Judaism, but I think the OJ view that God wrote the Torah cannot be adequately defended by someone with Chana's heart. Not for long, anyway.

Anonymous said...

JA,
That's when the believer says I don't ask why (or I ask but understand that whether I find an answer is just for my entertainment pleasure, not for action), just what (does God want from me)
KT
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

Yes, but does Chana want to be a "believer" or a first-rate mind?

Anonymous said...

that's a hanging curve ball - both!
KT
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

First-rate minds don't say, "I don't ask why."

Anonymous said...

First-rate minds don't say, "I don't ask why."
===========================

as I said "says I don't ask why (or I ask but understand that whether I find an answer is just for my entertainment pleasure, not for action)" or to expand they probably say, I accept that there is an intellect superior to mine which has deemed this to be the approach to follow, I will continue to follow the approach even as I try to ascertain to the extent possible, limited by the limitations of my own intellect, why this is so but I will still act based on the the assumption that the greater intellect than mine knows what is correct for action purposes.

KT
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

I accept that there is an intellect superior to mine which has deemed this to be the approach to follow...

But intellects superior to all of ours have variously found Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, atheism, agnosticism, deism, panentheism, pantheism, and others "the approach to follow." Unless you're making the claim that Orthodox intellects are superior to all others, this is pretty much a cop out.

Anonymous said...

the intellect superior to ours is God as revealed at Sinai
KT
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

But intellects superior to all of ours have variously found Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, atheism, agnosticism, deism, panentheism, pantheism, and others "the approach to follow."

Well then, perhaps it follows that the matter should be decided by something other than "intellect", since that's clearly not giving us a reliable answer.

eric said...

But intellects superior to all of ours have variously found Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, atheism, agnosticism, deism, panentheism, pantheism, and others "the approach to follow."

The approach to follow... in which direction? If your destination is a life of hedonism, then Judaism is certainly not the best approach. If your destination is a life of moral meaning, then Judaism comes off a lot better. What is your destination?

Jewish Atheist said...

the intellect superior to ours is God as revealed at Sinai

Well, that's pretty much begging the question, isn't it? If God did not write the Torah, then there was no revelation at Sinai.

Well then, perhaps it follows that the matter should be decided by something other than "intellect", since that's clearly not giving us a reliable answer.

Any suggestions?

The approach to follow... in which direction? If your destination is a life of hedonism, then Judaism is certainly not the best approach. If your destination is a life of moral meaning, then Judaism comes off a lot better. What is your destination?

I want the truth.

Anonymous said...

the intellect superior to ours is God as revealed at Sinai

Well, that's pretty much begging the question, isn't it? If God did not write the Torah, then there was no revelation at Sinai.
====================

Are you calling my father zll"hh(and his...)a liar :-)

Just kidding JA, believe me I know one can't "prove" anything of this nature - heck I can't prove the world wasn't just created and everything else is implanted memories. I understand your position and hope one day your belief gene will kick in.

KT
Joel Rich

Jewish Atheist said...

I understand your position and hope one day your belief gene will kick in.

Hehe, if I had it, I'm sure it would have kicked in by now.

David said...

Beautiful post.

May you have a perfect year.

Anonymous said...

"I want the truth."

The Christians, Buddhists, Marxists, atheists, agnostics, deists, panentheists, pantheists, and others have not succeeded in proving their respective versions of the truth. If you think you can outdo all of them, go ahead. Call me when you're finished :)

Jewish Atheist said...

It's unfortunately a lot easier to rule out things that are not true than to find something that is.

Uri said...

Jewish Atheist,you contradict yourself. First you "want the truth" ,then you claim that it's"a lot easier to rule out things that are not true than to find something that is."

Make up your mind already and stick to you. Also, Judaism lives on due to OJ and that's the real truth!

Jewish Atheist said...

Jewish Atheist,you contradict yourself. First you "want the truth" ,then you claim that it's"a lot easier to rule out things that are not true than to find something that is."

I don't see the contradiction. I want the truth and I'm trying to get as close as possible by ruling out the things that are clearly untrue.

Also, Judaism lives on due to OJ and that's the real truth!

I agree that there's a lot of truth there. Conservative and Reform Judaism are being constantly replenished with ex-Orthodox Jews. Without that attrition, they'd probably wither away in a few generations.

Uri said...

"Also, Judaism lives on due to OJ and that's the real truth!"
~Uri

"I agree that there's a lot of truth there. Conservative and Reform Judaism are being constantly replenished with ex-Orthodox Jews. Without that attrition, they'd probably wither away in a few generations."
~Jewish Atheist
Jewish Atheist,I don't mean any disrespect,but did you actually understand what I wrote before you decided to respond the way you did?

Jewish Atheist said...

uri,

I thought I understood. What am I missing?

Josh said...

Chana your feelings and drives are normal. What makes Orthodox Judaism work is the ability to channel and sublimate these drives,at times though easier said than done.But that is what we strive for.Even if we fall we can get up and do teshuvah-kapara and tahara as the Rav tells us.ThAT IS HOW WE GROW AS HUMAN BEINGS AND OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD.