Sunday, June 01, 2008

It all works out in the end

I'm a skeptic, I'm a pessimist. I admit it. I get it from my family. My grandfather's motto was "Don't Bullshit a Bulshitter," and my father's are, "Life's tough and then you die." Actually, he has two- the other one is, "Not only is the glass half-empty, it also has dust on it." When I was younger, I used to suggest he amend it to, "and it's full of acid," but somehow, that never took off.

Anyway, one of the things I really can't stand are "inspirational" stories, the saccharine, sappy, brain-rending stories that convince you that ultimately, everything's going to be ok. I had a conversation with a friend a week ago in which he was reading off a set of "Table Topic" cards and one of the questions was, "What do you think Heaven was like?" I told him I thought the afterlife was a nice idea but had no evidence to suggest it was true. He got mildly annoyed and said, "That's why it's called faith." True, but being raised on no faith, I can never get past the objectivist standpoint- there is no reason for me to assume that one version of "What happens after you're dead" is any more likely than 500 other ones. That's sort of how I feel about the world, too. World Peace is a nice idea, and I think it's worth trying to achieve it (at least in pockets), but at the end of the day, I think I believe more in fallibility and unattainability than the contrary.

ANYWAY, the point of all this is that I've come across a few "miracle stories" on the Jblogosphere that, quite frankly, drive me crazy. Interestingly enough, they're both related to women's roles in Orthodox Judaism.

The first one is from a story in Jewish Action from several months ago. The story is a heartfelt hesped, a eulogy, given by R. Norman Lamm of his recently departed niece, the principal of an Orthodox girls' high school and the director of a women's learning program. While R. Lamm's eulogy is moving, the tag-line on the top of the article, taken from this paragraph, drove me to distraction:

I often think of Judy: what if she were born a male instead of a female? I am convinced that if she were born male, she would have been a rosh yeshivah. On second thought, not a rosh yeshivah but a rebbe, who would command the loyalty of hundreds of Chassidim, who would teach not only by words but by example of love and of chesed and ma'asim tovim, guiding her Chassidim in all facets of their lives, perhaps even to the point of receiving kevitlach. That was the kind of personality she had.

It must be my nature, but reading that paragraph makes me not only sad, but angry. R. Lamm is basically saying, perhaps unconsciously, that his very accomplished and talented niece had the capacity to be a wonderful spiritual leader- ah, but she was born the wrong gender, too bad, so sad, good luck next incarnation. If this was my mother or sister, I would be enraged that she lived in a community where her gifts were recognized and appreciated, but still deemed "not enough" to break the rabbinical glass ceiling. To have this then be inverted and presented as a compliment makes it even worse. R. Lamm's attempt to honor his niece only highlights how capricious and arbitrary strict gender norms can be, to the point that people who are acknowledged as being specifically gifted in an area are still discouraged from following their path (or "encouraged" in another) because they have the wrong gender. Never mind quality, energy or passion, we need guys with beards. I read R. Lamm's hesped and my first thought is not, "I'm glad she lived a happy life," but rather, "I'm sad she did not live in a community where ALL of her talents would have been valued and appreciated."

Next comes a story from R. Lazer Brody from an Orthodox woman who apparently hands out Lazer's book Garden of Emuna (plug, plug) out like candy. She gave one to a friend of hers several months ago and she liked it so much she decided she was going to name her daughter Chava Emuna (faith) instead of Chava Baila. Only problem was, this lightning-flash of insight came while her husband was at shul naming the baby.

Yesterday morning she was sitting at home nursing the baby while her husband was at shul naming her. She was going to name her Chava Baila and she just kept looking at her thinking it wasn't right for her. She looked down at her copy of Garden of Emuna (which of course happened to be sitting right there, Baruch Hashem!!!) and screamed!!! CHAVA EMUNA!!!! But she was home all alone, so she prayed to Hashem that one of her friends would stop by her house on the way to the shul. Knock Knock!!! Our friend just happened to be stopping by! Long story short, our friend RAN to the shul to stop the ceremony. She burst into the shul just in the nick of time! And now, because I told her to read the book, Chava Emuna has her beautiful name.

I THINK this is supposed to convince us that God works in mysterious ways, everything works out and has a reason for happening, and we all need to give Lazer's book to anyone we ever meet, because it could have an impact on something, somehow. (If nothing else, it will create a ton of girls named Emuna.) But me being a spoil-sport, I couldn't get past the fact that none of this would be an issue if BOTH PARENTS were at the shul to name the damn kid in the first place! You don't have a bris in absentia, I don't understand why you would do it without the daughter and mother present, either. Not only that, why not just call the shul? This wasn't on a Shabbos, so there was no reason the wife couldn't communicate with her husband and let him know she changed her mind. Is there an Amish group of Breslovers I haven't heard about?

One last one and then I'm done. There has been a major slide to the right taking place in the Orthodox world for more than a decade. Everyone knows this. One of the biggest ways this plays out is in terms of conversion standards. (Long story short: the Orthodox don't accept the standards of anyone who's not Orthodox, so the converts aren't Orthodox by their definition of halakha.) In America, it's not as big an issue, since people who aren't converting Orthodox usually know what they're getting into and don't plan to be interacting with the Orthodox community. In Israel it's a big issue because the Orthodox are the law of the land and control things like who can get married, and to whom, there being no civil marriage law.

For a long time, non-Orthos have been warning Modern Orthos that the Haredi-ization of Jewish standards was not going anywhere good. This was generally ignored or swept under the rug- Modern Orthos are still Orthos, after all.

Then there was this. And this. Followed by this and this. Now this. All of which of course, led to this. The best write-ups of these problems, pre-Druckman, were by Gorenberg and Shmarya.

So it appears that the Haredim are on the attack now, cutting huge swathes in the legitimacy of Modern Orthodoxy. Some MOs are justifiably pissed. Some non-Orthos are gloating (I recall seeing one blogger flat-out-say, "we told you so").

And then there are some people whose reaction to being told that they aren't Jewish is basically to bend over and say, "thank you sir, may I please have another?" From this month's issue of Jewish Action, by an anonymous author going by "Gila". To be polite, I will not make any lizard jokes.

A student of our host was also there with his non-religious parents. The student wanted his parents to meet his rabbi’s family, and I think we were invited to represent “normal” people who had come to Torah on their own. I cannot remember how the conversation began, but at some point the boy’s mother commented that she had grown up without knowing her father’s parents and half of her cousins very well because they were not Jewish. I naïvely remarked, “That’s just how I grew up; all my mother’s relatives are not Jewish.” I think it was then that I heard the rebbetzin gasp.
Gasp? Why gasp? The rebbetzin has no information to go on here. She has no justifiable REASON to gasp. In fact some people with more backbone might have been insulted. But does Gila call her on it? Does she challenge the rebbetzin's assumption that Gila may not be a bona fide convert?

I had learned enough Torah to realize—and the gasp confirmed—that maybe something in addition to my dishes was going to need converting.

And we're off on the low-self-esteem train to Ortho-town.

My mother had converted to Judaism in a small Indiana town in the early 1950s in order to marry my father. Her conversion was overseen by the rabbi of the local Conservative synagogue, to which my family belonged throughout my childhood. Mom became a dedicated Jewess, learning as much as she could despite the limited resources available to her.

Rich Jewish memories bound our family members to one another, but as I built my own family in a large city far from my childhood home, I found that that was not enough for me. I sought to connect to the deeper riches I saw that Judaism had to offer. With the help of outreach programs and the religious families we met, my husband and I found a great treasure in authentic Torah observance.

I wonder how your mother reacted to being informed she had done a really nice job raising you with inauthentic observance.

Soon after my revelation at the Shabbat table, the niggling suspicion that we were headed for roadblocks in our path to greater observance grew into the realization that I needed to look into my mother’s conversion. I had the conversion certificate, so Allen and I met with the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue where we had been members since our marriage.

After reviewing the forty-year-old document, the rabbi confirmed that some streams of Judaism would question my mother’s conversion—and therefore my Jewish status, as well as my children’s. But not to worry, he said, he knew of an Orthodox rabbi who was coming to town in a few months who could fix the problem if we wanted. Otherwise, I was “Jewish enough” for him.

But not for herself. Gila's own standard is stricter. Which is her right (though I'm confused why she stays at a Conservative shul then) but this next part drove me bananas:

As I questioned my halachic status, I slowly started to understand that even with my background, my memories, my desire to grow … it was not enough. It wasn’t that I wasn’t Jewish enough—I wasn’t Jewish at all.

That's bull. Your Jewish status may not be what you thought it was, but you do yourself a disservice when you buy into communal brainwashing that says you're either halachically Jewish- as determined by the strictest authorities- or a full-blown Gentile. Maybe it was your binary thinking that attracted you to becoming a BT.
After thirty-eight years of participation in Jewish life, my desire to deepen my commitment brought me face-to-face with the realization that I—who had endured hours of after school classes to learn Hebrew and prepare for my Bat Mitzvah, who had been active in Jewish youth groups and went to Jewish summer camps, who shunned bread on Pesach and all food on Yom Kippur—was not a Jew. I, who reined in my enthusiasm for Torah growth until I thought my husband was ready for each step, could not only enjoy fluffy muffins on Pesach, but could also heartily eat shrimp on any fast day I pleased. Allen, a prime candidate for intermarriage who had never met a rabbi until we were engaged or stepped foot into a synagogue until we were dating, was a 100 percent kosher Jew. And he had indeed intermarried.
Her use of various kiruv terms like "prime candidate for intermarriage" is making me crazy. It reads like it was taken from a brochure. I understand the self-identification thing is a major issue, but if you are living the lifestyle you want then it seems ridiculously hyperbolic to dismiss your marriage and commitment to live as religious Jews with the line, "he had intermarried," implying that he might as well have been married in a church and had your children baptized. This is not an all or nothing scenario. It sounds like Gila is an outsider passing judgment on another couple rather than someone actually involved in the relationship.

Next Gila checks with three different Orthodox rabbis to get their opinion; apparently the rabbi of her shul doesn't count since his answer wasn't strict enough. Eventually one tells her the harsh truth she had been secretly waiting for. After a year she becomes Orthodox, converts, her children convert, she and her husband remarry, and all is well. Look, she even got an article published in Jewish Action magazine!

If this was the end of it, that would be one thing. But Gila also drops little nuggets of advice throughout the rest of her story prophesying the woes of being the child of a non-halachic convert and how this ruins children's lives.

Just as when a ba’al teshuvah (BT) introduced to authentic Torah values often feels cheated by the vapidity of the religious system in which he was raised, the child of an illegitimate convert who does teshuvah feels doubly betrayed. He may think and feel Jewish to the core. A born Jew, whether he is Orthodox or agnostic, remains a Jew regardless of his actions or affiliation. But a non-halachic Jew who remains committed to his Jewish identity may one day be faced with the devastating reality that he is not, at his essence, the person he thinks he is.

Only if he lets the Orthodox define HIS identity, and unless someone decides to cede their personal autonomy to Orthodox authority, there is no reason this should happen. It's not all or nothing, even if Gila thinks it is.
As the clock ticks, we are running out of time to save the millions of remaining Jews from adding to the skyrocketing statistics of intermarriage. Kiruv professionals have the monumental challenge of touching as many Jewish souls as possible and cannot possibly be expected to spend their precious resources counseling the child of a non-Jewish mother.

Which is why they get "victims" of intermarriage to write about it for them. Oh gag me. Better yet, gag yourself. If people want to be Orthodox, then they're out of luck; they're going to have to follow their standards of rules, as ridiculous as they seem to be getting. If they don't give a hoot about Orthodoxy, then find another path. But there's no reason to assume that someone's children or grandchildren will be drawn to Orthodoxy over Reform or, say, Buddhism (especially given the "skyrocketing statistics").

All these spiritual Orthodox stories seem to have a couple of things in common. They try to present a scenario in which everything works out for the best, everything happens for a reason and ultimately, all the problems can be overcome. What they fail, or refuse to realize is that it is only because they live in these communities that the problems existed in the first place.

I'm glad the three women in these stories made the best out of their situations and managed to find silver linings. But I can't help but wonder if they wouldn't have been better off avoiding the clouds.

1 comment:

Tzipporah said...

Holy blinders, Batman!

It's people like Gila who give non-ortho converts a bad name.