Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Working Towards a Thoughtful Judaism

As longtime readers know, I was raised without any formal Jewish education. When I was around twelve, my grandfather died and I felt a deep longing to want to know more about Zayde in particular, my family history in general, and, somewhat out of left field, the religion and culture that so many of them had practiced to varying degrees. Initially I think I just wanted to get a better sense of what my grandfather's values and life would have been like, and learning about Orthodox Judaism, and Hasidim in particular, seemed like a good place to start.

It was a tough start. While initially my parents were on board with my request to have a Bar Mitzvah, that tanked pretty quickly after Abbot Yid got into a fight with a rabbi of one of the big Reform shuls in town (since I was already learning a second language, Abbot wanted to see if there was any possibility of me working with a private tutor and/or skipping some of the nonessentials of Hebrew school leading up to the Bar Mitzvah. The rabbi got offended and said "We don't do quickie Bar Mitzvahs here," which promptly got Abbot Yid offended and led to him storming out and never going back). From there I was basically on my own. I didn't get very far for a while until eighth grade when we happened to read Potok's The Chosen and it was like a fire got lit underneath me. There was something about seeing religious Jews in literature that crystalized Judaism for me in a very dramatic way. I don't know if it was the surprise of realizing that people wrote novels about Jews or the thrill of getting to discuss Jewish history and minutae in class, but it gave me a huge charge. I read the book in three days, and while I've long since grown to appreciate most of Potok's other books as more interesting or better written than The Chosen, it will always have a special place in my heart as the text that sparked my Jewish identity-- an identity which previously had been barely existent.

I started reading whatever I could about Hasidim-- mostly things printed from the internet. In high school, I found the religion section of my school library and started reading books on Judaism. And I found a friend whose family was gracious enough to invite me to High Holidays, which was how I started my first ambivalent forays into participating in Jewish ritual instead of just reading about it.

Which is where this post comes in. In the past sixteen years I have had a lot of spiritual development, but I feel like there's lots of things I still don't know and have yet to really think about when it comes to forging a spiritual path that's both comfortable as well as intellectually consistent with the kind of Jew I'd like to be and the kind of Jewish life and family I'd like to have with Mrs. Yid.

Mrs. Yid and I have some big Jewish goals for the year, one of which is to get back on the Hebrew wagon and another of which is to start studying some Jewish texts and commentary so we start getting a more solid grounding in this big Jew game we supposedly want to play in. I also have another personal spiritual goal for the year, which is to start taking a serious look at the mitzvot and decide which ones speak to me, which ones don't, and which ones I'm interesting in trying out a little more so I can decide. (Similar to how Mrs. Yid has been wearing headscarves for the past 2 months since our wedding, though me being the super observant sleuth I am, I did not make this connection until someone complimented her on her tichel at shul.)

As anyone who knows me (or has been reading me for a while) knows, there are some pretty definite red lines we have already established, so I don't have any expectations that I will be fruming out or that Mrs. Yid will be prepping herself for an Orthodox Bet Din. But at the same time, it seems dishonest for me to talk about the silliness of adhering to unexamined dogma, or advocate the concept of personal choice and autonomy when I haven't bothered to investigate the issues enough to really be in a position to make a judgment about these things one way or the other.

Here's looking forward to a meaningful, thoughtful, and engaged year.

Shana Tova.


Antigonos said...

That I'm responding to you on Rosh HaShanah shows how Orthodox I am :-) but we are similar in some ways -- I never even knew I was Jewish until I was 7, when my parents had a crisis in their marriage, and Mother decided it was Divine Punishment for marrying a non-Jew and "making me Jewish" would be reparation. She wasn't much help since she was entirely ignorant of Judaism herself. It has been a very, very long journey since then. I won't waste time or space here; I'll blog about it.

However, you can certainly write to me at if I can offer any assistance in your own search.

In my situation, I had the "right" Jewish parent -- so there was no need for conversion [although the Israeli rabbinate did "convert" me -- a long story I HAVE blogged about]. In your situation, however, if Mrs. Yid does not convert [and convert according to halacha], whatever path you take will eventually have repercussions for your children. One of the issues you two are going to have to decide is what to do about that. Annoying and unfortunate, but there it is. In Jewish Law, Jewish identity is genetic, not based on belief.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Right you are, Antigonos. It is absolutely true that Orthodox Jews will not see our children as Jewish. I do not argue with the halacha. On the other hand, there are plenty of halachot I don't follow, and as long as we're on this point, I personally cannot agree with a system in which my aunt's kids who go to church are considered Jews while my uncle's who go to shul are considered goyim. Genes pass on like eye color and food allergies, not a religious identity or a soul. I can't submit to the idea that if a brother and sister each marry out, there is some kind of genetic "Jewishness" that flows through the sister's genes but not the brother's. (To say nothing of the magical thinking required when discussing conversions.)

There are lots of contexts to explain why the rabbis believe in this halacha, but it just doesn't speak to me. My personal opinion is that the world has changed since this particular law was codified and that what made sense thousands of years ago may no longer be as relevant as it once was. People are free to disagree with me, of course.

On this particular issue, there is no point in arguing with the halacha. It is what it is. I do, however, have the ability to choose whether I care about its opinion. Given that I have no plans or desire to live as an Orthodox Jew and it is extremely unlikely that my kids will be spending much time with Orthodox Jews, I find it hard to see a scenario where their Jewish status would be that much of an issue. If they do wind up deciding they want to be considered Jews per Orthodox halacha, they will always have the option to convert-- but I think that should be a choice for them to make.

It's impossible to say what our kids will wind up being-- the future isn't written yet. To me, they'll be Jewish. To Rav Elyashiv, they won't. To them, who knows? They might decide to try being Buddhists or something. But as long as they live in my house, I will do my best to raise them in some sort of Jewish tradition and atmosphere, and hope that, whatever else their identities may be, Jewish culture and Judaism plays a role.

In any event, at the moment the whole conversation is rather academic; first the kids have to actually exist.