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Living Jewish: Negotiation vs Assumption (and the slippery middle)

Have you ever noticed that there are times in your life when you just know you are supposed to be receiving a particular message, and that message suddenly seems to come through everywhere you look?  Overwhelmingly so, like you can’t turn away?

In the blog world, in the real world, even in the fiction I’m reading (re-reading Naomi Ragen’s The Saturday Wife), the message is coming through loud and clear:  Judaism is not a one-time thing.  Judaism must be continually renegotiated.  And I am exhausted with the effort (or maybe it’s still the heat?).

Prager, for instance [last weekend, he was at a Conservative shul here speaking on Friday night and Shabbos day - I went to hear  him twice].  Very helpful in so many ways, but very disturbing in others.  Why would I pay big bucks to go hear his special method for “kosher” driving on Shabbos (tip:  leave the radio off, or it “breaks” Shabbos!).  His special justification for one-day yamim tovim (except Rosh Hashanah).  Why he eats chicken with milk (single-handedly obliterating hundreds of years of near-universal Jewish practice).

These are decisions I understand, but simply do not respect.

On the other hand, the WHY.  The why, Prager believes, is taking one’s Yiddishkeit out of the study halls (not that mine spends much time there, anyway) and into the (non-Jewish) streets of the world.  That’s why he moved away from New York – it’s also a compelling reason NOT to make aliyah.

He believes, fervently believes (and I believe he believes it), that Hashem would not have chosen us to do… NOTHING.  Or given us the Torah only so we can… LEARN TORAH.  When Hashem called us “or lagoyim,” he meant it, meant that we are the light and we shouldn’t keep our little light shining in our closeted little communities.

His talk on Shabbos morning was on “why be Jewish?” and the answer, for him, is to take it out and share it with anybody who will listen.  How does the world today know about the Torah, about the avos (Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov), about Moshe, about yetzias Mitzrayim…?  From the Christians.  He calls today’s Jews “a messenger who’s forgotten the message.” 

It’s a resonant image.

At Har Sinai, we had a message, a gift, a chosenness.  And at some point along the way, we simply dropped the ball.  Started keeping the gift to ourselves.

His talk on Friday night was about the future of non-Orthodox Judaism.  He’s not sure it has a future because of birth rates and levels of committment.  He once tried to start a program where Jews shared Shabbos meals with non-Jewish friends and neighbours… but it failed because the Jews who have a strong, committed Shabbos, by and large, do not know many non-Jews.  And those who do know lots of non-Jews, by and large, do not have a meaningful Shabbos to share.

The solution to that problem, for him, seemed to be emunah, but I got a little muddled in what exactly that meant, because that’s where he branched off into “kosher driving” and frankly, yes, I did tune out a little bit because it was not what I wanted or needed to be hearing.  Did you know driving on Shabbos is more Shabbosdik?  Because you’re not getting all that rain or snow or heat on you all the way to shul, so you arrive dry and cool and happy and ready to daven fervently… or something.

So I missed the point to some extent, but got the idea… Judaism that is totally insular, Judaism that seeks only to reinforce itself, is self-congratulatory and nice and comfy is also virtually meaningless.  Or is it?

Our Shabbos lunch guest disagreed.  He’d been to Prager, then I walked to our shul with him & nabbed him and his girlfriend for the meal.  He believes – I’m paraphrasing my understanding of what he was saying – that a home where the family studies Torah and lives a frum life in a Torah community creates a type of spiritual energy that necessarily radiates outward and influences the world.  Creates a light, in other words, and a force for good – just not in the brute-force, direct way Prager would recommend.

But I’m not so sure.

Lately, for me, it’s come down to negotiations vs assumptions.

Negotiation is the exhausting process of examining everything you do, Jewishly.  Why am I doing it, what does it mean, does it reflect my beliefs, my integrity.  Is it the right thing to do?

Blogs I’ve been reading – including DovBear, but also some others (most written by men, which may tell you something), suggest that one take nothing in Jewish life for granted.  Question everything – every midrash, every received wisdom, every community standard, every move by Israel – and arrive at unorthodox, non-chareidi conclusions or you risk sliding down the slippery slope that leads inexorably to the right.  But be careful – there’s another slippery slope that goes the other way if you’re not.

Assumption is the underlying advantage of conformity.  Dress the way I dress, cover your hair the same way, avoid the same foods, shop in the same stores, and you are automatically accepted.  Of course, according to this article, they’re only pretending, but let’s pretend for twenty seconds that it’s real. 

You’re in!  You passed the test (of conformity)!  You fit right in, so I can now make all sorts of happy assumptions about you:  I will eat in your home, let you into my shul, my yeshiva, my high school.  I will smile at you in the playground and say “k’neynehora” when your baby does something cute.

A friend once told me you could never tell I was a baalas teshuva.  Yes, that’s probably a shock to anyone who knows me today.  At the time, I was in full sheitel-and-tznius mode; my then-husband had a bushy beard, long black coat, a gartel and the most incongruous Yiddish accent.  With our baby boy in peyos and suspenders, I was working towards the cookie cutter and happy to be well on my way to fitting in.

A lot went wrong, as you can see.  Uncovered my hair, dated a goy, then he converted, we got married, and covered my hair again, though not usually with the sheitel anymore.  Not comfortable, for so many reasons.  Moved away from the Jewish mainstream, consciously choosing a community where there are many others who don’t fit in.

But guess what?  I’m still making the assumptions.

Like with friends of ours who wanted to reciprocate a Yom Tov invitation, and we hadn’t known them all that long, weren’t sure exactly where they were coming from – more rebels, like us, baalei teshuva of unknown background.  So I had to embarrass myself (or her) with The Talk:  asking about their standards of kashrus.  That’s one talk that never gets easier, though we’ve had it with a few lovely friends over the last couple of years.

It turns out they were just new in OUR neighbourhood, but well-known by so many people at another shul not far away.  Basically, it turned out that everybody eats in their home, people far holier than me, and I felt ashamed for even questioning it.

The thing is – I have no idea how to get around that, though, because if you cast aside the assumptions – that if someone wears a sheitel and a suit and sends her kids to yeshiva, her kitchen is kosher – you’re left floundering.  Negotiating, every inch of the way.

And negotiating is exhausting.  While the cookie cutter is demoralizing, squishing your persona into a mold which simply doesn’t fit, I know from baking experience that a cookie cutter is very handy when you want your cookies to simply Be Cookies and not be mistaken for anything else.

You use a cookie cutter when you want your cookies neat, precise, giftable, presentable.  When you don’t, you get blobs; amoeboid cookies that are great for picking off the pan and announcing that “it all gets mushed up together in your stomach anyway.”

(Although, if you roll the cookie dough in sugar and pat it down, it actually gets a nice smooth profile with a sparkly, sandy crunch to the exterior.  Finding a meaning for all of which would probably be pushing the whole cookie metaphor…  just a little.)

Are those amoebas the cookies you want to share with the entire world?  Are those “light-unto-the-nation” cookies?  How can I share my work-in-progress Jewish persona? 

Prager certainly doesn’t come across as a Jew-in-progress.  He doesn’t sound like a man who negotiates this way of life; he makes it sound like he sat down one day and figured out what kind of Jew he would be.  Doesn’t communicate at all the angst involved in those kinds of decisions (yes, drive, but only to shul; yes, kosher, but chicken isn’t meat).  Makes it sound easy.

It isn’t easy. 

The biggest downside of being an amorphous, amoebic Jewish blob seems to be that the kids have no solid place in the frum world.  For me, I guess I don’t mind being an enigma, being a work in progress.  But for them – well, I certainly wish progress for them, and thoughtfulness in their spirituality.  But I guess I also hoped Judaism would be more of a home for them than it was for me, growing up, so that at least these negotiations wouldn’t be so wearying, so debilitating, for them in their own grown-up lives, clawing out their own place in the Jewish world.

No answers to any of this… only questions, so far.  Answers welcome.


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