Thursday, June 5, 2008

Day 18 - Can The Torah Be Fair?

I'm sorry. I know the title may be offputting to some people, but that's the only way I think to put it. I'll explain what I mean in a moment.


The Torah's ways are meant to be pleasant. Derachecha Darchei Noam is talking about the Torah, right? And yet there are some ways in which it just isn't... noam.

The prime example that comes to my mind is the mitzvah of wiping out Amalek. Yeah, I know that it's moot in this day and age, but the fact remains that it is a valid part of the religion. If a genuine, provable member of Amalek showed up on the streets of Brooklyn or Yerushalayim, his life expectency could probably be measure in hours at best. And while we "like" to think of Amalek as the Hitler-types, there must also be those that are youngsters -- babies, toddlers, etc. And yet, the commandment from God is to kill them. "Shoot 'em all and let God sort 'em out" is aptly applied to Amalek, it seems. But how do you rationalize killing an infant, or a toddler, or even an adult whose done you no wrong? If we are to kill everyone with a certain DNA profile, then how are we really different from those who have tried to kill us through the years? Because we believe God told us to? This is something that I've always had a major problem reconciling in my mind. And the fact that there are no identifiable Amalekim today doesn't really help -- if we say Deracheha Darchei Noam, shouldn't that apply whether we have access to Amalekim or not? Shouldn't the question of whether genocide is right or wrong exist independent of whether or not the subjects of that decree are accessible to us? Because if we believe in an All-Merciful God, then we have to ask where is His mercy to people who have done nothing wrong. All the Amalekim who attacked the Jews in the desert were long dead by the time Saul got his command. All the Amalekim in his day are long dead now, and yet, if people were to show up today and could be verified as a member of Amalek (or the seven Cannani nations), they'd have a price on their heads. But yet, they are not responsible for the attack in the desert that happened 3300 years ago. They're not responsible for Haman's actions. They're not responsible for killing Saul. How can we punish people for acts that aren't their responsibility? In what way is this considered fair?

I suppose the same could be asked about the concept of Mamzerim. I understand the rationale that punishing the woman's children will serve as a deterent on her actions. I understand it, even though I have serious doubts about it. However, it would be one thing if the concept were applied only to those cases where the mother was truly at fault. However, there could be cases where she is not at fault at all (rape, or a false report of her husband's death) and yet the children suffer the consequences. Why? How is this fair?

Granted, the world is not fair. Where human beings devise laws and set up social systems, there will be, inherently, some unfairness. But that's to be expected because we are flawed creatures. But an Omnipotent being should be able to devise a system that punishes those who do wrong while sparing the truly innocent of punishment.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Day 16 -- Shabbos

Sarah is a dear old friend of mine. I've known her for years, ever since we went to school together. While Sarah and I are quite close, I have to admit that I don't tell her everything -- this blog, for starters, is a secret from her too.

Anyway, Sarah and I got together this past Shabbos as we do about every other week. We sit, shmooze, talk about husbands, babies, paying the bills -- just shooting the breeze in general. Rarely do we ever get into philisophical matters or topics that we would consider "heavy." However, she brought up an interesting point this past Shabbos.

Sarah works out of the house. She has a 9-5 job as an administrative assistant in a business. Very often, people in her business have to work over the weekend -- projects are due for "first thing Monday morning," clients need information over the weekend, whatever. People in the office complain about this, but, due to the nature of the business, it has to get done. She tells me that she is so thankful for Shabbos. It's a day that she knows that she's guaranteed to not have to think about the office at all. It doesn't matter if the place burns down -- she's "unavailable." As in "Do Not Call... if you do I won't answer."

I can certainly see the appeal in that and I suppose that is one of the good things about Shabbos. I work part-time as a freelance writer. I can certainly appreciate the fact that clients can't bother me on Shabbos (not that they don't try... after the first two months, I learned that I need to take my phone off the hook before Shabbos). Having a day per week where you have a forced separation from work is certainly a good thing. It's one of the benefits of being observant. Of course, that doesn't make it more spiritually fulfilling, but it certainly is beneficial. I never really quite looked at it the way Sarah does, but now that I think about it, it does make sense. It's a day where we are forcibly removed from our labors and (barring emergencies) come hell or high water, we're forced to take a break.

But what if you don't believe in God? Is it right to tell clients "no, you can't contact me on my Sabbath" if you don't believe in God? Is it moral to "take advantage" of the situation like that and impose restrictions on my clients? While they are willing to "put up" with my limitations for my religion, I don't think they'd do so because I just wanted a day off. For example, suppose I went to them and told them "Well, I'm no longer Sabbath observant, so I'll be available for you on Saturday, but I'd really like Mondays off, so don't contact me then," would they be so understanding? Personally, I don't think so -- I think they respect the fact that I profess to have deeply held religious beliefs and are willing to work with me based on that -- but absent those religious beliefs, they wouldn't be so understanding. That being the case, if I don't believe in God, is it moral to continue using this as a reason to not work on Shabbos.

What if I'm not certain what I believe? To be honest, I don't know if God exists. I don't know if He commanded us to keep Shabbos. It's within the realm of possibility that he did, but I think it's also in the realm of possibility that the whole thing is man made. So where does that leave me then?

The thought of having a day off where I'm "out of touch" is very appealing. The thought of using it as an excuse when it's not warranted is not. The fact that I don't what I believe at present just makes it all the more complicated.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day 10 - Do I Want My Daughter To Become This?

There are times that I look at frum people and think to myself that they are wonderful, warm, intelligent caring people. And then there are times that I look at them and see them as racist, isolationist bigots. And while I know that there are good and bad in all populations, I still cringe when I hear some of the things that come from people's mouths. Sometimes it's just plain ignorant, sometimes mean and sometimes their comments display a complete disregard to any life except the lives of their own kind.

A while ago, I was on a frum messageboard and followed a discussion that was brought up. Someone had commented something about intermarriage. Now, as a frum Jew, I think that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is a bad thing (no, don't ask me to explain it, just take it as a given from Hashem). I think all of us on the board agreed with that sentiment. But what struck me was when one person on the boards commented that in order for a man to have a complete kapparah for the sin of intermarriage, he has to hope that their non-Jewish children
actually die. One poster brought a story where this happened and stated that the person who did teshuva for this sin was estatic when his son died. Estatic! What sick people! Who rejoices over the death of an innocent person?! There were a few people on the forum who argued with her, but she maintained that her position was the only "Torah true" one.

I'm hoping that this person was an extreme example, but there are plenty of other stories that I can quote, both online and in person, where people show absolutely no feeling or empathy for anyone outside their little circle. In school, it was drummed into our heads that "the goyim" are only interested in hating us and killing us as quickly as possible. "If they could get you alone for a second and weren't afraid of being arrested for it, they'd kill you without even thinking about it," we were told. "And don't be fooled by the 'kind' grocer in the store or the 'nice' postman who delivers your mail. They just want to get rid of you too." Where do they get this nonsense from?

I suppose I must be defective. When I was fifteen years old, young and foolish, I stepped off a street corner into a busy two way street into oncoming traffic. I was simply not paying attention. It could have been the end for me, if not for the young black man who actually ran out into the street after me and pulled me to safety. He risked his life to save me. He could have just stood on the corner, or even shouted "hey you, get out of the street." But no, he actually ran out into traffic and grabbed me. He could have been hit by the same cars that were coming my way. It was then that I began to realize that what I had been told could not possibly be true. That little incident broke me, so to say. I was no longer able to listen to everything that was told to me and began to (gasp!) think independently.

Eventually, I was learned to think and explore for myself. And do you know what I found? Most gentiles want the same things out of life that I want -- to live peacefully, to be able to raise a family according to their values, to make some money, and to generally be happy. Most really don't care about Jews one way or the other. Sure there are some out there who hate us, but those are few and far between.

But I don't want my daughter to grow up to be a racist like most of the people I know. Sure I could try to counter the messages that she gets in school, but why should I have to do that? Why should I send her to a school where they lie about others and have to tell her that the school is lying to her?

But it's not even just school... it's the whole atmosphere around here. Some people here just think that gentiles are subhuman. Others think that they're human, but ignorant savages who wouldn't know right from wrong if it bit them in the butt. Others think that they're human but ultimately worthless and insignificant and not worthy of Hashem's love. But you know what? I'm sick and tired of hearing these things. And I'm sick and tired of dealing with people who are bigots. I don't want my daughter to grow up this way.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Day 9 -- Wasting Our Best Talent

I have a neighbor here who is an amazing guy. He's a member of the local Hatzalah. He's always the first on the block to do a chesed for someone. He's a real go-getter when it comes to doing things for other people. When it comes to bein adam lachaveiro, this gentleman is one of the best that there is.

As for his bein adam lamakom, I can't comment. I don't know how much kavanah he has when he davens. But what I do know is that he learns during the day. The problem is that this isn't what he wants to be doing.

Oh, don't get me wrong... he'll always learn no matter what he does throughout his life. I highly doubt that the day will ever come when he won't open up a sefer of his own free volition. But he doesn't want to be a "learner." What he wants to be is a doctor.

The man is in love with the idea of medicine. That's probably what convinced him to become a member of Hatzalah to begin with. He's spent plenty of time telling my husband that he would love to be a doctor and be able to help heal the sick. With his brains, compassion, empathy and the medical skill he's demonstrated so far, I think he'd make a heck of a doctor. So, what's the problem?

Well, the problem is that he is totally ill-equipped to begin the process. Having learned in a yeshiva that didn't have English studies, he has no high school diploma. Even if he gets his GED, he'd have to find a way to qualify for college and then (assuming he graduates) into medical school. For certain, there would be financial considerations that are difficult to overcome (med school ain't cheap) but that's not the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that he's "stuck" in yeshiva. The pressure on him from his wife, family and community are far too great for him to ever be able to "break free." He's afraid to leave the yeshiva because of what his colleagues will think about him, but all the more, because of what his family and wife will think of him. His wife doesn't want a "modern" husband who goes to college... she married a "learner." His parents didn't raise him to be a "college guy," they raised him to be a ben torah which, by (their) definition, means one who does not seek out "goyish" education.

Lastly, there's the issue of "culture shock." Could he withstand going from a sheltered, insular community to the college and med school campus? My personal feeling, based on what I know of him, it would be difficult. He would encounter such alien ideas that, in my opinion, his head would probably explode.

It's a shame because my husband tells me that the guy is miserable. While he likes learning, it's not the type of thing that he wants to do ten hours a day. He would love to become a doctor, but because of the society in which he was raised, he's been "trapped" in a place where the only way he could achieve his dream is to leave everything he's ever known behind. What a waste of a good potential doctor.

I suppose this is a part of the reason that I'm considering leaving the fold myself. I don't see how a healthy community system can prevent people from acheiving their dreams (provided of course, that their dreams are within halacha). How can a society morally stop people from becoming doctors, dentists, architechts, etc.? How can a group of people decide that it's better that no one gets an education and that there is only one acceptable occupation -- Torah learner? Is this really the sign of a healthy society? Is this what I want my daughter to grow up to? Do I want her to be placed on the "mommy track" with absolutely no hope of escape? No! I want her to become all that she can be. I want her to be able to reach for the stars and at least have the opportunity to try to grab them. I don't want her to end up bound in the system that thinks that ignorance is knowledge.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day 2 - Lost: Meaning In Davening

It’s been quite a while since I davened.

Well, that’s not really true. Actually, I davened just last Shabbos in shul. What I should say is that it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt anything while davening. Sure I stood in shul, recited the prayers, and even comprehended most of them. I said the words, stood when I was supposed to stand, bowed when I was supposed to bow and answered when I was supposed to answer. But the whole thing seemed to me to be more of a simple ritual of familiarity rather than a direct communication to a Higher Power. The words were there, the motions were there, the song was there – it was all there – except for the emotion.

When I was younger, I usually had a clear focus when davening. I knew to Whom I was praying and what it was I was praying for. I’m not going to pretend that I davened with kavanah every time, but I genuinely felt a connection when I prayed. I’m can’t say for certain what the connection was to… maybe it was to God, maybe it was just to the inner portion of my soul… but there was definitely an emotional connection which helped to give my prayers focus and meaning.

Slowly, that disappeared. It’s easy to keep that enthusiasm about davening when you’re still discovering the meaning. Sure we davened in elementary and high school and sure we studied peirush hamilim in davening, but I can honestly say that while I might have understood the meaning of some of the words, I didn’t really have a clue as to what I was davening. That understanding came with the maturity that I gained in the years after high school. It was only after high school, when I started to develop an adult understanding of the world and started to move beyond the strict confines of thought imposed by my teachers that I began to appreciate the beauty of some of the tefillos. I was swept up in the enthusiasm of finding new meanings in the words that I had recited by rote for years, in the newfound appreciation for the words, and the hidden meanings behind the words in our prayers.

However, eventually, the novelty wore off. And with it, so did the enthusiasm of davening. I began to wonder whether God truly wants to hear the same thing from us day after day after day. I truly wonder if the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah (or whomever formulated our davening) did us any favors by making the daily Shemoneh Esrei the same day in and day out. By having the same text recited over and over and over, it breeds familiarity, and causes it to lose its “freshness.” I suppose that’s what happened to me. After a while, I began to become… bored with the tefillos. When I finally extracted what I believed to be the final ounce of meaning that I could extract from them, they became like a grapefruit rind once all the juice has been squeezed out… just an empty husk. Except that whereas I get to throw the grapefruit rind away when I’m done, I’m still stuck with the same prayers in the same siddur.

And so, I find it… difficult, to say the least… to work up the necessary emotion to have a good davening. Oh sure, I still go through the motions, but the emotional impact has been lost to me for quite a while. And I miss that emotional impact. I really miss it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Day 1 -- Six Months Left

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Malkie. I'm 26, married for five years and I have a beautiful two year old daughter. My husband is a great guy. I truly love him and our family. We have no serious financial worries (although we haven't started paying tuition yet) and our health is fine.

So, what's the problem?

Well, the problem is this... I just don't feel any... connection...to yiddishkeit anymore. Where once upon a time I had a feeling of closeness to God and a joy in keeping the mitzvos, I no longer have this today.

What led to this yeridah? I honestly can’t say for sure. It started shortly after the birth of our daughter. It’s not like one day I was “gung ho” on the mitzvos and the next day I was “who cares?” It’s been a gradual process, slowly building up from day to day.

I look at the frum community and see all the troubles that abound. Rabbeim accused of horrible crimes against children. Horrible attitudes that I see from my friends and neighbors toward those who aren’t Jewish (or are from “wrong” frum circles). Seemingly more and more bizarre rulings from rabbanim. The nonsense that goes on in the shidduch world (which, as a na├»ve 21-year old I embraced wholeheartedly, but now see as demeaning, demoralizing, filled with arcane nonsensical rules and just plain stupid). The apologetics that some people go through to make the gedolim out to be paragons of perfection rather than well-learned, exemplary but fallible human beings. And on and on. I see it all in real life, and in cyberspace (such as on Imamother.com and other cyberplaces).

At this point, I’m so… disgusted… with the system that I’m almost ready to chuck it. I can’t believe that HaShem wants us to engage in all this nonsense (if, indeed, He exists… but that’s another story for another time).

The one main problem is that I don’t live in a vacuum. I have a husband whom I love very much who married me with the understanding that I would be a good Jewish wife. I have a daughter who is too young at the moment to understand, but, nonetheless, expects a good Jewish role model for a mother. I have my own parents who would be scandalized if I just left the fold… certainly I owe all of them better than this.

And yet, I don’t know if I can go on living a charade. I don’t know how long I can feign joy at keeping the mitzvos. I don’t know how long I can go on pretending that I believe that the Torah lifestyle is the ideal lifestyle when, deep down, I no longer believe it.

And, of course, there is the issue of the fact that people change. After all, just two and a half years ago, I was a “true believer.” Who’s to say that I won’t slip out of these spiritual doldrums in a few months and be “hunky-dory” again? On the other hand, who’s to say that I will, and how long can I wait for this to happen?

And, I suppose, that’s the point of this blog. I’m going to give myself six months. I’m going to work hard during those six months to try to see the positives in Judaism. I’m going to spend the next six months trying to re-establish a connection to my spiritual self. I’m going to spend the next six months doing some soul-searching (if I have a soul) to see if this is the way I want to spend the rest of my life, and if this way of living will give my life some meaning.

And what happens if I don’t? What happens if, after six months, I find that I am no closer to God, or God forbid (pun intended) I’m even further away? What happens to my marriage and my family? To my parents? I don’t know. But I do know that I have a breaking point. I can’t live a lie, and I can’t go on pretending forever. For now, I do it for my family. I do it for my wonderful husband. I do it for my precious daughter and my parents who worked so hard to raise me. But if I’m going to live this way for the rest of my life, then it has to be for me. It has to be because I want to live this way, not because others want me to. It has to be because I am moved to do so, not because I feel pressured by familial and societal pressures to do so.

And so, that’s the point of this blog. This blog will help me work through the ideas of how to go about my life. This blog will be my laboratory for thoughts and ideas regarding the big decision that I have to make in my life.

Six months, starting…. Now.