I do have faith, but I don’t seem to have will.

A drawing of a woman, looking worriedly at an image of the Torah on her computer screen.

I read Chaviva’s post on faith this morning, and it made me resolved to write about and post what I’ve been thinking about lately.

I’m not having a crisis of faith, but I think I have been having a crisis of observance. I mean, it doesn’t feel much like a crisis— I’m not panicking or self-flagellating; there have been no tears (or, well, not many) or fear that G-d will forsake me… but I am confused and unsure. I think this confusion will probably be a permanent condition my whole life, I mean, uncertainty is a part of the human condition. But a few months ago, I felt more sure of what I was doing, observance-wise.

The last three or four Shabbats, I did not observe the way I had been for the previous six months. The first time, I was really sick and completely miserable. I spent the day in my pyjamas, drinking tea and watching old episodes of 30 Rock. The second time, I was studying for finals, cramming for an exam for which I was not prepared. The last two times, I was at my childhood home, with my family.

I don’t actually really have any guilt about the most recent two Shabbats. I observed the way I always did as a kid: Shabbat dinner with my family, candle-lighting and my mom’s challah and kiddush on non-kosher wine. Electricity and internet and even the gym on Shabbat afternoon. I enjoyed it. I was with the ones who love me most, and I had the comfort of the familiar.

At home in Toronto, with my roommate R, I got accustomed to observing Shabbat the Orthodox way, taping over light switches and remembering to grind the coffee before sundown on Friday afternoon. I like that too— I’ve ended up reading more actual books for pleasure over the last six months than I have in years, just on Shabbat. I love the peace of it. When it was still warm enough, I went on long walks in nearby Trinity Bellwoods Park on Shabbat mornings, and sometimes again in the afternoon. In summer, R and I and often friends sometimes had Shabbat lunch picnics in the park, watching hipsters lean their fixies against lampposts and break out the the PBR. We watched them attempt to tightrope walk and they watched us make kiddush on juice in plastic cups. We ate the challah I’d baked and sat around in the oppressively humid Toronto summer heat.

I’m learning, again, that it’s really hard to be shomer shabbat (let alone shomer mitzvot) on one’s own. Too many shabbats alone are, well, lonely and isolating. I’m often too shy to invite people I don’t know well (and who are mostly much older than me) to lunch at my house. Thank G-d for Friday night services at the College Street gallery with Makom; I just wish it was more often than twice a month. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m no longer living with Rachel. My mother said (wisely, I think) that it doesn’t all have to be black and white, that I don’t have to do the exact same thing every single week, that I can “do as the Romans do,” depending on where I am, who I’m with, and how I feel.

I think she’s right. That’s all I can do, at this point in my life. Taking things one Shabbat, one day, one moment at a time. I wish I had a cohesive and consistent practice with regards to observance, but maybe that’s an impossible wish right now. (Maybe it’s impossible wish ever, considering the inconsistencies of halakhah itself, but that’s another post.)

I still believe, as I always have, in G-d. I want that closeness, I want that deep and perfect fire. For me it facilitates observance. Maybe I just need to find that feeling more often.

Choose-your-own Judaism

So apparently there’s this Reform university student who took a week to increase her observance by observing kashrut, tzniut, daily prayer, and other mitzvot. She then wrote about her experiences in a column published in Reform Judaism magazine, the URJ’s official publication; I read Ben Dreyfus’ excellent dissection of the experiment and its coverage across the web, and have a few thoughts of my own.

I remember my dad (who is, in fact, an active member of a Reform congregation) mentioning this article to me a while back, and while I was a little surprised at its inclusion in an official Reform publication, I wasn’t overly put off by the idea. At the time, I actually found it kind of validating, being myself an in-the-process observant-ish person with a Reform background.

Anyway, upon reading the article itself and Dreyfus’ problematization thereof, I find this individual’s experiment as problematic as Orthodox Judaism itself. It’s one thing to find strict observance of mitzvot difficult (it is! Trust me, as someone living day-to-day trying to be shomer mitzvot, I find it really hard, and I fail constantly), but for that – and not the troubling sexism inherent in (most) Orthodox application of halakhah – to be the major concern, troubles me. If the student finds being shomer mitzvot is not for her, she should try a stream of Judaism that does not mandate mitzvot. But not to critically engage in the problems of sexism and halakhah is puzzling to me.

More importantly, it seems to me that she undertook the experiment without a clear idea of why she wanted to do it. She says she wanted to know “why [she chose] to observe one ritual or commandment and not another,” and that to understand that she had to live “observantly”. But all of us – ultra-Orthodox, secular, or anywhere along the spectrum of observance – make choices regarding observance. “Spectrum” isn’t even really the right word. Modes of observance are so radically varied across time, between cultures, at different ages in an individual’s life— I am not now “more religious” than I was five years ago; my “off-the-derech” friend L. who left her Chassidic community on the north stretch of Bathurst and moved downtown to daven with a more varied group of Jews is not less so.

The author of “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum” didn’t take a week to experience a more religious lifestyle: as Dreyfus noted, she experienced “a week in the life of a 21st-century American Modern Orthodox college student.” Which is fine, if that’s what you want, but I think it’s odd to say this experience was an application of “every Jewish ritual [the author] could think of – big or small, no exceptions – to see whether rituals I had never tried or been mindful of would be meaningful to me.” Was this Yale student really unable to consider Anat Hoffman, Danya Ruttenberg, and Haviva Ner-David‘s richly varied interpretations of halakhah? Or even to explore more mainstream options that differ from Reform Judaism, like the Reconstructionist or Conservative movements?

Edited to correct a factual error; thanks BZ.

Returning to the fold, part two

I should say that everything expressed here is solely my own opinion and is not intended as judgment on anyone or anything. This is strictly personal reflection, though of course comments are welcome.

When I left off, I’d given a whole bunch of self-indulgent stuff on my religious background. Now I guess I can get around to what I’d intended to talk about in the first place…

Going back to Bet Ha’am… it was so good, in a lot of ways. I grew up there, and there were people at services who have known me since I was seven and tiny and just learning to read Hebrew. I got to meet the new rabbi, who is pretty great (as far as I could tell in the limited time I was there).

I have to come out and say that I didn’t feel… right. Or, the service didn’t. After a year of Makom, the Reform service felt both too slow and too short. I still like a lot of things about Mishkan Tfilah, despite some people’s issues with same (I will say that David’s points about Mishkan Tfilah are excellent and I fully respect his opinion, though I still don’t 100% agree), but on the whole, it just felt like a whole lot of English. I’m far from fluent in Hebrew (hell, I’m nowhere near conversant even) and English is my mother tongue, but. It just didn’t feel quite right. And the singing was very slow. The service felt truncated and stilted. As wonderful as it was to come home to my family and to the congregation in which I was brought up, I was forced to confront – and rather harshly – the simple fact that if any denomination still works for me, it’s not Reform Judaism.

So it’s clear to me at this point that Reform practice (or at least, liturgy) is no longer appropriate for me personally. And honestly, the theology and philosophy aren’t really right anymore either. Case in point: kashrut, which I feel is binding.

The last time I had pork was in grade ten or so, when I mistook a unlabeled breaded pork cutlet for chicken. Shellfish has been very difficult for me to give up. I love shrimp, scallops, and octopus with an intensity rivaled only by my love for chocolate. But now I can’t remember the last time I had any. Since I’m mostly vegetarian, kashrut isn’t so difficult for me anyway (or at least not as difficult as other mitzvot). But it has become something of a sore point with my foodie family, who are people of excellent taste and enjoy exploring cities’ restaurants when they visit; we recently ate at Bistro Bienville in Montréal (which, by the way, I recommend highly) and the meal included lobster tart, oyster, and bacon-wrapped octopus (none of which I sampled, but I hear they were good). My dad is fond of saying that “G-d created the shrimp too,” which, yes. But not for us to eat, I feel. Or at least, not for me. I understand and (in theory) support the idea that kashrut is a personal choice, but I think for better or for worse that it’s the correct choice. Does this make me judgmental? I don’t know. I’d never want to be someone who feels it’s ok to dictate what others should do and judges others by their own personal yardstick.

Anyway, I’m pretty convinced I’m doing ok. Taking things one step at a time, exploring how different practices feel (for example, keeping Shabbat different ways), and reminding myself that for me being totally secular or going all the way in the other direction would be a cop out, and I don’t want the easy way out. That’s not why I’m religious.

Returning to the fold, part one

Scene with red ship, viewed through the trees

Photo © Ilana Newman.

As some of you might know, I grew up in Maine (a state that, at the time my family moved there, was so homogenous that my sister and I – two Ashkenazi kids – were considered a major addition to the diversity quotient at Dora L. Small Elementary). I now live in Toronto, where I’m at school, but a few times a year I spend a week or so in South Portland, where my parents still live.

For almost a year now I’ve been attending services (and other functions) with Makom, a chavurah in Toronto. I don’t think it’s aligned with any specific denomination, but we use the Artscroll siddur. That is to say, it’s an Orthodox-ish service, sort of. Whether most people (or anyone, really) who davens with Makom considers themselves Orthodox is not for me to say (I really don’t know), but I don’t consider myself to be. I grew up at, I guess, the observant end of the Reform spectrum, the product of a mom who grew up Conservadox and a dad who grew up secular. I think they sort of met each other in the middle.

I really loved the congregation with whom I grew up. We moved to Maine from Cleveland when I was seven, and my parents enrolled my sister and me in religious school pretty much right away. My sister and I both became bat mitzvah there, and were confirmed later. A few years later, my dad, who’d never had a bar mitzvah ceremony in his youth, made the decision in his mid-forties to go ahead with it. (It was really amazing to see him at the bimah, chanting and leading services and giving a dvar Torah; I was really proud of him.)

Eventually I left home and came to Toronto and I didn’t really find a place, Jewishly speaking (and absolutely no pun intended, I swear), until this past year. I don’t really know what I was looking for; I actually only showed up because I’d found Makom’s card at a coffee shop in Chinatown. I came without knowing what to expect, and I was lost in the Hebrew.

I mean, I was actually lost. My Hebrew, mediocre at best and useful only for reading prayers slowly, had kind of atrophied in the years since starting university. I told myself no way was I going to wimp out and use the transliteration. I knew how to follow along; I’d just struggle through. Eventually the struggling was not so bad. After a few months I got back some of my ease with the language, and in the meantime, was soaking in the possibility of actually having community. Like-minded, progressive Jews who were actually invested in observance… I’d actually thought I might have to go to NYC to find that. But here I am.

So over the last ten months or so, that’s what I’ve been steeping myself in. And it’s been really good. I’d been really looking forward, though, to being back in Maine for the last week and a half of summer, and revisiting the spiritual home I’d grown up in. But after having been back, I have rather different feelings than I thought I would.

Part Two to come soon.