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.

Exemption and a responsum, reviewed. Feeling almost validated right now

The following is adapted from a short paper I wrote for one of my courses. Please don’t copy or reproduce any part of this.

In his article “Congregation Dignity and Human Dignity,” Rabbi Daniel Sperber engages with the prohibition against women’s Torah aliyot. He discusses the halakhic responsa previous poskim have issued in explaining this prohibition, and critiques them. But he doesn’t critique them through the lens of secular feminism; rather he uses the halakhic process of carefully examining source texts from a religious perspective. While I personally identify as a feminist in a very secular sense, I appreciate Sperber’s approach here: through eschewing secular feminism (at least in the article; I couldn’t say what his personal politics are in general), he’s more likely to appeal to a reader who perhaps has a more traditional mindset, and who would be less likely to engage with Sperber’s argument with an open mind had the author cited non-Orthodox texts. Since it’s exactly this type of reader who needs to be convinced, I appreciate that Sperber doesn’t waste any time preaching to the choir.

I found it curious that the prohibition against women being given aliyot is due to kavod ha-tsibur and not kol isha. But maybe if the concern is for the dignity of the (male) congregation, the breach of tzniut that kol isha would entail for such a congregation falls under kavod ha-tsibur. Kol isha is hugely problematic and very interesting to me, since I’m a woman and a singer, but that’s a topic for another essay.

The question of appropriateness and consensus was also interesting to me. If the major concern is the propriety of an action in a given community and not the intrinsic properties of the act itself, this seems to allow for a certain mutability in the halakhah… if in my community, for example, it’s common for women to speak publicly, given lessons, and so forth, does the fact that it is common and accepted render the prohibition moot? Sperber cites Rema’s defence of the prohibition, which makes a lot of sense given the period in which Rema was writing, but it seems to me now that Rema’s responsum is just a chumra based on his community’s minhag. If my community’s minhag differs, must I remain bound by Rema’s sexist ruling?

Sperber also cites the Shulkhan Arukh’s ruling that it is unacceptable for women and/or children to receive all of the aliyot. This suggests that it’s acceptable for women to receive some of the aliyot; however, this is still troubling to me, since in the cited passage, women and children remain in the same legal category, which is problematic for the reasons Adler cited in her essay “The Jew Who Wasn’t There”.

Following Sperber’s (and, I hope, halakhic reasoning’s) logic, can you say that if women’s being placed in the same legal category as slaves and children (and all attendant halakhic “exemptions” and prohibitions) is an affront to one’s human dignity, halakhah itself mandates that we should err on the side of egalitarianism? I think so, and since I was brought up in a community where a single interpretation of halakhah is not given supremacy. I’ve always been more in favour of pluralism and personal interpretation.

I liked that Sperber brought up the idea of “meta-halakhah,” Jewish law informed by secular ethics. Maybe I liked this so much because this is how I aspire to live, halakhah-observant and feminist, progressive, queer and queer-positive. It’s gratifying to have some halakhic weight on one’s side. Halakhah and my politics often seem irreconcilable, but Sperber’s article shows that this isn’t necessarily so, so long as one attempts the effort or reconciliation. I guess some would argue that halakah must never be subjected to reconciliation with secular politics, that it must always be the other way around, but I view the Talmud and its writers as products of their time, so. They must be subjected to further exploration and yes, critique.