Let me tell you a secret: After my bar-mitzvah (the ceremonial step from childhood into adulthood for young Jewish men), I was convinced that I had learned everything Judaism had to offer. I could read Hebrew, lead the prayers; I knew Torah stories, could even offer some midrash (commentary). So, I said, my journey in Judaism is complete.
I pursued spiritual fulfillment from other traditions, and I ultimately settled into Paganism, and Wicca in particular, for about three or four years.
Then, well, then I was Jewish again. Let me explain.
In my last post, I spoke about the uncomfortable reality of being a non-Christian in a country that mistakenly believes its religious identity (which doesn’t exist) is synonymous with its civic identity. I also alluded to a conversation with a friend who assumed Chanukah is a much bigger deal than it is–but instead of making my misconception corrections then, I decided to make them their own post.
I recently read David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus, a wildly imaginative and lyrical look at the intuition and origination of one of math’s most recognizable elements. I was delighted as he described the wondrous experience of seeing mathematical functions in everyday life (an experience I’m prone to myself), and I was lulled into a certain sense of dualistic comfort when he uncovered the natural yet unexpected partnership between differentiation and integration, the two processes wholly defining the calculus.
While I read today’s teaching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Berlinski’s musical prose, of the unambiguous manner in which he related unassuming but intimately connected ideas–which is, as you’ll soon see, precisely the challenge presented today.
I feel frustrated and slightly overwhelmed. Tomorrow I return to Raleigh to start my second semester, and in all honesty, I’m not sure if I’m more anxious or excited. I haven’t accomplished all the goals I wanted to make before going back to campus, but those I haven’t reached I’ve planned to do elsewise. And although today is Saturday and there are only four more lessons in the third book of the Pirkei Avot, I just haven’t felt in sound mind to write about that today (and when I read what it said, I felt it even less).
I need focus. But focus is hard to find in a world full of Facebook.
Yesterday I began talking about my trip this to Cherokee, North Carolina. It began in various forms more than a week ago and was influenced in many ways by events I had at first thought completely unrelated. When the trip began, we were all still just starting to get to know each other–and that’s where I’d like to pick up today.
I spent six weeks in Israel the summer of 2009. It was one of the most amazing and definitive experiences of my life and served as the perfect bridge from homeschool and Hebrew school to college. One of our writing assignments near the end was to write about what it means to be Jewish. A lot of people despised it, many of us knew it was coming, and I just sat in the computer lab until it was finished.
No matter, as a prelude to the assignment, we were asked to walk around an area of Tel Aviv where we were visiting for the day and see what people living in Israel considered Jewish. We went up and down the streets in small groups. We walked to a cafe. We walked past soldiers. We sat down with some modern Orthodox Jews. It was exciting, yet nerve-wracking approaching strangers in a strange land (alright, it wasn’t that strange, but I’m naturally quiet, so it was surely an exercise in extroversion!). And then, with our classes, we sat down. And then they dumped it on us.
The essay doesn’t stand as my best example of writing (in rereading it, I feel it lacks an air of sophistication about its coherence and structure), but it reflected my evolving views on Judaism and being Jewish at the time, and for that, it did what was intended of it. I hadn’t ever had the intention of sharing it at the time, at least with none other than our teacher, and since length wasn’t it issue, it ended up becoming a fair bit longer than the bit I posted yesterday. So, without further ado, I present to you the essay I called “Recon.”
This morning was the second “Shababa” at the religious school where I teach. It’s a new experiment this year, having “Shabbat school” one weekend every month or so instead of having school on Sunday. So far I’ve enjoyed them; they’re different, but unique and a pleasant experience for teachers and students alike.
Today I had the honor of giving the d’var Torah, which in Hebrew means “words on the Torah.” It’s comparable to a sermon, except it’s not preaching, it’s teaching. See, Jews don’t proselytize–we perseverate. And with all our perseverative studying, it’s only natural to share it with others (since studying the Torah is itself a commandment).
In any case, though short and sweet and written with a younger audience in mind, I thought I may as well share the drash here for anyone who may wish to read it.
A long, long, long long long time ago (approximately 2176 years to be precise), there was a man named Judah HaMaccabee. Judah the Hammer. How quaint, you know? He led the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greeks and with his small army, a miracle occurred and this band of Jews became victorious over their oppressors. The Temple was salvaged, cleansed, purified, rededicated–in fact, that’s how Chanukah gets its name! “Chanukah” literally means “dedication.” Thus the holiday began. Long before presents. Long before vague attempts to Chrismastize the holiday. Long before commercialization could be considered.
Something special happened then. Something inconceivable in today’s world.
Long week. I know time cannot be properly perceived from a three-dimensional perspective, but I didn’t think it could feel so long. Or be so exhausting. However, I was treated to a delightful morning today, able to attend services bright and early, bathed in the brisk winds of a coast-crossing hurricane. It really was lovely weather save for the humid heat. And the melodies, the Torah reading, the discussions during kiddush. It really was a good way to start the day.
There’s a popular joke that asks, Why do fast days go so slowly? The answer’s perhaps too simple, so everyone just laughs, no matter how many times they’ve heard it. Telling it has become as customary as the fast itself.
Tonight began Tisha B’av, the Ninth of Av. It’s a somber holiday, more an observance than a holiday really, for it commemorates disasters, not miracles. The return of the spies that condemned an entire generation to the desert till death. The destruction of the Temples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. The fall of Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The day when Jerusalem was plowed over and made uninhabitable.
Common catastrophes? Not quite. These disasters were crippling to the Jewish people, breakers-of-faith and sickening events even two thousand years later. We mourn. We member. We mustn’t forget.