Overflowing with blessing
Whew. I want to write a lot more about a lot, as always, but polishing up my drasha takes precedence.
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Labels: Torah (broadly defined)
Text Two: Torah's Relationship to Me
This is Deuteronomy 30:19. I was sitting and learning Tanakh on my own one day, when I was a senior in high school. It would be a severe understatement to say that I was going through a rough patch. Everything was hard. Nothing was going right. Life really sucked and throwing in the towel seemed kind of like a good idea.
And then I read this verse, and it was like God was speaking to me through the text. I saw, for the first time in my life, full acknowledgement from a source that I considered authoritative that there was both life and death in this world; both good and bad; both blessings and curses. God put both before us, and gave us death, bad, curses, etc. In my life at the time, it seemed that acknowledgement of the bad parts of life was forbidden. One should focus on the positive, be grateful for all that one has, etc. It's like people were afraid to acknowledge that sometimes life just totally sucked.
So to me, in 1996, this verse recognized that there was bad, death, and curses in the world, and that they were put before us by God just like the good stuff was. But the verse also recognized that God gave us the power to choose something else over death, bad, curses, etc. He gave us the power to choose life. God was telling me that I had a choice--that I had agency. This was the first time I understood, really understood, bechira chofshit. I felt like this idea--that I had choices in life and that God trusted me to make those choices--was new and exciting and phenomenal and comforting, all at once. Wasn't I seventeen? Wasn't my every move still controlled by an idiosyncratic set of rules contrived and enforced by adults?
No, this text said, no. You are a human being and you always have a choice. And this verse, with one word--"choose"/"וּבָחַרְתָּ"--both tells us that (a) we have a choice and (b) urges us to make the choice in one particular way--towards life. So I did. I chose life then and I chose life over and over again, every time I saw the choice between life and death, good and bad, blessings and curses, laid out before me.
I frame this not as my relationship to Torah, but the Torah's relationship to me. Time and time again (not frequently enough that I can expect or count on them, but not so infrequently that I lose hope that I will never have another moment like this), something--a verse, a mishna, an aggadata--reaches out from the page, picks me up, grabs me, and shakes me, and my life is changed forever for the better.
I chose to think of this as God speaking to me through text. I don't know where these texts come from, but I feel, from personal experience, that their holiness lies in large part in the messages that they transmit directly to our hearts. Forget all of the sturm und drang of my intellectual love affair with Torah, muddled as it constantly is by my concerns as a free-thinking, critical, post-Modern, feminist, Western, single, childless woman. Fuggedaboutit! These are texts that transcend those concerns and that, in a way, is what makes them most Godly. These are texts that I read in a particular time and place that flip a switch in my heart, in the deepest understandingest part of me, and make me love life.
I know, for a fact, that non-Torah texts have the power to do this to me, also. But there is something about these texts being mine, by dint of birth and 29 years of all-encompassing Jewish living, that makes them more valuable to me than non-Torah texts that flip similar switches in my heart.
This is much shorter than my Text One piece, but I think that's because it's really almost not about words at all, or at least not as much as Text One was. It's about words that quickly transmogrify into strong emotions. It's almost as if the less said about it, the better. I am sure that this is one of those things in life that would only get worse with more analysis, with more words, with more footnotes. Analysis is for Text One: My Relationship to Torah.
Text Two: Torah's Relationship to Me, defies words.
Text One: My Relationship to Torah
If you will indulge my claim that my life itself is my primary text itself, then its most important secondary texts are the journals that I have kept since I was nine years old.2 When I was little, I mostly wrote about what happened in my life and how I felt about it. When I was fifteen, I stopped writing in my little girl locking diaries and started writing in a notebook, and what I wrote about changed dramatically.
I started writing about the issues that I was encountering in Judaism, how I felt about those issues, and the steps I was taking to resolve those issues. I recorded correspondence and conversations that I had with my teachers. I made lists of books that I was reading.3 (I was so methodical!) At first, I kept these thoughts in a notebook separate from my locked diary, but over the course of a year or so, the conversations converged into one notebook.
What precipitated this change? To protect the innocent (or perhaps myself), I've changed the names of the institutions in question in the excerpt below. The important thing to know is that I went to a hareidi yeshiva [HY] from the age of three through seven (through 2nd grade), and in third grade, started attending the Modern Orthodox school [MOS] that I attended through 12th grade. Without further ado, a lengthy explanation of how I ended up here, sitting in a beit midrash, writing this on my laptop:
A few weeks ago, I entered HY for the first time in four years. Unfortunately, the reason was a sad one--it was the end of shloshim for DB, my beloved kindergarden [sic] teacher. However, the occassion [sic] got me thinking--about how I felt about HY while I was there, how I felt about my switch from HY to MOS, how I feel about MOS after being there for seven years, and if my perspective on HY had been changed by MOS.
In the course of thinking about these issues, I have also been thinking about other, related, religious issues which have been bothering me lately: how one's family influences one's thoughts on religion, how much one should do/change to "fit in" with the religious community and to present the "right" appearance, even if one thinks that these outward changes aren't otherwise necessary [I was writing here of my struggles over whether I should continue to wear shorts or not], how much one should push his/her religious views on others, and how to make decisions about who you want to be religiously. I realize that these are not light issues, and hope to be able to examine and resolve them without becoming too frustrated. I think about these things often, not every day, but often enough that it seems worthwhile to try to write down my feelings about them....4
Just being in that room made me think of Morah B. [aka the "DB" mentioned above and below], and her constant cheer and goodwill. Anyway, the room was split into two sides: one for men and one for women....As many others later eloquently stated, D.B. made friends all over the community. She is one of the few people who didn't chose [sic] one group to be friendly with. It is sad that it takes the death of one wonderful woman to bring people from all over the Jewish community into one room together. People who sent their kids to all three of the day schools were present. Rabbi M., leader of [the most hareidi shul in town] was there. People who davened at [list of four very different shuls followed] were there.... I never before realized that this was one of the things that was special about Morah B [aka, DB]. Many people later touched on this point.
Everyone spoke very well, but there was one comment that made me cringe. Two groups of people in the community had undertaken the task of learning mishnayot, to be completed that evening. Rabbi M. remarked that even after her death, Morah B. [DB] was still bringing people together in Torah learning, etc. He said that the learning shouldn't stop now, at shloshim.
"Every person in this room," he said, looking towards the men, "who has the ability to learn, should start learning mishnayot every day in memory of DB. Even just a little bit of learning every day will hasten the coming of Moshiach. The women," he said, turning towards us, "have an important task also. They are the ones who support and inspire their husbands to learn."
As soon as I heard that, I became very angry. What right had he to say that? And how could other women hear those words and not become inscensed [sic]? I'm not one to advocate jumping up and starting a riot, but how could any well-learned guy say something like that? Does he really think that women's learning doesn't also hasten the coming of Moshiach? Why didn't he also encourage women who were able to learn, to learn in memory of D.B., a great talmida in her own right (she was a ba'al [sic] teshuva)?
At the very moment that he was saying that Morah B. [DB] brought us all together, he had said hateful words that could only serve to drive people apart. That was very sad. The comment about women was 100% unnecessary. What was wrong with stopping after "Whoever can learn should learn"? I do not understand this at all. With all of the English translations out there nowadays, there are very few people, men or women, who couldn't learn if they really wanted to. If he was adding the comment about women in, to make women who didn't have the education to be able to learn, to feel that they, too, had a role, maybe I could understand. However, unfortunately, I don't think that that's the reason.
I have several thoughts about this text, thirteen years after its composition. Mostly, I feel a deep tenderness towards and love of this fifteen-year-old who couldn't imagine that any "well-learned guy" would ever want to deny women encouragement to learn Torah, never mind deny them access to certain Jewish texts, period. I love that naive girl, and the Orthodox, non-egalitarian community that was able to produce her. I have had many ta'anot over the years against the MOS that I attended from third through twelfth grade, but I will always be grateful that I grew up in an environment where it was completely normative for a teenage girl to excel at Gemara. I felt that there was some sex-bias in math (i.e., girls weren't as encouraged to excel at it as boys were), but never for any limudei kodesh.
I still remember the shock of hearing that statement--"the ones who support and inspire their husbands to learn" following on the heels of "Every person in this room who has the ability to learn, should start learning mishnayot every day." The first half of his statement felt so inclusive of me, of me who had never even thought or considered learning any Torah outside the classroom. I, of course, having the ability to learn after many years of a rigorous Jewish day school education, had the obligation to learn. It was as simple as that. When he said that women support and inspire their husbands to learn, it just sounded to exclusive, so rejecting of any potential contributions that I might make as a well-educated Jewish woman. This was the first I had ever heard that anyone implicitly or explicitly discouraged me from learning, but, unfortunately, it was far from the last.
This text, this journal excerpt, represents, to me, the impetus behind my intellectual love affair with the Torah. It goaded me towards a new and different kind of engagement in Jewish text study. I took the fire in my belly from this incident and turned it into a letter to a teacher, who, in turn, told me about a drop-in women's beit midrash that was being set up that summer in my neighborhood. This blatant rejection of the value of my Torah study propelled me into the beit midrash, where I sat and learned mishnayot from Masechet Kilayim, one evening a week, all summer long, just because he had articulated that--the learning of mishna--as a desirable activity and one that would suitably honor my kindergarten teacher's memory. The first night I went, I was the only person there. After that, a chavruta/pair of friends of mine showed up and they did their thing and I did mine. All of us were 18 or younger and all of us pursued Torah studies on advanced levels.
I fell in love, that summer, with limmud Torah in a way that I never could or would have in the classroom. It was a purely intellectual love. Learning Kilayim on my own with a dictionary by my side was possibly one of the most difficult intellectual exercises I'd ever undertaken, with the possible exception of some math class or other. (Who knew there were so many kinds of squash?!) And both the obscurity of the text I was studying and the challenge I heard issued in a rabbi's offhand remark made me into someone I might not have been otherwise. If I had started, say, with the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, would I have been as smitten? Probably not.
This aspect of my relationship to Torah has not been easy peasy since that fateful day in 1995. It became fraught when my love of Torah clashed with my commitment to intellectual honesty. It became fraught when I began to question the legitimacy of the authority of the texts I was reading. It wasn't all a head game--it was also a love of the heart--but when I started thinking more deeply and more constantly about Torah and my other intellectual commitments, to authenticity, feminism, to close and careful readings of texts, I began to have trouble with Torah, with the Torah that I had been so devoted to from the ages of 15 to 18 or so.
For those of you who fear for my relationship to Torah due to all of these problems, I will reassure you that struggling with a really meaty Gemara or Tosafot still makes my heart sing. I am finally learning in a place where having all of those problems need not delegitimize my intellectual love affair with Torah. There are so many other uses to which my brain could be put, but it is almost never as happy as when it is put to the task of untangling complicated sugyot in the Gemara.
Still, it's a very good thing I had another model for a relationship with Torah up my sleeve, since this kind of intellectual wrangling can only get you so far in aspiring to connect to the Divine. That other model is exemplified by Text Two.
1. In one way or another, my whole life and certainly all of my intellectual passion has been directed towards texts. My undergraduate junior paper, which focused on the discourse surrounding corsets and health towards the end of the nineteenth century, used corset advertisements from women's magazines as its primary text. My undergraduate senior thesis, which focused on women college students during World War I, used school newspapers and yearbooks as its primary texts. The Jewish texts that I love include mishna, gemara [Talmud], and rishonim, the book of Esther, the book of Psalms, the siddur [prayerbook], and others. Finally, I love synthesizing old texts to create new texts. My happiest moments at the computer have certainly been when someone, reading one of my new texts, e-mails me or leaves a comment on my blog to say that my new text has touched or positively affected them in some way.
2. I've mentioned some of these early texts already. (I actually have some diary-like entries from when I was seven, but I didn't write regularly until I was nine.)
3. One such list reads:
This is My God, by Herman Wouk [a book that I remember made me feel really, really good about being Jewish]
To Life!, by Harold Kushner
The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
On Women and Judaism, by Blu Greenberg [my very first organized exposure to feminism vis-a-vis Orthodox Judaism]
Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, ed. Jonathan Sacks
One People?, by Jonathan Sacks
Jewish Wisdom, by Joseph Telushkin
To Be A Jew, by Hayim Halevy Donin
To Pray As A Jew, by Hayim Halevy Donin
The Lonely Man of Faith, but HaRav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, by Moshe Meiselman [a book that disturbed me at the time and I'm sure would only disturb me more today]
Of these books, I think the only one I never got around to at all was Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, edited by Jonathan Sacks. I read most of the rest of these when I was 15 and 16.
4. I cut this paragraph out because the excerpt was getting too long and it isn't directly related to the matter at hand, but it is still a fascinating peek into my 15-year-old mind:
Rabbi C. made an announcement that ma'ariv was about to begin in another room, and Daddy went off to join the men. A fleeting thought entered my mind--what would they say if I wanted to daven ma'ariv? Halachically, there was no real reason why I couldn't set up a little mechitzah made of chairs and daven in the back, unobtrusively. I never daven ma'ariv at home, but if I'm in shul, I don't purposely skip it. At [shul], after the Purim seudah, the guys went to daven ma'ariv and so I davened behind the folding curtain, which goes completely up to the ceiling and can't be seen through. I was the only woman davening there. I felt good doing that at [shul]--I was, thank G-d, given enough educational opportunities to know how to daven, and I had lots to thank Hashem for, so why not daven ma'ariv? I didn't feel that it was inappropriate at all, in that situation. This, however, was different. I realized, that davening ma'ariv here, where, clearly, women didn't do that, would be for the wrong reasons. It would be just to get a reaction, to see if they would stop me. Just b/c I'm not obligated to daven ma'ariv, that doesn't mean that I can't/shouldn't, but...I never would have done it then, there. However, that is one huge difference b/t HY and MOS. At MOS, women, and teenage girls especially, are encouraged to daven ma'ariv, I like to think. Except, after the high schoo play, there was a minyan, and I don't remember seeing any girls [davening]. On the other hand, they could daven at home, w/o a minyan. This fleeting thought left my head as quickly as it had entered....