Monday, December 16, 2013

Proud to Be an Idealist

I remember the day I found out I was naive.

I was at a Bat Mitzvah party. The event was held at some ritzy hotel downtown, its pristine interior infested with a gaggle of 40 seventh graders. There were glowsticks and a DJ, but if you were really cool you didn't dance. You were above that. Literally, in fact. The "cool kids" stormed the elevators, punched the buttons for every floor and helped themselves to an unguided tour of the premises.

I wanted to join them. I could be adventurous, right?

So I dashed between two open elevator doors just as a group of my peers entered.

As if on cue, every last one of them spun around and exited the elevator, convening in the foyer with their backs to me. A girl I knew from Spanish class turned around and latched her gaze onto mine. Smirking, she took the opportunity to enlighten me. "You can't come with us. You're too naive to partake in adult activites like this."

The doors rang shut just as she spit out her parting words. You're too naive. I stood paralyzed on the elevator, baffled. I didn't even know what the word naive meant.

As I silently ascended to floor 14, I somehow understood that in the eyes of my peers, I had been downgraded.

~ ~ ~

Now that I'm 24 and no longer tormented by the social traumas of middle school, I've given myself permission revisit this topic. What does it mean to be naive? More importantly, what's so wrong with it?

Well, maybe less than we think.

Take a look at Chumash, in the parshas dealing with Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov was the "man of the tent," immersed in study of Torah and oblivious to the tribulations of the "real world." He was gentle and innocent- a mama's boy. His brother Esav, in contrast, spent his days in the wildnerness. Weathered by the cold and energized by the adrenaline of the hunt, he was no stranger to the perils of the world. Esav was street smart, yet Yaakov was the one ultimately entrusted by G-d to leave the security of his tent and father the Jewish people. He was required to enter the "real world" to serve as an emissary of truth, despite having had no prior experience with the evil and deception that he would encounter. All he had was knowledge of G-d and a childlike idealism.

To understand the inner workings of an idealist, we must first distinguish between Truth and Fact. As Rabbi Manis Friedman elucidates, Truth is the world as it should be. Fact is the world as it is. Truth is G-d's reality, fact is ours. While some people might be pleasantly surprised when the ideal and actual are in harmony, a naive person is genuinely shocked when they're not. The mind of a naive person does not presume a chasm between theory and actuality, internals and externals. Because if truth is really true, it should persist across time, space, and context. Why shouldn't it survive the constraints of the world?

Because of this inherent (and often subconscious) assumption that the outer world must reflect the soul within, naive people are easily deceived. Personally, I can't possibly understand why one would intentionally decieve another. Why would you want to create tension between your inner and outer self? Lying to yourself and lying to others must be so....uncomfortable. Unnatural. No one would want to do that. That's crazy.

Injustice and corruption are not viewed as inevitable realities of society. They're believed to be exceptions to the norm. One time, I learned that one of my old high school teachers had been fired because an influential parent accused her of making the schoolwork too challenging. This woman had been teaching at my high school for 30+ years. She wrote my college recommendations. I was shocked and appalled that such a decision could be made without so much as a simple tap on the shoulder to ask her to adjust her expectations before cutting her ties with the school. I insisted that there must have been another reason- a more just or valid reason. A family member, who is a teacher herself and understands the corruption in school administrations, gave me a harsh word of rebuke for my "ignorance": Of course they're going to unfairly fire someone. How dare you be surprised after all the injustice I've suffered as a teacher. You should know by now how corrupt the educational system is.

The thing is, I did know. I've heard the frustrated narratives of countless teachers, exhausted and hurt by their treatment from administrators. I really do empathize with them. But I'm still just as shocked every time I hear a story like this. I guess I just have too much faith in humanity not to be shocked.

As much flack as I get for this quality, I think it's really a beautiful thing to believe in the world's potential for justice. To have an image of the best possible version of the world permanently etched into your mind. When it becomes apparent that the world hasn't yet actualized its potential, it's those stubborn people who are going to work hard to create change because they know it's possible.

This is why Yaakov was able to work 14 years in order to marry his soulmate Rachel without going insane. It didn't matter that he was essentially held hostage by Lavan and used for his manual labor. Failing to marry the woman he was truly intended to be with was not even an option in his mind. Truth leaves no room for compromise.

As Yaakov demonstrated, naivete is not just for children. As an adult, I was most recently reminded of my own idealistic tendencies when I returned home after a year in seminary. I expected the intensity of religious life that I had experienced in Israel to be just as vibrant at home. Why shouldn't it be? We're all following the same Torah and learning the same Chassidus as I did in Israel. I quickly realized, however, that that the philosophical roadmap I had constructed inside my "tent" contained different guidelines than those adhered to by the community.The ways of the community felt not only diluted, but foreign. The new application of all I had learned was but a murky reflection of what I perceived as "truth." I felt the way Yaakov might have felt, suddenly plucked from my tent and tossed into the exotic wildnerness.

Pop Chassid recently published an article in which he proposed the institution of a "Community class" in baal teshuva yeshivas and seminaries. The purpose of the class would be to make BT's aware of how a frum community functions in order to ease the transition from an outreach or yeshiva setting to a community. I would have been the perfect candidate for a class like this. My transition from seminary to a community was incredibly confusing, to say the least. This class could have given me the Facts before I went into the real world. Maybe if someone had told me what to expect, I could have mentally prepared myself.

But after thinking about this idea at length, I realized the following: As difficult as that adjustment was, I wouldn't sacrifice that naivete for the world. There's something really special about connecting to Judaism through a philosophy- one that has yet to be tainted by human interpretation or culture. There's something pure and beautiful and true about previewing Judaism as it's "supposed" to be, without even the slightest inkling of the compromises made by the "real" world. 

G-d created man to be naive. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Chava had no conception of anything outside G-d's will, possessing no desires contrary to His. Unadulterated G-dliness was all they knew. At first, that's what G-d wanted. Those first few moments in Gan Eden contained unmatched purity and clarity.

But then, Adam and Chava were tricked by the snake. At the mercy of a con artist, their naivete got the better of them and their innocence was snatched away in an instant. The simplicity of Gan Eden became a memory that only grew fainter with each subsequent generation.

However, that consciousness was not permanently lost. With the arrival of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, that memory of G-dliness gradually became sharper, closer, and more accessible. The coming of Moshiach will be the ultimate return of Divine Consciousness, when Fact and Truth will no longer be at odds, but rather one will be entirely reflective of the other in a way even more powerful than the original revelation of Gan Eden.

There is a time for innocence and a time to "face the real world." G-d weaved both into his plan for creation. First, one must appreciate Truth for what it is. One must take ample time to discover G-d's intentions, G-d's will and His wisdom without interference from cultural or community norms. Marinate in those ideas until they become a part of you.

When you're in a deep sleep, your dreams never take into consideration that your alarm will ring in 5 minutes. Your imagination never says, "Wait, dandelions can't talk in the real world, so I better rewrite that dream so it fits into the constraints of reality." That's what makes a dream so powerful. It is a pure recognition of what could be.

Eventually, you wake up. When the time is right, you take the plunge into a community where you'll experience a rude awakening. But that's good. It's not a problem. That discomfort means you know what's true. You're disturbed by the disparity between how things are and how things should be because your time in the tent helped you mold a vision for a better future- one where Truth is not filtered. Now, you have the ability to look at all those wordly constraints and bring G-d into them.

So don't be embarrassed if you're a dreamer. If you always see the best in people and are perplexed by injustice. Your peers may have excluded you from their "real world" adventures on the elevator, but I think it is specifically you who won't lose sight of the world's potential for elevation outside the tent.

After all, where would Judaism be without Yaakov?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Don't Compliment My Writing

Writing is nothing more than an impulse.

It's like gasping for air after holding your breath for too long, or running to the grocery store at 11 pm to satisfy a craving for pickles. I can't tell you how many times I've arrived late to appointments because I start writing and I just can't switch off the flow of ideas. My judgment is overpowered by the sense of urgency that underlies everything I create.

I acknowledge the value in the fact that I've found a way for my natural drives to vest themselves in spiritual expression. I thank G-d every day that I need not turn to the unwholesome comic strips and corny song lyrics I used to come up with to let off steam during high school study hall (although some of my friends might miss the entertainment).

But my writing only wears a costume of holiness. Yeah, the contents of this blog relate to my life as a Jew, composed through the lens of the Torah I've learned and the community I've experienced. But I'm propelled by a lust for thought and expression that often controls me more than I control it. Which makes writing about spiritual matters just a glorified game of dress-up.

I don't mean to self-demean. I just think it's important to come clean about why I'm doing what I'm doing. This is just the way we were created. We engage in holy pursuits with animalistic motivations, endowed by G-d with the mission of purifying those motives.

So don't compliment my writing. I write because I can't help it.

Instead, compliment me when I tell my brain to shut up and I get up to do someone a favor. Compliment me when I decide to postpone outlining an essay because I know I'm being disrespectful by showing up late to class. When I do something that I'm really not good at but I know it's the right thing to do- that's when your praise and encouragement will really mean something.

I believe every artist is presented with the challenge of transforming artistic needs into wants and turning instincts into choices. To create should not be a submission to desire but an assertion of purpose in this world.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Reckoning

I told you a story.

You listened with greedy ears 

and hands outstretched, 



You poked and prodded at my words 

until their edges flaked away, 

Their syllables disjointed 

and crushed 

In the stifling grip of your intellect. 

You displayed them on your 

trophy shelf, 

glistening next to your smug smile, 

Their meanings 

contorted to please your 

hungry heart. 

I told you a story, 

But you told me yours 

Instead of hearing mine. 

So I retreated, 

Leaving you in the company of your pride 

And your internal applause 

And you didn't even see me slip away. 

A sharp inhale, 

A pensive silence. 

Why say anything more? 

I reconsider my self-disclosure, 

Longing for your partnership 

But knowing I could do without it. 

In truth, 

I'd have more space to breathe 

and to be me 

My love could soar in an endless stream 

Without a worry of whether you'd be there to 

receive it. 

You, on the contrary 

Need me more than you know. 

For without me 

Your heart would betray you, 

Pumping life into limbs 

that will sweep you into a frigid sea. 

The sun will grow dim 

And you'll lose your breath, 

Your raspy cries just a note in the droning wind. 

What do you want? 

You stand, unfeeling, 

your hands coiled around the elegant trophy 

That used to be mine. 

Your knuckles are white. 

If only you knew that 

Smothering my story 

Is denying your own 

And even more than you are bound up 

in your own sophistication 

I am bound to you. 

And what you do with clenched fists 

And a staunch stare 

I can bring you to effortlessly. 

Because all that you know 

Resides in simplicity too. 

You'll sense the sameness in our souls, 

our interlocking journeys 

And the triumphant surrender 

of letting go. 

Because to hear my words 

Is to find yourself. 

We want the same thing, 

To reach the same end. 

Our story 

My story 

Will direct you there. 

I think all this 

But say nothing 

Waiting for you to turn around 

in a fit of love 

and remorse, 

pining for a reunion. 

But you don't, and that's okay. 

It's all part of the story. 

Maybe me just wanting this is enough for you. 

My love will swell through the silence 

Rippling through your lovely mind 

Until your knowledge 

relinquishes its solitary reign 

And merges with mine. 

I'll tell you my story 

and you won't even need to 



You'll just know.

One day.

For now, I'll feign distance

And let the silence do its work.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

From Potential to Actuality

A few months ago, I lost my mailbox key. I put off requesting a new one from the apartment management office out of fear that I'd be charged an unreasonable fee (and any fee is unreasonable for a grad student). Instead, I opted to temporarily go without my paycheck, magazine subscriptions, and wedding and birthday invitations, hoping I'd magically discover the key poking out of the couch cushions someday.

One afternoon, I happened to be exiting the building as the postal worker was sorting mail into the appropriate boxes. My mailbox door hung open, its bulging contents gleaming like exposed treasure. Most notably was my subscription of Chayenu, a weekly Torah study magazine that I relied on to enliven my 45 minute commute to work. Lately I had felt disconnected and unreflective without Torah study as part of this routine, going through the motions of the daily grind without infusing a fresh spiritual consciousness into it.

This was my chance! With a brash "Excuse me," I impulsively reached past the postal worker for my mail.

She glared at me disapprovingly. "Uh-uh. You can't just take your mail, honey. You need to open your mailbox with your key."

I wasn't in the mood to try to explain myself. With a defeated sigh, I hurried outside to catch my dreaded train to the city.

During my commute, I mentally reviewed the mailbox incident. How did that just happen? Everything I needed was plainly visible, inches away from falling into my possession. But I couldn't have any of it. I needed to open my mailbox myself- with my own key. It wasn't good enough that someone opened it for me.

Until I took initiative to acquire a key- regardless of the financial sacrifice involved- my precious Torah magazines were worthless. They were trapped in a box, powerless and unbreathing. They couldn't affect me.

That's how a lot of Judaism is. We look to others to "open our mailbox." We go to shiurim and try to surround ourselves with positive influences, looking to the wisdom and conviction of our community leaders, schools, and mentors. They open the door to inspiration. But that's all inspiration is: An open door. We're shown what's there- a preview of what could be- and then it's left to us to internalize those teachings and integrate them into our lives.

It's crucial to know what exists in potential. Catching that initial glimpse of our beautiful heritage through another's guidance is what gives us both focus and motivation. But that can't be the end. It's only a beginning. And moving forward requires a lot of effort, and maybe even self-sacrifice. Only you can create real change within yourself.

It took a while, but I eventually got a new key and I didn't even have to pay for it. I emptied my mailbox and sifted through a month's worth of letters. The next day, the postal worker loyally returned with a new series of items addressed to me. Now, I was ready to receive them.

In life, our incoming flow of spiritual inspiration comes with responsibility: We must latch onto it, study its contents, and figure out how it can better the world. Only through our own efforts can we actualize the potential that awaits in our "spiritual mailbox."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I Drank the Kool-Aid (and I'm Not Ashamed of It)

I was recently at a shabbos meal when a teenage girl, raised in the Orthodox community, asked me "Who made you frum?"

I was pretty taken aback at the question. I didn't know how to respond at first. What did she mean, who made me frum? I made myself frum, thank you very much. Do I look like a product of brainwashing? After I stuttered for an answer, she rephrased the question in a less derogatory way.

Later, I thought about this interaction and my defensive response. Why did I feel this question was so derogatory? Why was I ashamed about the fact that a well-intentioned Jewish organization helped me become closer to my heritage?

It probably had a lot to do with the attitudes circulating around me.

Attitudes like:

"My Judaism is more real because I didn't come to it through some sort of contrived outreach program."

On the flip side, those who do become connected through a Chabad house or outreach center often struggle with others' appraisal of their observance. "Beware of the the Kool-Aid! Stop being naive. Don't let them control you." As a result, these baal teshuvas might later choose to disassociate with that community, organization, or individuals involved as a way to assert their independence. They maintain an observant lifestyle, but intentionally distance themselves from their starting line to prove they aren't simply a product of others' efforts.

I can certainly see this quality in myself. If I'm being painfully honest, there is something very self-satisfying about parading my independent thinking to those who offered me support in the beginning of my journey, showing them I've risen above their Kool-Aid.

What is "Kool-Aid," anyway? I was always a bit unclear about the intended meaning of this term. People refer to this metaphor and laugh cynically about it, their sarcasm laced with resentment toward their outreach communities.

Kool-Aid is not G-d or Torah or living an observant lifestyle, assuming these are all rooted in Truth. What I think is that when people accuse you of drinking the Kool-Aid, they're accusing you of buying into others' justifications for becoming frum. What people have labeled Kool-Aid can be defined as the body of reasoning that people employ to demonstrate the value of observance. Some of this reasoning is valid, some is misinformed. In many cases, criticism stems from others' interpretations of why you became frum- not the mere fact that you did so. If it appears that you are simply absorbing others' messages like a porous sponge without really thinking about anything, that's when people start accusing you of being brainwashed. They refuse to respect your choices when you can't substantiate them with conclusions you've drawn on your own.

I admit it. I drank the Kool-Aid. I marveled at all the new perspectives I was ingesting, gaping with wonder like a starry-eyed child. I initially found no reason to disagree with anything I heard. But the thing about Kool-Aid is that it didn't really quench my thirst. Yeah, it's marked "beverage," but it's mostly preservatives and food coloring. So it just bubbled inside me, compelling me to make some very pivotal choices but never becoming fully absorbed into my system.

At a certain point, my opinions and feelings began to stealthily creep out from under the woodwork. Suddenly, they wanted a say in everything I was doing! They didn't want to take a back seat to the foreign influence temporarily inhabiting me. So they rose up and protested the slimy red substance that had conquered their terrain, upon which an explosive chemical reaction occurred. The result was a new flavor of Kool-Aid: One that I had created through my own flesh, blood, heart and mind. But it couldn't have developed without first ingesting something from the outside.

Kool-Aid doesn't kill. It's simply meant to be an instigator. It's when you misuse it that the problems begin. If you don't integrate everything you've learned into YOUR mind, and you delude yourself into thinking that Kool-Aid is water, that's when you start being unhealthy.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that G-d guided you in a certain direction because He knew that's what you'd be responsive to. He orchestrated your contact with Jewish Outreach, or Chabad, or whatever channel "made you frum." Don't be ashamed of your journey. Don't disown the experiences G-d gave you. Remember that it's all hashgacha pratis- even the part where you "drank the Kool-Aid." It's not like some alien force came out of nowhere and force-fed you some perversion of Truth. Sure, Torah is sometimes distorted when people try to present it in a way that will be meaningful to you. But G-d led you toward those distortions too, because He trusted you could turn them into something real.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Chai Elul: Embrace the Details

Today I was sitting in one of my graduate courses, bored out of my mind. I had learned the majority of the content in a previous class, allbeit in a very general sense, and I saw no reason to fixate on the multitude of "fascinating" details my professor was drooling about. I knew my basic familiarity with the concepts would still permit an A on the final. But the teacher insisted on gnawing each detail to shreds, the original concept now fragmented into a hundred entities that bore no resemblance to their original singular form.

So rather than listen to my teacher drone on for the next two hours and forty minutes, I decided to buy time (and stay awake) by preparing a Dvar Torah for the coming shabbos. I quickly became engrossed in a sicha (a speech) I found online (thank G-d for the internet!) about Chai Elul, the date on which both the Baal Shem Tov and Alter Rebbe were born. These leaders founded revolutionary movements in Judaism: The Baal Shem Tov revealed the deeper, mystical dimension underlying Torah, and from that grew the Alter Rebbe's Chabad movement, a more intellectual application of the former.

The sicha quoted the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, who gave over two versions of an aphorism: "Chai Elul is the day which infuses vitality into Elul" and "Chai Elul is the day which infuses vitality into the Divine service of 'I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.'"

There are layers of meaning embedded in these phrases. What I'd like to focus on is the fact that the first aphorism speaks about Chai Elul energizing our Divine service in a general sense, accounting for any and every aspect of human-G-d interaction that occurs during Elul. In contrast, the second version specifies that Chai Elul enlivens our Divine service in a particular way, arousing us to approach G-d in the specific manner of "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

The mode of Divine service specified in the second aphorism is by default included within the first. The energy of Chai Elul is equally diffused throughout all aspects of avodah, naturally including "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." So why the repetition? Why emphasize a detail that is already so obvious it should require no explanation?

In truth, details are more than just details. Their value extends beyond the fact that they are included within a significant main idea. Take Torah study, for example. Diving into the particulars of a topic not only substantiates one's understanding of the original idea, but it actually generates new knowledge. The process of exerting your intellect to understand the inner workings of an idea churns up a new experience inside you. New ideas are born, new feelings arise, a new perspective on G-d consolidates inside the psyche. Your new outlook motivates action. You commit to G-d and serve Him with sincerity. These developments must be preceded by a certain complexity of understanding.

The apparent repetition in the second version of the aphorism reminds us that feeling connected to G-d in a general sense is not enough. Divine service isn't only about acknowledging that vague, mysterious feeling that G-d is guiding your life. It's about understanding why you have that feeling, where it comes from, and what you're supposed to do with it. It means changing yourself so that you can change the world and change G-d's presence in the world. And in order to do all that, you have to REALLY understand G-d and REALLY understand His world. Only by knowing Him intimately through intellectual exertion can change flourish.

Sitting in class at that moment, I realized that I have a choice. I can go about life in one of two ways: I can seek the minimum knowledge necessary to get by. I can ace my counseling practicum without ever opening a textbook, without investing an ounce more effort than absolutely necessary. But will I really be able to help people? Will my expertise dwindle to mere "expertise," a bullet-point understanding of how things should be but with no real tools to make them that way?

Or, I can invest in a mission. I can formulate meaningful conclusions about how to transform the world using the detailed information I've absorbed.

Rather than letting yourself become "bored out of your mind," delve into your mind for a change. Details are only boring until you really think about them.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

G-d is at Your Doorstep

G-d knocked on my front door this morning.

My first instinct was to panic. "I'm not ready!" I blurted as I fumbled through my dresser drawer. My head was spinning.

I need to look presentable. Brush my hair, put in my contacts. Down a cup of coffee. Horrified, I imagined all the ways in which I might make a bad impression. Surely I can't hide my irritable morning mood from Him. Or worse, He'll reprimand me for my untidy living space.

Why was He here, anyway? Shouldn't He have waited until I had something to show for myself? My life is a bit...under construction, at the moment. There are so many things I want to do that I haven't accomplished, so much I could have done differently in the past. So what does the Master of the universe want with me?

All at once, the thoughts whirring around in my brain slowed to a halt.

The King is at my doorstep. This is real.

It dawned on me that He wouldn't have come here unannounced at 6 am if He wanted me to look glamorous. G-d is a smart guy. Maybe He wants it this way. He wants to give me the choice to let Him into my life when I'm just being myself, moseying around the house in my pajamas or sorting through paperwork at the office. He transcends the context of a holiday and the walls of a synagogue. He's pretty much giving me an open invitation. "I'm available 24-7," G-d will assure me. "Even if we have to sit on your old, musty couch. There's no prerequisite for you to commune with Me."

It's like when guys are approached on the street and asked to put on tefillin. "I'm not Orthodox," they mistakenly protest. Or, "I just ate a non-kosher steak. I better not. One day, when I'm religious, then I'll put on tefillin."

We never think we're worthy of having a relationship with G-d. And yet G-d created us, so how backwards is that?! News flash: All those parts of us that we think G-d doesn't want or doesn't approve of? He created those too. He gave you that inclination to the leave the dishes in the sink for two days. He gave you that little voice that tells you doing a favor for someone can wait. And He also gave you the ability to change and become better and do the right thing. It's all from Him.

We think we have to become perfect, refined, "religious" individuals before we can be on G-d's team. But really, G-d is ready to be our King right now. We just have to decide to be ready too. So step up to the plate. Commit. Do a mitzvah. Fulfill G-d's desire, and that will make you better.

Oh, and by the way, G-d will keep showing up on your doorstep every day this month. 

In my opinion, it's hard to ignore that kind of devotion.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why You Should Never Be Satisfied

I've noticed that people often defend their frumkeit by claiming that observance has rendered them immune to many of the problems that face secular society. They point to the worldwide epidemic of emptiness and dissatisfaction and sigh, "If only they knew the Truth, they would feel whole and content and not go on these reckless searches for fulfillment. Judaism fills the void."

They couldn't be any more wrong.

Because if you are a truly pious person, you are never satisfied.

The more you learn about G-d, the more you realize you can never know Him. The more you appreciate G-d's infinity, the more sharply you are confronted by your finitude. The more knowledge you acquire, the more nuanced and complex your questions become.

The hole just grows bigger.

So don't think becoming religious is going to solve all your problems and allow you to sleep soundly at night. 

You're going to be more dissatisfied than ever before.

What's different is that this time, you won't be tormented by that feeling.
You'll fall in love with it.

Your doubts will energize you, your fears will drive you forward. The crazy notion of infinity that used to jolt your nervous system like nails on a chalkboard will now be your greatest comfort. When you study that discourse about the most hidden parts of G-d that He shows no one, you'll be smiling.

Your deepest pleasure will come not from the answers you find, but the mystery that remains.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Agony of (Non-)Existence

A few days ago, I stumbled across a beautiful article about the necessity of questioning your own existence. The author suggests that by doing so, we can free ourselves of emotional self-absorption and create space for G-d in our lives.

The article was moving, eloquent, and most importantly- true. But I couldn't totally relate to it. I don't always feel like I really exist. And I imagine that a lot of people feel the same way.

Let me explain. See, life has always felt a little alien. Contrived. An image superimposed on some other, truer reality. Like a shadow puppet performance against the backdrop of a lush, red curtain. What's behind the curtain? What goes on before the play? After? There is so much unseen, so much that no one knows and no one cares to talk about.

By the end of the show, everyone is bawling. Or rolling on the floor, laughing in hysterics. It dawns on me that maybe my emotions themselves are actors in the performance. They certainly don't feel real. After all, I can provide them with a new script and they reorient themselves at the discretion of my intellect.

The visceral feeling of existence should be enough to prove existence. But what if it's not? What if your problem is not that you are blinded by your own existence, but instead blinded by the fact that you know your existence isn't real? What if you live your life glazed over with apathy and uncertainty, incapable of committing yourself to anything? What do you do if you desperately want to feel that your existence is absolute just so you can be certain about something?

You might try to jolt yourself into awakeness through the euphoric experience of studying philosophy or listening to music. Or maybe, believing you'll never truly feel "alive," you surrender to the non-existence waiting for you with open arms where the sidewalk ends. You may find meaning in detachment, turning to a life of contemplation and detective work.

People tell you that by engaging in the world, by affecting it through action, you will become aware of the significance of your life. Transform yourself from the outside in. You'll start to care about your existence, because you realize you have a responsibility to G-d. Only through embracing your temporary, perceived existence can you reveal the scope of G-d's actual existence. So, just do what you're supposed to do and everything will be fine.

Wise words. But for those who can't get a grip on the fact that everything "contrived" is contrived with G-dly intention and therefore truth also lies within physicality and subjectivity, action is much more difficult than it sounds.

I don't have an answer to this dilemma. What I do have is a description of a phenomenon that I've observed in myself and in other people. In my opinion, people tend to possess one of two existential orientations, meaning that they relate in different ways to the notion of existence. This relationship affects behavioral and coping patterns as well as perception of G-d. I'll call the first perceptual orientation "quasi-existence," and its mirror-image counterpart "invested existence." The point of providing these descriptions is not to put people in boxes- these categories are general trends that I've observed and are by no means absolute nor comprehensive. It's more to give a language to a pre-existing experience and allot people a sharper awareness of how it affects them so they can ultimately overcome their "box." Here is a rough overview of my theory:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Portrait of Moshiach, Pre-Revelation

This piece is what resulted when I tried to put myself inside the mind of Moshiach. As absurd as that may sound, that's where my imagination led me, so I just went with it. I admit that I felt like I was doing a "bad" thing by writing a "first-person" account. I felt like it wasn't my place (or anyone's, for that matter) to attempt to represent Moshiach from the inside out, when really we know nothing about him. It's impossible for me to look through his eyes, when he sees only G-d and I see everything but G-d. I'm afraid my portrayal will be a terrible insult to him. Maybe I'm portraying him as too human? Not human enough?

No one can really answer that. We can only wonder and dream and yearn without bounds. In the end I decided it would be good to post this, because the more we think about his arrival, the more real the redemption will become. 


I arrived yesterday.

Never before have I felt so drawn to a place, as though I lived here in another time. The texture of this life feels...familiar. I'm so far from home, and yet the light shines just the same here. If I didn't know any better, I'd think I never descended from my lofty abode at all. But here I am, a pint-sized messenger of the One above, cleverly fitted with sneakers and a toothy grin.

Life is difficult for people here. Everyone groans, "Oyy, nebach. Look at this fleshy existence, this barren desert. How repulsive to G-d we must be, in this dysfunctional cocoon of a body that is supposed to sprout wings. But they are mere stubs- pathetic little knobby things that only weigh us down. When will we see the sky?"

I'm absolved of my own struggles, but I take on theirs. I feel their sadness, their hunger. Others drag their feet in servitude to their apathy. A narrow beam of light trickles through their gritted teeth. Its rays overcome my senses like a headlight in a dust storm, yet they are numb to its heat. As their souls croon sweet melodies, the prayers of their lips remain embittered.

There is a purity within each person, a simplicity stowed away in a dark place inside. An infinite potential. But they are blinded by a simulated existence, confined by finitude. They have no idea who they really are.

That's why I'm here, I suppose. I'm here to irrigate the world with G-dly vision; to help water their wings. To bridge the gap between potential and reality, desire and fulfillment.

But it's not time yet.

I live among them, waiting. Working. In fact, you and I spoke yesterday.

We were in the library, swapping thoughts for a bit. You preached about Moshiach a lot. I couldn't really agree or disagree, I just nodded softly. Then you curled up with one of those mystical books, fiercely attempting to understand its content.

My gaze drifted to the hardwood floor, studying its current, humbled by the life force within it. I am fully conscious of the compressed Divine light all around us, beneath us, inside us. Why, though? Who am I to see G-d in things so far from His essence?

Why not you?

I feel your eyes lift in my direction. You mumble something, but the words fall dead and flat on your lips. You don't believe what you say. "May we one day consciously experience true revealed Godliness at every moment, in tables and chairs and heavens and musty boxes in the attic."

I respond "Amen." Truly.

You read aloud some more, but it is garbled. As I retreat back into my shadowy mind, your voice is reduced to an empty ring in the distance.

If only you knew the weight of your words.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why I Want You to Argue With Me

"What is up with this Chabad business?"

It's the question everyone is dying to ask me: Wasn't I content with "normal" Orthodoxy? Wasn't I fulfilled by what the community had to offer? If I was looking for something else, did I really have to choose Chabad?

And I would love to tell them about my journey. But they keep their mouths shut, tiptoeing around our differences. Afraid of our differences.

They are incredibly polite. Perfect diplomats, they are. But it's all fake. Because they're only willing to receive and acknowledge the part of me that makes them feel comfortable. Our connection never breaches the external layer.

Imagine if we relied on this approach to build a relationship with the Almighty. I'll let you into my life, G-d. Maybe I'll do some mitzvos. But...I don't really like your views, so let's just make small talk, okay?

That is no relationship! That is neither an expression of unity nor commitment.

G-d chose us as His own, with full awareness that we're lightyears different from Him! He knew we'd butt heads with Him once in a while, that we'd forget Him, and that we'd be confused about our relationship with Him. But He wants us- He wants every part of us. Differences are inconsequential. At the end of the day, we are one.

Likewise, we are one people. One singular entity with its source in the Almighty. No matter how different we may seem on the outside, no disagreement can threaten that essential unity. 

The fact that you don't want to challenge me makes me suspect you don't really believe we're one. You don't believe our relationship is unshakeable. Brothers and sisters bicker with each other because they are siblings. Because they know that will never change. We need to start acting like a family!

What I want to see among Jewish communities is that we try to receive each other completely, in all of our conflicting perspectives and feelings. Rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash isn't just about expelling lashon hara from our lives. It's about appreciating one another for who we are- not just who we pretend to be to keep the peace.

So please- let loose. Criticize me and lecture me about my hashkafic leanings all you want. At least you'd be yelling at the real me.

After all, we can't even begin to appreciate each other if we don't really know each other.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Flaw in Perfection

Nobody ever wants to read my writing.

Not because it's boring, or poorly structured, or lacking in decent vocabulary. To my knowledge, my writing is not deficient in any of these areas.

Rather, the problem is one of abundance.

See, any time I get an idea, I develop it to the fullest extent possible. That's just my nature. I'm a perfectionist. If I'm discussing a particular concept that I realize contains a parallel to another concept, I don't view that relationship as merely a "fun fact" or the cherry on top of the sundae. The way concepts relate to each other is reflective of an innate quality in each individal concept. Only after a meticulous exploration of that relationship do I feel I understand the concept itself.

As a result, my writing goes on forever. And then when you think "forever" has ended its term, it keeps going

I feel strongly that my outward expression should match my inward process. Therefore, my essays are equally as thorough as my contemplation of a subject. If I held back for the sake of brevity, I would feel "bad" for all those unacknowledged dimensions of the concept. They trusted me. They allowed me to know them. The least I could do is give them some credit. Set them free. Instead, I exploited their vulnerability for the sake of building up my own understanding. I would now wrap them up and let them decay somewhere inside the folds of my brain. How could I be so heartless?

Well, if that's heartless, then G-d is a downright sociopath.

Think about it: He's the biggest knowledge hoarder on the planet.

His wisdom spans for infinity, but He keeps it locked away. His insides don't match His appearance. He struts around in this ridiculous costume of nature, playing a childish game of hide-and-go seek when we know He's so much more than that!!

So we get frustrated and we yell at Him because He's keeping us in the dark. 

But really, He's doing us a favor.

He's allowing us to internalize G-dliness in a digestible dosage. He's ensuring that we continue to exist, that our souls don't catapult out of our bodies.

In a way, expressing Himself completely would be a million times more selfish than holding Himself back. It would knock us out of the picture in an instant. G-d's entire purpose would be to flaunt Himself, basking in His glory to generate His own feelings of self-actualization. But no one would be there to receive what He has to give.

Limiting Himself is what allows G-d to give to us. To share. To grant us the opportunity to take part in His wisdom (allbeit it only a fraction of its true scope) and use it to elevate our surroundings.

So I guess if I want to make any impact at all, I have to hold myself back. If I'm going to have compassion, it should be directed toward humanity rather than ideas. If all I want to do is experience the satisfaction of expressing myself, fine. I can keep writing each blog entry as though it were a thesis.

If you've read this far, I guess that means I've already made some progress.

An Ode to Chassidus

Yes, I am a nerdy BT who wrote a love poem to Chassidus. A passionate one.
I really wasn't sure if I wanted to post this. I feel like it exposes my insides and my weirdness more than I would like. But on the offchance that somebody can appreciate this and relate to it, here it is:

You zoom in on
that wavers on the edge of my
then you stretch it out like silly putty to examine every nuance, every crevice.
You give a voice
to all my unarticulated impressions about reality,
about myself,
about my soul.
Things I knew on a certain level, but never

You make me feel like
My reality
and G-d's reality
aren't so incompatible.
For the first time,
I feel like He gets me.

And then I feel all warm and fuzzy and
with G-d.
G-d chose to design reality like this?
But that was my idea!"
And I know the cosmic bond between Him and me is more than just a

Then you zoom out.
You remind me that my intellect
is an illusion,
My understanding a soggy dream,
entirely insignificant
in light of the One True

This love poem doesn't exist.

Is this love even real?
Or was it born
From the kelipos?
Do I adore you so
Only because
I crave the sensation of neurons firing,
Concepts solidifying?

Without you,
Falsehood would reign within me.
With you,
It still does.
But at least Truth now keeps it company.
Because you dug it out of its hiding place inside me.

Even if my love isn't real,
At least you gave me something real to love.

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shlichus by Diffusion

I used to love being a Shabbos guest.

Who doesn't love being served a delicious home-made meal on a little island called "Shabbos" where all weekday stressors dissolve? When I first became observant, Shabbos was more about absorbing the benefits of the environment than it was about helping to create the environment. I just showed up, smiled politely, and made sure to express gratitude to my host.

Then, I went to seminary. For the first time, I wasn't a guest. I was a member. Each girl made the atmosphere by contributing with her unique qualities. We weren't taking anything- we were only giving and receiving. In my mind, that's how it should be. So when the semester ended, I returned home with a resolution. I was going to be more active, more influential. More vocal. Because I knew I had things to share- seminary helped me realize that. The validation, encouragement, and endless compliments I received from my peers regarding my writing and speaking abilities made it clear that I needed to stop being passive. I needed to use my talents to contribute to and elevate my surroundings.

But what I found in the community at home was a bit...disheartening. People weren't all that receptive to what I had to contribute. They just wanted to be my Shluchim, and I was just expected to blend in. To be a guest. They were the givers, I was the taker. And as much as I tried to break out of that mold, I felt like everyone kept forcing me back into it.

My neutral exterior would never have given away what I was feeling on the inside: Internally, I was stamping my feet on the hardwood floor and wildly waving my arms over my head, screaming, "Look! Look what I have to offer you!" I imagined that my hostess would glide across the room and plop a piece of potato kugel on my plate, her face an expressionless mask. "But look at what I have for you," she cooed. In my mind, an unspoken war was rippling between me and my shabbos hosts.

One week, I was granted refuge from my usual Shabbos routine. I caught a train out of Chicago to meet my family. We were vacationing in Door County, a sparsely populated haven of forests nestled on the shore of Wisconsin's peninsula. Around mincha time on Shabbos day, my family took a dinner reservation, whereupon I was left alone in the cabin. Naturally, I made a beeline for the rooftop porch. I spread out a blanket, read my Tehillim and hummed niggunim to a delighted audience of oak trees. I kind of felt like I was in a Baal Shem Tov story: Inhaling the fresh forest air, humbled by the dense silence of the woods. 

I've always possessed a childlike love for nature. Combine that with a cup of solitude, and you've got my ideal Shabbos afternoon. There is something magical about the forest. You can almost feel G-d's breath churning within the trees, His smile warming them into existence. He stretches His arm into their frail branches as if they were gloves. With a surge of G-dly energy and assurance, they grasp for the sky.

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Nature is so uncontrived, so unassuming. It speaks only through being. It doesn't impose itself- it has no self. It's just a conveyor for G-dliness. It just is. We're always taught to contemplate nature, in all of its minute details, to arrive at an appreciation of G-d's oneness. But I feel like I don't even have to contemplate. I just feel G-d by diffusion. Just being in the presence of an existence that doesn't think it has an existence is more powerful than any mental contemplation I could do.

That's when I realized that the trees unknowingly personified the answer to my frustration.

Nature has tremendous power over the human psyche. It changes people- You retreat into the forest and come out with a whole new perspective. And yet- nature does nothing. Trees don't thresh their branches around and make a bunch of noise to get someone's attention. And that's precisely what makes them so effective and so magnetic. Nature just embodies the will of its creator. That's the most contagious quality imaginable. 

This is the level of essence. Of humility. It's what we all need to strive for. We're all just guests at G-d's table, endowed with a beautiful mission that we didn't do anything to deserve. Don't focus on the fact that YOU have something to share. First of all, we're not that great. Second, fixation on the self and its actualization distracts from the actualization of G-d's will. Instead, focus on WHAT you have to share and WHY it's important. 

Finally, to be a shliach or shlucha not only means to educate others explicitly, but to influence by diffusion: If your perspective is a G-dly one, it will transmit a clear message to those around you- even as you sit and enjoy your potato kugel.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why Judaism is Pure Torture

People often think of religion as constrictive. As if some higher authority is towering over me, cuffing my hands behind my back and threatening that if I break free, I'll be hurled into the unforgiving grips of the underworld.

That's pretty scary, if you ask me. Not to mention inaccurate. But what's even scarier is the possibility that the opposite could be true:

Maybe, we're oppressing G-d.

Now, I know you're going to say that G-d is all-powerful and we can't affect Him, but forget about that for a minute.

Sometimes I wonder if G-d feels like He's in a strait jacket. After all, He's been dreaming and scheming for eternity but can't fulfill His plans for Moshiach. WE keep constricting Him, suffocating Him with our own agendas. All this craziness in the world is a manifestation of G-d's inner turmoil, His disturbed equilibrium. He's writhing like a snake suffering from a fit of seizures, desperately trying to express Himself! All He wants is to show Himself through His creations rather than hide behind them. 

Is G-d not the ultimate tortured artist?

And if so...where is our compassion?

Existence Under Construction

For me, writing isn't about putting my pen to paper and letting ideas flow out. My creative process is not nearly that glamorous. Rather, I'm usually hunched over my lap top at 1 am, my face contorted like a cauliflour as I study an invisible blob of ideas hovering over the keypad. I painstakingly organize them into a logical progression, extracting the necessary from the extraneous, the profound from the cliché, only to go back and rearrange my argument all over again. Insert a few phrases here, delete, delete. Rework an entire paragraph. Delete, delete, delete. Select all, delete.

Any segment of my writing that I deem to be of lesser value is acknowledged for barely a millisecond before it is discarded, only to be swallowed by the interweb where it is never to be fathomed again.

And then I have a final product, polished and shiny and intentional down to each syllabic rhythm. I forget the screw-ups even existed. All the errors fall away from my self-definition as swiftly as those unchosen words dissolve into cyberspace. I start to fool myself into thinking I'm a writer, when really I'm just a very determined mad scientist who persists through twelve hundred rounds of conceptual trial and error. This is the beauty (or downfall?) of technology: This instantaneous power of revision protects me from fixating on the parts of my work- and of myself- that just didn't make the cut.

It appears that technology, when employed as an artistic tool, can and does affect our self-esteem and self-definition. But is this a vice or a virtue?

Last week's parsha might provide some insight on this matter. Matos-Masei documented the Jews' travels out of Mitzrayim. And when I say "documented," I mean really documented. Every single resting place was included in the account, most of which appeared to serve as merely a means to an end. But the Torah acknowledges all 42 encampments. Torah gives them a voice, bringing to light their intrinsic value that could have easily gone overlooked. Each place serves a critical purpose by contributing to a larger process, the significance of which must not be ignored. 

Every detail of the journey is our Divine destiny just as much as is the ultimate destination.

This is precisely why I chose to first write this essay the old fashioned way: With pen and paper. All those mistakes will linger a bit longer in my mind as I clamp my teeth down on my pen and consider whether scribbling things out is worth the effort and the mess. That permanent smudge on the paper gives life to the journey, including the road not taken- but whose encounter paves the way for my eventual finished product. Every "mistake" speaks as eloquently as its revision. 

We're all just under construction, and for whatever reason G-d really likes it that way. If he didn't, he wouldn't keep sustaining us. The "I" of every moment is nurtured only by Divine intention. Therefore, true self-esteem cannot be contingent solely on the quality of your final draft or the filtered, perfect self you present to the outside. It requires embracing your PROCESS and your HUMANITY.

So make yourself vulnerable. 
Let people see your flaws. 
Give them something to rebuke you about. 

Because we're not computers. We're much more than just our output. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Navigating the World Intuitively

At the close of my seminary semester, my classmates embarked on a mass pilgrimage to Crown Heights.

Equipped with their overpacked suitcases and Chassidus shiurim on their ipods, they gathered their innermost strength and resolved to begin anew in a frum community. They planted themselves in schools, high school dormitories, Chabad houses, Jewish educational organizations- anywhere they could hold an influential position devoted to cultivating the spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish people.

As for me? I traveled back to the Midwest, stayed in my parents' house for the summer, and then entered graduate school in a neighboring city.

I have to admit, I was a little jealous of my peers. It seemed they were in a nurturing environment that facilitated their Jewish development. I was halfway across the planet, totally unsure as to whether I belonged here and whether my academic pursuits contributed to my Divine service. But I had made a commitment to earn a viable degree. Furthermore, I believe G-d endowed me with certain unique qualities that must be employed. I've known for pretty much forever that I'm cut out to be a mental health professional. I would hate to squander that potential.

So, I made due with the situation. I traveled an hour by bus several times each week to attend maamer and sicha classes. I regularly "skype-farbrenged" with my friends from seminary. My new mantra became "A Chassid creates an environment."

But as much as I tried to remind myself that Shlichos can take place anywhere and building a Dirah Betachtonim is not limited to time or place, I was still a bit ambivalent regarding my participation in the graduate program. Not because I felt my studies opposed Yiddishkeit, but because I simply didn't know how to evaluate the philosophies being taught. Were the counseling approaches advancing or inhibiting the fulfillment of G-d's ultimate plan? Did Freud's theories parallel Chassidus, or oppose it? Each time I tried to understand the in's and out's of the various methodologies, the more frustrated I became. They certainly didn't oppose Torah, but they didn't seem to fit into it either.

I find that when I'm learning anything, I feel intellectually satisfied only when I can visualize how seemingly unrelated concepts parallel or contradict each other. But in this case, I couldn't seem to do that. In my mind, there was simply a lack of relationship. Or maybe, there was one so convoluted I couldn't formulate a clear mental image. I really didn't know. I was entirely distraught over the fact that I would be spending my professional life working toward something that I wasn't even sure reflected truth.

Then, like a flicker of sunlight in a painfully dreary afternoon, I had an experience that completely reoriented my thought process. It was one of those unforgettable "Aha!" moments when hashgacha pratis pounces on you like a hyperactive canine. You jolt into awakeness, greeted by it's sloppy grin. You can't help but feel that the universe is chuckling to itself, privately amused that you didn't see G-d's hand sooner.

Here's what happened: I came across a "My Encounter" segment from the weekly Living Torah episode. In this testimonial, a woman told a story of how she had written a letter to the Rebbe regarding a shidduch. As a sidenote, she mentioned that she was pursuing a Master's degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. She attested that this was just her "secular" job. Her "real" job- which she felt was her true calling- was being a Shlucha, assisting the Chabad House near her campus by hosting young women for shabbos. When the woman received the Rebbe's response to her letter, she noticed he made a correction to the phrase "secular job": The Rebbe had crossed out "secular" and wrote, "Healing the souls of children is Shlichus, too."

Upon hearing this, a surge of warmth radiated from my diaphragm up to my cheekbones, eliciting a contented smile. I now realized where I had erred in my thinking.

My mistake was thinking, period. I had been trying so desperately to determine whether these theories of counseling fit into my pre-existing ideological framework that I neglected to see the situation for what it truly was. I was so obsessed with how these methodologies work that I lost sight of why they are being implemented in the first place. The truth is that every counseling approach is intended to promote healing. In my work, I give people the tools to live in a meaningful way, create healthy relationships, and stretch beyond their comfort zone for the sake of their own and others' wellbeing. I don't explicitly talk about G-d unless they initiate that type of conversation- but certainly, healing their animal soul will relieve them of preoccupation with their own struggles and increase their receptivity to G-dliness in the long run.

The Rebbe didn't offer an argument for why or how counseling can be considered holy work. Look at what it does- it heals people. That's good. Period. It doesn't always take a genius to distinguish between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Sometimes, you have to take a step back and base your judgment on your gut feeling. Stop analyzing for a second. Stop intellectualizing. There are times when you can scan a situation intuitively and just KNOW. Intellect is a powerful and beautiful tool- but sometimes we need to release ourselves from its grip. G-d gave us truth detectors. Let's use them. 

Finally, I came to accept that uncertainty is healthy. I know my friends in Crown Heights experience this feeling to the same extent as I do- no one is immune. But it's my energizer bunny. It drives my questions, it propels me across town to that late-night Chassidus class, and most importantly: It adds depth and complexity to my relationship with G-d.

There's a lot I still don't understand, but I like to think I'm moving in the right direction. To my friends' disappointment, I won't be moving to Crown Heights just yet. But for now, I'm okay with that. I have a lot of important work to do right where I am.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Feminine Experience

Growing up, I had an unabashedly negative association with femininity. I stubbornly refused to wear dresses if not for special occasions, I shyed away from "girly" hugs with my playmates, and I arm-wrestled (and beat) all the 7th-grade boys at every single bar and bat mitzvah party. My mother had to convince me to wear make-up when I was 15- you get the picture. It wasn't that "female" conventions didn't appeal to me, it was more that I was embarassed by what I thought they represented. In my mind, femininity was associated with weakness, immaturity, superficiality, lack of intelligence, and being overly driven by emotion. From a young age, I wanted no part in any of that.

As I matured, I naturally wanted to explore my femininity more, but I didn't have an identifiable channel through which to do that. It was only when I started to integrate Judaism into my life that I was confronted with my "unique" status as a woman, being that my roles and responsibilities as a Jew stood in stark juxtaposition to the men's. I began to seriously contemplate what it means to be a woman.

For the most part, I found clarity and comfort in the Jewish community. I felt that I had developed a deeper sense of who I was through my relationship with G-d, I loved the joyful atmosphere at the shabbos tables I visited, and I found truth in living for something beyond myself.

But there was something itching just under the surface of my complacent exterior that I myself wasn't even aware of until the initial allure of observant life wore off. I couldn't quite pinpoint where my discomfort had originated until a conversation with one of my close friends allowed these concerns to surface. She was dissatisfied with her standing as woman in the observant community.

"I just don't feel connected to anything higher than the mundane world I interact with," my friend confessed. "Of course I believe in G-d, but men have so many more opportunities to feel spiritual in their day to day lives."

In a way, my friend was right. Men do have more clear-cut opportunities, simply by nature of the fact that halacha obligates them in the performance of time-bound mitzvos. They are required to wrap tefillin, daven with a minyan, and learn Torah on a consistent schedule. Furthermore, the infrastructure of the Jewish community is designed to support these activities.

Women often respond to this seemingly unbalanced dynamic by emphasizing the higher spiritual quality of the feminine soul. We are taught that our souls more closely resemble G-dly attributes and naturally gravitate toward spirituality. We are supposedly less inclined to seek corruption through the material world, but rather possess a natural sensitivity to physicality's potential for elevation. Therefore, we don't need mitzvos to keep us in line.

Although I had always appreciated the beauty of this explanation, I wasn't completely satisfied with it. I certainly didn't feel like I was more spiritual than my male counterparts. I felt that only by furthering my learning and experiences could I arrive at an understanding of my femininity with which I felt comfortable. As a result, my thirst for learning Torah and my interest in immersing myself in Jewish environments only intensified.

As a part of this process, I decided to spend a year in seminary at Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. What I witnessed at Mayanot was completely unexpected- and truly transformative.

The first phenomenon I noticed was that many girls arrived to the program wearing pants or shorts. Then, realizing they were in a "religious" environment, they hastily scoured their luggage for clothing they felt was more suited for a seminary. The next morning following Chassidus class, Rabbi Levinger made a point of individually approaching each girl who had undergone this overnight transformation. One by one, he shot them down for their choice to conform.

"Avodas Hashem (divine service) should come from within," he urged. "Not because anyone else is doing it. Not because of the environment. Not even because halacha says so. Only when halacha starts to mean something to you should you hold yourself to those standards."

It didn't take me long to realize that the emphasis on "internalizing" Torah teachings infiltrated every aspect of the program. We learned Talmud to internalize G-dly wisdom. We sang niggunim to increase our receptivity to G-dly concepts in order that they become internalized. The greatest surprise to me was that we were rarely taught about the Lubavitcher Rebbe in an explicit manner. If we wanted to explore a uniquely "Chabad" approach to Judaism, it would come from our own personal, internal desire to do so.

More and more, I began to understand the reasoning behind this philosophy and how it related to my identity as a Jewish woman. My friend was right when she noted that halacha demands less of us in our day to day life. But it is precisely because of this that we are alloted an even greater opportunity: to demand more of ourselves. The community infrastructure may appear to favor men- but discreetly built into this system is the possibility for us to create our own internal infrastructure- one that is infused with the deeply held values that we have consciously chosen as our own. If I choose to learn Chassidus at a set time each day, it is because I have searched within myself and decided it is truly important to me. It wouldn't be merely because the community expects it from me.

There is a pasuk in Tehillim that states, "All the glory of the King's daughter is within." I never understood what this meant until recently. In addition to the literal implication that women draw spiritual strength from their inner conviction, the term "daughter" often refers to the entire Jewish people. As women, we are the "glory" of our people, demonstrating to the congregation what it means to ignite spirituality from the inside. 

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Furthermore, this strength of conviction can also grant us the wisdom to know when we should, in fact, challenge the community norms. This week's parsha beautifully exemplified the Jewish woman at her best. Machla, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah advocated for a portion of the inheritance of Eretz Yisroel. They believed in this calling with such passion, to the extent that they challenged the law conveyed by Moshe at Sinai! There was no requirement for them to do so- but they felt- they knew- it was right. Their opposition came not from a place of disrespect for Torah, but because they realized that alloting women a portion of the land was indeed a true expression of Torah that had not yet been revealed to the world.

You might be wondering why all the spiritual exertion I'm talking about is necessary if we are, in fact, already "holy" enough. How does the "lofty" level of our soul fit into all of this?

Well, let's be realistic here. Maybe we are on a higher spiritual level- but right now, we live in bodies. We're still constrained by our bodily limitations, our human failings, our desires that lead us astray. Our neshama's perspective has not yet permeated the fleshy sinews of our human brains. Actualizing our potential to live on our "soul level" requires conscious, consistent exertion. Which is why as women, I believe we should learn Torah (not just attend shiurim, but actually learn), take the initiative to organize our own farbrengens, and embrace any opportunity we can to enhance our spiritual consciousness. If we make the effort, maybe we can get in touch with that "higher" part of ourselves.

Being a woman isn't easy. You have to search within yourself- a lot. But based on what I've experienced, there's a lot more to womanhood than the silly personifications of society. The more I  explore my femininity, the more I realize that stereotypes such as superficiality and intellectual repression are the polar opposite of what G-d wants from me. I've also realized that what G-d does want from me may not be so clear just by consulting halacha. There is a realm of observance that lies within the boundaries of halacha, but expresses itself implicitly- rather than explicitly- to those who search for it.

We may not be granted as many obvious opportunities to engage in "religious" practices- but what that means is we get to create opportunities. We get to be innovators, initiators, and advocates of internal spirituality. 

I couldn't be any happier with my portion. :)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Shedding the BT Label

Last fall, I moved out of my parents’ house. I told my mother she could have some of my kosher kitchenware- the items designated “dairy," to be specific- because I no longer planned to use them. Being that my family eats milk and meat together, I knew that the dishes would not remain kosher once my mom cooked with them. Instead, I would rely on my “meat" dishes anytime I came home to visit.

When I came home for Thanksgiving, I found that my mother had cooked not only with the dairy dishes, but the meat ones as well. As a result, I no longer had a means of preparing a meal for myself.

I was frustrated. Even though I knew it had been a simple misunderstanding, somewhere in my mind I was thinking, “Life would be SO much easier if my family would just keep kosher. Furthermore, their lack of consciousness in dealing with physicality is utterly intolerable."

Okay, I’m not actually that high and mighty. I’m just trying to make a point.

My point is that we’ve all had those moments. Those who identify as Baal Teshuvas can almost certainly relate to this experience. Even for those who don’t, you’ve probably butted heads with your parents at some point concerning some difference in ideology.

It used to be that many of us were unconditionally accepting of the diverse worldviews held by our friends and family. After all, today’s world is all about banishing “intolerance." The value of assimilating the “other" into mainstream society has acquired a godlike appeal.

But suddenly, you become a BT and everything changes. You become a proponent of intolerance. Now, truth is truth, pluralism is ridiculous, and right and wrong are clearly defined. Most importantly, people who don’t believe in the truth better start believing in it!

Let me pose a question: Why do we CARE so much that other people see things like we do? Why does it matter?

You might say, “Only when everyone sees the truth will Moshiach come." If that’s your real answer, wonderful. But I don’t think that’s an honest self-appraisal. Alternatively, you could answer, “It would be so much more convenient if my parents would just keep kosher." Ok, getting closer. But really, you and I care because we want validation- emotional, intellectual, whatever. It’s hard to be the odd one out in the place we’re supposed to call “home," the place we want to consider our comfort zone. So we need reinforcement.

But why? Why can’t we just know what we know, relishing in our private access to truth without enforcing our standards on others?

I guess it’s because we don’t know what we know. I might, to some degree, understand G-d on an intellectual level. I know the entire world is actually an expression of G-d. But I don’t really know Him yet. I don’t look at my kitchen table and see G-dliness radiating from my broccoli. And for some weird reason, I think that confirmation of G-d- from someone who is just as blind as me- is going to sharpen my vision. And dissent will weaken it.

Not only do I seek external validation due to feeling out of place in my home, but because I feel out of place in my observance. Who am I to be doing mitzvos, serving the Almighty? I’m not worthy of that. Every time I visit my parents, I’m reminded that I’m just the same as them. That I’m human, just like they are. And that scares me.


Know why that’s crazy? Because I call myself “religious" and they don’t, but at the end of the day, we’re both blind.

Really, we’re all in the same boat. We ALL struggle to see G-d in a world seemingly devoid of Him. Listen up, self-proclaimed BT’s! There is no “us" and “them." The dichotomy of “frum Jew" vs. “unenlightened secular world" is an illusion.

But our blindness is not the only quality that unites us. More importantly, we are bound together as one people because of our potential for vision. Our souls contain a spark of the Almighty, and with that comes G-dly knowledge. Our inward journeys will eventually lead us to the same place, a place of utter clarity that exists independent of circumstance. We're united in our flawed humanity just as we are in our G-dly perfection. We're all swept up in a single current, flowing toward a reality in which oneness will reign.

So if we’re going to be intolerant of something, let’s turn that frustrated emotion into something constructive. Perhaps, we can focus our energies on the underlying issue rather than its symptoms: We can refuse to tolerate the distance between G-d and us.

Let’s protest the fact that since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, G-d’s presence is no longer revealed to us. That children and parents can’t respect each other. That Jewish communities live in isolation from one another, overcome by “politics" and divisive labels.

The Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because people weren’t being tolerant or kind toward one another. The Jewish people committed “bloodshed": they spoke negatively about each other to such an extent that the sages equated it with murder. They couldn’t love one another, hopelessly divided by their differences. Or rather, their perceived differences.

Three weeks from now is Tisha b’Av. We should, of course, attempt to generate loving and respectful feelings toward one another. We should mend our relationships while still holding fast to the Torah perspective.

But that’s only half the battle. My proposal is that we not only transform our intolerance toward each other into love and kindness, but even find a proper channel for our intolerance. I tend to think every human quality can be directed toward good, so why should this be an exception? G-d implanted this emotion in us for a reason. We can and should be intolerant- in the right way.

As such, let’s challenge G-d’s choice to distance Himself from us. To create humans who view reality so, so differently than one another and than He does. That HIS perspective- as conveyed through Torah- is sometimes so incomprehensible to us. Let’s refuse to be satisfied until this irreconcilable distance is bridged. We’re all trying to coax G-d’s presence into this broken world, one act of kindness at a time. If we choose, we can all be on the same side.

Finally, let’s stop lamenting over the fact that we don’t feel comfortable in our parents’ kitchens. While we’re bickering over our petty dishes, there’s a larger issue at hand: G-d can’t yet feel at home in the world He created. And we can’t feel at home with G-d.

I refuse to tolerate that.

So, Mom and Dad- Are you with me on this one?

Finding my Truth

I'd like to share an essay that I wrote right after Gimmel Tammuz. Although it was posted on my other blog, I feel it belongs here too because it symbolizes a personal turning point. The direction that my writing takes from this point forward will reflect many of the realizations that I documented in that post. So here it is:

I was recently confronted with a question of belief.

My sister and I were lazing around one afternoon in July. It was one of those sourly unremarkable days that requires some sort of whimsical endeavor just to keep us from melting into monochromatic blobs. So we hoisted ourselves up onto the nearly ancient swing set that stood in our backyard, its structure still poised as ever and not even that splintery. Just as we had done as children, we positioned ourselves side by side with our legs dangling from the ledge of the lower platform. We sat tracing figure eights in those pesky patches of dirt beneath our sneakers, interspersedly philosophizing about everything and nothing like we always do.

Sharlotte furrowed her brow. “What do you think is the purpose of life?" She kneaded a clump of earth with her shoe, haphazardly dislodging it from its habitat. “And how do you fulfill it by, like, doing mitzvos and stuff?"

I beamed. “That’s a very important question," I remarked dispassionately, in an effort to conceal the admiration I felt toward this precocious and thoughtful 16-year-old.

My knee-jerk reaction was, of course, to teach her all about building the Dirah Betachtonim- constructing a dwelling place for G-d in this world- and to do so through Torah and mitzvos, in a way of pure love and self-sacrifice. By actualizing G-d’s will, we reveal Him here on earth.

So that’s what I did. I thoroughly presented the idea, in all of its beauty and drama and mystery, employing a number of parables to reinforce its message. I chose my words carefully, intending to articulate this foundational Chassidic concept as vividly as possible.

After I concluded, Sharlotte got all squinty-eyed like she does when she’s thinking really hard about something, staring into space at nothing in particular. “Do you actually believe that?"

It didn’t take me long to realize what Sharlotte was asking me. She wasn’t asking what the Torah teaches. Nor was she criticizing the Torah standpoint in her unimpressed response. She was simply asking what I believe- what I personally believe. She wasn’t satifisfied with my answer, because really all it demonstrated was that I’m awfully good at parroting what I learn.

In psychology, this is called confluence: Absorbing the values of an ideology until what you should believe and what you actually believe coalesce into very well blended slushie. Your present self is shrouded by a romanticized self, silencing your honest appraisal of situations as an individual.

I’ve always been aware of this dichotomy within myself: craving objectivity, yet somehow trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m human- and rejecting my humanity in the process. I never valued my subjective beliefs- after all, what’s the point of believing something that’s not true? My choice to begin expressing Judaism more in my life was not a search for meaning. I had always regarded it, first and foremost, as a pronouncement of truth, and only from that truth could meaning eventually flourish.

Really, though, if you take a look at Jewish belief, the subjective human component is an integral part of the system of reality. It is we, in all of our flaws and limitations, who hold the key to Moshiach. The fact that we can immerse ourselves in Chassidic texts for years at a time- and still not truly believe that a Dirah Betachtonim is possible- is what sets the stage for kabbalos ol (receiving the yoke of heaven) and an avodah of uphill striving. If we perceived the truth of G-d, we would be angels. Things would be easy; there would be no movement. But not perceiving it and doing mitzvos anyway is truly impressive. It’s complete selflessness, to which even angels are not privy. In a way, there is heightened potential in blindness that is squandered when vision is introduced.

But blindness is far from the ultimate. Just because, in our ignorance, we are protected from selfishness doesn’t mean we have become selfless. A genuinely selfless person perceives G-d, loves G-d, and really, truly lives the words of Chassidus while still managing to serve G-d without self-serving motivations. The human self experiences, and yet its G-dly actions are not motivated by that experience. Most importantly, the self is not repressed as it is in the case of confluence. Instead, the subjective self fully knows and believes the truth of the objective reality.

The result is an individual whose animal self and G-dly self live in perfect harmony. I used to think this meant that the inner experiences of tzaddikim transcend emotion. Actually, the opposite is true: The emotions they feel are real emotions, more real than we could ever know- because they are reflective of spiritual storms rather than physical ones.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose yartzeit falls today, fully embodies this ideal: Through his example, I was shown that Chassidus is not something to which a person merely “subscribes." Chassidus is not a collection of concepts intended to cling to the peripheries of the intellect and never flow into the heart. Instead, it should permeate the most human parts of us, all those neglected nooks and crannies that rarely see the light of day. The Rebbe’s entire consciousness is one with his Chassidus, with his people, and with G-d. This oneness permeates thought, emotion, speech, and action down to every human detail, expressing itself in the furthest reaching kindness and positive influence imaginable.

When I think about the Rebbe’s sincerity, the last thing I want is to delude myself into thinking I believe in the teachings of Chassidus, when really I just wish I did, because Chassidus relieves my intellectual tension as I wrestle with the contradictions of human existence. To be a Chassid means being completely honest with yourself. As such, sometimes being slapped in the face by your own humanity can be a good thing. Because if you’re not honest with yourself, you can’t be honest with G-d.

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And that’s the truth. That’s my truth. I felt that in those moments, I had approached the honesty of the child I had once been, the child whose summers were spent on this very playset, the only reality being the wind in my hair and the anxious knot in my belly as the swing gained momentum. Back then, I just felt things. I liked things, or disliked them. I didn’t think about what I should or shouldn’t believe.

I breathed in deeply, followed by an exhale that sounded more like a sigh. I turned toward Sharlotte, who was patiently studying a blade of grass as she waited for me to formulate my answer. What a special kid.

"I don’t know what I believe," I began tentatively. After a second, I looked her straight in the eye. “I just know what I want to believe. And I look to the Rebbe to help me achieve that."

My sister nodded in understanding. I think she really got it.