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.

Out There

I guess I'm just ready to put my thoughts out there. My former blog had become a means of self-expression, but there was only one voice oriented in a single direction. I'm hoping this new platform will invite more interaction, being that it's set up to look more like a public space than a diary. It's also visually organized in a way that is more conducive to longer posts.

My goal is to challenge myself by writing in a more personal way, and yet hopefully appeal to a greater audience than my last blog. Inward journeys are comfortable, but only by reaching beyond a comfortable level of expression might I facilitate others' journeys too.

You can view my past entries here.

Looking forward to the journey...