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.