Orthodox Memories

There's a Jewish concept of hakarat hatov -- recognizing the good. Being grateful. Being able to tease out the good from the ugly. Admittedly, I struggle with this. I was born with more negative ions, I think. It may be part of my gene pool or maybe part of my birthright of always being ready for the worst. It's a struggle. I was born and raised as an Orthodox Jew.

Orthodox Judaism is stringent and literal in its interpretation of the Bible which we call "The Written Law". Saturday is a day of rest. The Lord rested from creating the universe and so we avoid any work that day. Not just working in our offices but anything that the sages defined as work. No electricity since turning on an electrical circuit is work. No driving, no coloring, no internet, no phone, no cooking. There's an entire industry of "Sabbath mode" electronics to get around this and still be able to have food and light for those 24 hours.

The "Oral Law" is the further defining and modifying the biblical laws. Rabbis wrote volumes of books that were codified into this legal body of Jewish law. Every edge was sharpened into a defined boundary of allowed or prohibited. There are laws that tell us exactly how much matzo to eat at the Passover Seder. There are pages of arguments between rabbis of what constitutes a Jewish legal marriage and divorce. The biblical commandment of not cooking a baby goat in its mother's milk led to the oral law prohibition of mixing meat and dairy. The biblical commandment of abstaining from sex while a woman is menstruating led to the oral law tacking on 7 extra "clean days" followed by the rule of immersing in a ritual bath to end the sexual moratorium. You get the gist. There are very few things you can do without having a commandment or a prohibition attached to it. It is a complex and intricate way of life.

For some, it's a lifeline. It infuses meaning into a chaotic world. It gives them routine. It gives them immense pleasure and the ability to connect with the holy. It's a way of life that has no possible alternative. It's all they know and love. For some, it's just "the way it is" and begs no further discussion.

For others, it is fatiguing and restrictive and at times unkind.

I was in love with Orthodoxy for a long time. It was a warm down comforter and a pair of the perfect yoga pants. Comfortable, sacred belonging. There are still parts that remain beautiful to me. The sense of community forced by legal restrictions of Sabbath force us to live walking distance to our synagogues so we create a dense and insular community of families. Since we can't drive or watch TV, we walk to synagogue and have marathon lunches with friends and family until sundown. When you can't go to soccer practice or the grocery it allows you to socialize in different way. Kids are everywhere. Imagine a preschool on steroids with an obscene amount of food for the parents.

And our holidays are intense. Basically the months of September and October are a constant stream of prayer services and food. And some pretty wacked out rituals. We build huts to eat in for 8 days based on the biblical commandment and to remember the transience of the physical. We carry a palm frond and shake it in all directions because that's the law. Other holidays are dedicating to remember our history of oppression and sometimes victory. The old Jewish joke of our holidays being summed up as "They tried to kill us, they didn't, let's eat" is quite accurate.

For me, this way of life has become hard. Rigid and often times meaningless. All of the commandments and rules (613 to be exact) feel more like a vise than a blanket to me. The liturgy that I once found comforting because of its familiarity no longer is. It just doesn't resonate with me to include paragraphs of animal sacrifices. And the parts of us being the most connected with God ring hollow to me. Reading parts of the actual Bible every week sometimes feels like a Monty Python sketch. There are some seriously absurd passages in the holy book. And then there are parts that are morally problematic and so unkind.

I get physically uncomfortable when I'm in synagogue too long or when discussing a certain law or commandment. Like heat rash uncomfortable. Like looking for a fire alarm to pull so we can evacuate uncomfortable. It's an existential discomfort. And I have it.

So what now? I'm deeply embedded and connected to this community but I find many of its tenets to be problematic and offensive. My catholic friends share their similar experiences with me but the difference is that Catholics don't live in insular communities where their Catholicism permeates everything they do. They don't have Shabbat. Every. Single. Week.

So I am going to try to recognize the good and be grateful to what orthodoxy has given me. My instinct is to rebel and throw it away. But I cannot. It's too painful to lose it entirely. It's given me community, the concept of kindness and charity, the idea of taking 24 hours and being with people and not screens, the commandment to pray to something larger than us. I'll keep that.

Since my children are embedded in this as well, I will go to synagogue with them. Even though I find it dusty and antiquated, I will open the prayer book. Maybe I'll find one or two meaningful sentences. Maybe not. I'll channel Tammy Taylor and tell them I want them to have faith in something so they can have arms to hold them for comfort when I'm gone. For now, that something is Jewish community and ritual. They can fine tune or change it as they grow.

As for the rest, the parts that give me hives- I bid that adieu. And with that goodbye, there is liberation and joy. And that is enough. And for that, I am eternally grateful.