Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy your life.

My dad didn't like going to rallies. Having escaped one attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, his worst nightmare was a repeat attempt, and he was not going to provoke trouble with photos of the family demonstrating - no matter how legally and peacefully.

As far as communication style went - quiet, quiet, quiet.

I am half-Satmar (an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect), though not raised in Williamsburg, and one of our basic tenets was that "other people can make noise, but not us." Especially not women (see forthcoming memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox). We learned to keep our mouths shut and not step outside and not go public with any sort of comment or criticism. The attitude was and is, "We take care of our own; if you don't like it, leave."

That solution was pretty well determined from the start. Like other people my childhood was a confusing hybrid of ultra-Orthodoxy, modern Orthodoxy, and plain old pop culture American teen-dom. So I didn't leave, but I left Orthodoxy.

In response they call people like me "off the derech," meaning that I have lost my way. But the funny thing is, I only found my way when I left. And started to think for myself. To occupy my own life.

Communication has been core to my journey. The ability to talk freely, to share ideas, to debate and discuss and arrive at a place more reasoned than where you started - is part of the beauty of life. To live in a system where your thoughts are predetermined by others is to suffer from a crime against your very humanity.

The concept of free choice, or free will, is a value basic to Judaism. If we have no choice (and by extension no information with which to make a good choice) then what do our choices mean? Yet strangely it is a norm for the religious to try to force others to be just like them.

Traditionally Torah and science - faith and the world - have gone hand-in-hand. Yet over the past few decades there has been a trend toward extremism among the religious, fewer and fewer people can squeeze under the limbo bar of observance. Which is why the vast majority of Jews, both in Israel (73%) and the U.S. (90%), are not considered "Orthodox" or observant. And even within Orthodoxy, there are enough people who don't believe anymore ("heretics") that rabbinic leadership is taking time out to alternately pity and condemn them.

If the vast majority of people in any social system can't engage with or benefit from the system, if they don't understand it and don't believe in it, then there is something wrong with the system and not the people. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing even showed, in his book "Knots," that sick social systems produce sick people.

The Orthodox author of "The Impostors Among Us" - which rather unsympathetically chronicles the secret unbelievers who pass as Orthodox - writes of the "dark descent" of  nonbelievers who still act like they're religious. Of course this is interpreted as a consequence of the personal failings of the individual: a combination of "emotional issues," "the Internet," and not wanting to disrupt a convenient and stable life. It couldn't possibly be about the unbelievable stringency of the life; its inscrutability to even the most dedicated want-to-believer; and the witnessing of immoral acts, sometimes committed in the name of religion (!). Like slamming young boys' heads around in the name of teaching obedience.

A lot of Jewish people find solace in Buddhism, though statistics on this vary. I like the Dalai Lama's books. But in the end they're not a substitute for an ongoing conversation about the existence of God and what is wanted of us as human beings (see "Letters to a Buddhist Jew" and insightful review).

I've never heard the term "Occupy Judaism" used but I don't mind being the one to invent it: We all have the right to explore our own religion, or lack of it. (Check out father-son movie "The Way" with Martin Sheen & Emilio Estevez.) The Huffington Post recently ran a great article called "It's the Spirituality, Stupid!" chronicling the disconnect people feel between church and spirituality and the attempt to bring back that inner spark.

Fortunately there is a growing recognition in the observant Jewish community of the damage that extremism has done and the parallel need to re-occupy our faith - to take it back from the extremists. I like the outreach efforts of and their funky videos. There are important social messages in the music of The Groggers (feminism), Da Scribe (unity), Matisyahu (spirituality is universal), and the Maccabeats (in this Matisyahu song, nonviolence but generally you can be Orthodox and part of the larger community too).

It's been my personal experience that people are people, for better or for worse. My upbringing left me with a deep-rooted sense that religion is important. That we have no right to walk away, but rather have to engage in an ongoing, inner and outer dialogue about what we think is right. It is a critical part of that journey to occupy your own life - to occupy your own faith. This is a beautiful gift that God has given me, and I value it.