Monday, January 27, 2014

Letter To A Young Woman Who Wants To Be Orthodox

Photo by Quinn Anya via Flickr. 
Title: "Day 68: What Do You Wear to an Orthodox Jewish Funeral?
Description: The first thing I had to google this morning. It was a very sad day. Rest in peace, Tzali"

The other day I wrote a raving endorsement of Leah Vincent's knock-down, drag-out phenomenal book, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. 

This is a marketing blog, it's true. But I am Jewish and occasionally I write stuff about Judaism here. There was the time I took Pearl Perry Reich to task. That post included a blip about Deborah Feldman, whose memoir Unorthodox was also very well-written.

I wrote about the agonizing torture of a young girl by ultra-Orthodox "counselor" Nechemya Weberman. The community -- from the Grand Rabbi down -- took Weberman's side. 

He was just sentenced to 103 years in jail.

You might think that I would be anti-Orthodox. I'm not. As the Dalai Lama wrote (I believe in Becoming Enlightened), "Every religion has its troublemakers." Most Orthodox people aren't child molesters. They're just people.

On the other hand, I'm not Orthodox either - even though I believe in G-d and the Torah pretty much the way I got it in high school. Even though I know there is a very wide spectrum of Orthodox, and I'm probably close to it anyway. 

I walked away because I had to be honest with myself, and with the outside world. I can't do it. I can't distort Orthodoxy to be what I want it to be - that is worse. 

To follow the faith, you have to accept Jewish Law in its totality - the halacha. That is, religion is not a democracy. There is right and there is wrong outside what I myself believe. It is not situational logic. And I cannot trade my conscience for a set of rules that someone else is giving to me.

Sometimes I wish that I would have been a rabbi. I can't be a rabbi of course, because I'm not a man. But I could have studied the Talmud. I could have learned a lot more - educated myself about the legal principles upon which the halacha is based. If you know those principles, you are able to make decisions more freely and still remain within the fold.

Which brings me to the other problem. Orthodox Judaism has certain proscribed rules for men and women. It is a gender-segregated version of the religion. To an extent I think this functions well. It helps people to form a clear sense of identity, and stabilizes them. It prevents them from getting hurt, especially during the pivotal teenage years. 

But gender norms also hurt people. For example, I am a wife and mother but not in the traditional sense. I love working and hate doing housework or home decor. I have little patience for emotional talks. Basically I just love my husband and my kids. And I think of myself as an equal counterpart, not different in any way.

Here is another example. There is no room for a gay person in Orthodox Judaism - not really. And being gay (or lesbian) is in my view normal and often biological. Even if halacha can find a way (and I think that it can, but that's a discussion for another day) - the concept of gender normativeness is critical. And I believe that people should be who they are, never forced into a mold.

In my circles, it would be easier to be Orthodox, for sure. I was raised Orthodox. I live among the yeshivish community. It's a pretty small world. Everybody knows who is and isn't part of the fold.

Plus I've had my share of pressure. The subtle kind. Jokingly - "apikorais" (heretic). The attempt at kindness - "You really are a spiritual person, really." 

Occasionally someone will come right out and say it: "What happened to you?"

But what about the person reading this, a young woman who wants to be Orthodox? Let's say she is not sure she should join such a community, with all its failings. Let's say she worries about being confined, after hearing my self-justifications.

{No matter how good my intentions, I am responsible for the effects of my words, and faith is a delicate thing.}

What I want to say is: Do it. 

Become as religious as you want. 

But not in an ignorant way - know what it is you're getting into. Because part of religion is eternal - from G-d. The other part is most definitely made up by humans, and they say that it's what G-d wanted all the time.

Do your homework. Study the principles on which the faith is based. Don't accept that you can't learn like a man, just because you're a woman. Get into the parts that jazz you. Walk away from those that seem wrong. They probably are, even if you can't prove it.

I haven't been on this Earth very long. But over that time I've seen a lot of variations on Judaism. Some of them struck me as just the right thing. Others, way over the top. Some of the people have been good. Others truly evil, despite the religious garb.

In the end, no matter what I do for a living, no matter what workaholic advice I share, I know those things are just money. Survival. You've got to play the game.

What really matters is what I write about much less often. What is really meaningful in life, to do? What have I done for other people? How do you heal your own pain and become a better human being?

One of the things that has meaning is Judaism. Whatever I have left of it, I treasure. I do remember the good times. And they weren't just good - they were great. 

If you find meaning and connection in Orthodox Judaism, please do go for it. Don't let anyone get in your way. You know who they are - the bitter ones. The ones who try to convince you that you're brainwashed. The ones who tell you that a watered-down, nonsensical version is really what G-d meant in the first place. 

Bullshit. Trust your gut. Be honest - your conscience. My mother always told me: 

"Never forget who you are and where you came from." 

She must have meant this, from Ethics of the Fathers, which I used to read all the time:

"Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting." 

There's only one G-d, and you have a straight connection to Her.

I respect you if you want to be Orthodox. All people have the right to be respected. No matter where they are at any given moment in time.

* All opinions my own.