a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

I Drank the Kool Aid – Can’t I Just Live a Life of Torah Study?

Posted on: August 3, 2016

13576745_10208806618855422_5960017635355263465_oCan you be a “normal” person and be religious?

This is a question I’ve been rolling around in my head for sometime that is now being asked much more loudly since my return from Israel and studying at Pardes. Tomorrow makes one week exactly since I’ve been back in the U.S and my heartache for Jerusalem and Pardes and learning is still pressing. My first foray into reality was riddled with tears, anxiety and a general sense of being overwhelmed and unsettled. While I did not venture out of my tiny Baka neighborhood, the Old City, or the walls of Pardes, having such an insular and focused reach only helps amplify the lost feeling I’m experiencing and this pull for stronger Jewish community and Jewish life.

Judaism requires a lot from us – 613 mitzvot we’re supposed to live by because Torah says so, to make the world a better place, to bring the Messiah, to be good Jews, to be good people. These 613 commandments are meant to shape us, the Jewish people, so that we can be a light unto all other nations. And people do this, they live their lives according to Torah Law, and it can, frankly, be a bit scary. One of my chavrutas (chavrutot?) shared her experience in an ultra-Orthodox, Haredi home this past Shabbat in Israel, we agreed that there is something really amazing about the automatic community that an Orthodox life brings, but we also agreed that the particular Orthodox she experienced; women davening on hard benches behind opaque curtains forbidden to speak, daven or sing in an audible voice, sharply right-wing opinions, strict roles based on gender, is not the kind of religious life we’re seeking.

Let’s be real, 613 seemingly arbitrary laws that are in many ways outdated by our modern standards is nearly impossible to follow, right? Yet, people do.  And those people, many think, are crazy, sheltered or simply stupid for doing something for a Gd you can’t see, hear or touch. I also know a lot of Orthodox Jews who are not crazy, sheltered or stupid. They don’t police other women’s clothing, worry about the sound of a woman’s voice, have left-leaning politics, celebrate and accept Jews who are queer, brown or otherwise on the fringes. These Jews live happy lives and wear hip clothes. And they keep kosher homes, observe mitzvot and have their lights on timers for Shabbat. I call these Jews the “Mormons of Judaism”. They are impossibly good looking with their glamorous wigs, designer clothes and multiple children in matching, fashionable outfits. For them, Judaism is joy and their smiles and way of life is tempting, infectious even. I often find myself falling down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos of scarf designs, Instagram accounts, Facebook pages wondering if I could life a more religious life.

And, it seems to some, that if you tease out some of the mitzvot, taking away the ones that don’t fit, are inconvenient, that don’t work in our modern lives and look back at the Judaism you created you end up with a Judaism that doesn’t “look” how it’s “supposed” to. What does Judaism look like? If anything, it’s 100% different than the Judaism of Torah, so what’s the big deal if we change it a bit? I suppose I can see things from both sides. I’m a woman with a deep passion and commitment to Judaism and Jewish learning. I’m also a woman with a deep passion and need to have every part of myself fully accepted in Jewish community. This means that my queer self, my black self, my feminist self all need to be in my Jewish self.

So I guess it means, for now, that I am aware of those 613 mitzvot. I strive for a more observant, dare I say a more religious life, but that I won’t compromise who I am for the sake of Judaism. Judaism is about me and my relationship with Gd and since Gd is omnipresent and we can never know what Gd wants, thinks or needs from us, I’ll just presume that Gd wants me to be my authentic self, to be happy, to fulfill those mitzvot I am capable of doing and to work on those that I cannot at this time.



4 Responses to "I Drank the Kool Aid – Can’t I Just Live a Life of Torah Study?"

Hey, don’t worry, you don’t have to – in fact you can’t – follow all 613 mitzvot. About half of them have to do with Kohanim and the Temple rites that can’t be performed without the Temple in Jerusalem. So we only have roughly 300 to worry about, and many of them (like “You shall not murder”) are things you’d probably be doing anyway.


Thanks for the bit of encouragement!

[…] waters as well, from her own Orthodox experience. Returning from a study trip to Israel recently, she posted about her love for Torah, and wondered whether she would ever feel religious […]

I think of the religious life (as seen from the outside looking in) as a beautiful flame. Study is beautiful, prayer is beautiful, living a holy life is beautiful. Holiness is beautiful. Religious people understand the desire for it. You are religious because you have this desire. Other people are literally not troubled by it.

And then the flame burns you. You commit to daavening for a full hour every morning and then you can’t. Because someone is sick or you slept in or you have to get to work early. You spend a wonderful day/week/hour with someone who is so much more knowledgeable and that person is also racist. The heart wants something but the mind won’t allow it. Or vice-versa. You are at war with yourself.

The thing to understand is that this is the war of all religious people. The level of commitments we see among the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox eventually become routines. They become just rules. They have a lot of laundry. They have their own doubts. They have to work just as hard to keep their connection to G-d strong, to stay motivated, to have genuine religious experiences.

My advice to you is to strike while the desire for holiness is hot. Increase your observance and your commitments, however you define them. Because after the burning desire for holiness comes the laundry.

The desire for more holiness is a sign that you have enough energy to jump into a closer orbit around the Divine. Jump.

Higher in Judaism usually means “narrower”. You keep kosher in so you start to keep kosher out. You drink regular milk so you only drink cholov yisroel. You don’t cover your hair so you do. You wear your tsitsit out. And for a while, these changes give you the religious intensity you desire. You needed to jump and you jumped. And that brings joy. But everything — everything — becomes routine.

This is the nature of gashmiyyut — of embodiment. It comes with our territory as embodied beings.

Living a religious life means mixing it up, changing the game, taking on new challenges. There are so many possible challenges in the mitzvot, so many possible directions. There is no need to always go “narrower” to provide the spark. If I take an hour to daaven every morning and I ignore my child and she gets mad at me, where’s the joy? If I am so strict that I cannot connect with others — which mitzvot have I sacrificed for which?

The Orthodox don’t have all the answers — and neither do we. Every Deresh HaShem is unique. Answer the pull of the mitzvot when they call. Follow them. Slow down when the flame gets too hot. And try, try, try to shut out the voices around you. No one life is like the picture — you can only live your own.

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