A Reminder At The Beginning Of A New School Year

Studying religion academically can sometimes be challenging as a person that identifies religiously. I have seen it cause people to loss their faith or cause severe frustration. You spend so much time reading religious text asking questions of historical context, literary structure and other scholarly inquires that it is easy to loss sight of where you, G-d and your community fit into the picture. It is too easy to get caught up in study guide and exam questions and stop asking how the text is speaking to you and what connection you have to the text.

As I begin a new program where I will be asked to read Jewish text from a critical, academic perspective,  I want to remind myself that I can learn something deeper and spiritual from all of these text and that should be just as much of a priority. A quote I have adapted from a friend is what I repeat when I begin to loss sight of this:

“Dear Elisheva,

Stop reading Buber* to just learn about Buber. Read Buber* to learn about G-d, yourself and the world we live in.

Sincerely,

Elisheva”

*Martin Buber is a 20th century Jewish Theologian. You can substitute his name in the quote for any religious thinker or text and it still rings true. This is the perspective I want to strive for as I begin this new school year and the New Year.

Inspiration can be found anywhere, but what a shame to ignore it in texts that traditionally and fiercely address these topics just because they are assigned readings. That would truly be a disservice to my spiritual self.

Advertisements

Is the Most Jewish Thing About Me “Seinfeld”?

This week is the week of finals at school. It is my final finals’ week of my undergraduate career, and it is super busy. As I work on papers day and night, my t.v. is constantly playing Seinfeld episodes that I have on DVD. I love Seinfeld, and it really seems to provide comfort and familiarity amid the chaos of tests and papers.

The constant background noise of Seinfeld has made me begin to question, “is the most Jewish thing about me Seinfeld?” I grew up without knowing a single Jewish person. My interaction with Jews is still limited.  Through my  university, I have met a few Jews, but my closest friends are Christians. My time at shul is really the only Jewish filled time I get all week, you know, besides Seinfeld.

My true introduction to Jewish life has been through t.v., and Seinfeld has always been my favorite show. My lessons include: do not make out during Schindler’s List, there is no need to wait to make Jewish jokes after I convert, and be careful what you tell rabbis in confidence.

A show that celebrates zero Jewish holidays during 9 seasons and only has 1 of 4 main characters as a Jew remains one of my most meaningful cultural, Jewish experiences. As ridiculous as it sounds, the ability to quote Seinfeld with ease and watch mini marathons during finals makes me feel at least a little closer to being a Jew.

Mitzvot in Conservative Judaism

I love Judaism.

From the beginning of my desire to convert to Judaism, I knew that I would first and foremost identify as a Jew and the branch of Judaism that I affiliate with would be secondary. While this sounds nice, it is naive to  see the branches of Judaism as artificial divisions. You can think a certain way and practice a certain way but at the end of the day you have to function within a community.

Orthodox and Conservative were the two branches that I spent the most time considering  when choosing a community. I still question where I fit best at times, but for several reasons I know that Conservative Judaism is the right place for me. The tension comes because my practice tends to be on the more Orthodox side of things.

When I discuss this with my friends they tend to think I am crazy and that Orthodox practice is much harder than Conservative practice. I disagree.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism both see mitzvot (commandments) as binding. Conservative Judaism, unlike Orthodox Judaism, sees mitzvot as evolving. This difference in opinion leads to differences in practices, like the Conservative movement ordaining female rabbis while the Orthodox movement does not.

For me personally, I feel it is harder to live out mitzvot through the Conservative movement than the Orthodox movement, which is largely why I practice in a more Orthodox way. In Orthodox Judaism, there is a clear sense of not only what to do but how to do it. In Conservative Judaism, there is the same 613 mitzvot, but there is a very different approach that enables you to practice each in ways that are meaningful for you. This ambiguity can be beautiful and confusing at the same time. I struggle with finding the most meaningful way of living out each mitzvot in my life. Especially in this early stage of learning to live as a Jew, I find it necessary and rather comforting to have clear rules and expectations of how to live in the world.

I am in no way saying one way of practicing is better than the other. I think that everyone needs to find what is best and most meaningful for them. For me, I find the structure and clarity of Orthodox practice more comforting , but I am also trying to ensure I understand and value my community’s practices. While the process of trying to find what is best for me is mostly frustrating, I know that it is necessary in order to ensure that I am secure in who I become as a Jew and that I can live out my Judaism even when I leave my present home and community.

Shabbat (Conservative Style) x 4

The decision of which branch of Judaism to convert through has been a long, hard road. I feel like my theology and practices fit one branch on this issue and another branch on another issue. After much thought, I decided that the Conservative movement was right for me. Even after that decision, even after many months of living within the same Conservative synagogue and working with the same Conservative rabbi, I still go through bouts of doubt when I don’t exactly fit into the practices and beliefs of the community. One of the most frustrating instances I face, weekly, is that my way of “keeping” Shabbat is different from the majority of my community’s practices.

Usually, I observe Shabbat in ways that would be associated with Orthodox practice. I do drive to shul, because there is no synagogue in walking distance, but I also make sure to prepare my food ahead time, not to write, and stay away from my phone, t.v. and computer.  While I enjoy observing Shabbat with these practices, it feels very isolating at times to be separated from the normative practices of my community, like eating out after Kabbalat Shabbat. I have not found anyone in the community to share my Shabbat practices with, so it often becomes a lonely experience to come home and eat and read in silence. In order to avoid the feeling of isolation, I would usually try my best to stay up late on Thursday night and wake up early Friday so I would be tired Friday night and not have to spend too much time alone after services. As it is getting closer to the summer, I know that Shabbat will only begin to feel like it is lasting longer and longer with late sunsets on Saturday. And as things stand now, this only means I will be spending more time feeling isolated than before.

After months of frustration over Shabbat, I finally realized I am approaching this wrong. Yes, I love a more Orthodox approach to Shabbat, but that is not the right approach for everyone and my community finds value and meaning in another approach. Instead of being frustrated by the disconnect between my practices and my community’s practices, I need to push myself see things in a new perspective and try to better understand how my community finds wholeness in Shabbat.

For that reason, I decided to dedicate at least 4 weeks to Conservative style Shabbats. I began last Shabbat, Adar 16, and plan on continuing until the Shabbat before Pesach. Last week, I attended Kabbalat Shabbat service and then joined a few friends from shul for a dinner at a local restaurant. On Saturday, after services, a friend and I drove to a conference I had to attend on Sunday a few hours away. Normally, I would have waited until after Shabbat to make the drive, but decided that spending the five hours in conversation was a better use of Shabbat than my usual reading alone. We even stopped at a restaurant on the way for some food. I have still kept some earlier practices that keeps Shabbat sacred for me personally while blending in with the community better and not having the same isolating effect. For example, I still do not use my phone, watch t.v, or use my computer. My outlook on Shabbat for these four weeks is to build relationships and seek the “spirit” of Shabbat in new ways. This primarily calls for me to be in community and learn from others. Whether I end up keeping Conservative style Shabbats or returning to my previous practices is still to be determined, but either way, I certainly know that this is an opportunity to learn and grow.

 

Video: “So, You Want to Go to Rabbinical School”

It is true. I am thinking about the possibility of one day going to Rabbinical school. It seems crazy to be thinking about becoming a rabbi even before I am Jewish, but it is something that has been on my mind since very early on in my relationship with Judaism.

While I obviously have time to think over the decision, especially since I am not yet Jewish, it is a question that keeps preoccupying my time and energy. And for good reason, it is a big, life changing decision, just like becoming a Jew.

I came across this video from You Tube and could not stop laughing (and almost crying) because of the dialogue that for the most part rings true. The dialogue for my own conversation about wanting to become a rabbi would be different, but the overarching concerns remain consistent and seem to be universal, especailly for women.

Brachot (Blessings)

Judaism has a very special way of acknowledging Hashem’s soveriegnty over everything in the world. Many daily actions, like waking up and eating, and events, like rain and seeing some new, are sancified by reciting a brachah or blessing.

A Jew should recite 100 brachot a day. This may sound like an unaccomplishable goal, but it is not as difficult as it sounds. For example, the Amidah, a prayer recited three times daily, contains 19 brachot alone. Daily prayer and normal activity will easily cover the 100 brachot.

The difficult part, at least for me, is memorizing the brachot and remembering to say them at the numerous moments that call for a blessing throught the day. Each brachah is only a few lines long, but it is overwhelming to be faced with the task of memorizing them all. A friend of mine, who is also converting, expressed the same concern. I figured learning the brachot and saying the brachot must be a stuggle that many people who are converting to Judaism or Jews who are becoming more observant. For that reason, I decided to share my approach to trying to learn and recite the brachot. I am still in the process of learning and it will take time, but at least it is not as overwhelming and has beeen a good method so far.

Each week, I learn one new brachah. I recite the brachah over and over and write it down several times trying to commit the blessing to memory. During the week I do my very best to not let that particular brachah go unsaid. With each passing week I add in a new brachah and use all the brachot I know during the week. It is a longer method to learning, but I found that I am much more consistent with reciting the blessing and actually learn the blessing by heart.

This slow but steady approach has been my approach to instituting many Jewish practices into my life. I hope it is helpful advice for others who feel overwhelmed learning many prayers, practices and blessings in any religion.