Thursday, November 4, 2010

Is Judaism Dying?

Some people have an easy time connecting to their spiritual path. I've seen it in their faces. They have nothing to prove. They have a sense of peace and being at ease about themselves. I saw it in the Neo-Pagan scene I tried to join in my teens. I've seen it in born-again Christians and been upset because I knew I identified with them. In seminary in Jerusalem, I saw it in a friend who was relaxing into her frum-keit (Orthodox Jewish lifestyle). Although I have a long way to go, I, too, have made strides in opening up to my path in this last year.

It's clear that, even though our paths appear different from one another, we are actually walking the same path. We are walking a path of self-acceptance. I say self-acceptance because I think there is a natural, basic flow to the universe - a great harmony in which everything fits together. We are tapping into a part of ourselves that helps us "go with the flow". I could separate the aspects of this energy into categories of honesty, acceptance, truth, humility, etc... But they're all just temporary tools to help me grasp this harmony intellectually. If I try to hold on to the distinct categories for too long, they leak back into each other. That being said, this post is not about spiritual harmony. This post is about my ongoing struggle to find a way to connect to Judaism.

It's a battle I have felt I was losing from the start. I know the religion of my ancestors is important. I know it is a backdrop for transformation, just like any other. I know this fact means that Judaism has wisdom in it. And indeed, I have found some surprising treasures along the way. Even still, my struggle is painful and frustrating.

I've written twice about Hagar's rape by Sarah and Abraham. This story seems to haunt me. It's a story that I keep coming back to over and over, but there are many more examples of this injustice throughout the Bible. I've sifted through texts from Orthodox and Reform sources, trying to find a perspective that would give me a reason to hold on to a religion whose God sanctions enslavement and genocide. I've attended dozens of in-person and online shiurs (religious lectures) and read hundreds of articles on specific parshas (Torah portions) that discuss enslavement, genocide, theft, and rape. But I'm not finding the insights I need. Instead, I'm finding either justifications for actions which are unjustifiable, or silence. I recently listened to a d'var Torah (parsha shiur) that talked about romantic miscommunication in Abram and Sarai's relationship. This is just one in a long list of lectures, articles and essays that discuss anything but the most important human interactions in the story.

My question in these situations is always, "When do we discuss the rape? Of course I would like to know the spiritual significance of Abraham performing penile surgery on himself (Genesis 17:24). I'm just fascinated with the mystical meaning of the man's name change from Abram to Abraham(Genesis, 17:5). These are very important topics. But when do we discuss the rape? At what point in this lecture will be exploring the fact that if Avraham and Sarah were alive today, they would be tried and convicted for sexual assault, attempted negligent homicide, false imprisonment, forced labor, child abuse, and kidnapping, to name a few criminal offenses?"

How many times will people parrot that lame midrash-based excuse of Hagar "wanting" to be raped? How much longer will talmudic scholars keep teaching something that is so pathetically transparent that it's twisted logic could easily be dissected by every ten year old child who has read the pamphlets in their guidance counselor's waiting room? I wonder, how many other Jews are repelled from both Orthodox and Reform institutions by these denominations' inability to acknowledge these texts for what they are? When I'm confronted with something like this, Judaism seems like an old, crumbling idol people carry around in special, state of the art containers to try and preserve it from it's inevitable demise. These containers are like perfect, precise, shatter-proof medical-grade anti-gravity containers manufactured from Halacha(Jewish law) and shiurs.

I've spent long, seemingly endless hours discussing minute details of the Torah. Trying to feign interest while a Shabbat host informed me of the reason why insects are actually more unkosher than pork. Trying to make sure my doubts about this person's mental stability didn't show on my face. Wasting fourty five minutes to get to a piece of information that could have been explained in five. Learning how to determine whether a person has leprosy or just a really gross rash. Making sure to use pre-cut toilet paper so I didn't tear regular toilet paper on Shabbos. This is what I mean when I talk about the container keeping Judaism alive. It's like life support for a religion. As long as we nitpick about the minutest details of daily life, we don't have to step back and see the bigger picture. As long as we keep dissecting the secret meaning of each phrase, word, or Hebrew letter of Torah, we don't have to understand the stories.

And really, who cares? Who. Cares. Do you really care whether there are four she-goats or five she-goats to be offered as a wave offering in the temple? What the hell is a wave offering anyway? Why would anyone wave anything as an offering? When I give my friends birthday gifts, I don't wave the gifts in the air before handing them over. The whole thing doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I think it's ridiculous. God does not need any animal sacrifices to create a pleasing aroma. And if God wanted the aroma, God could just go to different barbecues happening around the world whenever the desire arose.

There's also the little problem of morals. I have morals. So I don't want to read some bullshit story about how two girls got their "innocent" dad Lot drunk and had sex with him (Genesis 19:31 - 19:38). If I wanted to hear that nonsense, I would attend an incest trial and listen to the father's denial-laden testimony. I don't want to sit through more lecturers talking about the the wonderful mercy of Hashem (the Biblical God). And I don't understand how so many can lament the destruction of the Second Temple without considering that the Temple's creation was (at least textually, if not historically) based on the destruction of others' Temples. These are some of the problems I bump into when I try to connect to Judaism. These are issues that are not being adequately or realistically addressed in today's Jewish institutions. They are justified or minimized in more traditional institutions, and outright ignored in many modern ones.

I want to point out that this isn't just a Judaism thing. Religions all over the world are taking hits to their credibility because their doctrines don't match scientific observations. They don't match today's moral values. For example, Jesus has been called the Prince of Peace. But he also advocated eternal damnation as well as killing those who disagreed with him (Luke 19:27). That, in my opinion, isn't God's message. I think all religions, from Baptist to Buddhism, have their violent histories and texts.

And yet....I persist in learning about Judaism. I've heard the spiritual journey has many surprises that we don't see until they slap us in the face. Perhaps my struggle will yield something more than pointless frustration.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go brush my teeth. Maybe, before I brush, I should offer my toothpaste as a wave offering. Or sacrifice a small, pea-sized dollop on an open flame to give Hashem some nasal breath mints after he's done enjoying the pleasing aroma of that fine mesquite goat roast S/He seems to enjoy so much.


  1. A fine depiction of your emotional connection to the perceived teachings of the bible. I feel you have used the Bible as a spiritual tool, rather than the accepted archiac justifications at the egoic level.

    We are all sheep, not all of us are shepards.
    Thanks for leading me in a better direction.


  2. Uh..... thank you. I'm not sure I understood, but I think you're saying something nice. Why? Because you are NICE NICE!