Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Rabbi

"Come in" said the smiling face, one hand motioning me inside, the other holding the front door. "You're here for the meeting? Good, he's expecting you, please, come right inside." The answers seemed to follow the questions by themselves, I smile politely and step inside the house, not yet uttering a word.

It smells of cooking. Who knows what was being cooked: maybe a chicken, maybe a chulent, maybe one hundred other things or perhaps nothing at all. But all around, the house smelled of cooking, the sort that wafted through my house and a million other Jewish homes on Friday evenings. How was it that a Rabbi's house maintains that smell all week around? As I was lead into the study, I wondered whether it was because the cooking lingered on the walls, whether he would notice my Tzitzis hanging on my sides, what the weather was going to be like tomorrow, what the words the Rebbetzin was saying that I wasn't hearing, was my Kappel on or did I forget, where should I say that I davened this evening if I was asked, should I--

"Oh, I'm sorry," I reply, apologising for the day-dreaming. What was it she asked me? Probably something about a drink. "Thank you for offering," I smile "but I'm fine" - I could really use a drink, I think, as I sit in the chair she's pointing at. She'll be back in a moment and the study is cluttered, books everywhere, papers everywhere, especially papers, the desk the chairs the bookcases the floor the walls the ceiling, the cup by my side. "Thank you" I smile, picking it up, almost forgetting to make a brachca before drinking. I need to focus. I try and focus.

After a short wait, I hear a key going through a lock on the front door. It slides in, turns and slides out. The door closes with a bang and I know the Rabbi is home. Greetings occur.

The door opens and a bearded man, about as tall as me, older, wiser, walks in.

"Ah!" he says, as if seeing an old friend. "Who are you?" I tell him. "Of course, of course. Tell me" says he, sitting down in his chair "what are you doing now?" And so the pre-sparring begins. Each sizes the other up. I purposely fiddle with my tzitzis, he notices, watching my actions, assuming it's my nerves and not a plot to get him to believe I'm more of a Yid than I am.

"So" he says, "what's your question?"
I start small, questioning tiny spiritual matters, but quickly progress to the big picture. I don't say I don't believe it, but neither do I commit when he asks. An hour goes by.

I survive. I offer no proofs for atheism, that is not my aim, but I manage to rebut his answers. They are simple ones, the sort I've answered many times before to many different people. He appreciates the diversity of my answers, he notes that I merely challenged what he says, not what he believes.

I am given a book to read, to discuss until next we meet. He pledges to rebut my questions, when next we meet. I am dismissed. I am whole and complete, I am still me, not plunged into doubt about my choices from his words at all, I can leave with a smile. I have long made my peace with who I am and I trust I will find my place in time. I am happy with who I am.

If only everyone could be happy for me too.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Hello again

Ah, dear Bloggers. It's been too long since we sat here, monitor to monitor, pixel to pixel. Sitting in our rooms by ourselves, ensuring no-one watches over our shoulders to see what we're doing. Veiled in secrecy, reading the latest entries as the effervescent rays of the sacred Altar of Heresy shine forth onto your pallid countenance, as if to ascend you into its illicit cult. That's right, bathe in the glory of your heresy! Embrace it!

And many of us have, myself included.

I have been away for a while, visiting France and various places in the British Isles, so apologise for the lack of entries - not that any one's particularly missed them.

Since I last blogged, I have told another person of my heresy.* This person is a good friend from my ultra-religious high school, who I have been withholding my heresy from for a long period of time, but generally letting things on from time to time that would allow him to guess that I no longer really believed in Judaism or religion. A few weeks ago I finally decided to tell him everything: not keeping kosher, the breaking of the sabbath, the non-Jewish girlfriend: I hid nothing.

I hid nothing because I didn't see the value of withholding information at this point: if I was going to tell him about my life after religion, then I would do just that. If I didn't want to, I wouldn't say anything at all. Was it wise? Did it achieve anything?

Not really to both. In hindsight, it perhaps was better to keep it hidden from him. It hasn't really changed our friendship directly, but constant references he makes to me being "a proper goy now" and how I must have had some trauma in my life. I've asked him to stop, but he seems to think it acceptable to poke fun of what were difficult choices for me. Being friends with him shouldn't be tiresome, and if it becomes tiresome, I'll simply stop being friends with him. Of course, this is probably more due to his particular personality than a rule of thumb with all people, so I'm not sure how much one can draw from this experience when considering if you should "break the news" to your religious friends. Note also that I don't live in North America, so the ultra-orthodox community is every so slightly more liberal here, if only because they don't ruin Jewish-owned cars for being too fancy, or place Rabbinic bans on things every two minutes.

I also let on to my brother that I was seeing a non-Jewish girl. I did so because he asked me directly who it was that I was always visiting, or talking to on the phone late at night and I didn't feel it right to lie. Perhaps the prudent thing would have been to tell a white-lie to preserve the peace (coincidentally, as Jewish law permits). My truth-telling understandably caused some strain between us, and he told me he'd do everything he could to bring us apart.

For him, the bottom line wasn't whether religion was true or false, it was about adhering to tradition and custom, clinging to family and community. I consider this the strongest argument I've ever encountered, because it doesn't rely on pseudo-intellect or false-logic like all the other arguments I've encountered thus far, but is formed out of emotional ties I have with my family and the wider Jewish community.

To put it frankly, why does it matter that religion was in the past used to unify a large group of people for the ends of leaders, to set artificial societal standards, or to otherwise manipulate the populous? It is religion that unifies people and in a Diaspora, there isn't much manipulation to be had like in the "old days," so why not stay unified with everyone? Why not keep the community?

To all these questions I have no answer beyond "it would be convenient, but I'm loathe to embark on a way of life I might regret later, feeling how I feel** about religion." That would be a sticky situation indeed. I would hate to be in a position where I was with a Jewish wife and kids, not believing myself, but nonetheless trapped in the religiosity around me.

My brother went so far as to say, effectively, "why force your family and community to cut you off? By making this choice, you're forcing their hand." As Abandoning Eden mentioned in one of her blog posts, and as I'm sure many people in a similar situation posit, is it really my responsibility to make provision for how other's will react? In short, isn't their reaction towards me their responsibility? That is, if they disown me it's their choice distinct from my own, not a cause of mine. On the other hand, my parent's wouldn't disown me unless I went OTD.*** Isn't that a clear indication that my going OTD is the cause? It would be logical to believe so, but it's just as logical to say "no, we're all responsible for our own choices, and their reaction can't be justified by stating it's an automatic response, at the end of the day, they're making an independent choice from you about how to react to you." This would be in the same way that "automatic execution" by a corrupt government isn't justified purely because it's automatic and you know it's a possibility. Either way, people will choose the side of the coin which best suits them. For myself, I'm happy to bypass this question entirely and say: we must all do what we feel necessary and for me, my choice of life is necessary. Let's do what we will.

*Though I keep referring to "my heresy," the real heresy is not allowing people the freedom to choose the way they want to live their lives, to say "live like me, or I'll cut you off."

**I have not used the word "know" because I am adamant that no-one can know for sure what is outside our perception. God would be outside our perception, so believer or non-believer, no-one actually knows if he's there, no matter what subjective "proof" or feeling the believer or non-believer has about the matter. Even the to most disbelieving of unbelievers, there must remain a shroud of doubt as to whether God exists or not, for in this particular case, anything could be possible, though not necessarily likely.

***OTD is Off The Derech, or "Off the Path [of God, and specifically, Jewish practice and belief]." I don't know this for sure about my parent's reaction, but am guessing.