Friday, March 29, 2013

Religious Trauma/Religious Freedom


Hol haMoed Pesah
18 Nisan, 5773
March 29, 2013
3rd Day of the Omer

Consider a Jew.

Said Jew walks into a Jewish space – a synagogue, or some such institution. While in the aforementioned space, our Jew has an interaction of the worst sort: another Jew, either through word or action, invalidates or demeans the Judaism of Jew #1. Perhaps the insult was intended, perhaps it was simply thoughtless – it does not matter. Our traumatized first Jew leaves, bearing bitterness that may last a lifetime.

Every Jew I know has had this experience. Every single one. It has happened to me many times. I have nursed my full share of resentment.

But I believe that I, and many others, made a mistake: we let other people write the story of our Judaism. To place the quality of one’s personal experience of Judaism into the hands of other people’s idiosyncrasies and mistakes is to invite misery. If our rejection defines our Judaism, we have not seen the fundamental freedom of the Exodus, and have not been personally redeemed.

Moshe said more than, “Let my people go.” The whole sentence goes, “So says HaShem, the God of Israel, ‘Let My people go so that they will celebrate Me in the desert.’” (Shemot 5:1, italics mine). And Pharoah’s response: “Who is this ‘HaShem’ that I should listen to his voice, to let the people go.” (5:2)

The freedom of Passover is more than, “Let My people go;” it is, “Let My people go so that” – so that they may celebrate as they see fit, so that they may self-determine, so that they may write their own stories.

To accede to religious rejection is to give Pharoah’s voice primacy. Hurt though we may be, to never cross the threshold of Jewish life again is to acknowledge that all the power lies with him, and none with us.

And the funny thing is that, when one moves past moments of rejection and engages Judaism and Jewish life on one’s own terms, Pharoah’s voice sounds…well, a lot less like Pharoah. Rejection and invalidation have less sting, less bite. We see that rejecting voice as that of a flawed human, just like we are, and not as a monolithic entity. We even see how we might have misinterpreted those moments as rejection – sometimes Pharoah’s voice actually comes from within.

God does not reject. The Holy One is always waiting for us. It’s just that sometimes we get in each other’s way on the path to divinity. No matter what’s been said to us, let us remember that each of us left Egypt, free.

For an extraordinary example of a refusal to accede to religious freedom, read the story of the Women of the Wall

Thursday, March 21, 2013


11 Nisan, 5773
March 21st, 2013
Parshat Tzav
Likrat Pesach

My beloved dean and teacher, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, has way of putting things. For the most part he uses his powers of articulation for good, though his students know that when a certain beatific smile crosses his face, whatever argument they just made will not be long for this earth.

A few years after graduating, I went to him because I was having trouble juggling my rabbi-ing and my life. I felt out of balance. This is what he said: “Scott, there is a physical state I’d like to describe to you. In it, you are forever off-balance – so much so that you have to put your foot in front of you to prevent yourself from falling. It’s called walking, and it has much to recommend itself.” He concluded, “Balance is an illusion.”

There is a kind of pop spirituality that misunderstands the nature of balance. It implies that balance – work-life balance, emotional balance, spiritual balance – is the state of being motionless. Balance, they say, is being unmoved by the concerns of life – the ability to be the perfect professional, the perfect parent, the perfect partner, the perfect friend. One glides with superhuman ease from one to the other, and the zen is undisturbed while the organic baby-food is served and the business deal is sealed by smartphone. This idea is nonsense.*

We are all falling. All the time. Some of us just have the good grace to give in and dance a step or two on the way down. That’s balance.

When I think about it, Pesach is the gangliest, most awkward holiday we have. It requires insane preparation. Its rules are ultimately impossible. We eat like 10,000 years of civilization never happened.** We tell a story that none of us personally remember. For hours. With family.


But we call Passover zman heruteinu – the time of our freedom. And maybe that has something to do with acknowledging the perfect as being the enemy of the good. Maybe it’s something about acknowledging how we’re never really going to get it right. Balance is an illusion. We only stop falling when we’re dead. Might as well enjoy the way down.

Enjoy the freedom. Chag Sameach.

* George Saunders’ short story The Semplica Girl Diaries is a horrifyingly beautiful exposition of this falsehood.
** Unless you’re eating Passover cake or those weird Passover Cheerios – in which case you simply wish that civilization had never happened.