Blessed Tension, Holy Contradictions

This essay has been percolating in my mind for a while, but really came together after comment on this blog post over at Homeshuling as well as a post by the Rockin’ Rebbetzin.

Can you answer the “what are you?” question in 25 words or less? I can’t. Heck, I can’t answer it in 25 MINUTES or less!

The “what are you?” question happens when you meet someone, right after one of you says “Oh, you’re Jewish?”. “What are you” might be hinted at rather than asked directly – and it’s usually answered by inference as well. Something like, “We go to xyz synagogue”. But some people (like me) don’t fit easily into one box so we avoid answering. “No, my family doesn’t keep kosher, but we walk to shul. Yes, I call it shul. No, my shul doesn’t have a mechitza. Yes, women lead services”… and so on.

There’s a point where the other person just blurts it out: “So are you Conservative? Reform? You don’t look Orthodox…”.

What am I, really? The word “post denominational” is accurate, and currently very trendy. It even carries with it a sophisticated sense of theological maturity, as if I am saying “Oh, you children and your silly labels. When you REALLY learn about it, you’ll see that Judaism isn’t that simple. Someday you’ll understand.”

It reminds me of the answer I gave my baby brother when he was 9 and asked me what people did on dates. Pompous, egocentric and annoying as hell. (By the way, sorry about that, bro!)

The truth is, I just find it difficult to answer the “what are you question”. It’s hard because it takes a long time to answer correctly; because I don’t like giving trite answers; because the answer changes day to day; because sometimes I don’t like the answer I ought to give; because I don’t like being categorized and worse being put in the wrong category; because… well, you get the idea.

What I am is a Jew on a Journey. I’m affected daily by my choices – both Jewish and secular – and by those made by those around me. My wife started talking recently about kashrut. I don’t know if we are going to start keeping kosher. But now every morsel of food in our pantry holds the promise of a Jewish dialogue. As I’ve mentioned before, even going on a job interview involves Jewish decisions.

It wasn’t always like this. I admit it, I’ve changed.

I’m not the person I once was. I’m taller. I have a longer attention span (usually). I’ve learned how to learn from my mistakes. Most of the time I draw inside the lines. Of course, I’m comparing myself to when I was 4, but everyone needs a baseline, right?

When I started really reading Torah and examining my beliefs and habits in relation to what I found there, it was impossible for me to remain the same. THIS is not revolutionary news. I’m sure if I started reading the back of cereal boxes and examining my beliefs and habits, I’d change too. Not in the same way, of course, but changing never the less. And it would be Grrrreeeeat!


The text you choose directs the examination. In a way, the text serves as a compass. If you use cereal boxes as your focus, you are going to end up going in a particular direction. The Torah will take you in another. King James Bible leads in another. And let’s all tip our hats (or kippot) to friends who use the Koran, Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads and the myriad of other texts as their focal point. Rock on!

A lot of the discoveries made by my family and I have been joyful, amusing, and easy. While we aren’t perfect the first time we try a particular blessing, observance or tradition, we find we have fun with it, understand how it might look (if we did it better), and whether it’s something we could do consistently.

Some of the discoveries have been personal and, to an extent, private – for me alone. Ditto the struggles. Sometimes the things I wrestle with are non-issues for my kids, and maybe for you too.

While I recognize, appreciate and give thanks that Judaism approves of our wrestling – encourages it even – it’s still hard to reconcile the feelings of hypocricy when I observe one thing (wearing a kippah) but not another (keeping kosher). Because even I get impatient, and ask the “what am I, anyway?” question.

The hard-to-grasp (for me, at least) reality is that there are no lines across which you go and suddenly *poof* you are Reform, or Orthodox or Reconstructionist. It’s all a spectrum that is goverened not only by organizations (OU, USCJ, URJ et al) but also each person’s specific situation. I know an extremely “observant” orthodox person who has their Rabbi’s permission to drive to shul on Shabbat. And another who was denied the same request. I know several families who keep kosher in their homes but not when they are eating at a resturaunt. And so on. The criteria for many is: “Can God live with it (ie: is it a commandment); Can my Rabbi live with it (ie: does halacha support it); Can I live with it.”. It’s my observation that people put those in a different order, by the way.

Even harder for me to grasp (and yet I must, as must anyone who wrestles with their level of religious engagement) is the realization that Judaism allows for someone to say “enough” (at least “enough for right now”). As Rabbi Moshe Adler pointed out recently, the Yetzer Hara (inclination to evil) not only tempts us to do what we shouldn’t. It pushes us to take what is holy (observing a mitzvah) and take it too far. “Is that what you call tzedakah?!?” Rabbi Adler said, personifying this inner voice, “That’s nothing! It’s worse than if you hadn’t given at all!” and the next thing you know we’re giving what we shouldn’t out of a sense of inferiority or guilt rather than joy.

Without the ability to recognize when our observance has fulfilled it’s purpose, we are literally on the good-intentions-paved road to hell.

What is that purpose? I believe it is to draw us closer to the Divine. To engage us and encourage us to remain engaged. Maimonides said it is better to give $1 on 200 days than to give $200 once, because $1 seems easy to give, and after 200 consecutive days of giving one will have built up the habit of tzedakah that lasts a lifetime. That example may be the best illustration of the point of Jewish observance. To do mitzvot in a way that makes us want to keep doing them. Sometimes that means picking up a mitzvah slowly. Sometimes it means realizing that a particular mitzvah would really upset the apple cart and letting it lie (at least for now). And sometimes it means taking that leap and doing it with your whole heart, without analyzing how you think it’s going to make you feel before you’ve tried it.

How do I reconcile the inconsistencies? First, by admitting that nothing I do is forever, and that I might (someday) observe commandments I’m not doing now. A friend (a ba’al tshuvah) made an observation that has stuck with me: “My whole life I ate sausage pizza. And then there was a day when I didn’t any more. I don’t let anyone (including myself) hold what I *did* against me as some invalidation of what I *do* now.”

What am I? In the words of Robert Fulgham, I am “a respurateur”. I breath. Everything else is just the whim of a moment, icing on the cake that is life.