OT: Rosh Hashanah Thoughts 5773, random
Reflecting before Yom Kippur. On my very emotional Yom Kippur last year, here.
I am still longing for G-d.
After a year, I am no more comfortable with the social – communal level of Hasidism than I ever was. Having seen it up closer (as opposed to just knowing about it, hearing about it, reading about it), I may actually be less comfortable with it.
But I feel completely subsumed in the divine, lost to myself, when I’m praying with Hasidim. I’d never have guessed this was even possible. This is the most amazing level of oceanic feeling while praying that I’ve ever experienced. Praying with these people, in this way, makes me think I could pray all day, every day.
If someone else took care of all the other stuff necessary for life. Which is where the social – communal problem comes in. This kind of praying occurs on the backs of women. I still don’t know what to do about that. Even if I’m not one of the women on whose backs it really occurs, I still benefit from that arrangement. It’s a conundrum. I want to pray. I don’t want to make lunch or clean up the mess. But I want to eat. It is exploitative, the willingness of the women to participate in it — which has been stressed to me multiple times — notwithstanding. They don’t resent me, but I can only assume that’s because I am not a Hasid and so don’t bear responsibility. Inevitably I resent myself. But not enough to behave as a Hasidic woman does, either.
How much do I really long for G-d if I can’t let my sex/gender politics go?
Pesky says: these things will happen whether you are here, or whether you are absent. Your presence neither institutes nor perpetuates them.
Another practical problem: this prayer arrangement really only works because I am a woman. In this setting, I don’t count for constituting a prayer quorum. The downside to that is that on a normal Shabbes, I don’t necessarily know if there’ll be a minyan, so I may not have access to the sung parts of the service that mean the most to me. On the other hand, because I don’t count for the minyan, no one looks too closely at me during the prayer service. No pesky questions about my background, which is something I need, and another reason I try to avoid social settings, as I don’t want a shidduch.
So I benefit from my sex, and am troubled by the benefits, and have the feeling they would erode, if I got involved in the way part of me longs to be involved and which part of me is repelled by. A replay of church — the place that feels most at home to me is the place where I am most vulnerable. There is no perfect prayer service, no freedom without responsibility, no zipless fuck.
But given my reaction to this service, I will perch on this precipice as long as I can. Among these people, it is absolutely okay to long for G-d. They understand that like no one else I’ve ever encountered outside of poetry books. I’ll let everything else go for now and deal with it when I have to and not before.
Surrender is hard.
D’var Torah thoughts: We pray in community because we pray for people who may need teshuvah and not know it. Our merit may be sufficient for them now and we hope that their merit will be sufficient for us later.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written who shall live and who shall die. The righteous will live. But it’s not always easy to tell who is righteous, even for Ha-shem, the rabbi tells us. Some people have to seek out their recognition in court, which is what the next ten days are for, for those who are somewhere in between.
As Pesky says, G-d is teaching us and we are teaching G-d.
When G-d makes Sarah fruitful again in her old age, she is understandably a jerk about it.
When the divine plan means that Ishmael and Hagar are exiled, it does not mean that they die. G-d does not kill them. What we push out does not have to be destroyed.
G-d makes a well.
G-d demands of Abraham that he take every step to kill the thing he loves most, but then gives it back again.
One I appreciate, which is typically Hasidic, although also conditioned by the fact that I live in a Hasidic (though not a Jewish) diaspora, and that this shul is really more of an outreach to the Jewish world than the center of a group of committed Hasidim, is the admonition to do mitzvot, the constant opportunities pointed out to fulfill them, but the lack of judgment about not doing them.
On the second day I walked into the room, and a woman of the kind I have struggled not to be confronted me. Type baalat teshuvah. Some people need the turn toward piety. But for me, as a Lutheran FFB, my struggle with religion is to be less pious, to see that not everything has to be defined religiously for everyone or even for me. Not to be more pious, which would always be my automatic inclination. To accept against Augustine that the presence of the secular is not a byproduct of sin, but a natural state of affairs, and that no amount of thinking or praying on my part will stop the world or my life or those of other people from being messy and in want of redemption. No 120 percenting, especially not when legalism triumphs over love.
It’s so hard for me to keep my eyes on divine love. Please, G-d, let me love you more so I can feel your love in me, so I can remember your love and love your world and the people and things in it more.
As I walked in, she was asking the rebbe why some people were eating before Shacharit. (According to the Shulchan Arukh, you’re not supposed to eat before praying.) In response, the rebbe was quoting a number of Talmudic commentaries noting circumstances under which it’s acceptable to eat before praying, including poor health, but also including the goal of increasing kavanah. In the end the rebbe said, “we don’t know why they’re eating or not eating, why bother ourselves?” The woman said, “Not me, I don’t judge.”
This is not what one expects from the ultra-orthodox. One of my fears of Hasidism has to do with its tendency toward piety. Hasidism definitely has that — for instance, Hasidim blow extra shofar blasts at the very end of both services to make sure that everyone possible has fulfilled the mitzvot.
No one knows which deed will ultimately bring Moshiach, whose ears turning toward the blasts of the ram’s horn will bring an end to warfare and strife, will make the lion lie down with the lamb, will establish justice the rule of the world.
Servetus does not thrill to the sound of the shofar on an empty stomach. And yet, the pressure from the rebbe is never very strong. The rebbe says, “now we’re going to blow again, so everyone has one last chance to fulfill the mitvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.” And then he does it, without looking back toward who else might be listening — or not.
Why not just do it, in case?
When the woman has her answer from the rebbe, she turns to me and asks, “Where are you from?” I feel a sudden sense of vertigo when I realize I have no answer any longer.
Pesky says that this attitude — the push to inspire obedience to divine command among G-d’s people, the calmness over the certainty of the ultimate victory of that piety following G-d’s time — is the result of a life of such extreme occupation with piety that the most pious Hasidim will have to admit they they just do not know anymore. They have tried and not succeeded to follow all of G-d’s commands and realize that being on the journey, wherever you find yourself on it, is the endpoint. Hasidim are mystics, who seek to re-establish the divine presence wherever they can, but they know that they fail all the time. Mystics have to learn to accept, tolerate time outside of the divine presence as an exchange for the fire that burns when they can be in it. The point of all the piety is bringing Moshiach, which can be done only through the joy of the mitzvot, not by exercising discipline on others by stricture.
[I am leaving space for the probability that this is an extremely charitable reading of what's going on. Pesky is a man, for one thing, and for another, he's quite plainly enchanted by Hasidism. But it's easy to see from the Internet that plenty of unhappy people feel trapped in ultra-orthodoxy and feel unable to leave it.]
Still I wonder — given the way I was raised, why did my piety only ever confront me with my own failure to be what G-d wanted? Why was there no out, no admission that we live in a broken world in which there are no perfectly parallel lines — and so following the rules to their logical consequences can only ever end in failure, conflict, collision, bitterness?
Why did no one ever throw up his hands and say, in the end, G-d loves you and wants you to do your best to love others?
Or, if they were saying that, why couldn’t I hear it?
Can we only get there through failure and disappointment and the need to come to terms with those things? Is catastrophe the necessary prerequisite for compassion?
In any case, this is the message I need to hear at the moment and I will fix my ears to it as firmly as I can.
My G-d, the soul You have given me is pure. You create her, You form her, and You breathe her into me. You guard her while she is within me. One day You will take her from me, and restore her to me in the time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I will thank You, G-d and G-d of my ancestors, Master of all works, Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, HaShem, who restores souls to lifeless bodies.
G-d, please make my fast easy and recognize it as acceptable to you. Please cleanse me from sin and keep me safe.
Let the breath of every living thing praise You.
צוֹם קַל to all Jewish readers. I will catch you all on the flip side.