Megillas Esther: A Story of Theodicy

So here are some thoughts that have been on my mind for the past week. They’re still a little disjointed, so bear with me.

The question of theodicy is one of my biggest intrigues in religion. I love reading about the subject, and trying to understand all the sides to the question, and the (non) answers we have for it. In going through NaCH, the question is addressed many times, each with similar answers. Most notable is Iyov, where the question of theodicy plays out on a grand scale, when the Satan dares God to test Iyov’s faith, and God, for some reason, takes the bait.

With each successive test of faith, Iyov refuses to renounce or curse God, and yet, in chapter three, he curses the day he was born, and expresses anger and despair at his situation. Maintaining his innocence throughout the book despite his “friends'” accusations, all Iyov wants is an explanation for why bad things happened to an innocent man. What’s particularly difficult about reading Iyov is the fact that throughout the book you know God’s reason – to win a bet – while Iyov agonises for over thirty chapters.

Even more unsatisfying is the ending, where Iyov finally does get his answer, which amounts to “shut up, I’m God, you don’t get to understand my plans.” the answer inspires both faith and distrust in God. Faith because given God’s omnipotence we can assume that in the next world if not in this one all debts are reckoned and all wrongs are righted. Distrust because God gives such a high and mighty answer (I created the world, I created great creatures to play with, I created rivers, oceans, mountains, etc) to cover up such a petty reason for torturing a person.

Parenthetically, I think it’s important to note (and I believe this often gets overlooked) Iyov is not a particularly flattering book for God, and yet it was included in the canon. Obviously God didn’t really have much of a direct say in that, but to me it speaks further to an acknowledgement on the part of our forbears that God is meant to be grappled with, questioned, confronted, that these are elements of any relationship in conflict, where one party has a claim against the other; an acknowledgement that it’s not healthy to hold it all in, but to let it all out, and ultimately resolve it. I may be taking liberty with that interpretation, but that’s what the inclusion of Iyov says to me, in addition to its message on theodicy.

But Iyov only answers one aspect of theodicy – it only serves to justify God’s position in the question. It does nothing to instruct us, the people who suffer from God’s mysterious plan, how to handle the question. Because God’s answer is unsatisfying, in Iyov. All it says is that God has a reason, and we shouldn’t question it. It implies that debts will be reckoned, and wrongs righted, but it doesn’t tell us why an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God couldn’t come up with a better plan.

And that’s where I believe Megillas Esther comes in.

A lot is said about the fact that God isn’t mentioned once in Megillas Esther. There are different explanations as to why. Either because politically it was dangerous to gloat too much, and rub a foreign God in the faces of the Persians, who didn’t just magically start loving Jews simply because the Jews killed a bunch of them. The Megillah says that a fear of the Jews fell on the people, it says nothing about love. Or because God was in a state of hester panim, hiding God’s face, because of the sin of attending Ahasuerus’ feast. But I think there’s another, perhaps stronger message there.

There are different circumstances under which miracles happen in the Torah. Sometimes it’s out of necessity. The Jews were complaining about food, so God sent them food. They complained about water, so God sent them water. They were languishing in Egypt, worshipping idols, and God came and saved them. Many of the miracles in the Torah required no action on the part of the Jewish people, with a few notable exceptions.

Most notably, at the splitting of the sea (well, at least according to midrash). Pharaoh’s army is converging upon them, as they stand with their backs to the Red Sea, asking Moshe if he took them so far into the wilderness because there weren’t enough graves in Egypt. Except this time, no miracle happened. The Egyptians kept coming, and the sea didn’t split. Until Nachson ben Aminadav walked into the water and nearly drowned himself. That’s when the sea split. God needed a stronger reason to perform that miracle than just the complaints of the Jews. God needed an active testament of faith.

But more to the point, God seemed absent in the situation until there was an active testament of faith. Very much like the story in Megillas Esther.

Esther is another quintessential story of how theodicy should be handled, not as a theological question, but practically. Esther is gathered along with all of the young women if the empire, and stuck in the king’s harem. She refuses all accouterments and cosmetics in an attempt to repulse the king. Despite that, the king, for some reason, picks her to be Queen. There are opinions that claim that the entire relationship was non-consensual. There are further opinions that Esther was already married to, Mordechai.

Further in the text, we see that Esther has fallen out of favour with Ahasuerus. This woman, Esther, whom he chose not as another concubine in his harem but as the Queen of his empire, whom he wanted so badly despite how plain she made herself, just a few years into their marriage, had not been summoned to the king in a whole month. My guess is that he got sick of her being unenthusiastic about the whole non-consensual thing, but was stuck with her as Queen. In any event, she was stuck in a pretty horrible situation, and the question of theodicy had to be on her mind.

And then the decree to annihilate the Jews reaches her from Mordechai, and Mordechai asks her to approach the king, illegally, after he hasn’t wanted to see her for thirty days. And her response, as you can imagine, was not enthusiastic. His answer, though, is the nugget here. “And who knows if this is exactly why you came to be Queen?”

I didn’t fully appreciate this question until last week, but it’s incredible, really. He’s not telling her that God’s purpose was definitely so she could be in position for this. In fact he tells her that he believes salvation will come from someplace else if she doesn’t want to take any action. But what he’s really saying is, “Esther, I know things are terrible for you. I know you don’t understand why bad things are happening to you. But what if – what if – the purpose is what you make it? What if, despite never being able to ask God why God did this to you, you hew your own purpose from this personal tragedy, and make that purpose the salvation of your people?”

And that’s when the miracle happened. Not in a blaze of Godly glory, but in an almost incontrovertibly miraculous series of coincidences catalysed by Esther’s active testament of faith in accepting that there was a plan, acknowledging that the true purpose will remain unknown, but finding her own purpose, and acting upon it, even though it might have led to her death. God saw this active testament of faith, this personal answer to theodicy, and the miracle began.

Because sometimes miracles happen, and sometimes we make miracles happen. And sometimes they’re grand and glorious and obvious, and sometimes they’re subtle and almost coincidental. But while the big obvious miracles may seem more significant, it’s actually the smaller, less obvious miracles that are the true testament to faith. The miracles that happen when we don’t just sit back, complain, and wait for God to do something miraculous, but when we proactively decide to take action, ascribe meaning and purpose to our situation, and do something about it, not certain if it will actually work, but with a belief that if we take the first step, if we act on that purpose, that we will receive some kind of quiet (or not so quiet) heavenly assistance. Because that’s the ultimate testament of faith, and that’s the real answer to theodicy (insofar as we get any answer), and Purim is the celebration of that faith.

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May It Be My Worst Problem

I used to get very ordinary haircuts. I’d go to the closest barber about once every two or three months, and get a number 4 buzzcut right over the top. No frills. But then I started dating, and more than one of my girlfriends told me that they liked my hair and wished I would stop shearing it all off. And if a girl who liked spending time with me wanted more of my hair, who was I to say no. I told her I’d go to whichever salon she recommended. She picked a place, and I made a reservation for a week later. The price was a bit steep, but anything to make her happy, right?

I got there at 7 PM, and entered a room made for men. Animal skin throw rugs, rich, plush leather chairs, mounted trophy heads, a magazine rack holding everything from Car and Driver to Playboy, a beer tap, large selection of scotches, and, of course, four beautiful women doing the styling. It was a stunningly chuckleworthy caricature to masculinity. I suspect she chose it because she thought it would appeal to me. It did, but more to my sense of irony. As soon as I walked in, the receptionist greeted me, asked to take my jacket, and offered me a drink. I could get used to this.

I’m pretty introverted by nature. It may not seem like it to people who know me online, mainly because of how much I talk when they finally meet me in real life, but my close friends know that I don’t really do well with new people. It takes effort to get me to talk to you, because even if you do walk over to me and say hi, I’ll just smile and politely say hi back, and then go back to staring at a fixed point on the wall to your left, until you decide to say something else. I was still getting used to the amenities included in the $100 haircut experience, but what I wasn’t ready for, or comfortable with, was the conversation that seemed to be included.

The other men seemed to enjoy it just fine. Their stylists would play to their fancies, asking them about work, and vacations, and cars, and bars, and girls, and they’d go on and on, goaded forward by the stylists who were committed to making the haircut as enjoyable an experience as possible. And what more enjoyment can a man have, really, than having his vanities indulged by a beautiful woman. For me, it was a whole lot more uncomfortable, though. I had nothing in common with those men. I didn’t have apartments in other cities, or the pocket change necessary to fly off to wherever whenever I felt like it. More to the point, I really didn’t like talking. The conversations were like pulling teeth; she’d ask me some perfunctory questions about work, or travel, I’d give her short, clipped answers, and we’d fall into silence, until it was time to get rinsed.

After about six months of this, we finally developed some kind of rapport. The conversation was a little easier, and I felt more comfortable about it. When she asked about my life, I’d actually tell her about it. But something funny started happening. Somehow, right before my monthly haircuts, something unfortunate would happen to me, or several unfortunate somethings would happen to me, and I’d be compelled to tell her about it when she asked. One month my car was wrecked, another it was towed and I had to spend 6 hours getting it out of the tow pound, next month I’d broken up with someone I was dating, and on it would go, one long series of unfortunate events. And even though I told her these stories with a smile, laughing them off like they were insignificant, they bothered her, to the point where she (politely) asked me to stop talking about them, and changed the subject. I think the fact that I was laughing about things that to her were so plainly terrible made it even worse; how twisted does someone have to be, or how bad must things have been, to make someone laugh at things that make other people cry.

This month was going to be different, though. I was actually looking forward to my haircut so I could tell her about the wonderful time I’d had with my friends over the recent holidays. It really was fantastic. Atlanta for Rosh Hashana, Crown Heights for Yom Kippur, Boro Park, Canarsie, and Flatbush for Sukkos, including trips with friends for Chol hamoed. It was honestly the best time I’ve ever had on Yom tov. And I was so looking forward to finally having some good news for her, maybe make her smile instead of rolling her eyes. And then everything went pear shaped.

It started with the laundromat. I brought all of my clothing in on Erev Sukkos, but the computers were down. One of the workers handed me a slip of paper, told me to write down my name, phone number and address, and come back in a week for the clothing. When I came back, it was all gone. All of it. I even went behind the counter and sifted through all of the laundry myself. Hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothing, gone. Which was made even worse by the fact that because of Yom Tov, I haven’t worked a proper week this month, and barely had enough to pay my rent, let alone my credit cards. As if that weren’t enough, a student of mine crashed my car during a driving lesson last Friday, causing $1600 worth of damage to my car, and another $800 to the other guy. My car is going to be in the shop for a week, during which time I won’t be able to work.

I was able to borrow a coworker’s car for the weekend to drive myself back home, and on the way I decided to check in on the laundromat to see if they had, by some miracle, found my clothing. They hadn’t, and rather than just give me the claims form to fill out, had me stand there for a half hour while they turned the place upside-down looking for a bag that was clearly not there, all in the hope that they could avoid having another claim from their store logged with the main corporate offices. Eventually everyone gave up, and I filled out a claims form for the lost laundry. As I was walking back to the parking lot, I dropped my car keys over a drain.

As I saw them fall, I almost didn’t care anymore. Of course this would happen to me. Of course. And right then. A perfect end to a perfect week. But then they bounced. The key had hit a piece of the latticework over the drain, and bounced off onto the pavement. And as I bent to pick it up, I couldn’t control myself, and burst out laughing. Some guy across the lot thought I was crackers, but it was the most incredible thing. For five minutes I couldn’t stop, and all that was going through my head was “My God, imagine how much worse it could have been.”

It really got me thinking about everything in my life, all of the abuse, all of the pain, all of the unfortunate things I’ve been made to experience. I’ve spent the past 6 years blogging about everything that’s gone wrong, about the anger I’ve felt toward God, the constant adversity I’ve managed to overcome, but it hit me in that moment, how little time I spend being thankful and appreciative for everything that has gone right in my life, how much worse it could have been but for God’s intervention. And I couldn’t stop laughing because all of that complaining I do, whether or not it’s justified, in that moment seemed so ridiculous, because the good is right there in front of me, constantly, and all I need to do, really, is open my eyes and see it. It felt like my whole life, everything I’ve ever experienced, had to happen to set the stage for that moment when I’d see my keys fall toward that drain, and they would bounce away onto the pavement.

I’ve had a very difficult life. But I’ve also had a very blessed life. I’ve been blessed with the best friends on the planet, a community of people whom I consider my new family, incredibly charitable people who opened their hearts and pockets when I had nothing, the most amazing and supportive readers on the internet (seriously, my comments section is wonderful). I’ve been blessed with health, and a job that (usually) pays the bills. I have a landlady that most tenants would kill for, a boss who is nice to a fault, coworkers who somehow manage to put up with me, and clients who pay on time. So what if things go wrong every now and again. What’s a night at the tow pound in the larger scheme of things. Dented cars can be fixed, clothing replaced, debts deferred, and wounds healed. May they be my worst problems. I have everything I need. And hey, at least my keys didn’t fall down the drain.

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How Rosh Hashana Returned Me to My Culture

Author’s note: This started as a post I started writing in the Project Makom Facebook group, but I felt it deserved to be shared with a wider audience. I am deeply grateful to all of the organizers of this shabbaton, and to all of the people who make Project Makom possible. 

So a bit of thanks and a bit of confession. Firstly, thank you so much to Mindy, Yoel, and Shlomo. Rosh Hashana was incredible, and by far the most meaningful I’ve ever experienced. Thank you so much to everyone who came; it was great meeting all of you. Thank you for putting up with me, even if (and especially when) I was shouting my opinions at everyone.

Now for confession. I’ve always had a big problem with the cultural aspects of Jewish life. I love the ideology, and I’ve come to love God, and through loving God I’ve come to relate to the Torah and halacha, but the cultural aspects of Jewish observance have always made me feel somewhere between uncomfortable and repulsed. For example, zemiros on shabbos or yom tov make me want to be anywhere else but the table at which I’m sitting. Singing in shul makes me wish I hadn’t gone. Making a yehi ratzon on the symbolic Rosh Hashana foods make me feel stupid. It’s not because I’m some hyper-rationalist who thinks that religious practices based more on emotion and spirituality are less valid than logical legalism.

From age 11 onward, cultural religious expression in my family meant that life was about to get very dangerous, or at the very least very bizarre. Before age 11, when my grandfather was still alive, cultural religious expression was beautiful. Kiddush was soulful, zemiros were emotional, prayer in the home was inspirational. After he died, everything changed. He was no longer the family’s cultural spiritual leader, so to speak. That fell to my grandmother. She tried for a year or so, but we missed my grandfather, and as hard as she tried, she could never step into his shoes. Eventually she gave up. The zemiros stopped. The prayer stopped. Kiddush was mumbled. Shabbos meals were a family obligation rather than a blessed opportunity to bond. Religion became entirely ideological in practice; we lost the cultural, spiritual, hard to quantify but oh so real aspects of our family religious observance.

Which was fine. I had nothing against cultural religious expression, it just wasn’t something we did anymore at home.

But it wasn’t so simple. My mother had bipolar disorder, and mental illness has a funny way of manifesting in religious observance. When my mother was irreligious, it meant she was stable. Hearing the TV on shabbos, while heartbreaking and disgusting to a child raised to believe that religious Judaism is the only valid way to live life, meant that she was on her meds. It was when she was being frum that things got scary.

See, when she was stable, she knew that God didn’t care about her. She knew that God didn’t matter, and that being religious is for superstitious idiots or people graced with such privilege they’ve never had to wonder why God can be such a bastard while claiming to be benevolent. But when she was off her meds, she was just crazy enough to think God actually cared, to think that if she put on enough of a show, God might actually give her what she wanted. But things had to be just so, because God doesn’t stop being a tyrant just because you start listening. Everything had to be perfect for God to be impressed enough to give her what she wanted.

So if she was lighting candles, I had to stand there in silent contemplation. If she was singing zemiros, I had to either join or sit silently. If she was praying, I had to listen intently. If she was covering her hair, I had to dress as though I was standing before the King of Kings. Because the show had to be perfect if God was to be entertained enough to bestow God’s beneficence. And God help me if the show wasn’t perfect.

I came to hate all of it. Even after I stopped hating God. I still hated all of those little acts I’d been forced to put on. Even after I started loving God again, I was never able to bring myself to express that love the way everyone else finds so natural, but to me feels dangerous. I stopped singing in shul. I sat silently at the shabbos tables of my friends. I made excuses why I wasn’t singing when people pressed me to participate. I’d hurry through public expressions of religion as though I was ashamed of it, when really I was never ashamed of it, but terrified of it.

Somehow, though, that was different this Rosh Hashana. I don’t know what it was, but I felt safe, comfortable, and accepted enough, to dip my toe in the water again, and join in not only the legal, halachic observances of Judaism, but the cultural and spiritual observances and expressions of Judaism as well. And it was ok. It was scary as all hell, but it was ok. Nothing happened. It felt ok. Like I was finding something I’d lost and come to fear. And I know it’s weird, and a little off putting to attach this kind of serious significance to something as casual and lighthearted as a friendly roadtrip to Atlanta for Rosh Hashana, but in a sense this marks a milestone in my life, where I can say that a part of my religion has finally been unlocked for me – a part I’ve really missed.

And now we’re back to thanks. Thank you all for being a part of that, even if you didn’t know it was happening. Thank you all for being the ones who were there to share this experience with me, even if I was the only one to experience it. You’re all very special people and, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to thank you for being a part of changing my life.

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A Different Take on the Four Sons

This is a view of the Four Sons I’ve been kicking around for a few years. I’ve never much liked the way they’re all treated. We elevate the wise one; we castigate the “evil” one; The simple one we sort of overlook; to the one who doesn’t know how to ask, we give basically the same answer as we give to the “evil” one but with less kick.

What if each of the four sons is at a different point in his religious journey. What if they’re all the same person at different points in their lives, or representative of four types of religious people.

The wise one has it all figured out. He was somehow endowed with some knowledge of the divine and has easily found his religious identity. He doesn’t need any convincing. Preach away to an eager choir.

The “evil” one to me has never been evil. He’s not indifferent, but ambivalent. He’s being torn apart inside by the doubts he has on one hand and the desire to connect with God on the other, and he’s desperately trying to resolve that conflict. Some people misunderstand him and break his teeth, so to speak, but all he’s really doing is trying to engage so he can finally find his way. Yes, he may be combative at times. Yes, he may lash out. But it’s what he needs to find his truth. Be gentle.

The simple one isn’t bothered by it. He kind of coasts through life religious because that’s how he was born, never really trying to figure it out one way or the other. His faith is simple in the sense that it isn’t based on much inner conviction. He believes what he was raised to believe, and he doesn’t rock the boat.

The one who doesn’t know how to ask is the most misunderstood, though. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to ask. He does. He tried. The one who doesn’t know how to ask started out as the “evil” one. He asked until he was blue in the face but no one wanted to answer him. He’s the second son who wasn’t handled gently, with kindness and love, but with anger and intolerance. He’s sporting a set of broken teeth. It’s not that he no longer knows how to ask, rather he doesn’t care to anymore. He’s utterly spent. Emotionally exhausted. So completely sick of faith and the faithful that he doesn’t even care to try. Go apologize.

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Unesaneh Tokef Through The Eyes of a Survivor

I find it hard to pray for myself. I always feel unworthy. I feel like a hypocrite standing before God, imperfect as I am, a sinner set in his ways, asking God to do me yet another favour I know I’ll never return. I’ve heard the speeches. I’ve heard my rav (rabbi) tell me over and over again, that regardless of what I believe will happen after Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), one moment of pure teshuva (repentance), one moment of repentance, a single instant in which I tell God that were every moment that moment, I would never sin again, is enough to constitute repentance and earn me forgiveness in the eyes of God. No matter how many times I hear it, I can never accept it. Afar ani b’chayai (I am like dirt in my lifetime—taken from the Yom Kippur liturgy)—what right do I have.

So I spend my Yom Kippur doing other things. I focus on the Avodah (litany of the service in the Temple), I cry during eileh ezkerah (litany mourning the death of the Ten Sages by the Romans), I sit quietly in my seat and stare at the choirmaster as he conducts his choir. I pray for other people because I can’t pray for myself. I pray for my friends, for (some of) my family, for the countless victims of abuse and suffering, for the dead who can no longer pray for themselves, both those whose lives were taken by others, and those who took their own lives. I pray for other people, and in doing so, I pray that God sees fit to help me a little bit, too.

For the past five years, Unesaneh Tokef (litany composed by Rav Amnon of Mayence—recounted in part below) has been the hardest prayer for me to utter throughout the entire liturgy of the High Holy Days. I always end up crying bitterly. Thus far, thank God, no one has come over to me and asked me why someone so young cries so hard during a prayer that confronts mankind with a mortality that youth should find, at most, abstract. I have my answer all prepared in case someone asks me: For some of us it’s just more real. I’d like to share my thoughts on a few parts of the Yom Kippur prayers, and what they mean to me. Not all of the things apply to me, but they are all things I have come across since I started hearing people’s stories.

The story goes that Rav Amnon of Mayence, Germany was friends with the Archbishop of the town. The two would converse often, sometimes, and increasingly, about religion. The Archbishop very much wanted Rav Amnon to consider converting to Christianity. After wearing him down enough, Rav Amnon, to buy himself a little time, and to get the Archbishop to leave him alone, requested three days during which to consider the Archbishop’s request. Upon returning home, Rav Amnon was devastated by the fact that he had seemingly given the impression of even considering apostasy. He locked himself in his house for three days, repenting, begging forgiveness from God for even the slightest hint of heresy.

At the end of the three days, the Archbishop sent for Rav Amnon, to hear his decision. Rav Amnon refused to come. Eventually, the Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon forcibly brought to his residence. When confronted about his apparent disobedience, Rav Amnon told the bishop to cut off his tongue for saying he would return after three days, despite his having no intention of doing so. The Archbishop responded that he should instead cut off Rav Amnon’s legs, for it was his legs which were responsible for not bringing him after three days.

The Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon’s limbs amputated, joint by joint. Following each little amputation, he asked Rav Amnon if he would agree to convert. Rav Amnon refused. When both his arms and legs had been cut off, the Archbishop sent Rav Amnon back home on a stretcher, his severed limbs beside him. A few days later, on Rosh HaShana (Jewish New Year), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought, weak, bloody, and dying, to the synagogue. Right before the chazzan (cantor) recited kedusha (holy prayer recited by the cantor), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought before the ark. With his last breath, he recited Unesaneh Tokef, and passed from this world. I read the story every year before saying Unesaneh tokef; it never ceases to amaze me how a man so broken, so forsaken by his God, could hold onto faith so strongly. And with that in mind, I begin: Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom.

 It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself.

You alone, God, know; You alone bear witness when the door is closed; You alone bear witness when a child is too afraid to speak; You alone can attest to the atrocity that tens of thousands of Your children experience every day, every week, and every year. You alone record it, and reckon it, remember it, and judge it. You alone can see the truth even if everyone else calls it a lie. That book of yours records and reports all those times a child cried alone, begging someone, anyone, to help.

 All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

Please, God, let this be the year we get justice.

 On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed…who will live and who will die.

Who will survive, and who will try their hardest, but eventually let go.

Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time.

How many more will be added to The Wall.

Who by sword?

Who will cut just a little too deep.

Who by beast?

Who will run afoul of their dealer.

Who by famine, and who by thirst?

Who will die as a result of an eating disorder.

Who by upheaval?

Who will be forced out onto the street to escape an abusive home.

Who by plague?

Who will contract HIV from a rapist who didn’t wear a condom.

Who by strangling?

Who will hang themselves.

Who by stoning?

Who will jump.

Who will rest?

Maybe this year he’ll stop.

 Who will wander?

Maybe these foster parents won’t be as bad.

Who will live in harmony?

Maybe my husband won’t force me tonight.

Who will be tormented?

My friend gave me a number to a shelter.

Who will enjoy tranquility?

Will he finally give the Get.

Who will suffer?

Will we ever see our children again.

Who will be impoverished?

Will anyone ever hire us again if we go to the police.

Who will be enriched?

How many more hundreds of thousands of dollars will be raised to help some child rapist while we have to literally beg for money.

Who will be degraded?

Maybe we really were asking for it.

Who will be exalted?

When will they finally celebrate a criminal going to prison instead of celebrating his release.

Fast forward to the close of Neilah (lit. closing [of the gates]), the very last time we’re given on Yom Kippur to beseech God for the coming year:

May it be your will, God, who hears the sound of our cries, that you place our tears in your flask to remain; and rescue us from all cruel and harsh decrees, for to you alone do our eyes look.

ISN’T THAT DAMN FLASK OF YOURS FULL ALREADY?! HOW MUCH LONGER! HOW MANY MORE YEARS! HOW MANY MORE THOUSANDS, HOW MANY MORE MILLIONS, HOW MANY MORE DEAD CHILDREN , HOW MANY MORE CUTS, HOW MANY MORE PILLS, HOW MANY MORE NIGHTS SPENT IN THE EMERGENCY ROOM, HOW MANY MORE THERAPY SESSIONS, HOW MANY MORE FLASHBACKS, HOW MANY MORE PANIC ATTACKS, HOW MANY MORE FINGERS DOWN HOW MANY MORE THROATS, HOW MANY DIVES OFF THE EDGES OF BUILDINGS, HOW MANY BODIES SWINGING FROM HOW MANY MORE ROPES, HOW MANY NIGHTS SPENT SOAKING HOW MANY MORE PILLOWS—HOW MANY TEARS WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO REALIZE THAT THAT DAMN FLASK OF YOURS IS ALREADY FULL?

Enough. Please. Enough. One day, I hope, my, and everyone else’s prayers will be answered.

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Why I’m Not Shomer Negiah Anymore

They taught us in writing class that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. They taught us that it’s a complete fabrication made up by people who were too lazy to write. There are, however, times when the creative juices just seem not to flow. “Just write about anything,” my teacher said. “Write about getting out of bed in the morning, or the birds that chirped outside your window as you got dressed, or the fly that jumped into your oatmeal while you were looking away at the morning Times. Write about your writer’s block. Write about anything as long as you write, and that block will disappear.” That’s kind of what I did with this opening paragraph. It’s not that I’m too lazy to write; honestly, the fact that I’m writing this scares me a little.

I put myself out there with my writing in a way that most people wouldn’t be comfortable doing themselves. Being a religious Jew living in my community, I should be terrified of what this blog does to my shidduch (suitability for marriage) prospects. When I started writing, I gave up any hope of shidduchim. Instead of depending on shadchanim (matchmakers), I chose to meet girls on my own. So I don’t have that hanging over me. Still, though, I try to keep the objectionable stuff to a minimum here, especially when it comes to things that can come back and bite me, but I think this is something that enough abuse survivors struggle with, that the discomfort I may experience from writing this and dealing with the resulting judgment of people who don’t understand is outweighed by the potential benefit.

Growing up, touch was always a touchy subject for me. My family isn’t one of those touchy feely ones where hugs and kisses are a normal thing people do. Everyone, I assume, knew that everyone else loved them; they didn’t need physical signs of affection to understand that. The only one who ever hugged or kissed me was my mother, which to most people will seem normal, but it never felt normal to me. The way she touched me was stifling, constantly kissing me, hugging me, almost possessively, as though she were marking me as hers. I could tell her to stop, I could tell her I was uncomfortable, but she wouldn’t stop.

I hear those eyes rolling, those mothers in my audience groaning because it reminds them of when they try to kiss their own children despite cries of “Oh my God, mom, you’re so embarrassing!!!” My mother abused me for years in ways so subtle I didn’t even realize it. Every time she touched me it was possessive and dominating, not loving. She was the only one who ever touched me as a kid. That coupled with what she did resulted in me having an extreme aversion to touch. I can’t even handle too many people standing around me, even if they’re not touching me. Just yesterday, I was in a restaurant at a table behind a large family on their way out. One of them passed a coat over me to another, and the coat brushed me. I had to clench my jaw and ball my fists to prevent myself from screaming or hitting one of them.

For most of my life I couldn’t handle anyone touching me. They did anyway, and I didn’t say anything, but I hated it. Both men and women. I reacted viscerally any time someone touched me. Then I met Melanie. Melanie came to me at a time in my life when everything was coming to a head. I had pretty much dropped out of high school because of what was happening to me at home. I had lost the ability to feel any emotion at all. The abuse at home required a certain cruelty of me, a callousness that left no room for any other emotion. It had gotten so bad that I slept with a belt near my bed in case my mother came in and tried beating me. I had to be willing to fight back against my mother, and hurt her if necessary, if she tried hurting me. It’s no easy thing for a son to injure his mother, to hear her cry and know he caused it. This was happening almost daily when I met Melanie.

She was a member of a forum I was very active on. I say met, but we only ever interacted online. I never actually met her in real life. It’s amazing, really; someone who had such an integral role in making me who I am now never actually met me. She was an Irish Protestant aspiring divinity student from Hawaii with a strong interest in religion, theology, philosophy, and politics. We instantly became best friends; we were as inseparable as two people living six thousand miles from each other could be. We spent every waking moment Skyping, IMing, texting, or calling each other. She somehow saw past my surly, caustic, sarcastic, heartless exterior. Somehow she saw that cowering version of me, hiding in some dark recess of my soul, terrified to come out for fear of being hurt even more. She saw the secrets I kept and how much they were hurting me, and she offered to help me carry them. She’s the first person I’ve ever told everything to. I think she’s the first person I ever loved.

It was she who showed me that I could feel again, that the cruelty I’d been forced to feel toward my mother didn’t have to become who I was. She helped me trust again.

Writing is what ultimately helped me start healing. An article I wrote for Ami magazine about what I’d gone through sort of opened the floodgates, and I’ve been writing ever since. It’s an amazing catharsis, and it has really helped me sort through things. Sometimes you just need to get all that conflict and inner turmoil out on paper before you can stare it down and tell it to jump in a lake. I started writing a memoir. It’s no easy task, writing a memoir, and it helps to have people around you, other writers who understand how difficult writing can be, cheering you on.

Every November is National Novel Writing Month, worldwide. Thousands of aspiring authors shake off the cobwebs, dust off their typewriters, and write a novel in a month. Living in New York City is great during NaNoWriMo. There are writing meetings all over the city where you can sit with other authors and bounce ideas off each other, discuss which way would be best to kill off your characters, which characters should fall in love with each other, how to accurately describe a freshly severed head, get drunk, and write until your fingers fall off. Most of them aren’t Jewish, and the ones who are generally aren’t religious, which means that sooner or later you’re going to get touched, whether it’s a hug, handshake, pat on the back, or arm around the shoulder. It happens so fast and so naturally that you don’t even have time to object if you’re shomer negiah (careful not to touch the opposite sex unless you’re either married or immediately related to them).

At the time I was still shomer negiah, and I would protest if I could, but more often than not it was over before I could begin to protest. I found myself liking it. They were a great bunch of people who knew the parts of my story I’d given as a synopsis for my plot and were very supportive of me, and I trusted them. It felt great to be touched by people and not feel like I had to run; to be hugged by someone I thought of as a friend and not have a panic attack. I never initiated any kind of physical contact; I just sat there waiting for one of the girls to come and hug me, or just pat me on the shoulder, hoping that they did it fast enough for me to get away with not protesting.

Funny enough, I still hated being touched by the guys. I’d cringe every time one of them so much as came to close to me. I’ve discussed it with my therapist because it seems counter-intuitive. I was abused by a woman and not a man, and yet, for some reason, if I trust them I’ll let a woman touch me, but no matter who the man is and how much I trust him, I can’t stand being touched by him. She says it’s because of Melanie, that since she was the first person I opened up to, I’m open to trusting women more than I’ll ever trust men.

I knew I liked being touched by women, but I still believed that it was wrong. I was still shomer negiah, which made life very difficult for me. Before this, I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d never like being touched by anyone, but now I knew that it didn’t have to be like that for me. The fact that I had options made the idea of going the rest of my single life without any physical contact very scary. People take physical contact very much for granted because they, thank God, have it in their lives, even people who are shomer negiah. That “bro hug” or clap on the shoulder is huge. It’s almost like breathing. You take it for granted until you can’t have it. Being touched by men gave me panic attacks and being touched by women was forbidden. That scared me. A lot.

It took me a year to finally decide to stop being shomer negiah, and it was not an easy decision. A year of hoping someone would touch me before I had to object. A year of feeling both guilty and pleased for wanting that basic human need fulfilled. Finally I couldn’t do it anymore. One day I just messaged a friend of mine that I had been spending a lot of time with and told her that I wasn’t shomer negiah anymore. She wasn’t shomer negiah either, and while she found my sudden decision strange, she was pleased that she didn’t have to be careful around me anymore. She could hug me if she wanted to. She could tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. She could hold my arm when we walked. I was pleased that she was pleased, because I wanted all those things too.

I felt so guilty for the first two months, like I was headed down some slippery slope to premarital sex and unintended paternity. It took some time to rid myself of that guilt and come to terms with the fact that touching the opposite sex does not have to be sexual. I literally sat in coffeshops watching the way secular people interacted with each other as friends to get some sort of feel for what was normal and acceptable physical contact between friends and what wasn’t. A hand on the back is ok, but only if it isn’t too low on the back. Too low means you want something else. A kiss on the cheek is ok as a greeting, but only if it doesn’t linger. A hug is ok but only for a second or two. Past that gets uncomfortable.

 It may seem odd, but there was a very steep learning curve for me, a rather religious boy from a rather religious family in a rather religious community. What I was doing was unheard of. Scandalous. God forbid anyone saw me. I’d become an instant kiruv (religious outreach) case. Boys who touched girls were almost certainly having sex with them, and sex before marriage is strictly forbidden. I had to be careful lest anyone think I was having sex.

It’s been a little over a year since I stopped being shomer negiah, and I can’t say I regret my decision. I honestly don’t think I would have lasted being shomer negiah, knowing that I would have to go until I got married without so much as a high five from someone that didn’t give me a panic attack.

That being said, the fact that I’m not shomer negiah does not mean I believe I’m doing the right thing. More to the point, I still believe in the rationale behind being shomer negiah. I still believe that premarital sex is wrong, and that being shomer negiah is the best way of heading it off. To that end, I set limits for myself. I may not be shomer negiah, but I still keep as much of the spirit of that law as I can. I don’t do anything sexual. I’ve never kissed a girl, nor do I intend to before I’m married. I don’t touch parts of the body that are sexual. I don’t touch a girl’s chest or genitals, or get close to either. I’m not looking to get away with more than I think I need.

It’s not easy. Honestly, if I could be shomer negiah I like to think I would be just because of how complicated it is to toe that thin line between what I need to satisfy my need for basic physical contact and going any further. It’s very hard to just stop myself, especially when the other person really wouldn’t mind me going further, but I have a very clear idea of why I don’t want to go further, a clear understanding of the law, and a desire to keep halacha (Jewish law) stronger than my desire for sexual satisfaction. (That being said, have I mentioned how difficult it is? Because let me tell you…)

I’m not recommending what I do to anyone, nor am I looking for anyone to tell me that what I’m doing is ok. I know it’s not ok. I know it’s not halachically permissible. I choose to do it anyway. This post is meant to help anyone who experienced what I did, to validate the feelings they may be having, to let them know that they are not bad people for wanting something forbidden. I know there are people going through the same struggle and I want you to know that whatever you choose to do, whether you stay shomer negiah, choose not to be but with the same boundaries as me, or choose to do away with it entirely without any boundaries, no one can judge you, no one can criticize you, and no one can make you feel bad about your decision. Anyone who does has never walked a minute in your shoes, and anyone who has would never judge you.

I hope this post can help people, and to anyone reading this who is going through the same struggle, I wish you luck in your healing, a long and happy life devoid of pain, and the courage to transcend whatever was done to you.

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There and Back Again

It’s not easy having a relationship with God, especially if you never had a good relationship with your parents. That’s the comparison generally used when explaining the mystery of God’s plan, to a parent making decisions for their child that the child is too young to understand. Of course, children tend to rebel against their parents; it’s all a part of growing up. But they usually come back when they realize that their parents loved them all along and had only their best interests at heart. It’s a lot harder, though, when it’s God you’re dealing with, because parents respond more overtly and clearly than God does. With God, all you have is faith, and your belief that everything He does is ultimately for the best. It’s so easy to lose sight of that.

Life had fallen apart. After months of trying to play peacekeeper between my abusive mother and me, my grandmother broke down and was hospitalized. When she left the hospital, she was severely depressed, nearly catatonic. The only way for me to get money for daily necessities was to sit with her and try to coax some emotion out of her. If I could get her to talk–to feel–then I could connect with her enough to make her understand why I needed money. I was 17 years old, hardly a trained psychologist. It was torture to have to do that every day. She would sit there telling me why she had given up on life, how everything that had happened was her fault, and how she had felt in the moment she had given up.

I would run out afterward, after I had gotten the money I needed, and scream. Just scream. And punch the walls, and curse God and demand to know why–why I was being subjected to my life. All those years in a dysfunctional family, and then the abuse, and then having to get my heart ripped apart every day just to survive. God was torturing me and I hated Him for it. According to the Torah, the penalty for cursing God is death. Personally, I didn’t care; I wanted to die anyway.

I went to shul every day, three times a day, but the words I was saying felt wrong on my lips. I was praying to a God who would never answer, asking for mercy I’d never receive. I choked out shacharis, mincha, and maariv through tears and sobs, and every day it got harder and harder. Eventually I stopped crying. Like a child who is told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, I got over the fact that God wasn’t there and tried to move on with my life. Sure, I went through all the motions, but it was only because that was the life I knew. Until I found something else I could believe, I wasn’t quite ready to abandon my lifestyle.

God was gone, and in His absence was a void. I started looking for something to fill it. First I looked for a way to maintain my beliefs in the absence of God. I had always been taught that what separated the Jewish people from the atheists and idolaters of this world was their morality. No longer believing in God made me feel amoral. I started studying moral philosophy, trying to find a way to maintain a belief in absolute morality while still eschewing the idea of absolute morality requiring a deity, or higher entity. Kant’s moral philosophy, based on the categorical imperative, appealed to me at the time, especially since it acknowledged the practical need for the idea of some higher power to exist in order to maintain any absolute truth, but allowed for no higher being to actually exist. To quote Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In short, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

So I had morality, which made me feel somewhat better, but I felt something still lacking in that void left by God’s departure. My life became a war between the two sides of me, the part that wanted Judaism and the part that wanted to reject God entirely. Though I had given up on God and religion, I felt sad doing so, as if an important part of me had just been lost. I started debating anyone who would accommodate me. Usually, I would take the side of Judaism against any opposition, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was trying to convince myself as much as my opponents. Instead of feeling vindicated after winning a debate, all I felt was shameful, and frustrated. I read every hashkafa book I could get my hands on, watched every video about atheism I could find, argued about both with whomever would give me their time, and none of it helped fill that void.

The more I searched, the more I kept seeing that there really is only one truth when it comes to belief in God: There is no proof; there is only faith. That’s what emuna p’shuta means to me now. Not blind, unquestioning faith, but the understanding that after you’ve questioned, after you’ve searched high and low for proof, all there really is, is faith. Confronted with this truth I had to decide: Do I, or do I not, believe in God?

It’s not a question you can answer in one day, so I took my time. I sat back and examined my life as it unfolded, trying to honestly determine if I could believe in God or not. It’s always the little things. The money I would make here and there when I needed it most, the opportunities that seemed to arise from nowhere, the people who came into my life when I had no one. Little things, but to me they were signs of some divine intervention. Grudgingly I accepted the existence of God, but that didn’t put Him back in my good graces. I hated Him just as much, but I couldn’t deny His existence. I just couldn’t see any good or purpose in my suffering.

That autumn, I wrote a draft of my memoir. Two weeks, fifty-thousand words. I barely ate or slept. After it was finished, I labored over it for a few days, correcting spelling and grammatical errors, until it was, for a rough draft, perfect. That night, I went to a FedEx store and had it printed and bound. While I knew I was supposed to be feeling elation at having accomplished something so incredible in such a short time, what I actually felt was sadness and emptiness. I nearly jumped in front of a train that night. That book had been my purpose, and there it was, in my hands, printed and bound–finished. My purpose, finished.

On a suggestion from a friend, I started volunteering at a drop-in center for kids at risk. I felt that perhaps others could benefit from my experience. In doing so, I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why I was chosen for the life I was given, but I don’t think I need to know that anymore. Not yet, anyway. I will one day, after I’ve lived my life, and I move on to the next world. For now, though, I have my God, I have my purpose, and that’s all I need. Don’t get me wrong, my relationship with God is anything but easy, but it’s the fact that there’s a relationship that I enjoy so much. I feel that, after everything I’ve been through, and after losing and then finding God again, I am much closer to Him than most other people. I feel that closeness every day, and I have no doubt that God loves me. I see His kindness in my life every day. I am a proudly Orthodox Jew, and I love my God.

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