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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Sex Segregation Gone Mad

Update – 7/10/2015: Presumably after seeing the attention this story got, the person whom I had this conversation with called and left a message saying that the call was a prank. I’m leaving it up with this disclaimer because I find the fact that many parts of this story, particularly the extreme sexism and racism, are plausible very telling. 

Author’s note: I wouldn’t ordinarily post something like this on my blog. I try to keep this blog away from anything that could potentially be used to bash any group without offering any constructive criticism. The reason I’m posting this is not to imply that this is at all the norm. As noted below, this was the first time in the history of our driving school that such a thing happened. That said, the fact that such a thing could happen indicates that we’ve reached a point in our obsession with tznius (modesty) and sex segregation that can create the feelings expressed by the customer. 

“I had a problem with my road test yesterday, one you scheduled for me.”
“Ok,” I replied. “What happened?”
“When I came there to the road test site, a woman got into the car.”
“Ok…”
“I didn’t want to be in the car with a woman, so I asked her if there were any men I could take the test with, and she said there weren’t any available.”
“Ok…”
“So I asked to speak to her supervisor, and she said that he wasn’t available.”
By this point my right eyebrow was already working its way up toward my hairline.

“I asked her if she had a towel,” he continued, as if the words coming out of his mouth made perfect sense, “I wanted to put it up between us as a mechitza (partition used to separate the sexes). She gave me a funny look.”
At this point I’d covered the receiver with my hand, and was failing miserably at controlling my giggles.
“She looked at me funny, and said that she wouldn’t be able to see me. That was the point, I told her. She gave me a dirty look and told me I couldn’t take the test.”
I fought back the laughter as I blurted, “Hold on a second, please,” and put the customer on hold.

I ran over to my boss’ desk, laughing uncontrollably, face beet red, tears already forming around my eyes. My boss saw me laughing and started laughing himself. He motioned with his hand, asking what had happened. We’ve gotten enough weird calls in the past that he knew something was up.

After about a minute I regained my composure enough to tell him what I’d just heard, punctuated by more giggles of course. “Can you please do me a favor and talk to this guy?” I asked him, “I don’t think I can control myself.”
“Sorry,” my boss replied through his own belly laughs, “you take care of this.”
He ran into the front office to tell the secretary what had happened, closing the door behind him.

I composed myself and lifted the receiver.

“It’s the three weeks, you know, you shouldn’t have the music on the phone.”
“Huh?” I replied, not quite sure what he was referring to.
“The music when I was just on hold. It’s the three weeks; you should change that.”
“That’s a good point,” I replied. I hadn’t considered that.
B’kitzur (in short),” he continued, “I want a refund. She didn’t let me take the test.”
“Hold on, please, let me ask my boss.”

I put the receiver down again and went into the front office. My boss was telling the secretaries about the phone call. I interrupted him to finish the story, laughing as I told it. I told my boss that the customer wanted a refund, and he said absolutely not.
“Tell him they only have men in Monticello,” My boss said. They don’t, but why not make him drive.

“Hello?” I said, picking up the receiver, “I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to give you a refund.”
“Why not?” he demanded, “It isn’t right that I should have to take a road test with an isha (woman) and a tumadikeh goy (unclean non-Jew) that I should have to sit in a car with a tumadikeh goy!”
Flustered at hearing such vehemence against someone whose only crime is not being Jewish I said, “You live in a goyishe country. Do you cross the street every time you see a goy (non-Jew) coming toward you?
“No, but in the street I can look down at the sidewalk, I don’t have to see them.”
“Well,” I said patiently, although I was reaching the end of my tether, “We live in a goyishe (non-Jewish) country, and if you want to get a license in this country, you’re gonna have to take a road test with a goy who might also be a woman.”
“You don’t understand,” he replied, “she was so anti-Semitic! She looked at me like I was crazy, just because I’m Jewish and I needed a man to give me the test!”
I’d been patient, but this was pushing it. I have very little tolerance for people crying ‘anti-Semitism’ when it plainly isn’t. “No,” I shouted, “it wasn’t anti-Semitism. She had literally never heard anyone ask for that before, and found the request strange! You are the only person who has ever, in the history of this driving school or any other, who has asked a road test examiner if they could have a man replace them! It’s not even yichud (a law prohibiting two people of the opposite sex who are not married or immediately related from being alone together) at all! It’s an open car, with clear windows, driving around in a busy city! Ask your rav (rabbi), there’s absolutely no problem with it! All the rest of our students are just as frum (religiously observant) as you are, and none of them have ever had a problem with this! It’s not anti-Semitism; it’s just you!”
“The problem is you, and your whole driving school,” he shouted, “you’re all choteh umachti es harabim (one who not only sins, but drives others to sin)!”

At which point I hung up on him.

You can’t make this stuff up, people.

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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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There is No Derech

About a month ago, a friend of mine shared a Humans of New York photo of a rabbi, clearly not Orthodox, whose message sparked a huge debate among my friends:

“I’m a rabbi. But I don’t try to provide any answers. I tell people what tradition says, and if they find meaning in it, and it works for them, then they are welcome to apply it. If not, we’ll look at other possibilities. I think that every generation has a responsibility to create its own understanding of religion. I believe God can grow as we do. I could be accused of diluting Judaism, but I think that if it has no relevance to people’s lives, Judaism will cease to exist.”

The purists (some of whom were not even Orthodox) among my friends ridiculed him has a Reform or Reconstructionist well-meaning idiot who was turning Judaism into something you pick out at a lunch counter. One of my friends called it “Shoot from the hip feel-good crap.” Another, who isn’t Orthodox, kept calling for the “truth” as opposed to whatever this rabbi was selling. I happen to be Orthodox, but the direction the conversation was taking bothered me considerably. Mostly because I wholeheartedly agreed with that rabbi’s message.

I grew up singing “Hashem is Here, Hashem is There” in kindergarten. I was Shabbos tatty a few times in nursery. I knew my chumash well in second grade, and got a few awards for my knowledge of Mishnah and Gemara in sixth grade. Lock stock and barrel I bought what my rebbeim sold me. I was a very good Jew. I went to shul three times a day when I turned thirteen. I went to Motzaei Shabbos learning programs. I was such a good Jew, that I used to believe wholeheartedly what my friends in that thread believed. I, too, at a time, couldn’t understand how a sane, rational Jew could possibly choose anything but the kind of Orthodoxy I was raised with, how a Jew could even contemplate marrying a Non-Jew, or how a Jew, or anyone for that matter, could be so blind to the obvious Creator of the universe who had made bats’ echolocation so precisely, and colored peacocks so beautifully, and engineered the human eye which is better than any camera man has ever made.

I believed all of that while losing my faith. I believed all of that even after I’d lost my faith and was forcing myself to keep Shabbos even though I no longer believed in the God it attests to. I finally did find my faith again. Well, maybe ‘again’ is the wrong word. Truth be told, I had never had faith to begin with. I had had a mantra to parrot, not faith. In finding God again, in recognizing God in my life and developing the relationship I now feel with God, I realized how lacking my faith had been when I was that person. At the time I had believed not in God but in the stories people had told me. My trust had been in my teachers, my grandparents, my family and the stories about God they had told me. Not God. In discovering God for myself and letting God into my life, I came to realize what I now believe to be the ultimate truth of true faith: God cannot be taught—God must be experienced.

This truth used to not matter much to anybody. Well, at least not to most religious people. Whether or not they fully understood God or their religion wasn’t really relevant to them or the lives of the people around them, or the religious communities in which they lived. In those communities, religion was the cornerstone, inviolable, absolute. You were raised religious, and you stayed religious, and if you didn’t, woe is you. Questioning wasn’t acceptable. Not only didn’t you get a choice in the matter, it was never even up for discussion. You were religious, and that was that. You served God ideally out of love, and if not you served God out of fear of lightning bolts striking you from Olympus, and if not, you served God out of fear of what your parents and the community would do to you if you didn’t. You didn’t have outlets to discuss your doubts, because doubt wouldn’t be tolerated. You’d be left absolutely alone and abandoned if you questioned or left your faith, so you stayed and pretended that you still believed while inwardly hating every second of your miserably conflicted existence, and feeling very, very alone.

The internet threw a very interesting wrench into the works, though. The nature of communities changed. There are communities for everything. Birdwatchers, soap box derby enthusiasts, Klingon grammarians, you name it, the internet has it. All it takes these days to leave your community, is a connection to the internet. That’s all you need to find fellow atheists, agnostics, antitheists, skeptics, people who are struggling with their faith, people trying to convince you to leave your faith, people trying to convince you to keep your faith, people telling you to ditch both and come get high with them. And thus the paradigm shifted. Whereas communities used to be rigid with rules set in stone under penalty of death, we now live in a time where the notion of community and belonging, even family, is a fascinating amalgam of people we interact with in person, and people we interact with online, some of whom we have never met and will likely never meet.

Even cooler are the real communities that have grown out of these online communities. Footsteps, an organization that provides educational, vocational, and social support to people who wish to or are considering leaving right-wing Orthodoxy, was started by one person handing out flyers on a college campus, but has grown into a very large and influential organization through their massive online presence. Approve of them or not, they’re the result of this new community paradigm. All of this means that the things that kept people in line in religious communities, the implied threats, the stick always hiding behind that carrot, are no longer relevant. The consequences of reaching out to other people who are also doubting God and religion no longer exist, or are no longer nearly as severe. It’s literally as easy as the click of a button to find people who are also on their way out of religion, and will gladly help you leave.

So what does a religious community do when leaving religion becomes that easy?

Well, The right wing of Judaism has responded to this change by just banning everything it believes is making people leave Orthodoxy. Cellphones were banned in schools because kids might God forbid text or call a girl, and start a relationship, which may become sexual, which will make the kid stop being Orthodox. Internet was banned because of the ideas and content available online which may lead someone to stop being Orthodox. In fact, so dangerous was the internet deemed by many schools, that having it could get your kid expelled. The same with television.

Next, the right-wing turned its focus to women as one of the causes of people leaving Orthodoxy. Women dress too provocatively, making men act on their desires, which leads them to other things, which leads them off the path, which leads them to abandon Orthodoxy. Women, therefore, had to adopt new modesty standards to insure that men wouldn’t be aroused by them and thereby be brought to sin. Skirts had to be between four and six inches below the knee while sitting. But they couldn’t be too long either, or a man might start to think about whether or not her legs were stockinged underneath the skirt, which might lead him to arousal, which might lead him to sin. Women were forbidden from driving because that freedom may cause them to become involved in relationships which may lead them away from Orthodoxy. Girls as young as three or four had to be blurred out of the newspapers because any image of any female might inflame a man’s desires beyond his ability to overcome them, which may led him to do things or look at things which may lead him to leave Orthodoxy. Of course, all of these rules were enforceable by the one thing the community had left: Your children would be expelled from school if it was found out that you broke any of these new rules.

Has any of that worked? Well, no, no it hasn’t, which anyone who knows the words ‘speakeasy,’ ‘moonshine,’ and ‘bootleg’ could have told you. Even the strictest sects—the ones which make men and women walk on opposite sides of the street—still have people leaving in droves. But even more common than people leaving is people staying, dressing the part, but connecting online, through WhatsApp and Facebook, and leading a double life with their new, chosen communities.

The time of Avodah Mi’yirah is over. The time of serving God because we fear either God’s or the community’s wrath is over. It just doesn’t work anymore. Kol kores and pashkevillim banning things and excoriating different practices no longer work. All they do is give bloggers like me fodder.

So how do you keep people Orthodox in a world where it’s so easy to choose otherwise?

Two years ago, when the Internet Asifah was happening, I asked my rav what he thought of it. He said he thought it was ridiculous because banning the internet isn’t the way you get people to stay off it. The way you get anyone to do anything is by explaining to them the reason, positively, why it is to their spiritual benefit to do it. Explain to them why they should stay off the internet. Give them some kind of personal connection to the commandment you believe they’ll be keeping by staying off the internet, and you won’t need to ban it, you won’t need to filter it. They’ll stay off because they want to stay off, not because someone put a gun to their child’s head. That’s how you create a love and appreciation for Orthodoxy in the modern world. Not by creating a fear in people if they don’t listen, but by fostering a love in them for the God they believe in, by giving them a real understanding of and connection with God’s law, and most importantly, by helping them build a personal relationship with God as they understand God, and as they experience God.

What’s the real truth? There is no derech. No one derech, anyway. There is no one way to understand and feel God. In order to truly believe in God we need to each, individually, experience God in our own lives.

That’s why I wholeheartedly approve that rabbi’s message. He may not be Orthodox, but I don’t believe that if he saw my Orthodoxy as sincere and my relationship with God as real, he would ever tell me to abandon it. This is the message we should be spreading. This is the way we should be raising our children. This is the way we should be building our communities. This is the way we truly serve God.

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How the Internet Saved My Life

When I started this blog, I intended it to be a place where I could share my thoughts with people who would hopefully like them, share them, discuss them. I’m not quite sure what I was hoping for beyond what every blogger hopes for—high hit counts, lots of shares, fawning adoration, if we’re being honest, some validation of my wacky ideas. It started a year and change ago on Tisha B’av at Aish Center in New York City. I had come early to their Tisha B’av program, and I was just chilling on a couch in their library with my smartphone.

I’d written a piece the previous night about how I relate to Tisha B’av, and what the day means to me. I thought it was a good piece, good enough that the world should see it. At the time I didn’t really have my own blog. I ran a blog for Our Place, I sometimes contributed to FrumFollies, but I didn’t have a place of my own to share my ideas. I copied the piece to Pastebin and shared it around, but there’s a reason, apparently, why people use WordPress, not Pastebin, for their blogging. A friend suggested I start a blog. I hadn’t wanted one at that point because having a blog means you have a commitment to your readers to write content that will keep them interested in you, and I wasn’t sure I had enough to say to fulfill that commitment. Sitting there on that couch, I wasn’t sure I could keep the commitment, but I knew that people had to read what I was writing. I felt I had something to add to the conversation. On Tonight I Mourn and The Gift of Tears I built my blog.

I didn’t just want my blog to be a place where I dumped my ideas waiting for unsuspecting people to stumble upon them and read them. I wanted it to be a new beginning, a more mature representation of my thoughts and beliefs, a departure from the biased, childish naiveté of my Our Place blog where I was forcing myself to seem more religious than I was to appeal to a more right wing demographic of potential donors, and the caustic, scorched-earth  indictments of my contributions to FrumFollies. I wrote things in both places which, while they made sense to me as a time, now make me cringe. They were preaching to a choir that already knew the lines. I wasn’t provoking thought, internal debate—I wasn’t starting a conversation—I was just shouting my way into the middle. I was determined to change that with my new blog, and I believe I have.

Along the way, though, what being a blogger means to me has changed. Honestly, the experience has been nothing short of humbling. Over the past year, I’ve received emails from people I greatly respect who have experienced tragedy, telling me how much my writing has meant to them. My readership has grown to a number I never would have imagined. My posts have been picked up by other publications and have started conversations so big that I’ve lost track of them. But they’ve also connected me with beautiful people, people with incredible hearts whose support and care has helped me through some very difficult times.

Over 50,000 people read my post about my mother’s abuse. For the next three days, I received so many messages sending me love, support, advice, offers for help and empathy, that I had to spend a few hours each night responding to all of them. I’ve made some good friends because of that post. The Carlebach post that followed was the first time I had truly connected with my readers as equals. I left the post open ended, hoping for a discussion, which I got. I spoke to people on all sides of the issue. People who were victims of Carlebach’s, people who had grown up with Carlebach, whose lives had been changed immeasurably by him and his music. I spoke to people who called me a liar, people who praised me for my courage in writing about a subject so delicate, people who themselves were conflicted about the issue and were grateful for the opportunity to discuss it. For the first time, I wasn’t just giving an idea to my readers hoping they would agree with it—my readers were giving me the ideas.

And then you people changed my life, and made me understand the true power of blogging. On January 8, my mother came back home. Those of you who follow my blog know that I was under the impression that she was going to Ohel permanently, and that my grandmother and I would finally be able to rebuild the lives that my mother had broken. But she came back home. I had woken up late that day. Business had been very busy, and mornings that I got to sleep in were rare. I woke at 10:30, and spent the next 45 minutes in bed watching Netflix. At 11:15, I heard her voice in the hallway. I heard her voice for the first time since the family meeting at the hospital, and the fact that I was hearing her voice just did not compute. She couldn’t be there. She couldn’t. How could someone who lived in Ohel be there in my hallway.

I listened for a minute to make sure it wasn’t just my aunt who has a very similar voice. It wasn’t my aunt. It was my mother. Frantically I called my aunt. “She’s here. She’s here and I don’t know what to do. She’s not supposed to be here. Why is she here?”

“Well, where else should she be?”

“She’s not supposed to be here! Is this something that’s been happening when I’ve been at work? Has she been visiting?” Her visiting my grandmother from Ohel is something we had discussed with the social workers at the family meetings.

“Well she’s human, she has to go somewhere.”

“She has Ohel! What is she doing here?!

“She’s not in Ohel; Ohel didn’t take her.”

At this point I started having a full blown panic attack.

“What do you mean they didn’t take her…”

“They didn’t accept her.”

“And no one thought it might be a good idea to tell me?”

“I don’t know, we didn’t know much ourselves.”

“You knew enough to know she was coming home, and you didn’t tell me anything!”

She started stammering, trying to find an excuse, but she was never the one who made the decisions anyway, so yelling at her was pointless. Next I tried calling my uncle. He didn’t answer, so I texted. I had texted him on December 2 asking him if the Ohel interview happened, but he had never answered. On January 8th, this conversation happened:

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I got dressed in my room. At 11:35, I posted this message to an online support group I help run:

“She’s back and oh my god I don’t know what to do and my family isn’t saying anything and Oh my god help I can’t live like this I can’t I fucking can’t she didn’t get into Ohel and no one told me and she’s back and I want to die and help I need to go to work but I can’t deal with life right now I can’t I can’t I can’t do this I thought I was free Oh my god someone help[.]”

At 11:45, I packed my briefcase with what I’d need for work, my medicine, and my laptops, and I left, not knowing if I’d ever be back, or how I’d live. I was, effectively, homeless.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I had just come back from a trip to Chicago a week prior. During my trip, I’d expressed interest to some of my friends in moving there permanently if I could find a job. Through some connections, a tentative job offer was made, which would probably start by the end of summer. That left me a few months to get my affairs in order in New York, including paying off my unfortunate credit card debt. Thinking that my mother was safely in Ohel, thus giving me as much time as I needed living with my grandmother all expenses paid, I spent all my money paying off the trip, and began paying off the credit cards. I had no money in my bank account.

My day started in Crown Heights, where I had four driving lessons to give. I had no idea what I would do after work, but I knew I couldn’t afford to take off, because whatever I did do after work would probably cost money. It’s a miracle I was able to focus.

Thankfully, by 12:12 PM I had already been offered a place to crash temporarily. My friend, Chaim Levin, offered to let me stay on his couch. While that was a generous offer, what Chaim actually did, was sleep by his parents for Friday night and Saturday night, allowing me to get a decent night’s sleep on his bed, for which I am deeply grateful.

At around 1:00 PM, I got a message from Elad Nehorai offering to help me raise money by crowdfunding to move into an apartment. He asked me how much I needed; I told him $5000. I wanted a number that would get me as much as I needed to move, but not more. He got to work on starting a GoFundMe. Being that I run what I like to think of as a sort-of-successful blog, he told me to write a post about my situation, and appeal to my readers for help. I pulled over to the side of the road, wrote it, and sent it off. Elad continued to work on the finishing touches for the campaign. By 2:40 PM, it was up and running.

At 2:24 PM, I called my best friend, and for about a half hour, had a complete meltdown. I was crying, gibbering, talking to myself, shaking, incoherent. She just listened and offered her empathy, which is exactly what I needed. I told her that Elad was helping me with crowdfunding, and she set to work finding me an apartment. By around 6:45, she had found something and emailed the landlady. At 9:00 PM, I went to see the apartment.

At 2:46 PM, I called my uncle. I wanted to know what was going on. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I remember yelling at him for two minutes about how unacceptable it was that she didn’t get into Ohel, blaming him for it falling through, and demanding to know why no one told me. He said something along the lines of “You’re coming on very strongly, but you have to understand there’s only so much one person can do.” I asked him, “You couldn’t at least tell me? You couldn’t warn me?” He claimed that they didn’t know what was happening. I called bullshit because he had to have known at the very least that she wasn’t accepted into Ohel. He had never answered my texts. He hadn’t even tried to keep me, the one person who was most affected by what was happening, apprised on what was happening. I yelled at him for not telling me, for making me think I was safe when I really wasn’t, for turning me into what amounted to a homeless beggar, for making me uproot my life at a moment’s notice. Then I paused to catch my breath, and waited for him to say something. When he didn’t, I told him “I’m going to hang up now. You go try to find a way to live with yourself; I’ll go try to find a way to live.”

Those were and will be the last words I speak to my family. They’ve hurt me enough.

By 3:00 PM, $500 had been raised. By 6:30 PM, $4900 had been raised. By the following day at 2:07 PM, $7,000 had been raised. By the time the campaign ended a few days later, close to $8000—$3000 above the goal—had been raised.

Around 7:30 PM, I went home to pack my things. I walked in without anyone noticing, put everything I thought I would need into two large suitcases, and moved onto Chaim Levin’s couch. The next day, Elad arranged for me to spend the Shabbos meals by two lovely families who made my first Shabbos as a displaced person feel much less scary. By Sunday afternoon, the landlady had called my references, vetted me, and told me I could move in at 6:00 that night. I didn’t have the money that had been raised through GoFundMe yet, but she confirmed through Elad that it was there, and agreed to let me move in before signing the lease and paying the rent and deposit. Since I’ve moved in, she has been nothing short of a saint.

Around 5:00 PM on Sunday January 10, I went home one last time to get my stuff. On my own, I dragged my fridge, TV, toaster ovens, books, computers, and other stuff to my car as my grandmother and mother watched, not quite sure what I was doing, but pretty certain that I was moving. I didn’t say a word to either of them. By 10:00 PM I was moved in.

The one thing I regret about the move is cutting my grandmother off. I don’t blame her at all for what happened; she was just as much a victim as I was. She still is. I can’t talk to her anymore because anything I tell her will get back to the rest of my family, and I can’t have them knowing about me anymore. I’ve ignored their texts and calls, not that there have been very many. I hope one day to have a relationship with her again, but as long as my mother is alive and a part of her life, I don’t see how that’s possible. I pray that she understands and forgives me, but more importantly, I pray that she finds a way to let go of the guilt that she’s been carrying all these years about my mother. She doesn’t deserve it.

What’s amazing about this whole story, and what makes me truly appreciate the power of blogging and social media, is that all the people who helped me, all the people who have shown that they truly love and care for me, the people that I now consider my family, the people who support me unconditionally, are all people I have met online. Shay, Chaim, Elad, and all the other people who have been there for me, and continue to support me, are all people I’ve connected with online. The money that was raised, was donated by people who, for the most part, have never met me, and will, most likely, never meet me. The only connection they had with me was my blog, and yet they’re the ones who helped me when I most needed it. That is the power of the internet.

The internet has really shaken things up since its inception. The advent of high-speed internet and its ubiquity has thrown a wrench into the social order. Whereas people who formerly felt isolated, whether because of their ideas, their questions, their family situations—people who felt powerless and helpless, like they had no one and no options—were alone, without a community to help or support them, without the basic comfort of another human being to say “I’m here for you,” now have that through the internet. I am no longer a victim because of the internet and the friends it has given me. I am religious because of the internet and the people I found online who were going through the same struggles I was, who listened and advised instead of judging and dismissing. To me, the internet, and how you all helped me escape, is nothing short of miraculous. I thank God every day for the internet. I’d be dead without it, either by suicide or by circumstance.  I have a voice because of the internet. I have a family because of the internet. I have all of you because of the internet.

I have a life because of the internet.

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