Lotta people won’t get no supper tonight

Man, it’s rough.  I don’t know where to start or where to begin:  So this was a week that needed a lot of running around on my part.  And by “running” I do mean walking, but I mean walking with my actual feet, you know what I’m saying?  I depend on public transport, which in my city is pretty good, but inevitably involves a lot of wandering around on pedestrian-unfriendly roads, crossing median strips, hopping the odd snowfence, and waiting for buses in the hot sun.  A complicated trip is fine once in a while, but more than once a week?  I start to feel like I should be walking with a retinue of half-blind cats and mumbling curses against the wicked provost of the last town who drove me out after I made his she-cows’ udders run dry.

One of these was for a job interview in the middle of a “neighbourhood” known as The Trainyards, which seemed to be populated mostly by trucks.  I had a bad feeling about it.  Telemarketing job, whatever, I’m not proud at this point, but when I googled the company name the very first term that popped up was “[COMPANY NAME REDACTED] scam”.  Picking through the search results, I determined that they weren’t so much a scam company as they were jerks who put the hard sell on people and convinced them to spend way too much on cookware.

So I wondered, at what point does it become unethical to work for a company?  If you let yourself fall for a sales pitch and you pay an inflated price, doesn’t caveat emptor put the customer at fault, not the seller?  But it was obvious from reading the comments that people felt jerked around by this company, and also that the sales tactics made them feel embarrassed.

Now that caught my attention particularly because Judaism takes the duty not to embarrass quite seriously.  (E.g. keitzad merakdim lifnei hakallah?)  I like this a lot, because it feels like a sensible and humane thing to take into consideration.  Aggressive sales tactics that make people feel like they’re stupid or poor, cornering people, forcing them to be rude, all of this seems (at best) like a sub-optimal way to treat customers.  I would rather those things didn’t happen.  I don’t blame the sales reps for this because I know full well that the higher levels of the hierarchy make them do it.

Another issue, maybe, is geneivat da’at. This company reportedly told customers its products were made by a famous manufacturer in Germany, but when they arrived the packaging said otherwise.  If true, this is a pretty clear-cut example of the principle as I understand it.  The problem in geneivat da’at is not just financial, since it can apply even to gift situations, and the problem is also not solely that it’s misrepresentation–otherwise saying that the ugly bride is charming and beautiful would also be wrong.  (Well, Shammai thinks it is, because of course he would, but Hillel disagrees.)  What’s the difference between paying a compliment that you don’t mean and misrepresenting a product?

“Any words or actions that cause others to form incorrect conclusions about one’s motives might be a violation of this prohibition. One does not have the right to diminish the ability of another person, Jew or Gentile, to make a fair and honest evaluation, whether in business or interpersonal relations.” [*]

Okay!  This explanation makes it clearer.  When we compliment a bride (or someone’s new shoes or whatever), the key choice has already been made.  The person exercised their judgement in choosing to marry or in choosing to buy.  You’re not persuading them to do something based on bad intel, you’re just being nice.  This matches up pretty well with our pre-philosophical intuitions: most people feel like “white lies” are morally neutral and occasionally required, but we don’t feel that way about shady sales tactics.

I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid buying from or working for any company that does geneivat da’at.  It would be even harder to avoid companies that treat individuals in an undignified way, particularly big corporations.  Workers at the lower levels just don’t have as much control over how they sell, and what they sell.  But I do think it’s something worth considering.

So anyway, all this reading and thinking made me give the job a whole lot of side-eye, but I went to the interview despite it.  And they wanted me to work Saturdays and also didn’t pay that much (I have a realistic idea of how persuasive I actually am over the phone, which is not a whole lot) so forget about it.

Them belly full, but we hungry: Due to this roaming around the city for bad job interviews, and getting sunburned twice, I didn’t make it to shul again for Shabbat morning.  But I did fast for Tisha B’Av.  Sat on some cushions on the floor, didn’t wear shoes, read Lamentations, thought heavy thoughts and watched The Pianist because I hadn’t seen it in a long time.  Fasting is tough.  And may I say, fasting in the Catholic tradition in no way prepares you for Jewish-style fasting.

The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance. [source, bold for emphasis]

A meal and two snacks (collations is the proper Latinate term) is barely a diet, let alone a total fast.  And those are the strictest fasts of the year, while the rest are just eating salmon instead of steak.  If I’d even been allowed water it would have been easier.  But I made it!  Now excuse me while I continue to demolish this frozen cheesecake.

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Heavy Mysteries

This classic old George Carlin bit sums up one of the things I love most about both Catholicism and Judaism: both have a concern with rules that gives them a huge capacity for generating convoluted questions and answers.  They approach questions with very different methods, and take them in different directions, but Thomists and Talmudists both make a meal of them.

A rare case where both took a similar approach to a very stupid question is, of course, the barnacle goose, whose medieval legend reads like a version of the famous Canadian house hippo PSA:  the Irish felt that since the birds grew from barnacles or maybe from trees (seems legit) they were technically fish, and therefore okay to eat on Fridays.  Sed contra est:

…Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh…. But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.

I admire this effort, but it’s only partially convincing.  Rabbis, meanwhile, were trying to determine if the birds were kosher.  From what I read it seems like there was some appropriate scepticism: “birds growing on trees, if it be true they grow on trees, are not forbidden food.”  Another rabbi declared that since they grew from barnacles they were shellfish and therefore treif, thus agreeing with the categorization of the Irish clerics.

I guess I could draw some larger epistemological point from all this (perhaps that legal reasoning isn’t very useful when your science is shit) but really I just find the barnacle goose delightful.

Achievement Unlocked: First Time at Shul

So I decided this week that it was about time I tried going to Shabbat services.  I searched for the nearest Conservative synagogue, found the address on Google Maps, and set off early this morning.

I’m a pretty good walker.  I’m not fast or athletic in any way, but I have a lot of stamina and I like to take long, meandering walks for hours.  But in the sun it was rough, and that is my own fault for not thinking ahead and getting sunscreen.  It’s a beautiful walk, though, crossing the Experimental Farm and later through a park, down a flight of metal stairs installed on the side of a steep wooded hill.  And then a few streets of auto glass shops, because you can’t win them all.  Like a genius, I didn’t write down Google’s directions so I got lost at one point and had to stop in at a Canadian Tire to look at their maps.

Anyway, I was triumphant and got there in time.  My dad was always mortified if we didn’t make it exactly ten minutes early to church (preferably fifteen) and would fuss about the indignity of walking in on the procession, so that’s what I tried to do.  Instead I found that there was no big hurry, and the small group was still waiting for a minyan.  They have no rabbi of their own at the moment (Catholics can relate!) but they led the services themselves, playing it by ear (Catholics cannot relate).  Everyone was very chill and friendly, especially when I said I wasn’t Jewish and had never done this before, but was interested in converting.  They got me a Chumash and siddur, explained what the little squares mean in the Hebrew text, pointed out that we were using the version that included the matriarchs in the prayers, and generally made sure that I was able to follow along.

I was surprised by how much (spoken) Hebrew I knew.  I only recently learned the aleph-bet and am pretty slow picking my way through it, but during the prayers and Torah and Haftorah I could follow where we were in the English translation based on vocabulary words that I recognised.  Mainly I got confused during prayers that were sung to a melody that everyone else knew but I didn’t, but when those cropped up I just waited, looking at the English text or trying to soak up the melody for next time.  I was also thrown by the Torah scroll being carried through the congregation–I could see how the men were venerating it with the tzitzyot, but did the women do something different? Was I allowed to touch it as a non-Jew?  I didn’t know, so I defaulted to Catholic liturgical training when faced with a new and confusing ritual: do nothing and stand aside to let other people in the row do their thing.

Of course some of the prayers were in English, and I was even asked to read one, which was awesome.  (It was this one, roughly, adapted for Canadian use in our siddur.)  The dvar Torah given by one of the congregation was far more erudite than I’m used to from Catholic homilies–my family were always tough critics, and I learned to dread sermons read word for word at the pulpit.  This guy spoke from notes but they were actually necessary, since he was citing sources and making a scholarly argument.  The other difference I noticed is that it was an argument about liturgy and history, rather than an exhortation to feeling a certain way.  (I get that a dvar and a sermon aren’t the same thing, I’m just comparing because they occupy a similar sort of place in the liturgies.)  My talks with the American Woman about Mormonism have made me more sensitive to religious activities that try to whip up and manipulate the emotions, and the services here were very much not about that.  There were opportunities to focus in on your own feelings, particularly during the silent parts, but no pressure to feel a certain way or to display outward signs of “spiritual feelings”.  This is exactly what I want.

I didn’t feel too out of place.  All the other women wore kippot and most wore tallitot, but no one drew attention to the fact that I wasn’t.  Everyone introduced themselves or introduced me around to other people, made conversation and invited me for kiddush afterwards.  I was awkward and nervous, like I usually am with new people, but it was a pretty forgiving environment.  (I failed to politely escape taking some gefilte fish, even though I cannot deal with that stuff cold.  “Oh, no thanks, not for me.”  “No, HAVE SOME.”  So I did.)  A very motherly rebbetzin said I was brave to come and was surprised that I was trying to keep kosher already, which, my heart grew three sizes that day.  It was really, really great to have encouragement.  She introduced me to her husband, who’s led conversion classes before, and he was also super supportive and suggested I get in touch with him.  Nobody tried to discourage me three times or anything.

In short, OMG WHY DID I NOT TRY THIS SOONER.

Beautifying the mitzvah

Because I eat Shabbat dinner alone, I take pictures of my table when it’s set before lighting the candles.  Otherwise I feel like all my work just vanishes into the ether.  It’s not as gorgeous as it could be, but I still feel proud of getting things together in time.  This summer has been hot.  Hot.  The American Woman lives in Utah, and has never really experienced humid weather like we get on this side of the continent.  When I was out there I found the dry desert heat pretty okay, as per the commonplace dictum, but here I wilt in summer.  My place doesn’t have air conditioning, so there will be no cholent until the weather cools off.  Instead I’ve been rolling out karaite-style, eating sliced vegetables and cream cheese on whole wheat challah (hidden under the shawl I use as a cover) and yeah, vegetarian sushi last week.  It’s not certified kosher, but it doesn’t contain any treif and that’s good enough for me right now.  You wanna go?  I’ll fight you.  My tablecloth (it’s actually a curtain) is wrinkled because I couldn’t face ironing in this heat.

What is hiddur mitvah? It literally means the adornment, embellishment, or beautification of a mitzvah, a practice that can put us in relationship with G., however we understand G.

In practical terms hiddur mitzvah is a personalizing, giving of ourselves, and opening our hearts in any number of ways that allow us to make unique, meaningful, beautiful contributions that connect us to G. This might look like buying a challah that’s a little nicer than others. It might mean setting the Shabbos table with extra care and using nicer dishes. During the sit-ins, hiddur mitzvah was practiced by those who wore their best suits. It is adding a different quality, attention, and level of holiness to one’s actions.  [*]

I’m an artist, and also a geek for religion, so this is a topic I feel pretty strongly about.  Rituals, liturgy, art, music, sermons and homilies, texts, printing, vestments, sacramentals, jewellery, anything and everything religious that can be made beautiful–I’m all over it.  Hiddur mitzvah is a great nutshell term for something that’s always been deeply important to me.

Fish-shaped havdalah spice-box, European, 19th c. Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College. Me, I have some bay leaves and nutmeg in a little cardboard ring box. This is a great injustice.

My inclination for the hiddur-est mitzvot of all can get me in financial trouble, in fact, so it’s good for me to hold back a bit and focus on kavana and like, actually doing the mitzvot.  Instead of scouring the city for nicer candlesticks.  On Wednesdays now I start thinking about Shabbat, what I want to eat and what I should try to incorporate.  Without Shabbat, my tendency is to eat whatever whenever, to clean when the apartment is breeding wildlife, and to not stop reading tumblr while I aimlessly shove food toward my face.  It’s not easy to put the laptop aside even for Shabbat dinner, but I do.  (I read from my siddur or the Bible instead, because I have to be reading something, okay.  I can’t sit here alone and stare at my plate.)

There’s a lot that I don’t do yet, and I try to add something else every week.  This week I tried the “pre-tearing the toilet paper” thing, but let us say I underestimated my needs.  I flipped switches without thinking and twice thought “the hell with it, I’m supposed to break Shabbat anyway, I’m a gentile.”  I write on Shabbat.  Sometimes I watch TV (which I actually don’t do much the rest of the week).  It’s not perfect, and it’s not even imperfect in the ways I want it to be.  But I try to make it as nice as I reasonably can, because closeness with God deserves effort.  I beautify the mitzvot and the mitzvot beautify me.

Hope must be a minefield

I called my mother last night and told her that I’m giving serious thought to converting.  I didn’t say a whole lot about my reasons; I really don’t see a need to bum her out by talking about how I don’t think the prophecies fit Jesus and that there’s no indication of the Messiah being God incarnate.  She already knows, of course, that I’ve always had a weird, inexplicable attraction to Judaism.  And she said she thought it was a good thing to explore, and she was supportive of my dietary changes even if I have to move back home again.  Apparently for Pesach the little grocery store in my tiny hometown got some brisket in, so there’s always the possibility that they might order things in–it’s the kind of place where the owners know everyone in town.

We also talked a lot about our disappointment with Catholicism.  Maybe I should emphasize here that everyone in my family is inclined to traditional attitudes of obedience to the Church.  My dad had a lot of disputes in the Anglican church over liturgy, since he was heavily involved in it, and he taught me that you can always have an opinion (and you should be able to back it up with solid sources), but if the priest shuts you down you say “Yes, Father.”  My mother taught me that the Church as an institution is full of ordinary human beings, but in the long run it resolves its internal problems and remains morally relevant, and we have to be patient.  We’re a liberal, intellectual family, but it would have never occurred to us in the past to say that the Pope is just behaving like a criminal or that the Church is going steadily downhill rather than uphill.  And we wouldn’t have said it because we didn’t believe it, not because we were afraid to speak our minds.  We gave them the benefit of the doubt.

So it bothers me a lot to let things end this way, even though I feel like my conversion is long overdue.  The two things aren’t connected up that much: even when I wasn’t totally out of patience with the RCC I still felt a deep longing and affinity for Judaism.  I wanted to be part of that world but felt like there were too many obstacles, that it wasn’t something I could really do.  Now my frustration is overcoming my inertia and the fears I have surrounding change (what will my friends think, what if the rabbis all refuse, what if I look stupid, etc.).

Also, at the same time as I’m sorting through this, the American Woman is going through all the stuff one accumulates from a Mormon upbringing.  We rant and roar together about structures and hierarchies, getting unsatisfying answers to questions, being told to pray until the unsatisfying becomes satisfying, having no recourse.  We drain the swelling, and each time there’s a little less.    Have I mentioned she’s amazing?  Because yeah.  I lucked out.

There’s a Northern Irish proverb that goes, “God kicks with both feet, and keeps His shoes clean.”  I’ve adopted it as a sort of motto for the sheer exhaustion one feels sometimes while trying to process all this.  It often feels like we’re being punished just for caring, for trying to do the right thing.  A wonderful gift I’ve received in reading about Judaism and praying with the siddur is that God’s presence and personality emerge from the texts and I know that it’s not Him who’s kicking.  These are strictly human problems.  God is bigger.

Ein Yahav

A night drive to Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert,
a drive in the rain. Yes, in the rain.
There I met people who grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed as barbed wire.
And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be
like barbed wire to keep out despair,
hope must be a mine field.

– Yehuda Amichai

Rend your hearts and not your garments

Going through my old journal, I found this account of a dream I had in 2010 right around Holy Week, a time when the abuse crisis was big news and my own irritation with the Church was threatening to come to a head.  Interesting to look back on it now:

I was sitting in a restaurant, having dinner with a person I don’t know. We had nothing in common other than that we were both queer Catholics, and the conversation was extremely awkward–I really wanted to get this person to like me, and he/she (the gender wasn’t obvious) was uninterested.

The waitress came to the table with our food and said, “Now, make sure you eat quickly, because after a few minutes the lice will start releasing poisonous chemicals into the food.”

She wasn’t apologetic at all for serving us food full of vermin, and she didn’t act as though she expected us to complain. Neither of us did. Sure enough, the food was crawling with tiny, tiny insects, more the size of ticks than lice. It smelled delicious, and I actually tried to eat a bite or two, but couldn’t do it. I tried to pick out the individual bugs with my fingers, but there were just too many, and time was going by–if I stayed there picking then the food would get cold and the bugs would release the toxins into it. My dining companion watched with distaste, but said nothing, didn’t commiserate or invite me to go elsewhere with him/her. The waitress never reappeared. I felt discouraged and humiliated. And hungry.

It was obvious to me as soon as I woke up that the dream was a metaphor for how I feel about the Church right now, and a pretty grim one. (As well as some semi-Biblical imagery, a mote in the eye or straining at a gnat, I just realised that it reminds me of the old Kids in the Hall shitty soup sketch.)  […] And then I think, “look, it’s not my fault there’s bugs in the food.” That is not my problem, and I shouldn’t be the one who has to bend over backwards to find ways around it.

It hasn’t been easy to confront my anger and disappointment about this, mostly because I’ve felt that I don’t have the right to feel that way: if I break with the Church over this issue, it can only be because I coldly, rationally decided they were wrong, and not because they hurt me or made me angry.  If I admit to being hurt, then I’m open to accusations that I’m only trying to justify my actions after making an emotional decision, and that good Catholics would sit there and shovel in the food before beginning the debate about whether there may be poisonous bugs in it.  And now that I’m exploring Judaism, again, I feel like I have to cast all my disagreements in the form of “I just don’t believe that’s true” rather than “trying to believe in this really messed with me.”  I don’t want a rabbi to think that I’m just going through a rebellious phase, and of course I also want to make sure for my own sake that that’s not the case.

I also really don’t want to be an angry ex-Catholic.  What I’d really like, at this point, is to revisit the books and music and art that first made me love the Church, and to see how I feel about those things now.  How much of it was aesthetic pleasure, how much was a sense of connection with my roots, how much was genuine love of God?  What doesn’t work anymore, and what does?

But when I look back over some of those things, I do find that I’m angry.  Mostly at myself for allowing it, but also at the Church for serving the buggy food in the first place.  I’m old enough to know that in any religious community you will eventually be served a plate of that stuff.  Nobody’s immune.  To overcome it is a spiritual challenge that you meet in one form or another over and over again until you learn how to deal with it.  What makes it bearable or unbearable are the options you have as a patron of that restaurant: can you complain to the management? Can you get help in picking out the bugs?  Will your dining companions be sympathetic, or will they act like it’s your fault?  Will anyone anywhere be sorry that your dinner was ruined?  Does the sign out front just say “INSECTS ‘N’ QUINOA” and you’re supposed to just deal with it?  How many bugs are you willing to eat?  In other words, what avenues are there to find sustenance in spite of the problems in the kitchen?

O Lord, open my lips

So a pretty decent Shabbat this week–I didn’t get my kitchen totally clean, but good food was had, and the LCBO had some different kosher wines in from the usual 2-3 uninspiring vintages.  Some years ago I had a really incredible red from sooomewhere in the Galilee, something sweet but complex, and drank it on the front porch with my housemates in Kingston on the night of a massive power outage (or as we say here, pooer ootage).  In fact, I drank it from a kiddush cup, because I had bought one impulsively and used it as decor, and it was the only stemmed cup we had.  Fancy university living.  It was a very good year, is what I’m saying.  Ever since then I’ve tried to find another Israeli wine that was as good, but so far I haven’t found it.

I also bought a siddur this past week, which is intimidating but useful.  Regarding the intimidation factor, I’m well-prepared because I’ve prayed the Office before–while the latter might be all in English, the amount of page-flipping and ribbon-placing is crazy, and there’s a whole procedure of looking up the date in the little booklet, gluing in the “cheat sheet” cards or using them as extra bookmarks, and finding all the elements of prayer for the day.  And besides that, you need several volumes for the whole liturgical year.  Is it worth all that trouble?  Yeah, the Office is substantial prayer, beautiful and educational.  The siddur is well worth my time too, and there’s only one volume, and (as far as I understand it) the services are read in linear fashion without a lot of jumping around.  It just happens to have facing Hebrew, and the services are (to put it mildly) not short.  I’m slowly learning the aleph-bet and it’s neat to be able to look at the other page and recognize familiar words, and the selections from Scripture, sixteenth-century mystical poems, and other neat bits give me something to pore over while I’m eating Shabbat dinner by myself.  The introduction and footnotes in the Koren Sacks are definitely useful.  There’s no way to jump in right away and be perfect at davening, just as the Office has a steep learning curve, but in both cases the raw material you’re working with (i.e. the Psalms) is so classic that you’re bound to get something out of it.

It’s also amazing to flip through the siddur and find familiar lines, or totally new things.  Stumbling upon Nishmat Kol Chai, I was totally blown away by the poetry:

To You alone we give thanks:
If our mouths were as full of song as the sea,
and our tongue with jubilation as its myriad waves,
if our lips were full of praise like the spacious heavens,
and our eyes shone like the sun and moon,
if our hands were outstretched like eagles of the sky,
and our feet as swift as hinds–
still we could not thank You enough,
Lord our God and God of our ancestors,
or bless Your name
for even one of the thousand thousands
and myriad myriads of favours
You did for our ancestors and for us…

Doesn’t get better than that.

The Lord is close to the broken-hearted

Excerpt from This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l:

Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba-al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba-al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot — secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms.

All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba-al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba-al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba-al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously — how utterly — he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.

All right, you’re hired, the Ba-al Shem said.

But I don’t understand, the man said. I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah.

So the Ba-al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba-al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax — the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, where he may be — the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” [*]

I first encountered Rabbi Lew’s telling of this story maybe five years ago.  More or less by accident, I found his sermons on his congregation’s website and read through them all.  I was still in university, the last year of an obscenely long B.A., and due to depression I was failing hard.  I couldn’t afford another year.  I loved being at Queen’s, loved learning, loved my professors, loved Latin and loved philosophy.  In fact, I had three of my favourite courses ever that year: philosophy of medicine with Jacalyn Duffin, Judaism in its Classical period with Herbert Basser, and an amazing, intimate lecture on Vergil and Cicero with the late Ross Kilpatrick (do I z”l for gentiles too?) and Michael Cummings.  All my professors were sympathetic and eager to give me accommodation when I explained that I was having emotional problems, and I still couldn’t get it together to meet those standards. I blew it.  And I was crushed when I realised I would have to leave school and go back home in order to fully recover.  This is the story that came back to me then, the line from Psalm 34: The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

When I was a teenager, I tried to use my knowledge of religion to feel superior.  I was a messed-up kid who’d been bullied a lot for being the bookish type, and I happened to be pretty good at learning theology and Church history–my family background gave me a leg up there, and the rest was natural proclivity for that sort of thing.  When I like something I get obsessive and zealous, and at the same time I was dealing with family health crises (my dad had a severe stroke and was disabled), so you can imagine how that worked out.  I was obnoxious.  And that unhealthy interest couldn’t sustain itself, so for a year or two I just stopped.

When I was in university, another terrible incident in my life knocked me down hard.  I went back to church, but I wanted something different from it now.  I wanted meaty, bony strength.  I wanted something that would make sense of suffering.  And by that I mean (paradoxically) something that wouldn’t make sense of it.  Explanations, arguments, and apologetics weren’t enough anymore, and what I wanted was just the beating, bloody heart, the presence of God that exists in suffering.  The ax that chops open the door of the king.

I don’t thank God for the things that have happened, but I’m intensely grateful to have learned from them.  I’m grateful for the books I found, the teachers I was given, the art and music that came into my life.  Having that story and that snippet of Scripture in my head helped me feel less alone.  Without the story I would never have given that line much thought, but with it the Psalm has an anchor.  Now I’ll never forget it.

Oh, I am such a sweet man

I’m unemployed right now and looking for work, and in fact I’m pretty desperate.  If I can’t find something this month I’ll have to leave my apartment and the city and move back in with my parents.  I love my parents and I can deal with living there if I have to, but (among other problems) I’d have to cut down my halakhic observance by a lot: no kosher meat, having to announce to my Maritimer mother that I don’t eat shellfish anymore, and observing Shabbos would require Big Discussions even though I’m still in the baby steps stage of exploring.  I’ll have those talks in due time, of course, but I’d feel like a jerk by inconveniencing my family when I haven’t even spoken to a rabbi yet, which I also wouldn’t be able to do at home.  It would just be easier and a lot nicer to stay here, is what I’m saying.  So I’m applying for every job I can, no matter how grim.

I’m also in the position for the first time of having to think about not working Saturdays.  So far the jobs I’ve interviewed for offered flexible schedules, but at the interview before last I was asked, “Are there any days you wouldn’t be able to work?” and for the first time I said yeah, Saturdays are out.  And then when I didn’t get the job I got to wonder WAS IT THE SATURDAYS, IS THAT WHAT IT WAS?

(Probably not)

Despite the element of worrying (I always worry), it’s still cool to bring mitzvot from the realm of “yeah, that’s a nice idea” to the realm of “no seriously, I do this now.”  This process always reminds me of the Louis CK bit from the Beacon Theatre set:

“Every time I see a soldier on a plane, I always think: ‘You know what?  I should give him my seat [in first class].  It would be the right thing to do, it would be easy to do, and it would mean a lot to him…I should trade with him.’  I never have, let me make that clear.  I’ve never done it once.  I’ve had sooo many opportunities.  I never even really seriously came close.  And here’s the worst part: I still just enjoy the fantasy – for myself to enjoy.  I was actually proud of myself…for having thought of it!  I was proud!  ‘Oh, I am such a sweet man.  That is so nice of me!  To think of doing that, and then totally never do it.’” [*]

This kind of thinking can get ass-chompingly out of control in the Christian mindset, to the point where you feel like anything good you do gets cancelled out by the pleasure you take in thinking about it, or the resentment you feel about doing it.  Sometimes I would (semi-unconsciously) start to avoid opportunities to do things just because of the maelstrom of annoying thoughts it would cause–like I would take alternate routes while walking downtown just to avoid homeless people.  Not because I begrudged them my change, because I didn’t.  Because I got sick of listening to my own brain congratulate myself for thinking of giving them the change.  Maladaptive.  Proper motivation is important, no question, but it’s a lot better for my mental health to focus on identifying stuff I can do and then doing it regardless of motivation rather than getting up myself about thought processes.

Guide for the Perplexed

There’s a great moment in the not-so-great movie Skinwalkers in which the hero, Jimmy Chee, is a Navajo cop who’s also exploring his spiritual traditions.  At one point a sarcastic young tough guy pokes his head out a car window and yells at Jimmy, “He’s a cop! He’s a medicine man! He’s confuuuused.”  Then he cackles and peels out of there.  (I’m heartbroken that I can’t find a youtube link, because the delivery is hilarious and I laugh every time I even think about it.)

That’s what I think of when I try to summarize my religious stuff.  I’m definitely not unique in this, since confusion is a pretty natural reaction to religious matters.  But some people are only confused by one religion while others feel confused by two or three or several or all of them.  I grew up in a mixed marriage, Catholic and Protestant. Yes, this is still technically only one religion, but let me list some aggravating factors:

  1. My father’s side, Protestant, was really Protestant, by which I mean Irish.  When my dad was a kid, his father discouraged him from playing with Catholic kids.  Orange Order, the whole deal.  My dad overcame that programming, obviously, but continued to give Catholicism a lot of side-eye as an institution.
  2. That side also died out by the time I was born.  I never knew any of those relatives.
  3. My mom’s side, Catholic, is really Catholic.  Several relatives belong or belonged to religious orders, and are still active in Catholic education.
  4. I went to Catholic schools for most of my childhood and adolescence.
  5. But my dad was very active in the Anglican church and had even intended to seek ordination.  He didn’t end up doing that, but he did get a theology degree and was a lay reader.

So my parents raised me in the Anglican church, but I was marinating in this very Catholic milieu.  Some people would shrug this off and focus on the bigger picture, but not me.  When I was a teenager I already wanted to attend the Catholic church instead, but my father (see above re: the side-eye) wouldn’t support me.  I did anyway when I went away to university and was formally received into the Church, and my dad got over it.

All that being said, other things were going on in my spiritual life at the same time.  I was fascinated by Judaism.  There weren’t a lot of outlets for me to explore that–I lived in the farthest corner of Eastern Ontario, a place whose demographics were mostly Scottish, Irish, and French, with a lot of New Canadians of South Asian origin.  The Jewish community was vanishingly small, its living members probably outnumbered by the graves in the little Jewish cemetery that adjoined the gentile one outside of town.  Instead I read books by Chaim Potok and Amos Oz and Yehudah Amichai, Jewish authors who wrote with very self-consciously Biblical styles.  However, before that, when I was a small child my father taught math at a yeshiva in Ottawa.  I attended a seder with my parents and was allowed to hide the afikomen, I heard my dad tell stories from work about the rabbis and the yeshiva boys, and otherwise got exposed to more Jewish stuff than I would have normally.  At one point (probably after hearing one too many “King of the Jews” references at church), I was confused enough to ask my mother, “Are we Jewish?”  I remember being disappointed by the answer.

Sed contra est, although I thought pretty hard about Judaism and conversion often as a teenager and a young adult, I felt like I wasn’t able to give up Catholic beliefs and practices.  I like icons, I like statues.  I love the saints, and my relationship with Our Lady is complicated but (I think) valuable to me.  Graven images seem to do me a lot of spiritual good.  In fact, before I went ahead with joining the Catholic Church, I spent some time exploring paganism.  This turned out to be too much graven-images for me, though: I still like learning about it and seeing what other people get out of it, but for me, it didn’t really take me anywhere.

I continued to read a lot about Jewish spirituality.  I took a course in university on rabbinical literature that introduced me to the Talmud, which I really loved.  I read a lot about the modern state of Israel and learned a tiny amount of Hebrew.  One of my Jewish friends said to me once, “It’s almost too bad you seem so happy as a Catholic, because you’d make a great Jew.”

Nevertheless, I wasn’t actually that happy.  The Church hurts the ones who love her.  That’s not a bug, necessarily: I still believe that suffering and spiritual challenge are how you move forward, and confronting the Church as a believer is tough.  It should be tough.  My issue was being gay.  After struggling hard for awhile, as a gesture of good faith, I decided to try doing things the Church’s way.  I remained celibate for about six years.  I finally stopped for the following reasons:

  1. After trying for six years to absorb the Church’s teaching, I still didn’t believe it myself, and I couldn’t in good conscience see myself proclaiming it to other gay people as the truth.  I knew that I would feel terrible about myself if I did.
  2. The Church says the teaching is based partly on Natural Law, which means that anyone (regardless of faith) should be able to perceive it as true.  I think this is pretty plainly not the case, and I refuse to accept widespread bigotry as evidence of God’s will.
  3. The way Scripture talks about the forbidden sex acts, I thought that the clearer and more useful interpretation is to read them as forbidding male-on-male rape, abuse, and sacred prostitution.
  4. “By their fruits you shall know them”: when I look at Catholics who push for anti-gay interpretations, I see at best people who are refusing to listen to others.  The best examples of that side are still heavily invested in denying what gay people actually say about their lives.  We all know what the worst look like, and to be honest, most of the people arguing tilt toward the worst, not the best.  I’m not expecting everyone to be perfect in order for their position to be true.  But I would expect that knowing the higher spiritual truth leads you to treat people better.  I felt ashamed that I was keeping company with people who argued like that.  I winced when I read their arguments, and yes, that includes the people who use nicer language and pretend to understand our struggles.

So that’s about where I stand with that.  But that’s not what made me think about leaving.  The Church’s decisions/mistakes in worldly matters are serious, but they’re not what the Church is all about.  Catholicism has done worse and survived worse.  I don’t even need to give examples, although I’ll mention the Cadaver Trial because, Cadaver Trial.  Also, while I like that Conservative Judaism mostly agrees with me about homosexuality, it’s a side benefit more than anything; what’s more important is that I have a lot of respect for the way in which Judaism resolves this sort of dispute, where multiple opinions get a chance to tussle with each other.

I moved back to Ottawa, and in the big city I found that I could now stoke my love for Judaism with the finest fuel: the food.  The Loblaws by Baseline station has a huge kosher section, and as soon as I got here I started doing most of my grocery shopping there.  Not a big deal in itself.  When I was in university I had an Israeli roommate who was an animal rights advocate, and since we were both philosophy majors, we had a lot of conversations about the ethics of meat.  Her recommendation was, roughly, “If you agree with me about this stuff but you don’t want to give up meat completely, you should eat kosher meat, because they at least try to limit the animal’s suffering.”  So I did that.

But as I started to immerse myself in Jewish food culture, still continuing to read about the religion (and to like what I was reading), I started to think about doing more.  Challah in the bakery section! I would think. But challah’s for Shabbos.

Well, what if I tried keeping Shabbos?

If I did want to ask a rabbi about converting, I thought, I’d want to be sure first that I can even keep all these commandments.  Could I handle keeping even most of the rules about Shabbos?  Could I keep a kosher diet all the time?

So I tried it.  I knew gentiles aren’t supposed to keep Shabbos unless and until they become Jews, but then I wasn’t really in danger of keeping the rules perfectly anyway–I still used the computer and wrote and called my mother on the very first night I tried.  But I cleaned my apartment, bought challah and kosher wine, unscrewed the refrigerator bulb, put an aluminum foil blech on the stove, put out a tablecloth and candles, recited some of the blessings, ate, read me some Old Testament, and slept.  And I liked it.

I still try to keep Shabbos–one week I forgot completely until the sun had gone down, another week I didn’t get the apartment cleaned in time, but mostly I make an effort for Friday nights.  I also keep a fuzzy sort of kosher: I’ve cut pork/shellfish/etc. out of my diet completely, I don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal, I look for the kosher symbol on packaged food. I don’t separate utensils because I can’t afford another set (university lifestyle continues, but I would kasher my kitchen if I could afford more dishes), and I do eat from restaurants.

So that is roughly where I’m coming from.  This blog is a place to put my thoughts while I’m sorting things out.