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.
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.
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.
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