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.
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.
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
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?
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?
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.