Sunday, January 21, 2007

Am I religious?

Yossi Goldblatt of the Peer Yisroel Yeshiva of Pinsk is in fact a genius (Iluy) and a great scholar and will have a great and fantastic career because of his talent and work ethic
I have had problems with friends over my connection to the local Jewish community. Over the course of time that I have been a regular over at the Beis Aharon Synagogue, I have experienced 100 times more anti-Semitism than before, have had that I am Jewish thrown in my face in conversations 500 times more, I have had some friends from outside of Belarus walk away from me in disbelief that I might be of belief, and others have started speaking to me about religious issues as if I was actually someone to speak about such matters. In these last instances, I never really know what to say to them but I try and be pro-religion rather than cynical not because I want to preach but because, obviously if they weren't interested, they wouldn't be asking.

The problem is that I don't really know if I am religious. For most of my life I was generally without- this is not to say that I denied being Jewish, I just never made a big deal of it, kept Shabbos or went to synagogue. You can argue what all these means, but I am sure both sides understand perfectly.

But for the last year or so I have been cooing to the synagogue and I have done some bible reading. I am not sure why I have done so, I mean, I don't really know if I am trying to be closer to G-d or if I am simply trying to get closer to my heritage. They are two different things I believe. So the question arises: Am I religious?

To get to an answer, I suppose I should first ask what the question means. By asking this question, am I asking if I really and truly believe in an all powerful being? Am I asking if "practicing the religion" is something I really want to do as a lifestyle? Am I asking if I wish only to associate with people who are like minded? Or, am I buying into doctrine insofar as pertains to an afterlife or about heading off to heaven or hell? I think these are real enough questions. I honestly do not know the answers to any of these questions.

But as I said I have been hanging around and one of the things I did for the Jewish community of Pinsk was to make the Yad Yisroel website for them. A part of that website is an on-line Pentateuch, the five books of Moses- basically all the words that are in the torah and a part of this page has rabbinical commentaries which are supposed to refer to that particular week's portions. Now, I thought that these commentaries were one of the most important parts of the whole website because they represented the actual thinking of people who are here doing the work that they do. I thought it was vital actually. But because I did not always receive a new commentary from the rabbis I, ehem, went ahead and wrote a few of them myself.

My aim was purely professionalism- the website stated there would be commentaries and as the professional web maker, I felt it was my job to see that these essays were a part of things. And it is not like I just made stuff up, I had outside help from actual Hasidic rabbis; I would never claim to have any deep knowledge of Talmud or torah. I am not a complete novice but I am pretty close to a complete novice. If you took the time, you could probably figure out pretty easily which ones were mine; it is not like you would need to be Sherlock Holmes.

But I must tell you that I kind of liked it, though I resented having to do the extra work. I mean, can't you see how great it is to be able to moralize and pontificate as if you are standing right there next to G-d or Rashi or Moses? Any fool can offer an opinion to the world but to say that your words are come from on high; that you are quoting Talmud and torah and the great rabbis of blessed memory as if you had the right to! This is power!

I guess it is similar to working as a speech writer for the president or something like that. I can imagine standing out in front of Lukashenka's office amongst the BelTA press corps, the big guy is going on about what percentage of next year's apple crop should be designated for sale to the Middle East and all of a sudden he raises a finger and says something dramatic that had originally come out of the middle of your head. This would have to send a tingle up the old spine I would think.

But I don't do them any more because ethically speaking I really have no right to claim any Hasidic authority. So what I did was to turn the job over to the boys of the new Peer Yisroel Yeshiva here in Pinsk. This was a logical choice for me; these guys actually do study (theoretically) torah and Talmud all day, they do have their heads in the books and (again theoretically) are supposed to be thinking Jewish thought all day.

Actually, I didn't say that right because really only one boy from the yeshiva actually does any writing. This is Yossi Goldblatt who is in fact a genius (Iluy) and a great scholar and will have a great and fantastic career because of his talent and work ethic. The others simply refuse to write these things no matter how many ways you try and ask them to, a fact that really bothers me both because the website is diminished because of the absence of weekly studies and because, like I said, writing these things is actually kind of fun!

And this small point is actually driving me crazy because over the last few weeks, the bocharim (Yeshiva students) missed several really cool chances for good essays and I am angry that they didn't bother to pick up on them. Just last week for example there two chances for really good essays that could have been made from stories the boys were telling. The first was a story about a local cab driver who has been extra cool about driving the kids around. When they decided they wanted to know this guy better because he was so nice, it turns out the cabbie is Jewish but has, of course, had no real contact with this part of himself because he was raised in the USSR. The boys immediately thought that they should do something for this cabbie and that he should be invited into the temple clan. If they had wanted to, they could have written this story and referenced it to this quote from last week's torah portion:

From: Exodus 2:19-20
And (Jethro's daughters) said: 'An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and moreover he drew water for us, and watered the flock.' And (Jethro) said unto his daughters: 'And where is he? Why is it that ye have left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.'
Another story had to do with an adult male from Pinsk agreeing to be circumcised before his wedding as a way of purifying himself for the religious ceremony. Again, it just so happened that that very week, one part of the torah reading was about Moses getting ready to head off to Egypt to try and free the Hebrew slaves. But before he could go further, he needed to stop and to circumcise his only male child so as to be ready for the task he was to do:

From: Exodus 4:25
Then Zipporah (Moses' wife) took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.'
In each of these cases, and this is not too ironic if you believe in such things, the torah has at least a quote or two which could absolutely apply to the story at hand. And in each case, the guys could have let the world know about it and how the torah is alive and still a viable influence.

To me this way of thinking is really what being religious is all about. It is not necessarily about believing or finding belief but rather about finding ways of looking at the world that allows for belief. I am just sorry that they are refusing to use this outlet. I don't understand why the people who are supposed to represent Jewish thought won't take the chance to do some real Jewish thinking. It's just like anything really, if you don't use it, you'll lose it.

So again I ask myself: Am I religious? Honestly, I really just don't know. I mean, I know I care; this I know. And I understand that I have a common bond with the folks in the Jewish community. But I mean, am I religious? Nah, I think it's simply not my job.

More soon...