“Why are you an Orthodox Jew?” asked my friend Rabbi Scott Kahn in the Facebook group for his podcast, Orthodox Conundrum.
I studied philosophy in college and loved it, and it left me with a big question: how do I realize these grand ideas in my everyday life?
Then a friend, Jaimee Wilans, took me to a synagogue, Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Jaimee taught there, and a student of hers was becoming a bar mitzvah.
The people at Beth El were singing in a way I had never experienced. And I was deep into music, especially choral music, so this was a revelation for me. They were really in their tefilah, another thing I had never experienced. They were really there for the bar mitzvah, not because they were his relatives from out of state who came in for the occasion, but because they davened together every Shabbat and really knew and cared about each other. I had never experienced a Jewish community like that. I fell in love with the community, asked how I could get involved, and David Sherman, a teacher and administrator of their after-school program, suggested I teach there.
Great! I had been told by the Reform rabbi of the shul where I grew up that I had a great Jewish education. But I quickly found out that I didn’t know anything and needed to learn. The principal of the Beth El’s school, Fredda Hamilton (whom I’m still trying to reconnect with), began learning with me in chevruta. Fredda was a sharp mind, exactly the kind of mind I love to learn with, and a master teacher, and she taught me to learn and to teach. Though really my whole foundation for teaching came from my mother, who’s also a master teacher. She taught me middot and how to teach Socratically, through asking my students questions. Fredda taught me how to plan a lesson, manage a classroom, and bring out a salient point in a text for a group of people. So I started teaching, and I loved it and I loved the community, and the community loved me. And I fell in love with Torah.
A big part of my philosophical education was Aristotle. Aristotle had opened me up to adult-level ideas about God and got me over America’s secular adolescent default atheism. Then, trying out R. Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation, the first time I meditated, I experienced how everything is one, how running through all individual beings there is shared being, and I wanted to address myself to the Giver of Being. That’s when God became more than an idea for me.
When I finished college, I knew I wanted to live an integrated life and I felt that Torah was the path for me, and I knew that community was essential for this and I had some sense that halakha was important, even though I didn’t know anything about halakha, so I came to Israel to see how do you live Torah.
I was blown away. So many of my assumptions were uprooted, which I loved. I had thought of graduate school in philosophy, but this was infinitely better, because this was real life.
What continues to surprise me is that people who grow up in Torah don’t necessarily experience Torah as discovery. For them, too often, it’s a bunch of laws, stories, ideas, rituals, customs, and institutions, and you have to make something out of it for it to be meaningful. What inevitably happens is that they make out of it what they wish. How could it be anything else? If we aren’t discovering something new, we can only reach conclusions we’ve reached before, or deduce some next logical stupidity based on the conditioning of our limited meat brains. It seems to me, we should eschew making something, and should instead go deeper in, let ourselves be fascinated סר לראות, break open our conditioning של נעלך מעל מרגלך, let ourselves not-understand and be called into adventure. Or, to put it more simply, we just need to acknowledge the strange turns in our texts and, instead of explain them away, let ourselves be surprised and for that surprise. Don’t we see the mefarshim and the chakhamim of the midrash and gemara doing that all the time?
I suspect every adult who learns Torah has experienced this at some point. The Haggada can be paradigmatic. You can paint over the text with whatever cause you want to champion that year, as if it were primarily a text with an out-dated story about an ancient country in northeastern Africa that needs to be made more relatable with a contemporary story of liberation, or you can go deeper into the Haggada and it’s strange juxtapositions and begin to feel how it is about freedom itself and how really doing it gives you an experience of freedom.
What I wish Orthodox Jews experienced, and what I wish chozerim bitshuva demonstrated, is how Torah is אש דת, a fire of mundane, man-made, ad hoc rule and order, a conflagration of the rules and measures you imposed upon yourself and that were imposed upon you by your family, your society, your place in history, your niche in evolutionary history, etc., like science, a war on presumption, but the broadest and grandest warm holistic approach, how Torah is דרך עץ חיים, the path out of slavery into real life.