Am I an Agnostic Jew?

What is an agnostic? What is a Jew? These are questions I have been exploring in-depth lately.

As my previous blog post explained in more depth, my mother has a rare and aggressive form of cancer and my step-dad was recently diagnosed with an irregular heart beat as he collapsed on a treadmill. These events have led me in search of spirituality and more than anything, a sense of comfort.

For me, during hard times like my childhood when I was a victim of abuse, I searched for solace in Judaism. I remember as a teenager praying the words of the siddur alone in my bedroom, hoping against all hope for a solution to my pain.

Not only that, Judaism has given me a sense of community when I really needed it. In high school, I joined and eventually took a leadership role in my youth group. It gave me a largely supportive network as I came out of the closet as a teenager.

As a child in my synagogue, I felt cared for. And nurtured in a way that I wasn’t receiving in other parts of my life.

I showed my gratitude and excitement by leading monthly teen services and running the college chapter of the Reform Movement on my campus. I have led or attended Jewish services in at least seven different countries. I love Judaism.

So what’s leading me down this path of questioning, of doubt? It’s very simple. I see the pain and suffering in the world – the pandemic’s millions of victims, Syrian refugees, Ukraine, my mom’s cancer – and I wonder how a compassionate God would let such terrible things happen. And yet I’m not entirely sure that there isn’t some form of spiritual energy or being out there. Because certainly great kindness happens in the world too. And we have free will as human beings to practice compassion or to harm others.

I still find great spiritual energy in Jewish history, culture, music, and languages. And Jews have always been first and foremost a people more than a faith-centric religion like Christianity or Islam. There are even those people who consider themselves “agnostic theists” – or practicing Jews who are unsure of God’s existence. I would go so far as to argue that if you really polled most Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews, a significant number of them would fall into this category. I have even met Orthodox Jews who say belief in God is not necessary for living a life following Jewish law, or halacha.

Must a Jew believe in God? No. I don’t believe a Jew must believe in God. And I think our tradition has a rich tradition of agnosticism, or uncertainty about the existence or nature of God. As the Yiddish expression goes – “two Jews, three opinions”. We are a people of debate, of pluralism, of deep and fragmented thought.

So if someone asks me if I believe in God, I don’t feel a compulsion to answer. Because this whole time I’ve been searching for a path back towards belief as defined by others. By the words on the page of a prayer book someone else wrote. The path that feels right is to allow myself a little doubt. A little uncertainty. A little agnosticism in my rich Jewish tapestry and to lean into that reality. Because someone who says he or she has perfect faith in God while a parent is struggling with cancer is frankly hard to believe.

I am an adult free to make my own decisions and my choice now is to live as a Jew on the edge. On the edge of questions bigger than I could ever have imagined when I started my Jewish journey. Where will it take me? I don’t know! And that’s a pretty agnostic answer.


Cover photo is from Sderot, Israel. A city of survivors, just like me and hopefully like my mom.

How my visit to Anderson House helped me cope with my mom’s cancer

I am a deeply spiritual person. I have prayed in synagogues from every branch of Judaism – be it the Reform community I grew up in to Hasidic shtieblach in Bnei Brak, Israel. I have also found myself in deeply spiritual moments in mosques, churches, and Buddhist temples.

In recent days, though, I have found my connection to Judaism in particular waning. And it’s not because I don’t care about my community – I do, deeply. And I think our resilient tradition is a rich one that can help inform a humanistic, compassionate worldview. It’s just that my mom has a rare and aggressive form of cancer known as sarcoma.

Frankly, I couldn’t find much in my religious tradition to help comfort me when we discovered last week that after a year of chemotherapy, a new tumor has appeared. The very same day, my step-dad ended up in the hospital after having collapsed on a treadmill due to heart issues. God – if you’re out there, I’m not sure you’re listening very closely to my prayers.

After a lovely trip this past weekend to Charlottesville, where I connected with nature and some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve seen in the U.S., I felt so much better. My step-dad came home from the hospital and thank goodness, is now in recovery.

After such a fulfilling weekend with friends and some awe-inspiring scenery, I remembered that my Jewish tradition extends beyond the words of a prayer book. It includes all of life, all of nature, all of humanity.

Life and nature are easy to find deep in the mountains. But not so easy to find in Washington, D.C. Our nature is nice, but it just doesn’t do it for me in the same way.

So I found myself back in the swing of things, grateful that my step-dad was recovering but anxious about my mom’s well-being. If I couldn’t have sweeping views of the mountains this week, I was going to have to dig deeper into the inspirational wellspring of humanity. Because D.C. does have a lot of history and culture.

I headed to one of my favorite spots in the city – Anderson House, owned by The Society of the Cincinnati. There, I found a lovely and friendly librarian named Rachel who helped me explore the library and archives downstairs. It is absolutely worth visiting the elaborate and elegant house upstairs as well, but we’ll save that for a future blog.

In the archives, I searched for the other thing that inspires me besides Judaism and that is foreign languages. I speak seven. They give me so much energy and hope.

I found the most unique and exciting book and I got to handle it myself – for free! This city truly is wonderful sometimes. The work was entitled Grammar of the French Tongue Grounded Upon the Decisions of the French Academy Wherein All The Necessary Rules, Observations, and Examples Are Exhibited in a Manner Intirely New. And “Intirely” was indeed spelled with an “i”. And each lowercase “s” looks like an “f”. Because this book was printed all the way back in 1779!

Even the French was archaic. For example, instead of the current “-ait” suffix for the third person imperfect tense, it said “-oit”. In a sign of the agrarian times, the verb for “to milk” was the one given as an example.

I could go on and on about this fascinating book, but what gave me the most spiritual strength in this difficult moment in my life was to find a kindred spirit in the author. He wrote of the importance of language learning in the introduction, noting how beautiful French was and how it must be learned by English-speakers. He even planned future books about the topic. At a time of growing xenophobia, it touched my heart to see someone hundreds of years ago believing in the same values as me: diversity, inclusion, and compassion.

This book gave me strength today. Culture, as much as it is derided in this country for being “unproductive”, has so much to offer the human spirit. To quote Jawaharlal Nehru, “culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”

And when I found it hard to connect to my own religious tradition, I got an extra boost of medicine, of confidence, of clarity from American history. From languages. From humanism.

And ultimately, it has helped me realize that if the words in a prayer book just don’t do it for me right now, then I will seek out my spirituality in nature, in friendships, and in history. Because culture belongs to all of us. And whether I’m reading one of my old Yiddish books (I plan on rekindling this passion of mine) or something by an early American, I know I can find inspiration somewhere.

Nobody should go through life alone. Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado. It is not good for a human to be all by themselves. I’m grateful for my friends and family helping me through this hard time and am grateful to John Perrin for publishing this book and making my day just a little bit better.

Special thanks to Rachel and all the Anderson House staff for keeping this national treasure alive and accessible to all.

The Old New Land

Sometimes, outside forces narrow your choices in life. A few months after I returned to the U.S. from Israel, I decided I wanted to return to the Holy Land. After reconnecting with my family, I felt a little pull bringing me closer towards staying in D.C. And after dealing with some mental health challenges that made moving abroad again a bad idea, I realized that for the time being, I was going to be back in the U.S. for a while.

But the thought remained in my mind- maybe I’d make it back to live in Israel.

And then COVID hit with a vengeance. And nobody was going anywhere. There was wave one, wave two, wave- who knows what wave we’re on now to be honest. Besides profoundly rocking my faith in the traditional sense of God (after all- who in the Heavens would allow millions of innocent people to die?), it made me rooted in a new place. To paraphrase Theodore Herzl, an old new place. After all, I am from Washington, D.C., so much like the Zionist pioneers who rediscovered their “old new land”, I found myself re-engaging with the very place from which I had left.

And then something curious, even hopeful happened. In the midst of the pandemic and during its ebbs and flows, I made new friends and reconnected with some old ones. I joined a gay Jewish kickball team. I started organizing a language exchange. I met new colleagues. I celebrated holidays with family. And I missed Israel for so many things. And not for others. I had found an old new home. And honestly, it felt good.

I had planted new roots in the place I least expected. The place I needed space from, only to come back to and appreciate even more.

I am profoundly eager to visit Israel and see my friends there. And it looks like it might be a few more months before I can safely revisit that idea, which I had hoped to make happen this February. Eyzeh basah, as they say in Hebrew. What a drag.

In the meantime, I’m going to live my best life in Washington, D.C. That’s home. Who knows what the future holds (let’s be real- if we get another blowhard in the White House I might be reaching for my Israeli passport). But this is where I am today and where I want to be. With friends and family abounding.

I’ve missed writing over the past few months. And I plan to use this space to write about a variety of topics – yes, Israel. But also America. The world. Jewish life. Culture. Diversity. Politics. Anything that can keep our souls sustained and nurtured during this challenging time.

My original premise of the blog was to plant roots in Israel to bear fruits. And they absolutely bore fruits. It’s now time to let some old new soil nurture them and see what interesting tasty delights they will produce. Join me on this new journey!

The cover photo is a pic of me and “Theodore Herzl” at Tel Aviv’s Israeli Independence Day festivities

Tentative hope

Monday morning, I got my second vaccine shot. What a friggin’ relief. After the painful year we all endured, it feels so good to just be done with it all. Inshallah – God willing.

Even as I await full immunity – and as many of my friends and family still await their shots – I can’t help but reflect on the past year. Reflect, and find some good in it.

When I first moved back from Israel in 2019, I was in a state of chaos. Battling mental health concerns, losing friendships, avoiding family, and even experiencing transient homelessness. It was a scary time that I hope to never repeat.

I started 2019 in Philly, a great city where I made many friends and regained my stability. Eventually, wanting to be closer to family, I decided to come back to D.C. where I grew up. I had a rocky start that eventually gave way to the beginnings of a new life. A job, new friends, activities. All of which suddenly disappeared with COVID.

The initial chaos of COVID gave way to a new way of living. At times, unbearably lonely and chaotic. After all, I lost my job and it became harder to socialize or even see my family for Passover.

And yet, like Jewish history teaches us, life is both bitter and sweet. And this past year has had some real sweetness for me. For every friendship I lost during my period of chaos and confusion after Israel, I’ve made many more new ones. For every moment I lost with my family, this past year has been full of so many beautiful new memories. And thanks to my top-notch mental health team, I feel good. I feel safe. I’m starting to feel more and more whole.

So in short, COVID was a mess. And yet I managed to build a really beautiful life for myself this past year. Perhaps because I was forced to stay in the same place, I had to build what I could with the tools at my disposal. So if I couldn’t go to restaurants (it’s been a year!), I went on walks with friends. And got in better shape. And if I couldn’t go on coffee dates, well, I went on walks yet again! Or sat far from each other on benches in parks. Sometimes in the freezing cold. Or hail.

This year I made some of the best friends I could ever have imagined. People who make my life worth living. This year, I explored every nook and cranny of the D.C. area with my mom, even when we could barely feel our fingers in the cold. Laughing all the way.

This year sucked- and it rocked. I mourn every death because of COVID. And I’m grateful for having one of the most stable, productive, loving years of my life. I wrote a freaking book!

So again, like with most things Jewish, it was good and it was bad- both at the same time sometimes. I’m grateful for the good this past year has brought me and am excited to celebrate my newfound fragile freedom to live even more fully. To invite my friends to Shabbat dinner. To find love. To dance. To visit Israel. And to live like Israelis who, coping with so many threats, take advantage of every moment of life to thrive.

My cover photo is from Sderot, a city that has endured it all – years of neglect, poverty, and Hamas rockets. It’s a city that has survived despite it all. When you’ve been through the thick and thin, you can come out bitter. Or come out sweeter than you could have ever imagined. I’m someone who, like Sderot, has endured and has the big empathic heart of a survivor.

Thanks to great friends and family, I won this year. I can’t wait to see what waits ahead. May it be sweet for me and for you.

A Jew does not despair

It has been a while since I’ve written a blog post. November 2nd was my last post, right before the election. It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without writing in a year. That’s ironic for someone who wrote a book during the pandemic. Writing is therapeutic, it is healing, it is revealing.

During the past few months, so much has happened in both Israel and America. The Capitol insurrection, Inauguration, the winter COVID crisis, vaccination campaigns, and in between all of those major events, I held a dozen different virtual book events. These events took place in order to engage the community around my book, More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic.

What I found was that during the darkest hours, staying connected to these stories and to Israel itself gave me a sort of calm, a deep happiness, a smile on my face. “Despite it all” as Israelis say. There are a number of reasons why I choose to live in the U.S. and not Israel. And a lot of reasons why I miss Israel and wish I could be visiting there right now.

What’s consistent, then, is that I can’t live without either place. And at a time when Israel’s skies are closed and I haven’t been vaccinated yet, I just can’t go there. It breaks my heart. I have friends I haven’t seen in a year and half, I have foods I miss, I have views I want to gaze upon. Yes, despite the title of my book, I miss the hummus!

I yearn to tell new stories from Israel, not the ones I’ve already written about. I want to explore, to meet new people from this gorgeous land across the sea. To have new adventures.

And yet we can’t. A number of famous rabbis are quoted as saying: “A Jew doesn’t despair”. So if I’m a Jew, where does that leave me? How do I accept the limits of my connection to Israel right now while keeping the flame burning for when I can go back?

I’m not sure. And in that answer, I feel thoroughly Israeli. Because one thing I learned from my experience there is that Israelis live in – and are rather brilliant in accepting – uncertainty.

I’m reminded of the time I visited Kibbutz Nir Am and Sderot. These are two areas that had been hit rather viciously with Hamas rocket fire and flaming kites that burned nearby forests to a crisp. I walked from the train to Kibbutz Nir Am and simply walked around. The place was almost silent. The crops nearby completely burnt to a crisp. And more kites were falling that day. I was a little scared, but I felt it was my duty to understand what these people were going through.

I finally came across a father with a 5-year-old daughter. I asked him how they were faring. He was honest – his daughter was scared and confused. He had to take her to school each day with fields burning and sometimes she had to hide in the bomb shelter. Not long ago, they discovered a Hamas tunnel going right underneath the kibbutz.

When I asked him how they cope with all the stress, he said with a mix of resignation and determination: “anachnu sordim”. We are surviving.

That is what it means to be a Jew. It is, against all odds, to survive. To do it in the face of deep uncertainty. Sometimes we truly manage to thrive. But we can’t always. Sometimes it’s simply enough to be. That is what sometimes defines success. Just like the Purim story we celebrate today.

On a day when I woke up early to try the completely defunct and backwards DC vaccination site – and failed to get an appointment – I suppose this man from Nir Am has a lesson for me.

I’m alive. Yes, some days are quite hard. And I think we’re all thoroughly sick of COVID. What a nightmare. And I can find gratitude in the fact that I’m healthy, I’m safe, I have a bed to sleep in, I have food, I have friends and family who love me.

So how do I stay connected to Israel during this time? I’m not sure. I talk to friends, I listen to music, I watch TV shows. And it’ll never be like being there itself. I’ll have to wait.

Because what our job is now is not to travel, is not to explore- it’s to survive for the day when we can do that again. It’s to care for each other. And in doing so, to find a sense of purpose amidst the chaos.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach – have a hope-filled holiday. We survived in ancient Persia and we’ll do it again.

Game time for democracy

For those of you who follow Middle Eastern politics, you might have noticed the thousands of Israelis protesting Benjamin Netanyahu over the past few months. What’s interesting about the protests (which I avidly support) is how they are framed. While most protestors I had seen in the past had focused on Bibi’s corruption, many of these protestors were calling on their fellow citizens to “save democracy”. The two concepts are intertwined, but it’s the understanding that democracy itself is at risk that we in the U.S. should pay attention to.

Faced with our own corrupt leader who doesn’t believe in democracy, what are we to do? We have to prepare ourselves with survival tactics to resist and ultimately disarm Donald Trump’s machine of lies. I don’t use these words lightly- I have friends and relatives voting for this man. People I care about. But whether they choose to understand reality as it is or not, the facts are such that our very democratic system is at risk. As Bernie Sanders said, this election is not about Trump vs. Biden, it is Trump vs. democracy itself.

Democrats and allies on the progressive spectrum in the U.S. have a lot to learn from our Israeli ideological counterparts. Benjamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for 15 years in a row. And yet Israeli civil society, although in some ways “on the ropes”, has managed to forcefully resist his authoritarian tendencies. Progressive Israelis have managed to build Arabic-Hebrew bilingual schools, Israeli-Palestinian dialogue/solidarity groups, societal support for LGBT adoption rights, and so much more. All in the face of a strongman who cares nothing for human rights. The peaceful protestors over the past few months have been tear gassed as if Israel were, well, more like some of its neighbors than the glowing democracy government mouthpieces claim it is.

So back to the American elections tomorrow. It’s clear that civil society can flourish even under an autocrat trying to dismantle democracy – like both Bibi and Trump. However, it is hard. Hard as hell. And I hope that if, G-d forbid Trump wins or steals the election, we as Americans will have the wherewithal to build that resistance. I think we have the power.

The better option is to win this election like our lives depended on it. And like our democracy won’t survive without a Biden win. Because America is not immune to the authoritarian winds blowing throughout the world these days. Freedom is fragile.

If we don’t want to live in a society where Trump is President for a decade and a half like Bibi, it’s time to put aside any doubts. Any third party flirtations. Any questions about Biden himself (who wasn’t my first choice). And to vote for him and Kamala Harris and get everyone you know to do so.

Because it’s not just our future that’s at stake – it’s our present.

As my cover photo says, “only love will win”. Let’s do this for democracy tomorrow.

Why Israel needs to exist

America stands at the precipice of the most intense election it has known in decades. As each side ramps up its rhetoric (full disclosure: I’m voting for Biden), the atmosphere becomes more and more heated. With COVID-19 still raging and no vaccine yet proven to prevent it, our country finds itself led by demagoguery and populism rather than patience and science. And everyone, Democrat or Republican, can’t be having a great time as this pandemic remakes our faltering economy and splintering society.

What disturbs me most about this scenario is the potential for violence. I think the likelihood is, fingers crossed, that Joe Biden will win on Election Day, carried by both progressive and centrist voters looking for true leadership. In this event, I can’t help but wonder if our impulsive President won’t call on his faithful followers to rally behind him in a campaign to derail democracy. A campaign that would likely require violence. While it’s not beyond the far left to engage in violence as well (as would probably be the case if the President wins a contested election), I’m frankly more fearful of the scenario I just laid out.

The possibility of election-related violence is not an absurd notion- a quick review of the news will reveal deep thinkers and journalists broaching the possibility.

The question then becomes what to do about it. On a preventative level, I hope the Biden campaign, any sensible voices left in the Trump campaign, police departments, and federal law enforcement have prepared for these potential situations. I hope they are ready to defend and protect a democratic electoral process- and all of our nation’s people. No matter the color of their skin or their political affiliation.

I found myself particularly anxious today thinking about the possibility of a social breakdown due to a contested election stacked on top of COVID-19 woes. I thought through my options. I could talk to my mom (as every nice Jewish boy does when feeling down), I could stockpile food and hand wipes, I could sign up for security alerts, I could call my therapist. Any number of actions I could take both now and in the future to mitigate this stress. In the end, I went grocery shopping to buy some delicious produce and decided to write this blog. I’m lucky enough to still live in a democracy where freedom of expression is protected and am fortunate enough to have a grocery store nearby. Two things that many people around the world don’t enjoy. And I don’t take for granted.

Where does this tie in with Israel?

Thinking through my options, I realized that if things get really bad in America, I am blessed to have an Israeli passport. Not that I only want to be in Israel when things are bad in the States- I love going to Israel. But to move back right now in the midst of an Israeli economic meltdown and the highest COVID-19 morbidity rate in the world is not a priority for me.

Nonetheless, it is an option for me. As it is for every human being with one Jewish grandparent or married to a Jew. It’s an option that I intend to exercise should the shit the proverbial fan in the U.S. Something I pray doesn’t happen.

Israel has been and continues to be a haven for Jews fleeing persecution. Nearly everyone there is a refugee or the descendant of one. People who lost everything, only to rebuild in a new land. The land of our ancestors.

Israeli politics frequently disappoints my ideals and the ideals of many of Israel’s founders. And yet its existence has allowed for millions of lives to be saved. It’s a miracle I’m grateful for every day.

Ideally, we should all feel safe wherever we live. We shouldn’t need havens. And yet certain groups of people are prone to being persecuted, making the concept necessary. Which is why I’ve been involved in refugee advocacy for most of my adult life. It was actually a largely Jewish team in the shadow of the Holocaust that put together the refugee and asylum system that saves lives around the world.

I wish other groups in America felt safe or felt they had a back-up option like I do. African-Americans, in particular, are targeted much like they have been throughout American history. And I worry for the safety of all ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities at this time.

So here’s to hoping. Here’s to hoping that even if you can’t go to Israel come November if things get bad, that you’ll find your own little Israel. A space that feels safe to you- physically, socially, psychologically. And may I be part of that Israel for you. That you can reach out to me, just like I hope I can reach out to you. Because no matter what comes, if we deal with it together, we are bound to be stronger.

And please, please, please- vote. Vote for peace.

The Israeli solution to COVID

The past few months have been a mess in many respects.  I don’t need to be another person to tell you about the massive amount of death, of political idiocy, and economic disaster.  You know it- you’re living it with me.

Coronavirus is tiring.  Not just the news (which I have limited myself to viewing one day a week).  It’s the seeing little children wearing masks.  It’s the hour I spend wiping down my groceries.  It’s the fear I feel when there’s a leak in my apartment.  Not from the leak itself, but from the fact that building maintenance will have to come and how will I keep my social distance.  Will they be wearing a mask?  Will I have to disinfect my (soaking wet) couch that they moved since they touched it?  Can I even disinfect a couch?

It’s the endless litany of questions you ask yourself every day to stay safe but still build a life worth living.  Balancing that need for safety with the desire to see friends, to go outside, to live in a lively way at a time when there is so much pain and fear.  When you find yourself avoiding people on the sidewalk as if they were the plague itself.  Because what if…

In a lot of ways, America has proven utterly inept at responding to this crisis.  Our fierce independence and distrust of authority, which helped us create this country, become liabilities when communal responsibility is required to survive.

This push and pull between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, libertarian and communal that can be a source of creative tension.  Or destruction.  It lends itself to an interesting question.  How honest are Americans as they have this debate and what does it have to do with COVID-19?

Having lived in Israel, one of the most common tropes I heard about Americans was that we were fake.  That when we asked “how are you?” we didn’t expect a real answer.  I often found myself pushing against this notion, because clearly Americans are a diverse lot, capable of being as fake or authentic as everyone else.

And yet as I watch people coping with the COVID-19 crisis here, I can’t help but think there’s a grain of truth to this Israeli stereotype.  Because the expected answer to “how are you?” in American culture is “I’m fine, thanks”.  Which is not an answer.  It’s a lie.  Especially at a time like this- nobody’s fine.  Some days might be good, some days might be shitty.  But none of them are just fine.  Well and swell.  It’s just not real.

My question is as we debate the political and social ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis here, could we learn something from Israeli directness?  Could we, instead of packaging our comments in “please” and “thank you” just drop the charade and let ourselves be angry, be sad, be surprisingly happy in the face of it all.  Whatever we’re actually feeling.  And share that with those who agree with us- and yes, with those who don’t.

It’s not because I live in a dream world where I think emotional honesty will all by itself heal the rift tearing our country apart, as Democrats and Republicans fall ever deeper into ideological pits harder and harder to climb out of.  Nor does it mean assigning the blame 50-50 to each side.  Hardly- I’m a Democrat and I think 95% of the irresponsible political behavior over the past few months has to be owned by Donald Trump and Republican governors disregarding public health experts by opening their states too soon.  I also believe all of us have ideological biases and gaps in our logic.

But see that’s the thing- I was honest.  I didn’t sugarcoat.  And it doesn’t make me any less willing to engage with (or want to persuade) someone who disagrees.  I didn’t take my ball and go home.  Because what I learned in Israel is you can be direct and respectful.  That being upfront about our personal emotions and opinions can do good not only for ourselves, but perhaps for society.  It’s not easy at first, but once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back.

Back to the “I’m fine, thanks!” era.  That era is over.  Thank God.  The new one is up to us to define.  May we do it wisely.

A gay Reform ally for Haredim

To say my identity puts me on the other end of the Jewish spectrum from ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) communities is an understatement.  Reform Jews are seen by many in the Haredi world at best as misguided and at worst, ideological enemies.  And gay people, well, are seen as much worse.  Not every Haredi person is a homophobe.  I’ve met some, including through my blog, who see themselves as allies or in the case of one secret Facebook group I’m in, as gay themselves.  And yet a tremendous number of Haredi Jews condemn homosexuality in the most severe terms, making it nearly impossible for someone in their community to come out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, let alone come out of the closet as queer.  Something which is slowly but hopefully changing for the better.

I share these observations not just from my intuition or news articles, but from lived experience.  Among all my progressive Jewish friends, I have by far spent the most time in Haredi communities.  To the extent where I have two “go-to” restaurants in Bnei Brak, including one where I get the greatest hugs.  I have explored the largest Haredi city in the world many times, and even found things to like.  I even met Hasidim who watch Game of Thrones and boxing on YouTube.  And more perplexingly, actually met Bedouin and chatted in Arabic on the streets of the world’s largest shtetl.

My adventures have taken me outside Bnei Brak as well, including to a cave of Lithuanian misnagdim in Tsfat, a conversation about marijuana and gay identity in Modi’in Illit,  I’ve visited Haredi communities in Boro Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Antwerp, Me’ah Shearim, and more.

The adventures sometimes go well and sometimes don’t.  I once told a Breslover Hasid I was Reform and it didn’t register even the slightest expression of disapproval.  I once told a Yiddish teacher I was Reform and he berated me- during the lesson I was paying for.  I rarely have felt at ease as a gay person and often felt the need to be closeted when entering this community, which made me deeply uncomfortable.  And one Chabad rabbi’s wife I know identifies as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of this is to say that when we see attacks against our Haredi sisters and brothers on TV these days (of which there have been a lot), I understand why this is complicated.  Far too rarely do these communities stand in solidarity for my well being and human rights.  And yet- some do.  And furthermore, the philosophical question arises of whether we should only stand with those who stand with us.  Or whether we have an obligation regardless.  And perhaps, through some positive interactions, can even bring people together in new ways.

As a gay Reform Jew, I feel my tradition obligates me to stand with Haredi communities battling seemingly endless anti-Semitism.  Not just because it affects me as a fellow Jew (we should be realistic- hatred never stops at one community’s door), but because our tradition asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  To be brave.  To lock hands with someone different from you, and hopefully open all hearts involved in the process.

It is ideologically easy for liberal American Jews to stand with refugees, with immigrants, with the queer community, against climate change, and a whole series of other issues that fit neatly into our ideological profile.  Into my ideological profile as well.

It is much more challenging, and equally important, to push ourselves to extend our solidarity to our brethren whose politics, dress, and approach to faith differ from our own.

So in the end, that is my hope.  That liberal American Jews such as me can find it in our hearts to extend a hand to our Haredi brothers and sisters.  And that they will grasp it.  We both have much to gain from such a partnership.  And much to lose- for the people who hate us will hardly care how we pray or what we wear.  They care that we are different.  We are Jews.

The cover photo is one I took while visiting and learning at the Breslover Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.

 

The liberal bias of the Torah

This week’s Torah portion is R’eih.  The word in Hebrew means “see”.  It is a command.  Enjoined upon the Jewish people to observe both the blessings and curses that life can contain.  The portion outlines a series of laws for the people to observe, with reward and punishment accordingly.  You can read the portion here.

Usually when talking about the portion for the week, we focus on the Torah.  But I propose that we actually look to the Haftarah, or accompanying prophetic reading, to understand what this portion is really about.

This week’s Haftarah portion comes from Isaiah.  Chapter 55 Verse 1 reads: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye for water, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  Whether rich or poor, come and get your fill.  In a highly capitalistic world, this verse is an interesting affirmation of human worth regardless of wallet size.

Many think of the safety net as consisting of basic needs: food, water, and shelter.  In the verse above, though, Isaiah follows basic needs (water and food) with items that seem more optional: wine and milk.  While the prophet seem to indicate an understanding that basic needs are important, why add these seemingly superfluous or luxurious items?  After all, we hardly need wine or milk to survive, items especially precious in the ancient times in which this portion was written.

Perhaps anticipating this question, Isaiah says in the next verse: “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?  And your gain for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”  He reminds us that not by bread alone do we live.  To paraphrase the famous workers hymn, we want both bread and roses.  That satisfaction, contentment, wholeness, and pleasure are worthy goals in and of themselves, even foundational.  That once you have your basic needs filled, you can and should have the blessing to enjoy these joys as well.  They are not, then, luxuries.  But rather simply the higher steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Perhaps tellingly, a psychological model shaped like a pyramid, like the ones our ancestors were forced to build in bondage in Egypt.  That pursuing self actualization can free us of the unfair burdens placed on us in society.

If the Torah portion is about rules, then the Haftarah seems to contradict it with a focus on fulfillment above payment.

Today I noticed something at an American public library that puts this Torah and Haftarah portion in perspective- and into conversation.

I had reserved a computer to use and a man, seemingly someone who might be living on the street, was struggling to get up from his chair.  The librarian asked if he needed an ambulance, and he said no.  He asked if he could use the bathroom, but the guard gently escorted him towards the exit.  He looked tired and thirsty.

While I didn’t catch the whole exchange, I couldn’t help but think about the struggle between rules and compassion.  I don’t think the security guard or librarian meant harm.  After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules of the library for the good of the public.  And the library is not equipped to be a homeless shelter, which requires special expertise.  I volunteered at one in high school.

And yet you have to wonder whether sometimes rules should take a back seat to compassion.  Would it really hurt to allow someone to use a bathroom?  Especially at a public institution built for the social good?  The good of learning, the higher pursuits in life?  Rules have a purpose, but sometimes need to be broken for our well-being.

This scenario doesn’t present easy answers.  And despite the title of my blog, I think that there is value to law and order in certain scenarios.  That while I usually read the Torah with a liberal lens, someone could read the same text and come to different conclusions.  That’s what being a pluralist means.

And yet, this incident demonstrates why we should read both the Torah and Haftarah portions.  Because you could very easily come away thinking that rules rule all if you only read the former.  When our prophetic tradition reminds us of the important of joy, of fulfillment, of satisfaction as deep Jewish values that belong to everyone, not just the wealthy.

If we shouldn’t have to pay for wine or milk, then can’t we let someone use the restroom?  Or build more public restrooms so you don’t have to pay (or beg for entrance) every time you need pee?

Not every society functions this way.  In Israel, everyone can use almost any restroom and get free water at any restaurant or café, even without buying anything.  Perhaps a remnant of the socialist kibbutz ethos that built the country.

My hope is that we can find a better balance of rules and the kind of compassion that allows anyone, no matter her or his wealth, to enjoy life.  May the Torah- and Haftarah- be a light towards a more just society.  Ken yehi ratzon- may it be so.

 

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