Thursday, May 6, 2010

Finding Faith

I tend to get my back up when I hear Jews spoken about in a dark light. I get defensive reading a book criticizing Jewish rituals, especially when the author is a fellow member of the Tribe.  Then again, I get defensive if it's a non-Jewish author as well. But when someone else is making negative comments, I am more able to chalk it up to anti-Semitism, ignorance, or a bit of both. It's still that "us and them" mentality where a Jewish author speaking negatively feels disloyal - a stray soldier gone AWOL, painting Judaism with sharp edges and black slashes. It's as if their words carry more weight because they know us. Not even more weight with me, but rather with the outside world as a whole.  I get a reptilian urge to take them on, to argue against them, to defend the very rituals and customs that they are mocking. 

Without analyzing their words or dissecting their argument, I jump in, armed with self-righteousness and a duty to defend honor and faith and the memory of those who suffered for their beliefs. And this is exactly what continues the divisiveness in our world. This 'us versus them' way of thinking that makes it impossible to find compromise, to widen the conversation, to create cooperation.  Should compromise be the goal? Should unity be attempted no matter what the cost? I'm not sure. I am willing to concede that there have been mistakes made by Israel, Jewish leaders, individual Jews. But to speak out against the religious rituals, to portray Jewish characters in the story as old-fashioned, mindless sheep following in their ancestor's footsteps just "because", this I have a low tolerance for. 

I take it personally. I think of my parents and their struggle to find a place of faith while still participating in the secular world; their journey to discover meaning in ancient traditions and the debate about how far to go, which to observe and which to save for later, for one day, for maybe.  I take it personally on behalf of my Holocaust survivor grandparents, who paid with their entire families for the rituals that today are seen as outdated. I take it personally because without traditions and customs and rituals involving any religion, this world can appear flat and dull. It takes commitment to whisper the morning prayers, to sip the shabbos wine, to forgo eating out because there are no kosher restaurants in the city.  I assume that a Jew who is using my religion as a plot is searching for the cheap laugh, the mass entertainment without regard to what possible gifts may be found in the spaces between the 613 commandments.

My guess is that they're mocking while secretly wishing that they could find some meaning in abstaining from shrimp or washing their hands before the meal. We are all looking for meaning: we practice yoga, we sing Hebrew songs, and we clap to the gospel choir. We attend church, shul, temple, and mosques. We visit ashrams and practice meditation. We do drugs, silent retreats, chanting, dancing, art or writing. We believe in G-d, in science, in the power of a seed to blossom into a flower, an acorn to transform into an oak tree. We believe in rationality, in spirituality, in hard work, in nothing at all. We believe in ourselves, our parents, that people are good at heart, that everyone is out to get you. We all believe in something, even if it's a belief that life is meaningless and then we die.

I want to believe more than I do. I want to have a faith that is strong enough to withstand the doubts, the sideways questions to prove the existence of a higher power. I want to shout with conviction that I have a faith that works for me, that helps me on a daily basis, which roots my feet on the sidewalk and guides my dreams.  I become jealous of the very religious - any religion will do. When I lived in Abilene, Texas, the city that boasts more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world, I would watch my classmates as they toted Bibles in their purses and only listened to Christian rock. It wasn't what I believed, but their certainty was appealing.

I listen to the members of my parent's synagogue and the rabbis who teach with their actions how to be observant. They seem soulful, spiritual, content. I watch, always searching - are they really happy? Are they really satisfied and fulfilled or do they go to bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the point of it all is? Is religion a crutch that we've created so as not to have to face the unbelievable injustice that bad things happen to good people? Or is it a universal truth, an unbreakable force that connects us all, guides us, challenges us, and propels us to become our best selves?

When I want to learn about something, usually my first response is to do research. I go to the library, to the internet. I ask questions and engage in debates, trying to organize all of the information in order to find the 'right answers'.  This hasn't served me well when it comes to faith.  The more I read, the more I discuss, the more I question, the less I feel sure about.  No one knows for sure - even those that shout with the megaphone that they know the universal truth. I'm guessing they feel those same twinges of doubt that the rest of us do.

Because I want to believe, feel a duty to believe out of respect, and need to protect those I love who believe, I bristle when others criticize this faithfulness. But also, I get defensive because it's easier to do so than have to examine my own beliefs. Often it feels like there are so many things I examine and debate, that it can be comforting just to defend the Jews because I'm Jewish. To avoid the Bermuda triangle of trying to define G-d or understand why we do what we do. I get tired of so much analyzing the aspects of my life, tired of the grey spaces without absolutes.

I just want there to be a right and a wrong. Wrong to criticize my ancient religion. Wrong to poke fun of actions that others find meaningful. Wrong to mock traditions that you might not understand the depth of.  Even as I say this, I catch my breath. Because what if more people had stood up to criticize their leader, their culture, their beliefs in Nazi Germany? What if more members of fundamentalist groups spoke out against traditions they feel are outdated and harmful? What if we had to waver on our defense of Israel and concede that there are crimes being committed on both sides of the border?  What if we all had to re-examine our actions, our rituals, our customs, sifting through them to save just the gold and not all of the pebbles and sand that come with them. Would we lose the essence of religion? Would faith become something that you can pick and choose, following just the pieces that are appealing, and resulting in nothing deeper than a constellation of actions tailored to each individual? Would we lose all sense of community and history, lose the power behind being the latest in the line of ancestors who waved their hands and welcomed shabbos by lighting the candles? Would we still believe in anything more than the power of the internet or the magic of the movies? I can see how powerful faith can be; how the practice of religion taken seriously and deeply can transform a person, enhance them, smear the sharp points and enrich their soul. I also have seen the crimes committed in the name of G-d, the religious leaders who don't practice what they preach, the hypocrisy, the exclusion.

This line of thinking, this muddling through the tunnels of spirituality, pulled between loyalty and a true faith while also wondering, waiting, searching for the bigger pictures that connects the senseless to the meaning - it starts to hurt my brain. It becomes too big, too unknown, too overwhelming. So instead, I shut the book. This book by a Jewish author sitting on the inside but reporting to the outside world with disgust cloaked in humor. Some days it's just easier to stop reading and write her off as ignorant, immature, shallow in order to protect myself. I stop reading to avoid the risk that I might simultaneously agree with some of her points while hating others. It's too much grey right now.  For the moment, I stand with my team, and leave the analysis to wiser minds.

But my defensive comeback is a little more hesitant. The thing that I know for sure is i don't like her book. To explain my dislike - that's too big of a question for the moment. I do have faith that it is the living in the question that allows us to one day find ourselves basking in the answer.

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