Sunday, December 31, 2006

My Second Judaism Lesson

After losing my Chabadnik last week,who, by the way, still hasn't called, i did not know what to do. I asked you, my readers, for help, and waited to see what fate will bring.

As it happens, the next day i received a flier in the mail, advertising lectures on Judaism in a nearby synagogue. The topics were extremely philosophical and abstract and as such did not interest me at all, but I thought that if there is a group doing outreach to secular Jews in my neighborhood than maybe they can help me. I contacted them and they said they only give lectures but they did give me the phone of a Rabbi who is head of a BT Yeshiva here in Jerusalem. I called him and we made an appointment to meet on Thursday.I wrote down all the particulars and noted that the neighborhood and the street name were completely unfamiliar to me.I did not know how to get there by bus, so I took a cab which drove through an area of Jerusalem that I had never been in before in my life. I got out on the right street, and whipped out my note to see where exactly i should go - and then i saw that i forgot to write down the number of the house!

That really made me laugh. This obviously was another attempt by my unconscious to sabotage this endeavor. I did write down that it was on the ground floor and I had his name so I thought it would not be too much trouble to find his apartment.But it wasn't so easy - I went up and down the street without finding this Rabbi's name on any of the doors, and, probably because this was in the middle if the day, there were no passers-by to ask. Finally two guys came out of a building and fortunately they knew exactly what i was looking for, and they directed me to his Yeshiva,(which I had already passed twice without noticing it). Of course I was late for our meeting which,it turns out, was supposed to be at the Yeshiva and not his home, so the Rabbi called for someone to give me a start - and this was my second Judaism lesson.

The guy teaching me was a large bear of a man and seemed very nice. Recalling that last time I entered a synagogue without even noticing it, I first asked him if we were in one, and if
I should put a kippah on. He said that this a Beit-Midrash, and that it is customary to put on a kippah but that if I am in any way uncomfortable doing so, then i should not. That approach calmed me down and made me feel that here at last is someone who understands how difficult this is.He offered to make tea and that gave me a chance to sit down and look around.

The first thing I noticed was the enormous din rising from the students. There were about fifty people all talking at once and I marveled that anyone could hear something in such a racket, much less actually learn. I'm also wondering if this is the norm for yeshivot. If so, i guess you would really need enormous powers of concentration to study in such an environment, and if this has been the norm in the Jewish Cheder for generations than that may also explain why Jews have traditionally been so adept at learning.

My teacher came back with a delicious hot cup of tea. We sat opposite each other, and like everybody else we began studying in a Havruta.The first thing that I learned was that the word "Jew" comes from the hebrew root HDY, which means "to give thanks". He said that this is the essence of the Jew "He gives thanks all the time for what God has given him."

This is a beautiful concept and one which I can easily identify with - I believe in God and give thanks all the time for the many gifts that He gives. For instance, I can say " Thanks God for this beautiful snow that You have given us - I knew You could do it if You just put Your mind to it!"Of course, i also complain when I'm feeling neglected or mistreated by Him.
In any case, i give thanks sporadically, but Judaism has a very elaborate and complicated system of giving thanks for almost everything.The various blessing and rituals are written down in a thick book called "Shulchan Aruch".

We began to review the book from the beginning - blessings start from the moment you wake up, continue throughout the whole day until the very moment you go to sleep, and there is also much more than blessings and giving thanks - all the different aspects of life must be connected to God and are therefore ruled by Jewish law. At this point I must have given my teacher a pretty dirty look because he commented that it's not as bad as it looks, and then tried to get into all kinds of complicated explanations about why it is correct and necessary to do these things, including the story about how God himself gave the Jewish people these laws, together with the ten commandments at Mount Sinai. Personally, I do not believe this, but it doesn't matter at all - I told him that as far as I am concerned this is just the tradition that was handed down from my grandfather to my own father, and it just happened that my father decided not to pass it on. I just want to reforge that link - i do not care at the moment how exactly the chain itself was formed.

We studied for an hour and a half and I learned a lot of new and very interesting things, which are probably boring and commonplace for any orthodox person so I will not bother you with them. At the end I felt real dizzy, and I do not know if it was because of the situation, the constant din surrounding us, my excitement or a combination of these things.

I stayed on for the Mincha prayer and still could not make heads or tails of it - I do not understand when it starts and stops and what the pace is. There obviously is a well known code for this prayer because everyone else seems quite at ease, even to the point of doing a million other things while reciting the prayer, which brings me to one big problem that I'm guessing many Jews have: how to avoid turning this way of life into a boring,well-worn routine that is done out of habit, and not truly from the heart, with earnest faith and belief.

The idea itself, of thanking God for everything all of the time is, psychologically, not only correct but also necessary for our mental health - speaking of course from the Jungian standpoint. The problem is how to do so without becoming emotionally numbed by repetition? I wonder if Judaism has dealt with this problem, and if so how ?
As a Zen practitioner I know that answers to this problem exist, and it is "simply" a matter of being here and now, soul and body, in the same place at the same time. unfortunately, this "simple" matter takes an awfully long time to master.

During the Mincha prayer the rabbi came back and tugged me out, which seemed to me very impolite, but what do I know - perhaps this is accepted practice? He just wanted to get my details and make another appointment because he had to rush out again. We went into his office which was undoubtedly the worst mess of an office I have ever seen - and believe, after years in Academia I have seen my share if chaos - but this was really extraordinary. There was not one visible square inch of a desk or a chair in that room and part of the floor was littered with papers too. Everything was piled up in stacks leaning haphazardly against each other with no seeming rhyme or reason. I am a more or less orderly man myself so this bothered me a little.I also did not like giving away details like my address and telephone number, and also the guy himself bothered me no end - his manner and his looks and his touch, when he grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the prayer - it felt bad, and I came to dislike him intensely before I even got to know him.
Of course, by now I realize that this signifies absolutely nothing.It just seems like every time I am confronted with a male authority figure I freak out - I do not know whether to punch the guy out, or submit to this authority and maybe, finally, get taken care of properly.As I have already related, this is a problem ever since my father decided that, on second thought, he didn't really want to be a part of his own family.Tomorrow I am meeting again with this Rabbi, and I hope that I will be able to see him as a human being and finally get rid of these ghosts.


All in all I enjoyed myself very much.
The atmosphere in this Beit-Midrash was friendly, and it is clear to me from this experience that I need a place that knows how to deal with BT even if I myself do not intend to follow that path till it's conclusion.
Despite the incessant noise I actually did manage to understand nearly everything that my teacher said, and all the while I felt like a kid in a candy store - everything he said was new and interesting, and he answered all my numerous questions without hesitation, rising more than once in order to refer to several different works. It was an intense, mostly unstructured lesson which I hope to repeat many times.
One big problem is that the place is really far away from me, buried in the middle of a chain of orthodox neighborhoods.I don't want to waste so much time getting to and from this yeshiva, and I have to wonder how I will learn all the prayers, and especially the Sabbath rituals if I cannot be there when they happen?
I also do not know who will be teaching me - the Rabbi said that it depends on when I am able to come, and I still have to talk to this Rabbi although I do not know how important our relationship is, since he himself will, I think, not be teaching me at all.

Finally, this was a very intense experience for me.The next day I woke up with a sore throat, which turned into a fever by night. This is not an uncommon occurrence when attempting to heal wounds that have been buried for so long. In any case, today I am back on my feet, and tomorrow morning I am going back to this Yeshiva for another round of shadow boxing with the demons of my past.

A Word of Thanks

I want to thank my commenters for their support and help.I still have not decided if this is the place for me, and I will be following up on every suggestion that you gave me.



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westbankmama said...

I'm glad it went well for you, and I think it is good that you are aware that some of your reluctance is from past family issues.

If you really want to study the prayers, I suggest you go to a Judaica store and ask for the Artscroll siddur. (I still use mine for everyday at home praying, even though I use the Sefaradi Rinat Yisrael in the synagogue). It has the Hebrew prayers on the right page, and the English translation on the left hand page. In addition, it has detailed instructions before and within each prayer about what you should be doing physically. (Where you should bow in Shmoneh Esreh - the Eighteen benedictions, etc.). On the bottom of the page there is sometimes a short commentary about the prayer itself or a phrase within it. This may overwhelm you a bit - but it really is the best source.

Jerusalem Joe said...

Really, that sounds just awesome.I'll get my copy ASAP.
thanks for your excellent advice.

mother in israel said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with us.