Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Second Time At The BT Yeshiva

Yesterday I returned to the BT yeshiva where I received my Second Judaism Lesson in order to meet the Rabbi who runs the place, the same one that annoyed me so much when we spoke briefly last week.

In hindsight I found it difficult to understand why he bothered me so much. He actually turned out to be an attentive, accommodating old man (albeit with an office space from hell). He listened carefully, asked a few questions (everybody asks how my wife feels about this - what's up with that?), and declared that seeing as I want to learn the practice of Judaism and the yeshiva is so far away that it would not be practical for me to study there. He said that he would try to find a place closer to my home. After that he paired me up with one of the students there and I got my third Judaism lesson.

This guy insisted that we study Jewish philosophy and faith, even though I told him I am not interested. He said that these subjects are very important, and constitute the foundation of Judaism. But for me, after years of practicing Zen and with an adequate knowledge of psychology, any philosophical system just seems so superficial, no more than an elaborate system of rationalization.

I tried to change the subject a few more times and get back to a more practical theme but that proved to be impossible. I realized that this guy needed to preach to me about his faith and that's that - the best I could do, short of getting up, which would be extremely impolite - is to listen as best as I can and try to learn something from this experience.

So, what did I learn?

The first thing I learned was that washing the hands - Netilat Yadaim - can completely change your life.I mean, at least it changed the life of my teacher. Unfortunately he did not get around to explaining how exactly it changed his life - he just recited the story of his tshuva, or at least part of it. Like any story where the characters have no motivation, no emotional life, and no self-awareness or sense of humor, this one was pretty tedious, especially since the story line itself was not particularly coherent.One good thing did come out of it - when he finished and stopped to take a breath I asked him to show me how to do it.
"Now?" He asked, surprised.
"Yes" I said "Now!"
So for the first time in my life I did Netilat Yadaim, and as far as I was concerned that made the whole trip worth it. He did not agree, though, to explain when this should be done, saying again that it is not important for me to know this at the moment.(on a side note - the kitchenette was as messy as the Rabbi's office,and perhaps dirtier. My skin was crawling!)

We went back to our seats and there I learned that God loves me like a parent loves his son. If you have been reading this blog you know that perhaps, in my case a different argument should be preferred, and I told him so - after all there are parents that abuse their children - is he suggesting that God abuses us in the same way, I queried? No, of course not - he was just saying that this is true because that is what he himself has experienced, and if you guessed that I got to hear about his experiences, then you are beginning to understand the type of guy I had to endure.

Another subject that he raised was "Mesirut Nefesh" or devotion - to what extent am I devoted to learning Judaism, he asked, and added " because you will be tested like I was and everyone else who wants to make Tshuva."
I got to hear how he was tested (in case you are wondering - he passed the test), and also why he was tested: " because only things that you work hard for are appreciated by us, and that is why God makes it such a difficult journey. Only someone who has lifted himself from the gutter to serve God can really appreciate Him and His works" He said.
Now he was really stepping on a live nerve here, and I had to point out that as heroic as crawling out of such a hole may be, what is the point of God putting people in such a disadvantaged position in the first place? It seems so cruel and cold-hearted of Him, and anyway, I assured my teacher, I would have great appreciation of Him even if I did not have to pass through the seven chambers of Hell"
Of course there is no good answer to such a question, or at least if there is one in Jewish philosophy my teacher did not know it (although he would not admit it) and neither do I.
In this case Zen and psychology seem to me much better equipped than religious philosophy.

Anyway,this futile philosophical discussion went on and on. I got a taste of Mesilat Yesharim, the highlight of Jewish moral literature, and a few more subjects not worth mentioning, all of them peppered and accentuated by two means:
1- the phrase "it is written " (although when I asked where it is written, not once could he tell me, and we did not open one source the whole lesson), and

2 - abruptly slamming his hand down on the table every two sentences, just to show that he is not kidding around.I pitied both the flimsy table,and his well-worn hand.

On the bright side, I hardly noticed these violent attacks on our table occurring right beneath my nose, because I was already being overwhelmed by the chaotic racket that the many students in this small room were effortlessly raising . I had to strain constantly to hear my teacher, and when he uttered phrases in Aramaic he completely lost me. I asked if it doesn't bother him, and he said that it used to in the beginning, but that in time he learned how to eliminate all the noise and concentrate on whatever he needs to.I am sure that is possible but I really would prefer not to have to try.

Finally, his studying partner arrived and I was a free man again. I shook hands with him, went straight home, and re-united with my sick bed.

Moving On

Despite the friendly and somewhat anarchic atmosphere in this yeshiva, I have decided that it just doesn't fit - it's too far, too noisy, too messy, and too, well, secular, if that makes sense.

But I am very happy that I went today, despite being a little sick. I feel that every time I enter a yeshiva, or talk to a Rabbi, every time I sit in the company of so many unashamed Jews, or do something so overtly Jewish like putting on a kippah, I feel that I am gaining headway in my struggle to reclaim my Jewish identity.

I also know in my heart that I cannot stop now - I have wrestled this demon to the floor but he is far from dead yet. Only last night I heard him in the middle of the night, telling me that I am crazy, that all this Jewishness is not really me, it is not who I am or who I should be, that I should stop this nonsense. In my heart I know that I have a window of opportunity to finish him off, that this is the time and the place to do it and get it over with, and that everything else in my life will take care of itself while I finish this struggle.

I am determined to clean up this room in my soul called "Judaism" and make it habitable. Only when I see what's really there, and what was just a part of my fears will I be able to actually decide how I want to put this room to use.

So I am going to be relentless. I contacted both Maayanot Hayeshua, recommended by Mom in Israel and Machon Meir, recommended by WestBankMomma. The Rabbi from the yeshiva already said that he will look for some place near me - so at the moment I have three leads. I feel that I am doing as much as I can, and that for now I am allowed to let up and rest a little, before the next round begins.

All I can say now is this:
Here's to slaying dragons and conquering demons!

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1 comment:

westbankmama said...

Jerusalemjoe - I am happy that even though there was some negative things about this meeting, you are forging ahead. I am sure you already know this, but I would like to assure you that not every BT has to "rise from the gutter" etc. The person you met is just describing his experience, but it is by no means universal. I grew up in an assimilated home, with very loving parents, and I was always a "yalda tova Yerushalayim" - so my desire to become religious was not to escape something but to add something more to what I had as a child. When I decided to become observant, I did it slowly and tried hard to take my parents' feelings into account (as I have written on my blog). I also did not become Charedi, but chose the dati leumi path - my dress is modest but not very different from the "modern world" (no wigs, no stockings in the heat of the summer, etc.) This is not to say that the Charedi way is wrong, but that it is just another choice within the observant world.

Another thing - they keep asking you about your wife because it really affects your becoming observant! If your wife is against you keeping Shabbat, for example, then it could be a real problem. There are also specific laws relating to your relationship that you shouldn't deal with at all if she does not want to be observant too - and they need to know what to discuss with you and what to keep for a later time. (Don't worry about it now).

Keep us posted!