Saturday, December 02, 2006

Oops; I'm an Orthodox Jew (How I Became Observant) -

I eventually realized that the views that I held could no longer be considered secular. The change was not so dramatic that I could say it occurred overnight, but rather was a growing set of changes that were occurring in the way I thought about things. At a certain point in time, and it’s possible that it could have occurred earlier or later, they culminated into a coherent set of ideas that were not accurately representative of what you would normally call a secular person. At the point in time of that culmination I looked at myself, and although I saw the same person that I had always been, I had realized a new facet to my being, that I was not a secular Jew and could not associate with that identity. That was more or less the realization that I was an Orthodox Jew and that the Orthodox world was the world in which I belonged. It was as if the sum of my parts came together and I understood a more complete picture of whom I actually was. This was in no way a replacement of who I was but rather a certain coming to fruition of my personality and my thoughts; you could definitely consider it a type of maturation. It was a rounding off of the edges, a placing together of disparate pieces of my being into a more coherent picture.

Previous to this, the external manifestation I was going through was expressed as a level of discomfort with certain things around me and often times came with a feeling of not belonging. The discomfort generally applied to social situations, and in this I open up my experience to the criticism of a person who wants to pin my change on social awkwardness. However, it would be more accurate to say that I was frustrated with the nature of the interaction of many of my friends and peers, behaviours that I considered superficial, negative, and to a degree, resembling a power struggle between those very friends. This was not something I felt I wanted to or could be a part of, and so I was always a bit on the outskirts of my relationship with those people.

There are reasons other than philosophical retaliation, if you want to call it that, for my feeling separated from my friends to the degree that I did; the way they thought and behaved was not the only factor. It was clear that my Jewish identity was a part of me, and although it was an obscured identity that often confused me more than it shed light, it was as if it was infused onto my bones and into my blood, and I could not shed it. My ability to realize that I was different in this sense from my friends, all of whom came from Christian families, played a serious role in putting certain obstacles between them and me. The culture in which my parents raised me, although generally not observant, had fostered a deep awareness of our Jewishness. It was only when I was only able to figure out how that piece of myself fit into the whole that I was able to feel comfortable with it and to love it. Until then my Jewishness was a bittersweet concoction of identity that both blessed me and cursed me. In retrospect I can understand how Jews have chosen to assimilate, Jews who were in much more miserable situations than was I (such as those of the Inquisition). I should thank G-d every day that I chose to assimilate in rather than out. My friends were not to blame for my feeling of alienation from them, it was a symptom of my inability to recover from my Jewishness and for the most part they tried to be as accommodating as possible.

During this time, usually on my own, I would read whatever Jewish material I could get my hands on, completely unaware at that point of the existence of differing paradigms of observance of the Torah. I build up a reserve of stories and partially developed understandings of what Judaism was, but for the most part I kept those away from my friends, and even my family. My interest was sparked from these things and I began to be a bit pushy with my family as to some of the Jewish traditions, such as lighting candles on Chanukah in a specific way, etc… For a few years we lit candles on Friday night, and since my knowledge of Jewish ritual didn’t far exceed that, I sought for my family to do whatever we did in the perfect way. During Passover, for example, I insisted that we read the entire Hagadah from front to back and was annoyed when we read through it quickly, as if just to get to the meal. I even recall expressing my anger to my aunt about how many Jews (in America) were almost totally unmotivated to really feel Judaism.

Another relevant factor was my being born in Israel and my family’s deep attachment to our family “back home,” my mom’s side. Our several trips to Israel over the summers provided me with several positive experiences, many of them occurring on the cusps between adolescence and maturity. Among that, the trips also did something deeper, they put me in touch with a sense of who or what I might have been had we not moved to America when I was six years old. My formative years in America were relatively tough; I developed a dual or hybrid identity forcing me to grapple with the question of who I was and Israel was often the potential key to that answer.

As I began college and slowly but surely saw less and less of my high school friends, I began to meet Jews. My Jewish education ended in sixth grade and during the last eight or so years, my only friends were Gentiles. Now that I was suddenly meeting other Jews, whom also loved Israel like I did, I felt that I could really connect with them. Those people are still my friends to this day. Eventually I joined a pro-active Israel action group on campus that two of them began; finally an outlet for my love of Israel and Judaism. As I became aware of the liberal hatred of the State of Israel on campus, I began to question my previously unquestioned politically liberal views, which to me were inseparable from idealism. Painfully, and after some period of time, I realized that I had to give up some, or many, of my liberal preconceptions on the nature of the universe, scrapping the notion that goodness was to be automatically equated with liberalness. Goodness, it seemed, was not fully formed simply in the liberal view of the world, and slowly, slowly I began to form more conservative views, at least with regards to Israel. My growingly conservative views on Israel, which were identified by not being afraid to state politically incorrect truths regarding the hatred towards Israel. I soon realized, after trying to see it in many ways, that this hatred was held together by one thing above all, that Israel was full of Jews.

Rather than shying away from standing up for our rights as Jews in Israel, as many Jews did, I reasoned that we should not feel guilty about stating what was ours. It was neither necessary nor acceptable to stand up for everybody else’s rights except our own; I did not see it as a violation of liberal thought, but rather as an accurate embodiment of it, to stand up for our own rights. Every year Jews got together on the campus mall to recollect the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust by reading their names from a list; why could we not speak out for the Jews dying today, the living Jews, with the same vigour with which we spoke for those who have already perished? I began to fear that had the Jews who did not speak out for their living brothers lived in the time of the Intifada, similarly they would have not spoken out for their brothers in the camps either. I had already begun to seriously question the resolve of many liberal-leaning Jews to actually bettering their situation. I feared that they were stuck in some continuously repeating time portal of guilt and paranoia that caused them to endlessly read the names of Jews murdered in the past. If their commitment to ending injustice towards Jews was so strong, then there were plenty of Jews dying today for whom they could speak, but more often they violated their “Never Again” ethos by remaining silent.

A while later, “by an accident of the universe,” I was sent on a Birthright trip by which I was initially rejected. Michelle Blumberg, executive director of the Hillel at the University of Arizona, put in a call to the Los Angeles-Israeli Consulate explaining to them that I had never been on an organized trip to Israel. After a moment of her being put on hold, they confirmed that I was accepted to the trip. A week and a half later I was on a plane to Israel, and later, in Jerusalem, standing at the Kotel (Western Wall), the culmination written about in the first paragraph occurred. I knew that I believed in G-d, which meant that G-d had designed a way to communicate with humanity, which had to be the Torah, and that Israel was of utmost importance to Judaism, and at that point in time I realized that I was an Orthodox Jew.
Response to Muslim Gentleman on Youtube -

I found a ten-or-so minute clip on Youtube of a Muslim gentleman speaking about the comparisons between Islam and Judaism. This gentleman seems very cool-headed, educated, intelligent, compassionate, insightful, and I venture to say well-meaning, but this was a slight contradiction on his part. Nevertheless, it was one of the most collected and relaxed messages I've seen yet comparing Islam and Judaism, and you can find it here.

I couldn't help responding because many of the facts were skewed or only touched on a part of the bigger picture relating to the topic he was talking about. For example, he mentions that the way Jews and Muslims slaughter animals is exactly the same, done in the Name of G-d. Kosher slaughter requires all of the blood of the animal to be drained and a number of other requirements have to be filled, which is why a trained Jewish supervisor (mashgiach) has to be present (or visit the place continuously). The aforementioned process is considered "in the Name of G-d" in Judaism, and I think, from what I've heard, that slaughtering the animal "in the Name of G-d" in Islam simply means reciting a blessing. This means that Halal and Kosher meat are not synonymous; Jews cannot eat Halal meat but Muslims may eat Kosher food (according to him and most Muslims I know). To add, the Torah’s dietary code restricts about thirty animals, such as camel, which Islam allows. It would not be enough for Judaism and Islam to be similar; if Islam is to replace Judaism it must be identical to it, yet if it was identical then Muslims should be keeping Judaism and not vice-versa!

Near the beginning of the film he said something that rung very true, that Muslims are fulfilling the mandate for Gentiles as set down by Judaism. I would be interested to know if, from a Halakhic perspective, Islam is a fulfillment of the Noachide Laws, and it's pretty cool that he even knew that Judaism has requirements for Gentiles. However, a bit later in the video he contradicted himself by saying that, since Judaism and Islam are so similar, Islam is the fulfillment of Judaism. This doesn't make too much sense, first, but second, if Islam is the fulfillment for Gentiles, then it would not make sense that Jews fulfill their duty by following the rules that the Torah prescribes for Gentiles because gives them their own requirements.

The gentleman makes mention of the similarity between the Name of G-d in Hebrew and Arabic, but the Name that he used is one that I have not heard being used for G-d. I don't know, it might be a variation of “Elokim.”

Also, it was very subtle but he wouldn't say the word "Jew." From what I've learned from speaking to Muslims, "Judaism" is not a real religion because it is derived from the word "Jew," which is derived from "Judah," which is the English for "Yehuda." Therefore, since the name of our religion is derived from a tribe of Israel, the Muslim tradition explains that "Judaism" is the left-over remnant of the practice of the tribe of Judah, the "Yehudim," which literally means "Judites," those from Judah. If this were true, then "Judaism" would not really be a religion. However, the Muslim tradition uses the fact of the name of Judaism to say that the real religion of Judaism has disappeared and that "Jews" don't keep it today. Nothing could be more false because "Judaism" is just a word (that the Jews did not choose) and we still keep the Torah. Back when I first started this blog I wrote a post about the development of the word "Judah" and you can read it there. Just to give a summary of that here, the Israelites took on the name of "Judah" because it was the only tribe to remain intact after the Babylonian and Assyrian exile, and while many of the Israelites became "swallowed" up in other lands, those who were not clung to the name "Judah." The reason for this was to retain their religious identity, and so "Torah" and "Judaism" are synonymous. I'm a Levi (from the tribe of Levi) but I am a Jew.

* A really fascinating video about this topic is called "Quest for the Lost Tribes" and A&E directed it. I recommend this film like crazy!

Here is where I learned something. In Arabic, the word "Aqeedah" is the word describing the central doctrinal belief of Islam, referring to the belief that Abraham went to sacrifice Ishmael in Mecca on the future site of the Q'aba, and not Isaac. In Hebrew, “Akeidah” means “binding” referring to the binding of Isaac on the altar to be sacrificed. Islam believes the Torah's account of this to be an alteration of the original text (some "proto-Torah?") in which Ishmael was sacrificed (I have yet to see any museum come forth with fragments of this original text, or the Arabs themselves, but I would love to see it). “Akeidah” in Hebrew is not a word for the central doctrine of Judaism but it's rational to see how such a word is used to define the central beliefs of Islam when we take into account what Islam believes.

He also said that Hebrew needed Arabic to reconstruct itself by looking into Arabic texts to find the meanings of Hebrew words. The main point he used to illustrate this is that Hebrew scholars didn't know the meaning of the word "echad," a word repeated in one of Judaism's central daily prayers. It is basic knowledge in the first monotheistic religion that "echad" means "one" both in quantity and quality, two descriptions of G-d's essential character. I don't know where he got that particular piece of information but it's false. On the other hand, the word “selah” is said to be a word about which the Jewish tradition is confused, but Arabic does not provide Judaism with a meaning for it.

Considering the previous example of Islam's usage of the word "Akeidah," which is Hebrew, it would make more sense to say that the opposite is true, that Arabic made sense of certain words through Hebrew. In cases when words from the Hebrew language were difficult to decipher, Jewish Sages have traditionally looked into the Oral Law, which in Islam’s terms could be understood as the "Jewish Hadith," although not per se coming from the mouth of Moses (Hadith are said to be quoted from Muhammad). If Hebrew needed Arabic, it would mean that by using the Arabic understanding of words, which is inseparable from Muslim theology, Judaism became infused with a Muslim theology. The clear point of his argument here is to further correlate Islam and Judaism by saying that Judaism itself is infused with Islam, i.e., more reason for anybody who believes in the "Old Testament" to convert to Islam. The Oral Law is as old as the Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai – Islam came about in the 6th Century of the Common Era.

The gentleman uses the term “Isaacite Jews" versus all other Jews as if only the Jews whom descended from Isaac are valid. This is a very clever term that I haven't heard until now. However, it's passive propaganda, especially since all Muslims are considered valid (such as converts, etc...) even though only a handful of Muslims are actually descendants of Ishmael. The 23% (and growing) percentage of the world that is Muslim could not have only come from Ishmael's descendants, and Muslims are of all different "races," like Jews. If only the "Isaacite" Jews are valid then only the "Ishmaelite" Muslims are valid, otherwise all converts to either religion count or none of them do.

To sum up, as someone that suggested who commented on my comment, the video started off in a way that seemed like he was trying to bridge Judaism and Islam, but a while in it becomes clear that he's using the similarities (and creating others) to give a reason to become Muslim. The conclusion has to be that it would not be enough for Judaism and Islam to be similar; if Islam is to replace Judaism it must be identical to it. But if they were identical, then Muslims might as well become Jews! No?

Would love to hear some comments, especially if the gentleman who made the film reads this.