Friday, January 19, 2007

Orthodox Judaism and Intellectual Independence -

Intellectual independence got me here, so why shouldn't it be something that I keep? First of all, I am no Abraham figure, I did not derive the existence of G-d or that the Torah exists through my sheer ability and toil in the nature of all that exists, as did Abraham. Rather, I live in a post-revelation period in which G-d has already revealed the Torah and therefore I am allowed to simply latch on to it. Nevertheless, in what I retrospectively call a secular Jewish upbringing, I had to go through a long series of philosophizing and thinking about the things around me in order to understand that G-d indeed existed (although I always had in inkling feeling that He did) and that His existence necessitated the adherence to His commandments. I cannot say, however, that in that oh-so-Abrahamic way I reached these conclusions on my own; no way! I went to a Conservative Jewish school until I was in 6th grade and learned much about Judaism and G-d there. After that "break away" from it (my parents put my sister and I in a public school for a variety of reasons), my interest in G-d and spirituality remained, although my formal understanding of organized religion deteriorated to the point where by high school I had absolutely no idea that two such things could have any possible relationship. I continued to dabble in books on Jewish spirituality, and I found one packet giving a simple summary of Kabbalah, and included the story of the four great Rabbi's who each studied it, with Rabbi Akiva being the only one to safely emerge. My point is that I, in this post-revelation age, had many signs pointing me to the right way. These things can definitely be considered revelations, but the kinds that G-d allows to people like me in this day and age.

Years later (2001) when I became an Orthodox Jew, which I saw as nothing more or less than an acceptance of the natural order by which G-d had created the world, the intellectual independence and desire to search and understand did not peter away. However, the dynamics between free and unrestricted thinking juxtaposed within a doctrinal religious framework was an entirely new experience for me. I am quite convinced that every ba'al t'shuva and convert to Judaism experience this internal tension. Further, I am also convinced that the quality of their experience as a Jew will be largely based on how well they can find the underlying unity and harmony between intellectual freedom and religious doctrine. I can accurately say that this, among many other things, has highlighted my wading into the world of Torah.

One major way that I found how to internalize and make sense of this was to understand that doctrines were products of intellectual thought. They are not dogmatic; if one rejects a doctrine simply because it is a doctrine, he has not bothered to understand the internal and external logic of such a thing. From the outside what seems to be a contradiction in terms, was to understand the process that created Judaism. Abraham himself had to toil and find the proper Divine philosophy, and to extract his mind from the functioning ways of the world around him, yet not annihilating his place within it. Once he arrived at the perfect reasoning (as perfect as a man can), G-d decided that it was the right time to reveal Himself to him. Through Abraham's reasoning and through G-d's revelation to Abraham, the Covenant between G-d and us was forged.

Our tradition calls G-d "the G-d of Abraham," and so in order to cleave myself onto Judaism, I first had to try to grasp and understand "the G-d of Abraham." Once I was able to flush, to the degree that was safe and possible, i.e., without harming my sanity and emotional well-being, the ideas of the world around me, I was able to slowly begin trading them for the ideas of Judaism, i.e., the ideas of "the G-d of Abraham." It is important to say that I did not go through a complete overhaul of the content in my head; the instruments of perception inside must remain - it is the ideas that must change. Further, many ideas have within them pieces of truth, and therefore the idea as a whole itself cannot be thrown out, but rather, the pieces that are false. This is why the ba'al t'shuva process needs to be slow, at least from a perspective of understanding what one is doing. On the other hand, it cannot be too slow where a person becomes immobile and stagnant - part of the wonder of growth is the slight discomfort felt by standing in a new place.

In this way was I able to reconcile for myself the so-called paradox of free thought and religious doctrine; what we now call "doctrines" in Judaism were at the beginning of the Covenant products of Abraham's intellectual sojourns. Later, G-d wrote them in stone, as it were, with the Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, a direct line and relationship between Abraham and Moses and these items became our commandments. Therefore, accepting the religious doctrines of Judaism is an acceptance of the intellectual sojourns of Abraham that led to G-d making the Covenant. Suffice it to say that nobody has the ability to internalize an intellectual item without trying to understand it. Understanding, therefore, is the key to Judaism, but on the other hand, one should not neglect a thing until he understands it; we can feel safe with G-d that adhering to a commandment will only lead us to good places.

Shomer Negiah

Shomer means "one who gaurds" and negiah means "touch." In modern Jewish usage, the phrase "shomer negiah" is used as an adjective, i.e., "I am shomer negiah," I gaurd my touch. Shomer negiah is a Rabbinic ordinance derived from the Be'oraita mitzvah (Written Torah commandment) not to engage in sexual activity before marriage. A Rabbinic ordinance has the clout of a Written Torah commandment, for it was derived from the Oral Law, the Torah she'be'al peh (the Torah passed down by speaking). In non-Jewish philosophies, shomer negiah can be accurately understood as a religious doctrine.

Shmira negiah, or shomer negiah, was, I believe, the third Jewish doctrine that I accepted; the first two were Shabbat and kashrut, although I only kept those to degrees at first. Being shomer negiah was a tough battle for me; although I was never "wild with the ladies" before I became observant, I was not as modest with them as I would have liked. My interest in women was flying high and I was at a peak time in my life, not to mention living with roommates, to be involved in the ventures of women. The external battle was simply not to have physical contact with women, but the internal battle was to change the way I perceived them, for to refrain from physical contact without an internal transformation of thought would be close to impossible and foolish. Earlier in my observance I deemed it silly when my friend Darron, also an observant Jew, told me that speaking to women too much should be avoided. At this juncture in time I figured the best way to approach shmira negiah was to start by cutting out the amount of time I spoke with women. What this meant was a serious curbing of the amount of flirting I did, which was not ridiculously high, but nevertheless, it existed. Slowly, the external effort to speak with women less created an internal response; every single attractive woman did not exist for a man's satisfaction. Gradually, I began to see women as human beings independent of their being attached to a sexual status, and therefore, notions of attractiveness became less of a factor in judging a woman. This process occurred over a long time, probably six months to a year, until I felt that I had reached a certain level of natural comfort with the concept of shmirah negiah. Being shomer negiah also means not seeking out romantic situations with women, for they lead to physical contact, and so on.

Touching a woman goes beyond just in romantic situations; many Jews also do not shake hands, for example, with the opposite sex - the concept is applied consistently. There are Jews, however, who shake a person's of the opposite sex hand in order to avoid embarassing them, although I prefer not to. Standing outside of their physical reach is usually a good non-chalant way to accomplish this. After this process, probably about one year, I decided that I was ready to date. I began to see a newly-observant woman whom I had already known for one year, and we dated for seven months, as shomer negiah Jews. We began to speak about getting engaged (seven months is relatively long for Jewish couples), but things did not go as planned and we eventually broke up. I plan this year, G-d willing, on beginning to look again.

To conclude, Judaism and intellectual independence have a seat right next to each other as long a person a) is endowed with free will and b) is able to utilize it. What better expression of a person's free will other than to use it better himself? Fleeting joy can only bring moments of joy, but the investment in joy, likened to a plant in a garden, brings a more permanent edifice of joy in this world, and of course, you knew I was going to say this, in the next. There are many concepts in Judaism for one to accomplish; they are never-ending.

To conclude, in a rational age, is it really rational to say that intellectual independence is an anathema to organized thought?