Sunday, October 29, 2006

Following the Letter of the Law

I've written before about what started me on my journey to observant Judaism, and I've been thinking lately of another incident (pothole?) on this long road of mine.

My brother decided to become observant also, and we both attended Yeshiva University. At some point in our learning of the various halachot (Jewish laws) we realized that the upcoming holiday of Pesach (Passover) might be problematic. The laws of kashrut (what foods are permissable to eat) are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent's house wasn't going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to come home for the Pesach seder wasn't an option - it would hurt my parents too much.

The issue of Kibbud Av V'Em (honoring your father and mother) is very complex, and is an extremely sensitive issue among Baalei Teshuva (those who aren't born in religious homes but become observant later on). My brother and I became observant through NCSY (an Orthodox youth group involved in outreach), and we had some excellent Rabbis and counselors give us advice. They told us that except in cases where your parents ask you to do something which explicitly demands you break Jewish law, then you should listen to them. (Like most issues of this sort, it is important to ask a Rabbi if you have a specific case in mind and need an answer. I am just giving the outline here).

This complex situation touches on an issue that unfortunately is misconstrued by many who are not intimately familiar with observant Judaism. Most people know that there are myriad laws governing the "ritual" aspects (laws between man and G-d) of Orthodox Judaism - what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, how you dress, how you pray, etc. At the same time there are just as many laws concerning the "ethical" aspects - how one treats other people (laws between man and man). The second type of laws are just as binding on Orthodox Jews as the first. There is no concept of the "letter" of the law referring to the first type, and the "spirit" of the law referring to the second.

In most cases there isn't a problem following both the first and second types of laws. In the case of Baalei Teshuva, though, there are many instances where there seems to be a conflict between the two when it comes to how to deal with their families. There is a huge responsibility carried by those of us who are new to observant Judaism to constantly balance following the laws as we learn them, with being sensitive to the feelings of others - especially parents. In some ways it is like walking a tightrope - always trying to make sure that we walk that fine line.

My brother and I were relatively lucky - our parents had their "sore spots" as is natural with parents whose children choose a very different path in life, but they weren't anti-religious. We knew that with some tact on both sides we could work things out.

Which is what we did. I can honestly say that in this situation we did sweat the small stuff. My brother and I brought the meat and the handmade Shmura matza from New York City. We had the local Lubavitch shaliach come in to kasher what was possible to kasher, we bought new dishes (my mother actually enjoyed feeling like a young bride who picks out new things!) and we used paper and plastic where we could. We thought long and hard about how to organize the seder. At that point my family was using English Haggadot (remember the Maxwell House Coffee edition?) and we decided that we would all take turns reading aloud, and here and there my brother and I would "casually" jump in with "Oh, I heard something interesting about this", or "I learned about this just the other week....". In order to not make too much of a "production" out of the amounts of matza and maror (bitter herbs) we had to eat, my brother measured them out ahead of time, and I knew that I needed to eat the amount on the plate he would put right next to me. He decided that he would be official wine pourer, and while he was taking care of everyone else I would pour for him. (These things relate to some of the finer details about the Pesach seder).

Soon enough all of the preparations were done - the food cooked, the table set, and all of us dressed in our finest clothes. A Pesach seder wouldn't be a Pesach seder without invited guests, and this was taken care of by inviting my aunt and uncle, who wouldn't have a seder to go to if it weren't for ours. At the appropriate time we heard the knock at the door, and I went to answer it. My aunt and uncle came in, and my aunt gave me a big smile and, handing me a foil-wrapped package, said "This is for you".

A number of things happened in the next few seconds - although thinking back on it it seemed to take much longer. My brain processed the information coming to me both from my nose and my hands, and I gradually realized to my horror that the hostess gift warming the palm of my hand was a freshly baked loaf of bread.

Those of you who are observant Jews will not need an explanation as to the drama of this moment. For those of you who aren't - a short summary. Most of the laws of Passover relate to the injunction that we remove all chametz - leavened substances (bread, cookies, pretzels, etc. and anything containing even a minute amount of leavening) from our homes. We spend weeks before the holiday cleaning out every corner, and we use a completely different set of dishes and cooking utensils for the entire week. We only buy food that is certified not to contain chametz, and many people follow very strict traditions during this time. So bringing a loaf of bread to the Passover seder is probably the equivalent of bringing an expensive bottle of whisky to an Alcoholics Annonymous meeting - saying that this was a faux pas would be a gross underestimation.

My first thought was "oh, no, I really hope biur covers this" ("biur" is the spoken declaration said the morning before the Passover seder which states that all chametz found accidentally is like the dust of the earth - without value).

My next reaction was 100% due to my parents' good upbringing. There is a saying that "Derech Eretz kadma l'Torah" - which loosely translated means that treating other people well is a pre-requisite to Torah learning. In my specific case this was literally true. Long before I became an observant Jew, my parents taught me Jewish values - one of them being that you treat other people, especially older people, with respect NO MATTER WHAT. So although part of me wanted to shriek and throw the bread out of the window, my "good breeding" kicked in and I smiled at my aunt and said thank you. I "casually" put the bread down on a coffee table explaining that "there just isn't an inch of room left on the dining table" and we proceeded to sit down and start the seder. The rest of the evening went smoothly, although I couldn't help being tense. I don't know what I thought - that the bread would suddenly sprout legs and jump onto my newly kosher dishes? - but this gift seemed like the elephant in the room, to me at least.

It seems that my brother felt the same way. As soon as my aunt and uncle were out of sight (we checked by peeking through the curtains) my brother grabbed the foil package and slam-dunked that sucker into my neighbor's garbage can with a satisfying clang.

That night I had a little chat with G-d. Well, a more accurate description would be to say that westbankmama's younger self had a hissyfit - along the lines of "Ok, G-d, what exactly was THAT about?!? Here we were, walking that tightrope and doing just fine, and you send a gale force wind to knock us off!". Needless to say, G-d was silent.

After my initial anger wore off, then the really dangerous emotions took over. I started to sing what I call the "Ba'al Teshuva Blues". Evey one of us who has decided to become an observant Jew has probably felt this way once or twice - and some experience this every day! It usually comes after an embarrassment, or when all of the details of a new law seem overwhelming, or after you are disillusioned by the behavior of another Orthodox Jew (but, but, they aren't supposed to do that..) It goes something like this: "This is never going to work. I will never fit in. Who was I kidding anyway? Is it really worth all of this effort? G-d will love me if I am a good person, do I really have to go the whole nine yards..."

A lot of these feelings come from feeling isolated. Similar to a 16 year old girl who has had her heart broken for the first time, you think that there is noone else in the universe who knows exactly how you feel.

Until you meet others who do know. The first time happens when you meet someone who is dressed in full Ultra-Orthodox regalia, and looks like he can trace his religious ancestors all the way back to Moses. Then you get to know him and he tells you his story - and it turns out that in the sixties he was a hippy who partook of every illegal substance known to man. That really blows your mind - until you meet someone else just like him. Then you start meeting others who may look like they have been religious for a long time, but they have also shared a similar journey to yours. Then, when you mature some more, you do meet people who have been Orthodox from birth, and can trace their religious ancestors a long way back. But you realize that they too have challenges to face, and that Hashem puts obstacles in their way - just different ones than the ones you have experienced. G-d is always forcing us to grow in one way or another - and that our own personal problems are as individually designed as our fingerprints.

So you keep going, and you put these feelings into perspective. Because all in all, the journey is worth it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow- what an awesome post, wbm... I can't even express to you how much your story touched me. Thank you so much for sharing this. The last sentence says it all, doesn't it? The journey is worth it, no matter how difficult and frought with 'potholes'... this is one for my files.

2:55 PM, October 29, 2006  
Blogger Pinchas Floyd said...

great post.

my mom came over for rosh hashanah and out of nowhere started snapping pictures of the kids. tough moment as she has cancer and we are moving away next year so i know why she feels the needs to take pictures.

the hardest part was when she said taking them "was a mitzvah" and i explained to her that not taking them was a mitzvah.

the compromise was that she could choose to continue to take them (of the kids only, not us) but that no one was going to pose for her. (my rationale being that the kids are way under bat/bar mitzvah age.)

7:20 PM, October 29, 2006  
Blogger Tracey said...

Great post. In a slightly different way I could relate to all of your feelings. I have never felt I "belonged" so this made me feel not so alone in it. Thank you! :D

7:41 PM, October 29, 2006  
Blogger JJ said...

You certainly have a knack for storytelling. Excellent post!

You and your brother were both very lucky to have eachother while you were in the inital stages of your journey- most people go it alone, I imagine. Again, great post!

11:57 PM, October 29, 2006  
Blogger bec said...

i can totally relate, as my own path to observance has been a series of three steps forward and 2.5 steps back.
none of our family, except for some cousins, are religious. going to relatives' houses for meals, whether for holidays or not, is always a challenge--how to keep kosher without offending the host/hostess. back in college, i actually wrote a short story dealing with some of those issues and even now, i still feel that these issues are still there, and just because i'm older and more experienced doesn't make the awkwardness of the situation any easier.
your post really hit me, mostly because in many ways, i've been there and am still going through this stuff. when i read the part about the "ba'al teshuvah blues" i was all teary. it was just those thoughts that pushed me off the derech in the past and those horrible feelings that i've worked for so long to overcome.
thank you thank you thank you for putting up this post. in all of the months that i've read your blog, this is seriously the most amazing post i've ever read, and, not to be all self-centered, but i really felt like you were talking right to me.
you totally made my day.

12:14 AM, October 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...Hi. My name is Erica. I fall off the derech constantly ...

Everything you said, more or less, has happened to me, except for one Pesach we had unkosher gehakhter leber.

But a warm, steaming loaf of bread? You must be a wonderful person to have been able to handle that Elephant in the Room with such graceful aplomb.

Seriously, what bec said ... it's one of the best posts I've ever read since I started blogging ...

..Every ba'al t'shuvah should read it.

12:26 AM, October 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bringing a loaf of bread as a pesach present is the most original way to be a secular jew that i have ever heard of till
anyway - another beautiful, moving story.this is why i love your blog.
for me keeping derech eretz is the mark of a true believer, and it seems you have a real gift in this, the gift of faith.
thanks for that!

12:47 AM, October 30, 2006  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

That was a good story.

6:30 AM, October 30, 2006  
Blogger tafka PP said...

Hilarious bread moment! It's as if they knew that one day you'd blog about it...

Reading the end of your post, I can't help but think of the many people I meet dressed in the opposite of "full religious garb" who can also trace their way back to illustrious yiches and yet have chosen another path in life... The conversation on the topic inevitably unfolds in that direction- as if there's some kind of radar! I personally like the fact that there remains a balance between people becoming more and less interested in religious life- that way, nobody (whichever direction they are going in) needs to feel alone on their journey, and there's always room for growth, which is what our religion is all about...

7:20 PM, October 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said West Bank Mama. A man's/woman's journey is a strange one.

12:59 AM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

regina - thank you very much. I am glad this was inspiring for you, especially during this difficult period for you.

phishaliyah - that must have been hard for you and Bec, but at least your kids are very little still and won't have the inevitable questions. I personally think that it is always better to be sensitive to your parents, and then deal with the kid's confusion later.

tracey - it seems that feeling "out of it" is universal. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

rr - the truth is, is that I was religious by myself for two years before he started. This incident happened three years after I became frum - but you are right, after that it was definitely easier.

Bec - I'm really happy that you felt that I was "talking directly to you". If I ever doubt that blogging touches others, and it is just a stupid hobby, I will remember your comment!

Erica - well, the truth is, is that most of us "fall off the derech" a number of times in the beginning! (I had to ask my hubby what gehakhter leber was! He quipped that even Mary Tyler Moore knows that....)

JerusalemJoe - thank you very much. When I get into a bad-blogging mood I will think of you!

jack - it seems that everyone really enjoys a personal story.

tafka - interesting perspective. I've always thought that when someone becomes a "datlash" that the issue of religion completely disappears - and that it isn't an issue for thought or discussion anymore. Am I wrong?

emanuel ben-zion - Yes, we all have different paths. Where have you been lately?

7:48 AM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger tafka PP said...

Hmm. Maybe not for constant discussion in terms of learning, etc, but it certainly remains a part of one's identity- whether referenced positively or negatively.

(Obviously this doesn't include those who were traumatized by their religious past. Plenty of them, unfortunately. And plenty of people who weren't.)

10:41 AM, October 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm not religious at all, but this is one of the most beautiful blog posts I've ever read.

3:19 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

I'm going to come back to this post again and again! Thank you! You've made me feel like I'm NOT crazy for having the feelings I've had while trying to deal with our myriad non-observant family members and their hostility, or bewilderment, or puzzlement or approval or whatever each individual member of the extended family manifested as we became more observant. This is great -- and its from the heart and soul of experience so I treasure it!

5:59 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Kudos to you for being such a thoughtful daughter! If I ever have kids who become baalei teshuva, I hope they're as considerate. :-) Not that I believe in Hashem ;-) but what you did was a big kiddush Hashem.

I can't believe someone brought bread to a seder! That's just bizarre.

7:37 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh - I forgot to leave a comment. This post was INCREDIBLE. :)

7:42 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger A Simple Jew said...

I enjoyed reading that post as well.

7:47 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger Elie said...

First time reader here, sent by Ezzie's link. Great post! Wow, what a tightrope you had to walk. You handled the situation with such incredible tact and sensitivity.

Though an FFB, we had a similar event happen a number of years ago - as I wrote about here. My response was different than yours in some details, but at the core was the same attempt to balance the laws of chumetz and politeness. As you say, both are part of one Torah.

9:00 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger Batya said...

Great post!
Makes me remember some similar things like when a female friend of my parents grabbed the very "bearded" rabbi...
Remind me to blog it!

10:15 PM, October 31, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

lena - thank you very much.

aliyah06 - so many of us have been there and know how it feels.

jewish atheist - welcome to my blog. I guess this is a dumb question, but how can someone be a Jewish athiest?

ezzie - thank you - and thanks for your link!

a simple jew - I am glad you liked it - I enjoy your blog very much, even if I don't read it every day.

elie - welcome to my blog - any friend of Ezzie's is a friend of mine ;)

muse - sounds like a good story

9:41 AM, November 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

working and my blog had some problem in the new BETA version.

3:47 PM, November 01, 2006  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

jewish atheist - welcome to my blog. I guess this is a dumb question, but how can someone be a Jewish athiest?

Jewish by birth and upbringing, atheist by belief. :-)

7:04 PM, November 01, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

emanuel - oh, the dreaded beta version. I have thankfully avoided that!

jewish athiest - ah. I see that I should explore your blog - although intellectual arguments about the existence of G-d is not my forte.

6:59 AM, November 02, 2006  
Blogger Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear West Bank,

A very nice post indeed!

I can most assuredly relate to so much of what you said!

Only my "loaf of bread", as it were, was a can of trief chicken broth within the context of what`was at that time my futiile effort to persuade my famiy to become more observant!

As far as parents are concerned, my mom has learned to be as accomodating as possible-always eager to buy from only one of two kosher meat stores in St.Louis, Mo.
She loves going wih me shepping naches at the same time whilst announcing to the counter person that I am her "orthodox" son from chicago!

So one does as well as one can without shaming anyone and/or committing a chilul Ha Shem.

12:44 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear West Bank,

A very nice post indeed!

I can most assuredly relate to so much of what you said!

Only my "loaf of bread", as it were, was a can of trief chicken broth within the context of what`was at that time my futiile effort to persuade my famiy to become more observant!

As far as parents are concerned, my mom has learned to be as accomodating as possible-always eager to buy from only one of two kosher meat stores in St.Louis, Mo.
She loves going wih me shepping naches at the same time whilst announcing to the counter person that I am her "orthodox" son from chicago!

So one does as well as one can without shaming anyone and/or committing a chilul Ha Shem.

I am ...

Very Sincerely yours,

Alan D. Busch

7:15 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

Alan - thanks for your comment.

7:30 AM, November 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Thank HaShem for Mashiach.

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