Saturday, April 26, 2008

Religious and Secular -- These, they are Myths in Torah.

I just posted this over at, but wanted to post it here as well. I think it has some morsels of wisdom for anyone -- Jew, Christian, Muslim, Spaghetti-monster adherent, etc. Just remember, everything we do has the potential to be holy, and to you, whoever you are, holy can mean more than what it means to the religious. Holy can relate to good works, in that, everything we do has the potential to heal, change, better, and revolutionize the world we live in and the people we touch.

It was two years ago, nearly to the day, that I became Chaviva bat Avraham v'Sarah. I say became, but it's true that I didn't really become anything other than the person I was meant to be and had always been, the person hidden and seeking, finally come home to Torah and her people Israel. So on the occasion of the blessed anniversary, I thought I'd share this little morsel of a recent experience, interwoven with this past week's parshah, K'doshim. It's a d'var Torah, I suppose, and I think it has some good and worthy wisdom for the convert and the ba'al teshuvah. Kul tov, friends!

Setting the Scene: I'm walking down Touhy Avenue in the heart of West Rogers Park in Chicago, Illinois, on the first day of Pesach around 4 in the afternoon. I've just left a park where I was with a friend and her children and husband, and I am walking down the street to the far edge of the neighborhood to catch a bus to go to a seder in a far-away suburb with not-that-observant friends, but still I am within the eruv and in Orthodox territory catching a bus on a holiday. I'm wearing a skirt that hits just below the knees, a jacket, and am carrying my bag. I'm completely cognizant of my surroundings -- in fact, I'm almost overly aware when I'm in this neighborhood because I want to seamlessly blend in. Not for others, but for me, and this might be lost to some who know me. But most of the time, it isn't really about them, it's about me. (I want to feel like I'm a part of this observant community, because it's a chance to experience who I might someday be. I envy their community, the closeness of shops and shuls, the living and breathing organism of a self-sustained and thriving Jewish peoplehood. It's a microcosm of what it must once have felt like to be surrounded by people you know and trust and who see the world through nearly the same prescription glasses as you.) I'm passing stores, closed with signs that announce they'll reopen after the two festival days of Pesach -- I don't see this anywhere I typically travel in Chicago. You see, the first two days of Pesach are like the Sabbath, they are without many of the mundane things we absorb the rest of the week and the commerce of the community is still. At least, I imagine it as such.

The incident: I'm crossing a street, and glance over to the North where there is a sports bar. A man is sitting on a bench on the east side of the storefront, and standing behind him and staring in through the bar's windows at a gigantic television displaying baseball is a teenage boy -- kippah, tzitzit, black pants, white shirt, an observant Jew. I smiled in amusement, and at that moment he turned and looked at me. We locked eyes for a few minutes, and then I crossed the street, looking back every now and again, and there he was, still there, peering desperately into the window. It would have been perfect for a picture -- I would have captioned it "Pesach Paradox" -- but it was, well, Pesach. I smiled and laughed quietly to myself.

The point: After my "How do I carry things when I go to Orthodox shul for the first time?" crisis last week, I've been thinking more about the issues of "how observant are you" and "what makes a Jew observant" and "I'll out-frum you!" and "why do you do x and y but not z?." I have realized that, despite what some may think or say or preach, no one is perfect. Not even the most pious Jew is truly the most pious Jew. There is no perfection in Judaism, and this is why we're here: to perfect the world, to better the world, to try as hard as we can to reach the perfection in which G-d created the world. And of this, this is what we must remind ourselves constantly, every day, with each moment we breathe -- we seek perfection, we do not embody it.

I was reading the parshah for this past week, Kedoshim, and it's one of the prolific parashot of Torah. G-d speaks to Moses saying, "You shall be holy, since I the Lord your G-d am holy." And reflecting on my week and the incident with the boy in the window, I think this is brilliantly connected. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein has said that Judaism is a way of life that seeks to transform every human action into a means of communing with G-d, and Martin Buber wrote that Judaism does not divide life into the sacred and profane, but into the holy and not-yet-holy. Thus, how can we even criticize our actions to the most minute points if each action is either holy or not-yet-holy; there's a spark in there somewhere that shows we are trying to connect, even if we may not recognize it as so. Etz Chayim's commentary states that "Everything we do has the potential of being holy," (p. 693) and "We can be as holy as we allow ourselves to be."

I feel better about where I'm going, and with the constant reminder that I'm not into labels and denominationalism, I am allowing myself to be as holy as I can in my current incarnation. And despite the guilt that arises when I'm on the bus on a Saturday afternoon, watching kippah-toting Jews and skirt-donning women walk their strollers to shul in the eruv nearby, or the twinge of regret I feel when I eat out, I know that the person I am is moving along a path where things that once were not yet holy are now holy and other things are finding their way into the holy. On Shabbat, I now disconnect from the electronic world as much as I can, I avoid writing to the best of my ability, and I go to shul, and this is how I edge into holiness.

And as a result, over the past two years, everything I do is coupled with a consciousness that I had never experienced before. Being a Jew means being 110 percent aware of everything -- the food you eat, the places you go, the people you see, the company with which you surround yourself, the person you want to become. Not because it's a competition, but because it's a process, though sometimes I think we lose ourselves and forget what this consciousness is really saying and doing for us.

This is what is often called Jewish guilt. It's that knowledge that everything has the potential to be holy, but knowing that we can only be as holy as we allow ourselves to be. The secular Jew, the religious Jew, the lost Jew -- we all experience it. It's an inescapable glue that binds me to you, Diaspora to Israel, past to present.

So, it is with all of this in mind, mentally in tow, that I shall be holy -- as everything I do has the potential to be holy -- for the Lord our G-d, my G-d, is holy.