Not a Farmer or a Gardener in Ten Generations

I just found a blog by a writer named Yonassan Gershom, who identifies as a Breslover Hasid, and lives on a farm in rural Minnesota. It’s so good to see a rural observant Jew! Not that I’m not a city person, but I’d go absolutely mad without some kind of access to green space, since I grew up roaming around a semi-rural area and in a provincial park that spans part of the (Canadian) Thames river.

In his post, “Nature Deficit Disorder,” Gershom writes about how excessive urbanism has cut a lot of Jews off from appreciating vast parts of HaShem’s world — including, may I say, the odd green vegetables

He writes

I was very lucky, in that I grew up in an area where I could go play in the woods –and my parents let me do it. This was not wasted time — it was learning in a very different way. It enriched my understanding of Torah in ways that my nature-deprived urban brethren often cannot grasp. And it ultimately led to me becoming a Breslov Hasid, because of Rebbe Nachman’s teaching about hisboddisus — the practice of spending an hour alone with God each day. He recommended doing it in a forest or field because, he said, the plants and animals would join in our prayers. And he meant that literally.

Breslovers still try to do that today, although in a city it is hard to find the solitude. But at least they have the teachings about spending time in nature, which many other groups do not. In fact, mainstream Jews have sometimes considered the Breslovers crazy to go wandering in the woods.

I’m certain that I wouldn’t like being a Breslover Hasid, but I do like nature, and I feel strongly attached to the mitzvot to be kind to animals, and to respect HaShem’s world. I’m also a gardener, and spent a lot of time on farms when I was growing up; I rode horses for twenty years, and spent enough time pitching hay and mucking out to be really unbothered by nature generally. And this is one area where I really seem to differ with my rabbi, alas, and most of my kehila, who seem to treat both living animals and plants generally with some vague suspicion. One of these days, I really should wander into the woods and daven, just to do it.

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Favourite Words and Wisdom

My favourite line from the morning blessings is

נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא

(Neshama she’natet bi tahora hi), the soul You have placed within me is pure.  I have always visualised souls as looking like kidney-bean-shaped quasi-orbs of glowing white light, so it’s very easy for me to think of this line a lot.  It also helps me be mindful (there’s that word again!) of other people — I have a pure soul, and so do you, and so does that person over there, and so even do people I don’t particularly like.  For some reason, the image just sticks with me, and the line itself is consonant and has a lovely internal rhyme.  Every time I say this bracha in the morning, I want to repeat that line three or four times.

My favourite bit of Jewish wisdom, which I think everyone could stand to internalise — Jewish, not Jewish, atheist, Flying Spaghetti Monsterist, et cetera, is

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנו

(Lo alayikh ha’melacha ligmor ve’lo ata ben khorin lehivastel mimenu)*, usually translated roughly as “It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”  (From Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot.)  In context, this refers to the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world, but can be applied to many tasks, and even to life itself at times.

The words…I am in love with them.  Hebrew especially is like a fascinating stranger I can’t help but be totally infatuated with, but who isn’t going to fall easily for my advances!  (Oh Hebrew, will you marry me?) 

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* Amazingly enough, I can directly understand the Hebrew much better now than I could when I first asked my friend DE for the Hebrew text — I read Pirkei Avot in English, as my Hebrew is still pretty bad.  Yay!

Virtue and Maximal Utility

When I first went to see the rabbi about trying to convert, one of the questions he asked me was why I would be willing to give up the assured place I would have (in Jewish thought) in The World to Come (there is some dispute over what this means; roll with me here) because I am able to follow the Noahide Laws, but if I were to voluntarily accept the burden of the covenant, I would be risking that, due to the admitted difficulty in keeping them perfectly.

Honestly, the question never occurred to me.

Similarly, the book I’m studying now, The 39 Melochos of Shabbos, contains a few anecdotes along the lines of “So-and-so broke Shabbat and bad things happened to them!” which I actually feel undermines the case for keeping Shabbat.  The stories are more or less patently silly on their face, and can be easily debunked/dismissed/refuted by any half-bright first-year student of logic or the humanities.  I’ve encountered the problem of really bad argumentation a couple of times in my study books so far, and it really disappoints me — religious scholarly Judaism is a culture of argumentation, with arguments stretching over centuries and being refuted, reasserted, documented and so on by numerous authors over multiple time periods.  To find something blatantly fallacious or facile in the argumentation itself feels like underachievement on the author’s part.

Although personally, I’m very much more in favour of virtue or right action as its own reward than “right action means avoiding punishment.”  I don’t really think punishment is much of a deterrent to humans generally, and I know in my own thought processes, where I’ve done something I shouldn’t have, getting punished rarely crosses my mind in the moment.  On the other hand, I am (I like to think) usually motivated to try to do the right thing, to take the right action, and to help reduce the amount of misery in the world.

I probably have a very odd ethical/moral conception for someone in my situation.  I basically believe that “evil” is synonymous with “anything that creates harm or misery.”  I don’t see it as a nebulous metaphysical entity, but rather as a result of actions and/or agency.  Of course, this thought process leads me ineluctably to the Jewish idea that right action is the moral course in life, and consequently,  forgiveness (such as it is) is contingent on action.  If you wrong someone, you need to talk to them about it, do something to fix it or atone for it, and then seek their forgiveness; it isn’t (again) some nebulous metaphysical entity that can be dispensed unilaterally by G-d or some agent thereof.  (In the Jewish view, if you commit a wrong against G-d, your atonement is contingent upon your not doing that anymore, whereupon you are, for all intents and purposes, forgiven.)

And maybe I’m doing this backward, but I’m hoping that concentrating on the human will help me always do the right thing.  We’ll see.

Struggling

Although I am finding my attempts at Judaism to be mentally and spiritually uplifting, and I am enjoying the idea and practice of the mindful Jewish life (because truthfully, the central idea behind Jewish praxis is really mindfulness), I am admittedly still struggling with lots of things.  It’s hard to undo the habits of a lifetime even in eight months or a year.  I struggle with my speech — I still swear like a gentile!  (Less so than I used to, though.)  In places where my personal ethics and Torah-centred ethics coincide, I still turn to the secular explanation first, even when talking to Jews, or about Jewish issues.  I’m struggling with the side issues (such as fatigue and lack of stamina) caused by my chronic conditions, which means I need to plan ahead much more than some people, and I don’t always accomplish tasks on time.  I’m struggling with organisation, which has been an ongoing issue for me all my life, but which is really going to have to come together even more if I have a hope of ever doing this.  I don’t always do as much Shabbat cleaning as I should.  (Who am I kidding?  I don’t always do as much cleaning as I should, full stop.)

I’m struggling with Hebrew verbs.  This is even less good than it sounds, because verbs are really central to learning Hebrew, in ways I’m not willing to go into in this post.

On a more personal note, I’m struggling with a probably inappropriate crush on a Jewish friend in Israel — not news, as I’ve always more or less had a thing for nice, nerdy Jewish guys (no, I am not that girl on JDate, never have been), and a startling thing I discovered while in Israel — a hugely embarrassing and inappropriate attraction to redheaded ultra-Orthodox guys.  (The ultra-Orthodox look accidentally hits a bunch of my buttons — I like beards, I like long hair, and their peyot give the impression of long hair; they’re always well-dressed, and something about the Ashkenazi look with red hair is like real niiiice.  But highly, highly, highly inappropriate.  Good for an “I really shouldn’t have done that!” moment at any time of the day or night!  Fun for the whole highly-emotionally-charged family!)

Because I take this stuff seriously, I’m trying to be a better person in ways consonant with Torah teaching, which means at the least trying to address my logistical issues before I complicate them by having to buy kosher meat, and at least try to keep my emotional issues internal, if not under wraps.

Also, I need to start going to shul more.  I’m probably destined to be a bad Jew, but if I can get to “Jew” at all, I can work on it from there, no?

Affiliations

I’m not entirely sure, but I think my sympathy for Jews and Judaism started because I found out they were this group of people who’d been collectively picked on and pushed out for thousands of years. As a kid who’d been relentlessly bullied, who was also “different” (because of the cerebral palsy), I guess it sort of made me feel like there was a whole group of people out there who not only would understand how I felt, but had it worse. That’s kind of powerful when you’re a stranded kid in the rural suburbs.

Imagine how I felt when I discovered that the Nazis got good at killing Jews by killing people like me.

Not to mention that anti-disabled hate crimes are actually a thing that exists in the world.

Then as I learnt more about Judaism, I found out that many of the things Jews believe are also things I’ve always believed, or believed for a long time, only sweetened the deal as far as I’m concerned.  To name a few — tikkun olam, ba’al tashchit, valuing right action, and of course, Hillel’s principle that he expressed roughly as “That which is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.”  (I prefer this formulation better than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” because it requires you to take better stock of what <i>you</i> find hateful to yourself, and puts more onus on your behaviour, and also leaves less of an out for vengeance — “Well, he did it unto me first!”  It’s also older, so it has seniority. ^_^ )