Monday, August 22, 2011

The Fence

The fence upon which I am sitting sits between two fields of opportunity, one secular and one religious. Each field belongs to a seperate nation, one a democracy and one a theocracy. Each nation has its own set of laws and customs, as well as its own set of strengths and weaknesses. While guards do stand at the border, those who are determined enough can survive the journey from one side to the other.

I first encountered this fence many years ago, while still a child. I was born on the secular side of the fence. This side of the fence offered me a life full of choices, yet lacking in meaning. In school, while other children were primarily interested in movies and sports, I read a lot and thought about different topics. I searched desperately for a direction and a purpose in life. I tried to fit in throughout school and discovered that the rigid popularity structure did not leave room for those like me.

I sought a purpose in life, and I found it on the other side of the fence. The pull towards the other side was so strong that I did not delay. I ran towards the fence without looking back. With tremendous effort I scaled the fence, landed on the other side, and began a journey deeper into the frum land. I went to schools with those born there, learned the local languages, and managed to fit in.

Yet I have suffered here. The lack of choices on the frum side are stifiling, and underneath the utopian facade corruption runs rampant. On this side of the fence, there is a singular focus that leaves little room for individuality and exploration. I feel stuck in a world where the home is expected to be the focus of a woman's life, and it cannot be the focus of mine.

As an adult, I see a different society on the secular side of the fence. Secular society is large enough for everyone to find a place, even those like me. I feel the need to explore, and therefore I long for the choices of my youth.

So I have inched my way back towards the fence, and stared at it with trepedation. I have climbed up that fence one aveira at a time, until I reached its peak. I stare at the secular side of the fence, longing for its freedom, yet unable to jump. I look back at the frum side of the fence, and see my husband and children below. I see a rope and think "Should I bring my children with me to the other side?" I cannot bring my husband with me, he will never come. Some days I think that I will throw the rope, get my children, jump, and run for dear life. But yet something is stopping me. I feel an inexplicable pull towards the frum side that has hurt me so much. Frumkiet has become part of me somehow. I can't just leave. Yet I cannot stay.

So I remain here on the fence, exposed to the elements. I attempt to straddle the fence and live in both worlds, yet the fence serves as a barrier between the two.

Is it possible to cross from one side to another as needed? Perhaps it is, but it requires so much effort that it will likely wear me down.

So it seems that for now I will remain right here. I may as well enjoy the view.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


 Despite my lack of homemaking skills and artistic ability, I have recently developed an interest in home decorating. Hopefully I will manage to make my home at least somewhat more inviting and livable. To get decorating ideas, I have started to spend some time watching decorating shows on HGTV.

One common theme that I have noticed on many of the shows is that of "repurposing". Repurposing is essentially a fancy name for taking old furniture or household fixtures and modifying them to meet the homeowner's current tastes. If one is willing to put in the effort, repurposing is clearly and excellent way for people to decorate their homes in a way that is stylish, yet cost-effective and environmentally-friendly.

However, the process of repurposing does not always go as planned. I once tried to restain some porch chairs, which worked fine until I gave up in the middle due to the exhaustion of being nine-months pregnant. My youngest is now three and I never finished the job because I did not take the effort to finish what I had started. Another way that repurposing can fail is when due to the nature of the item, it cannot be repurposed as intended. My mother once began a project of covering the old upholstry on her dining room chairs with new upholstry, only to find that the backs of the chairs would no longer fit into the frame. Therefore, she ended up with pretty but useless dining-room chairs.

While the term "repurposing" was likely coined by home decorators, the concept is hardly unique to interior design. In many aspects of life, people take ideas and experiences from the past and attempt to modify them to fit in with our times. Jews in particular have a tendency to try to repurpose Judaism in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. The early secular Zionists celebrated Shavuos as a harvest festival representing the importance of cultivating the land of Israel, and many of today's Reform Jews create human rights sedarim for Pesach.

If Judaism is repurposed, is it still Judaism?
Can Judaism be repurposed effectively?

The answer to these questions seems to be found in our interior-design example. One can repurpose an object in such a way that it maintains its essential characteristics, or one can repurpose it in a way that it becomes an entirely different object. If one paints a table, it is still a table. However, if one cuts off the legs to the table and sticks it on the wall behind a bed, it is no longer a table but a headboard. Both the painted table and the headboard may be much more beautiful than the old table, but one has been changed to the point that it is no longer a table. Therefore, it seems that certain innovations can in fact enhance Judaism and make it relevant even to those who have difficulty with traditional Judaism, while others change the religion so radically that it is hardly recognizable. The effectiveness of the repurposing depends on whether the repurposing made that table look better or worse, which is to an extent in the eyes of the beholder, but still somewhat objective. Similarly, if an individual wants to repurpose Judaism, he or she needs to ensure that it is done in a way that enhances his or her life rather than detracting from it.

Should one repurpose Judaism?

For many people who are Orthoprax or OTD, the answer seems to be yes. Just as repurposing furniture has the benefit of saving money and the environment, repurposing Judaism has the potential to save relationships and improve ones state of mind. By finding new ways of or reasons for keeping mitzvos, one can help keep ones family together. Additionally, people typically find comfort in the rituals of their youth, so finding a way to incorporate these rituals into a new lifestyle can increase ones peace-of-mind and even help one focus on the positive memories of the past.

So perhaps there is an advantage to partial observance?


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

For the Sake of Heaven

While I have not studied other religions, one thing that has struck me as unique about Orthodox Judaism is its concept of "Kol maasecha yihiyu l'shem shomayim", that all of deeds should be done for the sake of heaven. This concept creates a belief system where there are no neutral actions. Many areas of daily life are codified into law, which means that as one goes about his or her day, there are countless opportunities to do a mitzvah or an aveira. There are mitzvos governing almost every aspect of daily life. Additionally, every choice that one makes, even in things that are not expressly required or prohibited by Torah law, are either meritorious or sinful based on their intent.

It is easy to see the appeal of this belief system. This concept essentially means that every action that every ordinary person does has great cosmic significance. A person who believes this feels that at any given moment, his or her actions can help determine the fate of the universe. It is the nature of people to want to feel important, and this belief clearly nurtures the feeling that each individual is in fact important. Additionally, this belief gives one a ready-made sense of purpose and a goal that one can strive towards.

However it seems to me that this aspect of Orthodoxy, which arguably is the religion's greatest appeal, is also its greatest flaw. Having one central goal as the basis of everything creates a system where nothing can be done or enjoyed for its own sake. Everything must be done for an ulterior motive, that of serving God. One can never truly relax when one must keep in mind that the only purpose of the relaxation is to serve Hashem.

This is particularly troubling with regard to personal relationships. It is written in Pirkei Avos, "Ahavah shetaluyah b'davar, sofo l'hisbatel", that love that is dependent on an external reason will ultimately end. In Orthodox Judaism, relationships, just like everything else, are meant solely as a means of serving Hashem. This can be seen quite clearly by the brachos that are given to a new couple, that they should build a "bayis neeman b'yisrael", a faithful Jewish home, which is in stark contrast to the references to the focus on love at a secular wedding. The shidduch system is consistent with this line of thought, in that people marry based on a list of desirable qualities rather than love, which is not supposed to develop until after the wedding. If one views marriage as a means to an end, such a business-like system is ideal. However, if marriage is meant to based on love and acceptance, this arrangement is clearly lacking.

On a more global level, this concept of a singular life purpose effectively replaces normal human thoughts and emotions. Can one really experience love, empathy, desire, or joy if it must constantly be done for an external motive? If halacha mandates what one should think and feel, does one ever really experience those thoughts and feelings to their fullest?