Friday, September 30, 2011

The Book of Life

One of the most well-known--and most fundamental--teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, and the Chassidic movement as a whole, is that everything that one experiences happens because of hashgacha pratis (divine providence), and happens for the purpose of teaching a lesson in avodas Hashem (divine service). Therefore, one should constantly think of which lessons can be learned from every day life events.

This thought, and its opposite, ran through my head as I sat and listened to a Rosh Hashana speech given by a Reconstructionist rabbi. He discussed the traditional concept of Rosh Hashana as a day on which God sits in judgment and determines who will be written in the "Book of Life" and merit to live for the rest of the year. (Apparently God has an extensive library as other such books include the "Book of Sustenance" and the "Book of Health", etc.)
While nobody over the age of ten, even amongst the most Orthodox, believes that God sits there with a physical pen and writes in a physical book, even the concept that God selects a day to make judgments about the whole world, and that are prayers affect those judgments, seems quite illogical.

Even if one can accept the concept that one can actually change God's mind through prayer, which is quite a philosophically difficult position to accept, it still seems illogical to believe that God would choose one day of the human calendar upon which to make an essentially irrevocable decision. Why would a prayer said in the middle of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan matter less than one in Tishrei? And more fundamentally, why would God punish someone for not praying? The prayers on Rosh Hashana are primarily praises of God, and a perfect God shouldn't need praise. Of course, traditional sources do explain that God desires prayer in order to benefit the one doing the praying, but if that is true it seems illogical to harm or kill someone for the sin of not trying to improve oneself.

So, for someone who does not believe that God is sitting in judgment determining our future, or who does not believe in the traditional concept of God at all, what is the point of Rosh Hashana?

According to the Rabbi's speech, which seems quite consistent with the little that I know about Reconstructionism, on Rosh Hashana we are written in the book of life not by a heavenly decree but by our actions. When we make a conscious effort to do teshuva (change our actions) and improve ourselves, then we can consciously write a better future for ourselves. Through setting aside a day (or two) to reflect, we can write a future of life, health, and prosperity. No divine intervention needed.

Of course, this is easier said than done. An Orthodox, yet open-minded, friend of mine told me recently that the main problem with my fence-sitting is not my lack of religion, rather my lack of decision making. She believes that I am not taking enough control of my life and am instead letting life happen to me. I believe that is definitely a valid criticism and perhaps something that I ought to focus on during this Aseres Yemei Teshuva.

Regarding the belief of chassidus that one should take everyday events as a lesson for avodas Hashem, perhaps the opposite is true. The Reconstructionist approach of taking the concepts of avodas Hashem as a lesson for everyday life seems to have a lot of merit--and fits in quite nicely with the "Repurposing" concept that I wrote about a few months ago.

On that note...

G'mar chasima tova!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Greatest Challenge is from Within
It was a cold December day.

I had just taken the bold step of enrolling in a community college. After handing in my forms at the registrar's office, I was instructed to meet with an advisor.

This was taking longer than I had expected, so I called my mother to ask her to pick up my kids from school. She agreed, so I found a chair and waited for my appointment.

I was ushered into the adviser's office a few minutes later. She was not ready to meet with me yet so I glanced at the newspaper clippings that hung from the office in her room.

One in particular caught my eye. It was the story of a girl who grew up homeless in Los Angeles. She was born to a teenage single mother and spent her nights traveling from homeless shelter to homeless shelter with her mother. However, this girl loved to read and spent every day in the library learning whatever she could get her hands on. This tendency continued as she got older. She enrolled in the highest-level classes available at her inner-city high school, got straight-A's, and ultimately went to Harvard with a full scholarship.

A nice story, but for some reason I was not particularly impressed. I thought to myself, "How could I not be impressed by this story? Isn't it the classic tale of overcoming adversity?"

Then it hit me. I was sitting in the office of a local community college--not Harvard.

While I'm sure that the article left out a few details, the girl in the article didn't seem to have an internal struggle. Her nature was to be studious, and therefore as soon as she was old enough to read she spent all of her time reading and studying. Given that she was a naturally intelligent girl who spent hours reading each day, it is hardly surprising that she got the Harvard scholarship. Intelligence and diligence are to a large extent genetic, and her genetic combination was strong enough that it could withstand being born into bad circumstances.

But how is any of this relevant to us, the community college students in this office?

I was not at Harvard, and neither were the other students who would sat in this office before me and would sit in this office after me, because we were not like the girl in the article. We did not make all of the right choices--we made mistakes. Whether the mistake involved joining an extreme religious group, having unprotected sex at 15, dropping out of high school, or simply not caring about school, most of us were here for a similar reason--to get a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) chance.

During the year that I spent at community college, I met many other students who were working hard at overcoming their pasts. I met a student who worked her way up from remedial elementary-school math all the way to calculus in order to fulfill her dream of studying environmental science. I met a woman who was at college together with her daughter, working her way towards a better job. I met a man who had just spent many years in jail and now wanted to turn his life around.

While I am happy that I am able to take more advanced courses now that I am at a regular college, I can't help but miss all of the inspiring students back at the community college, the students who had made mistakes.

I went to a research conference last week that featured the research of Undergraduate students who were considered "disadvantaged" by being from certain minority groups or from being first-generation college students. This is not a group that I am eligible for. My father is a university professor and my mother has a master's degree. My SAT score as good enough that I could have gotten into almost any college that I wanted to, but I didn't go to college because I thought that it was wrong to do so. I was "advantaged" and I blew it.

Yet here I am in school again, aiming for a doctorate someday.

My disadvantage did not come from my background but from myself. But perhaps beating oneself really is the greatest challenge.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Former Fanatic Revisits Tznius

Hi, my name is Fence, and I used to be a tznius fanatic.

Yes, you read that right, the author of this OTD blog who now wears pants and short sleeves whenever she can get away with it, used to be really into tznius--for years. I practically had Oz V'hadar Levusha memorized and was makpid on everything from covering my head (I kept my hair covered at all times except when showering) to covering my toes (opaque tights, "aidel" shoes, etc). I also learned the mekoros from tznius inside halachic sefarim, and would readily debate and defend my tznius standards whenever asked.

Despite what many people who know me speculate, I did not go off the derech because of frustration from keeping such a high standard of tznius. This was not a case of taking on too much and then confusing chumra and minhag. As I said, I learned mekoros and knew full well that many of the things that I kept were in fact chumros.

So, what happened?

I believe very strongly in acting in a way that is consistent with the way that one believes. I decided to become frum as a young teenager because I believed that the Torah was true and therefore felt that it was wrong not to keep it. Despite the tremendous difficulties that it involved, I took on one mitzvah at a time until I was fully shomer mitzvos, or since of course no one can keep all the taryag mitzvos, as observant as possible.

As tznius--or to a lesser extent, the equivalent for men, yiddishe levush--is the ultimate external representation of ones beliefs to the world, I viewed this mitzvah as particularly important. Therefore, I was extremely bothered by frum people who did not keep tznius properly. I viewed frum people who believed in the halachic system, including the principle of "minhag yisrael Torah hee", yet dressed in a manner totally inconsistent with halacha, as the ultimate hypocrites. How could I have respected someone who believes that there is a God-given objective truth, yet chooses to openly violate it to fulfill a taavah to follow fashion? So, yes, not only was I makpid on tznius, I was also intolerant of those who were not.

However, as I grew older and circumstances led me to start questioning Judaism, I ran into a problem. At first I held steadfastly to tznius even while breaking shabbos, because tznius had become so important to me that I could not bear to deviate from it. Yet as time went on and the dichotomy between my beliefs and the way I dressed grew wider, I could not bear it any longer. My way of dress had to change. But, as I was and still am living in the frum community, it could not change completely without harming my family. So, I joined the ranks of the not-quite-tznius frummies whom I had once despised. But I have started dressing in a truly secular manner at college and wherever else I can get away with it, in order to minimize the need to live a double life.

As I walk down the street in questionably-tznius, yet frum-looking clothing, I can't help but wonder if there is a young woman out there looking at me with the same disdain that I once felt towards others. If there is, then she is somewhat right. I am a hypocrite, but not in the way that she thinks.

What goes around, comes around.