Tuesday, December 27, 2005

How I got to where I am

It is sometimes tough to look at yourself honestly and realistically, especially with regard to religion. From my point of view, there is lots I know I should be doing, but dont do, and it is hard to think about that descrepancy, without either becoming very depressed, or radically changing one's life. In any event, here is the story behind how I came to find myself in the place that I am.

My father speaks mostly Hebrew to me. He always has. Although he was born in the US, he grew up speaking Hebrew, and his relationship to Judaism was very much the intellectual one, rather than extensive practice. We drove to the orthodox shul on Shabbat, built the only sukkah in the neighborhood(we didn't live in the Jewish area), kept kosher, learned gemara in 4th grade, and kept all the holidays. I didn't get my first pair of tzitzit(and didn't know we had to wear them) until 5th grade, had no idea what Asher yatzar was(the blessing said after using the bathroom), didn't know any halachic reason for washing hands on awakening, and was unaware of a lot of the little things that Jews are supposed to do. On the other hand, I was tutored by some very august rabbis, spoke fluent Hebrew, and , when I finally did start day school, was far ahead of my classmates simply because I could understand the plain meaning of chumash, whereas they had essentially zero hebrew skills.

I decided to wear my kippa all the time when I was in 5th grade(even though one of my teachers insisted I had to wear two if I was going to wear a kippah srugah(crocheted one). I got detention when I asked him to show me where this was codified. After 2 years of day school(the education was horrible, both Jewish and secular) I wound up in public school, then a few years of prep school, all the time being the identifiable jew because of my kippah. It never occured to me to go to Israel to learn, I was in a hurry to get on with life.

Through college and past I identified with the Modern Orthodox, keeping kosher, shabbat(strictly), attending various shiurim and lectures, but never seriously studying anything in particular or in depth, amassing a kind of superficial knowledge of what and how but not a whole lot of why. When I finally finished the education process, having picked up a wonderful wife in the process, and settling in a community, I needed to know more. I started learning gemara in earnest, reading as much as I could, using the mishna brura that I had gotten as a bar mitzva present(I think I had opened it up maybe twice).

I find that I am much more serious about mitzvot than I ever was, and wonder why I didn't put more emphasis on even the little things. I am trying to infuse my children with the desire to learn and to do. I know that I am becoming more "frum" in the recent years. However, "more frum" in this case means not showering on Shabbat, making sure to say brachot before and after all meals, making sure my few hours of scheduled learning are more important than the few hours of basketball, and not accepting the answer that its ok because "everyone in the community does it."

I look up the sources for what I do and don't do. I don't want to be machmir for machmir's sake(strict). I think there is a perfectly good halachic rationale for my wife not covering her hair. However, if I didn't think there was, it would bother me. Previously, I would have thought "whatever, hair covering isn't that important."

Thus I look at what I do(and don't do) and realize that by halacha there is a lot that I dont (and should ) do. Making the committment to change, and keeping with that committment takes a lot of work, and doesn't always work. It also sometimes conflicts with prevailing family practices. Looking around at prevailing modern orthodox practice, I am now a little towards the right side of the community. However, I am happy there, and can now adequately voice the reasons why I am there, and why it is the best place for me, and hopefully for my kids.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Sounds like your father was quite the independent thinker, and raised you to be one too.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I look up the sources for what I do and don't do. I don't want to be machmir for machmir's sake(strict). I think there is a perfectly good halachic rationale for my wife not covering her hair. However, if I didn't think there was, it would bother me.
Two separate issues.
1) I'd be interested in those sources, as my wife covers and wishes she wasn't obligated to do so.

'2) By 'it would bother me' do you mean you would talk with your wife about her reasons for not covering, or something more serious? In your eyes who ultimately decides whether or not she covers?

Noam S said...

Larry, please email me and I will be happy to email you the sources(I had a long discussion on the topic at the House of Hock and it degenerated into name calling and rabbinical abuse, so I dont want to post it again at the present time):


btw, I am not paskening for my wife(or for your wife), but the arguements make sense to me.

Point #2: If I wasn't happy I would discuss the issue with her. she is very independent minded, and I doubt that anything would change because of it. However, I could always rely on the example of R. YBS, whose wife did not cover her hair, and he seems to have been a pretty frumma yid. One of the rationales given by his students who support hair covering is that he said "one doesn't have to divorce one's wife because she doesn't cover her hair." Probably the more accurate answer is that he held that the wife didn't really have to, but he didn't want to make it an issue of contraversy.

mirty: yes, my dad is quite independent minded, the son of not one but two Hebrew teachers, and brought up in a religious/maskili tradition. Interestingly, my path towards greater observance has somewhat paralleled his. He rarely misses morning minyan, goes to a bunch of classes every week and seems to be more observant than ever before. Religious belief was always a given in my house, even if the practice details were partially glossed over. We certainly got the "big picture"

Miss S. said...

Very interesting. As someone who is looking to convert (and lived as a "Reform Jew" for years), I get quite bewildered with the subgroups in Orthodox Jewry. On paper, they make sense; but what you see in practice is a different story. Some Yidden chose their congregation not on hashkafa, but on social ties and/or prestige of the shul and rabbi. Other times, you'll see Jews who (while they may be learned) hold that if the community does and accepts a particular 'way' then they do it also.

Truth be told, I did not 'choose' my congregation, but was rather referred to it. I'm greatful however, in that I've learned to appreciate the 'Yeshivish' community. I'm not knowledgable enough to be MO at this point (although I've learned with a few MO rabbis, and I like their approach) simply because I've seen Modern Orthodox Jews do some things that were a bit "out there" (like women's clothing; I've seen some with plunging necklines in shul!). This is not a criticism of the Modern Orthodox however. In many ways, the MO community is necessary, because they confront issues such as intermarriage, gettim, and other things that get pushed under the rug with some of the other communities. It is just as someone who is learning, it can be a little bewildering.

We all do the best that we can. When Moshiach comes, we will know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. Until then will holdfast onto the Torah and try to do right in the eyes of Hashem.

PsychoToddler said...

You didn't answer the big question, which is "why do you want to be more observant?"

I see a lot of "Frum from births" (people who grew up orthodox) who go through the paces and don't know why they do what they do. They do it because they were told to do it, or because of peer pressure, or because they are afraid of breaking the rules.

But I think deep down many of them don't really believe in what they are doing.

You are a good person, one who cares and strives to be spiritual. Why do you feel bad if you shower on shabbat? That's what you need to address.

I've spoken with others on your level who resent being made to feel bad if they don't always make a bracha or cover their hair. I think these people need to sit down and figure out what they really believe. Belief in G-d, belief in the torah, belief in the Oral law, the binding nature of halacha, etc.

That would make a good post. How do you put it all together and decide where you want to go?

Stacey said...

PsychoToddler asked the very question that popped into my mind. That would be a fabulous post. I would love to hear about it.

Chana said...

Good for you! You sound like a dedicated, happy, content and striving person. :)

Noam S said...

PT and Stacey, see above post. thanks for the comments.

chana- for the most part, yes.

Maya Resnikoff said...

I'd appreciate it if someone would email me those sources as well- it's a topic I'm particularly interested in, and not something I could ask the local Orthodox rabbi or his wife to find for me. When I get to that point in my life, I'd like to make an informed decision.
my email is mjk at brandeis.edu