I had such a great week! I was crazy lucky to bring in Shabbat with M and her daughters (M is the mother of the family I currently nanny for, and she is a true goddess of a human). For the foreseeable future, I’ll be with M and her family on Friday evenings, in addition to being the beneficiary of ongoing coaching throughout the week. This week, I got not only M’s wise interpretations of Jewish Friday evening traditions, but also the benefit of being coached through the prayers by 9-year-old B. B’s enthusiasm and sincerity is adorable, funny, and very touching. It’s weirdly humbling to get such useful help from a kid twenty years younger than me. The entire family’s warmth and generosity in taking me under their wing and coaching me through my first steps towards Judaism made me cry happy tears as we gave tzadakah and said our blessing for the coming week. (BTW, everybody who knows me at all knows I’m a total waterworks. I’m pretty tough about crying over bad things, but when good things happen, put your belongings on high ground. You’ve been warned.)
On Shabbat, I spent several hours in the orthodox shul where I’ll be for the conversion process. I’ve been to the building many times as a nanny in previous years, and been present for the shofar blowing during Rosh Hashanah, but had never seriously visited for a service. This week, I seriously engaged with the service and community for the first time.
I attended Tot Shabbat and sang silly songs about a dinosaur visiting for Shabbat who eats all the challah. I got to sit in on a class for teens about the story of Ester, and I had the pleasure of seeing friends I hadn’t seen in years. I sat in the sanctuary during the aliyot and reflected on the week’s parshah – the story of the origin of the Ten Commandments – and surprised myself a little by realizing and thinking about what wise and useful rules those still prove to be. I can’t really understand the Hebrew yet, but I can follow along in the Torah in Hebrew and then I read and think about the English translation when I lose my place.
It’s weird to be the adult sitting in on kids’ and teens’ lessons, but the way that concepts and stories are explained and explored to younger learners is actually very helpful for someone approaching Judaism. The accessibility that children demand helps condense Judaism to its most important parts, and, in addition to studying as an adult, this actually makes everything much easier to understand.
Not all of the day was easy and uplifting. It’s a strange paradox I don’t understand about myself, but although I love speaking in public and enjoy heated discussions with people I know, I get painfully anxious standing in milling crowds of people I don’t know. I feel awkward and I don’t know what to do. It’s hard for me to introduce myself and I have to force small talk. I tend to cling to people I know and get stressed to the point of wanting to run to the bathroom and cry. It’s weird. All of this to say, the first week in shul pushed me to experience many new things and remember that being involved in a community takes time and effort – like, for example, growing a ladypair and saying hello to a stranger. Yikes.
I finished out Shabbat by sharing havdalah with T and J and their kids (T and J are the parents of the orthodox family I used to nanny for) and running around the kitchen island while we sang more songs. T had a lovely explanation for why we hold our hands close to the havdalah candle. Fire, being man’s greatest creation, acts as a symbol of the creativity we want to see in ourselves throughout the week. We remind ourselves of this by holding our hands close – close enough to see the fire reflected in our fingernails.
So that was my first official Shabbat. This past week, I also finished A Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and want to write a little about what I took away from it.
In essence, the short book is really a long essay about the inherent conflict between modernity, literalism, and the inherently non-literal transcendent meaning found in religion.
Soloveitchik uses the two conflicting versions of Adam and Eve’s creation in Genesis to create a metaphor around the topic of secular vs. religious behavior, the importance of both, and the isolation that is inherently part of being human – and how man’s quest for God can help overcome that isolation.
For those unfamiliar with the two versions, Adam the First, as Soloveitchik calls him, was created in God’s image, simultaneously with Eve, and commanded to rule over the earth. Adam the first was intended to dignify his life by creating order out of the world and exercising discipline in pursuing literal truth. How do things work? How can I use them to my advantage? How are the people around me useful to me and vice versa? These are questions that Adam the First asks and seeks to answer through action.
Adam the Second, however, is humbly made from dust and is instructed to cultivate the Garden of Eden, rather than dominate it. Eve is created from Adam’s own body and Adam therefore has to sacrifice a major part of himself in order to form a functional relationship with her. Together, they are meant to seek answers to bigger questions. Why do things work? Why are they here to begin with? Even if I could use everything to my advantage, why am I here? How does trying to understand the answer to that question compel me to behave differently? How can I form a meaningful relationship with the people around me and lift them up beyond the purely functional?
Rather than pitting these two Adams against each other, as secular critics of the Bible would do in order to prove its literal falsity, Soloveitchik argues that these Adams represent aspects of each person’s humanity that have to be skillfully understood and combined throughout life in order to both have a good quality of life and really understand the purpose of life itself.
Enter Adam the Second’s search for a transcendent relationship with God via the tools and stories of religion. Soloveitchik argues that in modern times, Adam the Second has been cast to the side as unnecessary. Since the wonders of the enlightenment and the following boom in science and information, humanity has become so intoxicated by our success that we have replaced proper humility with the hubris to think we have all the answers. Forgetting that scientific success is clearly not necessary in order for humans to succeed as a species, we have thrown away the things that are necessary: Belonging to a community, sharing common goals, understanding our shared history, feeling that we fit within a broader system that explains our individual purpose. As a result, we have become further and further isolated and tragically self-absorbed.
We know that society is more fragmented, anxious, and unhappy than it’s ever been, and personal hubris is just one chicken-and-egg element of that. Youth suicide is a tremendous problem, divorce is rampant, communities are weak. I’m not getting involved in moral-panicky “The world is worse than it’s ever been!” because it’s not. In many ways, it’s much better. But there is no question that as we turn away from the moral codes and stories that have connected us for generations, there are undeniable consequences.
As a public school teacher, I can tell you, so many of those kids are a wreck. I know they were in the midst of tough part of life, but there was a definite difference between the kids that were rooted in family and community and the ones who were moving between parents and homes and had no broader sense of where they fit in their social scheme. Kids without supportive parents and communities were more involved in vaping, drugs, early sexual behavior, more vulnerable to predators, had higher levels of anxiety, depression, and criminality, and an overall “fuck-it” attitude towards school and life in general.
Again, I’m not a moral panic-er. But to pretend that these behaviors don’t have a real, negative impact on the lives of kids is to be fatally ignorant. During my first semester full-time teaching, one of my students was at a party and was shot and killed. It still isn’t clear whether she was playing with a gun and accidentally shot herself, or whether somebody else shot her. What is clear is that there was plenty of alcohol involved, no responsible parental supervision at the home where the party was taking place, and no “friends” courageous enough not to run away from the scene rather than stay and tell the truth. Consequently, a 17-year-old girl at the very beginning of her adult life is dead. This is to say nothing of the pregnancies, the self-mutilation, the eating disorders, the debilitating depression that result from a lack of support and community and belief.
I was raised Mormon and I often pushed against the constraints of the religion. I wanted more freedom, I wanted more partying, I wanted to be out doing what the cool kids were doing. But I wasn’t doing drugs, I wasn’t having sex, and I wasn’t at a alcohol-drenched party on Saturday nights where guns were present. Mormonism was restrictive, but it saved me from exposure to truly dangerous things.
That would be Adam the First’s reaction to the benefits of religion – it keeps us physically safe. It provides us with semi-functional communities full of people who watch out for each other and check each other’s (and each other’s children’s) behavior.
Even more importantly, when I was growing up, I had the benefit of Adam the Second’s understanding of the world. I knew where I belonged. My home life was often violent, scary, and abusive. Nevertheless, I had a strong sense of self that I derived mostly from my religion and the belief that I was a daughter of God who loved me dearly and would help me succeed. I felt connected to the pioneer women who came before me. I “knew” what would happen to me when I died.
When I left Mormonism, all of that changed. I started engaging in much riskier behavior, often with people whose company I didn’t even enjoy. I became cynical and snarky, especially towards the people in Mormonism that I had left behind. I was sure that I knew better. The fact that I didn’t get pregnant or die in a car accident is due to pure luck – something I’ll never stop being grateful for.
I’m still glad that I left Mormonism. It needed to happen. Even if they would have me back (they wouldn’t), it isn’t the place for Me the First or Me the Second. That particular religion is too intellectually constraining for somebody who loves asking questions and diving deep into the history and metaphors and doctrine. It is also so recent and well-documented that it’s easy to get information about Joseph Smith. He was a charlatan, a man who willingly deceived those around him to get power and influence. (I mean, the guy had 42 wives in the mid 1800s. Come on.)
The answers to the questions of how Adam the First and Adam the Second meet in a way that allows for seeing the world with clear eyes, and yet also transcends the purely literal and acknowledges that modern science and culture are simply not equipped to answer higher-order questions about meaning and purpose, is different for everybody.
But they are questions worthy of asking. And to Soloveitchik’s point, the very asking opens the sincere seeker of answers to ridicule and mocking from those who believe themselves beyond the power of the “mental illness” of religion. But the benefits I’ve already seen from trying to seek answers to hard questions through understanding Judaism and the Jewish God – not least of which is my amazing fiancé and my amazing community – make me believe that I’m on the right track. Me the First has been in a good place for a while. Me the Second has some catching up to do.
If you haven’t read the essay, check it out. It’s worth the effort of plunging into the complex philosophical language to understand what Soloveitchik is trying to say.
Come up next: Reading A Guide to Jewish Prayer, a trip home to visit family, and then starting kosher intimacy classes in preparation for marriage.