Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spiritual Forecast: Clear and Sunny

I wanted to reflect a bit on the fall Jewish holidays that recently passed. This is the first year since 2006 that I've been able to enjoy them, because my Lyme-related pain interfered, and this time last year I was newly released from a hospital after being admitted for colitis.

Rosh Hashana: I used to really enjoy praying in a community when I was a teenager, but several years ago something changed that made it almost unbearable for me to sit in a synagogue. I had this crummy, self-conscious feeling whenever I attended services, like every part of my being was screaming, "Let me out of here!" I have no idea why this happened, but something magical happened on Rosh Hashana: it went away. I wasn't trying to get rid of my aversion; I suppose if I had tried, it would still be with me. But instead, sometime during services -- and not even at a point where I was particularly moved -- that discomfort went away. It was quite dramatic, as it was accompanied by physical feeling of going back in time. I felt transported through the last 15 years, and found my spirit back in synagogue when I was a teenager and I felt very connected during group prayer. I savored those few minutes, which cheesily brought me to tears, and then felt myself come back to 2009, very contented and not self-conscious. It was damn cool, and one of my new year's resolutions is to attend shabbat (sabbath) services more regularly, though definitely not every week. I am still Sarah, and I relish nothing more than reading the paper and falling back asleep mid-Saturday morning.

Yom Kipur: Yom Kipur was powerful too, because it was the first time in about 8 years that I fasted. I used to be on medication that could send me into kidney failure if I couldn't drink for 25 hours, and after I cut out that medication I was so sick from my current health problems that I couldn't fast. Add to that the fact that I'm a food addict in recovery who eats like clockwork, and I feared being triggered by fasting. But here's the kicker: if you're unable to fast on Yom Kipur for medical reasons, the way you have to eat is something like an ounce or two or so every 9 minutes (something like this), which actually triggered my food addiction worse than I thought fasting would, and I was right. So this year, I fasted, and enjoyed it in the sense that I felt very connected to God and my religious community.

Sukkot is my favorite Jewish holiday by far. I relish sitting outside in our sukkah, a cozy little hut, surrounded by friends and eating good food. Being close to nature always makes me feel closer to God and God's creations. David & I decided to honor this creation this year by not using a single disposable paper or plastic product in our sukkah. Those things are staples of entertaining in sukkot for reasons of convenience and ease, so foregoing them meant a lot of late nights washing dishes, but David & I both felt it was worth it, and high-fived each other for being totally sustainable this sukkot.

Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: I went to a local service, Rosh Pinah, which describes itself as a "dati [observant] community built around a common commitment to halakha [Jewish law], tefilla [prayer], and equality." This group sprung up inspite of intense opposition from my Rabbi at Kesher Israel, who very actively lobbied against it.

I tried to attend Rosh Pinah with an open mind and no expectations, and I found I really enjoyed the service. Women participated in leading services and reading Torah much more actively than they can in my regular congregation, yet it felt very natural to me. I think that one of my difficulties with attending services in recent years is that in an Orthodox congregation, it always feels like I'm a spectator. Men and women sit separately, which doesn't bother me, but my choices are to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary where I feel crowded and there's a lot of talking, or to sit upstairs in the balcony. Looking down from the balcony feels like watching a play; I don't really feel as engaged as I'd like to feel. I felt much more engaged praying at Rosh Pinah, which had a modest mechitza (divider between genders) and equal access to the bimah (altar) from the men's and women's sides. Additionally, people were super-friendly and glad (and frankly, surprised) to see me, which was nice.

Really sorting through my feelings on this has led me to a somewhat freeing, yet also uncomfortable, realization: I am much more committed to observance than I am to Orthodoxy. For years now, when people have asked if I'm Orthodox, I answer, "Well, I'm not really orthodox about anything. But I am an observant Jew, yes, and I belong to an Orthodox synagogue." My husband is quite invested in the Orthodox community, but we manage to maintain a comfortable, congenial space around our religious differences, in part, because day-to-day our religious practices don't look that different! The acts I do to worship God like strictly keeping kosher, praying mincha [afternoon service] most days, and keeping shabbat and holidays are all things I do because I feel like they are God's will for me and I desperately want a connection with God. I don't do them because Jewish law says that I should. It's probably bad that I don't find that so motivating, but I don't. My spirituality is driven by something different, but no less powerful. But certainly less reliable; I realize I could decide that God doesn't care about me keeping kosher, and then it would go out the window, but it wouldn't. Because:

I don't entirely disregard halacha. It's important. I believe that God gave some form of oral law to Moses at Sinai, but I have a hard time squaring what that might be with some of the misuse of power (or, just well-meaning errors about things like how electricity works, etc.) that I think Rabbis have engaged in in the name of halacha. I realize, by the way, that this is not air-tight theology I'm expressing, nor do I claim that it is. I'm just trying to give voice to some of my thoughts around this.

I never want to be uncomfortable praying in an Orthodox synagogue, and I am inherently very lazy, which means I won't be huffing the 30 boring minutes to Rosh Pinah alone all that often, but I'm glad it's there and I do hope to go back to services there.

Sorry I've taken so long to post; I've had a lot of physical challenges lately that have made typing time very cherished, and I'm spending a lot of time on the computer for a big community service project I'm working on. That will be over in 2 weeks.

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