Friday, July 22, 2016

I Don't Love My Mother

My mother’s Yahrzeit was this last week. I went to synagogue and said Kaddish (the  prayer for the dead) for her.

When I came to Judaism both my parents were dead. When I stand to say Kaddish for my Daddy, I do it with love in my heart and tears in my eyes. But when I stand and say the same words for my mother, there are no tears – and, unfortunately, no love.

I don’t have any children and I don’t have any regret about that. Even though it was a decision I made when I was still in my teens, I never changed my mind. I was terrified I’d be the same kind of mother my mother was; who was the same kind of mother her mother – my grandmother – was; who was the same kind of mother her mother – my great-grandmother – was. I was lucky, or unlucky, enough to have known them all.

Several years ago, for an all-night Shavuot study session, I took the opportunity to learn more about, and to speak about, the challenging (at least for me) commandment to honor your parents. Well, specifically for me, to honor my mother.

The fifth commandment is just these few words from Deuteronomy 5:16 (though it is found in other verses as well)

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.

I started with researching the simple meaning of the words. Christians (on the internet anyway) seemed to have more of a tendency to equate honor with love – which does not seem to be the general Jewish perspective – and to interpret the phrase “that you may long endure” to refer to individuals – also not the general Jewish perspective.

So what was the “general Jewish perspective?”

Let's start with the easy part, at least for me. The end of the verse: “that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.”  The Jewish perspective is that the “you” in this verse refers to the Jewish people as a group, in the sense that if children respect their parents, and carry on the Covenant from generation to generation, then we will remain in, or return to, the land of Israel.

This makes perfect sense, as most Jewish texts tend to be phrased in the plural and the only way for Jews to survive as a religious group is if children continue the faith of their parents. As far as this influencing our return to the land, well, that is an entirely separate conversation.

Now the hard part, the beginning of the verse.

The 5th commandment to honor our parents is on the first of the two tablets given at Sinai along with other declarations concerning our relationship with G-d. G-d is considered to be the third “person” involved in the creation of a child and thus to “Disrespect to our biological creators is not merely an affront to them; it is also an insult to the Creator of the Universe.” Several of the sources I've read said that this commandment is considered the most difficult one to fulfill because no matter what you do, there is simply no way you can ever show enough gratitude to equal the great gift of being given life.

And in a general way, I’ll agree that that is true.

I've said I was grateful to my Daddy, not for giving me life since, of course, he didn’t, but for being such a good father to his step-child.

But if I am honest, I would have to admit, I wasn't at all grateful to my mother for the “great gift” of my life. I spent all of the years before I was 30 being ragingly suicidal because after all, if my mother didn't love me (since I thought at time: of course, all other mothers love their children) I must be beyond worthless.

I can remember laying curled up in bed, and thinking maybe I should just go ahead and kill myself now just so I wouldn't use up air a more deserving person could breathe.

So when I read the lists of actions that you should do to fulfill this obligation of showing regard, concern, and affection to your parents (I'm not going into the full list here as it is easy enough to find online) and it became obvious that this commandment was primarily about adult children and their relationship to their parents, especially to their aging parents, I was first surprised and then, way less than happy.

I did a very bad job (thank goodness) of cutting my wrists when I was in my late 20s. Then I moved thousands of miles away from California, mainly so my mother couldn't drop in to visit me. I finally stopped taking her calls, because it would take me weeks to regain my equilibrium after I talked with her. I couldn't change her, but I could get away from her. So I ran away to Colorado to save my life. I was still crazy, but I firmly closed the door marked “suicide is easier than living like this.”

So where does the commandment stand on parents who neglected their children or subjected them to either physical, mental or emotional abuse as they were growing up? Does that whole laundry list of duties still apply?

A Rabbi from the American Jewish University says that some Rabbinic authorities maintain that these duties apply even to the worst of parents, and they remove our duties to our parents only if they are bad in the extreme. One does not have to have terrific parents to be obligated by the duties to honor and respect them.

He continued by saying that it is possible for one to honor one's parent for being a parent, and not for how well or how poorly that parent has lived up to the demands of their role. Whether by refraining from a public response of anger or by observing mourning practices and reciting Kaddish after a parent has died (emphasis mine), an individual who incurred emotional or physical harm at the hand of a parent could still affirm the importance of parenthood itself, even while rejecting her particular parent as a model for how that role should be fulfilled.

Reject the specific role model, affirm the importance of parenthood. I felt I could do that. Whatever my feelings about my mother, I do, in fact, respect and admire folks who are good parents. It is not an easy job.

It occurred to me, though, that as a convert, perhaps the obligation to observe the Yahrzeits of my parents didn't even apply to me?

Although naturally not all Jews agree, The Jewish Virtual Library has an article on conversion which contains the following: “Nevertheless, proselytes are still obligated to fulfill the biblical commandment of 'Honor thy father and mother,' and therefore the Jewish laws of mourning must be observed by the proselyte when his non-Jewish parents die.”

So it would seem that even though my observance of the Yahrzeits of my parents is not equally heartfelt, it is still my obligation, and I am fulfilling it. A Rabbi I know once told me that the reason the commandment is worded to “honor” is because we can't be commanded to “love”. Not having to equate honor to love helped me a lot in accepting this commandment.

One of the interesting sources I found, when doing my original research, was a biker (as in rider of a Harley Davidson) Christian theologian. One of the reasons I may have found him so interesting is that it turns out that his mother was also an abuser. He did write a, mostly mainstream Jewish perspective, blog article about the 5th commandment, but it’s something he says while writing about Mother’s Day that really struck a chord with me.

He said
“It was not until just before my mother died… that I came to grips with my relationship with her. I finally recognized that she had her own demons to wrestle with and that she did the best she could given who she was. Her best was not good enough, but I could not change that and finally accepted that fact and forgave her in my heart.” An echo of what the Rabbi from the American Jewish University said above.

In my case, it was after my mother died that I slowly began to come to grips with my relationship with her. I know that she was the mother that her mother and her grandmother taught her to be. I think I might well have been the same kind of mother. Living with the memories of my childhood is an ongoing and still painful process. I am glad I didn't pass it along to another generation. I am still trying to forgive those three generations of mothers... in my heart.

I loved my Daddy, and I treated him as respectfully as I knew how while he was alive. And, had he still been alive when I became a Jew, I would have happily risen every time he walked into a room and all the rest of that list of actions to show how very much I willingly honored him.

I’m not one of those people who love their abusive parents anyway. The best I could ever do, late into middle age, was a hard-won emotional neutrality. Given I am pretty sure my mother never changed (my grandmother and my great-grandmother never did) I am also sure that distance continued to be my only protection.

I am very grateful now that my sister was there for her. And if I had been Jewish while she still lived, I hope that I would have been able to honor her by helping my sister with her care… but it would have to have been from afar.

Learning about this commandment allowed me to experience again what a good man my Daddy was and how lucky I was to have known him. 

And it helped me to work through some of the lingering pain of my relationship with my mother.

A major thing I learned was that “to honor” may also mean “to forgive”.
 - - - -


Must One Honor an Abusive Parent?
While fully aware of the corrosive effect of abuse by parents, rabbinic literature still encourages expressions of respect and honor for such parents.
By Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Parashat Aharei Mot—K'doshim
Leviticus 16:1–20:27
May 2, 2009 / 8 Iyyar 5769
This week's commentary was written by Dr. Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture, JTS.

Commandment Five
Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield, Retired Protestant Pastor and Theologian, jointly credentialed in the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church

Shabbat Parashat Yitro - 22 Shevat 5770 - Parents and Children -
February 6, 2010 / 22 Shevat 5770
By: Rabbi Elliot Dorff Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University

When a Child Should Disobey a Parent
Jewish law recognizes several categories of actions that should be avoided even if one is directed to do them by one's mother or father.
By Rabbi Nachum Amsel

Honoring Parents Who Are Abusive
By Benzion Sorotzkin, Psy.D.
Reprinted (with minor modifications) from:
The International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals - NEFESH News

Aseret ha-Dibrot: The "Ten Commandments"
Judaism 101

“Real” Books
Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Joseph Teluslikin

Jewish Literacy Revised Ed: The Most Important Things to Know About the
Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, Rabbi Joseph Teluslikin

TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures, JPS

Thursday, July 14, 2016

I Have a Crucifix

Actually I have two totally non-Jewish religious items hanging on my wall.

The strangest one, in my opinion anyway, is the crucifix.

I struggled with being a (Protestant) Christian since before I got thrown out of Sunday School when I was six and I gave up the struggle altogether when a minister that I was seeing for counseling tried to seduce me when I was sixteen-ish. I just didn't think someone who was “called by G-d to preach” should be doing that sort of thing.

But I was never any kind of a Catholic.

Their churches were always open when I was a teen. (I don't know about now.) And I used to like to go and sit in them. They were dark and quiet and I thought them very beautiful. Especially compared to some of the unadorned storefront churches I was used to. (A storefront was just what it sounds like – a church set up in a strip mall store.) But I knew nothing about what Catholics believed beyond the fact that they were Christians too.

So why do I have a crucifix hanging on my wall?

My Daddy gave it to me.

My Daddy was my stepfather – the only father I ever knew. And one of the nicest men – one of the nicest people - I ever knew. He married my mother when I was around six. He usually worked at least two jobs. When he first married my mother, one of those jobs was cleaning railroad passenger cars. He found the crucifix one night and he gave it to me. He died over 30 years ago now, and I still tear up when I say Kaddish (the memorial prayer for the dead) for him. And part of that is that crucifix he gave me. It wasn't for any special reason or occasion. That is what made it so special to me.

My mother was emotionally cold, and disapproving of me my whole life. The only time I can remember her hugging me was when she had just seen my friend's mother hug her as we were about to get on a plane for England. It felt weird and awkward. As you might be able to guess, there were no spontaneous gifts from my mother – ever.

I suspect Daddy never knew what that gift meant to me. But it was one of the few unadulterated expressions of love from my family that I can point to in, oh, the first 30 years of my life. And the others were all from Daddy as well.

So yeah, it's always been on my wall. It doesn't make me think about G-d, or Jesus, or religion at all. Just that dear, good man who was my Daddy. His memory is a blessing. He taught me most of what I know about love.

And then there is the religious item on my wall that seems less weird to me because at least I really was a part of that religion: a piece of red rope that was used when I was made a Wiccan High Priestess. Let me say immediately that  although (male & female) Wiccans call themselves witches, they are NOT Satanists. They do NOT worship the Christian devil. And all Wiccans are NOT the same. The ones I was a part of believed in G-d (however named) and were serious tree huggers (very concerned about the environment). They were also, as a group, extremely intelligent, studious and on a path that ran parallel to mine, and intersected with mine at many, though not all, points. I can remember how thrilled I was to find out that there were other folks in the Universe who were on a path so similar to mine.

That’s the reason I felt comfortable accepting initiation as a second degree Wiccan High Priestess. But I never took the highest (third degree) because I felt it would have been disrespectful to those who were wholly committed to the Wiccan path - the good folks I think of when I see my red rope. They were an important part of my life for almost twenty years. They opened my eyes, and my mind, to so much. They were my teachers, my friends, my lovers, my family. Seeing that red rope makes me smile thinking of them all. Which is why it too has been on my wall for so long.

I was, I think, I hope, always honest about the fact that I was mostly a fellow traveler with my friends whose path this was. But when I left Denver and moved east I effectively left Wicca. I never seriously looked for another coven to join.

Most of the religions I have studied believe that there is an inner component, and an outer component to their religion, though they may call it different things. During the years when I wasn’t a part of any organized group, I was still very much aware of G-d. I didn’t so much worship as celebrate G-d. G-d was everywhere – in places I visited, places I lived. I still more or less continually, thought about, fiddled with, poked at what I thought of as “my philosophy about life, death, and everything.” Working at my inner component.

And for half a dozen years that was enough. But the outer component is also important and eventually the need for it reasserted itself.

My mother had told me, rather sternly, when I stopped going to church: “When you’re old, you’ll come back to the church.” It turned out, she was right – sort of. I was in my 50s when I began to miss that outer component: ritual and a community to share it with.

And that was the start of me finding my true path – being a Jew.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

I don't know what happened at Sinai

When I was young I thought it was just a story. Millions of people around (or under) the mountain. G-d speaking to them in words so awesome they beg G-d to stop, plead with G-d to give the words to Moses instead, saying they will do and later they will understand. (Admittedly this isn't exactly the story I heard as a young Christian girl, but that's a subject for another time.)

Every religion has its revelatory moment. As Jews, this is ours. But what really happened?

I don't know. I wasn't there.

A few weeks ago an observant, traditional Jew, who I think of as a friend and teacher, was talking with me about Revelation and I said the above words to him. For a few moments after, there was silence in the car we were riding in. Then he began to explain that he thought a Judaism without absolute certainty about Revelation would be shallow and uninspiring. I was thinking about that when we reached our destination and that conversation ended.

But my thinking about the subject didn't.

Sinai and the Revelation have always been a “stumbling block” in my Jewish path. That short conversation got me to thinking about before I converted (more than a decade ago now) when I was wrestling with the question: can I, in good conscience, convert? The biggest issue that made me hesitate? Revelation.

I should probably explain the difference to me between “I know” and “I believe.” If I can put my hand out and touch it, or use another of my senses to perceive it, only then do I consider I “know.”

I know, for example, that Texas is real. Been there – seen it, touched it, heard it, smelled it, tasted it. Spent several not especially happy years living there. Experienced it in all its self-proclaimed glory. Japan? Ireland? I haven't been there. But I've seen pictures, and more important to me, people that I know and trust have been there. So those places fall into “I don't know, but it is highly probable that they are there.”

Electricity? I haven't experienced that directly, thank goodness, but I have experienced light bulbs, so again, I accept the probability. But I can’t say I “know” electricity exists.

And then there is the question of belief. I suspect it isn’t everyone who can say they were thrown out of a Christian Sunday school when they were six years old because of a question about belief.

I can’t really remember if the Sunday School was attached to a Baptist or Methodist church. We moved a lot and my mother simply sent me to whichever of those two denominations was within walking distance. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. At the time I didn’t understand there was a difference. The point is that I was that kid – the one who asked the kinds of questions that always got this answer: “Just believe. You just have to have faith!”

I knew myself well enough, even at that age, to realize that I didn’t have faith. But if folks I respected thought it was that important, then I wanted to have it. So I asked, in all innocence, “What do you do if you don’t have faith?” I’m sure the teacher thought I was just being a smarty pants kid, but I really wanted to know.

The answer, that day at least, was walk home early from Sunday School.

The thing that bothered me then, and that bothers me now for that matter, is if people are made in the image of G-d, then reason is a G-d given faculty. Why, then, am I expected to put what G-d gave me aside to “believe in G-d?”

Given my rather limited definition of what I “know” measured against the huge sum total of everything there is in the Universe, or even on our tiny speck of a planet, there’s an awful lot of stuff left for me to take on faith – to believe in.

But I don’t really do belief. I put an awful lot things in a category I label: things that are probably, or possibly, true. Then I just leave them there until something happens that allows me to move them out of that box. (Except for things that are to my mind, obviously too irrational, absolutely illogical or just plain way the heck out there to ever get moved. And yes, I decide what things those are – but only for me. I never expect anyone else to agree with me.)

Simply put, I’m just not willing to give up my G-d given rational mind to “believe.” (And it turns out Maimonides wasn't much on that either, so a pretty impressive person I'd never heard of when I was six has some interesting thoughts about all this.)

Luckily for me there’s no need for me to believe in G-d. I “know” G-d exists. It may surprise you I say that. With which of my senses do I perceive G-d? All of them. Any of them. None of them. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, talks about how experiencing G-d is a deeply real, extremely profound and completely personal experience that you can't describe or explain to anyone else. But you know.

However, all I know about G-d is that G-d is. I know nothing about a physical body, or human characteristics of any kind. To paraphrase what Alan Watts, a writer and philosopher I read back in my hippie days, said about G-d – If you can say it, that isn't IT.

So do I know that G-d spoke to the multitudes at Mount Sinai? No. I don't know. I wasn't there to experience it.

(I will admit to having problems with the idea of G-d speaking, implying physicality, implying limitations to something I “know” has no limits. On the other hand, I am not willing to say G-d could not do anything G-d chose to do. No limits remember? Back to “I don't know.”)

As I said above, my friend/teacher said he thought that being Jewish without being certain about what happened at Sinai would take away from the depth of your religious experience.

I had to think about that long after the car ride before I could answer. And this is that answer.

I can accept the Revelation at Sinai as the foundation upon which our religious observance is built without knowing how it happened, or even if it happened. It is something I can't know, by my definition of knowing, and I can live with that. One of my favorite things about Judaism is that certainty is not required.

I am in touch with the G-d I do know is there – sometimes more, sometimes less – but I am always aware of the Presence. I know that Judaism is my path to becoming a better person, which by my definition is being more aware of G-d more of the time. And I am so deeply happy to have finally found the right path for me. Sometimes I am overflowing with joy just being Jewish. I can't compare the depth of what I feel with what anyone else feels, but I know absolutely I am blessed. And I'm good with that. Even without the knowing.

- - - - - - - - -

An interesting related article I found online
Was There An Exodus? Joshua Berman
A scholar offering proofs the Exodus was a historical event

A pdf of the essay by Rabbi Soloveitchik, published in the magazine Tradition, Summer, 1965
It is pretty amazing.