What it felt like

A short excerpt from my upcoming book, Magical Princess Harriet:

 

As Harriet grasped the paper rose her skin began to glow from the inside, and again she felt that tremendous surge of warmth and wellbeing flowing through her. It felt like…

What it felt like, really, was love. That was the only way to put it into words. The thing that filled her up to overflowing with a light so bright that it literally lifted her up off the ground, pulling her toward some higher place she could not see but could just barely feel – that was love. It was big – far too big for her to really grasp the sheer scale of it without losing all sense of herself. It was a love big enough to encompass the entire universe and then some, and yet somehow at the same time it seemed radically specific. The love was in her and for her, just as she was in it and for it. It called out to her from somewhere deep inside of her, and since the only way to follow the sound of that voice was to turn completely inside-out, that is exactly what she did.

Why No Jewish Narnia?

So way back in the day, when I was still living in Tulsa, OK and had maybe just converted to Judaism, my rabbi handed me a copy of the (then relatively new) Jewish Review of Books. In this particular issue was an article by Michael Weingrad entitled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” I read it. It bothered me. It still does.

This article is not without its issues. At the very least Weingrad’s understanding of Fantasy seems overly reductionist, placing undue emphasis on romantic nostalgia for a vanished feudal past as a central and essential element of the genre. But while it might be a useful exercise for a later time, I’m not here today to critique the article itself, because it’s not really the article itself that I take issue with.

It’s the title.

When I read the article all those years ago, I initially misread the title. Rather than “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” I thought it said “Why Is There No Jewish Narnia?” A subtle difference, but an important one, because it underscores how Weingrad approaches the question as if it were already answered, as though taking it for granted that there are good reasons why Jewish culture has produced so few notable works of fantasy. That’s what bothers me.

Underlying all of this is a set of assumptions about what Judaism is and what it can be, a set of assumptions that were outdated and inaccurate back in the 60’s and 70’s and which continue to be so to this day – that Judaism is “this-worldly” rather than “other-worldly,” that it is somehow more inherently rationalistic than Christianity, that elements of magic, the supernatural, and above all mythology are foreign to it. The fact is that these elements of Jewish self-understanding are ultimately derived from the 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, representative of the efforts of members of the newly-formed class of German Jewish academics to cast Judaism in a light that would be more palatable to the rationalistic mainstream German academic culture. In pursuit of this goal, historians like Heinrich Graetz cast the history of Judaism a particular light, downplaying the deep importance of mysticism and mythology to the development of Judaism as a religion. The fact that Hasidic Judaism, grounded in a version of medieval kabbalah radically reformulated to be accessible to the masses, was developing in eastern Europe into one of the most successful religious movements in Jewish history, was apparently too insignificant to have been worth their notice.

Today, despite the work of such noteworthy researchers into the field of Jewish mysticism as Gershom Sholem and Moshe Idel, the idea of Judaism as an essentially rationalistic and “this-worldly” faith is still with us. But this way of looking at ourselves seems deeply limiting to me. It strikes me as ignoring not only a fundamental aspect of the history of our civilization, but of our own spiritual being. In order to be a healthier, more complete people, I think we need to come to terms with the mystical side of ourselves, and of our religion, which to this day still tends to be ignored. I also happen to think that the most powerful way of exploring this less-than-adequately-acknowledged side of Judaism may be through the medium of fantasy fiction.

I’ve thought about Weingrad’s article from time to time over the years, and more than once I’ve wondered why it bothers me so much. I think at last I may have an answer – because in reality the title doesn’t strike me as a bare statement, nor as a question calling out for scholarly inquiry. To me, it feels much more personal than that. It feels like a challenge. In that light, the answer to the question, “Why is there no Jewish Narnia?” seems laughably simple.

It is because I haven’t finished writing it yet.

Next post: Introducing Magical Princess Harriet

Podcast!

I had the honor of being featured in the inaugural episode of #trending Jewish, a new podcast being put out by the Reconstructionist movement. I had a great time recording this with Bryan and Rachel. In the episode we talk about the importance of Talmud as a source of inspiration for rethinking Jewish life in the 21st century, the union of analysis and emotion, and the potential of using electronic music in a liturgical context. Plus, a few tunes by yours truly! I’d highly recommend giving it a listen.

Back Again (and a prayer for Sukkot)

Well, once again it has been quite a while since I posted anything here. A lot has happened in the last two years, to be sure – graduated, became a rabbi, got married… I’m a step-parent now. For real. But there will be time enough to hash all that out. For now, this is what I have to say: For those of you out there who actually read this thing, I apologize for letting it languish for so long. Due to one thing and another, for a long time I wasn’t certain that I actually had anything to say. Now, I’ve decided that I do. So stay tuned, I guess. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been praying this year for Sukkot:

Beloved God, often are you praised as the one who settled our wandering ancestors in the land of your promise, but how often do we praise you for commanding Abraham and Sarai to abandon house and home for a life of wandering? Often are you praised as the maker of peace; how often do we praise you as the one who unsettles the mind and brings disquiet to the heart? Contentment, security, comfort – we crave these things above all else, and so we beg you for them when we don’t have them and praise you for them when we do. And yet, what is it that you ask of us? To “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

In our generation many of us have only a tenuous connection to the soil, and so it may seem paradoxical to us that this the season of harvest rejoicing was also for our ancestors the time of deepest anxiety. Giving thanks for the sustaining bounty of the earth, they also prayed like hell for the life giving rains that might or might not come this year. This then was the essence of your promise – to take us out of slavery in a land of security watered by the never-ceasing Nile and to grant us freedom in a land whose rocky heights are forever dependent on the rains of heaven. So goes the psalm:

Place not your trust in human benefactors

In human beings without power to save

Their spirit leaves, they go back to the ground

On that day their plans are lost

Happy is the one with the God of Jacob for a help

Whose hope is in the Lord our God

Dear one, you know what we are like. In unsettled times it is hard for us not to dig in, to retrench, to close the gates and bar the doors and wait for the storm to pass regardless of who might knock without, looking for shelter. This, we know, is the way of humanity, but it is not your way, and so you command us at this time of year to leave the security of our homes, to camp out in temporary shelters like the refugees we are and were and ever will be, to welcome in every guest.

And so, in this the season of our insecurity, we pray to you not for comfort, but for clarity; not for complacency, but for compassion; not, above all else, for security, but for the disquiet of the heart that drives us out into the world to do your work.

Sticking Points

Here’s a dilemma which I think a lot of modern liberal Jews have to face whenever we go to the Torah looking for wisdom: On the one hand, we find these beautiful, life-changing values of community, justice and faith in God that really speak to us on a fundamental level. On the other hand, we find these values situated within the framework of an ancient culture whose fundamental assumptions are often radically different from our own. In the best of times this can be challenging as we work to understand just what the text is saying in its own context, and what it could mean in our own. But sometimes it can be profoundly alienating, especially when those cultural assumptions run so profoundly counter to our own values that the message gets completely lost in translations.

I think most of us have some of these “sticking points” – themes or ideas in the Torah that profoundly unsettle us. They’re a natural consequence of living our lives in more than one civilization, or as philosopher Jeffrey Stout would put it, speaking more than one “moral language” fluently. Whenever we encounter one of these sticking points, it forces us to stop and wrestle mightily with the text. In this struggle we sometimes come out on top, emerging with some fresh insight to lead us on our way. Sometimes, however, it is all too much for us and we are forced to come to terms with the fact that even in our most sacred texts there are elements which simply defy our efforts to derive meaning from them.

I’m sure everyone’s sticking points are different, but for me one of the major ones comes up at the beginning of Parashat Shelach-Lecha, in which Moses sends out twelve spies to scout out the land and its people. There is certainly a lot to be learned from this story – lessons about courage, loyalty and the importance of not selling ourselves short. One of my favorite takes on the story, to be found in Midrash Rabah, imagines the spies in dialogue with God:

“And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” the spies say, recalling the gigantic stature of the inhabitants of the land. The Holy Blessed One said: [This point] I would concede to you, except that you then said, “And so we appeared to them!” Do you claim to know how I made you look in their sight? Who can say that I didn’t make you appear as angels to them? (Num. Rabah 16:11)

There is certainly much that is beautiful and true that we can learn from this teaching, but every time I come to read this passage I stumble over a single, unavoidable fact that often tends to be glossed over – that the fundamental purpose of the mission being carried out by Joshua and Caleb and the ten other men is to spy out the land in preparation for invading it and slaughtering its inhabitants, men, women and children.

This legacy of violence and ethnic conflict is often celebrated or simply taken for granted in the tradition, at least as long as it’s the Israelites who are inflicting the violence. As someone who grew up in a world haunted by the specter of ethnic violence – in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Israel/Palestine and my own home, the United States – this aspect of the Torah’s worldview is a major sticking point for me, a stumbling block I just keep tripping over each time I return to the text.

While I was thinking about this, I happened to come across a teaching in Me’Or Einaim, a Torah commentary by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. In his discussion of this parsha, the Chernobyler Rebbe addresses the complicated relationship between knowledge and choice. God, whose knowledge of the universe is perfect and incontrovertible, is aware from before the beginning of creation what every decision and its outcome will be. And yet, as humans, we have the freedom to decide what to do and to choose between right and wrong. How can this be?

Drawing upon the tradition of Lurianic mysticism, the Rebbe tells a story of how before the creation of this world God created many worlds but destroyed them all, finding each one in turn to be unsatisfactory. But the shards of those rejected worlds didn’t simply vanish. They remained, mixed together with the stuff of this world. Thus, our world and everything in it is a mixture of good and evil, and our task as humans is to choose the good, sifting through the discarded shards of might-have-beens to find the sparks of divine light concealed within.

The sin of the spies, explains the Rebbe, was not that they observed something negative about the land God had promised to the Israelites. It was that , seeing the bad things mixed in with the good, they essentially washed their hands of the whole affair, rejecting it entirely, and forgetting that our critical task as Jews and as human beings is to sift through the bad in order to find the good.

Reading this, I found myself asking: If this is so for the ten spies, then why not also for me, the reader? Perhaps all these stumbling blocks and sticking points are there for a reason – because our task, as readers as in life, is to search through the shards of a broken world in search of meaning.

Being A Woman

For me – and, I imagine, a lot of other trans women out there – the recent flurry of media attention around the appearance of Caitlyn Jenner in Vanity Fair has given rise to a whole complicated array of feelings, not the least of which may be longing for a time when everybody will finally stop talking about Caitlyn Jenner.

Partially, this is due to the way in which the discussion of Jenner’s transition in the media serves as a constant reminder of the painful dilemma which every trans woman with the audacity to want to live and be recognized as the gender she feels herself to be faces every day of her life: If she doesn’t “pass” – which is to say, essentially, if she doesn’t manage to live up to this society’s incredibly narrow and unforgiving standards of female attractiveness and feminine behavior enough to fly under the radar of those who would evaluate and pass judgment upon her femininity – then she is in constant danger of rejection, public scorn and even physical violence every time she walks out her front door. On the other hand, if she dresses or behaves in a way that comes across as too “stereotypically feminine,” or if she appears to take pleasure in any aspect of looking, acting or dressing in a feminine manner, then she opens herself to rejection and ridicule of another kind, this often coming from self-described feminists who, frankly, ought to know better.

If this dilemma sounds awfully familiar to cisgender women who at some point in their lives have had to deal with similar issues around body image and the toxic double standards of a society in which it is often just as unacceptable for women to be “too feminine” as it is for them to be “not feminine enough,” then it ought to give one pause, given that one of the many accusations which trans women find ourselves saddled with on a regular basis is precisely that we will never “count” as “real women” because we lack the “experiences” and “socialization” which constitute authentic female identity. Leaving aside the sheer blindness to cultural, racial, medical, economic and class differences inherent in the claim that that there is one unifying set of experiences which unambiguously establish one’s status as a woman, it is a source of constant amazement to me how comfortable certain people feel in making claims about the lived experience of others – especially when these claims are leveled for the purpose of invalidating the identities of an already marginalized group of people.

Frankly, I am tired of the debate about how to define womanhood – the standards in this debate are simply too prone to shift at a moment’s notice in any way necessary to support the preconceived notions of those for whom the invalidity of my identity is a foregone conclusion. Is it any wonder that trans people, faced with the constant, overwhelming pressure to justify themselves to a world which isn’t willing to accept them on any account, sometimes have recourse to simplistic explanations involving the brain or the notion of having been “born in the wrong body?”

The simple truth of the matter is that gender identity is an incredibly complicated phenomenon whose origins and nature have never been satisfactorily explained. Is gender physical? Neuro-chemical? Psychological? Cultural? Legal? Does it have its origins in our anatomy or our life experiences or in some mysterious realm of the spirit? If we are being truly honest with ourselves, the answer to all of these questions is an unqualified “maybe.” We simply don’t have the language to deal with something as complicated as identity with any degree of comprehensiveness. About the only concept that truly does it justice to gender identity is one which has sadly fallen out of favor in our hyper-materialist, over-medicalized society: the soul. It used to be that “a soul” was synonymous with “a person,” and the nature of a person’s soul was a deep, inner mystery shared between that person and the divine source from which it flowed. To presume to know another person’s soul required an incredible amount of time, patience and intimate closeness. In our efforts to reduce everything in the world to that which it is possible to analyze and critique in the space of an online journal article, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something along the way, something that would be tremendously useful in understanding gender.

In the absence of a clear understanding of everything that goes into making us who we are, all that I and people like me can do in the face of an unsympathetic world is to assert our experience – not some abstract, essentialist version of a unifying “male” or “female” experience, but the messy, concrete, lived experience of real people who know who we are, even if we can’t always show you the math of that equation in a way that would make sense to anyone but ourselves. And really, isn’t this inability to fully articulate the mystery of ourselves just another example of an experience with which all of us, no matter what our identity, can identify?

Spiritual Learning Styles and Individual Chosenness

Do you feel chosen?

One of the issues Jews have been struggling to deal with since the dawn of the modern age is how to reconcile traditional Jewish teachings about chosenness with the Enlightenment ideals of equality and universalism. Since time immemorial Jews understood themselves to enjoy a unique relationship with God, based on the covenant established between God and the Jewish people. This point of view was all well and good in a time when religious claims to exclusivity were quite common and the disagreement tended not to be about whether chosenness made sense as a religious concept but about which religious community, the Jews or the Christians, were the true chosen people of God. As the Enlightenment dawned, however, a new set of ideas began to enter onto the European scene – ideas of pluralism and religious tolerance, of ethical values based on reason alone rather than revelation – and these ideas soon became so widespread that they could not help but have an impact on the Jewish community.

The dilemma faced by Jews was this: The Enlightenment values of universalism and tolerance seemed to hold out the possibility, virtually unimaginable in the pre-modern world, that Jews could be accepted into the wider European society and recognized as citizens on an equal footing with their non-Jewish neighbors. On the other hand, these ideals were difficult to reconcile with the idea that the Jews were a special people chosen by God to bear witness to the Torah and live in accordance with its laws. If we were a chosen people, then what about all the other people who weren’t chosen? So long as Jews l tended to live in largely self-regulating communities made up exclusively of other Jews, these questions didn’t seem particularly pressing. Once Jews began to enter into the broader society, to study, live and work alongside non-Jews, they became much more immediate and perplexing.

I won’t go into the history of the debate. Suffice it to say that a number of solutions have been proposed to this dilemma, but that it remains a relevant issue in our own time. It is certainly possible to say, in accordance with traditional Reconstructionist thinking, that the idea of chosenness has outlived its usefulness. And yet, in the absence of chosenness, we are left with the tricky question of why it is that we continue to practice Judaism. Is it really enough to say that Judaism is the religion of our ancestors, and that this in itself carries with it a certain kind of obligation? This position is hard to maintain in the modern world, especially in a society like that of the United States in which so many individuals change religious affiliations at least once in their lives. Furthermore, it does not address the experiences of Jewish converts, of whom there are a growing number, who elect to cast their lot with the Jewish people. As a Jew-by-choice with no known familial connection to Judaism, it is hard to frame my decision to convert in terms of “heritage” and “peoplehood.” These have become factors in my life, of course, but they were not there from the start. Something else was required to bring me through the doors of that Oklahoma synagogue back in the winter of 2007.

That “something else” is difficult to define, but one way of describing it might be “spiritual learning style.” The idea that students have different learning styles is now widely accepted in the world of education. For example, a student who learns visually may pick up a lot more from a helpful diagram than they ever could from reading a chapter in a book. I believe that these pedagogical learning styles have their parallels in the spiritual world as well. People, by virtue of some combination of natural inclination and upbringing, tend to be more inclined to connect spiritually in some ways than in others. Furthermore, just as some teachers tend to be better at engaging with certain learning styles than others, so too some religious traditions are better at engaging certain spiritual “types” than others. That these spiritual learning styles are at least partially learned is clear from the fact that so many people throughout history have tended to remain within the religious tradition of their birth. That they also have deep underpinnings in the psychological and even biological temperament of the individual is shown by the fact that there are so many individuals who, following their own mysterious inner calling, abandon the tradition they were raised in for a new one.

This language of “spiritual learning styles” is a helpful way for me to frame the ways in which I do and do not feel “chosen” as a Jew. As a child of the modern world, it is impossible for me to identify with the idea of chosenness as it has traditionally been understood. In my life I have encountered many different people from diverse religious backgrounds and found that each had their own invaluable Torah to share. It simply doesn’t make sense to me to try and establish a hierarchy when it comes to all these people’s relationships with God. At the same time, however, it is impossible to deny that the Torah of my adopted people calls out to my being in a way that feels uniquely right for me. In this way, I can say that while I do not feel that Jews or Judaism are uniquely chosen, I do feel strongly that I am uniquely chosen to be Jewish, as are all those others, converts and non-converts, with whom I share this community.