Like many adult children of alcoholism, I have what might be considered a challenging relationship to authority. For me, this manifests in both a fear of and a strong urge to appease authority, coupled with a powerful skepticism and mistrust of anything that seems absolute. I tend to problematize everything. I’m a contrarian; it’s my thing.
It was also my thing growing up, as I tried to find a way to make myself, and all my hard edges, fit into church pews that always felt too solemn, too silent, and too serious for someone whose default stance is to question and then to laugh at my own questions, all while worrying whether my questions are about to get me into trouble.
I don’t find faith easily, and many days, I don’t find it at all. Some days, when bombs fall on children’s hospitals in Syria, buses explode in Israel, and children in our own Northern communities attempt suicide in staggering numbers, faith seems a very long way off.
On those days, however, I am no less a Jew. My Jewishness is not defined, paradoxically, by my faith in God, but by my wrestling, my angst, and my questioning. On the days when I feel so far away from God that I wonder at my own naiveté for ever having believed, I still abstain from eating pork, I still give tzedakah, I still kiss my mezuzah when I leave the house, and I still light the Shabbat candles.
These behaviors, these rituals, these touchstones, keep me anchored so that all of my questioning of and anger at a God who allows so much injustice to continue in the world remains in a relationship with that God, a relationship that is now so quotidian and reflexive that I hardly notice it until I need it.
On the eve of Passover, as I cooked at a feverish pace, farfel flying everywhere, I listened to an interview with Rabbi Sharon Forman, author of the new “Baseball Haggadah.” She was telling the interviewer about a ritual that she and her family have added to the seder whereby they each pour some of their wine or grape juice into Elijah’s cup to represent that they all have a stake in redeeming the world, that each of them has a contribution to make.
I stopped my cooking and I listened; this, I thought, is why I’m Jewish, this process of meaning-making, of creating new rituals to bring meaning to old ones, this acknowledgement that we are all a work-in-progress, and that none of us, not even God, has all the answers.
I like to read the siddur (prayer book) out of sequence; often when I’m sitting in a service, you can find me reading the commentary or the additional writing at the back of the book. This might be another example of my contrary-ness—I even have to choose my own order for the siddur. One of my particular favorites is a poem by Edmond Fleg titled “Why I am a Jew.” It reads:
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul.
I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it.
I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet fully created; men are creating him.
I am a Jew because Israel places man and his unity above nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because above man, image of the divine unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.
The ability of Judaism to absorb all of me, my hard edges, my need to question everything, my laughter, my angst, and my tears, is for me its greatest asset. Most traditional Jewish music is written in a minor mode. In laymen’s terms, this means that it has both plaintive (minor key) and joyful (major key) qualities. It is neither completely one nor the other. It’s both at the same time, like life, like me.