Ritual Confessions

January 6, 2008

More about last night

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 3:06 am

Some details I left out:

1. Before leaving our house, I searched in vain for clothing modest enough to wear to an ultra-Orthodox home. I’ve had enough Orthodox friends over the years to know the drill: ankle-length skirts, blouses buttoned to the throat, elbows covered. I ended up wearing the one skirt in my possession that comes to mid-calf, along with knee-high boots. I also adjusted the neckline of my top with an artfully concealed safety pin, so that it revealed not the slightest hint of cleavage.

2. I despaired over the idea of parking our car in front of their house, as Jews are forbidden to drive on the sabbath.  I toyed with the idea of asking my husband to park down the road, preserving some illusion that we’d walked there. In high school, I was hired by an Orthodox family to babysit their infant daughter on Saturday afternoons, with the stipulation that I walk the two miles to and from their home, as it is considered a sin for a Jew to ask another Jew to violate the sabbath. On rainy days, my mother would drop me off a block away from their house. It was raining last night as well, and I didn’t want to carry the baby any distance in such weather. Finally I reasoned, with a little hint of defiance: Look, they have to know we drove here — how else would we get here from Portland? — and besides, we are not Hasidic.

3. Our host and hostess are Lubavitchers — that is, they belong to the one sect of Hasidism whose members consort with secular Jews. Their mission is outreach to Jews whose practice of Judaism is minimal and watered down. In other words, they want to salvage people like me. And truth be told, I have always enjoyed their attention. On the streets of New York, they could always pick me out of a crowd, even though I don’t look especially Jewish. I guess some part of me wants to be salvaged, finds some romance in the idea of salvation.

4. I’d met the hostess at one of the many play spaces where I bring my daughter, Charlotte. She was there with her own young daughter. In one of our conversations, I told her that I’d like to be a better Jew, but one problem is that I don’t believe in God. She agreed, dryly, that this is indeed an issue. But she said I should come and speak with her husband, who is a rabbi and a very smart man. Hence the dinner invitation. Last night I told him honestly that I’d love to believe in God — that, in fact, if I could have a microchip implanted in my mind that would make me believe in God, I would do it. But the regrettable truth is that I don’t believe, so what can I possibly do about that? His first suggestion was to light the sabbath candles every Friday night. In Judaism, action is valued more highly than internal enthusiasm. Put another way, it is generally in keeping with one of my own sanity-saving rules of life, which is: “You don’t have to feel the right thing; you just have to do the right thing.” If you take the right actions, the rabbi told us, the right feeling will often follow. My husband and I agreed to implement a weekly ritual of lighting the candles. Often when he comes home from work, I’m so anxious for time to myself after a full day with the baby that I barricade myself in my own work room instead of spending time with the two of them. We agreed that on Friday evenings, after lighting the candles, we will spend some time all together as a family.



  1. It might also be worthwhile to consider that even the faithful have crises of belief. And perhaps to ask yourself how important it is, really, to subscribe to paternalistic monotheism in order to have a spiritual life. For example, if I were to become a regular churchgoer again (which is highly unlikely, but let’s pretend) I would become a High Church Episcopalian, and I would probably feel very much at home there, although I do not in fact believe in paternalistic monotheism. I do not believe in the supposed theological necessity of most High Church ritual, but I do see great value in them firstly as meditative acts of mindfulness, and secondly as ways to create a language of community. For me, literal belief doesn’t have much to do with being “a good Christian,” and I know that were I to join such a community, nobody would know, or need to know, where my beliefs differ, because my behavior would be the same as theirs, though perhaps inspired differently.

    So the question, for me, would be: What do you really have to believe in order to be part of the community? Does it matter whether you believe in someone else’s exact idea of God, or does it matter more that you respect and value the basic ethos of the community? In my own case, I can’t really be a Christian, because I do not believe that Jesus died and was resurrected in order to save mankind; I think that is a highly symbolic extended metaphor about what happens to people who have the guts to surrender to a greater wisdom than their own … they usually “die,” and “return to life” with some greater sense of enlightenment. According to the letter of the law, I am not a good Christian. But that would not prevent my being a valuable contributor to a certain type of Christian community.

    I wonder whether something similar might not apply to you in this situation … that the precise nature of your beliefs may be irrelevant to the ways you can benefit and benefit from the basic ethos of the community.

    Comment by davidrochester — January 6, 2008 @ 3:32 am

  2. I think the rabbi’s advice is very good. It is the same as the advice given to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, when he told someone he had no faith. 🙂 Time-tested.

    Comment by thelittlefluffycat — January 6, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

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