Sep 4, 2013

Can You Be A Jew Alone?

Today is Erev Rosh HaShana, that's New Years Eve in the Jewish world. Its a time when Jews as a community come together to do the things they do best: they celebrate with music and usually a bit of jolly dancing, they eat, they pray and maybe go to synagogue, they indulge in strange usually fun symbolic rituals like eating apples dipped in honey, and they generally make lots of noise hugging, kissing, arguing, shouting, laughing, gossiping, complaining and revelling in each others somewhat chaotic company. 
Sounds like good fun huh? Well it doesn't matter what your religious affiliation, the holiday season can be really stressful. I have devoutly atheist friends who turn into anxiety driven Christmas monsters as soon as the first of December rolls around and although Christmas for me is simply an excuse to eat Chinese food and watch Pretty Woman, I totally get the almost soul-crushing pressure of communal, family orientated activities. 

My friends explained to me that Christianity is built upon the individuals relationship to God, families and congregations are very important but when it comes down to it its about you and your personal feelings of faith. This is pretty much the opposite of Judaism which is, to its core, founded in the communal and collective experience and not just in the present, oh no no no: as a jew you are not only part of your present Jewish community, you are also a link in the chain that stretches all the way back to Bible times and all the way forward into the future. There's no getting out of it to be a Jew is to be forever plural and never singular. However, my question is: is it possible to be a Jew on your own? 

Ploughing through the books on my desk and a consensus seems to emerge and that consensus is a resounding 'No!". The opening chapters of the Bible are pretty clear on the matter when God says "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). If you feel that is somehow a little too open ended for you Rabbi Hillel, probably one of the most influential Jews ever, makes his position very clear with the statement "Do not separate yourself from the community..." (PA 2:5). So even from these two slices of ancient Jewish wisdom pie we can see a strong bias in favour of togetherness- but technically these aren't actually mitzvot (a mitzvah is a pretty complicated concept but in this context it is a law), they're just guidelines, albeit pretty important ones. So technically, and Judaism is about the technicalities, we'd be forgiven if we failed to adhere to the guidelines, or if we're being technical about it (which we are) there'd be nothing to forgive since we haven't broken any mitzvot right? Wrong. 

Just in case you thought we were going to get of lightly this time you can think again. Just because 'togetherness' itself isn't a mitzvah, without a whole bunch of Jews around you helping you out and being being helped by you in return, there are plenty of mitzvot that you wont be able to keep, thus putting you squarely in the dog box. 
Lets think if there are actually any mitzvot that can be completed alone. 

Eating- okay so I'm not a baby I can put food in my mouth without anyone to help me and I know how to keep kosher I read all about that in books, except technically I don't know how to perform a kosher slaughter and even if I did know how, its a legal requirement that someone knowledgable and trustworthy teaches me first, so no community no meat. I could become a vegetarian, there are plenty of vegetarian Jews, except even then, if I am any kind of strict kosher eater then I would need my food to be certified by a Rabbinic Authority which usually requires at least three other really smart educated Jews. 

Praying. Well you'd think this one I could at least do on my own, well not really. Some of Judaism's central prayers require a minyan- thats at least nine other Jews, and although there are individual prayers the Talmud has this to say about it "Even if a person's kavanah (concentration, intention) is imperfect, if he prays with a congregation, his prayers will be heard" (Taanit 9a). So basically, if you want your prayers to go anywhere or mean anything, then you need the giant speaker that is: other Jews. Oh and just in case, According to Karo (another awesome Jewish guy up there with Hilllel) the Bible even threatens you with death if you abandon a minyan so there you have it. 

Marriage. Well obviously you need another person to get married, not only that but Biblically, and in many Jewish communities world wide, the preference is that you marry another Jew. Lots of people in the Bible married non-Jews but typically it is frowned upon. Even in really really liberal communities if someone marries a non-Jew it is at least something that would be commented on. One of the dirtiest words you can use in Jewish circles is 'Shicksa' which basically means a slutty non-Jewish girl who steals nice Jewish boys away. But I digress. Technically, here we go with the technicalities again, Jewish marriage is a contract between two Jewish individuals, so surely the minimum you need to get married of you're a Jew is one other Jew. Except Jews don't grow on trees do they? To get a Jewish spouse that spouse would have had to have been made by other Jews. Either a Jewish parentage (at least a Jewish mother for most Jewish communities) or a Jewish conversion (requiring a sponsoring Rabbi, a course of instruction, a communal Jewish experience and a Rabbinic Court), and if thats not enough, a legal Jewish marriage require at least two witness that are not related to you or your new spouse. Do the math and a Jewish marriage needs at least three Jewish families to make it work, your family, your spouses family, and the family(ies) of your witnesses. 

Babies. A consequence of some marriages is the birth of a son, if you happen to have a son then you're biblically and legally required to have your son circumcised in a highly ritualised and very specific way. Just like the kosher thing- even if you do know how to do it yourself someone would have had to teach you. So thats you, your spouse, your two witnesses, your jewish child, and a mohel (thats the person that does the special slice). 

See how the even the most basic elements of being Jewish require gazillions of other Jews? 

But maybe if you're quite anti-social you could live really far away and just import some Jews whenever you need them right? Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it the seemingly all pervasive requirement for togetherness even dictates where Jews can live: 
"A talmid haham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a beit din (law court) that metes out punishments; a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; (some versions add: a butcher); and a teacher of children" (Sanhedrin 17b).
Thats right the Talmud (thats the Jewish book of everything) says we can't move to far away exotic locations unless it has other Jews, well established enough to have stuff like Jewish courts of law, a synagogue and welfare charities. That is unless you are already part of a thriving Jewish community that will move together and provide all of those things for itself- so yeah, not very solitary. If you do decide to go off adventuring, thats okay but don't expect that it will actually do your soul any good, oh no says Maimonides (a Jewish megastar so cool people call him RamBam for short) says "A man will not search for truth nor seek to do what is good when he goes off into exile or is hungry, or is fleeing from his enemies."

So basically what we have is a pretty persuasive Jewish discourse that tells us that to be a good Jew you have to live in community with other Jews. Well what if, just for arguments sake, I don't want to be a good Jew? 

Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta has something to say about that, Rabbi Yosi is probably not so well known as some of the other guys I have mentioned today but really he is also quite fly, he is the fifth most mentioned guy in the Mishna meaning he was pretty prolific, and although he is one of many Yosis in the Talmud he is the only one referred to simply as Rabbi Yosi- he's like the boss of all the other guys called Yosi who came later and were simply not as fully righteous. Rabbi Yosi tells a story about an old lady who was so old she was miserable, her extreme age had stripped away all the pleasure in life and quite frankly she was ready to die. She came to Rabbi Yosi for answers and he, who like a typical Jew, answered her question with a question. He asked her what mitzvah she did everyday and her response was that everyday, whether she wanted to or not, she would go to the synagogue for the (communal) morning prayers. Rabbi Yosi instructed her to stop going to synagogue and within three days she was dead- what we are supposed to learn from that, aside from the fact that being old sucks and being an awesome Rabbi is well awesome, is that community prayer is is a segulah (spiritually propitious act) that guarantees a long life.

So according to Rabbi Yosi you can be a good Jew or you can be a dead Jew, the choice is yours. I think its probably a good idea to point out at this stage that I don't necessarily believe that Jews who don't go to shacharit (morning prayer service) are going to die. My interpretation of this story is that by using the life and death symbolism Rabbi Yosi is telling us just how important a communal Jewish life is. If history has taught us anything its that being a Jew can sometimes be a pretty precarious position in the world so its not a total stretch of the imagination to see the whole 'safety in numbers thing'. 

So what have we covered so far? Firstly that the entire weight of Jewish tradition seems to prefer it if we hang around with other Jews as much as possible AND that the consequences of not doing so mean that we cant fulfil our legal obligations as Jews, our social ones nor our spiritual ones AND the consequences of not doing so can be dire (think dead granny). 

The answer to my question: 'can you be a Jew alone?' seems like it is given clearly and the answer is 'No'. However, in the tradition of Jewish scholarship, I chose to continue questioning with the very important words; What If? What if its not that you don't want to be part of communal Jewish life but simply that you can't? I don't mean Jews that have moved too far away from the community to participate (we have already established they will probably die), I mean Jews who literally cannot participate because of reasons beyond their control, for example; Jews who have disabilities and can't leave their homes, or Jews who for reasons of financial poverty can't afford access to a synagogue, OR jews like me who don't always feel comfortable accessing Jewish spaces that are by definition and by minchag (sort of like local custom) really exclusionary. Technically (there's that word again) Jewish communities are supposed to have charitable resources available (see that quote above about where Jews can live) for people in their community, those charities should certainly be geared towards people's spiritual welfare as well as their physical welfare. I know for example that my synagogue in London has a charitable fund where people who cannot afford synagogue membership can get it for free or sponsored anonymously by someone who can afford it. My synagogue also has a discretionary fund to help people out when they are in trouble or get sick. Still its an interesting question: what if the synagogue doesn't help people out so that they can attend, are those people to be held to blame for not being around?   

The question more relevant to me is: what if you can't attend because you are gay, or lesbian, or transgender, or any other 'undesirable minority'? I remember many years ago when I had green hair and some visible piercings, my similarly attired friend and I attempted to enter the synagogue in Wellington and were denied access because our appearance was not tznius (another complicated concept but basically it means modest). Is it my fault we two 'young women' were denied access to communal prayer because we were wearing trousers or were they in the wrong for preventing us from performing a mitzvah? 

If participating in communal experience is so fundamental to being a Jew how do we navigate our Judaism when we are denied a space in the community? And what if it's not so cut and dry, what if I had been allowed into that synagogue that time with my green hair and my trousers but everyone had been mean to me and made me feel unwanted and unsafe? What if, no one is mean to me, no one stares at me funny or makes me feel unwanted, but it just feels like a space where I feel disempowered, where I see no representation of myself or my people? The Jewish communities I have experienced, even those at the most liberal end of the spectrum, have been dominated by the nuclear family. When I go to synagogue I almost always sit on my own whilst everyone else sits with their parents, their heterosexual spouses, or their children. People often come over to me on my lonely little island and confusedly ask me "So what's your last name, what family are you from?" and "Did you convert? Where's your wife?". 
Like many queers, I no longer have an extensive family network to draw upon, to spend time with, I have no one to sit with in synagogue, I have no one to light candles with on shabbat and on Jewish New Year when everyone else is cooking, eating, dancing, singing and praying together, I am sitting here at my desk with a bag of apples and a jar of honey wondering what's the point?  

Talking to my friend last week she said to me "How to you expect to feel connected to the Jewish community if you purposefully disconnect yourself from it by not going to synagogue?". She makes a good point, technically I could be in synagogue right now (no one is stopping me), but I know from experience that I will sit there, on my own, surrounded by straight people all huddled together in their happy glowing family units looking forward to a delicious meal at home where they will all enjoy the fruits of a happy communal Jewish experience. Going to synagogue will not make me feel like I am part of anything, most likely it will make me feel even more lonely, so why should I go? Well, because God says so, thats why, and Hillel, and Rambam, and Rabbi Yosi, they all make it very clear that I should go to synagogue and be part of the community. The fact that it will make me feel sad is not the point. The fact that my Jewish family is made up of Hillel and RamBam and Rabbi Yosi all of whom are hanging out right now on my desk is apparently not the point. 

I don't know what the answer is right now. All I know is that I am quite tired of the High Holy Days already and they have barely started, I feel like I can't face going to the synagogue and feeling lonely and alone surrounded by happy straight people but that staying home and eating apples is not much better. I take much more succour from my books (even though my books tell me I'm in the wrong) than I do from people who look at me like I am some kind of odd social pariah because I don't have a wife and family and a BMW. Sorry to be such a misery guts on a day which is supposed to be about celebrating but I'm just not feeling it. Maybe that makes me a bad Jew but right now I'd rather be a bad Jew than a miserable one.

I'm going to let Rabbi Judah HaNassi have the final word, he was so cool he's called 'The Prince': 

Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.

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Christine said...

Hey, super interesting post. Informative, well written and heartfelt. Sorry community feelings are tricky for you. Hugs!

billy said...

Thank you for sharing so openly. I pray that you will find the kind of welcoming community you long for.

Is there no function for singleness in Judaism at all? Obviously the Abrahamic promises tell us God expects lots of offspring (e.g. Genesis 15:5, like stars in the sky) but that surely doesn't mean that everyone must fit that mould. Are there no examples of single pious Jewish folk in Jewish history?

I find it kind of strange because in Christianity the single are encouraged to stay single (1 Corinthians 7:8-9) and i assumed there would be some kind of parallel in Judaism given the close relationship between the two traditions.

Btw.. meeting regularly is vital to Christians too (Hebrews 10:24-25). As the passage says, meeting together is one of the best ways to encourage the community to continue to trust in Jesus until the day he returns. While individual faith is important, Christianity has inherited the primacy of community from Judaism.