April 05, 2006

Deconversion, Part two

Part two: Judaism

Simon Barat was my first love (eve called it!). Given that it was college and I did what college kids do - BAR HOPING - and he was a bouncer, I'd spoken to Simon a few times before I really met him. According to him, he'd hit on me on those occasions we'd crossed paths but because he was "so much older" than I was, I'd ignored him. He was eight years older than I was (26 at that point), in case you're wondering. He wasn't an old man, or something.

A little bit of what he called his "Jew cred":

Simon was born in Bethlehem (c'mon, how perfect is THAT?) and raised on a series of Kibbutzim in Israel. His parents were devoutly religious, but somehow managed to maintain open minds. Stemming, I think, from the fact that his mother was a Muslim Arab who'd escaped an arranged marriage, converted to Judaism and married a Yeshiva Student. That's the stuff Lifetime movies are made of.

I think this attributed to his oddness. He was devout, but not the sort of devout that other devout Jews would consider devout. (got that? >:) ) He was observed the Kashrut (kosher) laws, he observed Shabbat (Sabbath), he was part of a Minyan . But, he ran with the Reconstructionist crowd here - which is about as liberal and progressive as it's possible to get. So he also had tattoos, wore whatever clothes he wanted (blended fabrics - oy veh!) and was NOT AL ALL observant of the Negiah laws.

I was starting to doubt the existence of god when I met Simon. He believed, but even he admitted that he didn't care if it were true or not - doing the rituals, praying etc made him happy and he could see no wrong in that. Neither could (can) I. He didn't talk about it in public, he never preached to anyone. It was just something private that gave him joy. If only everyone treated their religious beliefs in the same way.

I'll spare you the sentimental and sappy details. Suffice it to say this: though I've always been anti-marriage, when he asked me I couldn't refuse.

Then, in Nov '99 Simon was taking a ride on his motorcycle and because it was raining took it easy around a sharp corner. The drunken truck driver coming the other way, did not. He was dead long before the ambulance got there.*

And true to form, I ran toward religion, instead of away. Except this time, it was his religion.

Through Simon I had met his Rabbi - Rebekah, and her husband Isaac (another Rabbi). They would be my teachers over the next three(plus some) years. I won't deny that Judaism spoke to me in a way that Xianity never did. Being parent and original, it felt more authentic. But it could never be denied that it is, above all else, a tribalistic religion. It's clearly designed to set one group of people apart from the rest with exclusive rituals and customs.

It needs to be said that the bickering schism between the sect of Judaism is worse than that between Xian ones. I've heard stories of converts who moved to Israel only to find out that their conversion was not considered valid there and therefore they could not stay (basically). Even here, a convert to one sect is not considered Jewish by another. And, more annoying still, some sects consider all conversions invalid and the converted to be an imposter.

This is not what pushed me away this time, however. This time it was the blatant and rampant misogyny. Now, I've had this argument with Jewish believers before. There's a plethora of excuses or cute little justifications for the misogyny present in the religion - and there's also flat out denial (which usually comes in the form of the "Yeshiva Defense" which means all you'll get is "you just don't understand" instead of any real reasoning). I'll give a few examples:

- Every morning observant men recite the Aleinu (Adoration) in which men thank god "for not having made me a woman". Now, the most common excuse for that one I've gotten is that what it really means is that men are thanking god for making them as he saw fit - which is what the female version of this prayer says. However to quote: "This women's prayer encourages women to accept their fate, the same destiny which the men rejoice in having avoided." (The Problem with the Aleinu-Adoration)

- The set of laws known as Niddah - euphemistically called the "Family Purity" laws. Which contain, for example, the cleansing rituals women perform after doing something dirty - like having babies. A woman is "unclean" for 33 days after giving birth - if she had a boy. It's 66 days for a baby girl. There are also rules about what a menstruating woman can and cannot do (namely, sleep with her husband). In the more strict sects, a menstruating woman can't sleep in the same bed, and can't pass anything directly to her husband.

- Lastly, there's the plight of the Agunah- which is "a woman who wishes to obtain a divorce from her husband, but whose husband is either unable or unwilling to grant her a halachic bill of divorce, or Get". Agunah means "chained woman". So, let's say you're a woman married to a complete fucktard - abusive, neglectful etc - or he's in a coma, or certifiably insane, and you want a divorce. If you're an observant woman, this fucktard (or in a coma, or certifiably insane) husband has to agree to the divorce. If he refuses to (or can't) grant one, or if he's run off and there's no way to contact him, you are chained to him FOREVER. Which means if you want to stay with your observant community, you can never get remarried. Also, you can forget about having a boyfriend. AND - if you do have a child after being declared an Agunah - that child is a mamzer (a bastard) and can't marry a Jew. Or, you can leave your family, friends and life behind (in disgrace, natch) and do whatever you like. Because, while secular public law will grant you the divorce, the Jewish community will not. It's their way, or the highway.

There has been centuries of debate trying to find a loophole in the "law" (or the Torah, to us) that will alleviate this. But, since simply changing the law is a big no-no, they can't just decree that women married to fucktards can divorce them. Their not allowed to change god's word. At least, that's the excuse they give for not fixing this particularly cruel law. They do change things when they need to, they just refer to it as a Rabbinical decree that creates "a fence around the law".

There's also the Mechitza which sometimes means having women up in the balcony, forbidden to talk during the service, and sometimes with an obstructed view, the separation even at a wedding celebration, the modesty rules - I could go on forever.

Now, it must be noted here that these things are practiced only by the Orthodox (and sometimes Conservative) sects of Judaism. And even there, it varies. There's an old saying that goes: "If there are two Jews in a room, there are three opinions." Nowhere is the better illustrated then by the degree of varying adherence to Halacha (Jewish Law) from sect to sect and even congregation to congregation.

So, since I said I was studying under a Reconstructionist Rabbi, why did this bother me so much? Like I said, only some conversions are considered valid by Israel. And that's where the Rabbis' Stone were going, and I wanted to go too. But they, being born Jewish, were covered under the Right of Return law. I, being a convert, had to convert with an Orthodox Rabbi to be considered "kosher" (*cue rim shot*)

Since I had spent several months there as a guest of the Rabbis' Stone, that's where I wanted to be. So, if I couldn't reconcile myself with converting to a sect that I knew to be hardcore misogynistic, I couldn't go. Imagine what I failure I felt like. I had tried before to find god, and failed. Here I was trying again, and failing. God must not want me, god must have something against me, god must have a plan that includes for me to go to hell. (note: the concept of hell as the 'fire and brimstone pit of torture forever' is an xian thing. For the Jews, there's Gehana - also a pit of despair and torture, but it's only for a limited amount of time to "cleanse" the soul for earthly sins before getting it on in heaven.) I was sinking in to depression fast - partly because of this, and partly because the reality and finality of Simon's death was only just sinking in - three years later.

Sensing my hesitation and increasing desperation, Isaac gave me a book from his own collection. It was The Blind Watchmaker, Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design - by Richard Dawkins. This was something unexpected. The priest I'd studied Xianity under had bookshelves full of books, but they were all in support of his beliefs. But here, in this Rabbi's office, was an entire section of books about atheism, about the problems with biblical history, he even had Mein Kampf.

Even though I had left college, I had kept up my study of philosophy, feminism and some sciences. They had been pulling me away from religion since my introduction to them. This one though, was the proverbial final nail in the coffin. Isaac said he surrounded himself with books that countered religion and even his Jewish heritage and identity to remind himself that there is always opposition. He said "an enemy is someone you know nothing about. If I can learn about others, perhaps they can cease to be enemies." He would later tell me that he himself doubted the existence of god, but, like Simon, didn't care if it were true or not. It made him happy.

He said he could see it did not make me happy. So, instead of trying to stretch myself to fit the mold, why not explore different avenues. Ever day I thank him for that.

I left religious study for good shortly thereafter. Though it would be several years before I could say the word "atheist" out loud.

I still hang out with the Stones. I babysit their kids on occasion. They still invite me to Sabbath dinner and I still go. I have gone into far more detail about Judaism than I did with Xianity because even now the loss of it grieves me. It holds a special place in my heart still - largely because of these people. Instead of casting me aside and never speaking to me again - like the oh-so-loving-and-forgiving Bible Fellowship - the Stones keep me in their circle. They're excellent people. Some of the few I can honestly say no devolved by religion.

This is why I scoff at theists who tell me to "really give religion a try" or "really study the bible/torah/koran with an open mind". As if I haven't already done so. Because, were they to "really" study it with "an open mind", I have serious doubts they'd remain believers.

* you may think I treated his death lightly in this post. Perhaps. In my defense it's been nearly seven years and I have long accepted that life sometimes really sucks. We have no control over it, so I will not spend my life mourning that fact.

part three: Atheism (coming soon)