I'm not surprised by your
reaction. When we grow up in non-religious homes with almost no Jewish
education, our value system-indeed, our entire frame of reference-becomes
based on a non-Jewish ethic.
Unfortunately, it is a Catch-22
situation. Why didn't our parents give us a Jewish education? Often
we discover it was because "We didn't want you to be brainwashed.
We thought it best for you to decide of your own free choice when you
As a result, all that most
of us received was a grossly inadequate, few-hours-a-week, bat/bar mitzvah
training. So what happens to our free choice? Here, in one corner, life
as I have been leading it for 20 years. In the other corner, the challenger,
Judaism, about which I know almost nothing and have experienced virtually
nothing for the same 20 years. That's a fair fight? Is it genuinely
free choice when the two alternatives are so unevenly balanced? No.
I'd call it a loaded choice, about as free and balanced as the dice
in a crooked game. No wonder the most probable outcome is, as you say,
"I can't relate to it."
It's sad. A strong Jewish
education could, hopefully, make free choice a realistic possibility
when the time comes to make a mature decision. As it is, a lot of adult
decisions about Judaism are being determined by pre-teen headspaces.
How many times has someone said to one of the Ascent staff or host families,
"Oh, I know all about that," referring to something picked
up at an elementary school age!
All this means that your
feelings of alienation are to be expected, a natural consequence of
your life until now. But that doesn't mean they should be accepted as
the final arbitrator. It is not fair to yourself, to your birthright,
to your Jewish soul, to stop after a tourist's snapshot experience.
After all, on this trip, you are not a tourist! Every Jew has the right,
and therefore the obligation, to get to know Judaism-and to feel it!-as
an insider. Only then will you be in a position to intelligently evaluate,
to exercise true free choice. But this calls for an investment of time
Here are a few suggestions.
1) Shabbat. Sure, if you
go to a family one Friday night, you get great food and conversation.
And if over the next few months you go several more times, you'll even
get to the point where you can relax right from the beginning, instead
of needing a few hours to get into it. And if you stay once the entire
25 hours, you will gain a glimpse of the different aspects of Shabbat
and their respective moods. Still, despite all that, you will have yet
to realize the full Shabbat experience. You may have good intellectual
insights, you may even have developed an emotional appreciation of the
relaxation and shalom of Shabbat. But you will still be missing a most
important element: the metabolic component.
If you keep Shabbat in its
entirety every week for a month or two, you'll see. Something happens.
As a result of falling into the six day-one-day rhythm, your body and
your mind automatically start to relax on late Friday; emptying your
pockets and your thoughts of weekday objects becomes a relief instead
of an imposition; you start to experience Shabbat as a day apart, a
complete world in itself. Now you are qualified to accept or reject
it for yourself, because at least you know what it is. But is it right
that any Jew should go through life without even experiencing this precious
jewel of a gift?
2) Torah study. After a trial
class in a Yeshiva don't leave right away; stay and review the ideas
in your mind, and thrash out what is unclear and what you object to
with the teacher, or at least a veteran student. Then attend the next
session, prepared to build further. After many times, you can ask, "Is
this me?" because then, and only then, will you have a solid basis
for an answer.
3) Prayer. Commit yourself
to saying some of the morning prayers every day for a full month (guys
should do this with tefillin on). Recite them slowly, with complete
attention. Remember, you are talking to G-d. During this period, spare
yourself the daily inquisition about whether to do it or not. When the
month is up, you can decide how you feel about it.
4) Inner dimensions. Pick
a mitzvah. Try to allot for it more time than the minute it takes to
simply perform the action. A lot more time.
For example, candle-lighting
on Erev Shabbat. Be ready an hour or two beforehand. Study about it.
Think about it. Psych yourself up for it (see AQ 27). Then do it. Stay
with the candles for a while afterwards. Do this for a few consecutive
weeks and you will quickly realize that it is not at all what you thought
it was. It is much much more.
And it is yours. All of ours.
By inheritance. Buried in our genes as well as in our souls. Free choice-and
a fair trial-has to mean giving our own 3300 year old tradition more
than a day.