"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"I sat in on a class at a women's Yeshiva. It was sort of interesting, but I couldn't relate to it. I also tried a Shabbat with a family; they were very nice and the food was great, but I was bored stiff. I couldn't wait for Saturday night. I want more Judaism in my life, but I don't think this is it."


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 grew up."

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 and patience.

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.

Yrachmiel Tilles

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