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The Freedom in the Middle

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The following is a response to an op-ed run in The Jewish Press on Jan. 22.

I mix patterns. Since I was little, I’ve always mismatched colors and prints. That’s how I see things: the categories are not discrete, my life comes in different flavors. People call it artsy. I think that’s just a euphemism for “I-don’t-know-which-box-to-put-you-in.”

I’ve never been boxable. In second grade I would come home from my Jewish Conservative elementary school and learn Tanakh with a Modern Orthodox graduate student. For me, there was no distinction between the person teaching me, and the sustenance she provided. She was Torah as much as were the two heavy volumes of Breishit she carried.

I questioned incessantly:  “Why do you always wear a hat?  Why do you wear skirts? Why was Avraham asked to kill his son? Why am I the only student in my school who seems to care that Avraham was asked to kill his son?” I don’t remember the answers she gave, I remember the love with which she gave them. It was that love, that obvious and deep passion for the text and for the pupil she was teaching, that drew me to the Modern Orthodox universe.

My classmates are all Modern Orthodox now, and my female teachers all wear skirts. I do too. But I am still unboxable.

I struggle differently than do my peers.  Coming to Modern Orthodoxy by choosing it for myself, I asked why all the time.  Many of my classmates didn’t get to choose this brand of Judaism the way I did. And they didn’t learn to ask “why?”

For people who are alienated by all of the very things that brought me into this world, I believe encouraging them to ask “why?” is the kindest and most valuable thing a teacher or a school can do.

And why is that?  Think about what happens when you don’t encourage them to ask “why?”:  it amounts to presenting the system as if it were perfect.  But guess what happens when you put a perfect system into the hands of imperfect beings? When students who don’t know how to articulate questions are met with religious role models who aren’t perfect, and they never are, spiritually debilitating frustration brews.

Remember: for students, teachers are as much Torah as the books they carry. And since my peers weren’t taught how to ask “why?”, for many of them the questions and the anger remain unspoken and misdirected.

On one end of the spectrum our peers are smoldering: “How dare you, imperfect fellow human, lecture me about the proper way to exist, and then go ahead and make mistakes! How dare you tell me what page to be on during davening and not show any interest in the fact that I have no idea whether or not God is answering; whether or not God is even listening; whether or not God exists.”

“Sure,” many kids in our school mutter under their breath, “tell me all about how beautiful, rich and inspirational my religious tradition is, but how about how irrational it so often seems? How about how hard it is to believe that there’s some sort of being that breathed life into us and that loves us, but who breathed so much pain into this world – into my world! Where is He then? And now you’re disappointed that we don’t stay after school to learn? You don’t really care about me, you just want the seats in the Beit Midrash to be filled.”

And then there are the peers from the opposite end of the spectrum who haughtily exclaim: “How dare this mechitza not be higher! How dare we learn in any classes with members of the opposite gender! How dare you lecture me about halakhah and then allow students in this room who don’t follow the rules!” – they mean who don’t follow the rules as “well” as they do.

And there are also many in between. Most have their own questions, I concede that a few are merely looking out the window, but I believe they are in the minority.

Sometimes being left alone anywhere on the spectrum is isolating. Sometimes it’s incredibly painful. Lo tov ha-odom hiyos levado. We are all alone. Some of us feel it when we connect in strange and deeply intimate ways to a text written hundreds of years ago. But some of us feel it because we’re frustrated. Good.  You cannot have a passionate reaction to something of which you have no expectations. You cannot be frustrated with a system in which you have no investment. The problem is that some of our peers don’t know and are not being shown how to channel that frustration or how to make it go away – they’re not being encouraged to ask “why?”.

There’s a particular kind of pain that comes from experiencing something beautiful or terrible and not being able to share it; not being able to harness the passion to mere words. I feel it when I read “Lonely Man of Faith.”  Many of my peers feel it during davening when they cannot articulate the questions and paradoxes raging within them. It’s too personal and too complicated to be communicated. The mistake isn’t believing that you are alone; you are. The mistake is believing that you are alone in your loneliness.

It is a mistake to believe that the boy who complains about the long hours of Gemara, and who longs for proms and lax dress codes isn’t familiar with existential loneliness. He may not call it that, but it’s a mistake to be sure he hasn’t felt it. It’s a mistake to think that because you are the one with the book in your hands, you are a better Jew than he is.  Just because you’ve spent longer between the pages cannot mean you are the only one doing it right. Even if his frustration isn’t driving him deeper into his davening or into the Tosfot – that doesn’t make him a lesser Jew or a lesser human being.

For some it takes longer to feel passionate about the space between the pages. Sometimes it takes years of being frustrated and confused and of not being able to articulate that confused frustration. For some people, (myself and Michael are fortunate to not be among them) it can take a long time before they feel ready to communicate that struggle and to seek guidance.

Michael and I are not the paradigmatic Modern Orthodox students. We are one of many different kinds of people who go about finding truth in different ways. Does this mean Michael is more scholarly than others? Yes. Does this mean he necessarily cares more about things that really matter?

No way. I know and have learned from many kids who don’t spend their spare time with their noses pressed to a Gemara. Some of these kids may be outwardly contemptuous of the debates between Rava and Abeye, but many of them are also good and wise and multifaceted. It is a tremendous chillul Hashem to declare that such kids aren’t as good Jews as the ones with their faces in books.  Virtually every one of these non-book kids also has struggles and goals. Every one of them yearns for meaning and for friendship and for knowledge.

Those desires deserve to be nurtured with every source of sustenance that Judaism has: Chassidut, mysticism, Zionism – religious and political, Aggadata, the moral power of the Neviim, the astringent rationality of the Rambam and the Radak, and every other tool at my teachers’ disposal.  All equally valuable, necessary, and praiseworthy. There’s a reason our school weaves chumash, and navi, and Talmud, and machshava into the fabric of our curriculum, rather than just having us learn the yeshivish masechtes for four hours every day.

We mix. That’s what the middle is about.

These people are my friends, my teachers, and my peers. They are also Michael’s friends, and he can learn from them just as they can learn from him. They cannot be dismissed because they don’t spend their spare time in the Beit Midrash.

Are Michael and I in the middle? Absolutely. Thank God. We are unboxable. But guess what? All of our friends are unboxable too.

The flip-side of freedom is responsibility. To be in the middle is a gift as well as a tremendous challenge. We are all charged with the task of crafting our own belief system. Each one of us must mix his own patterns and find his own truth eclectically. Indeed, each of us must be mekabel es ha-emes m’mi sheomro

To my teachers, and role models: Please show us how to ask “why?”. Encourage the questions. We do not expect you to know all the answers. Remember that the answers will not be remembered as much as the love with which they are given. It is this love and deep passion that will dissipate the frustration.

About the Author: Celeste Marcus is a senior at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Lower Merion, PA.


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3 Responses to “The Freedom in the Middle”

  1. Arthur Werner says:

    Excellent article! Your parents must be very proud of you!

  2. Susan Levin says:

    WOW!

  3. Len Getz says:

    So I now see when I asked you last week what did you do on snow day and you said you were thinking about a response to what another student said, why that took all day. Excellent, thoughtful and heartfelt piece. You will go places.

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