Last night my parents were out for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner. I could have gone with, but didn’t really know the hosts and so stayed at home. That was OK, but my parents didn’t get home until after midnight, after I’d gone to bed, and in the house on my own, my thoughts started going to dark places, as often happens when I spend Shabbat alone. I was thinking that it’s nearly Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). Tradition states that everyone’s income is determined by God on Rosh Hashanah and I can’t help but realise that there has been at most one year in my whole life (thirty-six years and counting) when I’ve been decreed enough money to survive without massive subsidy by my parents. OK, I don’t really feel bad about needing support when I was a child or even a university student, but it upsets me that depression (and perhaps also undiagnosed high functioning autism) has kept me out of the labour market for so long, to the extent that I have never had a full-time job and only for one year earned enough to be anywhere close to self-sufficient (I don’t think I quite got there even then).
Similarly, Rosh Hashanah is when various barren women in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) were “remembered” by God i.e. they miraculously conceived (Sarah, Rachel and Chana (Hannah)) whereas I not only have no children, but I have no spouse and therefore no chance of having children any time soon. It feels like there is no chance of either of these things (finances/family) changing in the new year and I feel pessimistic about improvements in other areas e.g. acceptance in the community/making friends. I do have to admit that my mental health is better than it was a year ago and a lot better than just a few years ago, although it is still very far from perfect, but I face the coming Jewish New Year with a great degree of trepidation.
The good news: I made it to shul (synagogue) this morning! I was less than fifteen minutes late. In a lot of shuls, there would be hardly anyone there at that time, but I was one of the last people to get there. That’s one thing I do admire about my shul and why I like it, but it does feel that I have a lot to live up to sometimes. I got an aliyah (called to the Torah) too.
The downside was, when I went back to shul this evening, there were as many as three different things that I didn’t agree with in the rabbi’s shiur (religious class) over seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal). That made me feel an intellectual outsider once again. I wish I could find a shul that was 100% right for me, or even 75%. I wish there was more of a vibrant Modern Orthodox Judaism in the UK.
The other thing I struggled with was the rabbi’s sermon in the morning, where he appealed for help. A man from the community (probably not much older than me) died last week, very suddenly. He was unmarried and had no children, so you can see why I was suddenly paying attention.
Now, to understand the next bit, you have to realise that most Orthodox Jews believe that there are various things the living can do to help the dead have a better portion in Heaven (e.g. say Kaddish, give tzedaka (charity), study Torah). These things are usually done by immediate family, preferably children. As this man had no children, the community are “learning” Torah (the men) and reciting Tehillim (Psalms) (the women) in his memory to help him have a better portion in Olam HaBa (the Next World). However, the rabbi was disappointed by how few people had signed up and made a big appeal for more people. The aim is to study a significant amount of Mishnah (at a minimum, the whole of Seder Moed) and to recite the whole of Tehillim at least once by the end of the shloshim (first month after death).
However I follow the minority rationalist school of thought within Orthodox Judaism (after the Rambam (Maimonides)) that says that once you die, you are rewarded as per your merits. Little, if anything, anyone living does can affect you after your death (possibly direct descendants can, but that’s not relevant here). Anything else that happens down here, however well-intentioned, is not going to help you (see this longish essay by Rabbi Natan Slifkin for more details on the history and authenticity of different customs). I feel really uncomfortable about the whole notion of doing anything to help the dead, to the extent that it’s practically a standing joke in my family that I disapprove of things like saying Kaddish for non-family or visiting graveyards excessively (I have support here from my hero, the Kotzker Rebbe).
So, on the one hand, I feel that I should join in with the Torah study. I did vaguely know the man and he was friendly towards me and I’m looking for ways to be more involved with the kehillah (congregation). But at the same time, I feel like I would be a total hypocrite and using this man’s tragic death to virtue signal to the whole community. Plus, with my mental health, my Torah study is still subject to interruption and days when I study very little. I don’t want to interrupt it further by taking on studying umpteen more perakim (chapters) of Mishnah (and different Mishnah to my current Mishnah study routine), especially as doing it properly (trying to understand the Mishnah rather than just read it) would necessitate buying new books with commentaries, something I can not easily afford in my unemployed status. Yes, I know I just bought a load of stuff for myself yesterday, but I’m about to give the shul £10 to “pay” for my aliyah and I’d like to give some money to tzedaka for the Rosh Hashanah appeals, even though really I shouldn’t because I’ve earnt almost nothing in the last six months, so that giving tzedaka would be coming out of my savings rather than my income (I haven’t been in work since March, unless you count my Dad paying me for painting the garden shed).
It is difficult to know what to do.
A more positive way of getting involved in the community might be writing a dvar Torah (thought on the weekly Torah reading). I did this a lot in my old shul, but have never done it in this one. There are several reasons for this. My old community was not terribly frum (religious). A few people were, but most weren’t, so one did not have to say anything too intellectual or to search in obscure books for a new thought. I could also get away with quoting authors who were more modern in outlook (I even once quoted the secular Bible critic Robert Alter, which in retrospect strikes me as chutzpadik. I think I assumed that anyone who objected wouldn’t want to make clear that they knew who he was by complaining!). More prosaically, the length wanted was much shorter and more manageable (300-500 words instead of 1,000-1,500).
I don’t know who I could safely quote here. The person who edits the dvar Torah each week (and usually writes them, as no one else appears to be interested) has quoted Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, so I know they are not considered too modern (although he also made some positive comments about the State of Israel that I suspect the previous rabbi and assistant rabbi did not agree with). Rabbi Lord Sacks probably is too modern (although a guest rabbi gave him a positive reference in a shiur recently). But I don’t know if Nehama Leibowitz and Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, both of whom wrote books on the parasha (Torah reading) that could be useful resources for writing a long dvar Torah, are considered too modern, or even banned for being women. (As an aside, I’m hoping to see Avivah Gottleib Zornberg speak at the London School of Jewish Studies this week, don’t tell anyone in my shul.) It’s a tough question and, again, I don’t really have anyone to ask without revealing my hand as a “modern” thinker.
On the plus side, if I could manage to do it, it would be a way of signalling to the community that I do have some Jewish knowledge and things to say, and that I do want to find a way to get more involved with the community, as far as is possible with my “issues.” Considering I barely have the confidence to talk to anyone at shul, any kind of communication would be a benefit.