Shabbat (the Sabbath) was good, overall. Shul (synagogue) on Friday night was OK. I had dinner with my family, which is still overshadowed by Mum’s cancer diagnosis, then back to shul at 8.30pm for an evening learning event. There were twelve of us, including the rabbi running the event (not the regular shul rabbi). First was chevruta (paired) study of the key sources in the Talmud and later commentators and law codes. We spent about thirty or forty minutes coming to grips with these and then there was a short shiur (class) for fifteen or twenty minutes applying the principles from the texts. I was paired with one of my friends, to my relief, and we did OK going through the texts. We were on similar levels, I think, which made it better than these situations sometimes go with me, both in terms of confidence and thinking of things to say. It was a highly technical discussion of a point of law in the Jewish laws of property and damages, not the type of thing I usually like study, but I found it quite interesting. There was a short piece of aggadata (non-legal material, in this case narrative) in the midst of the halakhah (Jewish law) which made things a bit easier for me (about a caravan in the ancient Middle East that was being stalked by a lion, so every evening they left one of their donkeys for the lion in the hope that it would be satiated and not attack the caravan. It made me wonder what they did if they ran out of donkeys). Afterwards there was potato kugel (kugel is a kind of pudding that can be made of various things, sweet or savoury, but most often grated potato). This was the one week when we had potato kugel for dinner at home, but I would never turn down more. As I said to Dad, kugels are like buses, you wait ages and then two come along at once. I was glad to be socialising in a ‘safe’ environment in shul and was glad there were relatively few people there, so I did not get overwhelmed and also was visibly joining in and not merging into the background.
When we were sitting around eating kugel and drinking whisky (not me, but the other men) the rabbi quoted something (I didn’t catch where from) that said that doing a mitzvah against difficulty means the reward is one hundred-fold. He was thinking of all of us coming out in the cold, wet and wind at night, but I thought of my depression, social anxiety and autism. Even if “one hundred-fold” is rabbinic hyperbole, I felt that maybe I should cut myself some slack for trying to be a good Jew under difficult circumstances.
I didn’t push myself to get up early for shul this morning, but I did go back for Minchah, Talmud shiur and Ma’ariv (Afternoon Service, Talmud class and Evening Service). There was no one willing or able to lead Minchah so I was asked. I hadn’t done it for about five years, not since we came to this community. I have been more tuneful, but I don’t think I made any obvious mistakes aside from misunderstanding the rabbi about when to start on two occasions. I even coped with slowly reading the Aramaic passage recited when taking the Torah scroll out, although I felt that people were staring at me and mentally wondering why I didn’t restart. I shook with anxiety a little, but not as violently I did when leading weekday services at this shul previously, so maybe I’m becoming more confident with participating in this shul. I didn’t (thank G-d!) drop the Torah scroll from shaking as I was vaguely worried about.
My devar Torah (Torah thought) email that I shared with a slightly wider group of people before Shabbat this week also seems to have gone down well, so maybe I’m beginning to move outwards into the community again after a period of retrenchment and mental health struggle over the last five years.
Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary (before you ask, no, they didn’t deliberately go for a Valentine’s weekend wedding, it just ended up like that). They bought a very rich chocolate cake for dessert for Shabbat meals. They don’t normally do that for their anniversary, only for family birthdays, and I felt that it was partly a kind of reward because of the stressful few weeks we’ve had with Mum’s cancer diagnosis. It was really good cake, though, and we’ve still got quite a bit left.
After Shabbat, I did a bit more work on the bibliography for my non-fiction Doctor Who book. I got through a pile of books that came out between 1997 and 2006, basically from the point where Doctor Who seemed to be dead until the point where it had come back, but the new generation of fans had not quite arrived yet. It’s the Doctor Who fandom I heard about and tentatively joined in via Doctor Who Magazine (particularly the editorships of Gary Gillatt, Alan Barnes and Clayton Hickman), books like Doctor Who: From A to Z, Licence Denied and Doctor Who: The Book of Lists and later joined more fully in the Oxford University Doctor Who Society (Doc Soc) and its fanzine The Tides of Time. It was a slightly strange fandom, a place where on the one hand people would take the programme extremely seriously and write lengthy quasi-scholarly articles about themes or characterisation, and then five minutes later they would be completely taking the Mickey and making fun of the whole thing, sometimes even in the same article.
I suppose I was only ever really on the fringes of that fandom; the Doc Soc was my greatest involvement, and that was only a small society when I was there. In 2005 the programme came back on TV and completely changed the demographic of fandom; later the arrival of social media and Twitter would alter the way that fans communicated. I’m not really involved in fandom any more. I just read and comment on a couple of blogs run by people I consider friends as much as fellow fans. I still read Doctor Who Magazine (and tried to pitch to write for it, without success), but it feels very much like an ‘official’ piece of merchandise now and not the upmarket glossy quasi-fanzine it once aimed to be. You won’t see anyone criticise anything or lightly make fun of anything; in fact, they’re not even running reviews of the new episodes.
I’ve sometimes ventured onto Doctor Who Twitter, but I find it a bit scary: sometimes quick to take offense and rather political, plus I find Twitter in general a source of angst and time wasting and I try to avoid it. I’ve never been to a convention, either pre- or post-new series. Part of me would like to go, but part of me, particularly the autistic part of me, is scared stiff at the thought of it. I would like to find that kind of fan commentary/appreciation/gentle mockery that I used to find in the late nineties and early noughties, but I’m not sure it even exists any more, let alone where to find it. And I wish I had been a bit more involved in “my” fandom when it was thriving, even if I wasn’t in it now, although I suppose I was too young and socially anxious to get much more involved.
I wrote a long comment tonight about autism and my religious beliefs on MidWestAspie’s blog. I’ve decided to cross-post my comment here (cutting off a bit that is a not relevant and correcting a couple of typos) as it touches on some issues I’ve raised here, but never really spoken about at length:
Interesting post. I have heard other people on the spectrum say that their ASD made them leave their religious upbringing. I’m the reverse. I’m a religious Orthodox Jew and in the process of getting an ASD diagnosis (I’m pretty sure I’m on the spectrum, and have been told I am by mental health practitioners, but don’t have the bit of paper yet). I was raised traditional, but not fully religious and became a lot more religious in my teens and early twenties. I’ve never really felt a clash between those aspects of my self (ASD and Judaism).
My university background is in the humanities (history and then information management) rather than science, so maybe that’s made me more open to the idea that things exist, and can be shown to be likely to exist or to be a certain way, without our being able to “prove” that they exist like a scientific or mathematical proof. For example, I think Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, but I can’t prove that in the way that a scientist can prove that e=mc2 or the way Decartes tried to prove that “I think therefore I am.” When I was in my twenties I went through a kind of religious crisis about this type of thing, but this was the position that I eventually came to. I think whether a system has meaning is not falsifiable in a Popperian sense. You can say that God is an unnecessary hypothesis, but if you find meaning in an idea or a practice, I think there is truth to that meaning even if the data it rests on is, in some sense, flawed (I’m not sure if I’m explaining this well).
OTOH, I have a quite existential approach to faith. A number of years ago I was reading a lot in Jewish religious existentialists (e.g. Rav Soloveitchik, Levinas, Heschel, Fackenheim, Buber) and am still very influenced by them. The emphasis on dialogue and encounter and ethics. I don’t feel much security from my faith in the way that you say your parents do and in the way that I see other people in my community react. I went through another religious crisis of a kind in recent years where I was sure that God hated me, but I eventually realised that I was just projecting my own low self-esteem. But I don’t feel that God is my Cosmic Buddy who will do what I ask, nor do I think much about the afterlife or reward or stuff like that. I talk to God, but I don’t expect Him to answer me in an immediate or overt way. I don’t expect my life to go well in this world just because I try to keep the Torah. Maybe it’s not part of my psychological make-up (or ASD), maybe it’s the pessimism that comes from two decades of mental illness, or maybe it’s just that Judaism is a very present-centred religion and we don’t talk much about Heaven or reward, even though we believe in them.
I’ve never had the type of religious experience you describe and I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did. I absolutely don’t believe Judaism means giving up my responsibility. On the contrary, Judaism, and especially Jewish existentialism, means accepting a huge amount of responsibility. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the nineteenth century proto-Jewish existentialist thinker, said, “The seeking is the finding” and that is how I relate to Judaism, it is an ongoing quest for me to find meaning in my life and in my people’s traditions, not a set of answers someone else is spoon-feeding me.
I know there are people in the Orthodox Jewish community who like being spoon-fed. I know that there are people who believe a lot of stuff I consider incorrect, silly or occasionally dangerous, whether its creationism or magical thinking (segulot) or whatever. And on my blog I write a lot about my trouble fitting in to my community and getting annoyed about things people believe or say. But the fact that other people believe things that I think are wrong doesn’t make me think that everything they believe must be wrong, if I find meaning in it. And I’m not bothered about other people finding meaning in their own traditions, because I believe that, as Rabbi Lord Sacks said (and got in trouble for saying with the ultra-Orthodox) God is bigger than religion and God speaks to people in different ways. I do believe the Torah to be a qualitatively different type of truth from other religions, but even if I felt that Judaism was exactly equal to other religious truths, there is a Burkean conservative aspect to my mind that makes me think there is meaning and goodness in following and maintaining the traditions, customs and festivals of one’s own people regardless of what others think or do.
There probably is more I could add to this, but it’s late and this post is too long already. I will say that there probably was a time, when I was in my teens or twenties, when, if my life had gone differently, I could perhaps have become an atheist, possibly even the aggressively militant type. I suppose I was lucky that I knew enough to convince myself that the militant atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) were overstating their case and didn’t really know much about Judaism from the inside. It does make my head hurt a bit wondering what might have been and what that would mean for me, but you drive yourself mad thinking like that.