Doubt

Safek can also be translated as “doubt.”  It’s most often a doubt over whether something is certain or not, that then leads to a question that needs answered.  It’s the kind of doubt that can’t just sit, that can’t be ignored.  The term is most often used when there’s a doubt about whether or not something was done or should be done under Jewish law, which creates a situation that is tricky to untangle, like forgetting if you’ve said a specific blessing or not.  On the one hand, it’s bad not to say the blessing.  On the other, it’s bad to say a blessing in vain.

It’s the kind of doubt that creates that uneasy feeling of uncertainty, that antsy, “This needs resolution!” kind of feeling that compels action of some kind.

In the time I’ve lived and loved a Safek, an uncertainty wrapped in the form of a man, I’ve learned to also lived with doubt in on an intimate level.  Doubt is a part of our daily lives and each day is lived with some sort of doubt.  I used to react to that feeling the way I always had, trying to push it away, trying to find a resolution that I alone didn’t have the power to find.  I had to learn, slowly, and over time, to embrace the doubt and to understand that the emotion that accompanies it comes and goes just like any emotion.  In the moment, it may feel like it demands action or an answer.  It may feel urgent and pressing and weighty, but, if I wait with it just a little while, it eases.  The doubt is something that can be separated from the visceral emotional experience and then you can live with doubt.

I think, maybe, it’s one of the lessons that I needed to learn.  I’ve never been a particularly patient person.  I grew up swimming against the current, determined, my head and shouldered lowered toward any obstacle in my way and I would push and strain and scramble my way through life.  I lived with an illusion of control that only something sudden and enormous could shatter.

Like my brother dying of cancer.  Or my husband becoming a question, a doubt.

Both events had an element of non-reality to them.  They were both moments where the logical mind is aware of a fact, but the emotional portion of the mind is simply unable to comprehend it.  In both cases, I was sitting down, one on the end of a telephone, the other in an office chair.  In both cases, my ears heard and yet I struggled to completely process what I had heard.  My mind doubted that what my ears had told it was actually true and it began the process of testing that reality.  Was I asleep and dreaming?  Had I misheard some important piece of this conversation?  My mind feebly attempted to find some reason to justify its doubt, some way in which this new reality wasn’t actually real.  In both cases, it took patience and time for my mind to expand itself to encompass this new world it found itself in and to feel at home in it and until that happened, everything felt alien for a while.

Doubt can really knock the mind for a loop, making up seem like down.

But, like anything else, doubt settles and becomes something manageable.  You can sift it into piles and push them aside and live with doubt, piling it up in the unused corners of life so that you can live around it.  You can, in some small ways, chip away at it and cart pieces of it off.  Often, though, you have to just wait for the wind to come through and sweep it away, no matter how long that wind takes to come.

Dealing with this bigger doubt has taught me a lot about handling smaller doubts.  I’ve grown more comfortable admitting that I don’t know something or even being ok with the idea that I might never fully know something.  Much as the way my mind had to grow larger to fit the new information of my brother’s passing, my faith had to grow to fit this doubt within it.  The process felt very much the same, like someone important in my husband’s life had died and we needed to go through all the stages of mourning until we’d reached acceptance.  Denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance are listed as the 5 stages of grief and I think each had their time with us.

And then, finally and only recently, I made friends with the doubt.  I began to be thankful for it.  The doubt that we have lived with and through has shaped us and our family in ways even we may never comprehend.  It’s sent us on amazing adventures and brought us closer together.  It’s caused our faith to be shaken and tested and grown and it’s still the bitter medicine that we breathe in.

Without befriending doubt and learning to love it I would not be who I am.

Ancient Woven Threads

I look at life like a woven tapestry, but one that is maybe a little frayed, a little unraveled.  I find a thread and I pick at it.  It’s a colorful thread and it captures my attention.  My fingers, unbidden, find it whenever my mind is distracted, pulling a little at it.  I find where it weaves its way between others and I give my full attention to unraveling it, carefully tracing it back to where it came from.

Yet, what I often don’t realize is that as I pick at this one thread, it changes how others relate to each other.  The entire pattern shifts, obscuring the very source I’m seeking to find by tracing back this thread.  I find myself distracted by another brightly colored thread and I try to put it down, to turn back to something more productive, but my fingertips are enticed by the soft rub of the threads against them.  Gently teasing out the tiny threads brings me comfort in a world that often seems chaotic or overly complicated.  These threads are something I can hold close and even as I may give a brief thought to how they’re always changing, there’s always a part of me that denies it, that wants to believe the pattern has always been the same.

I didn’t inherit this tapestry.  I didn’t even know it existed until so late.  I often wonder if earlier parts of my life might have been different if I’d had these threads with me to pick at.  Would I have been gentler on myself if I’d had that comfort?  Or, would I have ignored it as so many others who did inherit it did?  Why did what I did inherit seem so shabby compared to this?  It was like cotton, thin, new, more machined and mass-produced.  This feels homemade and old.  It smells like old libraries with books that have sat on shelves forgotten by time.  The colors are still rich even despite its age, so I can tell it was made of richer stuff, something more substantial that has survived time.

If I’d found it when I was younger, would it have the same appeal?  Or, would I have tossed it aside, considering it worn out and outdated?  Would I have bothered looking closer, my fingertips grazing that first thread, which then led to another and to another?  Why didn’t any threads from my own childhood beg to be teased apart like these?  I remember a few furtive attempts, but they ended either with the fabric completely falling to pieces or with knots.  This, though, this can withstand my prying fingers.  It’s as if it was made to be picked at, as if it invites it.  I pick and pick, but there are only more layers beneath, waiting, inviting.  They obscure the weaver and yet draw me nearer to their creator, a love letter from Him to me written in the code of frayed, richly dyed threads.

It requires both my concentration and intellect as well as my heart and imagination to untangle them.  One or the other isn’t enough.  If I apply only my mind, the threads become dry and rough, brittle almost.  I can untangle them, but it becomes heavy effort and my fingertips crack.  If I apply only my heart and imagination, the threads become a tangled mess, the fabric felting together, impossible to decipher.  Together, though, it goes smoothly and it is a pleasure to pick away.

And so, as the world spins on into a future, my fingertips keep being drawn back to the past, to ancient threads woven together for someone else that I can’t seem to hand back.

Avraham Avinu, Father of Converts

They say Avraham is the adoptive spiritual father of all who convert.  After our new Hebrew names, we add “ben/bat Avraham Avinu.”  I ponder this great and mighty man, the first who looked up at the sky and came to the conclusion that there was one G-d and that he would follow Him.

I, too, first encountered G-d in the night time stars.

A child, laying on my back on a wooden bridge as old as my grandfather, the summer heat broken by nightfall, I laid there, smelling the dark fertile smell of the soil of my childhood home.  My hands knew the feel of that soil and my feet had walked the same acres my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had tilled.  I was a farmer’s daughter and I belonged to that soil as much as to my own mother.  It nourished me.  The land was flat and the crops not yet high and laying back, it felt like I was teetering on the edge of the world, ready to fly off it into space at any moment.

The sky was as dark as the soil until my eyes adjusted to it, then it lost its solemn cloak and burst forth in layer after layer of stars.  I had given up ever finding the constellations my schoolbooks neatly and orderly laid out for me.  I guessed that those stars must belong to people in cities because out here, far from city lights, there were so many more that I couldn’t find those patterns.  The milky way arced across the sky and just when I thought I could see the furthest stars, I would squint and see still more, hiding further and deeper.  I hadn’t yet learned that I was looking backwards in time even as I looked out from my small world with small towns and small schools.

Like Avraham, I didn’t fit in with my family.  Like him, I already knew I wasn’t going to follow in my father’s footsteps.  If my father had an idol, it was the land at least, and he faithfully ministered to it season after season.  I hadn’t been born to be a farmer or a farmer’s wife and even as a child, I already knew my destiny was going to be somewhere else, far from the shelter of those fields and my family.  I would have to wander among strangers and find a new path and it was likely my own father would be hurt by my rejection of his ways even as he understood that there was no place for someone like me here.  The teachers had already set his expectations and let him know that I was different than most of the children.  A strange bird found in the wrong nest and meant for college and city life.

But for now, I was rooted in the soil, staring up into the night sky.

I felt suddenly very tiny, so very aware of the vastness of what I stared into.  That feeling made my heart flutter a bit under my osh kosh overalls.  Like any child, I thrilled a little at that fear, my heart rising to meet it, wrestling with it.  I reached up to the stars above me, but my small hands grasped at something else, my mind not having the words or images to contain it, but there was an idea there.  The idea was that there was something else there.  This something was part of it all, the damp earth, the creek, the limestone bedrock below it all, the stars above, the space between the stars…and yet it was also beyond all of it.  There was the idea that there was something there with intention and that it reached for me even as I reached to it.  This idea had was so unrelated to what I was taught in catechism class that I didn’t even categorize it as religious.  It simply was and whatever this was, it was important and I wanted to hold onto it.

And yet, even as the thought formed and my eyes widened and I struggled to form words to capture and contain it, it slipped through them, escaping into the night sky.

Even if Avraham adopts me, I’ll still only be his daughter, not equal to him.  The moment left me confused and soon I heard my mother’s voice calling me back to the house.  I didn’t forget that feeling or moment and I often went back to the bridge, laying down there, hoping to feel it again, but it was never certain.  I couldn’t summon it and I couldn’t make a drawing or write words that would nail it to the ground where I could examine it closer.  It didn’t launch me on a quest to share it with others or cause me to open up my tent to angels.  Instead, we played hide and seek through years.  At some point, I realized that it was my own heart that flitted back and forth, teasing, testing.  It was I that lacked the faithfulness to wait.

Avraham was a man of vision, a truly creative thinker in that he saw what others had forgotten in the night sky, but he didn’t stop there.  He was able to take that feeling and those thoughts and transform them into action.  He was faithful to the revelation given him, even to the point of sacrificing his own son.  My faith was less a candle that never burned out than a spark here and a spark there while I fumbled in the dark.  I even had my own periods of rebellion where I completely rejected G-d and ran into the wilderness, childishly failing to realize that the very act of rejecting G-d in itself proves you actually do believe there is  G-d to reject.  Rebellion, in some ways, is a childish and immature act of faith, a faith you’re running headlong from, trying to avoid.

I made peace with my earthly father, whose face is etched in my own.  He made peace with my path being so different from his own.  I wonder if Avraham’s father ever forgave him?  I wonder if my potential adoptive father will embrace me?

Of Rabbis

I fear Rabbis.  It amuses me that I didn’t always fear them.  I so nonchalantly walked into the first Rabbi’s office.  I smiled.  I assumed he’d see me the way everyone else saw me.  I’m a woman who never failed a job interview, who was always well thought of, who impressed teachers and professors and always earned the grade.

I assumed that conversion would be no different.  I’d prove myself.  I’d study hard.  I’d be judged on the merits of hard work and good manners and, eventually, I’d earn my place the same way I’d earned degrees and promotions.

How very wrong I was.

Whatever metric the Rabbi was using to measure me, the unaware smiling gentile expressing her heartfelt attraction to Judaism…I fell short.  And, in one way or another, I really have felt that I’ve fell short with most Rabbis since.  It’s not that I don’t try or that I’m rebellious or loud.  I try to quietly blend in.  I occasionally speak up to answer a question in their classes, just to show that I have been listening and I do understand.  I measure my sentences and questions out like baking ingredients, careful not to oversalt the conversation.  Too much salt and it won’t rise.  Too little and it will be bland.

And yet, even though it’s rarely expressed outright, I always have this feeling that I’ve disappointed in some way or that my sincere actions are suspect.  I used to obsess over what I *might* be doing wrong, picking at my observance, my dress, my studies…looking for whatever it was that they might be seeing.  Now, I accept that I simply may be a foreign object to them, something that they can’t quite puzzle out and that wears at their mind.  Maybe it’s less about what I do or say and more about what I am?  In any case, it doesn’t seem to be something I have the power to change.

So, like so many other things…I work to let go of it.

We meet with a Rabbi again this week and I consciously fight the urge to pick at myself, worrying over what I should or shouldn’t say or what I should or shouldn’t wear.  At this point, after this many years, I have to accept that whatever will happen will happen and that my fear or urge to please has little to do with whatever determinations are made.

I still fear Rabbis.  The first people, besides a former Mother in law that I felt I could never please and yet, just like that mother in law, I ache so badly for approval from.  I wonder…will that approval ever come?

Jew…ish?

There are moments, sweet moments, where I can sit and blend in.  In those moments, I’m just another Jew davening or just another Jew at the Shabbos table.  I congratulate myself on those brief moments and I hold onto them, tucking them in my pocket to run my fingers over when I doubt the direction we’re headed in.  I use them to remind myself of what life will be like, one day.  Those are the moments I feel at peace, where the gnawing ache of displacement leaves me alone and my heart feels unchained.  It leaps from my chest and soars to high places and I find certainty.  In those moments, I don’t doubt what we’ve given up or what we’re doing.  I know with a solidity like bedrock.

It’s so very often, though, that those moments are interrupted with doubtful moments, with moments that test my resolve and my faith.  Those are the moments where the stark reality bleeds in to remind me that I’m not there yet.  It’s the moment where the Rabbi has to stall a bit for an eleventh man because my husband is not really the tenth.  I can hear the men awkwardly shift on their side even though I can’t see them.  I can feel the tension as they each count, wondering which of them is not a real number.  Or, it’s the moments where Jewish geography comes out to play.  Inevitably, my foreignness is revealed by my birthplace or where I was raised, so far from anything kosher.  Or, it’s my son’s lanky frame, easily place-able somewhere between childhood and bar mitzvah and people begin wondering why he isn’t in a tallis yet.

I often try to stay quiet, hoping to blend in just a little longer.  I almost look the part, my red hair covered and my blue eyes trained down to the Hebrew page.  I’m dressed the part and I study to fit the part, as if studying for a job interview hoping that study will make it so.  Somehow, though, the better I blend in, the more jarring it is to everyone when I am discovered.  I am the foreigner among you, but with each heartbeat, I long to be simply another face in your crowd.  I undertake a remarkable journey in the hopes of one day being unremarkable.

Discouragement

Note – This post was originally published on the website neshamas.com

It becomes a subtle flavor to your life, like the bacon grease your very non-Jewish grandmother used to use to cook everything in, always there in the background. Or, like the vintage fade to the old polaroid of you in a first communion dress, pretending to smile so that dour faced Sister Mary Josette wouldn’t find you and punish you for a lack of innocent faith. From the first Rabbi you met breaking any illusions you had that this journey would be a joyful one, light and airy, his office dark with book bindings in leather, even the Hebrew characters on them seemed to scowl at you in disapproval. Then, to another Rabbi’s office where he listened intently to your story, your heartfelt wanderings through the world that led you to this uncomfortable chair beyond the cluttered expanse of his desk where, after you’ve finished the story to this point, this moment, he asks you if you are mentally ill.

Because, really, he can’t imagine that a sane person would want to choose a life like his own or maybe that a sane person would actually believe.

They say it’s important to discourage the convert and anything you read tells you that they will do this three times. What they don’t write about is all the other times they will add in extra discouragement for good measure. That discouragement is measured in the tears and simple moments of omission, where your visiting family aren’t mentioned among visitors and your family sits alone on Yom Tovs while others are invited. That discouragement that comes when you are hit up for every fundraiser and fully expected to contribute, but the Rabbi is too busy to go with you to meet with the Beth Din. You sit, admiring the mosaic floor as others sit with their Rabbis, hearing words of encouragement the empty chair next to you a question mark hanging in the air. It’s the flavor of the bitterness in your mouth, sour and metallic, when you realize the nosy married woman with the uncovered hair who talked through the Torah reading is launching into a round of Jewish geography, not in the hopes she’ll discover some connection but so she can confirm the disconnect she already suspects.

It’s a flavor that becomes familiar as years drift into each other and each next year in Jerusalem seems further and more impossible, the distance across a mikvah pool that won’t split for you, left behind in Mitzrayim, unchosen.

So, you wander. You search not for a promised land, but for that mythical Rabbi who will take a chance or take pity. Your food isn’t manna from heaven, but each bite has that flavor that must have begun to wear on a stiff-necked people also tired of wandering. You dream of an end to the journey, a place filled with cholov yisroel and Rosh Hashanah honey where you’ll be welcomed, even on Yom Tov and even to handle wine. Somewhere along the way, you realize that the most Jewish part of your non-Jewish soul is the very one that tastes discouragement in each moment and can feel lonely in a mixed multitude.

After all, all Avraham’s children were descended from converts. It’s a taste the Jewish people know all too well.

Why “Safek?”

Safek is a Hebrew word meaning “question.”  It is also the halakhic status of my husband, who was born to a Jewish convert whose status became questioned.  He’s gone through one gerus l’chumrah, but due to a paperwork error, he’s still “questionable.”

It also seemed like a fitting blog title for our journey.  Being a conversion candidate often feels like living life as an unanswered question.  It’s very often a place of uncertainty.  Judaism is a religion of very specific laws and those laws require some assurance of what category a person falls into.  It’s not a system that deals well with gray areas and a big part of the conversion process is to try to eliminate or at least make much clearer who is what.  Being a safek or even just a regular conversion candidate…requires a person to live in a gray area, somewhere between Jew and non-Jew, never really knowing where you fit or fall and what applies to you.  It’s even a difficult area for Rabbi’s, men who study Jewish law for a lifetime.

Our case is particularly complicated and life has made it moreso, so we’ve lived in this state longer than most do.  I like to think it’s all for a reason and that we’ve learned a lot from living life as the embodiment of a question.  This blog is all about exploring that journey and what we’ve learned along the way, so naming it “safek” seemed profoundly appropriate.