Lecha Challah! Or, Me and My Mitzvot

It Is Thursday Night.

I am alone. I have to be alone because if my husband saw what I am doing, he’d think I’d gone off the deep end of Judaism.

I am sitting in our living room in front of a lit candle on our coffee table, and I have not thought this through. Not at all.

I am holding a little wooden chopstick. On the end of the chopstick, I have impaled a little ball of dough and am holding it to the fire. Moments ago, I was speaking words in Hebrew.

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hafrish challah min ha-issa.

I blessed the G-d who has commanded me, in scripture, to separate the challah, this little round offering, from the two beautiful braided loaves I have in the kitchen.

They are doing their part, rising under their glistening egg wash. I am doing mine, barbequeing a little sacrificial ball taken from their midst.

At first it just browns. Then the smoke and little blue-orange flames issue from it. The smell hits my nostrils, and I smile.

I smile because I am imagining the same smell in the nostrils of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. They must have smiled too. They must have smiled because they were fulfilling a mitzvah, what they thought of as a divine commandment. Numbers 15:17-21. “…It shall be that when you eat the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion [of dough] for G-d.”

I’m not actually sure where the burning part comes from.

This Seems Kinda Crazy.

I’m not a traditionally observant Jew. I’m living in the Reform movement, which started among German Jews about 150 years ago with the premise that medieval Jewish law — an all-encompassing code known as ha-lakha (‘the path’) — shouldn’t be binding on people in modern societies. The tradition gets a vote but not a veto, as one of our rabbis puts it.

In the years since then, Reform Jews have often felt free — maybe much more free than their rabbis would have wanted — to disregard all of the traditional boundaries around Jewish life. Go ahead, have some shellfish and pork! Work and shop on the Sabbath, it’s fine. On the more affirmative end, Reform was the first branch on the tree of Judaism to end gender segregation, accept women and GLBT people as rabbis, and marry gay couples.

The official line is that we Reform Jews are supposed to measure each and every little halakhic commandment against our moral and practical compasses.  The real end point of halakha, the thinking goes, is joyous, ethical living in the pursuit of justice. If not wearing clothes of mixed wool and linen gets you there, go for it. If not, that’s fine, too. Do what makes sense to you.

It’s Fine When You Put It Like That.

You’d think that with all the official encouragements, Reform congregations would be engaged in non-stop chatter about levels of observance. My experience is that it’s more of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ sort of climate. I’m not going to ask you about that Starbucks cup in your hand when you come into shul, and I’m not going to tell you about the efforts I make to keep kosher.

I can count on one hand the number of earnest discussions about Jewish observance I’ve had in the past two years. So in all practical terms, most everyone makes their own weighty, halakhic decisions in a vacuum chamber.

I’ve said before that converting in the Reform movement is in some ways more difficult than in more traditional branches of Judaism. An Orthodox convert basically lives under close rabbinic supervision in a rigorously self-policing community. Outside such a world, living a Jewish life is like doing math problems in your head while playing a round miniature golf. You’re adding and subtracting, carrying your decimal places, and around every corner is some new little castle — charming but puzzling — for you to navigate through.

Say it’s the day before Passover and you didn’t get your act together enough to use up all the flour in time. You’ve still got some doughy pizzas in the freezer. If you’re a traditional Jew, you just burn them. If not, you’ve got to think that wasting perfectly good food can’t possibly be part of G-d’s plan for a just world.

Cue the Anxious Self Doubt

If you’re not the most self-assured person, this is a quick path to a halakhic inferiority complex. Especially if you get any measure of daily Jewish news and opinion from the Internet, which is dominated by Orthodox voices.

Whatever the reasons, inside my Reform gay boy head I am silently  measuring myself against frum housewives who get the house scrubbed clean, the candles ready to light, and have three gorgeous meals ready with thirty minutes to spare before sundown. In the middle of winter.

Beneath my breezy urban knowledge worker exterior, I am envious of the people who daven three times a day, wear kippot and tzitzit out in public, and vigorously guard the Sabbath. Especially the cool kosher college kids where I work.

Why do I envy them? Because for an adult convert with no Jewish family, holding on to a Jewish identity when you look like and act just like everyone else on the outside — originally the Reform movement’s dearest wish — is not easy. It is not easy at all.

I think there are two basic motivations for very observant Jews. One is a combination of conformity, literalism, and tribalism — all deeply repellent to me. I am very much in love the Reform movement’s creative and universalist impulses. There’s a reason Reform Jews, numerically the largest group in the United States, are dramatically underrepresented on the Internet — most of us are too busy with our mainstreamed lives, our communities, living out our Jewish values deeply embedded in the non-Jewish world.

But there’s another reason traditional Jews do all the things they do.

It’s love.

So Where Does That Leave Me?

Maggie, my first teacher and mentor on the conversion journey, once said this to me. “I may not keep all or even most of the 613 mitzvot, but I’m still obliged to know what they are and to understand them as much as I can.”

So here I am, sitting alone roasting a ball of dough on a chopstick. Looking for love.

This entry was posted in 1, Ceremony, Journal Entries, Observations. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Lecha Challah! Or, Me and My Mitzvot

  1. alto artist says:

    Just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying your blog. I’m neither Reform nor a convert (I belong to an unaffiliated synagogue, and grew up sort of halfway Orthodox, i.e., I wasn’t very happy with being Jewish until I rediscovered it as an adult), but your questions and struggles really resonate. Thank you.


  2. eng4820 says:

    Thank you, alto! Always good to hear, and I hope my stuff stays enjoyable for you. Would love to hear more about your journey, too.

  3. alto artist says:

    Thanks! I’ve been trying to write about it for the past few years at onchanting.com (the singing part, at least).

    Shabbat Shalom & Chag Purim Sameach!–


  4. Codenamed V says:

    I just found your blog via jewsbychoice.org and just wanted to say I really enjoy it. I’m also converting Reform, and yet still feel a deep drive to try to be very observant, as much as I can. I’ve heard people diss the idea, but it seems to me very much that the various branches–excluding ultra-orthodox, but including to an extent even Modern orthodox– are beginng to converge a little bit.

    Happy Purim!

    • eng4820 says:

      Happy Purim to you too! Glad you’re enjoying the reading, and I share your perception the walls are getting a little lower, at least here in the States.

  5. Mike Doyle says:

    The last few lines of this post absolutely blew me away. Paper covers rock. Love covers tribalism 🙂 And you seem to have very well described the inner conflict of my ongoing Reform conversion journey.

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