My Shabbaton has finished at the http://jewishwestwood.com shul.
Friday night, I said something like this (some of the following I thought about saying but did not):
I broke out of davening tonight like a bat out of hell. I was eager to mingle. It was a singles shabbaton. But a phalanx of my male friends immediately surrounded. “You’re in peril,” they said.
“No, no, no, I’m fine,” I said, scanning the female attendees.
But my friends interceded, forming a protective barrier around. You are in very grave peril.”
I am in peril tonight. I face three perils. I’m speaking in a shul. There are children around. And I’ve been told to not be controversial.
I’m supposed to inspire people, but I’m not sure I do inspiration well.
Over dinner, we were talking at my table about how every couple of years, Rob Eshman at the Jewish Journal writes a column about how there are so many amazing single Jewish women while single Jewish guys are such losers.
And every time I think to myself, “What am I, Rob? Chopped liver? I’m the most amazing sex-addicted broke blogger a woman could ever meet?”
A few years ago, Sandra Tsingh Loh threw a garden party and these fabulous Jewish women circa 40 years showed up. They dressed great. They had great careers. They were in great shape. They had all of their lives so beautifully arranged, aside from lacking a husband.
And it turned out that they all had something else in common — they had all dated Luke Ford. He seemed like such a nice guy. Such a charming accent. So well read. And then they found out… and it was like this icky insect had dropped on to their pristine world.
If I was speaking to a Christian audience, I’d say, I was a drunk, a brawler and a fornicator, but now that I’ve found the Lord, I don’t do those things no more.
But Jews don’t talk that way.
On the other hand, if you were a Christian and you went to a shul for a bar mitzvah, and the bar mitzvah boy got up and talked about where he disagreed with his Torah portion, you’d find no equivalent to that in any other religion. This idea of talking back to God, arguing with God, struggling with God, is uniquely Jewish. And I dig it.
Every religion but Judaism sees one primary thing wrong with the world and then offers a means to fix it. For Christians, the primary problem is sin. Sin is not so much what you do, but what you are. And to get rid of it, you need a divine savior. And you have exemplars such as Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Acquinas, etc.
For Islam, the central problem is pride and the solution is submission. And Mohammed is the ultimate exemplar. For Buddhism, the problem is suffering and the solution is enlightenment. For Confucianism, the problem is chaos and the solution is social order. I’m quoting from the book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World And Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero.
Judaism doesn’t really fit into this model. Prothero proffers that the central problem Judaism addresses is exile and the solution is teshuva, return. Dennis Prager argues that the central problem from Judaism’s perspective is evil and the solution is Torah.
Just something interesting to think about while I give my boring talk.
About 18 months ago, I grew frustrated that my relationships never seem to go much beyond a year. I feel pathetic. I’m 46 years old. I’m an Orthodox Jew and I have never married. Worse than that, I don’t think I’ve ever dated an Orthodox girl more than once. It was always easier to date women who were not marriage material. It was easier if our lives did not interpenetrate, if we knew few people in common.
I feel like a freak because traditional Jewish life — what I have ostensibly been practicing for 20 years — revolves around the family.
So after years of therapy, I realized that I had some emotional addictions holding me back, including addictions to chasing romantic highs and addictions to co-dependent relationships.
The other day, I was working the fourth step, making a complete and fearless moral inventory. And the 12-step book I was reading said that the addict uses everyone and everything in his life to meet his addictive emotional needs. That struck me.
I realized that despite two decades of practicing Judaism in my flawed limited way, I wasn’t morally transformed.
So don’t think this talk is about my continual unfolding of greater and greater degrees of holiness and how you can do this too.
I’m the son of a preacher man. My father Desmond Ford is a Christian evangelist and theologian. He is the subject of a recent biography — Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist. The book portrays him as a saint. It’s really cool reading a book about your own father as a heroic figure. I teared up a few times.
My father has two PhDs — one in Rhetoric, the rhetoric of the Apostle Paul, and one in in New Testament studies.
The closest Jewish analogy I can find to my father is the Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. The rav ordained hundreds of Modern Orthodox rabbis during his five decades at Yeshiva University. My dad ordained hundreds of Adventist ministers during his two decades at Avondale College in New South Wales, Australia.
I grew up on Seventh-Day Adventist college campuses. They’re like yeshivas only the women can wear pants and shorts and go sleeveless and no one considers them immodest for doing that and there is no problem with studying secular subjects and reading secular books and there is no problem driving on Shabbos and using musical instruments on Shabbos and there is no problem with eating vegetarian food in a non-kosher restaurant, but as I said, just like yeshivas.
My parents, meaning my father, my mother and my step-mother all converted to Seventh-Day Adventism in their teens. They rejected the conventional mainstream Anglican faith of their family to join this weird cult that observed the Seventh-Day Sabbath, abstained from meat, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine and the wider society. There are more Seventh-Day Adventists per capita in Australia than in any other country in the world.
If you read the letters of my ancestors, including some bloke in the 18th century, you’ll see that religious fanaticism runs in our genes.
On my first birthday, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Over the next three years, she withered away to 60 pounds and died. During most of this time, I lived with various people, none for very long. My dad had his hands full looking after mom and his work.
As a result, I never learned to connect normally with people.
And ever since those early years, I’ve been searching for my home. For my people.
I was an angry kid. I had these dark sunken eyes. People remember me looking like a Holocaust survivor.
When I was about three years old, I toddled out to the pier on Lake MacQuarie in New South Wales, Australia. I picked up stones and started flinging them at my sister in a canoe.
At one point, I over-extended myself trying to hit her, and I tumbled into the water, and I would’ve drowned if she hadn’t paddled over and saved me.
This is an emblematic story for me — throwing stones at others and then depending upon them to rescue me.
When I was about five years old, my family lived in Manchester, England. My dad was getting his second PhD. His first one was from Michigan State University in the Rhetoric of the Apostle Paul. This PhD was in apocalyptic — what will happen at the end of times — and was entitled, “The Abomination of Desolation in Biblical Eschatology.”
As a five year old kid, I’d walk around mumbling about the “Abomination of Desolation”. The phrase comes from the Daniel 9:27 and refers to the 2nd Century BCE erection of an idol Zeus in the holy temple in Jerusalem by the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes.
I never hear from Jews about the Biblical Book of Daniel, but it is a major book for Adventists along with the New Testament Book of Revelation because these books purport to tell the details of the end of the world. Eschatology – the study of the end of time – was my father’s specialty. He published many books about it.
Who are Seventh-Day Adventists? This Protestant religion developed in the 1840s around the same time as Mormonism and Jehovah Witnesses came into their own. The “Seventh-Day” part of the name comes from the Adventist belief in Jeremiah the prophet who said that if all Israel would keep two Sabbaths, the Messiah would come. Adventists regard themselves as the true Israel. “Adventist” means they believe in the soon coming of Jesus.
So one day my dad comes out of his study, hearing my crying voice, and he finds me flinging manure at these other kids and screaming, “I hate you, I hate you.”
When I look back at my writing over the years, I shudder at how much of it was just flinging manure and screaming, “I hate you, I hate you.”
When I was about five, I told my stepmother: “I’m a lucky boy. Most boys have only one mother. I’ve had lots. But I don’t want any more.”
A few years ago, I got my hands on the book that my mother wrote. It’s called Fireside Stories. It’s a children’s book. I read through it carefully looking for messages for my life. I’ve always been disappointed that she didn’t leave behind a letter for me to read upon turning 18 or something.
So I read through the book and got the message that she wanted me to be a good Christian.
I wonder if she were alive today, would we get along? What would we talk about? Many of the people I grew up with don’t feel comfortable talking to me today because I’ve rejected what is most precious to them. I’ve lost many of my friends from childhood.
That’s why rabbis always tell potential converts that their life will be easier if they just go back to the religion they were raised in.
I had a therapist who said to me, “You’re convinced that every breast will run dry and so you suck all you can get right now.”
I find that going to shul every day is a little bit of re-parenting.
I’m 46 years old and I keep playing out my family dynamics in the wider world. I keep relating to people through the prism of the way I learned to relate to my parents.
Shul dynamics remind me of psycho-analysis. I’ve never had psycho-analysis, but I have had psycho-dynamic psycho-therapy, which is the form of therapy most like psycho-analysis. Through connecting with your therapist, you are reparented. You learn a healthy way of relating to a parental figure and that can transform the way you relate to the wider world.
If you go to shul every day, you tend to form close bonds with people and the intimate way you learn to relate to your shul family can change the way you relate to the wider world.
People become precious when you see them every day and when you perform holy rituals with them and engage together in the study of sacred text.
You will likely get close to anyone you like and see every day, but when you’re bound together by an ancient tradition that adds transcendent meaning to life, then you’re transported to a different dimension. You have the potential of a concrete experience of holiness every day, of sensing your life touching the divine through your interactions with your fellow Jews at prayer and study, and this tends to educate the hardest of hearts such as mine into seeing the divine image in persons all around you. People are no longer trivial and you see every day things as possessing sanctity and therefore can not be treated carelessly.
I did not enter school until second grade. Instead, I spent my times wandering around the bush outside our home, blazing trails and cutting down trees.
I was not popular at school. When my classmate Gavin Brown had a birthday party, I was not invited. My friend’s mother had to intervene to allow me to come along and when I did, several kids made sure to let me know that I was unwanted.
More than three decades later, my therapist suggested I call my autobiography, “The Uninvited.”
I principally used my brain in school to make fun of people. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Mazzaferri, wrote in my report card that “Luke is always willing to share his ideas with the class, but he needs to be more tolerant of the slower thinker.”
My dad was a quick thinker. He’d finish off people’s questions for them.
I was the youngest child of a self-made man who’d achieved great success in the tiny Seventh-Adventist world. If you too are the child of a self-made man, then you’re probably familiar with the feeling of shame, of always knowing you’re falling short of the lofty standards of your family. Shame is a daily emotion for me. To escape it, I retreat into fantasy. I imagined myself as a great man, a bloke with a world-transforming career like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. To this day, it bums me out that I can’t become president of the United States because I wasn’t born in this country.
When I was about nine, I heard my father preach a powerful sermon on the End of Time. Afterward, I burst out to dad, “If I make the world better, I’ll only delay the Second Coming of Jesus.”
“That’s right,” said my father.
Seventh-Day Adventists believe the world will only get worse and worse. This did not fit with my vision for myself and I stopped taking Christianity seriously. I wanted to be a big shot in the here and now. I wanted to move the world forward for the good.
Unlike his mild-mannered youngest son, my father was a firebrand. So the church moved him out of the small pond of Australian Adventism to the Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley. My parents and I moved to California in 1977.
Around this time, I remember some of the big kids at school holding my head under water. I resolved that I would find a way to defend myself. And 20 years later, I took up blogging, my form of self-defense. Now nobody messes with me because if they do, I’ll just blog them.
In 1980, my father’s Seventh-Day Adventist came to an end with a week-long heresy trial at Glacier View Ranch outside of Denver. Many of the leading Adventists gathered to examine his views.
I remember running into this Old Testament scholar in the swimming pool that week. He asked me who I was. I said, “I’m the son of the man you’re burning at the stake.”
At the end of the conference, on Sabbath afternoon, I climbed a rocky mountain in the sky and when I got to the top, I crawled out to the edge and looked out. I saw that life as I knew it was over. We’d be leaving the church. Until now, all my friends had been Adventists.
I knew we’d be going somewhere I couldn’t see, not even from this peak, and I felt dread in my heart and I knew we were all going to be very lonely.
It’s great fun to state your opinions, but when they go against the orthodoxy of your group, you’re condemned to isolation, which is another word for death.
When the call came to return down the mountain that day, I thought that it would all be much easier if I just launched himself into the void.
My family moved to Auburn, California, just north of Sacramento. My father set up a non-denominational evangelical Christian foundation called Good News Unlimited. We now belonged to “the invisible church of Jesus Christ”, in dad’s words.
Unfortunately for me, the invisible church of Jesus Christ did not have a big social program. It did not have a lot of Shabbatons. It was not a great place to meet girls.
Chaim Potok novels became the rage in my faith community. My family identified with the protagonists who use academic and scientific methods to study sacred text, and as a result, get into trouble with their orthodox religious communities. I loved these books, I reread them every ten years, but it never occurred to me when I first read them that I would want to become a part of Orthodox Judaism.
My step-mother educated women about Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. Many a dinner conversation was about some woman who got enraged and dumped her husband in a sink. I learned to drive the family car bearing the license plate, “PMS LADY.”
My step-mom later published a book: “Listening to Your Hormones: From PMS to Menopause, Every Woman’s Complete Guide”
“For some women, natural hormonal fluctuations create little stress or discomfort, while for many others hormonal changes can cause severe, chronic suffering. The simple truth is that nearly all women will experience a hormone-related illness at some point in their lives. In this practical, solution-filled resource, women’s health educator Gillian Ford empowers women by giving them the facts. Listening to Your Hormones illustrates the pervasive role hormones play in women’s lives and reveals how to form a successful partnership with a doctor to find treatments that work.”
In college, I adopted atheistic communism. I thought it would get me a lot of girls with loose morals. It didn’t.
I arrived at UCLA in the fall of 1988 hobbled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I had to spend about 20 hours a day in bed. I listened to a lot of talk radio. One Sunday evening while lying in the bushes beside the girl’s softball field, I discovered Dennis Prager.
His voice and his intellect and his goodness immediately spoke to me. All my life, I’ve been chasing substitute father figures. Dennis Prager was the ultimate father figure. I started calling his show regularly. Eventually, when I had to drop out of UCLA due to my illness, I had my parents get his book, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, and read it to me.
You can imagine what a joy this was for my Christian parents.
The book changed my life.
I’d been searching for God for years but never put myself in a place to find God. It’s hard to find God at UCLA or at Dodger stadium. You need to enter sacred space. Because I wouldn’t enter sacred space, life reduced me to my sick bed, and as I started reading holy works, my room became a holy place.
I remember my stepmom was asked that summer of 1989 where I was spiritually and she said I was halfway between Marxism and Judaism.
Marxism and Judaism are competing religions with the same goal — heaven on earth. They’re both all-encompassing systems. Marxism is a secular off-shoot of Judaism.
While for Marxism, the economic structure of society determines right and wrong, for Judaism, God dictates right and wrong.
For Marxism, any act that furthers the class struggle is moral, even if it is torture or rape or murder.
Judaism focuses on the moral development of the individual and the creation of a holy community by outlining a code of behavior. There’s no code of behavior in Marxism beyond bringing the revolution. At times I’ve wanted to tell my bosses, “When the revolution comes, you’ll be hanging from a lamppost.”
I quickly saw that my flirtation with Marxism was stupid and decided instead to investigate a real religion with a step by step detailed system for holding people accountable and for making a better world.
At Christmas, 1989, I decided to convert to Judaism.
My friends had two main reactions. One, that I was converting to Judaism to piss off my father. Two, that if I found a good loving woman, it would moderate my enthusiasm for Judaism.
I was very lonely at this time. In my burst of Jewish religiosity, I decided to be shomer negiah, to not touch the opposite sex. I found it awfully difficult to explain this custom to the non-Jewish women around me. I couldn’t shake hands? Meshuggah.
I first reached out to the Reform temples in Sacramento, figuring they’d be the most welcoming and universalistic. I wrote them all letters. One Reform rabbi, Rabbi Melamed, called me with sympathy because I was too sick to leave the house. He quoted David Ben Gurion, “If you don’t believe in miracles, you’re not being realistic.”
The secretary at one Reform temple said they were not particularly religious. They were more of an ethnic club.
Still, the Education Director of the temple took to calling me once a week to answer my questions. She bought me a subscription to The Jewish Week of New York. She bought me a tallit.
My mother knew a Jewish doctor who connected me to the lay leader of the Nevada County Jewish Community. Michal was Israeli. She was married to a Quaker. When I called up filled with enthusiasm for Judaism, she thought I was meshugga.
I lent her some Dennis Prager lectures on Judaism and she and her husband became intrigued. Along with a couple they knew, they all became Orthodox within 18 months and moved to within walking distance of an Orthodox shul.
Around 1992, I confronted a significant problem — the Chofetz Chaim. I read some of his strictures about gossip and realized that journalism, my love, would be impossible under these rules. So I made a fateful decision that is my modus operandi to this day — when I confront Jewish laws that are just too painful for me, I don’t observe them!
The downside of this, is that I have not given myself to Judaism as wholeheartedly as other people I know. The upside of this is that I am not discouraged with Judaism’s high standards. So I don’t always meet them? Big deal.
I remember telling Dennis Prager about my dream to become Jewish and he wrote back, “Get well. You are needed in the fight for good values.”
I did my initial conversion through a Reform Beit Din (Jewish law court). I passed the Beit Din in the fall of 1992 but did not get to dip in the mikveh until the Spring of 1993.
I was living at home during these years, from 1989 to 1993. I grew a beard and wore a yarmulke and tzitzit around the house. I’d answer the phone “Shalom.” I was a handful.
The night I passed the Beit Din, I came home and told my father what I had done. He looked up from his book and said, “Well, they’re certainly not like the Adventists, out there proselytizing.”
He knew how hard it was for me to convert.
My first girlfriend, the one I got at UCLA, said to me, “The more you try to be different from your father, the more you will be like him.”
Another woman came to stay with me for the weekend at my parent’s home. I asked her how she would compare me to my father. She said, “He’s not as pompous.”
Around this time, I heard a short story on NPR where the protagonist is told that he’s destined to live off women. It hit home.
I met this woman through a singles ad. She had a PhD in Chemistry and a respectable job. She thought about making me her husband and letting me sit at home all day and write stories. And then I made a joke about her getting chubby and never heard from her again.
I went with my Reform rabbi and two witnesses to the mikveh at Sacramento’s Orthodox shul Kenesset Israel.
I was still very much in the grip of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at the time. I remember we had to wait around for the Orthodox rabbi to come open the mikveh for us.
When he finally rushed up, he said curtly to my Reform rabbi, “Don’t go in the shul.”
My Reform rabbi said, “What do you think I’m going to do? Eat a cheeseburger in there?”
So the mikveh water was warm. We did the traditional blessings. We had two witnesses. And I was done with my initial conversion.
My feelings were relief and exhaustion.
I immediately wanted to get my Orthodox conversion. I showed up one Sunday with friends for the conversion class at Sacramento’s Orthodox shul. And the rabbi said when I walked in, “I don’t know you. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
So the first time I walked into an Orthodox shul, I was promptly drummed out.
It would take me another 16 years to secure my Orthodox conversion.
After five years of bed-ridden Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I was convinced that there were answers out in the wider world for my illness but that I probably wouldn’t find them while living with my parents in isolated Northern California.
So I started placing lots of singles ads in Jewish publications around North America. This was 1993. I met a woman in Orlando, Florida. I ended up in Orlando. She took me to her psychiatrist. He prescribed me nardil.
A few months ago, I finally Googled nardil and found this on Wikipedia: “Phenelzine is used primarily in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). Patients with depressive symptomology characterized as “atypical”, “nonendogenous”, and/or “neurotic”, have been reported to respond particularly well to phenelzine. The medication has also been found to be useful in patients who do not respond favorably to first and second-line treatments for depression, or are said to be “treatment-resistant.” In addition to being a recognized treatment for major depressive disorder, phenelzine has been found in studies to be effective in treating dysthymia, bipolar depression (BD), panic disorder (PD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
So you’ve got a crazy person talking to you.
I’m sobered by how little my essential self, my moral character, my addictions, were unchanged by my change in religions.
You can change religions and friends and jobs and location and preferences and relationships, and unless you do the inner work, your character, your addictions, the essential you is unchanged. You can observe Jewish law from dawn until midnight, but unless you want to be a good person, it won’t make you good just mindlessly doing stuff. For instance, Orthodox Jews qua Orthodox Jews are no more likely than the next bloke to be honest in business. It’s so much easier to change your uniform than your addictions.
I converted to Judaism in large part because I wanted to be a good person, but while I tried to observe Jewish law, when I encountered a conflict between what I wanted to do and what the Torah said, and I thought I could get away with it, I chose what I wanted to do just as often I had chosen what I wanted to do when I was a Christian.
My essential emotional addictions, my tendencies to exploit everyone and everything I encountered, was unchanged by my conversion. I’m not going to pronounce now on how much I’ve changed through Judaism, through psycho-therapy, through 12-step work, through Alexander Technique, through yoga, but let’s just say I’m sobered by how much of me was unaffected by my religious conversion.
Like the typical addict, I’m fundamentally uncomfortable in my own skin unless I’m getting high. That makes the pain go away. My highs are not from alcohol or drugs or gambling but from typical guy highs, which is why at age 46, I’ve never married.
When I converted to Judaism, I took all my problems with me. My level of comfort in my own skin did not change. I had great intentions but my execution of these intentions was not so great. There’s nothing so beautiful that it cannot be perverted.
Many people I’ve known well who’ve become an Orthodox Jew do it to fix themselves. To fill the hole in their soul. Once you do the mitzvas, you get fixed, right? You feel full? Once you keep Shabbos, you’re content?
My step-mother has this adorable pet name for me — “User!”
I’ve always been impressed by the selflessness of Lubavitchers. Despite years of davening in Chabad shuls, I haven’t quite acquired this trait.
I had this girlfriend shortly after I converted to Judaism in 1993. A few weeks into our relationship, she gave me a book called, “The Givers and the Takers.”
She said she was always exhausted when she left my place because I was just so needy.
I moved to Los Angeles, to Pico-Robertson, in 1994. I was out of control. I was on nardil, which lowered my already low inhibitions. My middle name is TMI. I caused chaos wherever I went. I said and did inappropriate things, and that was just at kiddish. I made girls cry, I was that crude. I lost all my friends. I kept saying things in person or writing them online that made people angry. My life lurched from crisis to crisis.
These, “I was a big sinner but now I see the light” talks are big in Christianity but I’ve noticed they don’t play such a prominent role in Judaism.
Why did I convert to Judaism? Because I wanted to change the world. I thought it was this great system for morally educating people, building holy community, promoting excellence, and redeeming the world.
Why did I convert to Orthodox Judaism? That’s more difficult to explain. Orthodox Judaism speaks to me in ways that are not entirely rational and readily explainable. It was not the subliminity of its theological beliefs. It was the impressive nature of many of the people I met there. I wanted to be close to them. I wanted to emulate them. I wanted what they had — success in the wider world and in their family lives.
Also, as I’ve always been seeking substitute father figures, Orthodox Judaism is the ultimate father figure. It has rules, guidelines. It’s like a men’s club.
I like being in the middle of high intensity religion. High commitment religion. A community of people with a high commitment is a more exciting place than to be surrounded by those who are apathetic. It’s also more challenging, more daunting, and more difficult.
I find Orthodox Judaism fascinating. I love its history, its texts, its sociology. I love its feuds and passions and close knit community. I can love all this at quite an emotional remove and not be particularly morally improved by my haphazard practice of it.
Performing the commandments gets the most stress in Orthodox Jewish life, but how you perform them can be even more important. As Nachmanides said, you can be disgusting with the permission of the Torah.
Let’s say you’re eating by someone who’s not frum. You can ostentatiously refuse all food, or you can eat fruit or things that are permitted. You can carry your religion in a way that is heavy or light.
At prayer, I wonder if most of the people praying around me are just mindlessly saying the words. What a difference it makes if your heart is in it or not.
If you perform the commandments while hating them, that’s going to show to other people and it’s going to make Judaism stink.
I’ve been in homes where the husband was yelling at the wife to do the rituals right.
You can use Orthodox Judaism as a club to beat people with, to hold them at bay, to hurt and to demean them.
People are always asking me if I feel accepted as a Jew. Can one really become a Jew through conversion? In the real world? Tachlis? I feel like I’ve been treated as well as I deserve. I think converts generally succeed in Jewish life according to their merits rather than according to their noble statements. Judaism is a grind. Pretty words are cheap. If you prove yourself over years, you get accepted.
I think I’ve had a grand total of two Jews say to me, “You can’t convert to Judaism. You’re either born a Jew or you’re not.” And they were ignorant Jews.
If you watch me in Jewish life or in Gentile life, you’ll generally see me standing on the sidelines. By nature, I’m more of an observer than a participant. The more I participate, however, the happier I am. The more secure I feel, the more I participate. The more insecure I feel, the more I isolate myself. The happier I feel, the more outgoing I am, and the happier I get. The more miserable I feel, the more I isolate and get depressed. Some days I don’t have the inner strength to initiate contact and other days I’m the life of the Torah party.
Orthodox Judaism is the type of Judaism most like the Seventh-Day Adventism of my youth.
The Adventism I knew was high-commitment religion. High intensity. The people I knew built their lives around their religion. It wasn’t just an ethnic club or a nice way of life.
Orthodox Jews I know build their lives around their religion. Non-Orthodox Jews not so much. Orthodox Jews sacrifice more for their religion, are more likely than non-Orthodox Jews to take time off school and work to observe the holidays and the Sabbaths and the dietary laws. They’re more likely to say no to the requests of the wider world. They may not go to movies or step inside a video store, let alone a bar or a non-kosher restaurant.
Love and sex don’t determine their marital choices. They choose careers based on what they can most easily work around their religion.
That’s how it was in my Adventist world. People usually tried to work for themselves so that they could have the Sabbath off. People sacrificed to live in an Adventist community and to live the separate Adventist life.
So in a sense, by converting to Orthodox Judaism, I returned to a familiar way of life.
By associating myself with high-intensity religion, there’s less icky stuff. I find that Orthodox Jews are less likely to be drunks and addicts. I’m with a group of people ostensibly dedicated to a more elevated, more disciplined, more self-sacrificing way of life.
I also dig that Orthodox Jews tend to perpetuate themselves. When I go to Orthodox shuls, I often find many generations praying together.
Orthodox shuls are filled with children. When I went to Reform temples on Friday night, they were filled with old women. That’s depressing. A recent Jewish population study of New York found that 74% of the Jews under 18 were Orthodox. It’s obvious where this thing is going. Who wants to be on the losing side? Who wants to go to a Conservative synagogue and see the serious Jews leaving to become Orthodox and the less serious Jews leaving to become Reform or nothing.
When I went to Conservative and Reform synagogues on Sabbath, everyone drove away after shul. There wasn’t as much camraderie, as much human connection. It was much easier to separate yourself from the community. I’ve been searching for connection and I find more of it in Orthodox Judaism than I do in Reform and Conservative.
I enjoy being with guys. Just guys. Praying, studying Torah, singing, dancing with no girls around to bum the trip. If you want to hang out with just guys, you can either go to an Orthodox shul or a strip club. Those are about your only choices today. There are no more service clubs just for men.
I’m an Alexander Technique teacher. I enjoy spending time with other Alexander Technique teachers because they take the Technique seriously. I enjoy spending time with people who take 12-step work seriously. I enjoy spending time with people who take writing seriously.
I remember talking about books with Orthodox friends and they recommended to me Michael Crichton. Please! If you say, “Hey, I know Michael Crichton is trash but it’s a guilty pleasure,” fine, that’s one thing, but to just come out and say this is a good book, it was written by Michael Crichton or John Grisham, it makes me yearn to spend time with people who take books seriously.
It’s like asking a girl out to dinner for a first date and then taking her to Nagila’s or McDonalds. “Hey, baby, I know you’re kosher, so just have a milkshake.”
Jews are like old money. They’re the oldest ongoing culture. Long before Islam and Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism, there was the people Israel. A big reason I am an Orthodox Jew is that I believe in the final analysis that the author of Judaism is God. And I believe that at Mount Sinai about 3200 years ago, God gave the Torah.
I was booted from the Rabbinical Council of California conversion program for “deceit and deception,” says administrator Rabbi Avrohom Union said. “Don’t take anything he says at face value.”
You’ve been warned!
In March 2000, my family flew me back to Brisbane, Australia, to consult with doctors of their choice.
I spent three hours with a psychiatirst who reported back to my sister the following. These are E*’s notes from her conversation with Dr. R. Incidentally, what Dr. R. says makes sense to me:
Luke is not suffering the effects of a head injury.
Applying the DSMIV, he has a personality disorder of the histrionic/narcissistic type.
Luke is very dependent upon other people for his identity as a person.
He has poor identity integration and poor self esteem. Accordingly, Luke is always looking for mirroring – it’s called “narcissistic supply.” That is to say that Luke is always looking for external validation of himself as a person (i.e., he needs other people to tell him who he is). However, because it is not possible for people to mirror him all the time, he gets disappointed and this can turn to envy. Luke may not be conscious of the fact that he is very envious of his family as they seem to have things he would like to have but does not have. This leads to him fluctuating between, on the one hand, devaluing people such as the family (putting them down) and on the other, idealisation of people – such as Dennis Prager.
[My niece Bell says: You epitomize the Cold War. In terms of America’s need to create the Soviet Union. Like how you need to feed off other people to maintain self esteem and self identity. This is why we get on so well. You fulfill one of the tenets of post-modernism. Nothing exists on its own. We define ourselves in relation to difference. Nothing is given meaning unless we define it. We project our values onto a cultural artifact or historial event, for example. So our entire world is subjective.]
Luke tends to make unreasonable demands of people who are eventually driven to setting limits on him. Luke takes this very badly.
Luke needs five to ten years of insight orientation psychotherapy. It was the falling out with Dennis Prager which caused him to go to therapy. While Luke has a lot of therapy ‘speak’, he may not really understand the concepts involved. Luke’s therapist did well to keep him in therapy for 15 months – that is unusual for someone with Luke’s condition as such people often leave off therapy when it becomes too confronting. Luke will not continue therapy that is confrontational, particularly in the early stages.
Luke will continue to do what he is doing to satisfy his needs until such times as the rewards (reinforcement) are outweighed by the negative effects of same (punishment). Then he may do something about getting his life on track and getting therapy or going back to finish his degree (which would give him some self-esteem).
The negative effects of his current behavior are that no one will have a long term relationship with him as no matter how sane they are, people cannot live without getting something back – and Luke is always taking in without giving anything back. Second, any decent woman who looked at his website would be immediately repulsed.
Luke has a complicated personality. He has mood instability – perhaps mild cyclothymia. His personality type is prone to this.
Luke become very focused on one thing then, when he is not getting the desired rewards, he drops it and moves on.
Luke may have had some post viral illness but then the illness took on a life of its own. It is common for people to retreat into the sick role because it is a way of failing in a face-saving way. Luke was failing because of the lack of significant relationships in his life.
Luke in his current state would not be successful in employment.
He wants immediate results and if he does not get them, then he does not want a bar of it.
He does not have a bipolar condition. His reaction to Nardil was purely psychological as that drug does not work overnight. The same with the homeopathic treatment – one pill does not make any noticeable difference.
Epilim is a good mood stabilizer – better than Lithium – does not have the nasty side effects. But Luke is unlikely to remain on such medication and anyway it is only tinkering with the fringes of the problem.
As with most adolescent boys, Luke was obsessed with sex.
As with most super egos – it is not well integrated. His rules are situational and he justifies things.
Luke is capable of being exploitive.
Luke is reacting to the values of his family unit.
He is not really interested in what Dr. R. thinks of him. He is only here to enjoy the trip. There is no point him seeing Dr. R. on occasion before his return as it is long-term therapy he needs.
We [Luke’s family] have to have a firm boundary of where we go in his life. We should stay off his website – what we don’t know won’t hurt us. We should set limits on his unreasonable behavior. We must treat him as an adult that he is and stop babying him.
Luke has tunnel vision and difficulty seeing things as others see it. He is only looking for mirroring.
He has demonstrated the capacity to at times, not put his immediate gratification ahead of everything, i.e., taking his rabbi/synagogue off his website when requested. He respected those involved and did not want to lose a relationship with them. So he has the capacity to learn from his experiences.
Luke has a poor sense of identity – he is not well integrated – he has no sense of self – therefore he is very changeable in different circumstances.
The cause of his personality disorder is multi-factorial – the development of personality is a long process – it onvolves experiences, family environment as well as choices made by a person during the formative years. Personality disorders are not diagnosable until after age 18 because the personality is not developed before then.
This psychiatric report got the loudest laughs of the night.
A great thing about being an Orthodox Jew is that you know who you are. Your choices in life are constricted so there’s much less bewilderment over freedom. I noticed when I was interviewing non-Orthodox Jewish writers, they were frequently wondering what Orthodox Jews thought about them while Orthodox Jews never wonder about what Reform Jews are thinking about them. When you’re Orthodox, you don’t care about the opinions of anyone outside of Orthodox.
When you’re a Reform Jew, you’re dying to pray with black Christians. When you’re a secular Jew, Judaism means civil rights for blacks. The Jew can never be free in America as long the black man is oppressed in America.
Orthodox Jews are the most likely Jews to actually live around black people and they have no interest in socializing with blacks or assisting them in civil rights or any of that. Kollel guys aren’t out there marching for Trayvon Martin. They’re not dying to hug Muslims and to fight for the rights of illegal immigrants and the transgendered. Orthodox Jews know who they are and they’re happiness is not dependent on what other groups think about them.
I’m impressed that Jews who observe Judaism lead better quality lives. By any criteria you want to choose, by any statistical measurement you select, from educational achievement to monetary success to quality family life and to generosity with one another, Jews who live Judaism live better lives than those living by alternative systems. So even if you’re meshuga, you’re still ahead of the game.
Think about it. What statistical measurements would you choose to test the results of a particular system of living?
I remember covering a San Francisco 49er football game at Candlestick Park in the fall of 1985. I was 19 years old. The 49ers suffered a crushing last-second loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Niners second crushing loss of that early season.
As I ran off the field with the players, this Saint yelled out, “Some kind of genius!”
The 49er coach Bill Walsh had a reputation for genius. He’d won two Super Bowls after inheriting a 2-14 team devoid of top draft picks.
So at the news conference after the game, I nervously raised my hand, related what the Saint player had said and asked if the pressure was getting to the San Francisco team.
Bill Walsh said, “I’d be happy to match our record over the past few years against anybody’s.”
That’s the way I feel about Judaism. Jews who practice Judaism tend not to suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse and domestic violence and the like. They tend to be successful and influential in the wider world while sticking to their ancient traditions. The Amish and other groups also have old traditions, but Judaism is the longest ongoing culture in the world, and unlike the Amish or the Adventists, Jews influence this world.
I want to win a Nobel prize. The list of Jews who’ve won Nobel prizes is very long. The list of Adventists who’ve won Nobel prizes is very short.
I’ve long known I lack common sense. If I follow my inclinations, I’ll destroy myself. I know I need guidance. Judaism offers excellent guidance for how to live. When you should study, when you should pray, when you should work, when you should be with community, when you should rest, when you should party and when you should mourn.
One of the things I love about Orthodox Judaism is that you know who you are. Things are set out for you. You do this and this and this, and that’s just upon waking. It gives you guidelines for life, guidelines that have proved themselves to work over hundreds of years.
I converted to Judaism to change the world. Now I’m wondering more about myself. How much have I changed for the good? And to what extent is Judaism responsible?
How can I morally improve? How can we as a community make good people?
* Belief in a transcendent moral code
* A set of daily practices to hone one’s commitment to the transcendent code
* A system for transmitting that code to each generation
* A community to keep an eye on you
* Common sense
* An awareness of your habitual reactions to stimuli and a willingness to let go of those reactions that don’t serve you. If you have addictions, that’s going to warp everything you do. If you’re an alcoholic or a sex addict or the like, you’re still going to use everyone and everything in your path, even if you convert to a different religion, adopt belief in a transcendent moral code, join a like-minded community and commit to the system.
In the last six months of 1996, I lived with a Holocaust survivor who had about 25 cats in the apartment. In exchange for looking after the cats, I only had to pay $200 a month rent. I don’t have much of a sense of smell. It’s one of my best qualities.
I thought my roommate was crazy. He knew I was a writer and he wanted me to write a movie based on his story. He said it was more incredible than Schindler’s List. I had no interest. I preferred to write about porn stars. I never did hear his story. I thought he was icky.
I kept berating myself. I was a convert to Judaism. I was fascinated in all things Jewish but somehow I spent my time around comely shiksas when I had a great Jewish story in my very own apartment.
In late 1996, the survivor accidentally started a fire in our kitchen that threatened the whole complex and he got kicked out and we went our separate ways. The roommate service I went to automatically assumed I was gay and only sent me out to gay roommates. One was a philosophy professor at UCLA who specialized in ethics, a great interest of mine. We had a great talk over the phone but he doubted my ability to pay the rent on time. So I moved in with another gay guy. He ran a nude cleaning service that was featured on Jerry Springer.
* MINI SERMONS: Rebuilding the third temple. The other day in shul, somebody who seemed betwixt Judaism and Christianity, wanted to talk to me about the rebuilding of the third temple. He pointed out that the book of Daniel spoke about the Abomination of Desolation and the rebuilding of the third temple. If the prophet Daniel predicted this, then it must happen right?
I said that what is primary in Christianity — heavenly salvation, what will happen at the end of time, life after death, rebuilding the third temple, are secondary matters in Judaism, while what is primary in Judaism, halacah, is secondary in Christianity, which has very little law.
Christianity stresses these great themes of salvation, redemption by a divine savior, etc while Judaism focuses on deeds we can do today.
After the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon chose three of his bravest soldiers to honor in front of all his troops. He chose a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew. He told the three to ask for anything and their wish would be granted. The Catholic asked for the whole world to accept the Catholic church as the one true church. “Your wish shall be granted,” said Napoleon and the troops cheered. The Protestant asked that the whole world accept that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. “Your wish shall be granted,” said Napoleon. And the troops cheered. Now it was the Jew’s turn. He asked for a tuna fish sandwich. Napoleon looked askance but nodded. There was no cheering.
Afterward, the Catholic and the Protestant asked the Jew why he requested so little from the great emperor. “I’ll get my tuna fish sandwich,” said the Jew.
A few weeks ago at shul, an Orthodox friend asked me, “Do they get this philosophical in church?”
They tend to get much more philosophical at church as Christianity comes more from Hellenic civilization, which brought us philosophy, than from the Jews.
If you sit among the intellectually inclined at church, you’ll hear discussion about sweeping theological and philosophical issues about the nature of God and man and salvation and victory over sin, etc. I never hear theological or philosophical talk from the baal habatim at shul, and rarely from the rabbis.
* Spiritual highs are difficult to get in Judaism when compared to Christianity, Yoga and Eastern religions (why Jews are so attracted to them). Most Jews feel far more spiritual watching Lord of the Rings than at shul. Judaism is not a feel good religion. You have to earn your way.
Dennis says: For eight years I’ve had two hours a week with a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a rabbi. After your 400th show, you’re entitled to some generalizations. One is – the Jew is usually the most talkative and the Protestant is usually the most quiet.
There must be a reason.
The Jew is usually the most passionately involved in something, volatile, gets angry, verbalizes, lets out, etc.. The Protestant is usually the nicest. In eight years I heard one offensive word from a Protestant and he [Walter Martin] was a bona fide nut.
These Protestants are the sweetest, nicest, most self-controlled people you will ever meet.
Catholics run in all directions. Some are controlled and some are volatile.
The religions produced these differences. Protestantism emphasizes the heart. Catholics are in the middle. Judaism emphasizes works. Therefore, the Jew has been the freest to make peace with his miserable thoughts. Protestants are the least free because they are sinful.
That’s why when it came out that Jimmy Carter lusted for women other than his wife, Jews yawned and Protestants were horrified. A born again Christian and he lusts? Oh my God.
You want to be married to a man who has no lustful thoughts? He is a liar. You want to be married to a big liar?
That’s your choice. Either your man has lustful thoughts or he’s a big liar. There is no other possibility.
I tithe my lectures. I do one out of ten for free. I don’t do it from the goodness of my heart. If I did it from my heart, I’d give one free lecture…a year. But there’s a Jewish law that you have to tithe yourself. It’s a pain. But I want to do the right thing.