Thursday, August 31, 2017

Tale Five: Chosen Family - Judges - Three Quarters

What a Spring. Simcha wasn't talking to Ori. Mary was avoiding Bob. Bob didn't want Simcha in his house. Bethany willingly made herself the object of Simcha's spite against his family by coming over theirs, Simcha'd would show his contempt for the laws and customs which were also his by freely announcing he was leaving to visit Bethany's friends, friends he often didn't like and was sure they didn't like him.

But Bethany, as always, knew how to get everybody back together.

Ori knew that this tohu vavohu is what Chabadniks take on by living in the world of apikorsim like Bob Katz. The other Charedim keep to themselves. Die Toyreh provides six hundred thirteen commandments to keep order in life. No Jew has to lead, all they have to do is wrestle with the decisions of how to interpret laws that are already laid out for them with thousands of precedents for how each law can be studied.

Blood is not red until it leaves the body, and Der Rebbe wanted a thriving, bruising, lean Yiddishkeit that fights for every inch of every Jew's Neshawmeh rather than the clotted and wheezing Yiddishkeit of Charedi sects who never ventured out into Olam HaZeh. He wanted Freylikhkeit, he wanted happiness, and he knew that the greatest happiness is in letting ander Yids grow into their Yiddishe kops. It's horrifying for Simcha to go off the derekh now of all times, but der Rebbe knows best, and if Simcha's going off the derekh, it just means his Tateh has to solicit and harrangue him the way he would any ander yingeh Yid.

It's not like Bethany didn't wear long skirts and sleeves when she was over the Freylik's, but it was not something anyone was shy about correcting. If the skirt didn't cover up everything, if she rolled up a sleeve, if she wore a color too flashy, if she starts humming to herself. Tzakhi tells her 'and you should cover your hair up under a sheytl if you come in' after Rinah gently reminds Bethany that she shouldn't be in a room alone with Simcha, which starts a roaring shouting match between the two brothers. There's that 'korveh' word again. All Tzakhi has to do to win the argument is to stand a few inches away from Simcha's eyes in all his particularly unimpressive gangliness, but sans the Simcha hump. Bethany shows up again two nights later with a large hat. One day Kristina convinces Simcha to let her tag along, Tzakhi calls her an oberkapo and tells her she shouldn't even be allowed to stay with the Katzes.

Yes, it's April 1994, five months after the release of Schindler's List and one after it wins the Best Picture Oscar. The Oslo Accords may yet happen. The Rebbe may still yet live forever. A million Shoah survivors around Amerikeh und Yisroel live out the full bloom of their resurrected lives with kinder and eyniklach they can only yearn for their briders und shvesters could live to see. Trees of life grown tall and strong without roots. Gott! Far vos mir und nicht zay?

As far as springtime in the history of our people go, this is a particularly relaxing one. So Bethany and Kristina go over to Vicki's house to find some relief, and out of a mixture of pity and Kristina's entreaties, they invite Simcha, who tries weed for the first time in Vicki's bedroom only to wig out as he follows the circular logic of weed smokers that he's too different from this crowd to even try to fit in with them and is so completely out of his element that a wrong decision could kill him. Vicki assures him all he needs to do is go with the flow, just lie back and relax and accept it all. But there's no way he can possibly do that until he hears:


Kristina's shriek relaxes him in a manner Vicki's laid back entreaties never could. He lies back, resting his head on Kristina's right breast as Bethany rests her head on his, Vicki on her's, Kristina on Vicki's. As Simcha's paranoid mind takes in the jam rock, prog rock, art rock, and new wave for the first time, he experiences passive acceptance he's never known possible. With its twenty-minute long songs whose drones served for so many Jews a generation older than Simcha as something akin to worship, a religion substitute that was cheaper than going off to an Ashram, giving them the community and belonging and devotion and self-sacrifice to music too mediocre leave unworshipped.

Until today, Simcha met all things were met with the dread - sometimes a joyous dread but nevertheless, a dread omnipresent - the dread of knowing that the world must always be engaged. The laws weren't going to interpret themselves. The books had to be read, the broches chanted, the righteous praised, the wicked condemned, and if they didn't, the world may end. The world is made from Torah, worship, and deeds of loving kindness which to Simcha never seemed particularly loving or kind. Simcha worshipped as any as any Hasid with a decent neshawmeh does, but where was the loving kindness which he read so much about yet saw so seldom? His mother slaved for her children, yet so many times he'd heard her scream at him and nearly as much the other kinder as though she'd rather have been doing anything but what she was doing. What had he ever seen from his parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and Rabbis and teachers to make him thing that loving kindness was anything more than an imposition? In two months around Bethany, Kristina, and Mary, he had seen and felt more loving kindness than in sixteen years of life among Freyliks. Here are people who are not commanded to be kind, but choose to be.

For the first time in his life, loving kindness seems possible, and it now feels as though the entirety of the Chabadnik community, the entirety of Charedim, the entirety of deh Toyreh, is a system whose sole purpose is to ban all love and kindness and replace it with distractions no more meaningful than a hamster on a wheel. Keep us docile, keep us unloved, keep us unredeemed. Make us believe we're seeing the world as it is when we're shown nothing but the dimmest shadows on the wall. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? And if the world ends, who cares? All that matters is love, and indeed, Simcha was very very high.

(7 seconds of Grateful Dead song followed by Swamley bit)

As we said, Bethany knew how to get them all back together. She knew instantly. From the moment Purim was done, her mind was fit with a plan that simply waited for the proper moment to begin its enactment. Purim is a Carnival of Chaos, but the Hebrew meaning of Seder is order. Purim is about the murder of those antisemites who would murder us, Pesach is about freedom, deliverance, an end to oppression and tyranny. Every Purim, we celebrate the cycle of violence's perpetuation, every Passover, we hold out hope that one day, a deliverer will break the wheel of violence forever. 

Was Bethany aware of all this? Perhaps very dimly, for her thoughts are not our thoughts and neither are her ways our ways. The Lord declares that as the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are His ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts. And yet, in the endless wisdom of His lofty distance, He determines that a few of us get a little higher in their ways and thoughts than others, and a little closer to His. And as Simcha blazed his way to the stars and thought to himself that all you need is love, Bethany thought to herself that now is time to enact the plan. 

"Is she insane?"

"Bob, you owe this to us all."

"You can't stand them either!"

"I never said that."

"You said that they couldn't stand you!"

"I never said I couldn't stand them."

"Look at how they're poisoning us!"

"What are they poisoning Bob?"

"In 25 years we never fought until they moved in."

"Are we fighting?"

"You didn't even want to do the Purim gathering."

"It was Mardi Gras too."


"It was for Bethany."

"Bethany didn't want to do it either!"

"She wanted to do something for the Freyliks."

"No she didn't!"

"What do you mean?"

"The Freyliks made her want to do something for them."

"What does that mean?"

"They convinced her to want to do something for them!"


"They put her up to this!"

"What are you talking about?"

"They're manipulating her."

"Bob that's absurd."

"They see the sweetest most good natured 15-year-old in the world and they take advantage of her!"

"If any there's any 15-year-old in the world who knows how not to be tak..."

"You don't know these people!"

"Bob, don't be ridiculous."

"They pull you in their net and once you're in you can never get out."

"So what?"

"So what?!?"

"What's so wrong with these people?"

"It's like they have some magic power over you girls that makes you not see what they're doing!"

"Bob, stop this right now."

"No! I won't stop this!"

What is this madness that gripped the goyisher half of this family? It's as though the presence of conspicuous Judaism made them so afraid of being thought antisemitic that it blinded them to the mendacity and injustice perpetrated right in front of them which the Williams family has spent the entirety of American history fighting against so assiduously, so vociferously, so effectively. From George Williams of Salem who spoke out against witch trials in the 1690s to the Reverend Samuel Williams who spoke out against colonist involvement in the French-Indian War; to the abolitionist Very Reverend Granville Williams who turned his pulpit over to Greeley, Emerson and Douglass in his church and whose congregation included Handsome John Brown, to Fleming Williams who went to prison as a conscientious objector in World War I, to the sisters Margaret and Clementine Williams who were beaten by the New York Police in a march for women's suffrage, to Josiah and Augustus Williams who went to the first convention of the Socialist Labor party in 1876. 

Justice, not the faith which perpetrates injustice, was what motivated Williamses from time immemorial. No waiting for salvation in the world to come in their creed but to fight and protect and serve and bear responsibility for those who suffer in this world. A Christianity of conscience, determined to make right for the sins of their fathers.

And yet when it comes to Jews, the baptismal ceremony always stops at the water's edge. They can't call a spade against us because god forbid they occasionally get accused of racism or prejudice. Is it so wrong to be prejudiced against evil? Is it evil to tell us minorities when we're wrong? What are we? Children? It's just more proof that they'd still rather not let us into the country club. It's so horrible to look at that angel every day for a third of a lifetime and know that she just wanted you because I secretly pissed her mother off, not that in twenty-five years Anne's ever said anything, but look at those pursed fucking chicken lips. There's no way she ever liked me. A quarter century and I'm still just a fancy pawn for the shikseh brat to make a passive aggressive fuck you to her mother. Thirteen generations of Harvard students, distantly related to ten Presidents, ancestors who had Emerson and Hawthorne over for tea, more sources of old money from colored labor than the world ever had room for, whoop di fucking do you three-hundred-fifty years of WASP khaleryes! What the fuck has any Williams ever really known about injustice? All this narrishkeit about social justice and equality, it's all a goddamn act for all these Stepford people whose most stressful decision every day is which color alligator shirt to fucking wear. None of them ever make a controversial statement without eighteen years of planning how to get it exactly right and only make jokes that are too lame to laugh at.

(another Swamley bit)

"Nu? You're completely meshuggeh."

"It's gonna be great."

"It's already a disaster."

"Nu? What are you talking about?"

"My Tateh and yours won't be in the same room. Nu? No Jews are in the audience."

"Isn't that exactly what you wanted?"

"Yeah, but..."

"You're going to be amazing!"

"Nu? Well if I'm not it's too late now."

"If I can give you one bit of advice?"

"Nu? What's that?"

"Stop saying nu so much."

"I was wondering how long it would take you to ask me to do that."

"I figured it wasn't a tic."

"How'd you know?"

"You never said it when we first met you."

"No, nu it's just something I do to mess arum with people I like." 

"Hah. Alright, it's time." 

Bethany sees that Simcha's voice is trembling with nervousness, but as they've spent more time with each other, he's become much more relaxed about certain things, most particularly about the prohibition of Negiah.

The principle of Shomer Negiah comes from Vayikrah, or Leviticus. In Vayikrah Perek Yud-Khet, Pasuk Vav, or Leviticus 18:6, it is written "Any man shall not approach his close relative to uncover nakedness; I am God." Thirteen verses, or p'sukim, later, it is written in the Torah that "You shall not approach a woman in her time of unclean separation, to uncover her nakedness." These prohibitions on incest and period sex have over time clearly evolved for many Orthodox Jews into the very idea that touching any woman who is not one's wife is forbidden, a prohibition which some Orthodox Jews carry to the point of not touching their own children, parents, or even wife in non-coital situations. And yet the examples that we needn't be nearly so stringent are everywhere in the Rabbinic critical tradition. It's true that the Tannaim, or 'repeaters', sages from an era of 200 years spanning from the life of Christ and the Second Temple's destruction through the genocide of 580,000 Jews by Rome brought on by the Bar Kokhba rebellion, to the compiling of the Mishna at roughly 220 AD, record a somewhat more expansive prohibition of coming near, or Karab, any of the arayot, any of the biblically prohibited relations, be they merely adulterous or truly incestual. But the Tanaim also mention the prohibition against coming near any woman who is Niddah, meaning when she's in her menstruation period. If 'Karab' or 'coming near' means literally approaching a woman at any point, rather than a more poetic and forbidding 'coming near', which may even have a fully ejaculatory meaning. But if 'coming near' merely means approaching, then why the further prohibition on coming near any woman who is menstruating? 

Further more, the Rambam, Moses Maimonedes, traditionally the greatest of the Rabbis of the Rishonim period and perhaps the greatest of all post-Talmudic Rabbinical authorities, is far more liberal. What is forbidden is affectionate or lustful touching, but the perhaps unpreventable and inevitable casual touching of each other is permitted. Yosef Caro, composer of the Shulchan Aruch and traditionally the greatest of the Acharonim, meaning 'the last ones', the current era of Rabbinical authorities beginning around 1600, agrees with Maimonedes's interpretation. The Ramban, or Nachmanides, traditionally Maimonedes's only really authoritative rival among the Rishonim, takes the liberality still further, and says that Negiah it is not a true interpretive prohibition but an Asmachta, something based on an obviously incorrect interpretation of a biblical verse the meaning of which is interpolated from what many see as an implied meaning. 

Rabbi Freylik never went so far as to stay away from his wife or children, but he would never ever allow himself to touch another woman, and how much even less so an attractive teenage shikseh. Simcha, on the other hand, fully aware he can cite Nachmanides if ever he's caught by a family member, longed for the day when when Bethany would touch him again. 

And when Simcha knocked on her door the night of Purim after the fight between their fathers and burst into tears the moment he answered it, she immediately kissed his tears, held him in her arms, stroked his hair. And as his yud grew into a zayin, it was a truly bittersweet half-entrance to delights of a next world to which he knew he did not and could not belong. Could Simcha have kissed her back? He had no idea and dreaded to find out. As far as he was concerned, his father's behavior proved that any moment when he was admitted to the company of nations was a fleeting one. He did not belong with them, he was not among them, and he never would be. 

But afterward, the hugs became frequent and ever longer, Simcha did his best to go limp so that he would experience nothing but the ruach of luminous joy which flowed through him. Closing his eyes with the Simcha, the Freylichkeit, which seemed to flow through his body for the first ever time in his life. Rabbi Freylich would describe the experience as Shivut Ratzon, Bob Katz would describe the experience as dopamine. 

Bethany saw Simcha's trembling, and as she let him into a nineteen second hug, she walked him over to her back door to the porch and yard where the Seder would happen. When they were at the open door, she turned him around, and gave him a gentle nudge forward through it. 

And one hundred UU and Quaker teenagers erupted into cheers.

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