By Aaron Giannini
“Cover your eyes this time, then say it.” At this point, not only had I messed up the ritual of wrapping myself in tefillin, I apparently hadn’t even recited the shema correctly. I closed my eyes, put my hand in front of my face, and waited for further instruction. “The word is shema: listen. It’s not just about speaking the words; it’s about hearing them. Your sight gives you a limited window into what’s really happening in the world around you. Close your eyes and hear, allow yourself to be present, then say the words when you’re ready.” When I ultimately recited the prayer, I wasn’t sure to whom I was speaking. To myself? To God? Was I just humoring a friend, or was I wrapping myself in leather and saying the ancient words in an attempt to share even a fraction of a religious experience with him?
As an atheist and a skeptic, my reaction to Matthew’s newfound religious views was one of confusion and doubt. The biblical conception of a “God of the Desert” is not an intuitive idea; it must be taught, internalized, and reinforced over time in order to become personally meaningful. At the time, I simply could not understand what could motivate an educated, critical person to accept the traditional Orthodox views of God and the Bible without having grown up in an Orthodox community. It seemed that Matthew had gone on a self-reflective journey, searching for morality and truth in the world, and the Tanakh gave him answers. As someone who feels that Judaism has evolved to become more grounded in culture and genealogical history than in the factual truth of the Bible, I felt the need to pick his brain.
Matthew was raised in a progressive Jewish household, attending Sunday school throughout adolescence and, like many Reform Jews, receiving a parentally motivated Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13. He joined a Jewish youth group in high school not for religious reasons, but for social ones. It was a fraternity of sorts, complete with morally questionable initiations, a code of ethics to swear by, and fierce comradery between its members. While Matthew believed that spirituality existed in the world, he felt no religious connection to Judaism other than the sense of community it instilled in him. He believed the only thing that tied him to his Jewish brethren was the fact that his parents raised him to know the prayers, the songs, and the rituals. Towards the end of high school, however, his perception of Judaism took a dramatic turn. A falling out between himself and his Jewish peers came to redefine the course of his spiritual journey. After a prank gone wrong, in a single night his relationship with his youth group became sour, turning him off from “social Judaism.” Unbeknownst to him, this fallout would mark the beginning of his search for a true spiritual community.
While his experience with his own small Jewish community ended with a feeling of betrayal, he retained his belief in the spirituality inherent in the world. Matthew had always felt that something was “out there,” something omnipotent and beyond his comprehension. If only he could find a way to connect to it, he believed his life could take on new meaning. In college, he explored the Tao Te Ching, and also researched how Islam and Christianity differ from Judaism. He was not convinced by the Christian idea of transubstantiation, and also found little value in the rigidity of Islam and the abstractness of Taoism. His frustration with the irrationality and perversion of other religions inspired him to take a deeper look into Judaism. He dove into Jewish canonical texts, studying the traditions of his forefathers and the reasoning behind them. His intensified engagement with religion motivated him to go to Israel one summer, an experience that changed his outlook on life and Judaism.
In Israel, Matthew enrolled in a study group that focused on how the Tanakh and its corresponding interpretive literature constitute the forefront of Jewish consciousness. He learned biblical stories and traditional explanations for how they retain their relevance in Jewish daily life. He studied Jewish history, seeing firsthand the place where our ancestors built the temples and passed on the story of our lineage. Having been burned by one Jewish organization in the past, Matthew felt the need to be critical during his stay in the Promised Land. He didn’t break down in divine bliss in front of the Western Wall, but instead studied its significance in the Jewish world and appreciated it all the same. Unlike many visiting Jews, he didn’t hastily begin wearing tzitzit or a yarmulke upon his arrival into a yeshiva environment. He researched what they mean and why they are important aspects of Jewish identity, and only then did he feel comfortable using them as an expression of his connection to the divine. Slowly, Matthew’s experiences in the land of Israel and his newfound religious knowledge gave him a context in which he could understand the traditional Jewish conception of God. The customs that define Orthodox Judaism started to make sense to him. He found himself personally affected by the spirituality and history woven into the words of the Tanakh.
What I found most fascinating about Matthew’s recent Orthodoxy was the fact that it was not inspired by a single spark of revelation. It was already clear to him that spirituality existed in the world, but his decision to study Torah and live by its teachings arose from research and careful analysis. The more he read, the more he learned, and the more he grew attached to the halakhic lifestyle. He began to attribute the existence of life on Earth to God, drawing on the fact that such a phenomenon is a staggering statistical anomaly. According to Matthew, so too is the survival of the Jewish people, now a flourishing nation despite an exile that lasted for thousands of years—further proof of the divinity of our lineage.
For Matthew, believing in God comes naturally. The world is a spiritual place, and one doesn’t need to be religiously devout to deduce that there are greater forces at play in life than can be understood by our narrow perception of reality. The historical significance of his own religious bloodline, the ancient traditions, and the inspiring words of the Hebrew Bible provide Matthew with a language to speak about the spiritual aspects of life.
Orthodoxy also gives him a community in which he can thrive and discuss God and Jewish identity in terms familiar to all within it.
While belief in the divinity of the world may be intuitive for Matthew, the practice of maintaining his Orthodox lifestyle is a daily struggle. The act of recognizing the holy nature of all aspects of life is essential to what makes him Jewish. He describes the process of blessing wine on shabbos as a symbol of what separates people from animals:
We recognize that the ‘fruit of the vine’ (boray p’rei hagafen) that created the wine, in the end, came from God… We pause, recognize what an honor it is to eat and drink the creations that God made in this world, and we thank God for giving us the knowledge to do this, and even more so, to be here today to participate in this ancient tradition that goes back scores of generations to the time of Moses. This is just a small example of the many traditions and commandments we perform as Jews on a daily basis. Every time we bless God before a meal, wear a talit, wrap tefillin, or read the Torah, we are suppressing our animalistic, barbaric nature, and making sure the intentions of our actions come from a pure source.
For Matthew, this commitment to seeking out spirituality in all aspects of life represents a metaphysical elevation into the realm of God. It can be exhausting, especially for a newcomer, but ultimately he finds that it gives his life depth and meaning in ways that transcend the natural world.
Matthew is a critical and passionate person. While I may not agree with the religious conclusions he drew from his spiritual journey, I have come to respect them as part of our greater culture as Jews. He shares a similar outlook on my atheism: “The name ‘Israel’ means ‘to struggle with God,’ which I do as a baal teshuva and which Aaron does as a skeptic…. After all, if God wanted everyone to believe in him, what would be the purpose of God?” His beliefs, like my own, represent the culmination of our millennia-old history. I am happy to say, there is room for both of us under the umbrella of Jewish identity.
Published on page 31 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.