Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Admission Essay: Personal Statement

I want to be a rabbi because to me the title of “rabbi” is equivalent to the Japanese “sensei”; both are “my master” and “honored teacher”. As a life-long martial artist, working on my second decade as a classical fencer, I have often been called upon to assist the instructor. I have consistently found that I get more out of the experience when I am helping others find their way, rather than just practicing on my own. One of the first lessons in fencing is that it is more important to train your mind and your eyes than your hand and body; the eyes to see from the right perspective, and the mind to understand and respond. This experience exemplifies what I hope to offer as a rabbi: to help people learn to see Reform Judaism from their own perspective, to understand and love religion and community, and to respond in a Jewish way to their daily lives.

Too many people view religion from only a single perspective. They seem afraid that learning to see more than one perspective will completely fracture their worldview. That mindset reminds me of one Calvin & Hobbes strip, in which Calvin starts seeing everything in a neo-cubist style. We learn that,
"It all started when Calvin engaged his dad in a minor debate! Soon Calvin could see both sides of the issue! Then poor Calvin began to see both sides of everything! The traditional single viewpoint has been abandoned! Perspective has been fractured! The multiple views provide too much information! It's impossible to move! Calvin quickly tries to eliminate all but one perspective!”
He successfully regains his single-perspective viewpoint, then informs his dad, "You're still wrong, Dad."

I never understood this mindset. It is much easier to navigate any terrain using multiple viewpoints to triangulate, and in every field I have studied I have likewise found that multiple intellectual viewpoints further learning and understanding. Today religion in our country is at the center of several major ideological debates, most predominately “Science vs. Religion” and “Secular vs. Traditional”. I never saw the inherent dichotomy in these debates, preferring to study on both sides to gain a better understanding. Granted, the large difference between these extremes creates intellectual pressure, but physics teaches us that pressure generates energy, which can be used to do useful work.

I saw such pressure lead to beneficial results when I lived in Oklahoma. I lived there from age three to thirteen, give or take a few months. My major Jewish memory from this time is a general theme of conflict and isolation; in a Junior High of 1,600, I was the only Jewish kid, just to give a sense of scope. There were two shuls in town, one Reform and one Conservative, and both fairly active, but all my friends there lived far enough away that I usually only saw them on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. I had the teachers that yelled at me - in front of the class - for not wanting to write a letter to Santa, and no one was surprised when major tests were scheduled for Yom Kippur.

There were good Jewish memories too. There was celebration, and learning, and family, and camp, and life that I look back on fondly; when viewed from that perspective it is unsurprising I want to be a Rabbi. But I knew my non-Jewish friends had those things too. What I had that they missed was conflict. Ironically, the community was homogeneous enough that racism and homophobia were entirely off my radar, so it was a long time before I learned I was not alone in my isolation.

I thought the lessons gained from this were strength and confidence in my beliefs, the ability to teach and explain my religion to my friends, the skill to debate religion on multiple fronts, and the desire to merge "being American" with "being Jewish". And I did get those things, but recently I realized something new.

This summer I read Jew vs. Jew, Samuel G. Freedman's exploration of the conflict between secular and religious Judaism in America, and, unsurprisingly, found myself firmly in the middle. As I dug deeper, I realized that I grew up without a real sense of Orthodox Judaism; it was as foreign to me as it was to my Christian friends. Like I said, there was the Reform temple and the Conservative synagogue and that was it, in my limited world view. I knew what Reform was; that's where we went, where I was consecrated, where the Rabbi gave my sister her Hebrew name. I knew what Conservative was; that's where the other Rabbi was, where they used a different book, and spent two days on Rosh Hashanah.

Reform was home.

Conservative was my friend's house.

I went to a Reform summer camp - Young Judea in Texas. A couple times per summer the kids from Camp Ramah came over; they were The Enemy, to be defeated whenever met on basketball court or kickball field. But after that they were Our Friends; we were all Jewish after all. They were just a little more...intense about it, and I couldn't follow their prayers. But my mom is a music teacher; I understood that some people use different melodies for the same songs, so that wasn't a problem.

A couple years before we moved away the congregations merged their Sunday Schools, so I got to learn more about what Conservative meant: the girls were bat mitzvahed at 12 instead of 13. Sometimes we went to services at one place, sometimes the other. I had friends at each, and friends at both. One Sunday I was recruited before class started to help round out a minyan; this was before my bar mitzvah, so I was handed a chumash with the explanation that it added two years to my age. It was an awesome experience; I was so proud to help out.

The point is, we were all Jewish. I knew there were differences, but I figured they just weren't important. Oh, sure, some were important, but even those didn’t really matter. You just remembered who would or wouldn't eat cheeseburgers, and everything was ok. This is where my sense of Jewish peoplehood developed, in a place where the difference between denominations mattered less than the friendly rivalry over which local football team you supported.

It's the irony of living in a low-diversity area. There just were not enough of us to get really fractious. Then I moved to Chicago, and first encountered the idea that there were so many Jews we could sit around arguing about who is or is not Jewish. That idea is a myth, though. Jews make up about 0.2% of the world population, a number smaller than the margin of error on the last global census. Put differently, that means it is possible the existence of Jews is just a statistical error.

I was struck by this realization because I always thought growing up Jewish in Oklahoma was an unpleasant "character building" experience that, all things equal, I would just as soon do without. Now I see there was a true benefit to learning Judaism in that environment. The small space we lived in stripped away even the possibility of the idea of Jewish factionalism; we were pressed together to form a single community. It was the kind of pressure that breeds diamonds.

This idea really hit home while I was watching the movie The Prince of Egypt. It was released when I was a sophomore in college, and I went to see it with a Catholic friend when we were home on break. We wound up the only people in the theater (gotta love early afternoon mid-week showings!) and had fun mocking the previews, yelling at the screen, and providing…”helpful insights” to the characters throughout the movie. Let’s just say it wasn’t a kid’s movie anymore when we were done with it.

Then halfway through the movie something happened. I don’t know what, or which scene, or why that moment, but like a comet it hit me; if I was there, they would have done that to me. They wanted to do that to me. The only reason they didn’t do it to me was I wasn’t there. They did this to me.

Suddenly I was crying. Quietly – I’m not sure my friend even noticed, or if he did he made no mention. Everything quickly followed from there. The Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the Pogroms; every time and place Jews were attacked, enslaved, and destroyed, those responsible also wanted to do it to me and only the fact I was born hundreds of years and thousands of miles away saved me.

Do you realize how embarrassing this was? I’d heard the Passover story countless times. I’d seen more Holocaust movies than I care to think about. Schindler’s List? Completely unimpressed and unmoved. Sure, what happened was terrible but no worse than the mini-series I watched with my family when I was eight. I picked up Maus once in our Temple’s library one week during Sunday School, expecting to read a funny comic book. The story inside was excellently written and drawn, but there was no emotional space left inside me for outrage about Jews being killed; it had already all been used. And now this, this…children’s movie reduced me to tears.

I came to realize that maybe this is why we tell the story every year. Maybe this is why we tell the story in so many different ways; eventually one will connect. The first time I heard the story of the Exodus it was like some scary campfire story, complete with evil kings, magical events, and food to eat while we listened. We gasped when Pharaoh was cruel, laughed when Moses was tricky, and cheered when the Jews reached freedom. Then it was hunt for the affikomen, eat dessert, check Elijah’s cup, and go to bed.

This movie-moment has stayed with me through the years. Now whenever I see Jews being attacked for being Jews, in fiction or in life, I hear that voice again reminding me they did this to me. Even now, in writing this, I am choked up with tears remembering that I was a slave and oppressed until HaShem freed me. And on the other side of the coin, every great Torah scholar, every prophet, every Israeli hero, well, they did that for me too. This too is part of peoplehood.

Thank God we have children’s movies.

There were other moments on my spiritual path – climbing the steps to Masada, my grandfather’s funeral, tutoring my first bar mitzvah student among them – but that moment in the theater was the first identifiable one. Then one day in Kalamazoo, Michigan my then-rabbi, Rabbi Stephen Forstein, asked a simple question: “What is your relationship with God?” I babbled on for several moments before my brain finally caught up and I fell silent. I realized no one had ever asked me that question before, and finding the answer would require me to explore entirely new worlds of thought. It was that moment, as much as I can point to any single moment, that decided me. As with fencing, if I truly wanted to understand, I would have to be the guide for others. I wanted to be a rabbi.

This experience reawakened and enflamed my passion for the Jewish people. Having identified so strongly with K’lal Yisrael, I cannot ignore it. I am driven to immerse myself within it, to help it – to help us – grow and thrive. And so here I find myself, trying not to “deviate to the right or to the left” [Deut. 28:14]. We cannot reject tradition, but we also cannot be ruled by what it says. We cannot ignore science, but we also cannot be limited by what it has proven. We cannot reject modernity, but we also cannot lose our identity within it. There is a path here, down the middle, that we can safely walk. We will need good guides to help blaze the trail, and I put myself forth to be one of them.

1 comment:

  1. have you found an answer, yet? About what your relationship with God is, or should be, or will be? Who was it who said, im aynenni li, me li? (If I am not for myself, who is?)

    Interesting blog. A bit too text-heavy for my taste, but then, you're not writing it for my taste are you.

    I hope you will come and visit me at Cosmic rapture.

    masterymistery at cosmic rapture