Order & Destruction: An Autobiography

I was walking with a friend the other day when he saw my Ahavas Yisrael pin. I had just told him I was a Jewish Studies major. “Wow, you must be really into it,” he said. “Not really,” I said, “not really at all anymore.”
I explained it to him and he was the only one so far not to say , optimistically, naively, “You can still be Jewish!” He said something very interesting. He said: “Maybe you were looking for a sense of order.”
It makes sense. It makes so much sense. It started in community college in 2010, when I wanted to be a philosophy major. I was really against Continental philosophy. I wanted to be against something. I liked the raw logicality of analytical philosophy, and I hated anything that threatened it. Interestingly, that was also around the time when I started thinking I wanted a different way of life…I had just come back from art school, after a failed relationship (if you want to call it that), a failed music career (if you want to call it that), and a failed freshman year (literally…I dropped out). Music–what I had always assumed I would do since age ten–had failed me. Being gay had certainly failed me. I had originally enrolled in community college wanting to be a business major (!), but ultimately chose philosophy. By the end of my two years there, I was hooked on Judaism. It was only natural that I would end up choosing Orthodoxy.
This need for order–along with my new goal of becoming a philosophy professor–led me to get something like a 3.9 so I could be accepted to William & Mary (an unashamedly traditional school). I was still planning to convert to Orthodoxy. I changed my major from philosophy to religion to Jewish studies. And by the end of my first year at William & Mary, I was basically on an inevitable path. Why stop at Modern Orthodoxy? I took an Aish course online, and considered joining their women-only BT seminary. Never mind that I wasn’t *technically* Jewish. It was painful to think about. It disrupted my order.
That was just the beginning of my growing sense of disorder and liminality. But I was still ignoring it at that time. I withdrew from my classes at W&M and transferred to Brooklyn College. I bought my food from Pomegranate and my undershirt shells from the Shell Station, and not without tons of stares. I didn’t care. Soon I would fit into the framework, if I would only try. I was talking via email to a BT rabbi who lived in Brooklyn, and he was giving me so much encouragement. “I know how you feel, since I felt that way too,” he’d say. I found a minyan and a rabbi who would convert me, and I filed a conversion application with the RCA. Everything was going really perfectly, and of course I considered it a sort of divine will, although I never would have admitted it except to other very frum, religious people.
But then things started changing. I started noticing the stares more. I started getting annoyed by them. I started getting annoyed at other converts, people who seemed too religious, too by-the-book, annoyed at the texts, annoyed at the holidays, annoyed at the singing, annoyed at Orthodox Brooklyn.
And then my annoyance disappeared and was replaced by disappointment. The “Orthodox culture” everyone had told me about was appearing all around me. I noticed that people were just as religious about having seltzer water on the table as they were having challah on it. I noticed people didn’t finish birkat hamazon sometimes. I noticed that gemara had gaping holes in it, and I noticed that people didn’t seem to mind. I noticed that people were forming their own pathways to get around the inconsistencies. And I noticed that those pathways were called “customs.” Judaism wasn’t being held up by a timeless and flawless system; it was being held up by people.
And, just like that, my sense of order was shattered.
That is what I try to tell people when they insist that I shouldn’t have left Judaism after coming out. I was accepted by the community that I had formed around me. Sure, that encouraging rabbi had stopped emailing me. But my real friends were still there. It wasn’t that. Homosexuality proves to me that Judaism is a flawed system; a human one. Its only answers were to either ignore the problem or to require celibacy. I felt deceived. When you think you were brought into a situation by some kind of divine imperative, told the system has no flaws, and you find one, and the very people who told you there were no flaws have no answer for the flaw, of course you are going to feel deceived.
I used to think that order was a sign that God existed. But there is so much disorder within order that I am not sure anymore. If God exists, it is certainly not in the ordered way that books describe. I used to be completely fascinated by the idea of God, and now, frankly, thinking about it makes me nervous. Facing that new void scares me. The sense of order that I got from being religious gave way to complete bewilderment. I felt as if I had lost everything, and all I could do was pick up the pieces. I had built up trust in this thing for two years, and it was gone within a month.
I’m not sad, though. I was sad at first, and really just mortified and embarrassed for quite a while. I still have to tell people I am a Jewish Studies major. “It’s a long story,” I say, although I am getting a little tired of the story. I am feeling more and more distant from my summer in New York, although it seemed so real and immediate and important at the time.
It makes sense that I am newly interested in computer science, since about six months ago. It’s tiring that my interests change almost every year, but there is a common theme at least. Logic, order, reasoning.
It seemed religion couldn’t stand up to that after all.

3 thoughts on “Order & Destruction: An Autobiography

  1. Wonderfully written and though provoking. I can’t help wondering that much of the problem is many people’s deeply desiring a flawless system for leading one’s life and some groups falsely claiming they have such a flawless system. Of course, Jewish practice is based on human behavior. One of the things that has always struck me is the flaws of every major Jewish biblical ancestor. There are flawed stories of from every matriarch, patriach to the nation of Israel going from crossing the sea into liberation to complaining that they weren’t getting more divine help. That our foundational stories are full of flawed people is a feature of Judaism. There is also a long tradition of trying to explain these flaws away through midrash or stretches of logic. This tradition is sometimes used to idealize a flawless true path of practice.
    Jewish discussions of homosexuality include many people who aren’t promoting celibacy or ignorance. Many of these are engaged with our Jewish texts and traditions to understand how homosexuality fits into Jewish practice. This engagement of text and our modern understanding of the world is much less common in the Orthodox world. This says more about the modern state of Orthodoxy than about Judaism.
    I also want to preempt your studies of computer science. I think that’s a great professional direction, but computers exist in a world full of flawed users. A function or program can be perfect, consistent, and logical, but, when it is used in practice, strange things can happen. An idealized computer science can have the goal of repairing what is broken and creating more order and beauty in a flawed world. Just like the tikkun olam concept of Judaism, the goal isn’t necessarily to end with perfection, but to be part of the process of making things better.

  2. Dear LMCooper,
    I am sad to read that your Jewish journey hasn’t been what you’d hoped it would be. Religion is a journey. Like mankind, it doesn’t always make sense. Just as we realize that G-d is a mystery, and therefore there are huge gaps in our understanding of the Creator, we eventually come to realize that religion is here for us as a “connector,” connecting us to the Earth, to one another, to all life, and eventually G-d. From there, we learn that no matter what our religion, we must, each and every one of us, strive to emulate Hillel’s Rule of doing unto others only what we’d want done to ourselves. If we are able to do that, we can all find happiness in ourselves, because then we’re striving for holiness in everything we say and do, regardless of our religion’s strengths and weaknesses.
    My prayer for you is that you find what you seek in life, religion, and love 🙂

  3. I sincerely invite you to come back to [Orthodox] Judaism. While it is true that there is no solution now, within a few years there will be one. You can’t improve a community from outside.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.