Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Faking it

"Are you a Hasidic Jew, or an Orthodox Jew?" That's the question someone dropped on me out of the blue -- someone who was obviously neither. That's a false dilemma if I ever saw one, but something I wasn't particularly in the mood to explain just then. "Both" I said. And that was the start of a two hour in-depth conversation. With a Catholic, born to a Jewish mother, and harboring the grandiose dream of living a Hassidic life. Oops.

And so it was that I -- doubter, apikores, rebel that I am -- found myself making Hasidic life sound all palatable and reasonable and sensible to an outsider on the verge of opting in, all while suppressing the urge to say, Are you out of your fucking mind??? For how could I do any different? He was obviously delighted to have found a real insider, someone who could help him make sense of it all: the rituals, lifestyle, isolationism, conservatism, language, funny dress. Somewhat of a self-educated religious scholar himself, he already knew all about the laws and minutia that govern daily existence.

--"You recite a brachah before eating?"
--"Pretty much."
--"Isn't it tough to remember sometimes?"
--"Nah. It becomes second nature."
--"I don't think I could give up my dream of having a professional career in my field of study."
--"You don't have to."
--"Not many Hasidim have a professional career, do they?"
--"That's because most don't bother getting a degree. But you already have one."

And so on. Hamming it up. Being the deity's advocate, you could say. It's an odd thing. I am no longer that paranoid about an insider catching me breaking the rules: eating in a non-kosher restaurant, sending email on Shabbos, skipping tefilin. What will they do? Not count me as the tenth in a minyan? I don't daven with a minyan anyway (or daven at all). If their delicate sensibilities are liable to get wounded by such outrageous acts, I'd suggest they don't snoop. And if they feel the need to tell me about their hurt sensibilities, I'd advise they go defenestrate themselves -- carefully, because they're apt to get hurt.

But in the presence of outsiders and most especially, knowledgeable outsiders, I sometimes feel duty-bound to play the part. Live up to my fashion sense and sartorial choices. So there is a secular Jewish woman watching me buy a non-kosher bowl of chicken soup. Will she suppose it's kosher? Will she conclude Hasidim don't eat kosher? Will she think me a hypocrite? And here is a Jewish-Catholic man thrilled to get some spiritual encouragement and opinions from someone who walks the walk. Should I burst his balloon? No, I don't think I can do that.

So I fake it; I make the right noises and motions and say the right words at the right moment. Yes, it can leave me unsatisfied, but why rain on someone's parade? I'm sure lots of people can relate.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

See No Evil

Oy, temptations. You've got to give it to him: he looks the other way! What a Kiddush Hashem. (Does anyone know if this picture was staged?)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Darwin's Bulldog

I recently bumped into an interesting review of Darwin's The Origin of Species. (Read it in its entirety here.) Written by one Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") and published in the April 1860 issue of Westminster Review, I find it a fascinating read for several different reasons. There's the struggle to understand inheritance ("the offspring tends to resemble its parent or parents") without any knowledge of genetics; the hubris of confidently proclaiming that "science will some day show us how this law is a necessary consequence of the more general laws which govern matter" and the attempts to make sense of that; the elegant and concise arguments; and the biting wit.

Most of all, it's writing like this that make it a worthy read:
Everybody has read Mr. Darwin's book, or, at least, has given an opinion upon its merits or demerits; pietists, whether lay or ecclesiastic, decry it with the mild railing which sounds so charitable; bigots denounce it with ignorant invective; old ladies of both sexes consider it a decidedly dangerous book, and even savants, who have no better mud to throw, quote antiquated writers to show that its author is no better than an ape himself; while every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism; and all competent naturalists and physiologists, whatever their opinions as to the ultimate fate of the doctrines put forth, acknowledge that the work in which they are embodied is a solid contribution to knowledge and inaugurates a new epoch in natural history.
You have to admire someone who can write like that. And this little snippet remains (mostly) true now, almost 150 years after it was written!