“I can’t believe that!” said Alice in Alice through the Looking Glass.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
My ordination speech started with these words. You see, many impossible things needed to happen in order for me to get there.
Perhaps my own belief in impossible things made it so. This sense of magic, of the impossible made possible, is deeply connected to my faith. It’s at the core of me.
Though I have tried to shake it for many years to no avail, it remains a true feeling. One that has been constant in my life. I now know that all the practices I learned as a child still maintain my faith. But as a teacher, I often try and teach my students or my clients that faith is an action, not just a feeling.
God has always been present in my life because I constantly invite him. I seek him actively.
Chief of these practices is the study of Talmud the study of Torah. I’ve been learning it, wrestling with it, conquering it and of course defeated and frustrated by it since I was five years-old. Growing up in a Jewish Orthodox home, it was expected of me. My special relationship to it will reveal itself later, as would my destiny to use my knowledge to become a rabbi. Something that I tried to escape and sabotage for many years.
Talmud is still the source of all that I know and the constant companion of my thoughts.
It is there that I find how to think, how to observe my feelings, how to talk, how to act and approach life, and how to find meaning in life.
The first substantial questions I ever asked were the same as all the other kids around me in the Beit midrah (study hall) memorizing Talmud’s first question.
“From when do we recite the (prayer of) shma in the evening?” (Brachot)
There are plenty of questions about this curious opening line of the Talmud, and many answers as well. The one I liked the most was … because at night when we are tired we are submitting and about to let our guard down. That is when we seek God, we look for him when we are most vulnerable, asleep, defenseless.
Our surrender is the key and an inevitability.
This stuck with me—the power of the question and the strength of an inquisitive thought and the myriad possible meaningful answers it could yield.
So imagine a young boy, white shirt, black pants, large kippa and tzitzit hanging out. (Only at the yeshiva or school though. My Opa didn’t allow us to wear them out in public. Its religious vanity, he would tell us sternly, a mitzvah should never be a brag! Do what you need to do, it’s between you and God.)
Studying and realizing that I’m really good at asking questions. AND finding ways to make it difficult for my teachers and chavrutah (study partner).
This skill would come in handy later on when I realized that I was different. I could hide behind cleverness. My emotions, you see, I had to hide. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. I felt alone and different and maybe even unique. But also singled out.
But people see what they want to see. So I used my brain, my intellect, my wisdom, and my memory to be better than the rest at Torah … and I survived thanks to my companion the Talmud.
I studied hard and deep and soon started to find some of the pieces that I was looking for, but they were fragments …
The Beauty of Rabbi Yochanan, the transparent woman, Rish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan in the river, Zechariah seething blood in the temple, dressing in black when one does bad things, God’s prayers, the ugly man, and Brurya, of course, who I fell in love with.
The stories, the Haggadah, its people became my friends. I knew their lives and they knew mine.
But, when I touched a boy for the first time, it felt like the world was going to crumble and the torment I was feeling inside needed to be an acceptance of affliction.
Or when I was rebuked by my parents and vilified by my community for thoughts and questions I had, I figured it was a way to teach me “to know my place” or they were “torture for your own good” (Yisurin shel ahava). All justifications built into religion attempting to make sense of pain or suffering.
I tried to be glad with my portion and my lot in the world and dove deeper and deeper into my own pain. That created opposing forces in me. One of me was angry and resentful becasue I had to deal with feeling different, alone, and broken somehow. So I would do all the things a good Jewish boy should not do and the other part of me tried to overcome it all, pretend and put on a mask. That version of me would try and live up to the ideal man.
The tension built up and I was sick and hollow and miserable. It was hell. But I persisted for many years to live in that pain and I made many questionable choices and caused a great deal of damage during those years.
It took many years of internal work to understand it all and untangle it all, but in the end, it was Talmud that forced me to reckon with my opposing forces. It constantly challenged me to look at all my facets, all of me. One day I finally saw it and it comforted me by showing me that opposing forces are required for an equilibrium.
No epiphany moment, no revelation. As always, steady work. A daily action that tipped the scale and made me realize and see myself more clearly.
The mundane becomes transcendent. And I read in tractate Sotah that day and learned.
“A soul must know its worth and a heart must be soft as flesh and not hard as stone. A man is made of ashes, blood, and gall” and our life are filled with shame and guilt but also prayer, exultation, and healing.
I took a long breath and realized that one must live in a juxtaposition. The split can be my greatest strength!
That’s the moment when I stood up, and like the first time I came out to my family and friends, I said to myself “Now, again, its time to grow up! it’s time to face your fears.”
The fear that I will never measure up to the attributes I believe a rabbi should have. I needed to step up and be counted, not just to myself but by the community around me.
Years of always living on the edge, always feeling neither here nor there and yet always here AND there, has become my gift.
Inspired by my favorite line in the poem of Leah Goldberg Ilanot:
Perhaps only migrating birds when they are suspended between the sky and earth / Know the pain of having two homelands.
I lean into that pain and have it inform my approach to my pain and other peoples pain. Recognizing we are all perhaps suspended between two places.
I no longer fear the sharp edge of the split. It has become a source of strength—recognizing where I am emotionally, intellectually and physically. I learned that striving to only be one thing or to switch the masks I put on only feeds the worst parts of me, because it feeds each part separately and makes me think I cant bring my whole self to every situation.
I learned I can love myself even as I feel pain and otherness. I can love Talmud and theology, but also glitter, Gucci, and feather boas.
I can talk about how one engages with morality and a meaningful life and love the Real Housewives franchise. Gold-studded shoes can go hand in hand with learning and teaching Torah.
The world can be a harsh place today. The Jewish community deserves rabbis, leaders and community members that strive to move it forward in the direction of compassion, kindness, connection, recovery, and content.
To borrow from a fellow Belgian:
I’d like the adventures of my life to ask, ‘What are the needs? What are the challenges? And how can we surprise people?’
As a rabbi, one must strive to lead and take responsibility, which requires a strong sense of self but also an equal measure of humility and the constant need to learn and grow. My identity does not lie in the definitions that make who I am. Man-Father-Partner-Gay-Jewish-America-Belgian-Rabbi-Artist, but rather in the space between them. Around the hyphenation, in the space between the definitions, in the dynamism between them.
So there I was, at my ordination—wearing bright pink shoes, surrounded by my loved ones and my community, bringing together some pieces of me. My tacit (prayer shaul) has many charms ( some more appropriate than others ) that I put on it. And as I was teaching Torah, all the parts were present.
Originally published on Medium. Republished with permission.
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