Simchat Torah: Celebrate the Endings and Rejoice the Beginnings

The Grooms Party

We just celebrated Simchat Torah as a community. The purpose of the holiday is to celebrate the conclusion of one cycle in the Torah and the beginning of another. In the spirit of the holiday, I found myself closing a lot of chapters in life and looking forward to new ones.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the East Coast and spend some time with family and friends.

I certainly felt that with that trip, there were some chapters closing. I played in a “Send-Off” roller derby game. The send-off was because it was the end of my bachelor party and my very likely retirement from the sport that brought Lisa and me together. There have been a lot of mixed emotions over the sport and how the last year with my involvement in the sport ended. It was more than one could hope for, to play with some friends, have a good time, and being able to end something that has meant a lot to me for the past five years.

I also look forward to starting life anew. Many people have commented, “There is no difference between the day before and the day after the wedding.” For the moment, I am going to disagree. Although there are some things on paper that change, and yes some of our daily life will remain the same, I think that spiritually this is a new beginning. Without that thought rooted deep in me, this wedding would not mean nearly as much to me. At the end of the day, in front of everyone and G-D, we are beginning our new life together.

One Ending. One Beginning.

I have been talking about being spiritually prepared for the wedding in many of these posts. It is only now with a little bit of time and deeper reflection, I am not where I wanted to be, but I am where I needed to be.

November 21st (just two weeks after my wedding) will mark my fifth year of abstaining from drugs and alcohol. The significance of this is that it will mark precisely two separate lives. My drinking career which lasted roughly about five years (I was a little late to the game) and the one I now live completely sober. And yet, I find myself feeling like I’m back to the beginning.

That trip back East certainly opened me up spiritually. Not because I spent a lot of time with former mentors, although that did help. I just became able to let go of more things that I was holding on to and that were keeping me” blocked off.” I also became very aware that G-D is always working in my life, and that losing my job was a blessing. It also has brought out some deeper feelings as I am scheduling the mikveh. This is all new. A new low led me to a new beginning and a new perspective.

An ending. A beginning. Another beginning.

Life is like the Torah. It never really ends. You celebrate the endings and you rejoice in the new beginnings.

The New Mikvah for The New Inter-Faith Wedding; Spiritual Readiness in the Modern World

In many religious communities, it is customary for men and women to spiritually ready themselves before they walk down the aisle. A traditional observance of Orthodox Jews is to take a bath, or immerse themselves into a sacred pool known as a mikveh. For those more familiar with Christian metaphors, it would be like getting a baptism in a pool filled with Holy Water. One of the times the ritual is preformed is before a couple becomes married. At the end of the day, it is all about becoming spiritually clean and purifying our bodies before we walk down the aisle.

I find myself spiritually readying myself without the assistance of the mikveh. I am exploring the idea of the mikveh ritual, but in the meantime, I have begun the process of spiritual readiness that may be good for people of all faiths!

We need to purify the body, and make sure we fit in those wedding clothes! That means we need to work out. I put roller derby on the shelf. It was not only hurting my body, but was beyond mentally taxing. So I hung up my skates and took down the yoga mat. I began to practice Bikram Yoga. Bikram is strict 26 posture yoga practice done for 90 minutes in 105 degree heat. I admit, I am not flexible at all, but I am finding myself being able to let go of the daily stresses and finding mental clarity. For me, it really has become a mind, body and soul cleansing process which is exactly what I had set out to do for the wedding. After one of those classes, it certainly feels like I have been immersed in water.

I also began to take ballet classes. I do not have a joke for that, but being a man of my size and limited flexibility, it is quite a laugh. And we all know, laughter is the best medicine. Well, next to matzo ball soup. Although, when getting in shape for a wedding, ballet class has fewer calories.

The next part of my spiritual readiness is coming from my mentor and my groomsman, Scott. Scott became my mentor when I was about 10 months into a mentoring program and really began to look at life from an honest perspective. Over the past 4 years or so, he has been not only a mentor but a friend and really helped develop me into the man I am today and when I met Lisa. Scott and I recently began to restart our work together. The purpose is that by the end of it all, you have re-established or deepened your relationship with G-D. This past weekend, I spent close to four hours reviewing over the phone with Scott. Although we have done this process before, I truthfully say that this an extremely powerful experience and am already experiencing changes in my life. Today, I feel spiritually lightened and on a path to repair, mend, and strengthen all my relationships in life.

There is a lot of work left to do. There is the long list of actual wedding to-do’s, but after completing this post, there is clearly spiritual work that needs to be completed as well. I am looking forward to sharing more with everyone and taking those traditions and putting our new spin on them. Time to hit the bar… the ballet bar.

God Was Not in the Fire: Getting Over the Intermarriage “Debate”

I confess that I was disappointed by the mikveh.

I did not expect to emerge from the waters with fully grown peyot and spouting Yiddish. Nor was I unhappy with the aura of the mikveh, quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of the womb of which it is symbolic. Rather, I was unprepared for the mundanity of the instance of conversion, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which I had not prepared myself. Introspective but self-absorbed and weaned on television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, I expected the significance of the moment to present itself to me. Having spent over a year studying to become a Jew, it didn’t even occur to me that I should prepare myself for the moment of conversion. I can now say that, in that moment, I lacked sufficient kavannah, which may be translated as “intentionality” or even “mindfulness.”

Contrast my experience at the mikveh with Elijah’s encounter with God. Elijah stood atop the mountain as “the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire.” And what then? “A soft murmuring sound,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God was not in the fire, but in a whisper, and in order to hear a whisper, one must listen.

There is no magic in our rituals. Reciting the motzi over a loaf of challah does not make that bread more sacred than any other. But saying a blessing over food we are about to eat does change our relationship with it. The profundity of a ritual, then, is to be found not in the change it makes in the world, but in ourselves. We cannot, like God, call down wind and fire but, through ritual, through saying a blessing or lighting the candles, we can create the space necessary to listen to that still, small voice and, having heard it, can ourselves go forth to effect change in the world.

Shannon and me at a recent Finnegan family BBQ.

Just as I did not prepare myself for the mikveh, I did not consider the implications of converting to Judaism before I married Shannon. It didn’t occur to me that our different “statuses” might be an issue, or that some people might deny altogether the legitimacy of our (Jewish) union. Indeed, it was only earlier this year, after I had begun to “settle into” my Jewish identity, that I discovered how hotly contested intermarriage is. A conversation begun in Reform Judaism Magazine over whether or not rabbinical students at HUC-JIR should be admitted if they are married to non-Jews continues to provoke responses on both sides of the debate. (IFF founder Ed Case relates some responses here.) I read the editorials that were published, and I read the comments on the editorials, and I began to worry. Was I doing something wrong by planning a Jewish wedding when my partner isn’t Jewish?

A friend told me that no matter how “humane” or “compassionate” the arguments one makes, a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot be Jewish. And I confess to writing an e-mail to a Reform rabbi who published an editorial condemning intermarriage. I explained to him my relationship with Shannon, much in the way I described it in my first post here. And he responded that, while I am “on the playing field,” Shannon will find herself “increasingly on the sidelines.” I don’t view performing mitzvot as a sport, and I’m not trying to achieve a high score. Nor is Shannon a benchwarmer.

Over the weeks, the editorials and comments about intermarriage continued to pile up. Friends told me not to read them, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like being buffeted by a mighty wind, shaken by an earthquake, or burned with fire.

I had read about the issue. I had talked about it with friends. I had thought about it. And so I did what any good liberal Jew would do: I made up my mind that I would do what I think is right, and to hell with what everyone else thought. As a rabbi and friend of mine has put it, “Haters gonna hate.” I can’t control what some members of our community think.

I intend to approach our wedding with greater kavannah than I did my visit to the mikveh. The debate about intermarriage rages on, but I’ve stopped paying attention to it: God is not in the fire. Now I’m free to listen to the still, small voice.