Grind Well, Well Grind: Why I’m Returning to the Religion of My Ancestors

Painting by J. Bruck, seen in an art gallery in Tzfat

.וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה, לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב; וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים
בראשית כד:סג —

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes and saw, and — behold — there were camels coming.
— Genesis 24:63

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.תַּנְיָא, רַבִּי נָתָן אומֵר: כְּשֶׁהוּא שׁוחֵק אומֵר, הָדֵק הֵיטֵב הֵיטֵב הָדֵק, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהַקּול יָפֶה לַבְּשמִים
כריתות ו:ב ד״ה ת״ר היו מחזירין —

It was taught, Rabbi Natan says: While someone was grinding [the incense], another would say, ‘Grind well, well grind,’ because it sounded beautiful to the spices.
— Koren Siddur, summary of a Gemarah in Tractate Keritot 6b and associated commentaries

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I have grown up to realize I am not a holy person — at least not inherently. At the beginning of my path, I thought awareness of the journey was the extent of holiness, that seeking holiness made me holy. I was wrong.

And how could I have known? I had no experience of holiness but instantaneous glimpses. I had never felt its lack over long stretches of time.

What do I mean? I spend most of my time in selfish mental states. I behave in ways that will later embarrass me. I am undisciplined in my efforts to be a charitable, helpful, sociable, well-adjusted person. There are people I could help, but too often I don’t. It strains my relationships, and it keeps me up at night. These are the symptoms of the disease caused by a lack of holiness.

What is holiness? It’s the quality of closeness to God. What is God?

Well.

God is something I learned about in Hebrew school — Hebrew schools, plural, really; I never lasted too long in one of those — to which my parents sent me from an early age. I didn’t believe in God until the day I became a Bar Mitzvah one Thursday morning on the tayelet in Jerusalem. What happened was, I got to the climactic point in my speech when I proclaimed in front of my entire family, “I don’t believe in God,” but the words caught in my throat. It wasn’t exactly a lie — it was true until I tried to say it!

Anyway, I believed in God after that, but I still couldn’t say “God” for a long time. There’s this bit of Jewish wisdom that the name of God is unpronounceable, and when we’re speaking or writing casually about God, we just say “ha’Shem,” which means “the Name,” and use the word “Hashem” [I’ll use this more sensible English spelling now that you know how to pronounce it] kind of like a name. Some people won’t even write “God” in English — instead obscuring it like so: “G-d”, or even “G!d” — and I used to do that, but I think it’s silly now because “God” is no closer to the unpronounceable name than “Hashem” is. I just say “God” when I can’t assume the people I’m talking to know what “Hashem” means. Now I can, though, so I’m just going to call God “Hashem” from now on.

So what is Hashem? Hashem is the name for the One that fills and surrounds all worlds, that gives form to the chaos, motion to the stillness, sound to the silence, and things to the nothingness. We say that Hashem spoke and the world came to be, and it’s no accident that the Hebrew word דבר, dvar, means both “word” and “thing.” Hashem speaks the universe.

I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do. My words don’t create ultimate realities, unfortunately, only personal ones. But nevertheless, according to Jewish wisdom, words are things in the same way that atoms are things… which, according to the latest physics, is to say, “Kinda.”

Lil Rambam working on his rhymes (art from Las Casas de La Judería de Córdoba)

Lil Rambam working on his rhymes (art from Las Casas de La Judería de Córdoba)

When I say “Hashem speaks the universe,” I’m creating a link of meaning between you and me using words, and that link is real, even if we don’t understand it. Maybe you don’t believe that, but I do. I believe words can create real links, and that’s not all I mean when I say “I believe in God,” but it’s at the core of it.

I’ve always believed in that, too, I just didn’t always have the right word-links to realize it. As I’ve grown up — which is to say, as I’ve lived more — I’ve learned to see the web of meaning-from-words as the only enduring reflection of my life, the only thing connecting moment to moment and helping me understand what’s happening. It’s almost like something hasn’t really happened in my life until I can explain it to myself.

Another thing I’ve realized along the way is that most words are lies.

Or, maybe a little more charitably, most words obscure as much about reality as they reveal, if not more. The links they form are real, but so often they link something real — me, you, whoever else is listening — to some totally made-up illusory concept or outright deception. Words are constantly deployed as a means to an end they do not disclose. Most words I hear shared between people are, in this sense, lies — including lots of the ones I hear myself saying — but that proportion is nothing compared to the rate at which I lie to myself. My mind is always hiding something from me or misrepresenting something to me, and it might be many years before I realize that representation had little or no relationship to reality.

Frustration with all this delusion is what led me to Buddhist learning and practice. They seemed to be the folks offering a way around the lie-trap we call the mind. Eventually, I proclaimed from the halls of this very blog that I was a Buddhist, that I had accepted Buddhism as my religion, and that in order to do so, I had rejected Judaism. Words, words, words. I sat with the liar in my mind for up to an hour a day (most days) and watched him lie and lie. Surely the lies lost power over me during that time, and meditation is still part of my daily practice for that reason.

I wasn’t becoming any holier of a person, though. Maybe my mind was getting quieter, but I also didn’t have anything affirmative to say, which just meant I was saying more nothingness, even though my mindfulness muscle would sometimes be strong enough to catch me doing it. My practice wasn’t offering me anything good or true to say or do. It gave me no responses to situations except a kind of panicked effort to stop thinking, which works about as well as it sounds like it does.

Meanwhile, all that stuff I wrote in the Buddhism post about not belonging in the Jewish world began to change and change some more. It actually hurts my heart to read that rejection of Judaism now and makes me regret talking about it in public. I feel weird doing any kind of public online disclosure these days — there’s much more important noise on the internet — but Judaism is intense about these kinds of vows, and I’m publicly on record with outdated religious commitments, so I feel the need to make amends. I’m returning wholeheartedly to the religion of my ancestors.

My Tuesday davening spot

The Prayers of Our Lips

Judaism is a belief in a set of true words. Judaism is a belief that there is a set of words that are true. I don’t mean that the words relate literal facts. I mean that the words convey truth. I’m saying Judaism is a belief that there are true words and false words, and what makes it Judaism in particular is the belief that the set of true words contains the canonical body of Jewish text, including its semipermeable membranes that allow in an osmotic flow of truth over the years. One of the characteristics of the truth of Jewish text is that it speaks truth to you, about you. If it does that, you might be Jewish. If it doesn’t, you might not be. The uncertainty in those statements is to account for the human capacity to misunderstand words, which should never be underestimated.

It does speak to me, about me. It speaks to me about what is true and what is false, what is holy and what is profane, what I am and what I am not, and much else besides.

So I’ve been praying. Three times a day, I exercise my discipline to invite holiness into my heart. It’s a work in progress, and it’s coming along. I started in earnest about three years ago — alongside my Buddhist practice for a while — slowed down dramatically for some time, then picked it back up again when I got to Jerusalem, where Ariel and I are living this year, and now the practice has stuck. Daily davening — that’s Yiddish for the Jewish form of daily prayer, and it feels much more accurate to me than the sense “praying” has taken on in English of spontaneous, down-on-your-knees prayer “for” some particular thing — carries feelings of motivation and naturalness I never had with Zen meditation or any other form of daily exercise or practice.

It’s a lot. It’s a much more serious practice than I’ve ever taken on before. On a typical weekday — that is, when it’s not Shabbat or a holiday, which are more involved — the three services plus the grace after meals and the bedtime ritual comes to about 150 pages in my siddur. (That’s a prayerbook. More on that later.) I just downloaded Sefaria’s Hebrew siddur text and ran a word count on those daily sections, and it came to about 22,000 words. The morning service takes about an hour and a half, afternoon and evening are each about 20 minutes, and there’s probably 20 more minutes of miscellaneous stuff on top of that, so call it two and a half hours of davening every day. (One can, of course, shorten this drastically, but I’m doing the whole thing whenever possible.)

One obvious question at this point would be, Why?

I do it for many reasons ranging from mundane to profound. On the lowest level, rapid-fire recitation of 22,000 Hebrew words every day — mostly the same words with slight daily variations — seems to be pushing out a lot of the painful, destructive, discursive thoughts I have in English. It’s a very different approach from the Zen practice of quiet thought-watching I used to have, maybe more akin to a mantra practice, although it’s a rather incredibly long mantra. I feel like I’ve done enough quiet watching of my sick mind’s thoughts to have gotten the gist. Stewing in sickness didn’t feel like it was helping me get better. Oddly enough, pushing out my own ego’s voice with the chanting, chattering voices of a hundred generations of my ancestors seems to be working.

The siddur and daily tefillah — that’s the Hebrew word for prayer, which I think conveys a better sense of the concept of Jewish prayer, whereas davening is more descriptive of the activity — seems like something that will be there for me when I’m old. I want to program it into me, so that as my life wears on and I face hard changes, I’ll have the comfort of this practice to carry me. There are great words about this at the end of each daily service.

It has to do with routine. When I’m out of routine, like when I’m traveling, it all gets disrupted and takes a while to recover. It feels healthy to shake up one’s routine sometimes. One of the interesting challenges of the level of davening I’ve reached is to adapt the firm structures of daily tefillah to the push and pull of real life. The siddur is an unbelievably well engineered structure with lots of crumple zones in the passenger compartment. But exploring every nook and cranny of the whole thing has been essential to deepening my devotion to the practice, and so at this point it’s often hard for me to skip something.

If rigid structure has become easy and flexibility has become hard, that seems like a good reason to practice the flexibility part. That said, I have learned in my 30 years that I need a sturdy foundation of routine to be happy and healthy, so I’m well suited to traditional daily davening.

Perhaps most weirdly of the reasons, davening feels perfect for these frightening times. When Buddhist meditation was my only practice, and the world got scary, or I got sick or something, my practice was always the first thing out the door. I wanted to curl up in a ball instead of dive face first into those bad feelings. But the text of the siddur is full of drama and turbulence, ecstatic joys and brutal hardships, birth and death and violence and miracles. It feels more powerful the weirder things gets out there.

Of course, the ultimate reason I daven every day is to draw in holiness, lift up my soul, and be closer to Hashem.

How Do I Pray?

Ariel's tallit bag, which bears the Priestly Blessing, a passage of Torah we read early each morning

When I wake up on a typical weekday, I say “Modeh Ani,” a short prayer that thanks Hashem for returning my waking soul after sleep. Then I use the bathroom and wash my hands — ritually, pouring water from a cup on each hand three times — and there’s a blessing for both of those. Then I might have a drink of water (another blessing), but there’s no breakfast until after davening. I get dressed — including my kippah and fringed tallit katan, my first two ritual garments — and I begin the morning preparatory service.

After another short prayer about waking up, I say the blessings over the commandment to study Torah, which is followed by three short passages covering the three fundamental Jewish bodies of text: the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Gemarah. This reflects the essence of what I love about Judaism: If Jewish life is a relationship with the world through learning and true words — that is, through Torah — then Torah is everywhere, all the time. Therefore, before you do practically anything else in a day, you convene a session of Torah study first. This blessing covers all the Torah you’ll learn for the rest of the day.

Then I put on my tallit gadol and tefillin, and then I daven Shacharit, the morning service. If I’m with a minyan (10 or more people), it’s a Monday, a Thursday and/or a holiday, and we’re in a synagogue or somehow otherwise have a Torah scroll in our possession, we’ll have a special service in the middle to read sections from the week’s parashah, the section of the Torah we’re up to in our annual reading cycle.

I’d really love to keep diving deeper and walk you through each part of the service, but that’s unnecessary. That’s what a siddur’s for, anyway; if you’re interested, you can take the journey yourself just by reading through one. Sefaria, my favorite website in the world, has the whole thing online for free in AshkenaziMizrachi and Sefardi ethnic varieties.

I feel strongly about praying in the original liturgy’s Hebrew and Aramaic. It’s nice to have a linguistic separation between the sacred and the normal, although living in Israel for the year is complicating that somewhat. More importantly, the Hebrew letters and language are the gateway to the mystical secrets at the core of all these texts, which are just not accessible in English.

An Optional Deep Dive Into My Feelings About the Siddur

My siddur of choice, the Koren Talpiot siddur

My siddur of choice, the Koren Talpiot siddur

I’m Ashkenazi, so the following discussion relates to siddurim of that variety, and I use the Koren siddur. It’s the best-designed siddur I’ve come across, requiring the least flipping around to faraway pages. Eliyahu Koren created his own Hebrew typefaces for the thing, and they’re so beautiful that I bought the fonts. It’s also laid out naturally and minimally, without the extensive commentaries included in the siddur by Koren’s main competitor, ArtScroll.

Ariel and I usually hang out in the Conservative movement, in which we were both (mostly) raised and in which she’s being ordained, but their siddur, Sim Shalom, doesn’t do it for me, and I doubt their long-awaited new one will either. There’s a lot of English, which interrupts my flow, and there are also theological changes that I don’t agree with. I don’t want to get dragged too deeply into this, but the main thing for me is that the formal tefillah we have today is based on the biblically outlined services of korbanot, sacrifices, and modern people don’t really like to get their hands dirty with that stuff. I love it, personally. I love the sensuality and viscerality of reading the sacrifices every day, and Conservative siddurim leave it out.

Fortunately, an Orthodox siddur is compatible with Conservative services as long as you’re a fast reader. If you’re like me, trying to use an Orthodox siddur in a Conservative service, you’re going to have to make some on-the-fly adjustments appropriate to your level of feminism (mine is high). I actually like the extra effort; it requires me to work extra hard to stand up for women as my equals. It’s mostly adding names of matriarchs to the lists of patriarchs, and then there’s the one morning blessing thanking Hashem for “not making me a woman,” for which I substitute “for making me in Your image,” which is the typical Conservative move. Ariel heard a story of an old siddur in some museum made for a wealthy woman whose morning blessings thank Hashem for “not making me a man,” though, which is pretty cool. If it were all equal, I actually like the gender blessing being a negation instead of a positive assertion. It’s more open-ended.

My siddur, to give you a sense of its vibe (yes, it's perfectly religiously okay to post this photo. I checked.)

The version of the Koren I use is called the Talpiot siddur, which has instructions and laws of prayer in English but no English translations of the prayers or scriptures. At this point, I find English translations in the siddur to be distracting from my practice of trying to learn all the words in Hebrew and find their meaning in that language. I do have a Hebrew/English version of the same siddur lying around in case I need to clarify something. The best part about the Talpiyot siddur, though, is that it has half the pages, so it’s super thin and light.

After Shacharit, I put away the tallit and tefillin, but I’m still wearing my kippah and tallit katan throughout the day. I usually daven a Minhah gedolah, doing the afternoon service around lunchtime — the earliest you can do it — as opposed to a Minhah ketanah, which is doing it right before sunset, the end of the allowed time. After three stars come out at night, it’s officially nighttime, which is when I daven Ma’ariv, the evening service. Before bed, when all the phones are away and it’s time to chill out, I have started to do sections of the bedtime Sh’ma, an optional mini-service to prepare for sleeping and dreaming. I’m still working with that one, because I find I’m not really in the mood for so many words at bedtime, but there’s a balance to be struck there with the power of conjuring up cozy protective sleep energies before bed.

That’s a whole day in my prayer life. There’s more to it on Shabbat and holidays, but that’s the idea.

What Am I Praying “For”?

It’s reasonable to wonder what exactly I’m doing all that time. I’ve said I’m saying words, but what do they say? What do they mean? Am I praying for anything in particular? 

Shop door in the Shuk

Shop door in the Shuk

That notion of praying “for” things is precisely why I prefer to call it “davening” than “praying”, because the English verb “to pray” has taken on a sense of spontaneous, improvisational prayer that doesn’t look anything like davening. There are things I ask Hashem for in the daily services, but they’ve been fixed by the rabbis of a long time ago into specific, appropriate categories and themes.

There’s some room for personal prayer within the structure, but I find the guidance of the siddur invaluable in my tefillah. When I try to just stand there and talk to God in my own voice, I either feel intimidated and hesitant or whiny and demanding, and neither of those feel like holy mindsets to me. The siddur prepares you for the encounter, carries you through it, and brings you back down from it.

All that said, there are lots of themes in the siddur — and in the rabbis’ teachings about the siddur and tefillah in general — that Jewish prayer can be said to be “for.” With this much material, there’s something for everyone every day in every mood, and I think that’s a big part of the genius of this prayer structure. I do it all, and different parts work for me more than others at different times, but there’s always something I can hang my hat on.

Right now, sitting and reflecting on this for the purposes of writing it down and sharing it, there are six themes that stand out to me as central features of my tefillah on an ongoing basis.

Gratitude for my life and all the good in it. This is a major theme in the siddur. That’s what the “modeh” in “Modeh Ani” (that first prayer upon waking) means, and that phrase is switched around grammatically so that “thank,” and not “I,” is the first word you say in the morning.

Holiness and closeness to Hashem, which as I said is the spiritual malady I’m trying to treat with all this.

Justiceredemptionliberation and peace are common threads throughout the siddur. Lots of social justice themes.

Working on the Yetzer ha’Ra and Yetzer ha’Tov, probably best translated as the evil tendency and the good tendency. Lots of liberal Jews I know aren’t too into these concepts. They think it’s too simplistic or black-and-white to think of people as being subject to such unified good and bad forces. I, too, believe that human motivations are complex. Moreover, I often do “bad” things and feel perfectly fine about it. I don’t struggle with these forces as though in some dire battle for my soul, but I find it useful to pray about them anyway, just in case the words nudge me in the good direction if I repeat them often enough. I also… might actually believe in them as spiritual forces.

A ridiculous selfie I took at the Kotel. Note that I’m repping the Temple of Whollyness at, you know, the Temple of Holiness.

Many personal themes like healthfamily and success were seen by the rabbis as entangled in a causal web with doing good deeds, studying Torah, and praying a lot, so I pray for those things while fully aware that praying for things in and of itself does not make them come true. I still pray for them because it can only help.

Most of all, I pray for better prayer and adherence to the mitzvot (commandments). This may seem circular, but praying to pray better creates a pretty effective positive feedback loop. On some Tuesday mornings while in Jerusalem, I daven at the Kotel (actually at the ghettoized egalitarian section of the Kotel) with a group from Ariel’s yeshiva. There’s a custom of obscure origin of placing written prayers in the cracks in the wall. I was recently motivated for the first time ever to do this, because a prayer for better prayer was the first thing that actually seemed like it would work. It has.

What Kind of Judaism Is This?

Even though I’ve noted my associations with the Conservative movement [it was in the optional section], this must all sound pretty Orthodox, and maybe people who know me find that surprising, even disturbing. I haven’t even gone into the ways I observe Shabbat and keep kosher. (If I did, an Orthodox person would say, “Oh, no no, he’s not Orthodox,” but anybody else probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference). Nor have we gone into what I think the Torah is or where it came from, which we can talk about another time, but for now let’s just say it involves five-dimensional holograms. I don’t identify as Orthodox, nor do I plan to. So what’s the difference?

Well, first of all, I probably would identify as Orthodox if their views of gender and sexuality weren’t such non-starters with me. I insist that there are sound Jewish, even biblical reasons the morals of our tradition should be updated in those areas — as they have been in many others (slavery much?) — but as long as Orthodoxy means (according to its rabbis) lesser roles for women and intolerance of queer people, count me out.

But even if the tent of Orthodoxy were big enough for me morally, I’d still be on the extreme liberal fringe in terms of the way I relate to some practices. Then again, in terms of tefillah, I’d be pretty hardcore. But I’m not going to get all worked up about turning a light off on Shabbat or eating freaking vegetables from a non-kosher restaurant. Aside from the sex and gender hangups, the other thing separating me from Orthodoxy is an attitude.

I might actually believe in some sense that it would be “better” not to turn lights off on Shabbat, but when I search myself, I don’t have to go that far. I know I’m imperfect, incomplete, that I don’t walk in all God’s ways, but instead of treating myself severely and intensely about that — as though I’m a failure at something — I figure, “I do what I can, and I pray Hashem will show me how to get better.” Lately, Hashem is showing me that praying intensely is helping. Hashem doesn’t seem to care nearly as much about the light switch right now.

In my experience with Orthodox friends and teachers, that’s not a stringent enough attitude for them. I think this is why there is still space for the Conservative movement. I didn’t grow up around many (if any) Conservative Jews who practiced as rigorously as Ariel and I do, but nominally we’re living the way our movement’s Jews are called to live. Why don’t most Conservative Jews live this way? That question certainly implicates my wife’s career. It may draw me in as well.

Ariel and me framed by an epic Sefardic mirror

Is It Working?

How does this tefillah practice integrate with the rest of my life?

The closest and most obvious way is through the body. If this practice of reading 22,000 words every single day sounds pretty heady, that’s because it is. The tradition does offer a few ways to mitigate that through embodied practice. Throughout tefillah, you’re standing up, sitting down, bowing, rising up on your heels, shuffling back and forth, and even lying face down a little bit; this all brings the prayer back into the rest of the body. You’ve also got the comforting embrace of the kippah on your head, the tallit on your shoulders, and the tight hold of the tefillin on your arm and forehead. Finally, throughout the day, those who wear one have the twangy tzitzit on the corners of the tallit katan, and I for one can’t help but twang those every so often to remind me of my place in the universe, as is their purpose.

Even with all this, I tend to get a little fidgety in my body, so I’ve got a practice of walking a lot (until I fill the activity rings on my Apple Watch) and carrying nice stones in my pockets to fidget with in my hands. There’s nothing explicitly Jewish about those practices, but they still feel like part of my Judaism.

The Apple Watch is also how I keep up my mindfulness practice these days, thanks to the built-in Breathe app. It’s no longer possible for me to make time for long stretches of silent meditation with all this praying to do, and I’m convinced that the praying is more valuable to me. The watch can still remind me throughout the day to take one or two minutes at a time just to watch my breath, and it even vibrates to guide and slow the breathing. This feels like a much simpler, more calming application of the wisdom of mindfulness meditation, and because my Jewish practice has me well occupied, I don’t need my meditation to go deeper than this. I meditate for five to ten minutes a day, usually one or two minutes at a time.

Other practices bridge the space between the body and the world. The most important of these is kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws (as in “kosher”), which create an atmosphere of holiness and mindfulness around eating, and the associated practices of washing hands, blessing and thanking, which affirm the sustaining connection between the world and all life forms.

I’m also pretty into the practice of the mezuzah, which is a skinny box containing a section of Torah affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes and buildings. When you pass through a doorway with a mezuzah, you touch it and kiss your fingers, reminding you of Hashem in your comings and goings. If you’ve read more of my writing, you’ve surely encountered my thing for portals. Clearly, even as my religious life changes utterly, the portal practice continues apace.

Outside of myself, my practice integrates with my life through community. There’s a reason the rabbis saw fit to require the presence of 10 people to perform the complete prayer service. Putting all this time, effort, energy and practice into these rituals creates a bond of trust with others who do it, and that’s one of the major values of Jewish community. We reinforce each other, we share in this intricate, interesting, esoteric thing, and we also lighten the mood and enjoy ourselves.

This year, the last night of Hanukah was also on Havdalah and New Year’s Eve, which was pretty awesome

This year, the last night of Hanukah was also on Havdalah and New Year’s Eve, which was pretty awesome

Jewish community leads naturally into observance of the ritual cycles beyond those of a single day: Shabbat each week, marking the lunar months, and the various holidays throughout the year. These link daily experience into the natural cycles and seasons of life on Earth. They coincide with the annual cycle of reading the Torah, which connects the natural story with an eternal mythic story of birth, wandering, settling, slavery, rebirth, and redemption. The amount of reading and learning available to elaborate on all these cycles and their connections, enriching them ever more through deeper understandings, is virtually endless, and I try to soak in as much of it as I can.

It’s working — not the prayer alone, of course, but the whole constellation of things is working together. I think the best way I can explain it is that I’m trying harder at life. The discipline, the concentration, the emotions, the sense of mythic narrative, and especially the shared sense of purpose are all supporting and motivating me in virtuous ways. That’s the part I can explain. The sense of holiness and closeness to Hashem, that I can’t explain, but it’s there.

Whither Buddhism?

What happened to being a religious Buddhist? Can I really just flip-flop like that?

Frankly, I’m no longer so sure that mindful awareness of the intimate details of my moment-to-moment inner state is good for me. After a few years of solid meditation practice, I became hypersensitive to my mental world, and more awareness didn’t help me address the symptoms, it just made the suffering worse.

For example, I already knew before Buddhism that I’m really susceptible to snatches of sound or strings of words getting stuck in my head. It’s happened my whole life. Having the same four lines of some awful radio pop song playing in my mind for days on end has been a perennial annoying feature of having this particular brain.

Last year, at the height of my hybrid Buddhist/Jewish spiritual practice, it started to feel like this problem was actually killing me. I had loops from the siddur in my head. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with them going “me’hashavtam… me’hashavtam… me’hashavtam… me’hashavtam…”. It drove me crazy. For a while there, my solution was to blame the stimuli — that is, the siddur. My brain is my brain, I figured. It feels pain when sounds get stuck in it. So I should deprive my brain of loopy sounds. So I stopped davening, kept meditating an hour a day, and other mental sounds took the place of those siddur sounds.

Now I’ve cut back on the shikantaza, I’m praying those same words as before three times a day, and I’m doing short sessions of quieting meditation of one or two minutes throughout the day. Are the loops there? Yeah, sometimes. Are they driving me insane like before? Nope.

People like to say “Buddhism is not a religion.” I don’t buy that, though. Buddhism is a faith claim that the teachings of the Buddha will work. There is surely scientific evidence that meditation is healthy; I studied it in college,and I believe it. But none of that evidence says that meditation will lead to the end of suffering. That’s a faith claim.

I believed it for a while, but then experience showed it to increase my suffering in high doses. Sure, some Buddhist teacher might tell me that’s supposed to happen, and I should hang in there. But I barely know anything about that religion compared to the one I was born into, and the practices of my native religion work so much better to reduce my suffering and to help me do my part to reduce the suffering of others. I simply don’t believe the Buddhist faith claim anymore. I still love Buddhism and treasure everything I’ve learned about it, but I’m saying it right now: I’m not a Buddhist.

On a walk in Makhtesh Ramon

Conclusion: On Being Religious in This Day and Age

So that’s it? I’ve found certainty, chosen a truth, and solved the problem once and for all? Of course not. These religious trappings are just the truth’s clothes, and the truth will not be seen naked by the likes of us. “No human will see Me and live.” As for me, I’ve seen enough skin to get my heart racing and my tongue babbling like a mountain spring, but it was almost too much to handle. It takes a lot out of you to eff the ineffable, as my friend Alessandra says.

I believe that the human being’s spiritual life takes place much closer to the core of that being than words can ever reach. To carry that experience out into everyday life takes a poet’s lips, a teacher’s wits, a saint’s faith, and a leader’s steady hand. We might call a person with that skill set a prophet. Prophets can make up their own religions. I don’t believe I am one of those. I have wondered about it a couple times, if I’m being perfectly honest, but that was pure ego. I saw signs that said, “You’re going the right way!”, but I was reading so fast I only saw, “You’re right!” I wasn’t right.

I have a long way to go, but fortunately I was born into a tradition that’s come a long way already. The words of its prophets and the rabbis who studied them remind me of what I’ve seen. They give me the inkling that, if I quit being so flaky and stick to this path, I might see more.

The actual content of the words does not always sit right with me. I’ve learned to see much of Jewish sacred text as beautiful and awesome — and that proportion is growing as I learn — but I still find some of it incredibly hard to deal with. When I was younger, that was frustrating enough for me to throw it all out. Now I’ve started to see that reckoning with the presence of painful and difficult stuff in the tradition is one of the most morally edifying things one can do with it. A healthy religious life takes work, and I’m starting to think that’s the aspect of religion with the potential to make one a better person. Religion doesn’t make people good by giving them V.I.P. access to absolute truth or morality. It does so — when it does so — by giving them a sense that the world is about something bigger than they are, coupled with the ordinary virtue of working on getting better at something.

Mural inside a pedestrian tunnel in Gan Sacher

I approach my religious practice with that firmly in mind. It’s not all angelic choirs and wholehearted devotion, either. This practice definitely forces me to confront the Dark Side. In particular, I think observant Jewish practice carries a risk of compulsion. Leaving aside all the other daily mitzvot around food and clothing and behavior and whatnot, there is a definite pleasurable sensation of having discharged the time-bound obligation to pray. There are three windows for prayer each day, and I have become sensitized to them. If the sun is going down, and I haven’t davened Minhah yet, I start to get a little nervous. If the person leading davening is going too fast, I get a little frantic about trying to read faster to make sure I cover everything. I might even go back and redo a section after services if it’s permissible according to the laws of tefillah. There’s a difficult tension between wanting to daven and needing to daven, and I think that sense of need has to be watched closely for harmful patterns.

I also contend with forces of conformity and peer pressure. I work and live in many circles that are not so conducive to religious life. When I’m surrounded by non-religious people, even friends, I feel self-conscious and start conforming myself. I feel weird about wearing tzitzit because they’re kinda funny-looking to non-Jews — and to Jews, sometimes I’m funny-looking doing whatever I’m doing while wearing tzitzit. In fact, appearing to be an observant Jew and being seen doing something observant Jews wouldn’t do is a sin, and I’m often troubled by that enough to want to stop wearing tzitzit. I’ve started and stopped twice before.

Observing Shabbat is especially difficult; the people of this century aren’t always so accommodating of people who don’t use their phone on Saturday. I don’t work for a Jewish organization, either, and Burning Man stuff tends to happen on weekends.

The first time I took a crack at religious observance, I tried to maintain a severe religious discipline at all times (like at Burning Man), but as soon as it got a little bit hard, I gave up. I felt too isolated.

This time, though, I’m learning the lesson that much of the personal growth enabled by this practice comes from finding balance and flexibility within the structure, not from severity and brute force. I’m much more grounded in the practice now than I was three years ago, and I want to try to merge all my worlds. I want to learn to be flexible. I don’t want to hide.

I think it’s especially important to be out and proud now — for everyone who’s weird in any way — as long as they have the privilege to do so safely. The era in which I’m writing is seeing a frightening normalization of public displays of intolerance by the threatened bastions of white power, often in the name of some perverted whites-only form of Christianity. Everyone excluded from their made-up race club is feeling this pressure. As I write, the news from the U.S. is that there has been a second mass desecration of a Jewish cemetery this week. I cite this example not to raise it above any other act of violence against any other group of people, only to highlight my own role in the resistance.

I refuse to come back this summer to the United States, the country that took in my ancestors as a refuge from anti-Semitic violence, and tuck in my tzitzit in deference to these people. I’m going to show them that Jews are their neighbors, and I’m going to take part joyously in the amazing wave of interfaith cooperation these white supremacists have created by making messes for us all to clean up together.

One thing both of my grandfathers — may their memories be for a blessing — were absolutely right about is that the value of my Judaism would appreciate as I got older. At the time, it was worse than worthless to me, and I shudder to think about how I responded to them. As I’ve grown and changed along with the world around me, I’ve come to see how right they were. My Jewishness is the one thing about me that hasn’t changed — though my Judaism has, radically. Judaism is an expression finding its voice in my life, but Jewishness is who I am.

As for my Judaism, there’s no way to describe how it feels right now better than that Gemarah at the top of this post: grind well, well grind. Judaism is like a smell of incense hanging in a cloud around me from the moment I was born. Every day, the incense burns up, and the smoke starts to clear, so I must gather the many ingredients and grind more. And it’s not enough just to grind; as Rabbi Natan taught, one must chant while one grinds — grind well, well grind — because it sounds beautiful to the spices.