Posted on June 4, 2017 by Celeste Aronoff
This article was originally published in The Times of Israel.
I planned to go to Israel for two months. I ended up staying for three years. Because Israel can do that to you so easily. She flirts with you a little, seduces you a little, and before you know it, you’re in love with Israel in a way that you never imagined, but don’t know how to live without.
My original trip to Israel was really just to get better at Hebrew, to learn lashon hakodesh, the Holy Tongue, in the land from whence it came. And I did. With every shoresh I learned, every three-letter Hebrew root, I found a way into Jewish meaning and thought that I didn’t know existed. Do you know how many words — nouns and verbs and adjectives, etc. — come from the sounds k-d-sh? Those three sounds are the root of words about holiness, of sanctification, which is at the heart of Jewishness and Judaism. I wanted to learn more and more and more.
But how could I take all I needed from this ancient land in only six weeks? I didn’t want to be a tourist, seeing historical sites and looking for souvenirs. I wanted to live in Israel’s homes, walk her streets, ride her buses, eat her food, and breathe her air. Jerusalem seemed like THE place to re-calibrate my own ordinary human vibration to be in-synch with the throbbing Divinity that fills this city.
To learn and deepen my Jewish connection, I settled in at the extraordinary Pardes Insitute for Jewish Studies, and encountered Judaism through ancient texts that I had never read. I disappeared into the Tanakh, the Mishna, the Gemara, the Siddur, the Midrash, the Chumash, the Megillot, the books whose names I’d heard like a distant cousin, familiar and not familiar all at once. I learned the difference between ArtScroll and Koren, just how many brachot could be said in a day, who wears which kippot and why, and what the gang colors of the various Hassidim mean.
Avraham Avinu whispered in my ear, Moshe Rabinu screamed at me from atop Sinai, Rachel Imenu confided in me, and Yosef told me his secrets. Pharoh dismissed me, Esav brought me venison, Shaul confused me, David saddened me, Yiftach horrified me, and Joshua inspired me. I loved stepping into the text, hearing their voices, learning their stories, seeing how human each was, and how even in their humanity, they met the Divine.
For all the challenges I encountered in the Gemara, for example, I could relate to that. I could relate to meeting the Divine, to losing a sense of self in encounter with G*d, to becoming someone and something new in relation to Newness. I could relate to how G*d’s presence transforms everything and everyone it touches, and how we are sometimes ready for that transformation, and sometimes not.
I fell in love with Tanakh, with the Biblical narrative that lays out what it means to be human at its best and worst, how hard it is for us to stay close to G*d, and how epic and eternal the struggle for closeness is.
I thought I would also fall more deeply in love with Jewish ritual and observance as a result. That I would want to spend time in prayer and services, learning the liturgical ritual and choreography as a natural result of falling in love with the texts. I figured that’s how it works, especially because that’s how I’ve seen it for so many others…learn the tropes and traditions, and soon you’ll be wearing kippot and tzit tzit and t’fillin yourself (so to speak).
I tried. Really hard. I went to Kabbalat Shabbat services, and regular Shabbat services, and services during the Chagim. I sang and prayed, with instruments and without. Standing up and sitting down and opening my eyes and closing them, and opening the siddur and closing it. But all the while I was longing for the silent spiritual intimacy that is my connection with G*d. I couldn’t wait for the noise, the singing, the murmuring, and the shuffling to be over so I could get back to the solitude I found with Abraham and Moses, who first heard G*d’s voice in the silence of the desert, with a quiet mind and a still heart.
I kept trying. I went to a hundred different synagogues, listened to a hundred different rabbis give a hundred different shiurim, attended a hundred different Shabbatot, read a hundred different books, and listened to a hundred different podcasts. But the more noise and sound and movement I found, the more I needed silence and solitude.
I couldn’t engage in the halakhic wrestling matches, one brilliant opponent pitted against another arguing minutiae about heating liquids on Shabbat, who can eat kitniyot over Pesach, or whether mevushal wine maintains or destroys community. I could never hear the voice of G*d in these conversations, I could never feel the power of the Divine, never sense transformation in the participants.
For me, my Jew-daism isn’t in the halakhic pilpul, or the liturgical song and dance. It is in the ongoing love affair I have with the G*d with and from whom it all began, and the characters in The Book. It is in learning about them that I learn about myself. It is in encountering them that I encounter my own humanity. It is through their stories that I am writing my own.
My Jew-daism isn’t about stuffing your brain with information, fighting to be the most right, or turning religion into a power struggle. For me, the learning I encountered, and crave every day, is the sacred space of opening the self and soul to both hidden and revealed Truth, becoming someone and something new in the encounter. The magical dance between the ancient past and this exact moment is playing itself out in me, in you, in each of us who want to join in.
And none of this would be possible if it weren’t for those devoted souls who have preserved these books and dedicated themselves to handing them down, giving us the tools to access these defining narratives, and bringing back to life all that had been lying flat between the pages of a book, just waiting to come alive again. I owe myself to great teachers, and I am grateful to G*d for the blessing of falling in love with learning.
Special thanks to all my teachers at Pardes in particular, and all who I have learned from in Israel and beyond, and to www.sefaria.com, for liberating the text from the page so that we can all access it.