Posted January 25th, 2013
By Naomi Bilmes, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
So, last night, I sat around a crackling fire with a group of religious people chanting incantations in ancient languages while passing around a hand-carved knife and letting the blood from our left pinkie fingers drip over the hot, scalding flames…
Okay, that was an exaggeration. But I think I have been initiated.
Type. Stop. Delete. Type. Dash dash dash (parentheses) I’ve got it I’ve got it period bam. Nope. Wait. Do-over. Turn here, not there. Remember that? Well, please forget it. But write it down for safe-keeping. Read it again later. But not too much later, because then your train of thought will be interrupted and you will not be able to express yourself accordingly. Self. Self. What is Self? Thought I knew my Self. Spoke to it the other day; we had an understanding. Now understanding is on holiday – “Terribly sorry, out of office until January the twenty first, will reply to all your messages at my earliest convenience” – damn damn if I could just catch the end of the rope – slipping slipping – holiday. Which one? Passover?
This is what my mind has been doing for the past three days. Pardes has officially penetrated my brain. And there is no sign of retreat.
Early Tuesday morning, we headed out (coach-bus style) down to the sands of the Arava desert. For three days (and, somehow, only 50 shekels each), we enjoyed a beautiful tiyul on Israel’s most southern tip. We hiked a variety of rocky, sandy, pebbly paths during the day and curled up under thick blankets in the heated kibbutz guest-houses during the night. We ate cucumbers for breakfast and enjoyed free wine and beer over dinner. We let the sun spill into our pores and let the desert wind whip our faces cool. But, aside from the blissful warmth and the absence of five layers of clothing, what I remember most are the conversations.
We talked while hiking. We talked while eating. We talked on the bus. We talked before going to bed. Sometimes I clambered for a book just to grab a few moments of silence. But then a curious person would ask what book it was, and a conversation would begin.
We usually covered the basics: hometown, alma mater, family, religious background. But the conversations did not stay on the surface for very long. Judaism always poked up its roots – and quite aggressively.
There is no way to describe the way each person I met made me feel. I would talk with someone, reach a conclusion, think about it, talk with someone else, and realize my conclusion was unraveling. Basically, after an intense three days, I met a large number of the students I will be studying with for the next five months. They accepted me, and I joined their circle of fire. And thus unrolled a manifesto of everlasting questions:
“Traditional” means… “modern” means… “egalitarian” means…
Do I look religious?
Do I act religious?
Right, left, yashar, yashar
Do I want to look more religious?
Do I want to act more religious?
If I want the wrong thing…
What is the wrong thing?
Does it go right or left?
Right to me, wrong to you,
Left to me, right to you,
Left to myself, where would I go?
Where am I going?
Is there one religious happiness for me, or can I find it within the Modern, the Orthodox, the Unclassified? Will I ever be sure I have found it – sure enough to take someone with me…for the rest of my life?
As you can see, my thoughts are swirling, buoyed by the strength of the desert wind and the entrance of new human beings – bodies and minds – into my life. Must rest, must sleep, must think or dream…