"Luke, you don't believe in Judaism... You just want to piss off your father." (Friends)
By Luke Ford Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Seven B Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve 1994-1997 1997 1998 1998B 1999 2000 2001 2009
"Luke, do you think that if you found a good loving woman, it would moderate your enthusiasm for Judaism," asked my friend Noel Mason on 12/26/92.
"Perhaps," I answered. [I hope that marriage will bring harmony to my chaotic and conflicting impulses.]
"Then I don't know why anyone should take your new faith seriously," said Noel.
Traditional forms of Judaism seemed the most intimidating to me, so I concentrated my early inquiries on the group of Jews who I thought would be the most universalist. But I was wrong. At least initially.
"We're an ethnic club," said the secretary of a Reform congregation in an exasperated tone. I had called her many times asking to be put in touch with a few Jews in Sacramento and the foothills who took Judaism seriously. But, as she explained, "We're cultural Jews uninterested in religion."
Another Reform Temple sent out letters to seven local Jewish families about my desire to make Jewish friends but nothing came of it. So the Education Director Helene Mathias phoned me regularly at her own expense to teach me Judaism and the lessons have continued since she moved to New York.
Helene, like other Jews I talk to, knows Adventism and has difficulty understanding why I left such a beautiful religion.
My Christian stepmother assisted my search by asking people randomly "Do you know any Jews?" One lady said yes. She had once considered converting to Judaism. She knew several Jews in Grass Valley, including the lay leader Michal Kohane. I phoned Michal in the summer of 1991 and we talked for an hour. She found my interest in Judaism strange but agreed to write in the Nevada County Jewish Community Center (N.C.J.C.C.) newsletter a few paragraphs about me and my desire to make Jewish friends. About 100 families received the newsletter and the only person who called me was a non-Jewish Unitarian.
When I eventually joined the N.C.J.C.C. I found that Christians were among its most active and passionate members.
In contrast to the cold reaction that I got from most Jews, many Christians poured out love upon me. They shared my passion for universal God-based ethics.
I began to wonder if the religion that I was brought up in would be the most appropriate approach for me to ethical monotheism.
Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Christian thinkers like Dr. Norm Young and Dr. Ivan Blazen, narrowed the differences between the Jewish and Christian faiths. If there was little difference between them, it made sense for me to stay put in the Christian tradition.
Dr. Blazen explained to my stepmother Gill one night: "Jews didn't accept Jesus as the Messiah because he did not bring universal peace. Christians believe that Jesus will fulfill these messianic prophecies at the Second Coming. Both Jews and Christians wait for the same guy."
Basking in the warmth of Dr. and Mrs. Blazen, and enjoying their keen personalities, I thought to myself, "You almost persuade me to be a Christian."
From Avondale College, Dr. Young wrote to me:
I do not believe that you find Judaism attractive simply as a reaction to your father. That may be a factor, but Judaism has been and is an attractive religion in its own right. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Judaism attracted so many Christians that the Councils passed draconian laws prohibiting Christians from fraternizing with Jews. One does not have to find some psychological factor to explain the appeal of Judaism.
I read Prager's Nine Questions book on your recommendation. A top read. His complaint against humanism, namely, that it has an unrealistic optimism about human nature comes so close to my understanding of original sin that there is no point debating the issue.
Prager also bases morality on a theistic belief. That is why faith in God has priority over ethics; not because the latter is of little importance, but because the former is the ground of morality. Do not understand the midrash [traditional Jewish method of Biblical Exegesis] that keeping God's Law is more important than believing in God as a statement regarding importance. Rather, it damns mere mental assent to God without moral renewal. A true belief in God in Prager's own argument is the rational basis for moral demands.
Is murder the worst sin? The worst sin would be that sin that triggers the chain reaction of all other sins, the basic cause of sin as such, whether murder or theft--and that to my mind must be rejection of God, unbelief (not in an intellectual of doctrinal sense, but a moral rejection of God).
I am in charge of the staff colloquia this year and I invited Rabbi Apple of the Sydney Great Synagogue to speak to us... on the topic of Sabbath...
I appreciated Dr. Young's correspondence for these reasons:
· He took my interest in Judaism seriously.
· By reading the book that I recommended, he made me feel important.
· He presented a couple of Christian beliefs that I had trouble with (Original Sin, and that God values our beliefs more than our actions), in a rationally compelling manner.
· His invitation to Rabbi Apple showed me again that today, the best friends' of the Jews' are Christians.
By devoting an hour long tape to replying to my tape promulgating Judaism, Dr. Fred Veltman also showed me that he cared about me and my new found ideas. Thus, it did not bother me when he articulated what many people say to me:
"I don't believe that Luke could go that route [Judaism]. Surely he is going through a psychological response to the SDA Christian church's persecution of his father. Adventism poses to be the highest interpretation of Christianity. If that's Christianity, I [Luke] don't want any part of it.
"It's hard to believe that any child of D-s Ford's, who is known to be such an inspirational and intelligent herald of the Good News and whose ministry has led so many to Christ.... It would be impossible for a child of his to turn from Christianity to adopt a religion that is still looking for the Messiah, rather than turn to a religion that proclaims the presence of the Lord Jesus not only in the world but in one's life as God's true Messiah."
Dr. Veltman claimed that imitation of the life of Jesus, which embodied divine goodness, develops character more effectively than observing many commandments.
"God will make your good works know to you," wrote my former nanny, Ivy Harker. "Be at peace. God cares more about our happiness than our goodness."
"Love God and your neighbor," Wayne Judd, a former member of the PUC religion faculty, told me, "and then do what you like."
I wavered in my desire to convert to Judaism and sought ways to make intellectual peace with the religion of my childhood.
I had these personal and emotional reasons for returning to my roots.
· My memories of good times in Adventism, particularly of spending happy Sabbaths with friends.
· Adventism's health message. I like its yummy vegetarian cooking. (I do not care for gefilte fish.) What more likely group could help me overcome Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
· Most of my friends are either Adventists or ex-Adventists.
· Being Dr. Ford's son, I was well known in Adventist circles. People sought out my opinions. "You could play a phenomenally important role in Adventism," said John Rudometkin, a theology major at the Adventist Atlantic Union College. By contrast, despite a lifetime of study, I felt that I could leave no imprint on Judaism.
· I could perhaps succeed my father at the helm of Good News Unlimited and inherit the love that he had earned through a lifetime of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Eric Magnusson offered me this pragmatic approach to religion:
"Maybe if you can get faith in some system by testing it empirically that will enable you to believe.... If by following the Christian prescription (and I don't mean Paul's theology of it, though that's interesting)... that there's no greater love to be shown than to lay down your life for somebody else... that you ought to go to extreme lengths to give other people a fair go... that love is the greatest good...
"If you found people who followed that [prescription of love] and you found that that system works... then you might say that the person who told us about that [Christ] must be divine [and be worth following]....
"I say that people ought to buy Christianity the way they buy a refrigerator.... Take one home from the shop... and if it keeps your food cold that would ordinarily get hot and go bad... and if it does so according to the promises of the maker... you could buy it."
That sounded tempting. Could I not believe in both the divinity of Jesus and the divinity of Judaism (which by definition cannot accept Jesus as Messiah and God)?
I could not.
Though I could not rule out the possibility that Christianity had a divine element (and I did not and do not want to rule that out of any monotheistic religion), I could not reconcile the rational approach to religion that I learned from the Jews with Christian dogmas such as The Fall, Original Sin, the Incarnation, Redemption at the Cross, the Trinity and the Second Coming.
"But most Christians don't care much about theology," I said to myself many times as a last ditch effort to return to Adventism. "Surely a Christian can believe that what he does is more important to God than what he believes."
"But that would be earning your own salvation," a part of me responded. "And if you can do that, what's the point of Christ, the crucifixion and Christianity?" (Galations 2:21)
The ice-pick of scientific investigation into the Gospels as exemplified by Hyam Maccoby killed whatever ability I had for Christian faith.
When my Adventist friend Duane Coverig convinced me in March 1992 that my greatest need was for community, I decided irrevocably to become Jewish.
Also, I had these personal reasons for moving on to Judaism:
· To establish my own identity separate from that of my father.
· While many Christians, particularly Adventists, seem to believe that illness shows one to be a great sinner, Jews tend to view disease less mystically.
· Close-knit Jewish communal life might pull me out of my self-obsession and help me bond with people with whom I shared not just a religion, but a way of life and a nation.
· My relationships with Adventist women did not develop.
· To return to Adventism would say that my long journey (and my life) had been a waste. Had I gone through all this searching to simply return to what I'd been raised in?
Michal Kohane and her husband Mark Taylor visited me in March for the first time. I lent them three Prager tapes and Michal loved them. I lent her more. And more.
I helped ignite Michal's and later Mark's enthusiasm for Judaism and they in turn encouraged mine. I grew a beard and earlocks and wore the yarmulka they gave me.
A Jewish friend, whom I'll call The Enforcer, reproved me: "Such adornments (as a yarmulka, payos (earlocks) and tzitzit) come after full observance, not before. If illness did not confine you to your house, I'd cut off your earlocks."
The Enforcer agonized for weeks before he wore a kipa (skull cap) in public. "It's the awesome responsibility of representing Judaism to the world," he said. "Can I now eat in restaurants or enter a video store?"
During the week of Yom Ho-Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Mark and Michal brought over to my house their new Jewish friend Marilyn Zamir and her parents Henia and Louis Michalow, both Holocaust survivors from Poland.
Henia survived two years in the Warsaw Ghetto and two more years in several concentration camps. Louis and most of his Jewish village on the Polish and Russian border were saved from the Nazis by Seventh Day Adventist Russian peasants.
After listening for a couple of hours to their stories, I asked "Do you understand why Hitler hated the Jews?"
"No," said Henia. "What could girls do to the Nazis?"
"It's because they believe we killed Jesus," said Louis.
I seized the opportunity to imitate Prager by lecturing on "Why the Jews? The reason for antisemitism."
"Hitler knew why he hated the Jews. It's a shame that Jews don't know why Hitler hated the Jews. Hitler said "The Jew brought the conscience into the world. We must destroy the conscience. We must destroy the Jew." Hitler defined his mission as the destruction of the "tyrannical God of the Jews [and His] life-denying Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots."
"You Henia were in the Warsaw Ghetto and you probably know of the Nazi's nasty habit of hanging ten Jews on the Feast of Shuvuot. What does Shuvuot celebrate? Receiving God's Law at Mount Sinai. So, the Nazis hanged one Jew for each of the commandments that the Jews brought into the world.
"Jews are hated because they embody the call to a higher moral law. Jews suffer for being the human representatives of God's moral demands.
"Even antisemites acknowledge this. Richard Wagner said, "Emancipation from the yoke of Judaism is our foremost necessity." The father of German racial theory, Houston Stewart Chamberlin, said, "The Jew came into our gay world and spoiled everything with his ominous concept of sin, his law and his cross."
"The Christian historian of antisemitism, Father Edward Flannery, wrote: "It was Judaism that brought the concept of a God-given universal moral law into the world"; willingly or not, "The Jew carries the burden of God in history, [and] for this has never been forgiven." "
"What's the solution?" asked Henia. "The growing number of neo-Nazis frightens me."
I got back on my soap box and quoted Prager.
"The solution to antisemitism is the same as its cause--Jewish values. Until we make God real in the world, Jews will not be safe."
"You mean that we have to convert the world to Judaism?" asked Henia.
"No," I answered. "We have to bring the world to ethical monotheism... to God with His moral demands. Christianity and Islam are legitimate ways to God for non-Jews."
"Christian Poland murdered three million Jews during World War II," said Henia.
"We've succeeded in bringing half the world (through Christianity and Islam) to the one God," I replied. "Now we have to convince them that this God's primary demand is ethics."
Henia beamed at me. "You'll be a great Jew."
Over the following months, I got to know Marilyn's husband Haim (also the child of Holocaust survivors). Through his regular long-distance phone calls (the Zamir family lives in Penn Valley, an hour's drive from me) we became good friends.
In May, I introduced myself over the phone to about two dozen local Jews and out of my many phone calls I developed a couple of friends.
I found again, however, that Jews generally do not want to talk to a Gentile about halakhic (legal) Judaism.
"You've got chutzpah (arrogance) to call me from out of the blue to talk Judaism," said one woman.
"If I called Christians they'd be thrilled to talk to me about their religion," I replied.
"Well, why don't you do that?" she said. "It's not Jewish to talk to goyim (non-Jews) about Judaism. We don't seek converts."
"Orthodox Jews seek converts amongst their fellow Jews," I responded (using again the arguments of Dennis Prager). "If I told a Chabadnik (member of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect) that I was Jewish, he'd try to bring me under the wings of the Shekhina (divine presence)."
"Go talk to the Lubavitchers then."
"They're a long distance call," I replied and moved on.
Judaism is inside you," said a Jewish man in Grass Valley. "You either feel it or you don't. It's something that Jews are born with. It's in the way we walk."
An Orthodox friend later explained to me that Jews have a special soul - a divine spark.
Hoping to bring to flame those latent world-transforming soul sparks, I asked several people (Prager's question) "Why should the Jews survive?" My attempt fizzled. I generally received what Prager calls 'The Guinness Book of World Records Answer.' "We've been around so long."
Being nice and tolerant, looking after poor people, empowering minorities and voting Democratic were answers I received to my questions on the Jewish mission to the world.
But the most frequent response I heard was that the Jewish religion is about being good.
"Then why not marry a good non-Jew?" I asked (borrowing again from Prager).
It was a naive question. Many Jews had.
One elderly woman raised my hopes one Sabbath when she said that Judaism made her feel spiritual. Our conversation, however, came to an abrupt end because she wanted to go shopping.
"Judaism for me means gratitude," said a Jewish mother.
"Oh, so you say brachot (blessings)?"
"No, I just walk around feeling grateful in my heart."
An elderly Jewish woman in Auburn gave me a new perspective on the God of Judaism. "I translate YHWH to mean that I am God." Uninterested in talking to me about Judaism, she invited me to a Joseph Campbell study group. In her 60s, she was one of several local Jewish Unitarians. Like many other Jews I talked to, she had attended enough Hebrew School as a child to know that she didn't want to live Judaism.
"My husband and I exposed our boys to the best of all religions. And every Friday night we lit candles for them just as our parents had done for us. But when our children became teenagers they laughed at us because the ritual seemed meaningless to them. And so we stopped."
But I didn't stop seeking Jewish friends.
A year earlier, I published a personal ad in the Auburn Journal that received no response. "Ethical Monotheist seeks deep talk on Judeo-Christian values Call Luke..."
In August 1992 the Northern California Jewish Bulletin highlighted my new appeal as the Ad of the Week: "Lonely, isolated 26SM convert seeks friends with Jewish values, Love goodness, depth, Dennis Prager, Eliezer Berkovitz, Louis Jacobs, Commentary and New Republic magazines, Haydn, Schubert and Mozart." Only one response. Secular Jewess Z. (the synagogue that she and her family almost never attended, had to be Orthodox) didn't like Jews because, she said, they were rude.
I laughed, for I too had met many rude Jews. "I have a Gentile friend who works in a Jewish shop. She says that when Jews come through carrying boxes, they don't say, 'excuse me please'. No, it's 'outa my way. Outa my way.'" I laughed again.
"Asians are much nicer," said Z. "Why would you want to become Jewish?'
"I agree with you that many Asians are nice and modest," I said. "And modesty is not a trait that I find frequently among Jews.
"Number one. I love Judaism. I don't love Jews. I love some Jews, I hate some Jews and I'm indifferent to most Jews (and non-Jews).
"I take Prager's attitude: If you're Jewish and you're a schmuck, you're still a schmuck. If you're black and you're a schmuck, you're still a schmuck.... There are Christian schmucks, and Muslim schmucks and Asian schmucks.... A schmuck's a shmuck.
"Many Jews are not nice, but that's not a big deal. I see no connection between niceness and goodness. 'Nice' means 'Have a nice day. Would you like tea or coffee?' 'Good' means not cheating on your taxes, standing by your ill spouse, etc. I know a man with a bristly angry personality who looked after his sick wife for twelve years before she died. He's not a nice man but he's a good man.
"Courtesy is not the highest value. Goodness is. And by any empirical moral measure, Jews lead the way."
My clumsily worded ads show that in reaching out to people, I'm my own worst enemy. Though I seek friends, I also love solitude. I either use my brain to intimidate people (through big words such as "ethical monotheist" and long lists of thinkers and journals of thought), or I present myself as so pitiful ("lonely, isolated") that I convey to people the message that, "You wouldn't want to get to know me."
In the September Shofar (the monthly newspaper of the Sacramento Jewish Federation), I published an essay with the lead paragraph: "I want to join the Chosen Ones to bolster my self-esteem."
"Typically intense Luke," remarked Michal.
I published in the fall a short essay in the Sacramento Jewish Family Services Newsletter on my love of Judaism and desire to make Jewish friends. "Eternal rays emanating from God and Judaism are about the only light that pierces the clouds of my illness." No response.
Wondering if the problem was with my approach, I rewrote my singles ad. "Australian-made, world-travelled UCLAecon-educated, 26SJM loves goodness, depth, honesty, empathy, intimacy, passion, moderation, reading, classical music." I received over a dozen Jewish responses. The young ladies described me as intense, fascinating, intimidating and frightening and most of them did not answer my follow-up letters discussing Judaism and goodness.
I did, however, make a couple of friends. One pointed out that my ad was misleading. "You're looking for pen-pals more than romance," noted Ilene Blender.
Good point. How much romancing could I do while sick in bed in the isolated foothills?
Jules Zentner wrote to me that I should not be so surprised at my difficulty in finding religious Jewish friends, for in California "most everybody's Godless."
So I looked overseas to Jews whose names and addresses I got from International Jewish Correspondence, asking if we could correspond on Judaism and life. No response. In the meantime I satisfied my need for "Correspondence Judaism" with Christian friends in Australia.
I spoke to Dr Russell Roberts, my former UCLA economics professor, about my inability to find friends with whom I shared common values. He responded: "Slow down. Learn to appreciate the good in each person irrespective of their views. Remember how at UCLA you thought my Judaism strange and I thought your Marxism crazy."
Other Jewish friends made these points:
1) Because of centuries of persecution Jews suspect outsiders.
2) Jews living Judaism would generally not live in the foothills but rather they'd live in cities within walking distance of the synagogue.
3) "Jews who live Judaism don't speak to the world," says Prager, "and Jews who speak to the world don't live Judaism."
4) My intensity frightens people. Like many new believers, I tend to be too zealous.
5) If my health allowed me to attend services more often, I'd make more Jewish friends.
6) I have a negative attitude that seeks out people's flaws rather than virtues.
"You hate two types of people," says a good Jewish friend. "Jews and non-Jews. For everyone else you have affection.... I thought this... [early draft of your essay] antisemitic.... Why don't you become a Buddhist and go scathe somebody else."
"If I've learned anything in my 36 years on this planet, it's that people are never won over by hatred, but only by love," said my Christian friend Bob Schubert. "You'll never bring people to ethical monotheism through criticism.... Who are you angry at? Why is your tone so bitter?"
A non-Jewish acquaintance said to me "You're an angry person, Luke. Why?" I paused and told him that part of my anger was legitimate righteous indignation against wrongdoing and that another part of my anger was an immature reaction to not getting what I wanted. By blaming my troubles on others, I sought to escape responsibility.
Looking back over my life, I wish that I had been kinder and gentler with two types of people - Jews and non-Jews.
Orthodox Jew Michael Weed wrote to me from Grass Valley: "You... have one big problem with finding people to... take you seriously.... You aren't Jewish.... You'll have to pester an Orthodox rabbi until he starts you on the path to conversion. It may take a few years to instruct you... but that is the only way.... You've got some task in front of you…
"The non-orthodox, however, frequently treat converts cruelly."
Reform Judaism teacher Helene Mathias told me that Reform Jews welcome converts while Orthodox Jews repel converts.
I found no Jews (besides Prager) that seek converts to Judaism amongst non-Jews and some Jews (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) that are often cruel with converts (and non-converts).
In June 1992, the few friends I had within Judaism (Mark Taylor, Michal Kohane and their three children) went to Israel.
I phoned the Roseville Seventh Day Adventist Church to say, "I'm sick and I'm lonely," and that afternoon the Youth Pastor, Lawrence Burn, visited me. He loved Judaism and made no overt attempt to bring me back to Christianity. Instead he sang to me some Jewish songs, pronounced Baruch HaShem (praise God) flawlessly and frequently, and offered to study the Torah with me.
Lawrence and I built a strong friendship upon the foundation of our mutual love for God and goodness. I found more in common with this Christian pastor than I did with most Jews that I met through the summer of 1992.
"Goodness?" Jews and non-Jews say to me. "Goodness is the reason you want to become Jewish? Luke, I know many Jews. Good is not a word I'd use to describe them."
"Jesus was good," said a Judaism teacher. "But Judaism is not about goodness. Luke, you be good if you want to, but don't go bothering other people about goodness. It's not Jewish."
"I associate goodness with Mormons and love with Christians," said a good friend, "but the Jews I've known are either out to change the world through secular idealogies or are privately devout." Two pro-Jewish Christian friends, after living two years in the Jewish state to study at Hebrew University, told me that, "Israelis are rude, arrogant and obnoxious." Custom officials kept them waiting for days for visas because they were Christians. Israelis shoved ahead of them in line and then turned around to jeer. Hasidim once spat on the woman when she tried to board a bus. "Our stay in Iraq by contrast was pleasant," said my friends.
Other people told me about Orthodox Jews in Israel throwing stones at them for driving on a holy day. "If you need help [in Israel], don't go to a religious Jew, for secular Jews are much nicer."
I relayed these comments to an Israeli who responded: "It is not Israel's duty to be a beacon of democracy. It is Israel's duty to be a Jewish state."
Prager says that if a non-Jew hinted that there's a contradiction between democracy and Jewish values, he'd be called antisemitic.
On the other hand, some ultra-Orthodox Jews tell me that Israel is not a Jewish state because it is too democratic.
"I won't live in Israel until its run by torah," said my Orthodox friend Michael Weed. "...No churches, mosques or other religions allowed. Democracy does not fit in with the Jewish ideal. After seeing life in America and the decline of Jewishness (around 40% assimilation, etc.) you can see why.
"The ideal Jewish state would be a theocratic monarchy. The supreme Sanhedrin composed of the best torah scholars could remove the King."
Prager says that if Israel were a torah state it would be evil because any system, be it communism or fundamentalist Islam, which sets itself up as the sole truth produces evil.
"Sure there's pushing in Israel," says my Israeli friend Michal Kohane, "but that's because everybody's family.... We look out for each other.... The other day on the corner of Bell Road and Highway 49, I saw a mother, father and three-year old daughter holding up a sign 'We'll work for food.' You don't see that in Israel. Nor do you see people living out of shopping carts like you see in Los Angeles."
Though the Jews' cumulative moral statistics are impressive, the individual Jews I meet are generally not impressive. Prager believes that there must be a divine element in Jewish history because the Jews he knows also, are not that wonderful.
Only a handful (though the number is steadily increasing) of Jews I know (summer '92) publicly resonate with my passion for God and goodness. Come to think of it, few Jews I know even talk about God. (As Prager says, most Jews are more comfortable discussing clitoral vs vaginal orgasms than discussing the Master of the Universe Who specially chose them to take His moral law to the world.)
Thus, when I want to talk about God, I frequently phone Christians and when I want to talk about sex, I phone Jews.
Incidentally, when I phoned a Jewish Senior Citizens home to find a pen-pal who loved Judaism, they set me up with a 67-year old SDA Christian. She became so offended by my interests in astrology, contourology - study of how body contours reflect personalities, and sex, that the friendship fractured.
As a Baalei Teshuva (return to Judaism) movement rippled across the Sierra Nevada foothills towards the end of 1992, I made good new friendships with serious Jews who could discuss both God and sex.
I share with most of my new friends a similarly inconsistent and doubting approach to Judaism.
"Reconformadox" is my answer (which I borrowed from Prager) when I'm asked my denomination. "Inconsistency is my essence. I'm a neurotic Jew."
I'm disappointed that when Jews talk to me about increasing their observance of halacah (Jewish Law); they talk mainly about shabas, kashrut, (davening) prayer and the wearing of kipot, tzitzit, tefillin, etc.--all areas that have little to do with how people treat each other.
I came to Judaism to change the world but I found most religious Jews more interested in distinguishing themselves through stricter and stricter observance of ritual laws.
"Luke, I learned ethics with my mother's milk," said a friend. "I'm a straight arrow. I may speak a little lashon hara (gossip and slander) now and again, but overall... [I have little to learn from Judaism about ethics]."
Many Jews seem to believe that ethics are natural and universal. Thus, they believe that it is observance of Judaism's unique laws between man and God that distinguishes the religious Jew.
That the purpose of Jews is to touch the world with God-based ethics is not a theme that I hear much in Jewish life. As I discuss Judaism with my friends, we all find it easier to concentrate on its national, denominational and ritual components rather than on goodness
When I told a friend the old saw that "There are no Conservative Jews, only Conservative Rabbis," D. replied "That's not true. B.'s parents go to a Conservative shul (synagogue) and they keep kosher." What defines a serious Jew to D. is mainly observance of laws between man-and-God such as kashrut.
E. wrote to me that while her father observed no religious practices, he gave generous tzedaka (charity) meaning that to E. ethics in general and tzedaka in particular are outside Judaism in particular and religion in general.
I've read many one-volume summaries of Jewish religious practice but most of them say next to nothing about ethics. The latest such book that I've read is Isaac Klein's A Guide To Jewish Religious Practice which contained not a chapter on ethics.
Yes, these books have ethical themes flowing in and out of the ritual laws, but nice-sounding homilies discipline behavior as much as hard specific laws. If details of required man-to-God behaviors can be regulated, why can't ethics? Why do I find so few books on halacah (Jewish Law) as sharp as the Haffetz Hayyim's work against lashon hara (gossip and slander)? Why do I have to read the same tired cliches about loving one's neighbor? How many times do I have to see Maimonidies laws of tzedaka? I get the feeling that being good to other people is not nearly as exciting to many religious Jews as punctiliously performing Judaism's unique laws of holiness.
While these guides to Jewish law contain scrupulous details of Kashrut, they say next to nothing about practical ethical issues such as not copying copyrighted material.
If religious Jews paid as much attention to not speaking ill of people behind their back as we do to avoiding traif (unkosher food), I am sure that more secular Jews and non-Jews would look in to our religion.
When my traditional friends heap scorn on Reform Judaism, it is never over ethics, but rather it is over such things as changes in the siddur (prayer book).
Reproving one's neighbor is a mitzva (commandment) that many Jews I know observe; but when friends give me a hard time over my lack of observance, it is usually to spur me on to light candles, make havdala, sing the Birkat Ha Mazon (Grace After Meals) and other rituals. That I make strenuous efforts to avoid using words that unnecessarily hurt people is rarely understood as a religious observance.
F. questions the sincerity of my conversion to Judaism because I occasionally say in private dirty words.
Secular Jewish woman Z., who almost never attends her Orthodox synagogue, took great offense when I admitted attending strip shows as a lad, engaging in premarital sex and maintaining to this day a lusty interest in coitus.
"How could someone interested in goodness do such things?" she asked.
I replied that was a non-sequitar; there is little or no connection between indulging in consensual sex and seeking ethical excellence.
The woman didn't buy my answer. Saying that she was so offended by what I had said and done, she said that she couldn't talk to me anymore.
Jewish friends frequently tease me about the time that I said that I read the Plaut chumesh (commentary on the Pentateuch). I know that Judaism wants Jews to study its sacred texts word by word (preferably in the original Hebrew, Aramaic etc), but as I'm not strong enough at the moment to study, I just read and occasionally skim. For instance, I haven't spent much time on the first half of Leviticus which details the laws of the sacrificial system (which has in any case been suspended for almost two millenia).
"You pick and choose in your Judaism," my friends say to me. They are right. Judaism has thousands of commandments and thousands of pages of sacred texts and I pick and choose what I want to learn and observe.
"On what basis?" my friends ask.
On this basis. Rambam (the greatest Jewish philosopher) says that the purpose of halacah is to promote loving kindness between God's creatures. So, when I choose to add a mitzvah (commandment) to my religious arsenal, I first ask if this new observance will produce harmony between myself and those around me. For instance, I generally do not observe possibly disruptive commandments in my Christian home such as affixing mezuzot, lighting candles and hosting sederim.
I wish that stronger more knowledgeable Jews than myself would take the approach to halacah of Maimonidies.
"Promote loving kindness [as the purpose of halacah]?" asked a friend who davens in an Orthodox shul. "That sounds Christian. Next you tell me about the indwelling holy spirit."
My friends talked for days about D.'s regular donning of a yarmulka (skull cap) as evidence of his growing religiosity. I don't remember hearing conversations on another person's resolve to not speak lashon hara (gossip and slander) as evidence of that person's serious commitment to Judaism.
Yes, some Jews sometimes tell me about their increased ethical efforts (such as honoring parents) as part of their increasing religiosity. And yes, many of my friends (both Jewish and non-Jewish) reach higher ethical standards than I do. Still, I hold to my main point that when Jews (and non-Jews) speak of religious practice, it is primarily about deeds that have a secondary ethical upshot.
I poured out my frustrations to Rabbi Adl--stein over the phone and he told me that if I wanted to live Judaism with good Jews I should move next to an Orthodox shul. If I simply wanted to correspond about Judaism, I should hook up my computer through a modem to a Jewish bulletin board. I didn't act on either suggestion because they cost money.
One inexpensive Rabbi Adl--stein suggestion that I did act on was Sinequan, a tri-cyclic anti-depressant which buoyed me up enough to go before the Beit Din (Jewish law court) November 20 for my formal conversion to Judaism. Though some Jewish friends told me to prepare for failure because they said I didn't know enough ritual and had this crazy idea that Judaism is a mission to the world, I answered completely all questions asked of me (ranging from why I wanted to become Jewish to how I would observe halacah (Jewish Law) around my Christian family and friends), including: "What's the most difficult part of Judaism for you, Luke?"
"That's easy," I said. "I love Judaism. I love the Jewish people. It's Jews that trouble me."
"Really?" said the rabbi. "I feel the same. That's why I moved here."
After passing the Beit Din, I came home and told my father about my evening. He looked up from his book and said "They're not like the Adventists...out there proselytizing" and returned to his book.
While my conversion to Judaism is a bitter pill for my father to swallow, he respects my decision on these grounds:
* When my father was a young man, he left his parents mainstream Christian religion (Church of England) to join a weird sect that kept the seventh day Sabbath, the Biblical dietary laws -- Seventh Day Adventists.
* My father then left the Adventist Church over a doctrinal dispute over chosenness. He has suffered much for his controversial beliefs.
* Better that I be a practicing Jew than a practicing atheistic communist.
* It's interesting and amusing to have a bearded kipa-wearing hasid in the house. As my dad's brother Val wrote: "So Luke's finally joined the five-by-twos [Cockney expression for Jews]. Funny way to get one's kicks."
My mom likes her Jew boy because she has hundreds of commandments at her disposal to keep me in line.
As for my feelings towards my parents, I'm grateful that they:
* Loved me.
* Disciplined me.
* Taught me to fear God and to keep His Commandments, for that is the whole duty of man.
* Brought me up on a non-smoking, non-drinking, fruit-laden caffeine-free vegetarian diet.
* Taught me to pursue abundant amounts of exercise, fresh air, fresh water and sunshine.
* Encouraged me to think for myself.
* Listened to my Dennis Prager tapes.
* Didn't push me into a particular vocation.
* Took particularly good care of me during my illness.
* Took me travelling around the world.
* Introduced me to many good deep people.
* Allowed me to use their Macintosh personal computer to write my autobiography and other things.
* Cooked for me.
* Reminded me to watch my language, particularly with women (so that one day I can leave their home and get MARRIED).
My parents stayed away as a favor to me when I spoke on my journey to Judaism before the foothills' Jewish community five nights later. (I shared a tape-recording of the talk with my parents.) Everyone, including my Christian friends, wished me mazzal tov (congratulations). Particularly gratifying were the words of the Holocaust survivor Henia Michalow: "You're going to be a great Jew."
By Luke Ford Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Seven B Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve 1994-1997 1997 1998 1998B 1999 2000 2001 2009