Finding Our Way

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

I grew up on a scrappy strip of Southern California beach. As a kid in the 1960s, I spent hours on end walking up and down the boardwalk. 

On a warm and sunny day around 1968, my 10ish-year-old self was skipping along that boardwalk on stubbed-toed feet when I was hailed over by a shirtless and bearded young man. His Levis were faded to almost powder blue, and, like me, he was long-haired, blond, and barefoot. “Hey, little one” he said, “this is for you.” He handed me a little brown booklet which was shouting “GOOD NEWS” from its cover. I took it from him. He smiled, his eyes twinkling, and said, “God is love, child. Peace.” 

The booklet, it turned out, was an ad for “Good News for Modern Man”, the 1966 translation of the New Testament. Taking a cue from King James, “Good News” was written in simple, vernacular English designed to be more accessible to 20th century folks and was the calling card of the Jesus movement. I brought the booklet home, and tossed it on my mom’s desk, which was, in practical terms, everyone’s desk. My family, which consisted of my mom, two monkeys, and one cat, lived in a 480 square foot beach shack. Often there was also someone crashing on the floor. It was lively, but not very private. My mom picked it up, considered the cover, flipped a few pages, and said, “Hmph.” She had been raised Irish Catholic in Ishpeming, MI, a small Upper Peninsula mining town in 1920-30s. That experience sent her hurtling away from organized religion faster than a runaway train. By the time she perused that “Good News” booklet, she had spiritually landed somewhere between “Religion is the Opiate of The Masses” and Alan Watts’ snippet, “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth,” which she quoted with some frequency.

“Where did this come from?” she asked cooly. I told her about the hippie on the boardwalk. “Weeeellllll…,” and she launched into a riff about how Jesus was a radical hippie rabbi who fought the rich and stood up for the poor. She started extolling the virtues of Martin Luther King, Jr, the Berigan Brothers and Sister Elizabeth McCallister, Dorothy Day, Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, Bobby Seale and Bobby Sands. It went on for a little bit, with me only partially following the details, but the message was just as clear as the boardwalk believer: God is action

Because religion had been foisted on her, one of my mom’s parental pledges was to never do that to me. And she held by it. At the same time, she didn’t discourage. She would say, “Religion is a very personal matter. No one can tell you what you believe. You will just have to find your own way.” And to that end, I had my work cut out for me. 

There was no paucity of spiritual entrepreneurs sharing, promoting, and hawking their deities in our rowdy little beach town. On any expedition to the beach one encountered bell clanging Hari Krishnas, incense burning gurus, swamiis and monks, and the fast-talking faithful carnies from all around the devotional world: There were robed Gospel choirs singing on makeshift stages and hellfire and brimstone preachers hollering through megaphones about damnation and salvation, and a skinny, wild-eyed, snake handler who would occasionally speak in tongues to the horrified delight of the spectators. Spaced out youth sat amid it all tripping on psychedelics in their own attempts to transcend the bounds of this material plane. It was neither love, nor action. It was mostly entertainment. But then I met the raw and potent words of Torah, and found my path. 

I spotted a copy of Mortimer J. Cohen’s “Pathways Through the Bible” with illustrations by Arthur Szyk, at a garage sale and snapped it up for a quarter. I busied, engaged, and immersed myself in it, which led to harder stuff. Reading, studying, and comparing English translations led to the inescapable conclusion that I needed to learn Hebrew in order to know the text directly. Slowly, I built a little vocabulary, tackling one or two words at a time. I branched out to blessings, prayers, and songs; I baked Challah; I taught myself to curse in Yiddish. The more I learned, the more I wanted. I told my mom, “I think I’ve found my way. I’m a Jew”. She didn’t miss a beat and said, “Welllll, according to Ben Gurion a Jew is anyone who calls themselves a Jew. More power to you, kid. More power to you.”

As the decades rolled on, I studied, prayed, and tried out different levels of halachic observance. Along the way I discovered that I was a preacher at heart. I became adept at translating and interpreting Torah into teachings that resonated with folks, first as a lay prayer leader and eventually as a professional congregational leader. I was part of the wave in the 1990s that stepped into ecstatic, musical, chant oriented Jewish meditation and worship. There were times when I wondered if I was on my way to join the ranks of the spiritual hucksters of my youth. Because the schism between God is love and God is action was still gyring in my consciousness. 

My life had been defined by continually hauling myself through one personal challenge after the other. Childhood and adolescence was a chaotic, impoverished, red hot mess of freedom and abuse. I came out into the turmoil of the religious politics of the 80s, the looming threat of a nuclear war, the discovery of AIDS, watching my gay friends wither away and die, and the fact that homophobia was a state sanctioned reality. Despite being an out, loud, and proud dyke, I was, in fact, flailing under the mounting sense that sorting out my gender issues might be impossible. I was diagnosed with PTSD from growing up in a home that was simultaneously loving and dangerously violent. I didn’t have a clue from whence my help might come. And with that roiling inside me I kept studying, doing Jewish, praying, laying tefillin, lighting candles, and taking on more and more of a leadership role in my community. This training paved the way for me to squeegle into a Rabbi gig despite my lack of credentials. Only a few months into landing my first pulpit, I found myself creaking under the weight of my wise, cranky, hardscrabble, sentimental, funny, snarky, doting, outlandish, loving, and totally OG mom’s impending death. She died on the first of Cheshvan 5761, the first year of my rabbinate. That loss slammed me through wall after wall, breaking down everything I thought I knew. As my life unraveled, I found myself deriving more and more wisdom from the gnarly parts of the Torah. I welcomed its shadowy twists and turns, its willingness to be ugly, and its insistence that we hold it all, and still pursue justice. Its harsh, impossible expectations of us. Its mine field of do’s and don’ts. Its insistence that we remember the stranger, our oppression, our liberation. How much could it ask? I found myself rooting for Abraham as he pushed back on God about the destruction of S’dom and Gemmorah, and I wanted to slap him for silently accepting God’s command to sacrifice his child. I could relate to Moses’ anger management problems and his reluctance to serve. I found myself moved by the terrified folks in the desert who were salty and complained even though they had been liberated from oppression and bondage. It all felt relatable—honest, hard, and real. And then, in a textual river of brusque and rigorous spiritual and ethical demands, I recognized something else. There, in Leviticus 19:18, was the ultimate Torah challenge: 

וְאָהַבְתָ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְיְ:

And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

It rang in my head and heart: You will love yourself, like you love your neighbor. I am God. You will love your neighbor, like you love yourself. I am God. You have to love yourself. You have to love your neighbor. I am God. Oh, my God!! It’s all about love after all!!! God IS love!!! Gnarly, muddy, blood-stained love. I finally got it in a way that worked in my psyche and spirit. I started to teach from that place. And at first, it did not go over well.

A majority of my congregants felt that Torah, and the God described within, was crabby, mean, demanding, xenophobic, violent, patriarchal, and therefore antithetical of anything resembling love. At the same time, they challenged the idea that love is all there is. It just didn’t feel Jewish to them. When they heard “God is Love” they imagined that born-again guy on the beach, at the airport, outside the concert, or on the subway who was trying to spread “The Good News” and offering them a kind of salvation that they could not accept. I used some of the same language, but I was spreading a different message. God, in my experience, is feral. And it is love. These concepts are inextricably linked in Jewish theology. The Torah’s unflinching exploration of raw and challenging experiences was precisely what allowed me to trust, accept, and have faith in this tradition. My experience dictates that nastiness is inevitable, and I wouldn’t give a plug nickel for a spiritual text that didn’t include it. Nor would I have accepted a scripture that was without tenderness, compassion, and warmth. I finally knew, and could let in, the love that shot through my life and made the pain more bearable if still excruciating. The wisdom was right there in the verse: love is to be offered AND received, external AND internal, of the body AND of the spirit. That is the flow through which we can withstand the truth of death and let ourselves grieve. And it all starts with the hardest hill to climb, leaning into loving ourselves. Because when we love ourselves, we have what we need to defiantly thrive our way from suffering to liberation. When we are loved, and let ourselves be loved, we have the key to healing. When we meet ourselves and others with love, we can be full again, because love is the pitch that patches the jug. Through love we grow and with love we give. Finding the fullest expression of ourselves and releasing the spark of the Divine that is ours alone to shine into the world—that is love. Though giving and receiving love, we become Torah—full of rough, harsh stories, regretful actions, blood, sweat, and so many tears—Torah that finds patience, compassion, and wisdom in every mess. 

Pirke Avot 6:6 teaches that learning Torah is greater than being a priest or a king. And notably, the 48-fold path for acquiring Torah includes Love.

אָהוּב, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַצְּדָקוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמֵּישָׁרִים, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַתּוֹכָחוֹת

[To acquire Torah one must] …be beloved, and be one who loves their place;, be loving towards all creatures and be one who loves justice; be a lover of those who are direct, and a lover of those who reprove…

The rabbis understood that Torah is a Divine love letter to the God Wrestlers. Through its lens God sees us, adores us, pushes us, and on more than one occasion, recriminates us. God is love, and also our Pilates coach; our dietician and drill sergeant; our loving parent and a scary, baton-wielding cop. God begs for forgiveness. God holds Its tongue. God pillow talks with us, offers us Their feet, arm, back, and wings for comfort and protection. We are privy to His innerworkings, anxiety, and dreams for us. She doesn’t sugarcoat her disappointment: we are called out on the carpet, where we are told to take responsibility for our actions. God is in all of it–the sweetness and the grind, the tenderness and the chastisement. I dare say that if we didn’t understand or accept this spectrum Judaism would have never persisted. The Divine love letter would have been torn, burnt, or shoved in a drawer and sold with the desk. But there is something so deeply tender that undergirds even the rebukes and directives. She is constantly, lovingly, insistently, nudging us to be the best versions of our earthly selves that we can be during the short time we are here. And as we stumble-bumble our way through the grit, grief, and gravel, She whispers and wails in hope that we will find our way; to walk with dignity, courage, good humor, integrity, and, most of all, Love. 

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