by David J. Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)
“It’s difficult being a Jew.”
Children of the many Jewish immigrants who came to America at the turn of the 20th century continually heard that lament from their parents.
The complaint certainly was not baseless. “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday” was the usual reply from their bosses if they requested to be off on Shabbos. And the constant struggle to put food – kosher or otherwise – on the table did not make Jewish practice or learning very easy, either.
Now, after the turn of the 21st century, it’s still difficult being a Jew – but for an entirely different reason.
We no longer are confronted with a Saturday/Monday ultimatum, but we do have to face something that’s more insidious simply because it’s ever-present – the constant beckoning to “stop being primitive,” to “be enlightened.”
This is all the more challenging for a ba’al teshuva – a returning Jew – like myself.
Let me give you an example. I recently went to a friend’s house in my Brooklyn neighborhood. He has remained a staunchly secular Jew, once even remarking to my wife in a conversation about the Torah that probably would have been best not to have: “You swallow all that stuff?” All his grown children are on track to having non-Jewish spouses, and my friend, rather than lamenting the consequent severing of Jewish heritage, is very happy about it and looking forward to having many grandchildren.
Just walking into his house was an instant flashback to the world I’m still struggling to tear away from. His shelves were filled with an extensive array of books – but not a single one even remotely connected to Jewish thought. He had a large, flat-screen TV with a full range of cable programming. And he offered to lend me a book which he just knew I would enjoy because of my keen interest in science: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
The book – which, sure enough, seemed very interesting and well-written – began with a synopsis of the “Big Bang” of creation arising from the infinitesimally small “singularity” leading to protons and electrons leading to atoms and molecules leading to different substances leading to different life forms leading to us – all, of course, totally by accident.
This, I’m beginning to realize more each day, is the basic premise of modern secular society – we’re all simply walking piles of atoms whose only goal is to do essentially whatever we want to do as long as it doesn’t physically hurt anyone else (and that single restriction is only due to an evolutionary mandate to preserve the species, the secularists will say).
It’s a mindset so pervasive in everything from textbooks to bestsellers to TV, iPods and the Internet, it has to be fought daily – hourly.
Compounding the difficulty – at least for me – is the literal account of Creation in Genesis. I still find it hard to fully embrace the concept of a universe only 6,000 years old and all of mankind descending from one couple created as adults in an idyllic garden.
But I have more difficulty accepting Darwinian evolution literally, either–despite Carl Sagan’s insistence that it’s “a fact.” The legendary late Rabbi Avigdor Miller, for one, has shot huge holes into evolutionary theory with scientific logic, showing very clear self-contradictions and scientific impossibilities in the theory.
Perhaps if I reach the level of Torah study that my 19-year-old son, Mathew (he prefers “Matisyahu”) has already attained in yeshiva, I wouldn’t have any struggle. He’s shown me examples of rabbis and scholars discerning from the written and oral Torah concepts of pi, a heliocentric universe, and even genetics centuries before the later civilizations proffered these ideas. Modern science seems to be merely catching up to some concepts already in the Torah, and computers are just now beginning to reveal some of the secrets of the gematria, the numerology, of the words and letters of the Torah.
Yes, it is difficult being a Jew.
But it’s also challenging, stimulating, and fulfilling – as anyone can experience after just one visit to the Shabbos table of a frum family.
My friend may have it easier – but he certainly doesn’t have it better
David Glenn is founder and publisher of Bay Currents, a community newspaper in Brooklyn. He also teaches math at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Ohr Eliezer, which motivated his son, and then the family, to embrace Orthodox Judaism.