If I had a dime for every time someone asked me, “what’s Shavuos?” I would probably have almost enough money to buy a cheesecake, the food most associated with the holiday. Shavuos gets forgotten a lot, but it’s the holiday that celebrates G-d giving us the Torah (including the dietary laws, which is one reason why we typically eat a dairy meal). In essence, it’s the day heaven and earth got married.
G-d and I “got married” relatively late in life (mine, anyway). Some things about this were easier (I was sure about the relationship and I knew had no time to waste) and others were more difficult (longstanding habits are harder to change). I also had several ideas about religion in general, and Judaism in particular, that had to change in order to properly commit. Here are three:
1) Religion Is a Crutch
I grew up with a prejudice against religious people. They were not too intelligent, and needed a spiritual crutch to get through life. Smart and strong and enlightened people didn’t need religion, so why would I want to “be religious”? It didn’t even sound like a Jewish concept, which may be why it was so off-putting. Still, I wanted to become observant; I just had to change my perception of religion. Whenever I questioned if I had to be dumb to be religious, I would visualize the enormous books I saw on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the homes of every observant Jew I ever met. Many of those books were volumes of the Talmud, a book I could barely lift, much less read. Its giant pages looked like unintelligible mazes to me, and I loved the fact that I couldn’t understand a word. Because I couldn’t dismiss them either. There were too many commentators over too many years to be fooling all of the people all of the time. These scholars, with names like Rashi, Tosafos, and Onkelos, were smart and strong and enlightened alright, but in a realm of life that had eluded me completely.
2) Jewish Women Are Second Class
The worst part about becoming observant was that I would forever be considered “Orthodox.” This word has an especially negative connotation in light of its perceived regard for women. The prevailing opinion among onlookers is that “Orthodox” women are considered less important. Why would a modern, educated woman choose such a status? A Jewish and female administrator from my graduate program didn’t mince words when she saw me several years after I decided to become observant: “I’m surprised you would do this. You were so intelligent.” The perception is that I have willingly subordinated my identity, aspirations, independence–whatever qualities characterize an autonomous woman—in order to follow Torah Judaism. Two observations I made very early on helped me get past this perception. The first was seeing observant women in action. I remember one woman in particular. She was disarmingly funny, alive and intelligent. When I heard how many children she had, every fiber of my being understood, this is a superwoman. The second observation regards every Jewish woman, regardless of how she lives, and should suffice to end the debate of how the Torah views the Jewish woman: G-d unequivocally entrusts her with the ability to combine physicality and spirituality to create His absolute greatest treasure–a child with a Jewish soul.
3) Observant Jews Can’t Do What They Want
Well, this one is actually true, at least sometimes. Wait, it gets even harder. The law of Mar’as ayin (“what appears to the eye”), commands that Jews refrain from doing things that even appear to be impermissible according to Jewish law. (I remember hearing this and thinking, I’m not going to have a life.) That’s where the marriage part comes in. On Mt. Sinai, and every day since then, G-d tells me what He wants–it’s all in those big books and in books about those big books. When I do a mitzva, my connection to Him strengthens, making it easier to do the next mitzva, and so on. Ideally, I can become someone who truly wants to do what G-d wants. After thirty years of trying, I’m happy to report that this does happen fairly frequently. The good news is that, please G-d, very soon, everyone is going to want to do what G-d wants–all the time–with the coming of Moshiach. The Torah we celebrate on Shavuos assures us of this. And, according to all those big books, G-d also wants us to demand that He send him, NOW.