Identity is a Multi-Layered Thing

This morning I read a blog by a woman who had become Orthodox for a time in Judaism, then decided it wasn’t for her. She shared her story on a website focused on Jews who were “off the derech,” a phrase I hate which means off the “right” path.

Really, it’s a website about people who are thinking for themselves, and deciding how to observe all by themselves. Without the influence of well-meaning but agenda-bearing mentors.

A few things struck me as … interesting.

First, that people spend so much time identifying themselves based on what they are not, or what was in their past. Like this woman, whose story recounted the many steps she’s taken in the past toward observance, away from observance, and ultimately to the safe space of deciding for herself what is meaningful.

The past is gone. It shapes us, yes, why should we let it define us? The past is truly behind. Hopefully we learn from every step.

So where do we stand today? This minute?

On this blog, there were terms thrown around – BT (ba’alei teshuva, meaning someone who “returns” to the faith although really, they were never there in the first place) and FFB (frum-from-birth, someone born and raised in an orthodox home).

Terms grounded in…the past. History.

I say, who cares?

I have been, at times in my history, a Reform Jew, in love with a Catholic man and finding reverence in his church, a BT in the Orthodox world, a Conservative Jew.

Today, I define myself as … writer first, entrepreneur second, mother, woman, wife, Jew. Just Jewish. I don’t fit into a neat box of definition. And I am perfectly OK with that.

Because I can find beauty in all corners of my community and adapt them to my life. And I can find reprehensible practices in every corner of my community to which I do not attach myself.

That’s not Judaism. That’s confused interpretation of millennia-old traditions.

In the May/June issue of Scientific American, there is an article titled, “Did Affluence Spur the Rise of Modern Religions?”

A fascinating question, to be sure.

It takes a scientific approach to understanding the rise of organized religion and the proclivities that propel people to attach to one or another.

The article’s thesis, that once basic needs are met and satisfied, people then have the luxury to contemplate the meaning of life and ascribe practices to said meaning, is a powerful one.

So if you can’t put food on your family table, if you don’t have a roof over your head, do you really care about which deity is the right one and whether or not your soul will live on after this life?

You’re barely making it in this life, barely keeping alive, so how can you waste time speculating about what happens hereafter?

The article suggests that “morality as a necessary stabilizer in increasingly large and volatile human communities,” was a concept that grew with population growth. The need to control the masses, to maintain order, to keep people from killing one another.

Set a moral code for the people to follow and it will distract them from the temptation to do evil.

Perhaps “research shows that affluence appears to influence our motivations and reward circuitry away from short-term gain to also considering the benefits of long-term strategy,” it states.

Basically, people only contemplated the purpose of life once they had the time to do so. When they were busy just trying to stay ali

ve against all odds, there was no room for musing.

And that’s where we find ourselves today. The very luxury of a blog, and the time to read it, is evidence that we have time on our hands – time in which to complain and to celebrate, to pray and to rant.

I thank whatever higher force (God, the Guru, you name it one thing, I name it another) that I have this luxury of time.

Time to think.

Time to define myself.

You see, when I look in the mirror, I see eyes and a nose and a mouth, some wrinkles forming as I deepen into my 40s. My chest rises and falls with every breath, the same way that it does for my friend who finds meaning in a church and my friend who wa

kes early each morning to follow the Sikh spiritual practices.

We are all the same. The blood coursing through our veins, the skin protecting the complex inner workings of our anatomy.

Eyes, nose, mouth. Hopes, dreams, disappointments. All the same.

You can tell whatever backstory to this miracle of life that you want, but at the end of the day, we are all saying the same thing.

Brilliantly. Pathetically. Hopefully.

There’s never going to be confirmation of Right.

So identify yourself in the many poetic ways you can and understand that it’s all a game, this storytelling, a game to appease our fears and convince us that we will, in the end, do all of this for something more than just a pleasant day, a smile on someone’s face.

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