The Jewish Chronicle
You just can’t cheat the eternal struggle
IT’S TAKEN 27 years, but I finally found a way to be Jewish that’s easy. Quick caveat, I’m referring here to the religion as opposed to peoplehood; the latter element is so intrinsic to my being that… well, please note how I made a statement with an immediate caveat. The revelation occurred after having mumbled and bumbled our way through another seder and plopping down to watch The Prince of Egypt. As the retro animation, slick storytelling and catchy tunes washed over my exhausted family, I realised, here’s the same information, the same emotional resonance, but unlike the meal of the last ten hours, easily digestible. Why couldn’t all of Judaism just be like The Prince of Egypt: entertaining, effortless, brisk?
Stephen Spielberg has done many services for the Jewish people, but suggesting an animated film of the Ten Commandments may top them all. Like the great man himself, is Stephen too showing us the way, guiding us to animate the entire Torah? Sure there’ll be some hurdles. Yes, it’ll be distracting figuring out who’s voicing certain characters. (Who is Miriam? Of course, Sandra Bullock! Good thing the film stopped before the Golden Idol scene). Yes, it’s going to be difficult writing a catchy tune for the Bemidbar parsha, maybe to the tune of 99 bottles, “Forty-six thousand five hundred Hebrews in the desert, forty-six thousand five hundred Hebrews, if the tribe of Reuben should happen to fall, there’ll be the tribe of Simeon with fifty-nine thousand three hundred Hebrews left to blow down the wall.” Etc.
Surely it’d be worth it though, for a Judaism that Jews like myself could really flourish in. Jews who believe in God, Jews who want to live by the Torah, Jews who are lazy. Imagine a denomination where all you have do is turn on and tune out. No having to learn an entire other language. Want some Midrash? Select the audio commentary. You wouldn’t even have to wait until next Saturday’s episode, you could binge watch. How observant are you? Very. I’ve seen the entire series five times.
Fittingly, when the phrase ‘observant’ is used to differentiate between the various branches of Judaism, it feels that being more religious isn’t about what rules you adhere to, but rather, observing yourself in relation to the number of rules every other Jew adheres to. Did you achieve the highest score? If you execute every mitzvah to perfection, follow the optimum path through the maze of existence, you get to inscribe your initials in the Book of Life.
That’s why I ended up sabotaging my future at yeshivah, the more I learnt, the more stages I mastered, the more stages that were revealed. It dawned on me that no matter how hard I studied, how good my game got, I could never make it to Judaism’s final level. And for my teenage self, if you couldn’t ‘win’, then what was the point?
Hence my initial excitement with this idea of some sort of cheat code, a short cut through the system, to be whisked straight over the top of the seemingly insurmountable wall of thought constructed from multiple millennia of texts, navigated through the intricate labyrinth of rituals, traditions and practice. We could start with the Torah as a film series, but in the future hopefully there’d be something like the scene in The Matrix where in a few seconds Trinity learns how to fly a helicopter after having the knowledge directly downloaded into her cortex. Of course it’d be a different ending if Tank had clicked on the Judaism file by mistake. An hour later, ‘We’re nearly halfway through How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. Then, Rashi. Oops the sentinels killed us.’
But in the middle of writing my proposal to Spielberg, I started thinking about my journey in Judaism since yeshivah, the struggle between only doing what I can get away with, and my anxiousness of not keeping up with the Joneswitz’s. The constant two steps forward one step back. The fear of undressing the Torah scroll incorrectly, of messing up a reading, of being observed. Then there are the fragments gleamed along the way, puzzle pieces slotting together. Songs first listened to, then over the years hummed, whispered, loudly sung.
I guess I understand why there’s a reluctance to make Judaism too easy. Remove too many obstacles, you get Christianity. But it’s time for me to stop focusing on the idea that there’s some kind of end level Boss to defeat, because all I’m beating up is myself. It’s okay to play the game for the game’s sake. Fail, try again, learn, explore, have fun, get frustrated, have a breakthrough, get stuck, take a breather, keep going. Finally be the kind of Jew I want to be. Practising.