Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Following Your Rav to the Bathroom

One of the giants of Torah, R. Akiba, told how he followed R. Joshua to the privy and learned three things (Berakoth 62a). I remember once following one of my teachers, Rabbi Yari, out of the bathroom at a seminar in St. Louis to ask a question and he very nicely held up a finger to delay the interaction and recited the asher yatzar benediction (prayer said after going to the bathroom) and then devoted his full attention to answering me. Instead of reading about it in a book I was able to see the mitzvah of that particular blessing demonstrated before me in real life. Seeing great teachers in private and perhaps intimate moments has a long tradition in Jewish life.

My own journey to Orthodox Judaism has been long, arduous, and even incomplete. However, despite that ongoing struggle I have learned much and would like to comment on that as well as my wife's return, בעלת תשובה, from the perspective of a social worker which I most certainly am, rather than a Talmudic scholar which I am most certainly not.

There are many excellent books, a plethora of outstanding web sites, and many wonderful outreach organizations for Jews, and even a few good resources for persons wanting to convert properly under Jewish law (Halacha). YouTube even has a huge collection of frum videos showing you how to say certain blessings and perform mitzvot. What is missing is hands on instruction and direct observation. Some things you just cannot learn from a book, or even a video. You have to be in a posistion to follow your Rav to the bathroom. The question is how to get there.

The obvious answer is to move to an observant community. That will be the subject of a whole other post but for now suffice it to say that in many cases that is much easier said than done. We are a case in point. The other is being allowed to be engaged in Jewish life rather than being a guest and assigning mentors that go beyond studying with you to show you how to get things done.

Case in point is when we went kosher. We learned some painful lessons (mostly of an economic nature), and hard lessons that could have been avoided with just good advice and living examples. If it was not for the practical advice of a Chabad rabbi in St. Louis and a set of methodical lectures, hours long in length, that I inadvertantly found on the internet we would have never gotten it done. What we needed was somebody to come here and say this is the way you do it and to walk us through the process. My wife would have benefited greatly by just being in someone's kitchen while they showed her how things were done, and ideally perhaps several people. It is one thing to be invited for Shabbos, very nice, but another to have someone say come over and let me show you how to run a kitchen. It was for this very reason that I taught extra classes last semester to be able to send my kids to a Jewish camp.

This summer my two daughters attended Camp Nageelah Midwest. It was a wonderful experience and it did everything I wanted it to do. My girls were exposed to wonderful female role models who guided them on a daily basis and worked with them on the practical aspects of living a Jewish life. A couple of days ago one of my daughters walked by while I was saying the morning prayer. I was facing Jerusalem, read that in a book, but she told me I was doing it wrong since I was not in front of a window. She just picked that up as part of the everyday routine from her camping experience.

It is one thing to have a study partner, anther to experience Shabbos hospitality, but seeing your rav come out of the bathroom and helping somebody peel potatoes in a kosher kitchen is important too. It is all about socialization. You do not get that from a book.

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