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The Skeptic and the Rabbi

March 3, 2011 | by Judy Gruen

I was no spiritual seeker and wary of drinking the kosher Kool-Aid.

The first time I walked into one of Rabbi Daniel Lapin's classes, I felt myself clench my jaw. I had heard some buzz about this charismatic young rabbi who had built an unlikely outpost for Jewish outreach near Venice Beach, California. Based on what I'd heard about him and his group of devotees, I'd thought, You'll never catch me with those kinds of people!

"Those kinds of people" were actually a lot like me: Jews who had been raised with an apathetic and cursory Jewish education that left us hard pressed to even name the Ten Commandments. Rabbi Lapin's students were doing something that as a feminist I found unimaginable: studying the Torah from an Orthodox rabbi, the kind with a beard, a wife and house full of little kids. His students were keeping kosher and walking in their "Sunday best" on Saturdays to synagogue – symptoms that they had drunk the kosher Kool-Aid. I was no spiritual seeker, so I felt content in my gaping ignorance of traditional Jewish thought.

But secretly, I was relieved that Orthodox Jews were still around. I suspected that there was truth in the Torah and that keeping the commandments was important. I simply preferred that someone else to do the heavy lifting. Sometimes, I'd drive past groups of them on Saturdays as they walked home from synagogue while I headed to the mall with a friend. It may sound odd, but part of me wanted to crouch beneath the steering wheel so they wouldn't see me flouting the Sabbath.

Jeff was a real mensch. If only he hadn't been religious, he would have been perfect.

And yet, I had been raised in the Conservative movement to believe that Judaism had to change with the times to remain relevant. Change suggested enlightenment, adaptability, and progress. That's why I found women's roles in Orthodox Judaism so infuriating, though I had never heard from anyone who was Orthodox why those roles were differently defined. I couldn't imagine what could ever justify it.

That’s why, after I finally agreed to attend, I sat tensely in the class, anxious about what I'd hear and primed to pounce on any idea that struck me as reactionary. I came only because Jeff, my boyfriend, had developed an alarming affinity for traditional Judaism and Rabbi Lapin's teachings in particular. I had liked Jeff immediately because he was smart, funny, a great conversationalist, and someone who cared about things that really mattered. A real mensch, as my Nana would have said. If only he hadn't been religious, he would have been perfect.

That night, Rabbi Lapin was elucidating the deeper meanings in the text in Genesis that discussed the relationship between Isaac and his wife Rebecca. Her barrenness was so emotionally painful that it led to marital conflict, and it gave me a little shock to think of these biblical legends as a flesh-and-blood couple with real, poignant problems. In Hebrew school, the shallow treatment of Torah studies made our great matriarchs and patriarchs, such as Isaac and Rebecca, seem no more substantial than stock fairy tale characters.

Unfortunately for me, it was impossible to pigeonhole Rabbi Lapin as some sort of benighted religious scholar. No matter where we were in Genesis, he managed to make connections to Newtonian physics, the poetry of Byron, the economic theories of Adam Smith, and strategies for navigating a sailboat from California to Hawaii. This was not stream of consciousness. This was a brilliant weaving together of history, science, literature, and Talmudic thought, and he made it all fit, if you were paying attention. No wonder the men and women perched on folding chairs in the Lapins' living room sat in rapt attention.

After only one class, I realized that my confidence in my opinions about Judaism was absurd in light of my low double-digit Jewish IQ.

Nor was I prepared for the man's exuberance and enthusiasm for teaching the Torah, which he called "God's blueprint for living." This contrasted starkly with the extreme somberness of my grandfather, a rabbi whose commitment to Judaism was heartfelt, but seemingly joyless. After only one class, I realized that my confidence in my opinions about Judaism was absurd in light of my low double-digit Jewish IQ. The good news was that my ignorance troubled me.

Rabbi Lapin's intellectual firepower, breadth of knowledge and charisma made him a fascinating teacher, yet he was already controversial for his fiercely independent leadership style. To maintain his autonomy from any board of directors, he refused to take a salary as community leader, and ran a business to support his growing family. He defined membership in the community not through a check but through a commitment to weekly attendance at his classes. If you couldn't attend, you were expected to call. I didn't like this authoritarian style, which only added to my conflict.

Additionally, I was aghast at how he turned so many of my unquestioned assumptions on their heads. For example, he claimed that a life that included restrictions and discipline was the path to true freedom, a lesson I never heard at U.C. Berkeley. He taught that what he called "ethical capitalism" was not only expedient but moral, because in a free society people can only make money by supplying things that other people want. But because people so easily get carried away by greed, we have the words "In God We Trust" on our currency as a reminder to maintain God-given ethical standards. Just try testing these ideas out on your non-religious Jewish friends and see how many you have left at the end of the evening.

As Jeff and I continued to attend the Thursday night classes, I began to suffer from what Rabbi Lapin accurately diagnosed as "cognitive dissonance." Many of his points struck me in some primal way as being true, yet I was battling so much intellectual and emotional static that it was very hard to really hear these ideas. I wondered: How much of my prejudice against anything that smacked of "Orthodoxy" was innate, and how much absorbed from an upbringing that disdained it? In either case, I was determined to try to overcome it, and live my life according to what seemed true, even if it proved inconvenient.

The dawning sense that Rabbi Lapin had important, transcendent lessons to teach led me to become one of the regulars who waited in the line that formed after each class to ask him for clarification about things I didn't fully understand, or to challenge things he said. I was a hard sell, and I appreciated the respect and full attention he gave to all my questions, no matter how basic.

I also sensed that Rabbi Lapin was not as unapproachable or forbidding as he could appear. As a dinner guest at his home with Jeff, I saw him not only as a teacher, but as a gracious host, devoted husband and father to several little girls and one little boy. "I'm not here to make anyone religious," he told another guest. "I'm here to show what Torah living is about. People can make up their own minds after that."

More than two years after beginning to study with Rabbi Lapin, Jeff and I got married. By that time, which included a year apart while I went to graduate school, I had seen and learned enough to commit to a life of Jewish tradition with integrity. Once I allowed myself to hear ideas that challenged and even threatened my way of thinking, I could see that the Torah way of life was to a remarkable degree producing happy marriages and emotionally healthy children. I had met dozens of strong, intelligent, educated women who had chosen this lifestyle, were nobody's doormats, and effectively rebutted my unfair stereotype of a "typical" Orthodox Jewish woman as one who had been programmed for limitless reproduction and happy to be relegated to what I considered second-class citizenship. I decided that maybe God knew better than I did about how to live a meaningful, enlightened life, and I was willing to live by the rules even though I didn't yet agree with many points on women's issues. I suspected that my lack of understanding, rather than God's lack of planning, might have been the problem.

"The more that things change, the more we need to depend upon those things that never change."

Yet even after taking more than two years to arrive at this conclusion, I panicked at the moment I was waiting to walk down the aisle. What am I doing? Am I crazy? I wondered. But Rabbi Lapin, Jeff, and our parents were waiting under the chuppah, 225 guests were waiting for my big entry, and my makeup had been professionally applied, so I trembled down the aisle, hoping I wasn't making a catastrophic error. Seeing my panic, Rabbi Lapin threw me a lifeline. He smiled reassuringly and nodding encouragingly, helping me keep track of the seven circuits I walked around Jeff, according to Jewish custom. In my flustered state I couldn't even count to seven.

Over the past 23 years, Rabbi Lapin has grown steadily from a teacher to a friend. My respect and admiration have only grown as I saw how tirelessly he worked to help so many of us navigate the delicate, often thorny issues that arose between us and our families, who often were bewildered if not antagonistic to our choices to embrace Jewish tradition. He shored up our confidence while also showing us how to reassure our parents that we had not rejected them. Over time, I saw how much of his wisdom about marriage, parenting, spirituality, and life itself proved true. Not surprisingly, his philosophy became a tag line of his show on San Francisco's KSFO radio: "The more that things change, the more we need to depend upon those things that never change."

Once I began to unclench my jaw, I could begin to hear the kind of wisdom I had never heard before, and see possibilities for a life I could never have imagined.

This essay appears in the new anthology Fits Starts & Matters of the Heart: 28 True Stories of Love, Loss & Everything In Between.

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