On Monday night, my SAT class stopped being just a weekly bubble-in fest.
The class is made up of just two students: David, another high school Junior who goes to an ultra-religious Yeshiva type school in West Los Angeles, and me. Just before we were about to start a lesson in Geometry, we took a ten-minute break. During the break, I turned to our substitute teacher, Rebecca, and asked her about her background. She grew up in a Jewish home, she told me, but her family was never really motivated to get involved in the holidays or their synagogue. She’d kept some form of “kosher” up until college – then she’d pretty much given it up. “I still feed my dog challah, though,” she quipped, seeming a little embarrassed about her depleted Jewish identity.
I reassured her that her fluctuating levels of “Jewishness” were all acceptable and that – as a rabbi’s son who struggles with finding purpose and meaning in Jewish text – I’m of the opinion that everyone can and should look at the Torah’s laws through differing lenses. It’s healthy.
And then David stepped in. Fiddling with the tassels of his blue winter scarf, he shook his head and in a conclusive tone – as though there wasn’t an SAT tutor in the world who could prove him wrong – said, “Look, the way I see it, either be Jewish all the way or don’t be Jewish at all.”
My mind backpedaled. Wait a second, I thought. Most of the foods that I eat (and consider “kosher”) aren’t branded with an “O U” (Orthodox Union) insignia, or even a “K” (for “kosher”). I’ll text and call my friends on Saturday (Shabbat). I haven’t put on t’fillin (phylacteries) since my trip to Israel last summer. Occasionally I’ll sleep in on Saturday mornings and – whoops – miss services at my synagogue.
But I spent the first fifteen years of my life as a relatively observant Jew. Each day, I would wear a kippah (yarmulke) and recite the morning prayers. I spent this past summer in Israel fostering a meaningful connection to the land and its people — my people. I’m conversant in Hebrew. I don’t eat meat out. I say the words of the shema prayer before I fall asleep every night. I’m a knowledgeable Jew. I still maintain an eternally deep connection to my roots and my community, but I’ve recently become less observant in the conventional sense. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve overlooked some of traditional Judaism’s more logistical practices. Why? Because if adolescence doesn’t spark some form of rebellion, what’s the point of being a teenager?
Was this kid telling me that I shouldn’t even bother being Jewish if I my religious life isn’t a precise replica of his?
“God gave us the Torah. It’s not that it’s wrong what you’re doing,” David lamented. “I’m just more Jewish than you are. I observe Judaism correctly.”
Zoom out. You’ll probably need some biographical background here. I love to debate and I love to argue. Admittedly, I could be a more patient listener sometimes. But coming to hurried conclusions and generating one-liners (that often hardly pass for rebuttals) has become almost second nature in my on-edge psyche. (So I could feel the steam shooting out of my ears like in those old Looney Tunes shorts.) Zoom back in.
I tried to keep my cool.
“I’m Jewish, David. I believe in the same God that you believe in.”
I was really trying.
“If you believed in my God you would observe his laws the way he gave them; you’d observe them the way I do.”
But then I lost it.
“Religion isn’t rational!” My calm, cool, and collected tone was quickly slipping away, making room for one of hostility. “Judaism is about interpretation. What do you think the Mishnah was for? Interpretation! Why do you think we have commentators? Interpretation! It’s the reason we have denominations! You think I’m less Jewish because I don’t observe all aspects of the Torah blindly?!”
The same bitter dialogue continued until the ten-minute break was over — and made for a rather uncomfortable Geometry lecture. But at the end of class, as I was packing my books and zipping up my backpack, David looked over at me.
“Look, Ami,” he said softly, “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You didn’t.” I assured him that it would take more than a petty, informal religious debate to offend me.
“But if you wanted to be Jewish — really Jewish…”
I cut him off.
“I don’t live Biblically. I don’t live my life in the same way you do and I don’t follow all of the commandments because we live in a modernized world. God said to stone your rebellious son, do we do that, David?”
The conventional wisdom is true — it’s important to stand up for what you believe in. It’s important to pontificate when a point needs to be made and to listen when a point needs to be heard. It’s constructive to have to defend yourself and justify your actions and existential choices. But in that moment, looking at David, I realized something invaluable: sometimes the debate just isn’t worth it.
From my perspective, ten plus years of an ultra-religious upbringing had left David with a closed mind. From his perspective, ten plus years of my (“liberal,” as he called it) upbringing had left me with a closed mind. Of course, I wasn’t arguing against orthodoxy — David didn’t represent the beliefs of all orthodox Jews. I was arguing against David. But I wasn’t going to convince him, nor was he going to convince me. Had there been an impressionable audience present, I might have continued the argument. I might have done all I could to bestow my beliefs upon those who were listening. I might have raised my voice, even yelled.
But no one was listening, and as I walked out of my class into the crisp January night, it became clear to me that there would only be one tangible result of our impromptu (and largely inconsequential) debate: a lower score in the math section of the SAT.
Written for the Roar.