On August 5, 2003, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, America's most outspoken Orthodox Jew, made a bombshell broadcast to her 12 million radio listeners. She announced that she would no longer practice Judaism.
"I still see myself as a Jew," confessed Dr. Laura, who underwent an Orthodox conversion five years ago. "But the spiritual journey in that direction -- as hardcore as I was at it -- just didn't fulfill something in me that I needed… My identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals of the entity -- that has ended."
As shocking as her rejection of Judaism is the longing glance she cast toward Christianity: "I have envied all my Christian friends, who really, universally, deeply feel loved by God. They use the name Jesus in referring to God… That was a mystery, feeling connected to God."
Some Christian commentators are having a field day. Joseph Grant Swank, Jr., wrote on a popular Conservative website: "Dr. Laura says that she gets from Judaism present-tense what she's always got from Judaism. The cold shoulder. She tried to deny it for years of study and ritual and hoop jumping. But now she cannot deny it any longer. It's a cold religion when it comes to Dr. Laura's appraisal of Judaism and she can't stand in the cold any longer."
It's an old canard. Decades ago a Catholic friend remarked to me: "Well, of course, the Jewish God is a God of law. The Christian God is a God of love." I, who at the time knew almost nothing about the Jewish God, was taken aback as much by the pat formula as by the matter-of-fact way in which he proclaimed it, like a piece of catechism well learned.
Three decades ago, like many assimilated Jews, I didn't know how to respond to my Christian friend. Today, however, having just come home from morning prayers at the Western Wall, where the women around me were praying to "the Jewish God" with such fervor, such devotion, such ardent love, I know exactly how to respond to Dr. Laura.
Is it possible that a religion that has produced such lovers of God as King David, the prophetess Devorah, the medieval poet Yehuda HaLevi, the 16th century mystics of Safed, the Baal Shem Tov, and the women who pray daily at the Western Wall can provide Dr. Laura no avenue of connection to God?
This is the Hebrew month of Elul, which in Hebrew forms an acrostic for the words: "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine." During this month before the High Holydays, the rabbis tell us, "The King is in the field." As my nine-year-old explains: "It means that God is very close to us. He's right here with us."
CLOSENESS TO GOD
The highest union with God that humans can achieve is union of will. To unite one's will with the divine will is ultimate closeness to God.
Real love entails a uniting of wills, which often requires a submission of one's will to the will of the beloved.
Even in human relationships, real love entails a uniting of wills, which often requires a submission of one's will to the will of the beloved. That is why real love, as opposed to Hollywood love, requires hard work and renunciation. If you want to go Italian, but your beloved wants Chinese, no matter how romantic the date, oneness will be achieved only if one of you loves enough to say (sincerely): "Whatever makes you happy is fine with me."
In this light, the greatest impediment to a relationship is not really knowing what the other wants. This problem crops up in our family every year on my husband's birthday, when my eagerness to give him what he wants is squelched by his not wanting anything in particular.
This year was different. My inquiry two weeks before his birthday solicited from him the definite response that he wanted an acclaimed four-volume set on the laws of Shabbat. Joyfully, I walked into our local Jewish bookstore and asked for the set.
It was out of print. The bookseller assured me that there wasn't a set to be had in all of Jerusalem, but the publisher was running off a new printing which should, with luck, be out in a month or two. I was crestfallen.
The day before my husband's birthday, I was shopping in the neighborhood of Geula when I passed a bookstore. A firm believer that it never hurts to try, I went in and asked for the set.
The storeowner replied, "I have the very last set in all of Jerusalem. Someone ordered it months ago, and I kept it for him, but he hasn't returned from America. So I'm willing to sell it to you."
Jubilant, I purchased the formidable tomes, and set out to meet my husband who had the car. We had arranged that he would wait for me at the top of the hill, some four blocks away. It was a hot day, and I was already schlepping a half dozen heavy packages. The four-volume set weighed a whopping ten pounds, but as I traipsed up the hill, I felt ecstatic that I could actually give my husband exactly what he wanted.
In the Torah, God told the Jewish people exactly what He wants from us. Far from being "saddled with the burden of the mitzvot," we are privileged to have 613 ways to connect with God. There is no greater demonstration of His love for us than the mitzvot: 613 channels of total connection.
Dr. Laura has ironically renounced the very mitzvot that have the potential to connect her to God.
Distinguishing between the "God of law" and the "God of love" is like distinguishing between my lawfully wedded husband and my lover. Ideally, they should be one and the same. In Judaism, the laws are the greatest manifestation of the love, like the laws of matrimony.
The tragic irony of Dr. Laura's spiritual crisis is that not feeling connected to God, she has renounced the very mitzvot that have the potential to connect her to God.
Five years ago, Dr. Laura purchased the right car. If it has not taken her anywhere, rather than junk the car, she would do well to check the immobilizer, check the gas gauge, make sure she has the right key in the ignition.
SLIDING INTO SECOND
Dr. Laura complained to her millions of listeners: "I felt that I was putting out a tremendous amount toward that mission, that end, and not feeling return, not feeling connected, not feeling that inspired."
The sense of connection with God that has eluded Dr. Laura does not come automatically. The pitfall of Jewish observance is that it's hard not to fall into a mechanical performance of mitzvot that are performed repeatedly, daily, sometimes many times a day. To perform the commandments as they are meant to be performed -- consciously, joyfully, focused on the Commander -- is a feat of mindfulness which requires consistent effort and a level of concentration enough to challenge a Zen adept.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a great contemporary sage, writes: "Obviously, when performing the mitzvot mechanically, there is neither mindfulness nor love nor joy."
What does Rabbi Wolbe recommend as an antidote to such mechanical performance of a mitzvah? Not to enter the mitzvah suddenly. Rather, "let us contemplate that the Holy One, Blessed be He, Himself, commanded us in this commandment, and that through it, we are connecting with Him." [Alei Shor, p. 327]
Life is busy. No one -- especially not a famous radio personality and author -- has time to do everything and do it right. Most of us perform mitzvot -- pray, recite blessings over food, etc. -- like a baseball player sliding into second base. We consider it commendable that we take the time to perform the mitzvah at all. The notion that we should take an extra couple minutes and pause before fulfilling a commandment to reflect on the One who has commanded us and to unite our will wholeheartedly with His may seem daunting, but this is the way the mitzvot are meant to be performed.
For example, before reciting the Shemona Esrai, the long prayer a Jew is obligated to recite two or three times a day, Maimonides writes that one is obligated to stop and reflect on the greatness of the God one is about to address. Given that it takes the average Jew anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to recite the Shemona Esrai, isn't it a shame not to take the extra two minutes of reflection before beginning in order to reframe the whole prayer as an exercise of love and closeness?
I have been religiously observant for 18 years. Three months ago, a woman started giving a course in our neighborhood on the mitzvah of taking hallah. In the Torah, God commands that once we enter the Land of Israel, when we bake bread, we should separate off a small piece of the dough and put it aside. This is one of the three mitzvot that are considered specifically given to women.
Not being the earthy type, I have never felt inclined to bake bread from scratch. With my bread maker, yes. With my husband (a pianist who loves to exercise his fingers by kneading) making the dough, and me just saying the blessing and breaking off a piece of dough, yes. But to take a ten-week course in the single mitzvah of separating hallah, no thanks.
When a friend asked me why I wasn't taking the hallah course, I replied glibly that I'm all air signs, and I'm not the earthy, bread-baking type.
My friend looked at me aghast. "Don't you know that all the blessings of physical abundance come down into the world through the performance of the mitzvah of taking hallah? The mitzvah also effects healing in 14 different ways."
I enrolled in the course, wondering how there could be so much to say about a single mitzvah.
"The mitzvah of hallah is cosmic in its effect," the teacher proclaimed. Every week my jaw dropped lower as she expatiated on the mystic ramifications of this one mitzvah.
Then she announced that the following week a rabbi would be coming in to teach us about the mitzvah's specific requirements in Jewish law. This would take two hours.
Two hours? I couldn't imagine how he could fill up two hours. And, of course, I already knew how to do the mitzvah.
I went to the class anyway. I discovered that I had been doing the mitzvah wrong.
The following week, our teacher announced, she would be demonstrating how to make hallah. I came prepared for a Pillsbury lesson that I didn't need because my husband has the world's best recipe for whole wheat hallah.
The demonstration was a life-changing event.
Now I make hallah once a month, and it's the spiritual highpoint of my month.
Now I make hallah once a month, and it's the spiritual highpoint of my month. I start by turning off the phone and announcing that no one is permitted into the kitchen until I've finished; this mitzvah requires total concentration.
Then I give charity, so that all my prayers will be favorably accepted. Then I say a chapter of Psalms, to open up the gates of heaven.
While sifting the flour, I sing, because joy is the foundation of all spiritual success. Then I add each ingredient consciously: sugar for the sweetness I hope to see in my family's life; yeast so that each member of my family will grow and expand; water represents Torah; when measuring salt, which represents rebuke, I fill two tablespoons, then shake some back into the salt container because we should always give less rebuke than we think we should; and as I slowly pour in the oil, I "anoint" each member of my family by name, praying for his or her specific needs.
Kneading is the time to pray. My teenage daughter and I take turns, each of us thinking of people to pray for by name: single friends that they should get married; childless friends that they should have babies; sick people and terror victims that they should have a speedy and complete recovery; people struggling financially that they should have livelihood. My daughter reminds me to add the names of Israel's missing soldiers and of Jonathan Pollard. On and on we knead and pray, with such spiritual focus and intensity, that the kitchen becomes charged.
Now the dough is ready to take the hallah, but the spiritual preparations to perform the mitzvah properly continue. Reading from a laminated sheet prepared and distributed by two Israeli sisters, I pray fervently that my performance of the mitzvah of hallah will repair the primeval sin of Eve. That just as she brought death into the world, I will bring life into the world, nullifying death, erasing the tears from every face.
Now I am ready to perform the mitzvah. I break off a small piece of dough, recite the blessing over the mitzvah, and with both hands lift the piece of dough above my head and proclaim: "Behold, this is hallah!"
My hands are quivering with the spiritual intensity of the moment. With my hands still raised, I utter two more prayers -- one that my taking hallah should be considered as if I had brought an offering in the Holy Temple, that it should atone for all my sins and be as if I am born anew, and the other for the complete and final redemption of the whole world.
It has taken me over an hour to perform this one mitzvah. I feel exalted, tremulous, ecstatic as I used to feel after hours of meditation.
The lack was not in the mitzvah. The lack was not in Judaism. The lack was in me.
For 17 years, I sporadically (and incorrectly) performed the mitzvah of hallah, while having no idea of the profundity and spiritual potential of the mitzvah. I slid into second base, recited the blessing, broke off a piece of dough -- and felt nothing. It did not connect me to God, except on the most rudimentary level.
The lack was not in the mitzvah. The lack was not in Judaism. The lack was in me.
The mitzvot are an unparalleled spiritual feast. Most Jews have barely tasted their sumptuousness. Connoisseurs know the difference between eating and dining. The latter takes time -- and concentration on the taste of every bite. A connoisseur dining in a five-star restaurant will not complain at how long the food takes to prepare. Nor will he assess the quality of the restaurant by how full he feels when he leaves.
Judaism is not a fast-food religion. Connecting to God through the mitzvot takes time, constant learning and a commitment to moving ever deeper.
My dear sister Laura, I invite you to try again. God loves you so much that He gave you His mitzvot, each one of which is a radiant path to connect to Him.
Please, my sister Laura, come to Jerusalem and bake hallah with me.
Sara Yoheved Rigler invites all of her readers to make challah with her on Friday, Dec. 28, 2007 at 11 AM in her home in the Old City of Jerusalem (2 Ararat St., Apt. 3).