I spent half my life agnostic and the rest, God-focused. Growing up in a Los Angeles-based Conservative Jewish family, we never dabbled in theology but we relished in our culture and peoplehood. In the synagogue, our clergy and teachers presented everything other than belief, concentrating on what I like to call the four H’s: Holy Land, Holocaust, Hebrew and Holidays. It filled my soul with meaning and substance.
Then I discovered that there’s a fifth “H” in the formula: Holiness. I’m hard pressed to recommend a way to incorporate this core Jewish value without bringing God into the picture. Post-college I started asking fundamental questions, comparing my feelings of universal connectedness to the teachings of Judaism. On a trip to Israel in 1985 my light was turned on. I discovered that in Jerusalem, living a holy life with 24/7 belief in God was natural, normal, even fashionable. I could have lived my whole life in the Southern California fast lane and never opened this can of worms. Many of my deepest intuitions about God were confirmed in that City of Gold and although I didn’t realize it at the time, my Jewish “pilot light” was primed to explode.
The “fifth H” may be free in Jerusalem but in L.A. I was going to have to work to get it.
After that trip I lived with a generous helping of cognitive dissonance since my life back in L.A. as a musician didn’t flow with the rigorous lifestyle of believers. However, try as I may, I could not return to my comfortable “unexamined life.” After a few years in limbo I decided to take a few proactive steps to get back on the holiness track. The “fifth H” may be free in Jerusalem but in L.A. I was going to have to work to get it.
One crucial step was moving into a Jewish community. Living close to a synagogue (or in my case 40 of them) was essential to normalizing a God-focused consciousness. I don’t think I had the moral strength to make these spiritual strides in a vacuum. Perhaps this is why God invented peer pressure.
The other change was my committing to Shabbat. I think the Torah emphasizes this ritual over any other because it offers consistent physical, financial and emotional evidence that one is serious about the relationship. You can’t hope your marriage will last if you insist on flings on the side. I remember my last gig on Shabbat; it was clear to me that the exponential growth that I was experiencing didn’t jive with the driving, shlepping gear, plugging in and getting a paycheck. Just like my marriage has bloomed beyond my wildest expectations thanks to the infernal power of Commitment, so too has my love affair with the Creator of the universe.
I can relate to the parable of the miserable bird in the Garden of Eden. The bird complains to God that all the other animals have arms and hands and it got stuck with burdensome appendages at its sides. God then explains that those strange limbs are actually wings and with them the bird can fly!
Mitzvot, commandments, are our wings, not the burden that we might have thought. For me, the clumsy appendages were the dietary restrictions that I ignored, the day of rest on which I trampled and the idea of standing in a sanctuary singing words I didn’t understand. Like most Jews I was content to do it “My Way” and live with a vague, hibernating feeling of guilt.
In the first half of my life, Judaism was relaxed and sweet; questions of belief in God rarely came up and that was fine. I loved my Jewish summer camp memories, learned enough for my Bar Mitzvah that I didn’t feel like an imbecile in the shul and could appreciate a good deli sandwich. Then I took a series of baby steps down a path towards commitment. The first four H's taught me to walk. Now I'm learning how to fly.