To Zion Goes I

I have been writing and re-writing this post for several months now. It is more of a personal post than one that is related to libertarianism in any particular way, so in that sense, it’s a bit self-indulgent. I suppose writing itself is a bit self-indulgent, at least for me. In any case, the main reason that I am addressing this particular subject is because it is a stumbling block for me in my libertarianism. It has presented me to some particular viewpoints that I have not, to my satisfaction, been able to reconcile to anarcho-capitalism. The upside is that I have had to seriously question my beliefs, and I think that is always a worthwhile exercise. So what is this mysterious idea?

Well, I am a Noahide. If you are not Jewish, and perhaps even if you are, you likely do not know what that means. According to the Old Testament (or the Torah, if you prefer), God gave Noah seven commandments for all of humanity to follow after the floodwaters receded. They are quite similar to the more famous Ten Commandments, and their advice is to be found in all religions that I am personally aware of, major and minor. Don’t kill people. Don’t slut around. The usual.

In theory, Noahides are simply people that follow those seven commandments. They could be from any religious background, and there is no implication that they have anything to do with Judaism. In practice, it seems as though most Noahides are wannabe Jews who, for one reason or another, cannot or do not want to convert. From what I have read, most people who choose the Noahide path do so because they have no other option. Usually they are geographically distant from an active Jewish community, or they have a spouse who has no interest in converting. Many rabbis won’t convert one half of a couple. If you want to convert Orthodox, you have to live within walking distance of your chosen shul, and from what I have read, some Reform and Conservative rabbis like their converts to be close to the temple.

So wait, does that mean I’m admitting that I want to convert to Judaism? Yes, that is exactly what it means. How did I realize this? Well, it’s a long story with a bad joke delineating the first and second acts.

I had a WASP-y upbringing. I have no historical connections to Judaism, as far as I am aware. To be honest, growing up in a small, rural Illinois town, my knowledge of Judaism growing up was quite limited, and I was not interested in learning about it. My maternal grandparents raised me, and although they both belonged to churches, we never went. My grandmother had been an active member of one of the local United Methodist churches up until my mother passed away, and best I can remember, she never went to another church service again. My grandfather was quite mum about his views on religion, although he didn’t have much use for the clergy, as a group. He would, on occasion, say that there were no atheists in the foxholes, so I have to assume he believed in God. I remember being surprised when I asked him, for a middle school history project, if he had been captured and sent to a concentration camp, what three things he would have wanted to take and why. The first thing he said was a copy of the Bible. I asked him why, but I don't remember the answer except that I remember thinking it didn't make sense to me. Perhaps it would now.

In any event, I was fine with this state of affairs. Most of my friends’ families were churchgoers, and they all had to get up early on Sunday and haul themselves to Sunday school and the 11:00 service. When they all started going through confirmation, I stayed up late on Saturday nights reading Stephen King novels, Shakespeare, and clacking away at my typewriter. I often didn’t go to bed until 1 a.m. or later.

I did start going to church later on in junior high. One of my best friends had two Methodist ministers for parents. (And yes, she lived up to the common wisdom about pastors’ kids being wild.) She started dragging me to youth group, and I went there and to church with them, but it was mostly because I wanted to spend time with my friend. I was the kid in Sunday school who asked too many questions and almost never got a satisfactory answer. I went through confirmation, but I learned little, and it meant nothing to me. I became the youth rep for the church board, probably because I was old for my age and adults liked me, but when my friend and I “broke up,” I quit going to church. A year in Catholic school robbed me of my faith in religious types, though in hindsight that was more down to me than it was to them, and when I discovered Nietzsche the summer after my freshman year of high school, I became a strident atheist and remained so for many, many years.

My mind did not change due to some rational revelation through an argument about the “unmoved mover” or anything like that. My mind changed through a couple of honestly terrifying personal experiences that I had in my later college years. One of them frightened me so badly that I would not sleep in my childhood bedroom at my grandparents’ house for over a year. At that point, I was willing to at least concede that there were things in this world that I did not understand, but I still had no use for religion.

A little more time passed, and for whatever reason, I found myself interested in spirituality. I couldn’t quite convince myself that it was what I wanted, but my study of it and seeming desire to seek out those who were spiritual leads me to believe that I was searching for something, even though I would never have admitted it at the time. In fact, I ended up spending a chunk of time in my mid- to late twenties sniffing around for something meaningful that would give me a framework for the universe, but nothing ever totally satisfied me. I knew that I was not a Christian, but I was sort of at a dead end about where to go.

When I came back to the US after many years overseas, my English ex and I split. He returned to the UK, leaving me solely responsible for three very young little girls and all that goes along with that. I went through quite a dark, depressed time in my life, and for a while, it felt like nothing was ever going to get better. I am happy to report that this turned out not to be the case, and life has improved dramatically for all parties, but for a long time, I had a damned difficult time convincing myself of that fact.

One of the things that I discovered, getting divorced in my small hometown, is that people seem to assume that if you don’t have a man in your life, you’re leaving room for Jesus. I had multiple people try to get me to come to church with them. I got kind of tired of it, honestly. I would politely tell them no, they would badger me a little more, and I would maintain my position. After an experience with a person I had known from childhood, I burst out to one of her relatives a couple of days later, “If she asks again, tell her I converted! Tell her I’m Jewish! Just make it clear that I’m not interested!”

I know, I know. It wasn’t in good taste, but in my defense, I was tired of the proselytizing. But you know… It worked. Not that long after, a young, sweet-faced Bible thumper came to my door. I smiled beatifically and said, “We’re Jewish and not interested. And the lady next door there is quite elderly, and it would be very rude to get her out of her chair because she can barely walk. And the lady in the white house across the street is an active member of Centenary. So please don’t bother them. Have a nice day.” And you know… It worked.

I did stop with the joke, even though it kept the less pushy Bible thumpers away. The funny thing about jokes though, as any good comedian will tell you, is that there has to be a seed of truth to them for them to be funny. I guess I sort of planted the seed in my own head, in this case. One night, after the kids went to bed, I opened up a private browser tab on my computer and started reading a little bit about the basics of Judaism. (I would honestly have felt less guilty looking at porn.) And you know… I didn’t hate it. Of course, at the end of it, I shut my computer, laughed at myself, and let it go.

Well, I thought I did, anyway. I didn’t really let it go. I kept coming back to it late at night after the kids went to bed. I kept reading and enjoying it, but whenever I would see anything about conversion, I would ignore it and move on. In my mind, Judaism was something a person was born to, and it wasn’t something you could select into. It just didn’t work like that.

I’ll stop the story here and say that part of me still feels that way. There are three components to Jewishness: ethnic, cultural, and religious. Obviously, you can’t pull a Rachel Dolezal and start telling everyone that you’re an Ashkenazi Jew ethnically just because you feel Jewish. That’s nuts. But you can convert religiously, and the culture comes along with that, over time. Of course, conversion is a sticky wicket, and the question of “Who is a Jew?” is a longstanding and controversial one. And, of course, there are plenty of jokes about it. 

The thing about conversion is that there is no conversion standard. The general rule is that the more conservative you go, the less likely it is that that movement will recognize the conversion of a more liberal movement. The general rule of thumb then is that Reform recognizes all conversions, Conservative recognizes Orthodox and Conservative, and the Orthodox only recognize Orthodox conversions. God help you if you want to immigrate to Israel and get married because then you have to deal with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and they won’t let you marry in Israel unless they’re certain your conversion was kosher. Yeah, God help you. It’s a mess.

I think that would be tolerable, were it not for the possibility that the community itself may not accept you if you convert. Judaism is unique in that it doesn’t look for converts. ("I wouldn't want to be part of a club that wanted me as a member.") If you go to most churches and say, “I think I want to become Christian and be a member,” the pastor or priest will probably fall over himself to get you situated. Not so in Judaism. Rabbis are supposed to turn you away three times, although I hear some of the more liberal Reform rabbis are doing away with that tradition. In any case, it would be an outright lie to say that there aren’t stories out there of converts jumping through all the hoops of classes, participation in community events and holidays, and then having people be less than welcoming or saying behind their backs, even after several years, that they “aren’t one of us.” Fortunately, there are also really great stories about things going the opposite way and converts being warmly welcomed, but the horror stories are the ones that stick with you.

None of this stopped me from drinking two bottles of wine at Oktoberfest and leaning in to my best friend and whispering, “Don’t laugh. I think I want to convert… like, to Judaism.” I was kind of shocked when she laughed and told me that she thought I’d probably be a pretty good Jew. My friend is a strident atheist in the way that I used to be, and I found it rather heartening that she would say that. Maybe she was just being nice because I was drunk. 

I came back from Oktoberfest and made a decision that felt like a good compromise. I decided that I would start practicing on my own. If I could make it a full calendar year by myself, and it still felt like something I wanted to do, then I would make myself go talk to a rabbi which, in case you were curious, remains one of things that I am most terrified to do. 

So I bought a menorah – a chanukkiah, if you want to be really accurate – for Hanukkah, and we celebrated Hanukkah this past year. I have tried to get us as close to shomer Shabbos as reasonably possible, given personal constraints. I almost never make it home to light candles by the appointed time, especially at this time of year when it’s so dark so early, but we do light the candles and say the Sabbath blessing. (My Hebrew sucks, in case you were curious.) Saturday is our day of rest, and I do not drive on Saturday unless it’s an emergency. We putter around the house and hang out as a family, which is nice. Saturday evening, things kick back into high gear. Eventually, I would like to cut out the electronics on Saturday. I don’t care if you’re religious or not; I think it’s a good thing to shut off the phone and the TV sometimes.

As of today, there aren’t any major holidays until Pesach, otherwise known as Passover. I am considering koshering my kitchen. I try to keep the basic kosher rules – no pork and no mixing milk and meat. I have started reading up on exactly what it takes to totally kosher one’s kitchen, and let me just say, I understand now why Jewish people have a reputation for being neurotic. Keeping kosher is a serious job, even if you don’t go full Monty and blowtorch your sink.

A lot of this probably doesn’t sound good or fun. It probably sounds like an unnecessary hassle without any particular benefit. Not the case. I have actually quite enjoyed it. Part of that is because I find a bit of delight in learning about different cultures – always have, always will. But honestly, one of the big things that I appreciate about Judaism is the ritualistic nature of it. You have to do a lot, and I discovered something that I did not quite expect: When you do these things, it brings small but consistent improvements to your life. (Like Jordan Peterson said it would.) Lighting candles every Friday night and butchering some Hebrew may not seem important, but it signals something: family time. It is a requirement that you spend time with your kids – and spouse, if you have one. It is a requirement that you be mindful about what goes in your mouth. It’s a requirement that you keep things clean. People bang on about how these religious requirements have no benefit, but that’s absolutely untrue. It would be totally dishonest of me to say that integrating these things into my life has been of zero benefit. To the contrary, I find I am far more content most of the time.

So what’s the problem, besides the conversion issue, which is my own to deal with? Well, it’s the proverbial elephant in the room: Israel.

I do not have an answer about Israel. I firmly believe that Jewish people should be able to live in their own state, if that is what they want. Religiously, I believe in the right of return, and yes, I am a religious Zionist. Obviously, I am aware that this is not a compelling secular argument. 

The simplest secular argument is that Israel was carved out of British Palestine, and a Jewish state was established by the UN at that point. We can argue over whether or not the UN is a valid legal body and whether or not the Brits truly had the authority to give up that portion of the land, but at the end of the day, in my mind, the scenario isn’t entirely different from what happened here in the US. The British government gave rights to land it didn’t really own, fighting happened, and a new state was established. The US isn’t giving its land back to the Native Americans. It’s also perhaps worth noting that around 7% of Israeli land was legally purchased. Granted, that’s not a huge percentage, but it is worth noting.

I do not consider Israel to be any more or less legitimate than any other state. That I do not like the idea of states is clear because at bottom, I remain a philosophical anarchist. However, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the subject of anarchy lately, not just because of Judaism. I have long wondered if anarchy is truly scalable, even though it is the most inherently ethical system. In truth, I no longer believe that it is, beyond approximately 200-300 people, and the way the overall world system currently functions, anarchy is probably not feasible. 

That does not mean, by the way, that I will cease to argue from a generally anarchist position. This is partly because I like to take the extreme in a negotiation or argument in the hopes that I’ll get to a middle ground that I find favorable. A lot of cappies will say that this selling out. I guess I feel like I would rather get at least a few things I want, rather than become mired in an internal fight whereby we do nothing that isn’t ideologically pure while everyone else moves on and continues to do things that are in complete opposition to everything that I want. 

I am aware that this post is not going to earn me many popularity points with other ancaps. In point of fact, it may well damage my readership and my credibility. I am willing to run that risk in favor of being honest though, and the honest truth is that both anarcho-capitalist philosophy and Judaism have done a lot for me intellectually and personally. I have no desire to give either of them up.

I do not know if I will ever convert. Maybe six months from now, I’ll be sick of baking challah bread and making my own lox. (The grocery stores here don’t sell it, and it’s cheaper to make your own, anyway.) Maybe eating nothing but matzo at Passover will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Maybe I’ll start conversion and decide that it isn’t right for me. I do not know what the future holds. But as for this afternoon… Well, I’m going to salt a piece of salmon so that I’ll have some lox for my bagel and schmear later in the week. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate a bagel with some lox, onions, and a good schmear.