Please welcome E.M. Ben Shaul to the blog today, to talk about the Orthodox Jewish representation in Flying Without a Net, which releases today! As many of you know, I happen to be Orthodox Jewish, so this book and post are of special interest to me, even though I’m kinda lousy about the prayer part. (Though I’m good about the food blessings! And I definitely got a “halachic prenup.” But I digress. You can add the book to your TBR and/or read the blurb here, and buy links are at the end of the post!)
Think about what you did first thing this morning. You probably got up, used the bathroom, got dressed, maybe grabbed something for breakfast. Perhaps you have a favorite coffee shop where you stopped to pick up your usual morning drink. Did you drive to work? Take public transportation? Or maybe you work from home in your pajamas and bunny slippers. Maybe you’re a student with an 8 AM class. (If so, you have my sympathy.)
For most people, their morning routine is completed without really putting much thought to it. But for Orthodox Jews, many of those regular morning tasks come with an extra level of thought, because they each have a blessing or prayer associated with them. When an Orthodox Jew opens their eyes in the morning, they say “Modeh Ani,” a short prayer thanking God for, basically, returning their soul to them so that they could wake up in the morning. Then they get up and go to the bathroom. There’s a blessing for that, too, in which we thank God for keeping the various systems of our bodies working. For men, when they get dressed, there’s a blessing associated with putting on the tallit katan, a four-cornered garment with ritual fringes.
Eating breakfast involves at least one and possibly as many as five (or six, if wine is part of the meal) blessings over the food. Each blessing takes less than 30 seconds to say, but there’s still an extra moment of thought that is necessary. But breakfast has to wait, anyway — first you have to say Shacharit, the morning prayer service. It is preferable to say the prayers with a minyan, a religious quorum, which Orthodox Jews interpret as ten males thirteen years old or above. So not only do you have to be in a proper mindset for prayer, you also have to build time into your schedule for about 45 minutes of prayer before you go to work.
When you stop for your usual cup of coffee, there’s another food-related blessing to say. Again you thank God for creating everything in the world, including your half-caff soy latte. You say so many food blessings in a day that your co-workers no longer worry that you’re talking to your mid-morning snack.
And that’s just the simple stuff.
What if something in the teachings of those ancient rabbis go against your modern lifestyle? What if your modern brain cannot reconcile the ancient beliefs and your modern sensibilities? For example, a lot of the religious traditions assume a male-dominated culture and lifestyle. In the twenty-first century, Modern Orthodox communities are working to balance the traditions established thousands of years ago with the more modern role that women play in day-to-day life. One example of this is the marriage contract. The traditional wedding contract was originally codified in the first century CE and has not changed significantly. By Jewish law, a man can divorce his wife, but there is no way to force him to give her a get, an official document of divorce. Without a get, a woman is considered an agunah, an anchored or chained woman, as she is still anchored or chained to her ex-husband, even if she has been granted a civil divorce. To give more power to the woman, in the 1990s the Orthodox rabbinate instituted the “halachic prenup,” a religiously and civilly valid contract that allows civil courts to punish the ex-husband financially until he grants his ex-wife a get.
In Flying Without a Net, Avi, an Orthodox Jew, is faced with a dilemma. He has recently come out to himself, and he is now starting to explore the idea of dating men and perhaps starting a relationship with another man. However, everything he has been taught by his religious upbringing tells him that acting on his attraction to men is amongst the biggest violations of Torah law possible. Yet his heart knows that he will never be happy following the community norm of marrying a woman. He struggles to find a path that allows him to be true to both his religious beliefs and his yearning for a relationship with Dani, an Israeli who is not religiously observant and who has been out to himself and to others since high school.
Dani cannot fully understand Avi’s struggle, having never been in his position, but he hopes that he and Avi will be able to find a way to be together while Avi stays true to his beliefs.
When faced with a contradiction between one’s religious beliefs and one’s modern reality, it can be very difficult to stay true to both. Many make the difficult choice to leave the religious life behind, knowing that for them it will be impossible to reconcile the two. Some make the opposite choice and retreat from the modern world. But others find a way to live in both worlds. It requires flexibility, and it’s important for everyone facing such a choice to discover where their flexibility ends and what is too important for them to compromise on. For each person this point is different, and therefore one person’s willingness to compromise may be anathema to someone else. So is there a way to blend the ancient and the modern? Everyone has to figure that out for themselves.