standing divorcing at sinai

This year my husband and I split up, an extraordinarily painful process. And because Gd has a (brutal) sense of humor, this past semester I got to take a Lifecycle Seminar class that focused primarily on weddings. This is my final reflection for that class. (I was mercifully excused from having to write a wedding drasha for a ceremony.)

Rabbi Avi Weiss, drawing on a longstanding Jewish tradition of Shavuot as the occasion of the wedding between Gd and Israel, writes:

At Sinai, God and the people of Israel stood at the base of the mountain be-tahtit ha-har (Exodus 19:17). Commenting on the word be-tahtit, the Midrash concludes that we, the Jewish people, were literally standing beneath the mountain — much like bride and groom stand under the huppah, the bridal canopy during the wedding ceremony.

But there’s another, less felicitous, interpretation of the standing be-tahtit ha-har. Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

According to the traditional interpretation of this strange biblical locution, God uproots Mount Sinai from the ground and holds it over the people, saying, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave” (Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b). The implication seems to be that the Jews accepted Torah only through coercion.

Though not unique in Jewish tradition, for one passage to have such divergent interpretation is not insignificant. What does it mean for a symbol of a wedding to also be understood a sign of duress? These are not the happy thoughts that might typically spring to mind when considering the Jewish marriage ritual, but this Shavuot the Israelites’ committing themselves to Gd has had a particular resonance for me.

I attended my divorce hearing the morning of May 11. Because of unexpected circumstances, my soon-to-be ex-husband was not present. He was represented by his lawyer, who submitted a notarized statement on his behalf. The judge asked me to aver both that “the marriage has irretrievably broken down” and that “there is no chance of reconciliation.” I hesitated for just the slightest second. I know she was looking for just a spoken affirmation of the statements; indeed, the process for our uncontested divorce was highly ritualistic, since we had already submitted a written, notarized separation agreement when we requested a hearing two months earlier.

But it seems to me that those two statements are not actually able to be answered with any kind of certainty. “Irretrievable”? “No chance”? I consider the resuscitation of our relationship highly unlikely, but I can’t know what the future holds. And I felt similarly when we got married. Though I was not asked during the ceremony to affirm any unrealistic statements (such as the traditional Christian vow of “until death do us part”), the specter of “forever” was nonetheless present. Again, even under the huppah I considered the dissolution of our relationship unlikely, but I couldn’t know what the future held.

Both at the beginning and at the end of my marriage I said what I was expected to say. But I wonder if in so doing I was back at Sinai along with all of the other Israelites chanting na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do, and we will understand”) — traditionally interpreted as a sign of our deep commitment to Torah. We are the people who first promise to observe the laws of Torah and only then to study them. We say this before revelation, according to the rabbis, and this is how they the solve the problem of the appearance of coercion that one of those Midrashim creates: We may have been threatened by Gd, but we had already accepted Gd’s conditions.

The nature of this acceptance of Torah speaks to my experience of the institution of marriage. I never felt the weight of the change in my legal status in entering into it as I have in leaving it; it’s been in the dissolution of the relationship have I’ve really understood its weight. Maybe it’s the same with Torah: It’s easy to accept but hard to keep. And the comparison could go even further: Even if the Israelites had decided to understand Torah first, they most likely would have never gotten to the acceptance. They might not have had time — after all, we spend our lives struggling with how Torah speaks to us — or they might have decided against it — after all, we are warned against overwhelming converts with too much Torah.

In the end, revelation and marriage are acts of faith. There are simply no guarantees in entering new relationships, and especially in formalizing them, even when both parties know each other pretty well. Gd and the Israelites had generations of monogamy, to put monotheism in human relational terms, before matan Torah. And many disappointments were to follow it.

This is (perhaps) a dour read of marriage. And I acknowledge that it is informed by where I am right now in relation to my divorce and to the institution of marriage. I doubt that I will be asked to perform an weddings anytime soon — but I couldn’t do it responsibly right now even if I were. I am too cynical about “happily ever after,” and I can’t stand the undimmed excitement of betrothed couples. Maybe my attitude will change radically with time. More likely, I hope I’ll be able to incorporate some of my current views into useful pastoral perspective. I can imagine that it might be helpful for some couples to have marriage taken off the pedestal and put in a more realistic context.

So maybe I am back at Sinai again, saying na’aseh v’nishma. I’m doing the process of healing with the faith that it will lead me to understanding.

these are a few of my favorite things

Leaving D.C. wouldn’t be complete without waxing nostalgic, so following is a list of my favorite memories from my almost seven years in the District. It was hard to rank them, so don’t read too much into the order.

7. Riding in Bike DC. I just participated in this event last weekend, and it was especially meaningful because of my upcoming departure. On that beautiful Sunday, I traversed the 25-mile route with the constant mental refrain of “I love this city so much.” We got to ride almost the whole time without competing with cars, and I especially enjoyed Rock Creek Parkway, K Street, and the George Washington Parkway — the latter of which was a unique, and not to-be-duplicated, experience. It was amazing to head up the Potomac along that scenic road.

home page of The Washington Post on September 19, 2009

6. Shouting at Elena Kagan. In July 2010, I went for a run on Capitol Hill in the middle of the day. As I passed the Supreme Court (just east of the Capitol building), I recognized the diminutive woman walking along the opposite side of the street, whose image had dominated the news in the months leading up to her Senate confirmation. It took a few moments for this to register in my brain — and of course I was still running as I was thinking, “That’s Elena Kagan!” — so by the time I decided to “say” something, I had to yell.

cars on o st nw, just south of logan circle; photo by salem pearce

“Congratulations on your nomination to the court!” I shouted back at her. She turned around, smiled, waved, and shouted back, “Thanks!”

5. Surviving Snowpocalypse. I’m including this one in part because of where I’m headed next: soon several feet of snow will be a regular occurrence. On December 20, 2009, a historic storm dumped almost two feet of snow onto the greater-D.C. area. Everyone panicked: store shelves were emptied of milk (for some reason snow requires an increase in lactose consumption), and the entire city shut down. The storm made local blog Capital Weather Gang the must-read it’s become. This Texas girl had never seen so much snow at once, and my personal record held until the advent of Snowmageddon two months later.

with dan gordon at the new nationals park; photo by dara oliphant

4. Attending opening day at Nationals Park. For the past five years, I’ve shared Nationals season tickets with a group of friends, so we managed to get three tickets to the first regular season game, on March 30, 2008, at the new ballpark along the Anacostia. It was so cold that evening that I had to buy a red Nationals hoodie to stay warm. Then-President Bush threw out the first pitch — and was booed, much to my pleasure — I ate a hot dog from the kosher cart near our seats, and, best of all, Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer to lift his team over the Braves, 3-2.

chuppah at sixth & i; photo by matt goldenberg

3. Getting married at Sixth & I Synagogue. (I should note that I am here talking about my wedding — as opposed to my much more important marriage and relationship with my husband, lest my readers get the wrong idea.) The building is beautiful, and as I’ve documented well on this blog, Sixth & I has been the center of my Jewish life in D.C. On October 25, 2009, we stood under the chuppah, under the lofty dome, and made a commitment to each other. Sometimes I still can’t believe that we were able to have our wedding in such a meaningful place.

2. Having my photograph in the Washington Post — twice. Oddly enough, both were because of Sixth & I. The first time was September 18, 2009, right after my conversion. I had volunteered at an Erica Brown Rosh Hashanah event at the synagogue a few days earlier, and there I fell into a conversation with a Post religion reporter, who called me the next day to ask if a staff photographer could take my picture for the story. The photographer and I met at Sixth & I — and the resulting photo (above) was taken in its balcony. It appeared on the Post homepage as well as on the front page of the print edition.

enjoying the first fruits of sixth & i’s kosher food truck

The next time was May 22, 2011, the day after Sixth & I’s kosher food truck, Sixth & Rye, debuted. I dragged my then-intern along with me to wait in the hour-long line, and it was worth every second. Again, I just struck up a conversation with the Post photographer who was covering the event. The resulting photo (left) appeared inside the A-section of the print edition; my hands also appeared on the front page of the website and on the iPhone app.

1. Meeting Michelle Obama. On January 21, 2009, the day after the president’s inauguration, my husband and I got to go to the White House; I had entered and won the lottery that the administration held for 200 District residents to meet their newest neighbors. After a bit of a wait, in a line that snaked around the public rooms of the presidential residence, we made it into the room where the first lady stood. (Apparently we missed the president by just minutes!) First of all, Mrs. Obama is tall (and she was wearing flats on this occasion). Second of all, she has that quality that is the hallmark of all great politicians: the ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the room. I shook her hand and told her it was an honor to meet her. Third of all, she is a funny and charming lady. The man in front of us told her he was a Tuskegee airman and then shared a short anecdote. She punched him lightly on the shoulder and said, “Get out of here!”

And that is when I fell in love with Michelle Obama, way before all the rest of y’all.