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Before the Beit Din

What they expect is too much.

by Jennifer M. Paquette

December 19, 2002 | 7:00 pm

I feel naked before the three rabbis of the beit din (Jewish court of law), heretical hairs straying from beneath my slapped-on linen hat. They sit across from us in black suits and black hats, black notebooks concealed, perhaps for noting my progress -- and Ted's -- along this black path.

By now, Ted knows more -- and practices more -- than most Jews. But practice, it seems, does not perfection make. Like dentists, the rabbis drill deeper with questions: What is the bracha for pineapple or applesauce? How do you eat watermelon on Shabbat? Can you brew tea?

So impersonal, so exacting and always, inevitably, they hit a nerve; a hidden sore spot in our knowledge. I want to cry out defiantly, shrieking the real questions, the ones they'll never ask, revealing the heresies lurking within my pounding heart.

The first question: Why are you here? I went through this before and swore I never would again. My ex-husband converted, as black as we could get, loving and loathing the thrill of adopting more and more stringencies. With Ted, I promised I'd never suggest conversion, always cherish him the way he was. His knowing nothing about Judaism meant I could be a nothing kind of Jew -- for a little while. So why are we here?

If they cared, I'd say it's because of my ancestors. No pious characters from "Fiddler," just flesh and blood ones who knew nothing about Judaism and when they were old told me so. The bubbie whose anti-Semitic Canadian doctor prescribed bacon so her children would grow strong; the zayde who believed communism would redeem mankind. Their nothing Judaism proved to me that my own children deserve a faith that endures forever.

Another question: Who sent you? For all my fear of the beit din, they must also fear my liberal tendencies, my willingness to learn from anyone who will teach me. They want to ensure Ted has only "correct" influences, walking the correct path in the correct way. I used to have that kind of certainty, and I sometimes wish I could again.

So who convinced me to acquiesce to their interrogation?

If I were honest, I'd say it was a Reform rabbi. Wisely, she said I can't sit on the fence: I must choose a tradition and follow it unambiguously.

She told me I couldn't raise Orthodox children in a vacuum, without community. You have to live within the system, she said, not pick and choose. No Orthodox rabbi could have phrased it better.

A final question: Why this road? When I first met Ted, there were so many paths I envisioned for us. His Catholic background appalled and titillated me, raising fantasies of the nun I always wanted to be -- but also of my ancestors' holy lives, sacrificed for a messiah they'd never accept. I was sure we could find a middle ground, make peace with that history and be together in sanctity.

So why this most difficult path?

Actually, I was led here by a Conservative rabbi, to whom I confessed what I couldn't tell my own Orthodox rabbi: I wanted to move in with Ted, make a family together. We'd solve problems as they came up, and meanwhile, we'd be together.

He said, "Don't do it; I'm a man, I know men.... Get married civilly, get something in writing, even if it's not a ketubah."

And I knew he meant my family was holy, I should never compromise it.

Now, meeting with the beit din for the third time in two years, we are rebuffed again for too little knowledge, too little faith. Words have power, and the beit din's words sting rather than heal. I feel us growing closer to our true place, but sometimes, it seems they are the only thing in the way.

I am so much in awe of these black-hatted gatekeepers, wielding power with gentle finality. They send Ted out of the room and tell me they only want what's best for me and my children. The words blur, and on the way home, tears of self-pity come: I'm doing my best, but what they expect is too much for my bruised soul.

Tentatively, though, I creep once again toward the light I perceive as holiness. I've started covering my hair again, hesitantly, without my former nun-like confidence. I come to God with an aching heart, missing Him after being away, but also letting Him know that maybe, like the beit din, He shouldn't expect too much from me right now. I've let people down before.

I've always believed that religion shouldn't be easy; any good religion should change your life. Thirty-two years later, this religion I was born with still changes my life every day. It may be -- as the beit din sees it -- that I'm here for all the wrong reasons, pointed along this path by all the wrong angels, but I am here nevertheless.

If the beit din ever opens the gate for us, my religious friends, those who remained despite Ted's presence, will surely congratulate themselves for keeping me "on the derech [the right path]."

I'd like to think that those others will, too, that Reform rabbi and her Conservative colleague -- and my ancestors, for whom saying "Shema" was a distant memory. Heresy isn't all it's cracked up to be, and sometimes it's the "wrong" influences that remind our souls of what they need the most.

Jennifer M. Paquette is a freelance writer living in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in The Jewish Spectator and the New York Jewish Week.

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