.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Isn't it pretty?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Spirituality and Self-Awareness

At my Shabbos meal last week, a question was asked about women's spiritual growth and whether, despite the fact that women do not have the mitzvah (commandment) to learn Torah the way men do, it is necessary to do such learning, such as going to shiurim (classes) and doing textual study.

Then yesterday I came across the following question in the Avodah e-mail list (which I was informed about by my rarely-commenting friend, who frequents my other blog more often than this one):

Is emotional or psychological self-awareness (and I would also include being in touch with one's emotional/feelings/etc.) considered a good middah (character trait) to be acquired like humility, faith, not being angry, jealous, resentful, or envious, etc.?

Or could it be considered like a preparation, a hechsher for working on a middah, like a hechsher mitzvah?

Or, as a third option, it could be seen a valuable in making a person into a better or happier person. And with self-awareness, one can better be an ovaid hashem (servant of G-d).

I know many people who have self-awareness, but haven't used it to be better people, but, on the contrary, have used it to justify their bad middos.

On the other hand, I have met people who lack self-awareness, but this has not stopped them from working on their middos, and being very good people.

The reason I find these two questions related is because of what I feel is the answer (though my answer is really a personal one, I can't speak for anyone else).

To answer my Shabbos host's question about women's spirituality and learning, I answered that I felt that a lot of my spiritual growth comes through the process of self-awareness. I admit that I don't often manage to go to shiurim or learn Torah with anyone. I'll also admit that my spiritual level is not where I would like it to be at the moment. But I honestly don't think that one determines the other. At least not for me.

I told my host that I feel like my spirituality is really enhanced by taking personal stock in my life and seeing what areas I want to work. And actively working on those areas. It could be possible that the area I could choose to work on would be in learning more Torah (and increasing my Jewish knowledge is something that I think is important and do try to make some time for) but when it comes to my relationship with G-d and my spiritual level, I think I am more impacted by working on being a stronger person, by connecting with G-d through my attempts to follow His mitzvos and to really care about following those mitzvos.

And to answer the question from the Avodah list, I think self-awareness, while not necessarily a middah (character trait) in and of itself, is a process that is necessary for a person to accomplish personal or spiritual growth. In reference to the Avodah question, I also think that one can be very self-aware but not use it in a beneficial manner. But the process of first identifying and then working on those things that one sees are lacking can absolutely lead to a greater spiritual level and connection with G-d.

In regards to the final part of the question about whether self-awareness is necessary, and the fact that there are those who are not self-aware but are very good people, I think that self-awareness is part of a package and more important for some than others and a person can definitely do good deeds without necessarily being self-aware. But I think that someone who is not self-aware is going to miss something, just as someone who is self-aware but uses the awareness as a crutch to not make change is going to miss something. As in most things, the package deal is the optimal experience. I guess I've got a lot of work to do.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

JIB Awards

I just wanted to draw everyone's attention to the Jewish and Israel Blog Award nominations. The voting starts at 10 PM tonight (Eastern Time), so get ready.

I just wanted to mention a couple awards that I think are worthy of voting for.

Kindness Happens is nominated for both Best Group Blog and for Best Contribution/Blog that Made a Difference. It's a project that I'm very proud of, and am extremely happy to have over 20 contributors on board (and would love to welcome more - if you'd like to join, feel free to e-mail me) and I think it deserves a vote.

Additionally, I'm touched by the fact that Chana thought my blog was worthy of a nomination for Best Personal Blog. If you agree with her, you can cast your vote for my blog.

In general, the awards are a great way to learn about some new, great blogs that are out there. Take a minute to look over those that are nominated and enjoy your reading!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Behind the Facade

In reading this article this morning, I'm struck by several things, in light of the Virginia Tech shootings and the class discussion from my class last night, wherein we spoke about the tragedy and how we would be called to handle such a situation as counselors.

The man in the article managed to put on a sane, happy face for many, not revealing the side of him that was riddled with hallucinations and suicidal intentions. His therapist didn't know until reading his MySpace page, after his death, that he was even capable of this sane side. It makes you realize how much goes on behind the scenes and how, in many cases, unless a person wants to let you into their dark side, you may never see it and never have any suspicion of what lies beneath the surface.

I was talking with a friend last night about our discussion in class, and how, as a counselor, I would be called to be the strong one, the one to help make sense and help others deal with such a tragedy. And how it might feel to have had someone as a patient to subsequently commit suicide or homicide. And to have missed the warning signs, or to have not been able to help. That's so scary.

The discussion in class brought up a lot of memories of situations from high school when incidents of death darkened my "happy" teenager-hood. And how my school dealt with tragedy. I tried to put myself in the role of the administrators of my high school trying to determine the appropriate response to the drive-by shooting of a football player, to the drug-related suicide of a friend of mine, to the death by heart failure of a student while on campus. I think the administration of my school actually did a pretty good job, but it was weird to put myself in their role and to try to think about what they must have had to deal with, and who they must have gone home to seek support from. And to think about the role I'm going to be called to take in years to come. Because I will have to be those administrators. That's what I've signed up for.

And then I went home last night. With all these thoughts swirling in my head. And luckily, there was my neighbor. And a friend. And I didn't have to be totally alone with these thoughts. And I could work them out and discuss them and air my thoughts. And I was very glad that someone was there. Because I didn't want to be alone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech Shootings

I've had a few posts in mind to write, but in light of the horrible news from Virginia Tech, I can't bring myself to write about other topics. Reading what information has been gleaned this morning in the New York Times, I'm struck with the horror of this disaster.

I have an old, close friend who used to live in Blacksburg with her now ex-husband and who still has many, many friends there. I received an e-mail from her yesterday evening, assuring everyone that she and everyone that she knows is, thank G-d, okay. It was a relief to hear this from her, to know that I didn't have a personal connection with the horror. And then in the next moment, it didn't seem like such a relief. Because even though I didn't have a personal connection, there are still 33 people who died yesterday.

In reading the details of the incident, I'm struck by many thoughts. I started writing about my thoughts, but I can't articulate them very well. Because the fact is, when it comes down to it, all the reports and details and words can't really encapsulate the horror of these murders and the loss of lives and the emotional devastation that is going to linger on.

So, all I have to say is, I'm horrified by the news and my heart and thoughts are will the many who were affected by the killings.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Over the last two days of Pesach, while spending my very first Yom Tov in Passaic, I spent a LOT of time reading. This was for two reasons. The first was that I had a lot of free time on my hands (and who wants to study during a holiday?) since most of my friends had left town and the second was that I was completely absorbed in my book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi.

I absolutely couldn't put the book down, reading it until I was done, even a little while after Yom Tov ended. The narrative of Iran being taken over by the Islamic regime was very interesting and it was historic information that I must admit to not being aware of previously, but more than that, I was completely compelled by the book because it touched me very personally. I saw a lot of parallels between the lives of those in the book and my own, as well as fellow religious Jews.

The caveat that I must make is that, in many, and hopefully most, ways, I found the Islamic regime to go to a greater extreme than any religious Jewish group. Though there are those very extreme groups, they thankfully, have never come into legal power like what occured in Iran in the 1980s.

There were a few moments within the book that stuck out to me. The first, and this was more of a personal, rather than culture-wide illumination, was towards the beginning of the book, where Nafisi was describing her "secret" class that she held weekly with seven committed students in her home. They were challenged to look inside themselves and inside classical literature for the secret to living. Nafisi initially assigned her students to describe their image of themslves. Her students were unable to do so during the first few sessions, until they were more comfortable with the environment of the class, and when they were, they exposed themselves beautifully, in both visual art and word. I think it took the encouragement of Nafisi, their "teacher" to be able to expose their true selves when everything outside of her class was telling them to keep themselves hidden under a robe and veil (which was the law at the time).

I thought about that assignment myself, about writing my image of myself here on my blog, but I couldn't. First, I honestly am not sure exactly how I see myself. It's a contradiction at times - sometimes I feel one way, other times I feel the opposite, often depending on my mood du jour. But in general, I don't think I would feel comfortable being that open and that honest in this forum. No offense to my readers :)

The final section of the book struck me deeply. This section really delved into the women's personal lives, discussing relationships and maturity and the values the women held most important. And this is where I really saw parallels between the women of Iran under the Islamic regime and that of many Orthodox women I know (including myself).

Two scenes stand out in my mind. The first is when one of the students, a 27-year-old woman, admits to her teacher that she has a boyfriend. Because of her religious upbringing, she is having difficulty with this and says to her teacher that she "know[s] nothing, nothing about the relation between a man and a woman, about what it means to go out with a man." She later has so much trouble with this balancing act - the balance between being a good religious "girl" and being a human female, and additionally, the balance between her desires for her boyfriend to look at her with desire, as well as the respect that he offers her (which he insists must be separate, for there are girls you desire and girls you marry, he says), that she ends up breaking up with him and leaving the country.

The final scene that really blew me away was when another student says, in speaking about the hold that the religion has on her, "The worst fear you can have is losing your faith. Because then you're not accepted by anyone - not by those who consider themselves secular or by people of your own faith. It's terrible....ever since we could remember, our religion has defined every single action we've taken. If one day I lose my faith, it will be like dying and having to start new again in a world without guarantees."

That paragraph so eloquently puts into words so much. Nafisi's students taught me a great deal.