~ Friday, February 27, 2004 ~
On trying and being tried and finding things trying.
I had my interview at JTS on Tuesday. There were four gents there in the conference room; Rabbi Puppydog is the dean of admissions and the one with whom I'd met a few times previously for informal pre-application guidance chats; Rabbi Ginsu is a member of the JTS faculty; Mr. Smiley wasn't a rabbi but was on the faculty anyway, and Rabbi Nonfatmilk is a local rabbi who's not on the faculty. Four middle-aged men and me in a conference room for an hour. They had name cards in front of them. In front of me was a teeny cup of water. I've heard they've stopped watching their applicants to see whether or not they say a blessing over the water before drinking it, but I didn't touch the water anyway. I wasn't about to make Persephone's mistake.
I started, as is customary at JTS's rabbinical school interviews, by giving a 3-minute D'var Torah. I talked about Parshat Terumah and how it seems problematic on two counts--first, that we should have to make all these barriers between us and the law, and second, that the barriers should all be such blatant examples of material splendour. I answered my questions by saying that material splendour for the sake of God is better than material splendour for its own sake, which might have been the alternative; that material splendour might have been a stepping stone on the path to understanding spiritual holiness; and that similarly, barriers might have been a physical indication of the invisible and yet very real spiritual barriers which we need to expend effort to overcome before we can have a meaningful encounter with God.
Yesher koach, they all said right on cue. Then they began their questions.
Here's as many of the questions as I can remember, and some of my answers.
Puppydog: Where else are you applying and why? Why are you not applying exclusively to JTS?
(Puppydog had told me earlier that when people apply to both JTS and HUC, both JTS and HUC wish that the candidate would go to the other place. They want their applicants to be all rah-rah-this-movement-and-no-other, which I'm not. I think of movements as means and not ends. Very nice means, but means nonetheless. In many ways, I think of Judaism as a means and not an end, too, inasmuchas if I understood exactly what the point of Judaism was and I found a better way of reaching that end, I'd switch.)
Puppydog: So you've spent a year at Drisha...What have you gotten out of Drisha? Talk about your experiences.
(Actually, he asked me this twice. Both times I said something about being exposed to and gaining respect for the Orthodox lifestyle, which is sort of new to me, and gaining skills in Talmud and Tanach. I know he was looking for something else, but I don't know what.)
Ginsu: What about the Conservative movement makes you comfortable, and what makes you uncomfortable?
(This was basically the same question I tried to answer in Essay #3 of the four I wrote for the application, except I didn't talk about comfort. Comfort? Religion's not about comfort. It's about confrontation...confrontation of life-experience, and of self, and of God. I tried to answer the question the same way I did in the paper--that I'm attracted to the solidity of commitment to Jewish life that the Conservative movement mandates, but that I find certain aspects of Jewish life as described by the movement to be troublesome, in that they don't seem to match up to my internal sense of morality. I thought I was pretty clear in the essay. I don't know why he had to ask it again.)
Ginsu: What do you think about the divinity of the Torah? How should we treat what's written in it? Specifically, who decides what laws are changed, and according to what criteria do they decide?
(This was the hardest. I sat for like a minute not knowing what to say, instead just commenting on how large a question that was. I finally said something about the needs of society dictating the need for change, by making it apparent that a law previously thought to be objectively moral is in fact contingent upon the state of that society (in the same way that people who once thought turquoise, purple, and hot pink were the best colors ever eventually decided that other colors might also be equally pleasing...but I didn't say that), but that the change itself can only be enacted by people working with the law and realizing, by the powers of their own rationality, that there may in fact be a different way to interpret it than was previously realized. I REALLY don't think I scored points with Ginsu for this one, but it was hard to tell since he and the rest of the panel spent the entire time with their Stone Faces on. There's nothing more disconcerting than being examined deepy by three stony human faces and one stony puppydog.)
I said something in here about how, as much as I wish it would, since it claims to be a set of laws for us to follow for all time, the Torah doesn't always seem to me to be working according to rational guidelines, but I try to remember that God is both a rational judge as well as a loving creator, and that sometimes rationality and other such things that ought to be predictable and unwavering have to be bent for the sake of things like mercy and miracles. That doesn't really explain why a man is forbidden to lie with another man as with a woman, but at least it's a helpful thing in remembering why things might not always make sense.
Smiley: Let's give you a more concrete scenario to talk about. You said you feel particularly bothered about the Conservative position on homosexuality. [That position, by the way, is that they don't recognize, much less perform, same-sex commitment ceremonies, and professed homosexual men can't be ordained. For women it's not so much of a problem.] Let's say I'm gay and ask you to marry me and my lover. How would you feel? (Me: I'd feel sad.) What would you do? (Me: I'd refer you to a rabbi who would perform your commitment ceremony, and then I'd feel sad some more.)
Nonfatmilk: What role does faith play in your life?
(Again I had to pause. I ended up basically saying that the faith-based beliefs I have, are being constantly battered from two sides; first, by the voice saying, "Why can't you just be more sure of this? Why must you always require proof when you know such proof can't exist?" and second, by the voice saying, "What are you, an idiot? How dare you accept that without really knowing for sure?")
Nonfatmilk: If I come to you and ask you, "I don't get kashrut; explain to me rationally why I should keep kosher," what would you say?
(I said something fluffy here about obligation to God growing out of love for God being a legitimate motivating factor in our lives even when we can't be certain of why God is obligating us to live this way. It's sort of like why you still do as your parents ask even when you have children of your own and pay your own mortgage and are old enough to govern yourself...although I didn't say that at the time. Actually I felt the most confident about this response, and also the least honest. I'm almost certain it's exactly the sort of response they'd like to hear, but who am I to talk to a strange rabbi about a sense of love and obligation to God if I'm not always sure of it myself?)
Nonfatmilk: Is there anything about dancing that you really like that you can't explain rationally?
(This was a nice use of a question as an explanation, but really, my enjoyment of dance is something that I (think I) can explain rationally. I told him that my enjoyment of music might be a better comparison...if I like a piece of music, there's something about its otherness that makes it wonderful and fascinating, and I can't always explain why I love the sound of it so much, but I do anyway. I'll have to remember this analogy and use it again.)
Ginsu: What is the nature of Israel and what is its relationship to the Jewish people?
(Another case of asking me to say what I'd already spent four pages telling him in an essay. I talked about how I think the land, while not created as holy, may have acquired some measure of holiness because of the events that took place there.
Puppydog: Okay, I've just found out I have cancer and I call you to tell you. Ring, ring. What do you say?
(I probably did an imitation of a goldfish for a few seconds, opening my mouth and starting to say something and then closing it. Finally I said something completely awkward about offering to meet and talk and recommending some books and suggesting he attend a grief counsel group. It was painful.)
As he walked me out of the conference room, Rabbi Puppydog looked at me mournfully and told me I did a good job, and that I could call tomorrow (Wednesday) at 4 pm to find out their decision. Wednesday at 3:35 I escaped from class for a moment and called him, and found him not there. Call back in 45 minutes, said the secretary. At 4:20 I escaped again and called. He still wasn't available. Call back at 4:45, said the secretary. He'll surely be available then.
At 4:45 I was put on hold for 3 minutes, and then I heard Rabbi Puppydog's voice. How are you doing? he asked. I'm about to explode, I said. Well, I can appreciate that, he said. Hang on a second. I'm going into my office.
Crap. My knees made me sit down.
Then I got the speech about how nice a person I was and how much they'd all enjoyed meeting me. But the committee voted against accepting you, he said with his sad puppydog voice. We don't think you're ready yet. You clearly have the academic skills necessary, but although we appreciate that you're questioning, we'd like to see you do more with the Conservative movement and develop more security in your faith before you reapply.
I'd have thought a security in the tenets of Conservative Judaism would be the sort of thing I'd be given the latitude to develop while in school. Apparently they want their students to homogenize their thoughts themselves, so the faculty doesn't have to. I suppose that's one strategy.
Hebrew College, the non-denominational school in Boston, just e-mailed me today. They have my application stuff and I'm interviewing with them on March 23rd. Their rabbinical program (in fact, their whole school, I think) is only a year old, but I've heard nothing but wonderful about them. I hope they like me. Or if not them, RRC, which I'm applying to after all, darn it, even if they are near Philadelphia, and even if the app. is due really really soon. I'm sorry I won't be in New York next year--really, REALLY sorry, because I love living here, and I love the people I've met here, yes, even you--but I won't be reapplying to JTS. Two months of solid stress for a rejection and some Experience? It wasn't worth it.
~ prattled by Miriam at 12:16 a.m. [+]
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