What started out as a beautiful Shabbat evening with community and discussion devolved quickly – and mostly privately. First the orthodox rabbi made a mistake. Then I made two. Then the rabbi intended to offend me. He failed, but it was clear that I was not welcome. And I walked out. That might have been a mistake as well.
Last erev Shabbat, I found myself away from home and away from my family. It was the first Shabbat after the shooting in Poway and I wanted to be with a Jewish community. So, I made my way to an upstart, very lively Jewish community (in a city that I won’t mention).
When I go to religious gatherings, I go as a Jew. I go as someone seeking community. I go as someone who wants to praise our Creator. And yes, wherever I go, I go as a Karaite.
But I never go as a Debate-Me-Bro. As I hope you can see from my blog, I have a profound respect for all Jewish traditions. I always defer to my hosts and the topics they are comfortable discussing.
Back to Last Friday Night:
Some of the first people I met were a wonderful couple and their friend. They saw a new face and, without hesitation, made sure that I felt at home. They would invite me to sit with them at dinner to make sure I was included.
I also made my way over to an incredibly warm and insightful woman. She decided to start this community with her husband, a rabbi. I introduced myself to her and she was thrilled to welcome me. From what I experienced, she is exactly the kind of person you want leading your community. My wife knew her fairly well several years ago. And this, my first meeting with her, confirmed all the wonderful things I had heard.
Next I went over to the rabbi. Outwardly, he is warm and open-minded and even invited every single person there to coffee with him. And my initial interaction with him was consistent with this warmth. But whenever a proud and practicing Karaite meets an orthodox rabbi and drops a K-bomb, we never know what the response is going to be and what impression it leaves.
Anyway, I introduced myself to the rabbi. At some point (after he learned about my affinity for Chabad), he asked me which synagogue I attend. I told him that I attend the Karaite synagogue, and he said, “That must be a trip.”
I didn’t think much of it. I thought he was just saying “how cool”.
The Rabbi’s Mistake:
Fast forward about an hour, and it was time to count the omer. The rabbi mistakenly counted the omer for the 21st night, instead of the 14th night. So, his wife reminded him, and then he redid the count for the 14th night.
My First Mistake:
Something the rabbi said earlier in the night caused me to be confused, and I had a brain fart and I thought it was the 7th night. So, I wanted to ask him about this.
My Second Mistake:
I intentionally waited till the rabbi was done speaking and he walked away toward a side table to put his prayer book down and I approached him to ask him about the counting. I thought everyone was getting up to get food, and that it was a decent time to chat with him. I was wrong, his wife still had a few more words. And I picked the wrong time to discuss this with him.
So I took a seat and waited till his wife formally invited everyone to dinner. I apologized to him last erev Shabbat (twice) and I now apologize to him again. I’m sorry for the poor timing.
Why I Walked Out:
Before I realized his wife was still speaking, I asked the rabbi very politely, why he said it was the 14th night, when I (mistakenly) thought it was the seventh night. There were a million ways he could have responded. Here is the way he did respond (almost verbatim):
“Don’t come at me with that Karaite stuff, I will wipe the floor with that Karaite stuff . . . Two thousand years ago, the Karaites came and started a new religion. Prior to that, Jews had always started counting [the omer] on the second night of the seder.”
For those who don’t know the counting of the omer was one of the biggest debates between the Karaites and the Rabbanites.
After his wife was done speaking, I asked him why he responded the way he did and he said that he felt attacked that I came over to talk to him about the counting. I explained that this was not my intent and that I was just simply mistaken about the day of the counting.
He then understood that I was not trying to challenge him and then he said, “I’m taking a step back now and I want to tell you that I was triggered when you came up to me . . .” (Pretty close to verbatim.)
I made clear that I was asking him a question through a paradigm of observance and that I have deep respect for his observance, but that I found what he said about Karaites being a new religion profoundly offensive. To be clear, I was not actually offended, I just thought it was offensive.
He then said, “I have a whole lot more offensive things to say. I don’t have respect for everybody. I don’t come from a place of love everybody. I have no respect for the Reform.”
At that point, it was clear that I was not welcome there. Although I am not Reform, I was looking for a different experience for my Friday evening. And it was also clear that I am one of the people he has no respect for. So I thanked him for what he and his wife were trying to build, and I said Shabbat Shalom, and I said that I thought I should go. He didn’t ask me to stay and by the look on his face, he seemed to agree that I should go.
I then walked over to one of the people who had warmly received me and I told him that I didn’t feel welcome here anymore and I said Shabbat Shalom and left.
I am still ruminating about whether I made a mistake by leaving. But it was clear to me that the rabbi was not comfortable with my being there. And I left out of respect to him.
How the Night Started:
The saddest part for me is that up to that point the night was exactly what I was looking for.
- The rabbi had mentioned to everyone that his sister was battling cancer, so I later asked him for his sister’s name, and then I said, “El na refa na la” (Please, God, please heal her). The rabbi actually responded, “Amen.” He, an orthodox rabbi, affirmed a prayer of healing from me, a Karaite. This was a beautiful moment. And now that I know his sister’s name, I have said a few prayers for her health.
- The people I met were welcoming and wonderful people. We spent a long time talking about Torah, Talmud, and Judaism in general. I even quoted Talmud on numerous occasions. It was a great conversation. I learned about their family histories: Israeli; Persian; Syrian-Morrocan-Argentine-Israeli. And I had fun.
- When one of them asked whether I count the omer, I said yes, but I count it in the morning. The other one knew right away the textual reason why I count in the morning.
- One woman explained how she as a Persian Jew attended Ashkenazi schools, and began to think that her family mispronounced things and just did many things “wrong” – because they “didn’t know” how to do it. I told her that I had gone through the same experiences growing up. Her husband said (something to the effect of), “The more differences I see out there, the more I realize that none of it is ‘wrong.’” I told him that as a Karaite I am willing to believe that I am wrong about anything and everything, but like him, I have come to the conclusion over the years that labeling variant practices and pronunciations as “wrong” misses the big picture.
- Most importantly, it was amazing to see about 60 youngish (at least mostly younger than me) people having Shabbat together in a community that didn’t even exist six or so months ago. I wish that there was a single Karaite community in the world where this could be the case.
I have no ill feelings toward the rabbi. We all have our moments. Between his sister having cancer and trying to build a new community in a new city, life is not always easy. But I am saddened that the state of our Jewish community is such that a simple question could trigger him about events that happened 2,000 years ago (in his opinion). If we cannot have conversations about theology and halacha, or we do not have the patience to find out where someone else is coming from, then I am not sure where our people is headed.
I want him and his wife to build a thriving community. I hope that the community is also a welcoming and positive one – so that one day, the next time someone like me visits, he or she feels welcome to stay for the entire meal.
Seriously. I left before the chicken! Who leaves before the chicken?!
Today is the second day of the third week of the seven weeks.
Today is the 16th day of the counting of 50 days from waving of the omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.