Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that on my birthday, there is widespread celebration, no tachanun is recited, and a lot of normally level-headed people get seriously intoxicated with joy — because my birthday is on Shushan Purim. But this year’s Shushan Purim will be more significant for me, because it is the birthday at which I feel confident saying I passed the “halfway mark.” At age 45, I will have spent more than half of my life as a self-described orthodox Jew.
I have anticipated this milestone for years, but now that I am upon it I am not quite sure what to do with it. I was wondering, however, if we can consider the principle we have in halacha called bittul b’rov, or nullification by the majority. Where one treif piece of meat is mixed with two kosher pieces of meat, we say that in theory at least you can eat any of them: Because the majority are kosher, it cannot be said any one of them is treif, and if none is treif, all are kosher, even though we “know” one is not kosher. (Married men: Do not try this at home.) The halacha of course is complex as applied to different situations, but that is the concept. We “round up” from 50% plus.
So do I get the benefit of bittul b’rov now that I have lived more than half of my life keeping Shabbos publicly, and holding myself out as an orthodox Jew? After all, I have been “frum” longer than I was not frum. Assuming we can compare a mixture of unlike objects to a mixture of unlike minutes, am I mostly frum, hence all frum?
Of course not. Even assuming a bona fide frum second half of my life — a big assumption — obviously the first 22 and a half years will never be undone. I will always be me. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter taught us that it is easier to learn the whole Talmud than to correct a single bad personal quality! And the mishna in Avos reminds us of the sad truth, that there is no comparison between writing on a smudged slate, and writing on a clean slate.
Smudged? I’m working toward smudged! Each time I bang out the erasers, though, I’m overcome by the rancid dust and have to get some fresh air.
In fact, the … problematic… aspects of the old me will never be buttel, null. Neither can I pretend that what was, or is, treif is actually kosher, merely because it’s hard to pick out of the mix, too. Indeed, the simple rule of bittul b’rov does not apply to a food mixture (as opposed to separate pieces of food) where the forbidden substance adds its flavor to the permissible.
On the other hand, wait. If there is any value in the term “baal teshuvah” (which as is well known is arguably a misnomer when applied to people who have never been frum, who become frum) — if I have ever done a touch of true teshuva, or if I give it to myself as a Shushan Purim birthday present, or if I do it on my deathbed — then we are taught that our transgressions become reckoned as mitzvos. Forgive a smudgy intellect the very mixed metaphor — but we are after all dealing with reckoning mixtures: Here, it seems, we are allowed,after the fact of course, to reckon as “kosher” something that we objectively know to be made of non-kosher ingredients!
Mixtures are one thing; this is beyond metaphor-mixing and verges on the scrambled; but I will serve up what I’ve put together and expect you to pretend to like it. Of course there’s no such thing as “mostly frum” on a time scale. After all, someone can be frum for his entire life and one day, as the old cliche goes, throw his teffilin in New York Harbor. As of that moment, and unless and until he repents, his 99:1 ratio of frum to non-frum life may not look so good if that boat doesn’t reach the dock.
A person can acquire, we are taught, his World to Come in one moment, for good and for bad. The real measure of a Jew’s life is not found on the scale of how many minutes he spent officially affiliated with this or the other religious affiliation, or even how many minutes were spent with a halo as opposed to those cartoon horns on his head. Rather, what matters is what he does with the whole cocktail right now… and tomorrow.
OK, I doubt I will hang up my briefcase and consider a carer in mixology — even though it is Shushan Purim! There is a certain satisfaction in getting past the “halfway point,” I suppose. Most days I get better because of the world I have built, and allowed to be built, around me in the last 22 and a half years. In the moments when I perhaps slip back, or seem at best to plateau, that bulwark holds me from rolling all the way down the hill to 1985. If there is any accomplishment in reaching this point, perhaps that, really, is the one that I can identify. With God’s help, he’ll keep me in the mix for more iterations of 22 and a half.