It is just after Rosh Hashanah, mere days after I chose to protest racist comments in my synagogue by praying at home on two of the holiest days of the Jewish year. Appalled by the bigotry of references to the genetic inferiority of African-Americans, aware that my rabbi shared my anti-racist views but was unable to enforce them, I chose the only ethical response available to me after my numerous anti-racist challenges failed to alter the social climate: I left. For a traditional Jew whose way of life emphasizes Jewish unity and communal loyalty, this statement was as potent as it was painful to make. For a moment, I deluded myself into believing that I had triumphed over evil. I had fought against injustice and won. This self-congratulatory inner dialogue yielded to deep uneasiness. What, exactly, had I won; the freedom to be a solitary Jew, to maintain my ethics at the price of my community?

“Go back to your country and stop taking American jobs.” This accusation from a stranger unravels the apparent order of my morning. I am standing at the bus stop on an otherwise quiet street. The warmth of the sky belies the ugly chill cast by my detractor. I have convinced myself that I am whole and beautiful, that I should wear my Mizrahi garments without fear of derision. My detractor pours his words over me like gasoline, staining my djellaba with the dirt of judgement. He brands me thief, infiltrator, enemy. It does not matter that he thinks I am Muslim or Arab, not Persian or Jew. I am as much a part of those things that he hates as he believes I am.

I have not yet fastened my battle armour for the day; it takes shields to simply be myself and refuse to be destroyed by public condemnation. Once armed, I bear the invincibility of detachment; I sacrifice my natural empathy in exchange for thick skin that alienates me from my soul even as it buffers me from external attacks. I am not yet thick-skinned; In the peculiar mathematics of disenfranchisement, I have convinced myself that dangerous people do not awaken before 10 a.m., and so I am caught off-guard by this early morning racist. I must revise my battle plan. I must resolve to screen potential enemies more carefully. My elemental joie de vivre is endangered by each exposure to the public sphere; when was I so free that I could be myself without knowledge of the risk involved?

I counter my detractor’s argument with intellect. I note that most of the people who now claim this land were immigrants, not the original inhabitants of North America. I brandish the standard verbal weapons to combat his claim.

Now the accusation shifts. A man who argues with words instead of fists is not a man at all, goes the unspoken rule of a culture so foreign to me that I can barely comprehend its existence. “Why do you talk like a girl?? he forages, a hint of menace prickling down my back in a hot, spiky trail. I mutter disagreement out of unwillingness to admit defeat, sheer tenacity that hints at a will I do not feel. I weave down endless back streets until I reach the safety of my office. I wonder when my world became a cage.

What is it about my presence, about my mere existence, that has enraged this detractor? A woman whom I respect asserts that I have experienced another unspoken rule of mainstream heterosexual U.S. masculinity: When another man bests you, insult his masculinity by accusing him of being a girl, of being feminine. This stems from the unspoken rule that women are inferior, that to be compared to them is the gravest insult a man may wield against his fellow. I am shocked by the ubiquitousness of this abject misogyny. I begin to hear it murmured in cafes, tossed from casual lips like petals falling at the advent of winter. I wonder how I could have failed to hear before.

I refuse to do Western drag on days when I crave the comfort and familiarity of Middle Eastern clothing. I refuse to affect the crudely overacted mannerisms of culturally dominant masculinity to “pass?- as what? I refuse to shave my beard or restrain my hands from gesturing when I speak. Is my detractor’s venom a form of envy for the precarious freedom that I covet, a freedom delicately revealed by dancing hands only to be veiled in pockets once more when the threat of loathing eyes encroaches?

His insults join their brethren in the tohu va’vohu, the desolate and disorderly chaos, the grey canvas stretching across my multi-coloured mind. I do not understand the source of this baseless hatred, this sinat chinam that many authoritative biblical sources claim was responsible for the destruction of our first two Temples. My detractor appears abstract, even while he stands concrete and resolute before me; he is a symbol of the bigotry against which I position myself. I am a fortress of flesh that is never quite solid enough. Knives make me bleed. Cruel words invoke tears. Does my compassion make me less of a man or define my right to claim that term at all?

And where is G-d in the midst of this struggle? I am reminded of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s commentary on the book of Job, in his When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Iyov (Job) rails against G-d at the indignities he has suffered, while his friends rationalise about the reason for Iyov’s misfortune. In these deliberations, Kushner posits that Iyov and his friends must contend with three statements, at least one of which must be false:

A. G-d is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without (G-d’s) willing it.

B. G-d is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.

C. Iyov is a good person.

As Kushner points out, the simultaneous veracity of these three statements is only easy to believe as long as Iyov is healthy and blessed with good fortune. Yet when Iyov suffers wretchedly, despite his observance and his faith in Hashem, how do we comprehend the nature of a G-d whose will is at the centre of events? Kushner’s answer, which fails to satisfy me fully as a traditionally observant Jew, is that G-d is just and fair, but removed from influence in world affairs and thus not the cause of our misfortune.

Kushner’s G-d is one who stands with us as ally and consoler during times of strife. While this vision has significant benefits over the arrogant notion that G-d willingly inflicts suffering upon people who need spiritual discipline or for reasons that we are too miniscule to comprehend, what credibility does G-d maintain once we conclude that G-d is powerless? This toothless G-d may serve the needs of those who need to absolve G-d of wrongdoing, but what of those whose very definition of G-d requires omnipotence?

I believe that there is a third possibility, one hinted at later in Kushner’s text, though rendered a bit differently than I propose. What if G-d- all-powerful and intimately involved in directing the course of each human life- chose to fashion a universe in which human beings are given the autonomy necessary to forge order and holiness from tohu va’vohu, from a chaos so amorphous that we cannot adequately define it. In such a universe, imagine that a Natural Order- a general set of governing principles from gravity to entropy- was vital to endowing us with this freedom. G-d could intervene. Indeed, G-d could retain the power to overturn each natural law, but in doing so would undermine the foundations of the world G-d sought to fashion from the formlessness. In certain dire cases where the course of human history would be derailed, perhaps natural laws must be contravened, but the basic structure of natural life is provided to us as a gift with which we are enjoined to build, to create, to heal, and to complete. In this view, the strife and suffering we experience as a result of natural disasters and human-made tragedies are unfortunate realities of our autonomous humanity. Perhaps the tikkun olam that has become synonymous with social justice to so many Jews is another term for our role as beings conscripted by G-d to bring order from chaos and structure to void. Perhaps it is imperfection in our world that justifies our existence as menders and weavers of life.

Is there, as Kushner implies later in his commentary, an inherent evil in chaos? I reject this notion, as that belief would easily lend itself to extrapolation that human fluidity is negative, a view that runs counter to a celebratory view of human diversity and our capacity for change.

Instead, I find an inherent thread of evil embedded in one particular sort of psychic chaos, the chaotic fear of the unknown. The fear of the foreigner, the gender diverse, the hue that appears green in one light and blue in the next: These fears are those of the person standing at borders, edges of horizons, determined to root out advancing growth, afraid of becoming obsolete in a strange, new world.

Am I feared by my detractor because I represent the chaos of human diversity, the infinite spectrum of light that cannot be fully captured by mere human eyes? Or does my detractor represent chaos, the unruly element of hatred that clashes with an orderly life steadfastly devoted to empowerment and justice? Chaos, as all elements of the known universe, appears different from each vantage point. The trouble is that, like order, chaos is neither inherently good nor evil. It is merely a tool in the vast obscurity we call the universe.

After these post-Rosh Hashanah reflections, I am left with far more questions than answers, with far more chaos than order. I do not believe that this situation is the result of entropy. I believe that tikkun olam- mending the spiritual fragments of our world- involves the arduous task of gazing into endless mirrors of shifting sands to extract the hidden meanings of a seemingly random and often brutal universe. Rather than allow racism and cruelty to deter me, I resolve to let them motivate me to pursue growth and social justice with increasing passion. Whether G-d is my Consoler, my Controller, or a mystery that I have not yet fathomed, I do not merely believe that G-d is with me, for I know it with each fibre of my soul.