So here goes. As you may know, I am interested in converting to Judaism. My partner is Jewish, and we want to raise our (future) children as Jews. If I do not convert, I will be the only non-Jew in the family. Now, I know plenty of families that do not share the same religion. But spirituality is very important to me, and I want to have a strong role in shaping my children’s spiritual development. I know that children do best when raised with one coherent spiritual identity/affiliation, and that I would ideally like us to share one religious practice, all together.
Now let’s back up a bit. If I was raised with a coherent spiritual identity, I think it was something like humanism, with a dash of liberal Christianity: the world is a special place, humans are gifted creatures with the capacity for moral decision-making, and the highest calling is to love and serve each other. We think God is out there, but within our reach, and manifests in our love and service. Christmas was about loving and giving; Easter about springtime and birth. My encounters with more conservative Christianity were mixed. I loved the idea of God, and the idea of being a moral agent of service and love. According to those around me, Jesus was the embodiment of Godly service and living, and so I liked Jesus. At the same time, Jesus scared me. The ubiquitous crucifix, the love of suffering and sacrifice, the grave hollow eyes, the idea that Jesus stood between me and God (was he the messenger? the gate-keeper? a part of God?). In second grade I accompanied my best friend to her fundamentalist church on “bring a friend” day. We sang “knock knock,” knocking on our plastic chairs, “let Jesus in your heart.” I mouthed the words fearfully. Was Jesus really going to climb inside my heart? Take over my heart and mind and personality? Make decisions for me? I was afraid. Later we children gathered in prayer at the front of the chapel and prayed to God in turn. One child prayed for the safe journey and return of his grandparents who were on a boating trip. I began to cry. If I didn’t beg and cajole God, would He not care about the people I loved? Why did we have to beg and pray for Him to love us and watch over us? Shouldn’t He care about us already?
A few years later we visited a pumpkin patch and were pulled into a story-telling tent, unaware that the story-tellers were evangelical Christians. We listened to the story of a little boy who walked with his friend along a river. His fell into the river and died. The boy was sad, but then he was happy because he realized his friend would be in Heaven with God. He returned home where the aroma of pies in the oven caused him to forget about his friend’s death for a while. The evangelicals then began to quiz my sister and I about God’s forgiving: “Have you ever been naughty? Ever had a time out? Have you? ….God forgives you when you ask Him…” My sister and I squirmed uncomfortably. God sounded like a really authoritarian parent, who enjoyed watching the suffering of His children and forgave them only after excessive grief and groveling.
In high school I read parts of the Bible, discussed religion with Christian friends, stayed up most of the night trying to believe what they told me and accept Jesus into my heart. I tried to accept Jesus as my savior, but it never felt that I was doing anything REAL. I felt that I was trying to suppress certain thoughts and solidify others, strengthen neural associations between the “Jesus cells” and my concepts of morality and guilt. I was deathly afraid of faith without doubt, deciding on certainty of belief when the evidence felt so impoverished. So I built a home for myself in that boundary zone, praying to “God and Jesus-if-you-are-part-of-God, sorry I am not sure,” thanking God in moments of joy and asking God at other times for signs of His existence. I do believe that God answered some of those prayers, in ways too personal to share.
When I went off to college I returned a postcard query about my religious interest, checking boxes from “Christian Scientist” (the name sounded like a rational approach to Christianity) to Unitarian Universalist. I was hanging up shirts and sweaters in my new dormitory closet when a representative of the UU group dropped off a bag of goodies, including home-baked cookies from board members, and an invitation to brunch. I was touched- and impressed by the culinary skills of this religion- so I attended brunch, then chalice group, and I was sold. Here was a religious group that welcomed my questions, my philosophical rigor, our diverse experiences and expressions of spirituality. There was no ideological commitment, no required rituals, no guilt. Just a spiritual quest with good company and good food, and a leading role in the history of civil rights to boot. The spiritual examples and sermons I found in UU wove together life experience, intuition, logic, world religious belief, humanism, the language of the civil rights movement, and more. At Arlington Street Church off of Boston Commons we celebrated the first legal gay marriages, performed in that church; at All Souls Church in DC we swayed to rousing renditions of “Wade in the Water” and spine-tingling organ music (you’d never believe what an organ can sound like!). And it wasn’t just candles and music and intellect- it was action. All Souls had environmental committees, social justice committees, multifaith outreach, and more.
Anyway, as you can see, UU provided me my first real spiritual home, and the first experience of a religious identity, and for that I am very grateful. Then I met my love, Rachel. Her Jewishness was one of so many things I loved about her, not only because it had bestowed upon her irresistible curly hair. I didn’t know much about Judaism. I knew it was an old religion, the first monotheistic one, that it was based on the Old Testament (which, I later learned, Jews call the Tanakh), that it involved dreidels and candles and challah, and that its people had survived a torturous history of persecution. I had read many stories about children in the Holocaust growing up and admired their spiritual and moral resolve.
I have always loved exploring other patterns of belief, and Rachel gave me a great window to Judaism. What I learned was less about belief and more about practice. Judaism emphasizes the importance of this world, of obligations to help each other and make this world a better place. It emphasizes the importance of family, and of sharing prayer and rituals together to bring holiness into everyday life. All of these things I liked. We cannot be certain about what happens to us after death, and it never made sense to me to view our life on earth as a waiting room to immortality or a test of our willingness to suffer. Life is here, life feels important, and we have a chance to do a great many things in our lifetime. I also believe that nearly every action is a moral action: our time is limited, and what we do in each moment either enhances life and holiness, or does not (or worse, detracts from it).
The first Shabbat service I attended was a beautiful but bewildering experience. The Hebrew songs felt at once primitive and divine, other-worldly. But I was also frustrated that I didn’t understand a word, didn’t know when to stand up or sit down, or bow, or why any of these things were done. And I saw people rush through the prayers, and the length of them, and I wondered why such lengthy prayers were necessary, and whether they had significance or whether their recitation felt empty and routine. In the months that followed I began to learn more about Judaism from Rachel, from holidays with her family, and from books. I learned that prayer is most often a group event, typically comes straight from the Tanakh or siddur (prayer-book), and its recitation is part of religious practice. Being a Jew is about two things: being part of a people (an ethnicity, a culture, a lineage), and observance (secular Jews are not observant: they don’t practice Jewish religion). [Update: Rachel adds that Tikkun Olam - repairing the world - is a major part of being Jewish, and is taken on by observant and secular Jews alike.] Observance is doing Jewish: attending shul, studying Tanakh (the Torah – comprised of the first five books as given to Moses – and the prophets [Nevi'im] and writings [Ketuvim]), and following mitzvot (laws from the Torah and oral tradition). Belief is secondary. Today, this makes sense to me, but initially I was very surprised by the dominance of practice over belief. It just shows how Christian-centric my view of religion was. UU, I think, sits in the middle, encouraging the emotional and intellectual spiritual journey while also focusing on the difference our actions can and MUST make. As Rachel points out, it’s not that Judaism isn’t interested in the spiritual journey. It’s just that the most important endeavor for a Jew is to observe Jewish law, and in so doing make the world a better place. At least that’s my understanding.
So, what is Jewish law and why must it be followed? How does it make the world a better place? This answer I am still learning, and I probably won’t fully know unless I become a Jew. The most interesting thing to me is that Jewish law evolves. It is seen as a contract between God and the Jewish people, but the details of that contract change as the world changes, as people change, and perhaps even as God changes what He requires. This is great on the one hand. As humanity evolves, so does Jewish law. For example, one rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law now permits same-sex marriage. In a way, this makes Jewish law look very human. If I am going to follow laws and rituals that don’t make sense to me, I’d like to really believe that God has a special reason for them. On the other hand, Judaism is an old religion, and so even if many of the laws are purely cultural in origin, it seems likely that they had some purpose- binding Jews together, for example, or focusing attention on the moral or spiritual aspects of behavior.
I’m a strong-willed independent thinker, so I like to think (in a very UU fashion) that I can makes my own rules for my behavior, ascertain my own principles of morality, and create my own spaces for spiritual development. To this end, my moral and spiritual beliefs infuse many of my daily activities, from my vegetarian diet to giving money to causes I believe in to hiking around downtown in search of a homeless person desiring doggie-bagged leftovers from a fancy dinner out. Why should I follow Jewish law? Will it make me a more moral, spiritual, or righteous person? Will I constantly fight laws that don’t make sense to me? Will it do me good, or anyone good, to follow them on blind faith that they are God’s will, or the product of an ancient culture that has severely beaten the odds and outperformed itself time and time again? Will a sense that Jewish history is mine impel me to greater achievement and service to the world?
Last night these questions came together in a philosophical-emotional storm. Figuring out what conversion to Judaism means is hard enough, but it brings up so many unresolved questions and desires: does God exist? What is the nature of God? Why does God allow bad things to happen in the world? What does God desire of us? Does God desire? What is the purpose of life? Now Judaism isn’t entirely clear on all of these accounts itself. You don’t have to commit to one viewpoint on these issues to be a Jew. I keep forgetting that. Judaism is a place to explore these questions. But I guess to me, becoming a Jew means making some assumptions about the answers. It means believing that religion is on the right track, that God is probably there, that we know something about what God wants, that we can trust stories passed down thousands of years ago by oral tradition. That our lives have meaning, can become more holy, can fulfill God’s wishes. These are all ideas I love and would like to be true, but I’m a stubborn one, and I hate thinking that I am merely elaborating on delusions induced by human psychological need and deviating from the course of seeking truth. Yep, my dad’s a psychotherapist.
If converting to Judaism doesn’t imply some kind of ontological endorsement, then what does it mean? Nothing more than the sum to the actions I take, the mindset I acquire? While I am a scientist, I do not in any way reject the testimony of subjective experience, and I have had many experiences in my life that lead me to a belief in God, a belief in conscious life force, and a sense of great mystery and awe. In fact, my two favorite pursuits in life- science and art- stem from this mystery and awe, as so wonderfully expressed by my longtime favorite thinker, (the Jewish) Einstein: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
I have so many reasons to convert to Judaism. First, it contains just about all of the elements of UU that I love. Second, it obligates ritual observance with the community, something that I felt lacking in UU. Third, as I mentioned early on, cohesive family religion. Fourth, it has a rich history and literature of Jewish Rabbis and other great thinkers to guide me in my philosophical and spiritual journey. Last night I expressed the fear that committing to one religion might to a sort of myopia. Rachel gently suggested that NOT committing to Judaism might lead to the opposite problem- a kind of plurality and relativism that would prevent me from deepening my religious journey. This had a great impact on me. A metaphor came to me quite suddenly: when I was on match.com looking for women to date, I winked (in cyberspace) at several. One of them was Rachel. At the time, I didn’t know that I would one day want to marry her. I just thought she looked “cute, smart and humble,” just like she titled her profile. I didn’t shy away from dating her because I wasn’t sure she was the one. Quite the opposite: I dated her to get to know her better. I dated in spite of the fact that I don’t know what love is (in a philosophical sense) and in spite of the fact that dating this one person meant not dating others. I think the same applies to my religious quest. If I shy away from any one religion, I will not know what it has to offer me. Judaism is attractive, smart, and humble. Luckily, I do not have to commit now- I can stay in the dating process as long as I need to. That is just what I intend to do, and I when the time comes, I hope I won’t reject a wonderful religious journey because of a few theological quirks or underlying philosophical uncertainty. I always had that problem in philosophy classes. We would be discussing philosophy of science or philosophy of religion, and a professor would ask what assumptions needed to be made to support some theory or another. I would be stuck at the problem of other minds (how do we know we aren’t just brains in a vat?), and the professor would smile and suggest that we didn’t need to worry about philosophy of mind when we were talking about philosophies of science or religion. Why not, I would wonder. It’s just my nature. What I have to realize is that I do have beliefs and commitments and practices that rest on philosophical assumptions I may never KNOW are true, but that I do in fact uphold every day, in everything I do and say and feel. It’s not just Judaism that rests on these assumptions- it’s everything. So even though religion brings these worries to the forefront of my mind, I’ll do my best to keep them in their place and focus on getting to know Judaism and seeing what the experience brings. I’ll update my dating process, hopefully in shorter and less windy posts.