Why I became religious

Someone on Quora asked if people only become religious because they’re weak, or because they lack confidence. Here’s my answer.

I didn’t become religious for affirmation or for strength. It has nothing to do with how confident I am.

I became religious because I need ritual, and poetry, and a shared community, and stories that make me think. I became religious because I need connection. I became religious because being part of something bigger than myself gives me solace and satisfaction.

So no, religious belief is not for the weak. (It’s also not weak to admit that you cannot do everything entirely on your own without any help or support – it’s realistic. The only entities who believe that they can do everything all on their own are house cats and libertarians – neither of which realize that they do, in fact, rely on other entities in order to survive and thrive.)

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A further update on Mr. Christian, and other updates

Apparently he doesn’t hear very well. Yesterday, once again, he was back to his old ways of relating everything in the class to his religious views.

Husband and I are considering what to do. We’ll probably be writing a letter to the rabbi.

—–

Our Seder and Matzah plates arrived! So did our four boxes of Manischewitz gluten-free matzah – but every single one was broken. I’ve been told that there’s a GF grocery that sells them (hopefully NOT broken).

We’re going to be holding a small Seder for a few friends from the Bay Area who can’t get back home for their own Seder this spring due to work schedules. It’ll be the first one I’ve ever tried to run. My best friend is going to help with prep and setup, but I need to get a Haggadah that works for me. I haven’t found a good one yet.

Other news as I have time; this is going into the busy season for me with my work.

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Why I Will Simply Accept Intermarriage

Adam:

This is worth a read. He’s right: the Conservative position isn’t even internally consistent.

Originally posted on A Humanistic Jew in Indianapolis:

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky has an op-ed piece in the USCJ’s most recent issue of Pravda in The Forward, about his refusal to accept intermarriage. Rabbi Kalmanofsky essentially reiterates the Conservative Movement’s basic line on intermarriage: it weakens Judaism out of misplaced compassion.

Let’s tease this apart, because I don’t think you should buy what he’s selling. (Warning: kind of rant-y.)

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Update on Mr. Christian

It’s been a busy few weeks, so I haven’t had time or energy to post here. But here’s an update on what’s going on with Mr. Christian in our Intro class.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, we got out of class (a great class on Purim). As my husband and I were leaving, Mr. Christian … not quite confronted us. He was asking about the “next class,” meaning the one being held for the people who are converting after the Intro class is over. It’s going to be a fairly intense seminar and only (I hope) for the people who are actually going through conversion, which wouldn’t include him since he’s not converting. He seemed very disappointed when my husband and I both said that it was probably only for people who were planning to convert. 

Then he said, as we got to our car, “Am I monopolizing the class?”

So I was honest with him. Uncomfortably so, and not aggressively so, but I did say the following.

“The thing is, it’s a class on Judaism. Many of the people here came from Christianity and we’re not interested in hearing about that. We’re interested in learning about the religion we’ve chosen. It’s hard when you keep mentioning Jesus. I know that you are very passionate about your faith, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but several people in there, including me, came from a Christian background and found it lacking or abusive or both. I admit it does make me uncomfortable when you bring up your religion, because I’m not here to learn about your religion. I’m here to learn about my religion.”

He chewed that over for a moment and then said “So I should dial it back about ten notches.”

When I said “That would help,” he said, “Maybe twenty notches.”

So we’ll see. I spoke my truth to him, at least, and maybe now he’ll realize how much he’s made people uncomfortable. We’ll see. There was no class on Purim (last Wednesday) so we’ll see how it goes tomorrow…

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Sometimes I wish…

1. That Americans would realize that Netanyahu is a political leader, not a religious one, and that he runs a political state, not a religious one;

2. That Netanyahu does not speak for all Jews;

3. That non-Israeli Jews have very little control over what Netanyahu does, says, or thinks;

4. There’s an election coming up in Israel soon. Let’s hope they vote in a majority party that doesn’t want a PM who’s a war-happy Cheney clone this time.

I admit that as an American Jew, I am conflicted about Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. I feel a two-state solution is best, but from here, I have no control over what happens in Israel.

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Shavua Tov!

On Havdalah
by Shocheradam

For a good week let us do all things deliberately.

Three stars light the sky, and it is time.
But do not light the candle, not just yet.
Let us savor this moment before its light dances
On the backs of our hands, on the walls, in our eyes.

Do not pour the wine, no, it can wait.
Its sweetness would overpower our tongues.
Let the cup stand empty for a moment still.

Leave the spices standing just a moment more.
The b’samim would overwhelm our senses.
Leave them on the shelf and take one look
At the table standing bare before we start.

Meditate on table, braided candle, empty cup,
B’samim box on the shelf, all waiting patiently.
Three stars light the sky above, but savor just the same
The fading moments of this holy time, this sacred space.

Think upon these fading moments ere we begin.
Think of something you will carry forward into the week.
Think of something you have set down to leave behind.

Think of this moment all week long,
For patience,
For courage,
For strength,
For shalom.

Now fill cup, light candle, sing the prayers:
Baruch atah, Adonai… Amein.
Lift the cup and b’samim box, lift the candle, see its shadows.
Say a word or two about sacredness and holiness.
Sip the wine and bid Shabbat farewell.
Dip the flame into the wine and sing to one and all:
Shavua tov, shavua tov, shavua tov.

For a good week, let us remember holiness.
For a good week, let us remember sacredness.
For a good week, let us remember this pause in time, this place in space.

For a good week, let us do all things deliberately.

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An Epistle to the Christians on Quora

Someone on Quora posted a question:

Religion: Jews: What are your top requests to non-Jews everywhere?
Please be respectful in your answer.

Here’s my answer.

Specifically to Christians, please stop assuming the following things:

1. That Judaism looks like Christianity, but without Jesus. It doesn’t. It’s so far removed from it that the two religions have almost nothing in common. The term “Judeo-Christian,” which has been used by your evangelical and fundamentalist branches to claim a deep connection between our two religions, is a fabrication. Please stop using that term. Saul of Tarsus took pretty much all of the Jewish roots of Christianity and severed them when he started trying to get Gentiles into the tent. Judaism may be, in some ways, Christianity’s ancestor, but Christianity has changed so much from its original Semitic roots that it is a disservice to both faiths to conflate them that closely. To put it another way: Judaism may be a parent of Christianity, but children are not clones of their parents, and Christianity is very, very different from Judaism.

2. That we believe in your version of what a Moshiach (Messiah) is supposed to be. We don’t. The Moshiach is a political and military leader, not a spiritual leader. All that stuff about him being a spiritual leader who’s going to come back from the dead and achieve a bunch of stuff? Not Biblical. Not Scriptural. Not based in any Jewish scriptures.

At the time when Yeshua ben Yosef (that guy you call “Jesus”) was alive, there were some small Jewish sects that wanted the Moshiach to be a spiritual leader too, but they were small and not supported. Saul of Tarsus took their ideas and ran with them. Essentially, he made it all up.

Also, in Judaism, we rarely talk about the coming of the Moshiach. We are predominantly more intensely concerned with this world and our duties to it and to each other in the here and now. Yes, the Moshiach will come someday, but we’re really not that concerned about when. We know it won’t be anytime soon because the world is such a mess. We have our own work to do, right here and now. That’s our responsibility.

3. That we agree with your view of what “sin” means. We don’t. In Judaism, the word for “sin” (“cheyt”) means “missing the mark.” What mark? The mark, as set down by the Law in Torah and Talmud, that we’re supposed to aim for (think archery). It does not mean you’re a horrible, evil, bad person if you sin. It means you need to do better next time.

You also can’t get away from your sins by praying and asking God for forgiveness in Judaism. You have to actually go to the people you hurt or harmed, ask them for forgiveness, and make amends as best you can. As a Jewish friend of mine said once, “If I go to HaShem (God) and say ‘I hurt Moishe ben Avraham and I want forgiveness for it,’ I’d expect HaShem to say ‘Nu, why are you coming to me? Why haven’t you gone to Moishe to work this out?'”

Your sins are your responsibility, in Judaism. Nobody else can take the punishment for them. That is not a Jewish teaching. (Many of us find the idea of Yeshua/Jesus being sacrificed for the sins of the whole world somewhere between laughable and horrifying. It is categorically NOT a Jewish view of sin.)

By the way, we don’t believe in “original sin,” either, and the Adam and Eve story is pretty minor for us.

4. That being religious is about what you believe and that what you believe needs to be the same as what everyone else believes. It’s not that way for us. It’s about how you behave. When Jews ask each other if they’re being observant, we tend to say things like “Have you given tzedakah this week? Are you observing Shabbat? Did you go to Yom Kippur services? Did you fast? Have you been to a Seder during Pesach (Passover)?”, not “Do you believe that God is X, Y and Z?” In Judaism, a person’s beliefs about God and anything else are their own business, although we’re more than happy to share them, argue about them, and disagree about them.

5. That when we tell you that you’re assuming something that isn’t true about Judaism, we’re actually right and you’re actually assuming, even if you don’t think you are. The number of times that someone non-Jewish, right here on Quora, has insisted that they know more about my religion than I do would fill an egg carton, at least. (No, Jews do not believe in heaven and hell. That’s the most recent one thrown at me. We also don’t have a devil. That’s a Christian thing. The thing Christians label as “the devil” in Jewish texts is a metaphor, not literal.)

6. That Judaism is conducted in a funnel-teaching, memorizing, by-rote manner. Like memorizing Bible verses, for example. By this I mean, Jews do not learn how to be Jewish by being told what we are supposed to believe (see #4). We are told about the history of the Hebrews, and about the moral lessons we learn from the Torah and the Tanakh and the Talmud, and then we argue, discuss, and debate those lessons and what they might mean or did mean or could mean. The idea “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is not just nowhere to be found in Judaism; it’s actually considered quite ridiculous.

Most of this response is going to annoy Christians no matter how respectful I am about it, because in my experience, Christians are very touchy about the idea that the way their religion works isn’t the way other people’s religions work, but I hope that maybe, just maybe, people will become more aware of just how not-Christian and different from Christianity Judaism is.

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My Father’s Yahrzeit

Today is my father’s yahrzeit (death anniversary) by the modern calendar. I have decided that, since he was not a Jew, I’m going to observe it by the modern calendar.

Normally, Jews observe yahrzeit in a couple of ways. They go to shul and say the Mourner’s Kaddish after naming their loved one who has passed on, and they light a yahrzeit candle at home. It’s just a small paraffin candle that burns for 24 hours. You’re supposed to light it at sundown on the erev, or eve, of the person’s death anniversary.

I can’t leave a candle burning unattended for 24 hours in my home. It’s too dangerous; we have cats, and I have to go to work before my husband gets home. So I am compromising by burning it for as long as I can before I leave for work, and lighting it again when I get home. I lit it last night after sundown, and cried some. It’s on my desk, next to a photo of my father and my grandmother holding my oldest child when she was an infant.

My father was my rock. He would have been proud of my conversion. He was just that kind of man. It’s because of him that singing is prayer for me. It’s because of him that I value my intellect. It’s because of him that I have been successful – he is my model for success.

Six years ago, my father died of cancer –  far too young. He was just 63. My dad had health problems all his life – headaches, back problems – but when he hit his 50s, he was diagnosed with type II diabetes. Shortly after that, he had surgery to remove a slow-growing kidney tumor.

When he was diagnosed with fast-growing esophageal cancer at 62, they did a scan to see how advanced the tumor in his throat was, and discovered his liver was raddled with it and that there was no point in doing any more surgery. They gave him a year. It was an estimate. What he got was about half that time. What eventually killed him was not the cancer, but the gangrene that set into his feet in mid-December.

It was horrifying. I still can’t think about it rationally.

But I can light a yahrzeit candle for him and say the Mourner’s Kaddish. I said it at shul on Saturday after mentioning his name. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to ask for his name to be listed in the synagogue bulletin with the family members of other shul members who have passed on or not, since my father was not a Jew. But I might – next year, when I’m a member of the shul and not just a conversion candidate.

Grieving is difficult. I didn’t really get to grieve when my father died. I had to help hold everyone else together. And then there was graduate school, and finding a job, and…. somewhere along the line I didn’t get the chance to really grieve. I remember saying on an old blog of mine at one point that I wished there was some kind of culturally accepted, structured grieving process for non-Jews like shiva. (Maybe that was a spiritual helicopter even then…?)

So every year, when January rolls around, the depression surges in and incapacitates me if I let it. I am hoping that burning this candle on my desk today will go some small way towards making this pain less bad.

Baruch dayan emet, they say. May his memory be for a blessing, they say.

Yes, his memory is for a blessing. Every time I think of him, it’s a blessing.

But I miss him more than I can say.

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Friday Feature: What are you thankful for this week?

This week I am thankful for many things.

I will be receiving my back pay from my raise that is retroactive to July 1 very soon. I filed grades for my intersession class and should be paid for that soon, as well. Then I can pay off some bills completely, which will be good.

I am continuing to get add requests from my students and my spring classes are almost full.

I saw the doctor today and my blood pressure is normal. Normal! Yay!

I see friends this weekend.

Our Intro classes are well underway and I’m loving it.

My husband got me a cute card and a tiny stuffed Kermit the Frog (my favorite Muppet) to cheer me up today. He and I have been married 84 days.

Life is good.

Shabbat shalom.

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Six Things Christians and Atheists Just Don’t Seem to Get About Judaism

In the last few months, between writing on Quora and going to my Intro to Judaism class, I’ve been struck repeatedly by people’s beliefs about what Judaism is, and how incorrect those beliefs really are. Most Christians assume that “religion” looks like what they do, and can’t imagine any other way. Most atheists I bump into on this topic either never had a religion, or they came from a Christian background and rejected it, but almost all of them are Americans, raised in the American tradition, which is steeped heavily in Christian motifs, beliefs, and ways of experiencing and explaining the world. So the atheists also tend to assume that Christianity is what all religions look like.

Many of these misconceptions stem from an equally incorrect misconception: that all Christians are fundamentalist/evangelical Christians – and so all religious people are just like them, because that’s what religion looks like. Both Christians and atheists seem to believe this, and the misconceptions that grow in this fertile ground are kind of like kudzu.

Here’s a few specific misconceptions.

1. Jews are just Christians without Jesus/a Messiah. No. Sorry.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what that means, but I’ve found plenty of assumptions stemming from the idea that Christianity is what religion “looks like,” so the main difference in Judaism must be that it doesn’t have Jesus, but in most other ways it’s the same.

Certainly, Jews look for the Moshiach and the Messianic Age, but Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Jesus) isn’t him (or her), and this isn’t it. We aren’t counting on (or living for) an afterlife, and we aren’t really all that interested in making people believe the same way we do.

In Judaism, “Moshiach” is a title given to every secular political king we’ve ever had. It is NOT the title of a spiritual leader. There are a number of reasons why Yeshua ben Yosef is not the Messiah: the Temple has not been rebuilt, we do not have world peace, and the Jewish nation is not all located in Israel – among others.

2. Jews think that their religion is the only correct one and that all other religions should be eliminated/people forced to convert to the One True Religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I know that for most people, this is what “religion” means, but it’s hard to become a Jew, and we discourage conversion without a lot of thought and consideration. Compare that to the Christian conversion where you say “yes” and (possibly) jump in the ocean to get baptized, and you’re in.

Judaism isn’t about being better than other people, it’s about having more responsibilities than other people (that’s what “Chosen People” means, you know – not that we’re special but that we’re extra burdened). And as long as non-Jews keep the seven Noahide laws (look it up on Google), they have a place in the World to Come.

3. Jews reject science and proof in favor of blind faith and belief in a vicious, mean, petty God.

If you believe this, you don’t know any Jews. Jews are often scientists. We recognize that science is about “how” and religion is about “why.” Einstein (himself a Jewish scientist) said: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Einstein also said about God: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

You don’t even have to believe in God to be a Jew. So assuming that all Jews believe in a vicious, mean, petty God is kind of stupid.

4. Judaism is about belief that has no support in the real world or through science.

Nope, sorry. Judaism isn’t about belief; it’s about behavior. How are you treating people? How are you behaving? That’s more important to us than what you believe. Look at the variety of beliefs across the spectrum of Jews; no two of us experience God the same way and no two of us have exactly the same belief system. The important thing is that we treat each other ethically and respectfully.

5. All Jews believe that their religious texts are literal, 100% infallible, and 100% correct as written for all times, places, and contexts. 

A few Jews do, just like a few Christians do. That doesn’t mean all of us do. For me, the Torah is largely a set of metaphors and fables about how to deal with life, and deal with other people fairly and ethically. This includes the fables where the lesson about being ethical comes out of the story showing you what is unethical. It’s also the stories of fallible human beings doing the best they could in the contexts of their times.

6. Christianity has Jewish roots because Jesus was a Jew, so Christians believe the same things Jews do.

No. Sorry. Here’s a few things that Christians believe that Jews categorically do not:

a. A human god
b. Heaven
c. Hell
d. A need for personal salvation or a “savior”
e. Human sacrifice (sorry, but the crucifixion of Yeshua ben Yosef counts!)
f. The Messiah as a spiritual leader, rather than a political leader
g. “Original sin”
h. “Personal revelation” of truth

And yet I’ve had atheists throw many of those at me as if I believe them. Why? Because I’m a Jew, and Judaism is a religion, and all religions are just like Christianity, right?

Many of the stories that Christians think are definitive and important from the Torah are actually minor blips for Jews. Adam and Eve in the Garden? Relatively minor. For Christians, this is a Huge Big Deal. The Abraham and Isaac story? Important for Jews. For Christians? They’re not sure what to make of that.

If someone’s going to dislike me because I’m a Jew, I’d appreciate it if they’d at least get their facts straight.

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