13 Iyyar 5774
It occurs to me that if I’m going to convert (and I am), I’m fortunate to live where I do. In Los Angeles, there’s a much bigger Jewish presence than I originally thought, and it’s not all located near the intersection of Fairfax and Pico (although that’s probably the best semi-local place to go shopping for Judaica)*. I live up the street from a Conservative temple (two or three blocks from my apartment), there’s a Lubavitcher center half a mile away, and there are several other temples of various movements in the area. My Jewish best friend has also offered to take me to her Conserva-form temple in the Glendale area if I want, so I have a lot of places I can go to find and talk to a rabbi and attend a Shabbat service.
Only I haven’t done it yet. I’ve had a prior obligation every weekend day for the last six weeks, which ends after next weekend, and until those are over, Fridays are designated laundry-and-sleeping days (the weekend obligations are quite physically exhausting). I’m also finishing the school year and so I’m rather buried in grading papers, setting up exams, grading final bits of homework, and setting up an intersession class for spring and summer. If you’re an educator or know one, then you know the drill. Being a convert doesn’t mean that the world stops and waits while you pursue conversion.
So I’ve been doing my reading, studying, and exploring here and at home, as I have time and energy. I’ve read about two-thirds of Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, and that’s helped. I have about two hundred bookmarks in my browser of sites I’ve read and found useful. I’ve been praying – a lot – and it’s not just pious mouthings. I’ve been trying very hard to remember what the Hebrew words mean whenever I say them, and I have a translation and transliteration in front of me so I can memorize both the sounds and the meanings. I have not laid tefillin yet, and I probably won’t for some time, but I say the Sh’ma morning and night, and I do my best to remember the blessings over meals. I’ve subscribed to a mailing list which sends out the weekly Torah portion so I can study those. I’m planning a trip to my local library tomorrow to see if I can find any of the other books on Michael Doyle’s “read this” list. And as you know, I’ve been examining my motivations for conversion here, in some detail. I’m even grateful for that correspondent who has been trying to convert me to Christianity; she forced me to really look at my reasons in a deep, meaningful way.
None of that prepared me for last night.
My best friend was over for a visit and we decided to walk to a local coffee shop for dinner. The temple is on the way, and although the office was closed, we were able to walk over and look at the grounds. If this becomes my temple, I’ll be pretty happy, I think. I still need to talk to the rabbi, of course, and go to a few services to see if I fit, but one can hope.
It also made me anxious in ways I didn’t quite expect and wasn’t quite prepared for. I felt… again… like I was being presumptuous, and I had to fight that feeling. This is who I am. I am allowed to want to convert. I am not stepping on anyone’s toes or pushing my way in without real consideration of what I’m doing. But I also felt a sense of disorientation and unreality standing outside the sanctuary, and I recognized it immediately – a mixture of doubt and guilt. I know that feeling well. It’s the feeling that crops up any time I trust my feelings over my intellect. It’s the feeling that says, in part, What if you’re just kidding yourself? What if you’re just making up how you feel? What if all that stuff you wrote about G-d was just you pretending? And that hurt. I’ll be honest about that. It made me feel like maybe I was just being a credulous fool.
When you’ve been trained to doubt your feelings about the world, it’s hard to get past it when the doubt comes up and hits you in the face. So I had to fight that feeling, too, and I got a little lightheaded in the fighting. My friend could tell I was upset, but I couldn’t explain exactly why I was. I said “overwhelmed,” which wasn’t a lie; it was just what I could say at the time.
When we returned to the apartment after dinner, my friend had brought her own tallit and her siddur (the 1975 edition of Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book) to show me – kind of a religious show-and-tell, I suppose. She showed me how to put on the tallit (on herself, not on me) and she walked me through saying and singing a few of the evening prayers used at services. I now know that I’ll need a large-print siddur with transliterations, or I’ll be lost and quickly. I can get the phonics from transliterations, but reading directly from the Hebrew text is daunting. And with that feeling of being daunted, the doubt came back: can I really do this? do I really deserve this? am I being presumptuous? am I just faking this or pretending? It brought back the lightheadedness, too. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her tallit, either. It felt like I was doing something wrong. Being an ex-Catholic, I guess I have a bit of a cultural hangup about vestments, and the tallit sure looks like one to my inexperienced eyes.
After a few prayers, she let me take a look at the siddur, and in turning the pages to just glance through it, I found this meditation written in English (which I’m going to copy here). I’ve mentioned the helicopters? It was like Adonai sent me another one, to let me know that a) it was okay to doubt and b) he’s real and I’m not kidding myself.
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear; the house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.
But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.
They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.
Therefore, let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
That hit me so hard I nearly started to cry. All those years being told doubt was a sin, that doubt was not allowed, that my questions were unwelcome? Reading this meditation in the siddur completely validated my need to doubt and the fact that I doubt. It was a message that said “You are not a sinner just because you doubt. In fact, doubt may make you even stronger in your faith, as you test what you think and see whether it’s true.”
Thank you, Adonai. I needed that.
*The weekend after next, we’re going to visit the Fairfax district. I have a small shopping list: kippah, mezuzah, Mogen David, and large-print siddur. I might not find them all, but here’s hoping.