Sometimes it seems like being a convert means denying everything you were before. Sometimes it seems like you have to be more Jewish than anyone else in order to be accepted as a Jew at all. Is there a better way to look at this?
You all know I struggle with perfectionism (thanks, Mother. Thanks, Catholic upbringing). I have had moments lately where I have felt that my Jewish practice was not all that it could be. Part of this is probably Elul and leading up to the High Holy Days, because we are instructed to consider what we could do better, as well as what we’ve been doing wrong all along, so that we can repair both and address them.
And I’ve been trying very hard to do that. So, every time I forget to say the Modeh Ani on waking, and every time I’m halfway into a meal before I realize I haven’t said the brachot, I feel awful. Like I’m not a good enough, not an observant enough, Jew.
Then, this week, I got to read this essay by Robin Washington on MyJewishLearning.com.
Washington was raised Reform, he says, but had to go to Catholic Masses for a while as a religion reporter. Before that time, he’d felt uncomfortable being called to the bimah. Although he doesn’t articulate it at the beginning of this piece, it becomes clear that the idea of making a mistake when called to the bimah is intensely uncomfortable for him.
Then he notices that even Cardinal Law does not always do things exactly the same way. He is not always perfect. And, occasionally, he goes off-script and says something that sounds suspiciously Jewish. For example:
Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a very familiar passage: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.
Huh? I thought—that’s straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.
Heck, I grew up Catholic, and that’s definitely not part of the Catholic dogma. Quite the contrary – it’s in direct opposition to it.
So either Law made a mistake by the codes of his church, or he decided to buck the system. Either way, he wasn’t perfect in his performance of his liturgical duties.
This allowed Washington to realize that being called to the bimah doesn’t mean you have to be perfect in your readings. You will not get in trouble if you make a mistake pronouncing a word. It’s not the end of the world if the service isn’t perfect every time.
As someone who has always struggled with perfection, this means a lot to me, especially with the Catholic tie-in there (due to my own Catholic upbringing).
And that brings me to the other writing that I find important this week. On the blog The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building, a blog post by José Portuondo-Dember has me reconsidering the idea that I should shun or drop everything that went into my former religious upbringing in order to be a better Jew both now and in the future. Portuondo-Dember points this out about the mikveh (and, indeed, about having changed identities from one fundamental way of viewing the world to another):
When I went to the mikveh to mark my return to the Judaism of my ancestors, I wasn’t going to wash away the Catholicism I had been raised in. I’ve never wanted to pretend that I didn’t grow up Catholic. It’s a part of my personal history that I will always cherish. Going to the mikveh wasn’t about not being Catholic anymore, it was about entering Judaism. I was going to mark my full immersion into Judaism: heart, body and soul. […]
I see going to the mikveh as analogous to glazing ceramics. The dunking isn’t about leaving something behind—it’s about picking something up. It’s about being immersed and coated, and bringing some of that essence back with me as I engage my future.
That feels like a relief. It means I don’t have to be a “perfect” Jew. I just have to strive for the best I can do. I don’t need to pretend I was never anything else. I just need to be the best Jew I can be, now, here, and strive to do better without beating myself up for imperfection.