Category Archives: Wrestling Matches

Posts that deal with my historical and ongoing struggles with G-d and religion.

Wrestling Match #9: Why Is This Religion Different From All Other Religions?

Yesterday’s Torah study session, and some things that happened today, really opened my eyes to some fundamental differences between Judaism and the other religions I was raised in and tried – Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, Unitarian Universalism, and paganism. (Atheism is not a religion.) Mainly I’m going to focus on the Christian religions because those are the ones that really caused me problems; UUism and paganism, on the other hand, simply didn’t fulfill my needs.

Let’s start with the differences in the view of G-d – and, by extension, the view of sin. In all the G-d centered religions that I’ve been part of (Catholicism and Protestantism), G-d is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. This means that he knows everything you do, think, and say. And if he doesn’t like it, he can zot you with a Great Big Divine Lightning Bolt (or the figurative equivalent). You have no privacy in these religions. Your thoughts can be sins – and are often considered such. Catholicism has a whole category of sins called “impure thoughts.” Basically, you have to be perfect in thought, word, and deed. And do you have any right to any boundary between you and G-d? Heck, no.

In Judaism, G-d isn’t concerned with what we think. He’s concerned with what we do and say. He’s not going to zot us for thinking bad things, unless we put them into action. As the rabbi said last night, the whole point of Moses going back and forth between G-d and the Hebrews at Sinai was that G-d was saying “Yes, I could read your minds, but I’m not that big of a jerk. You get your privacy inside your head.” This may take me a while to wrap my mind around, but it’s just another wrestling match, right?

And then there’s the whole sin thing. In Judaism, sin is what you do (when you shouldn’t do it) or don’t do (when you should do it). It’s also about what you do to others as much, if not more, than what you do to G-d. And if you hurt others through your sin, you have to go to those others and ask for forgiveness. Which brings us to…

Forgiveness. It isn’t just a single act in Judaism. In Catholicism, you recite your list of sins to the priest, who gives you a few prayers to say as penance, and you’re done. That’s what forgiveness looks like – almost like a transaction. In Protestantism you just go right to G-d and you’re done. Poof, presto, no more sin.

But Judaism demands more of us when it comes to apologizing. First, the apologies have to be made to the person harmed – not to a third party or to G-d, unless G-d is the one we harmed by our actions – and we have a special day for that (Yom Kippur). Then, once we are forgiven (and it is a mitzvah to forgive when you get a sincere apology), we have to follow through on our apology by not doing that action again. This isn’t like Catholicism where, even if you do it again, you can just go to the priest and get a theological shower in the confessional to wash it away, or Protestantism, where you just say “I’m sorry, G-d,” and you’re back in the clear again.

In the movie Ladyhawke, Matthew Broderick (who plays Phillipe, a thief) promises not to cut purse any more. Later in the movie, you see him cutting someone’s pouch off his belt as the guy sits half-asleep on a dock, and Phillipe whispers, “I know I promised, L-rd, never again. But I also know that you know what a weak-willed person I am.”

It’s funny as a movie scene, but the truth is that many Christians do this. I think of this as the Christian Cop-Out. Judaism doesn’t allow for that. If Phillipe were a Jew, he would have to go to the guy he stole the pouch from, apologize, and make amends.

Forgiveness also demands more of us. In Judaism, you are supposed to forgive someone if they ask you sincerely for forgiveness by the third time asked. In fact, it’s a religious requirement. And again, it’s not a one-off thing. You can’t just say “OK, you’re forgiven.” You have to actively work on continuing to forgive that person every time the anger comes up.

This is hard for me as well. I’m not good at forgiving. I’m actually very good at holding grudges. But a situation has come up where I need to forgive someone for a harm they did me and then apologized for over a year ago, and I’m struggling with it because, well, I don’t wanna. Forgiving them feels like saying that what they did to me wasn’t that big of a deal (and to me, it was) and letting them hurt me again, because I also have to ask for forgiveness for distancing myself from them since the apology. It’s a big mess, to me.

But I’m not going to wait around for Yom Kippur to extend my apology. I’m going to treat this as an object lesson: am I ready to be a Jew? Am I ready to follow through on what I’ve been saying, or is this all an intellectual exercise?

So tonight I’m going to contact this person and say, “I want to apologize for avoiding you. I also want to know if you still think that I’m [what they said I was] last year, and if so, if there’s anything I can do to remedy that.”

And whatever happens after, I will apologize and forgive like the Jew-ish person that I am and the Jew I hope to one day be. Anything less would be immoral.

No, it’s not easy. But it’s what I have to do.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Jewish Practices, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Wrestling Match #8: Sin

26 Iyyar 5774

This is one of the things I have had the most trouble with: sin.

In Christianity, sin is mainly something you do against G-d. You disobey, or you break commandments, or whatever. But you also have original sin – sin that you get because you were descended from Adam, and he sinned, so that means until you’re baptized, YOU carry ADAM’s sin.

Apparently Judaism isn’t cool with that. And there’s exactly one time per year when sins against G-d are even talked about: Yom Kippur.

Most sins are the sins you commit against other people. These may also be broken commandments/mitzvot, but the main issue is: you hurt someone else either by what you did or by what you didn’t do. Another human being. Not cool. Cut it out, apologize to the person you harmed, make amends, and don’t do it again.

However, this seems to leave out things you do that don’t actually harm anyone, but that are supposedly “morally” wrong. For example: where does consent come into play? Does consent mitigate sin? If (for example) a married couple likes to play spanking games, does the spankee’s consent mitigate or eliminate the spanker’s sin? I can’t find clear answers for this kind of thing, even in Reform Judaism writings, although there are opinions available on the web.

There does seem to be a rabbinic argument in favor of polyamory (look up Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NYC), and the main points are listed at AhavaRaba, or “Big Love” in Hebrew (roughly), which is an email list for poly Jews. I will be adding myself to that list at some point, I’m sure.

And we’ve already discussed the homosexuality question in the drash I posted a few weeks ago (see “The Verses That Won’t Let People Live“), so I don’t need to go into that, I don’t think.

Part of what I’m wrestling with here is just the idea that some of the things I do or like might be things that HaShem really doesn’t care about. As someone raised in several faith traditions where even my thoughts (never mind my actions) could be sinful, this is hard to wrap my head around. In Catholicism, you confess everything, even if it was only a thought. In Judaism, it seems, your confessions are mostly to the people who were harmed by your action or inaction, and a once-a-year apology to G-d for the mistakes you’ve made and the offenses you’ve made against him alone.

Any thoughts? This is one place I can’t seem to find a lot of guidance.

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Filed under GLBT, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Wrestling Match #7: There’s Always One More Thing

So, my weekend obligation is finally over, and my kids are coming over tomorrow night for the weekend, for the first time in a couple of months due to my weekend obligation and their school schedules. They’re not young – they’re in their late teens – but for the next two nights we’ll have them here, and that changes things. It means that going to Shabbat services, or even lighting candles tomorrow, is out of the question. They don’t even know that I’m pursuing this path yet, and I don’t want to upset them on the first time I’ve seen them in two months.

But still.

Tonight my gentile partner asked me why I hadn’t contacted a rabbi yet, and I didn’t have a good answer. Except… I’m scared to. I feel like I’m not prepared enough.

I feel like I need to have already Read All The Books, and been to services a few (dozen) times, and have all the prayers memorized, and have read at least one full tractate in the original Aramaic, and be able to read Hebrew fluently so I don’t come across like a poseur or a fake. It’s just that old presumption hangover coming back to bite me, I know that…

… except I don’t. Not always.

I feel like just calling a rabbi is like having to be prepared for the spiritual equivalent of my dissertation defense. Before my dissertation defense, I read voraciously, trying to cover every single possible question I might get asked so that I would look competent in front of my committee and my chair. (I did, but they still found things I couldn’t answer, which was humiliating to me even though it was the point of that little exercise.)

So I feel like I have to do the same thing here, as if the first meeting with the rabbi will be like defending a dissertation prospectus. But there will always be one more book to read and one more prayer to learn. There will always be one more thing I can do that’s an intellectual exercise (like writing a blog post, for example) that will allow me to delay the emotional experience of contacting a rabbi. There’s always one more thing that will save me from having to walk in with my naked soul and risk being hurt or worse. Always.

And I feel like I’m using that as an excuse because I’m scared to talk to a rabbi and have him turn me away. Or worse, laugh at me. Or look at me like I’m something he scraped off his shoe. Or declare me just a poseur, and my interest just presumption.

Let’s not even go into the part where I’m queer. Or poly. Or some other things that I will not even talk about in this blog because they are even more personal than those things, if you can believe it. Let’s not go into how much this feels like I’m putting a target on my back and walking out into the firing range, just thinking about sending an e-mail or leaving a telephone message for the rabbi of the synagogue three blocks down the street.

Since I don’t know what to expect, and I haven’t been able to find anything online that will tell me what to expect, I’m stuck.

And I’m scared that getting unstuck will mean coming unglued, and I don’t know what to do.

In my soul, I know I’m Jewish. I know I am. Everything I’ve read about Judaism fits my way of living and how I see the world and, and just everything.

But I just don’t know if anyone can look past my exterior to see that.

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Wrestling Match #6: The Verses That Won’t Let People Live

15 Iyyar 5774

Please excuse any typos I don’t catch in this post, and probably the next few that will follow it. I sprained my wrist quite badly yesterday, and I am on doctor’s orders not to use my right hand for anything including typing and writing. Since I’m a professional academic who does a lot of typing and writing, this is a very frustrating situation for me. I am using a dictation program that really likes to insert random capitals and incorrect words, as well as putting ‘s after just about everything that should be a plural. This means I’m still doing a lot of left-handed correction by hunting and pecking on the keyboard.

So this won’t be a long post. But it occurs to me that as a queer man, there are some verses and texts in the Torah that won’t let people like me live. So this begs the question: why would I convert to a religion that has those verses in its scriptures?

The best answer that I’ve found so far has two main points: first, Reform Judaism leaves it up to the individual person which mitzvot they will follow. But that seems like too easy of a solution, doesn’t it? This also seems to be one of the Orthodox community’s biggest gripes about non-Orthodox Jewish traditions: if you can pick and choose, then what’s the point?

For me, part of this first point is that Judaism is not just about following every single rule to the letter. It’s also about walking with G-d. It’s also about how you treat your fellow human beings. It’s also about cultivating a sense of reverence and thankfulness. It’s also about mindfulness. If being Jewish were just about following the rules, then I would not be drawn to it.

But the second point, to me, is equally important, and that is this: part of our job as Jews is to interact with the Torah, and part of the interaction is interpretation and re-interpretation of what those texts or verses mean in today’s world. The best discussion of this issue that I have yet found is this drash from Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D., at Beth Chayim Chasadim in Los Angeles, so I share it for you here:

Today, with my hand in the condition it’s in, this is what I can offer you. Rabbi Adler does a much more successful job of wrestling with this particular question that I could do on my own.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Drashot, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Wrestling Match #4: Comprehending G-d

10 Iyyar 5774

Until I discovered Judaism, I was an atheist.

I had my reasons for that, and for a long time they seemed like very good and valid reasons. Please note: the order I’m listing them in has nothing to do with their importance. This isn’t a rank-ordered list; it’s just a list of the various reasons I had for not believing in G-d.

One reason was that G-d had been represented to me as a stern, angry taskmaster for most of my childhood and adolescence. My sole idea of G-d for years and years was “He will punish you; He’s just waiting for you to mess up so He can smack you down” – G-d as taskmaster, prison guard, and slave driver, not G-d as loving parent or friend. (In my more cynical moments I’ve said to friends “So you believe in a ‘loving parent’ that sets you up to fail and then punishes you for failing? Not interested!”) I had the terrible experience of hearing a hymn when I was about nine that went “Watching you, watching you, there’s an all-seeing Eye watching you” that conjured up a nightmare vision of a disembodied eye watching everything I did and finding it unacceptable. The verses that command us to “Fear G-d” were translated in my Catholic and Christian backgrounds as “be terrified of G-d; you must be perfect or you will feel His wrath, and if you are not perfect He will turn away from you until you are.” It was not a good message, and no amount of “G-d is love” could counteract it because the emphasis was on being afraid first. 

My partner was also raised Catholic, but he doesn’t remember this being the message in his church. It doesn’t matter. I do. And it was very, very hard to let go of that fear (and the anger it produced). For a long time, I felt that if such a G-d did exist, it was my bounden duty to deny its existence, because the alternative was horrifying.

I also got that message at home – not about G-d specifically, but about authority figures more generally. My mother has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you’ve never lived with a person with a personality disorder, you’re luckier than you know. Living with a narcissistic parent is like living with a time bomb. If you read the time bomb’s mind well enough and are as perfect as you can be, you might avoid abuse, sometimes. My mother’s narcissistic abuse installed a very deep need to understand authority figures so that they wouldn’t hurt me. When I didn’t read her mind, abuse was the logical outcome. So logically, if G-d is an authority figure, he expects you to read his mind and be perfect and never make a mistake, and if you do, you should logically expect to be punished.

In essence, I had the image of G-d as a parent with severe NPD.

It should be pretty clear why I was so afraid of G-d, nu?

Second, because of the fear, I got angry. Not only was I angry with G-d for being (as I saw it) a divine bully, but for a number of other reasons too. I was bullied from second grade onwards, and G-d never seemed to do anything about it no matter how hard I prayed. I was molested as a very young child by my grandfather, and G-d, as far as I could see, didn’t do anything about that either. My mother was emotionally abusive. My father, who was a good and godly man, died when he was just past his 63rd birthday, far too young. I had been told to believe that the world was just, where bad things only happened to bad people, and yet the world was not working the way I had been told it was supposed to. (My Sunday School classes never included Job, for some reason.) I wasn’t sure if I was a bad person, but I knew for certain that my father was a good person, and yet bad things happened to him.

It’s the classic thing that everyone wrestles with, right? Why do bad things happen to good people if there is a loving G-d? I found meaning in the book Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes, where a character who had been forcibly enslaved said to his former master: “If I believed in G-d, I would hate him.”

And yes, I did hate him for a while. I hated him because no matter how much I hurt, and no matter what bad things happened to me, he didn’t seem to be there for me at all.

Another reason that I turned to atheism was that I was a “gifted” child. That meant, in the 1970s, that I was praised mainly for getting the right answer. For understanding. For comprehending. For being able to explain everything. And that became a part of how I perceived myself: I was a good kid because when asked, I always had the answer and I got praise for it. It was one of the few times I could count on getting approval from my mother, so being able to understand and explain, to have the right answer, became an obsession for me.

So imagine what it was like when I ran into something I couldn’t explain – like G-d.

It wasn’t just upsetting. It was soul-destroying. And I found it offensive that there was anything that I could not explain. That was my job, you see – to explain and comprehend. So I think my first step towards atheism was saying “If I can’t understand and explain it, then it must not be real.”

As an autistic and an abuse survivor, logic and order are very important to me. They’re soothing. They help me cope with a very chaotic world. So for many years, I demanded logical causes and physical evidence for everything, or I simply wouldn’t believe it. Feelings were not logical. Therefore, they couldn’t be trusted.

Having been raised by a narcissistic mother, I had had my ability to trust my own feelings pretty much beaten out of me by the time I was six or seven years old. How I felt did not matter. It was how she felt that mattered. My job was to feel whatever she told me to feel, and to believe whatever she said, not to trust my own feelings. If you haven’t dealt with someone who has a personality disorder, it may be difficult to believe how pervasive this is. But since I couldn’t trust my feelings, any time that G-d might have tried to speak to me, I was essentially deaf.

I was all about the empirical, and I shunned the experiential.

So when I found out about the scientific method, I was enthralled. Logic! Orderliness! It made sense! Here was something where cause and effect were actually linked, unlike my life, where random bad things happened with no discernible cause. It was comprehensible. It made sense. I could actually categorize what was going on and it would still be there, dependable, when I got back. It was the best tool I’d ever found for understanding the world. I began to perceive anything I couldn’t explain with that tool as something offensive – including G-d. It didn’t occur to me that you can’t use the same tool for all jobs. I was trying to shoehorn G-d – who cannot be experienced logically – into something that could be analyzed scientifically.

Probably due to the abuse, I have a deep need for justice. When people wouldn’t follow the rules, it made me mad. When they’d get away with not following the rules, it made me enraged. I have a deep commitment to doing the right thing, but I also have a deep commitment to following the rules if the rules seem to match what is good and right and proper. I loved the law, because it seemed so orderly and logical.

I’m a social scientist these days, and one of the things I study is law and how the law works. More and more I’m finding that all the things I thought were logical and straightforward are not. But during my atheist phase, I demanded actual, physical evidence of G-d, and when nobody provided it, I mocked their beliefs. (Yes, I was one of those atheists – every bit as fundamentalist as any haredi Jew or evangelical Christian. And I’m not proud of it, and I know I’m going to have a lot of people to make amends to when Yom Kippur rolls around in the fall.) At thirteen, I walked away from Catholic confirmation classes when I realized how silly it all sounded to me. Later in life I went through confirmation classes and confirmation to make my then-spouse happy, but on the day it happened I didn’t feel anything beyond “this is so fake, there’s nothing there.”

So here I am, a person who demands logical and physical evidence and can’t seem to find any for G-d, who has been conditioned to never trust his own feelings and who believes the most important thing is to have the right answer, who is angry for the unjust and undeserved pain he experienced, and is still shying away from G-d due to the fear he was told to have. I was very angry with G-d for a long time, especially after my father died, and felt that I could either hate G-d, or I could stop believing in Him. So I stopped believing in Him for a while. It seemed the lesser of two evils. 

Then one day earlier this year, everything shifted. If you asked me exactly how, I couldn’t tell you, but I used this joke as a parable to explain it when I first joined a board for converts last month:

There’s a man whose town is going to be flooded. He listens to the radio and watches the TV, and says to his friends “It’s okay. I’m a religious man. I pray. G-d won’t let anything happen to me.” Well, the flood comes, and a guy comes by in a rowboat and shouts for him to get in, but the religious man says “It’s okay, I pray. G-d will save me.” Then as he’s standing on his roof peak, a guy in a helicopter lowers a ladder and shouts for him to get on, but the religious man shouts back that he’s safe, because he prays and G-d will save him. 

Of course, he drowns. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates he demands an audience with G-d. He says “L-rd, I’m a devout man. A religious man. I pray to You every day. I tithe. I do good works in Your name. Why didn’t you save me?” And the Lord looks at him and says “I sent you a radio report, a TV report, a rowboat and a helicopter – what the heck are you doing here??”

The specific nature of the rowboats and helicopters I’ve been seeing aren’t important. What’s important is that I started seeing them, and I stopped judging everything by the scientific yardstick. As I discovered that my mother was a narcissistic personality and what that meant about my difficulty in trusting my feelings, I began to make room in my life for letting my feelings guide me. I stopped arguing and shouting and started listening. 

At the same time, I was discussing G-d and religion with people I care about, including both of my partners. It’s something I’ve done every spring, pretty much, but this year was different. This year I was talking not just about the Christian G-d, but the idea of G-d. A lot of the things I’d been conditioned to believe by my upbringing don’t make any sense in Judaism, and my Jewish best friend’s explanations of how G-d is not like that in Judaism were confusing to me. I had to know more about this G-d who didn’t bully his children, so I started researching Judaism on my own, instead of going back over liberal Christian theologians’ books again.

That’s when I discovered that Judaism fit my own ethic of “do right by others.” Tikkun olam – that was a revelation. The idea that it wasn’t about the afterlife but about the now-life, the present life, that mattered. The idea that actions were more important than professions of faith, because action IS a profession of faith. That you can argue with G-d and he won’t send the giant lightning bolt to incinerate you for daring to say “That wasn’t cool, Adonai.” These discoveries were revelatory. Absolutely revelatory. I walked around in a stunned daze for a while after I began to realize that Judaism was where I belonged.

And here’s the main thing that finally came across to me. The thing I had struggled with for at least two decades. Judaism provided me with an answer I had been needing and didn’t know I needed.

That answer is this: You can’t comprehend G-d.

You’re also not expected to comprehend G-d.

He doesn’t expect you to “get” him. When asked his name, he told Moses “I am that I am.” That’s saying “I’m not something you can comprehend, and that’s okay. Simply accept that that’s what I am.” He doesn’t expect you to read his mind. If he did, he wouldn’t have given us the Torah. And it stands to reason that if he doesn’t expect you to read his mind, he also doesn’t expect you to be perfect.

That was the most stunning discovery I had, and it is the one that has me shaking my head in wonder every time it occurs to me.

G-d isn’t like my mother. He’s like my father. He isn’t a divine bully. He’s a bedrock.

When I wrote about this shift in my perceptions on a support board for people with personality-disordered parents, a well-meaning Christian acquaintance asked me in private message, “But don’t you think you need to find out the facts about exactly what G-d is and what he wants?”

My answer was something along the lines of: “Asking about the truth or falsehood of G-d is like asking about the truth or falsehood of the sun. He’s there. That’s it. Most Talmudic and rabbinical scholars don’t debate about the “facts about who he is.” They do, however, do a lot of debating and arguing about what he wants us to do, based on the Torah and the Talmud.” 

As a follow-up question she wanted to know how I was going to address the fact that G-d is divine and holy and that we are not? My response was: “By realizing that G-d does not demand perfection. And he does not set us up with nebulous or unclear requirements in order to be good enough and then punish us when we can’t read his mind. The Torah actually goes into some detail about what G-d expects: obey his commandments and perform his mitzvot (good deeds). What matters to G-d is what we do here on earth, not what happens afterwards.”

So what brought me out of atheism? Understanding that there are some things that it’s okay not to understand. Understanding that there’s a place for people who want to understand more without having to worry about being punished for not understanding it.

Folks, that’s a revelation I never expected to have.

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Wrestling Match #3: Jewish Identity and “Doing Jewish”

I’m on a roll here today. Who knew that creating a blog would lead me to write this many posts in less than a day? In any case, I’ve just noticed that my posts today have had a bit of a theme, and it’s a theme that keeps popping up for me all over the blogosphere today, so there must be a reason it’s there. That theme really centers on the question that almost all converts (and many Jews by birth) have to ask at one time or another: Who is a Jew (and why)? Michael Benami Doyle at ChicagoCarless explores this theme over and over again, both in his pre- and post-mikveh posts, but one of the ones that jumped out at me today had this to say:

The more you cede your definitions of Judaism and Jewish community to others, the less confidence and control you feel over your own Yiddishkeit. We Jews do not exist in a vacuum, from each other or from the wider world of fellow human beings. But unless you want to go down a stringently Orthodox road that narrowly defines what is and isn’t acceptably Jewish–and no matter how stringently observant you are, there’s always someone more stringent waiting in the wings to edit you out of the story of the Jewish people–letting others define your identity is a dangerous game.

 The problem is, being honest–fully honest–about who you are is not going to please everyone. It sure didn’t please the Egyptians when the Jews stood up for themselves after the ten plagues and hoofed it out of Mitzrayim.

I’ll just give you that quote for the flavor of it – but go read his post for yourself. It’s important. In a similar fashion, Ruth Adar of CoffeeShopRabbi had this to say about the legitimacy of Jewish identity:

[T]here was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece…. Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. 

Emphasis mine, in both instances. Now, one of them says “don’t let anyone else define your identity,” and the other says “the support of the community is important.” They’re both right. I don’t need anyone else’s approval to be the Jew I am becoming, but that feeling of community? Absolutely necessary. It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle: you need the support of your dad or mom until you get your balance (the community), but you’re the one who has to learn how to get your balance (doing Jewish) – they can’t tell you what it is or how to get there. All they can do is be supportive and give you confidence while you learn. Okay, so I needed to hear that today. I needed to hear that it’s normal to feel anxious when someone questions my sincerity, and that it’s normal for me to be throwing myself into Judaism headfirst with both feet. More so because despite all the work I’m still needing to do, I can’t stop studying Hebrew (so far, I can recite the aleph-bet and I’m working on the nikkudim). I can’t bring myself to let go of the prayers that are becoming more and more a given when I reach for my cup of coffee (Baruch atah Adonai…) or wake up in the morning (I tend to say the short two-line Sh’ma, because that’s the one I know by heart). I can’t stop listening to Neshama Carlebach’s music and looking up the transliterations (and meanings) of her songs so I can sing them too. I can’t seem to stop pestering my Jewish friends with questions and anxieties. And I haven’t even gone to a Shabbat service yet, or talked with a rabbi yet! I’ve just been to a very welcoming Seder and talked – a lot – with Jewish friends. So why have I written so much in this blog on its very first day in the world? Well, it’s that whole “needing to ‘do Jewish'” thing and not really having a place – yet – to ‘do Jewish’ beyond here on the ‘Net. For example: It’s Shabbat, and definitely after sundown, but tonight I can’t really observe it in the traditional way. I don’t have wine or candles in the house, I don’t have a gluten-free bakery nearby where I can pick up gluten-free challah, and I don’t want to bother my partner with my observation of private Jewish ritual when he’s home. This blog is also about trying not to make it so that my Judaism isn’t the only song I’m singing, because no matter how much the harmonies entrance me, to those around me it can seem kind of one-note after a while. My male partner, my fiancé, is not planning on converting, and that’s fine. But I struggle not to have every conversation revolve around this new thing I read about Rabbi Akiva or that comment on a blog that spoke to me. So I bottle it all up and then unload it on my best friend (she’s Jewish) and sometimes I feel like I’m overloading her with it. Sometimes she’s worried that our relationship is going to go away or change into something neither of us wants because of my studies. And I can’t have that – for either of them. I need to get a handle on this “doing Jewish” thing so that it doesn’t alienate my loved ones. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog, too. It’s after sundown on Shabbat, but I’m not able to observe Shabbat tonight. (I don’t intend to be shomer Shabbat anyway – I’m converting Reform, so I’m going to take the mitzvot I can do now, and try not to beat myself up for imperfect observance as I learn.) But I can at least write about this path and this journey. I can put this information here instead of overwhelming my loved ones with it. So let that be my Shabbat observance for tonight. (For reasons why this works for me, see the second story on this page, about Rabbi Israel of Rizhin.) So who am I? I am a Scots-Irish Hungarian (with bits and bobs of many other Western European heritages) American with possible Jewish ancestry, who was raised Catholic and has always felt Jewish. I am a ger, and someday (hopefully someday soon) I will be recognized as a Jew by the community. Some of my Jewish friends, including my best friend, have told me that as far as they’re concerned, the day I meet the beit din and enter the mikveh is a formality only, and that they consider me a Jew now, because of my obvious yiddishe neshama. So I’ll keep on praying over my food and in the morning and at night, and as soon as I can make it to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah everywhere except at work. Why? Because, as Rabbi Ruth Adar says, “I would be a real Jew when I acted like one. How does a “real Jew” act? Well, that’s up to the individual Jew, now isn’t it? So now that I’ve put that out there, I need to get my grading done, because for me, part of being an observant Jew is doing what I promised I would do.

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Wrestling Match #2: Teshuva

I want to comment on what many converts have said on their blogs: many of us feel that we’re not converts. We are already Jews. We have Jewish souls – yiddishe neshamot – how could we be otherwise?

We are returning after having been separated from our community. How that separation occurred is really irrelevant. The point is, we are now returning.

But it’s hard to express that to people who don’t have to go through this process to be recognized and affirmed by the Jewish community.

I’m a musician first, and always have been. Lately, I’ve been looking into Jewish popular music, and discovered the amazing singer Neshama Carlebach. Her song “Return Again” hit me so hard that I almost couldn’t breathe, because that feeling I’ve been describing as the pull, the feeling I couldn’t find words for – this song describes it completely and exactly. 

Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are born and reborn again


That’s what the pull is. It’s a call for me to return. 

I feel drawn to Judaism and I can’t stop feeling the draw. I feel like I have to be a Jew. Like it’s an inevitability, an imperative, like day following night. Like my soul was at Sinai and it just took a while for me to find out that I am Jewish at my core.

But – and there’s a big “but” here – I also feel presumptuous. Less so than I did when I first contemplated conversion, because I’ve spoken with many Jewish friends from many movements and none of them find my need to become a Jew in any way presumptuous – but it’s still nervewracking to just say “I feel that I am a Jew.”

And yet I’ve always identified with Judaism. I’ve identified with Jews, with their struggle, with being both chosen and rejected, with being the social scapegoat. I was a “gifted child” and an undiagnosed autistic in the 1970s, which caused merry hell with my peers; I came out as queer when I was in my 20s; I’ve always struggled with weight, which made me a target – just a lot of other issues that put me on the scapegoat hot seat, I suppose. I attended my first seder this past Pesach, and one of the “regulars” at that seder said to me “What, you want to become even more marginalized and ostracized?” with a wink. 

But when I read about the Jewish experience I identify with it, strongly. Every time I read a book where there’s a Jewish character I understand that person’s views as if they’re mine. When I talk with Jewish friends I get where they’re coming from. I don’t have any better words for why. I just feel this pull, and it’s not going away. 

How else to explain that pull, unless I have a Jewish soul?

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Wrestling Match #1: Orthodoxy and Self-Definition as a Jew

When our Yiddishkeit is called into question, what can we say to the questioner? I attempt to answer that question.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Drashot, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Yisrael Means “Wrestling with G-d”

Surprise! New blog. If you’re interested in someone who has wrestled with G-d his whole life, you’re in the right place. Read on.

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