Tag Archives: anxiety

Back to Epstein: What About the Body?

18 Tamuz 5774

In Chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, Epstein asks us to consider the following question:

What is your religious attitude toward the body? In what ways do you treat it as sacred and in what ways don’t you? 

Wow, Rabbi Epstein. You sure do like to open those cans of worms, don’t you?

I admit that I have a very troubled relationship with my body. I’m overweight and have been most of my life. I have diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, neither of which are fun. I’m short, too. So I don’t like the way my body looks. Since finding out that I am allergic to most grains, I am at least taking better care of my body’s physical needs. I try to walk more than I used to. I’m trying to eat better. I’m not perfect at it, but I try to at least give my body what it needs and avoid the things that can damage it.

But the idea of treating my body as sacred is very difficult. I have always seen it as a meat sack – a vehicle. It’s hard for me to even feel that my body is me, most of the time. I live the life of the mind because the life of the body is sweaty, uncomfortable, and often painful. Sometimes I resent the fact that I got stuck with this body. Okay, maybe more than sometimes.

So what lesson should this question teach me? If we’re supposed to treat the body as holy, as sacred, how can I do that when I can’t even figure out how to accept my body in the first place? It’s a conundrum, but then again isn’t that what Jews are supposed to be good at – figuring out conundrums? I don’t have answers yet, but the questions are sure piling up in a big way from this exercise.

It’s easier to talk about the ways I don’t treat my body as sacred. I will admit I don’t like treating my body as anything but a nuisance. I do the minimum necessary, most of the time. I shower, I shave, I comb my hair, I make myself presentable for social interaction. But I often forget to brush my teeth. I put off eating until I’m dizzy with hunger and I ignore my body’s signals about it until I can’t any more. I hate exercise because it makes me aware of my body. And let’s not even mention sex, okay? That’s not somewhere I’m willing to go.

Most of the time, my body just gets in the way of what I want to do.

Do I have to stop hating my body to be a good Jew? That’s going to be really, really difficult. Right now the thing that’s weighing on my mind about the conversion process the most isn’t all the reading and studying, or learning a new language (Hebrew), or even the social awkwardness of joining a culture that I am not yet as familiar with as I want to be.

It’s the mikveh.

It’s the knowledge that, on the day my rabbi and I decide I’m ready, I’ll have to get naked in front of strangers. That’s terrifying. I never let anyone see my body; I’m covered not from modesty but from shame.

That has to change. I don’t want the day of my dip in the mikveh to be one where I’m walking in a cloud of shame.

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Reconsidering the Rabbi

5 Tamuz 5774

So “rabbi” means “teacher.” But “teacher” has a lot of meanings.

I don’t think the rabbi I talked to is going to be the right rabbi for me after all. There are two reasons for this. First, even though the temple seems to be a very liberal temple, the rabbi seems to be more conservative than the temple. I feel like I make him uncomfortable when I ask him questions, and that’s not going to be helpful in my conversion process. Mainly, those questions are about the queer aspects of my conversion; I recently asked him if he’d followed up on something that is important to me about halacha, and he said “Oh. Nope!” in a very lighthearted manner. I felt like I had been given the brush-off. Second, I got to witness his ability to teach things that are not Torah the other night. Specifically, I went to what I thought was a beginning-Hebrew class he was giving at the temple the other night.

Although I was impressed with his Torah teachings back on Shavuot, and I’ve seen him lead temple services and he’s quite good at that, I have to admit that for this topic, he’s not a very good teacher. It was actually a very advanced class, but it wasn’t described that way in the temple newsletter. The six or seven people who were there, who apparently had taken the first half of the class sometime in the spring, were all frustrated with how fast he wanted to go (and as a teacher myself, I could see that his lesson plan was expecting quite a lot from these students, who are regular people who have full-time jobs and families). I could see, very quickly, that he covers impatience with laughter and tries to pretend it’s not that bad, but even after he was asked to slow down, he couldn’t seem to do so. This seemed to stem from two problems: first, he kept referring to when he was a rabbinical student and how they studied then, and second, he kept making references to a lot of Jewish-culture things that I (at least) could not be expected to know.

Okay, the problem is: none of us are rabbinical students. Expecting people to have that kind of focused time available to study is really kind of unrealistic. The other problem is: he hasn’t just done this in this class. There have been other times where he has said a word or a phrase in Hebrew and assumed that everyone knew what he was talking about. And there have been other times where he’s gone so fast in worship services that I have completely lost my place in the siddur.

This feels like a minefield, and I’ve been carrying it around with me for a while now, but this class this week just crystallized it for me. He may be a very good rabbi at leading worship, and he may be a wonderful Torah scholar. But he doesn’t seem very patient, and I don’t feel like I’m taken seriously sometimes, which to me is a problem. So I don’t feel like he’s the right guide for me for my conversion.

This has upset me, as I’m sure folks can understand. I wanted this to go smoothly. But I don’t think I should ignore this kind of mismatch.  I think I figure that you should feel comfortable with your rabbi, and I do not feel comfortable with this rabbi. It’s not that he’s a bad guy; it’s just that on a fundamental level, we don’t click the way I thought we would. That’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the way that it is.

My best friend heard about all this from me last night, and called her rabbi (who lives in another city) to ask him for recommendations for rabbis local to me. So we’ll see where that goes.

I have to remember that you do not have to convert where you attend. I can continue attending shul at the temple down the street from me, and study with a different rabbi. That is a possibility. And I may find that I need to go to a more liberal temple with a more liberal rabbi, anyway.

 

 

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Coming Out, One Person At A Time

20 Sivan 5774

Coming out is one of those fraught processes. You can never be sure, beforehand, who will shrug and say “okay,” and who will be excited for you (or perhaps come out to you themselves), and who will freak out and attack you, and who will smile uncomfortably and begin to back away, later distancing themselves from you and disappearing from your life. Sometimes you get pleasantly surprised; sometimes, the surprise is less than pleasant.

As a queer man, I’ve had to come out a lot in the past, and continue to have to do so. Once you come out, you can’t go back in, either – it’s a one-way street. Every new person has to be told, because it’s not usually immediately obvious that I’m queer. (Unless I deliberately flame up, for example, I have to be pretty drunk for my innate flaminess to come out and play. I don’t ping most people’s gay-dar.) And just coming out is only the first step. After that, you get the Question Period, with questions and comments that can range from startled (“But you don’t seem gay – are you sure?”) to compassionate (“That makes sense – what can I do to make this easier for you?”) to outright intrusive or ridiculous (“But… but… how do two men… you know… uh…?” or “You know you’re going to go to hell, right?”).

I think I’ve heard them all, when it comes to being gay.  I’ve heard quite a few when it comes to being autistic, too (I am not obviously or immediately autistic to most people, because their image of “autism” looks like Rain Man, not like me). And some of the things I’ve read from other bloggers who’ve come out to their friends about converting to Judaism have made me insanely anxious about coming out to my friends, because some people are as closed-minded about religious shifts as they are about sexual orientation or even neurodiversity. In the past, I’ve had people refuse to believe I’m autistic, reject me because I’m queer, and tell me that they just can’t handle me being out and to keep those differences to myself. Every time you come out, you risk being attacked or rejected (or both). So coming out can be a dicey process.

However, I am happy to report that so far, of the thirty-odd people I’ve come out to about my conversion, I haven’t had a single negative response. Many have asked intelligent questions: how did I get to the point where I could believe in G-d again after being an atheist? how does the conversion process happen? and even something as simple as Why Judaism? But nobody has been hostile yet. In fact, one of the things that’s confused more people than anything has been the idea that I’ll have a new name. I’ve had to explain that the bestowal of a Hebrew name is more “something that is important inside the Tribe,” and that none of them will have to call me by the new name – that it’s for me to use with other Jews.

My youngest brother and I talked about it last Thursday night on the phone, and he was completely cool with it. We talked about my dad and how he might have reacted; my brother said he thought that if Dad was still alive, he’d approve of this change on my part. That’s a real relief, because I admit I was worried about losing my family over this.  I’ve talked to long-term friends, former grad school classmates, and several folks from my medieval group. One friend who’s a weaver has offered to hand-weave me a tallit (without being asked!), and another one agreed to weave the atarah for it. A third friend, on hearing the news, said “I’m going to crochet you a kippah.” This blew me away, and made me realize just how blessed and rich in friends I am.

I am still stressing about this pretty badly at times, though, because this is only thirty-odd folks so far, and just on my Facebook I have over 500 friends and acquaintances. I found myself making a list of people and rank-ordering them on how close I felt to them and whether they needed to know. That list came out to over 50 people that I feel I needed to talk to one-on-one, whether through FB chat, Skype, or in person, before I make the general announcement on my Facebook page.  And that’s just my friends on Facebook! I also have at least three other social-media sites that I have to comb through and determine “who is close enough to me that I need to tell them one-on-one about this?” That’s a lot of people, and a lot of questions, and a lot of possible rejections. Is it any wonder that I’m stressed?

And yet, this is something I need to do. My plan is to message people on Facebook and give a pretty standard explanation, and then let them ask me questions. The explanation starts with the helicopters joke, continues with the wish to sit shiva after my Dad’s death, goes on with the Spong deconstruction of the Jesus-as-G-d idea, and then gets into my mother’s NPD and the abuse that made me have trouble trusting my feelings which led to my insistence on empirical/literal evidence for a long time. After that, I talk about the different spiritual helicopters that I’ve been seeing: the fact that the temple is RIGHT down the street from me; the fact that it’s been thirteen years since I first came out and really asserted my adulthood; and then learning about Judaism and its ethics and practices, and how it fits me and makes sense. It took about fifteen minutes, talking, with my brother to get it all out. It took about ten minutes to type it to my friends on Facebook that I’ve come out to so far.

My goal is to be able to post about my conversion by Independence Day or sooner, but even then, the coming-out process is an ongoing thing. With strangers it’ll be pretty easy: I’m wearing a kippah and a Mogen David. But with friends, I feel the need to give them a heads-up before they see me kippah-clad for the first time.

 

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From My Readings: Why Bad Things Happen To Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner

19 Sivan 5774

One of the main reasons I was an atheist for so long was that I was angry with G-d.

No, let’s put that another way. I was white-hot, incendiary-bomb, heart-of-the-volcano enraged with G-d.

You see, in the churches I was raised in, G-d was represented to me as three things: omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent ( always there) and omniscient (all-knowing). He can do anything, he is everywhere at once, and he knows everything. Not much was said about his love for us beyond his sacrifice of his supposed son, Yeshua. But even in many faiths where G-d is represented as a G-d of love, this message of “he’s all-powerful” comes through loud and clear, which doesn’t jibe so well with the reality of the world today. The truth is, bad things do happen to good people, and bad people get away with a lot of stuff and often never have to pay for it.

As two cases in point, my father was a good and godly man. I think of him as “the caretaker of wounded birds” – any person who was in pain could come to my father and get healing and help, in whatever measures my father was able to offer it. (My father would have made an excellent Jew, by the way.) And he died of complications of diabetes and cancer at the age of 63, specifically gangrene. It was a horrific way for him to die. My father had done nothing to deserve it except being dealt a rather crappy genetic hand.

On the other end of the scale, we have my mother’s (thankfully deceased) sperm donor. He was a child molester. Including myself, I know of at least five people (me, one of his sons, and all three of his daughters including my mother) who were abused by him, and I’m sure many others that we don’t know about. This monster masquerading as a man lived into his eighties and finally died of a heart attack – which surprised me, as I wasn’t aware he had a heart.

So the idea that G-d is all-powerful is kind of hard to swallow. If he was, my father would have lived into his eighties and that monster molester would never have laid a finger on me, my mother, my aunts or my uncle. Yet G-d didn’t step in and stop it. Why? My anger about him NOT stopping it is what fueled my atheism in the five years after my father’s death.

Kushner’s book is a painful and deep exposition of this question, and there are three main points he makes to explain it. The first is that G-d gave humans free will; the second is that the world, which runs largely by natural law, still has pockets of chaos and disorder in it; and the third is that G-d is all-good, but not necessarily all-powerful. And these points intertwine in startling, but important, ways.

First, Kushner likens G-d to a parent. Parents can caution their children against certain behaviors that have known consequences, but they are often unable to prevent their children from those behaviors. All they can do afterward is help the child deal with the consequences of the behaviors. When a child gets hurt by accident, or through the operations of natural law, the parent can, again, only help the child deal with the consequences of the accident. And if the parent simply keeps the child from learning to make his own decisions and experience his own mistakes, the parent is not doing his job. He is abrogating the child’s free will, his learning and his growth process and keeping the child artificially a child. In fact, Kushner claims, having free will is what makes us “like G-d” or “made in G-d’s image.” Without it, we’re just the most complex of all the animals.

Second, G-d is not like a cosmic puppet master, controlling every single atom in the entire universe. He is more like a worried parent who has allowed his children to make decisions and learn from and live with their consequences, because he knows that’s the only way that they can become adults. And here’s an important side point: sometimes things happen that we didn’t do anything to bring on ourselves. A fire burns down our house. A car hits our child who ran out into the street after a ball. We come down with cancer or diabetes or myasthenia gravis. That’s the “pockets of chaos in an otherwise ordered universe” part of Kushner’s argument. Again, like a parent whose child is stricken ill, all the parent can do is comfort and help the child who is suffering. He can’t change what happened.

According to Kushner, because he gives us free will and because he lets the laws of nature operate so that we have a mostly predictable, orderly natural world, G-d cannot fix everything. He gave us free will, so fixing everything is no longer an option. G-d is also bound by the laws of nature – even if he could and has superseded them in the past (the miracles in the Torah), he won’t do that any more because how would he choose which of his children to save? Are we so arrogant to believe that our problems are somehow more important than our neighbor’s? And a world in which we do not have to obey the laws of nature would be chaos. A world in which G-d made it so that some of us were not bound by the laws of nature would be equally so. Imagine, for example (Kushner posits) a world where there was no pain. That would seem to be beneficial until you think about the child who would press his hand to the hot stove, never noticing that he’s being burned, or the person who walks on a broken ankle because there are no pain signals to tell him or her that it’s broken. Maybe a painless world is not such a good idea after all.

It’s human to look for reasons why this good person is suffering this bad outcome, or to look for someone or something to blame, so that we can trust that the world is orderly. But oftentimes there is nothing and no one to blame, and looking for it is pointless and keeps us mired down in misery. Sometimes the reason is “because nature.” Viruses don’t know whether they’re infecting a minister or a madman; floods don’t know whether they’re washing away a doctor or a demented killer. Nature is remarkably equal-opportunity in who she hurts, and because G-d cannot mess with natural law, blaming G-d for not stopping whatever it was is really pointless. Human beings, having free will, often harm their fellows. Since G-d will not mess with free will, blaming G-d for things like the Holocaust or for other human-made tragedies are equally pointless.

Instead, Kushner asks us to redirect our anger to the situation. He also asks those who are trying to comfort those who are in these situations not to analyze what the victim could have done differently, or what he did to cause it. Instead, just affirm that it sucks that this is happening. Affirm that it’s not fair.

As an example of how to do this, I’ll relate something that happened to me a little under a year ago. My best friend and I went out for sushi. Now, I have to be really careful in restaurants, because any wheat contamination in my food will set off an arthritis flare that can last for up to 72 hours. Nothing touches that pain; it’s agonizing and awful. And I got wheated because someone in the kitchen was not careful with the fake crab (which is held together with wheat starch) and my food was cross-contaminated. Within fifteen minutes, I was in enough pain that I was almost crying. All my best friend could do was let me rant and rave about how much it hurt and how stupid and pointless it was, and affirm that yes, it’s offensive that something that minor causes me this much pain. But the point is, it was exactly what I needed. It helped me bear up under the pain until it finally began to wane about eighteen hours later (fortunately that was a short flare – 28 hours). She did not tell me what I should have done differently. She just said, “This really sucks. You do not deserve this.”

In the same way, G-d can’t always stop us from being hurt or from bad things happening to us. But what he can do is be there for us to lean on. G-d doesn’t usually answer prayers like “heal my cancer” or “make this pain stop,” but he can and does answer prayers like “please give me the strength to bear this pain” and “please give me the courage to get through this frightening journey.”

Many people will then find it offensive that the pain or the tragedy didn’t come from G-d. If it didn’t, if it’s all by chance, then does that mean that their suffering has no greater purpose, no meaning? Here’s where Kushner delivers the final point: Misfortune and tragedy have whatever meaning we give them. If we let them turn us bitter, then that becomes their purpose. If we let them turn us to greater works of healing the world or helping others – even if only by our example of bearing up under them – then that is their meaning.

This book was difficult for me to read. Although I have let go of the need to blame G-d for my father’s death and for being molested as a child, it’s hard to accept that G-d is not all-powerful. On the other hand, it’s a relief to know that G-d is there for us when we are in pain as a support and a help. And this explanation makes sense to me: free will and natural law between them make it impossible for G-d to intervene without screwing up both of those things, which we as humans depend on.

I still have to work on my hypervigilance about situations that seem dangerous to me, but at least now I know that when I’m scared, I can call on G-d to help me with the fear.

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Let’s Talk About Atheism.

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable being a closeted Jew-ish (and newly religious) person. (I will use that word, “Jew-ish”, with the pronounced hyphen, to describe myself until such time as I get my mikveh dip.) Part of the discomfort is hearing all the arguments that I used to make against religion and theism generally, and Christianity in particular, being raised in current posts by atheist friends of mine on LJ and Facebook. And since many of them are poking at stories in the Tanakh (the “Old Testament,” for the non-Jewish readers in the blogging audience), they are also arguments against Judaism.

Although I used to be an atheist, I never stopped being a traditionalist. This might make me sound like I should be a political conservative, but it didn’t actually affect me that way. I am a liberal and I always will be, but tradition is important to me. Community is important to me. I’ve always looked at the American push for individualism and “go it alone” and “look out for Number One” with a bit of a fisheye. In many ways, the values of Judaism and the values of liberalism go right together. The concept of tikkun olam, “repair the world,” is inherently a liberal value, as are the ideals of community support and tradition.

While I don’t agree with his conclusions, I find Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s article “The Real Reason Why Jews are Liberals” makes some cogent points about this connection.

Judaism is an ideology devoted to the betterment of the human condition based upon values and goals that are fundamentally liberal.

Goldson also points out that liberalism and conservatism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are inextricably tied to one another. They inform one another. Conservatism that never allows change becomes stagnant and brittle, and cannot survive. Liberalism that has no basis in tradition or a shared value system goes off the rails and crashes. So, both are needed.

The problem is, both conservatives and liberals are fighting caricatures of their opposite poles. Conservatives think that liberalism has no values; liberalism finds many of the values of conservatism abhorrent or outdated. And yet when I look at liberal positions, the best and most enduring ones are rooted in already-established conservative traditions: community, treating each other compassionately, living up to our obligations to those who serve, including people in the traditions that create community (marriage, religious practice, creation of family, meaningful work).

So I think that the practice of Judaism at its best and most honest is an inherently liberal practice, based in a set of conservative values that changes slowly over time in response to changing cultural conditions.

I’ve never met a conservative atheist. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; I’ve just never met one. But I think that most modern atheists tend to go right off the rails because they see no value in tradition and they’d like to sweep it all up and throw it into the dustbin of history, where they feel it belongs. This isn’t to say that atheists don’t hold important and moral values – they do – but they miss the point of tradition and history and often say it’s just not important. I disagree with them on this point, obviously.

But I can also understand why atheists demonize religion and theism. I did it myself, not so long ago, and it’s easy to do. Atheists tend to be surface readers. They look only at the letter of the laws and the literal descriptions of the histories, without knowing the spirit of the laws or the backstory/context of the histories. They also tend to ignore practice for belief or history, thinking that the entire religion must be judged only on its beliefs or histories, and ignoring what the members of that religion do in their day-to-day lives.

For example, I recently saw a meme here on WordPress that ranted about how Judaism implied that it allowed child sacrifice (not to mention blind obedience to G-d), and referenced the Abraham and Isaac story as a supporting point.

I’ve edited to add the actual story from Torah, for context. It is from the Torah parshah called Vayeira, which spans Genesis 18:1 to 22:24. This particular story is Genesis 22:1-19, and is known by most Jews as “The Binding of Isaac,” or the Akedah.

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. 2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. 3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? 8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, 16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

When you read only the words of the Torah on this story, it’s easy to get the idea that G-d was demanding blind obedience while also commanding the horrific act of child sacrifice. I know that this looks very problematic.

But there’s backstory there that you can’t get just from those verses. There’s context that changes the entire meaning of the story. The ancient Hebrews lived in a time and place where child sacrifice to deities was routine, so for Abraham, the initial command from G-d to take his son up on the mountain and sacrifice him was, if certainly devastating, not entirely unexpected. But in this story, G-d is actually providing Abraham (who had been Abram, a pagan, up until G-d called him to found the Jewish people) with a kind of logical proof: Yes, everyone else does this, but from now on the Hebrews will not. Yes, you were willing to when I commanded you to, and for that you are blessed, but as you see, I’m not that much of a jerk. You and your descendants will never know the loss of your children as meaningless sacrifices; their lives and deaths will have some greater meaning.

Now, many atheists will insist that that doesn’t matter and G-d should not have demanded this of Abraham in the first place – he could have just said “So, you know how the other people around here sacrifice their children? Don’t do that.” And that can certainly be argued. But what do people remember more? An object lesson, or a decree?

As a teacher, I’d say that people tend to remember the object lesson far more than the decree. Despite the decree in my syllabus that plagiarism results in an automatic zero on the assignment, I have had students every term who have plagiarized on their papers “because everyone else does it.” Yep, and when you get caught doing it, you get a zero on your paper. Of course these students come begging for another chance and I routinely deny them that chance. Do they remember, the next time they write a paper, that they cannot simply copy from websites? I’d bet they do.

Abraham lived in a culture where it was normative to sacrifice your kids when things got bad. Absent the object lesson, he might have dragged Isaac to an altar at another time when things got bad, unless G-d had put him in the position of being ordered to do it and then reprieved from it. He had to experience it to understand it. He had to gain experiential, not just theoretical, knowledge of it to really get what G-d was driving at, in the same way that some of my students have to gain experiential knowledge that cheating will result in a zero.

But those who read only the surface of the text never get that far. Most of the time, atheists are simply cherry-picking theist scriptures to find “zinger verses,” without understanding the background of those verses. This is something I wouldn’t put up with in my students, and I’m ashamed and appalled that I ever allowed myself to do it, either. Doing this is simply making a caricature of theism. It’s literal-mindedness taken to an extreme.

Are there a lot of very violent stories in the Torah? Yes. Why? Because the people of that time lived in a harsh world and a harsh culture, and let’s face it – they still had a lot of growing up to do. (And let’s not kid ourselves; if the human race should last so long, our two-millenia-hence descendants will look back on our histories of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq with the same kind of horror that we look back on Jericho, Sodom, and so forth. We’re not as civilized as we like to pretend we are.) Judging the current religion and its practices based on its historical flaws is like judging someone who’s in their 40s for the dumb things they did when they were 15. Atheists who judge religion based only on the religion’s starting point are not being honest in their analysis.

But one of the best things about the Torah is that, given this harsh context, the people in it are not perfect paragons of virtue. They are dysfunctional. They are real people, dealing with real problems. Their stories express the truths of the human condition. Yes, Abraham could have just said to his people: “We don’t sacrifice our kids, even though the other tribes do.” Or he could have said, “I went up there to sacrifice my son Isaac, and G-d told me not to do it. Thus we know by G-d’s demonstration to me that we are not child-killers, and that he has better expectations for us than that when times get tough.” Most people tend to take the second version of the commandment more seriously than the first.

Or we could just lean on the atheistic caricature of what happened and say “G-d set him up for a harsh test of obedience because G-d was being a jerk.” Well, okay, if you want to believe that, you can – but that’s only the surface of what was going on here. It’s a caricature and it misses the deeper meaning. By making a caricature of theism, atheists are simply setting up a strawman. By only looking at the surface, they miss the deeper point. And certainly, that’s their right – but I do not have to listen to them or take it seriously.

It’s human to make caricatures of things we don’t like. I do it myself, and have done it recently. The person to whom I needed to apologize yesterday had become a caricature in my head, and that was unfair to them. I was judging them based on my own assumptions about them instead of discovering the truth (and I’ll be writing another post on why I feel that this was lashon hara on my part, later on). But part of the Torah is about us striving to be more than human – to look to our better nature and keep on enacting it, instead of giving in to our weaker side.

Knowing this makes it easier to contemplate coming out as a Jew-ish person on my Facebook page and my LiveJournal account. Knowing why some people reject theism based on the caricatures in their heads makes it easier to understand how and why some of my friends are going to reject me when I come out. But I also know that I’m going to lose friends when I do it, for the same reasons that I once rejected my religious friends. And I just hope that someday they will understand that it was a caricature that they were fighting, not the reality. It took me long enough; I am willing to give them time to come to the same conclusion.

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My Jewish Reading List: Books I’ve Read So Far, and Questions I Want To Ask

I’ve seen other Jews-by-choice make lists of the books they’ve read or are reading as part of their conversion process, and it occurs to me that it’d be a good idea if I had a booklist ready when I met with the rabbi next week – especially since there’s a very good chance I’ll actually meet him tonight at Shavuot services. So, here’s what I’ve read so far.

  1. Jewish Literacy, by Joseph Telushkin
  2. What is a Jew?, by Morris Kertzer and Lawrence Hoffman
  3. Becoming Jewish (A Handbook for Conversion), by Ronald H. Isaacs
  4. Why Be Jewish?, by David J. Wolpe
  5. The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
  6. To Life! by Harold S. Kushner
  7. Living a Jewish Life, by Anita Diamant
  8. The Everything Judaism Book, by Richard Bank (this is not an especially good reference, in my opinion, for converts)
  9. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends, by Anita Diamant (this is an excellent book for converts!)
  10. Read Hebrew in Just 90 Minutes, by Chaim Conway (still working my way through this one)

Other books that are not about Judaism and conversion specifically, but which have informed my understanding of Jewish life and practices because they have characters or important people who are either ethnically or religiously Jewish (or both), include:

  1. The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank
  2. In The Presence of Mine Enemies, by Harry Turtledove
  3. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg
  4. Just about any kids’ book by Judy Blume
  5. Any book that has a Jewish character in it

Other things that have informed my understanding of Judaism and conversion include several really excellent blogs on the topic, including Coffee Shop Rabbi and Chicago Carless.

There are other sources, mainly people, that have informed this journey as well.

I also know that if I’m going to meet with the rabbi, I should have some questions ready for him. So here’s a few that I’ve got lined up so far:

  1. What do you feel are the main requirements for a person to be a sincere convert to Judaism?
  2. What is your philosophy about converts and conversion?
  3. What is your understanding of tikkun olam?
  4. I will be in an interfaith, gay relationship. Does this pose problems for you, either personally or professionally, with taking me on as a conversion candidate?

Because, you know, I’m not asking any really risky questions or anything, right?

 

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Ch-ch-ch-changes… and an appeal to my readers.

24 Iyyar 5774

So my partner told me today that he’s a little worried about my conversion changing me or making me want to leave him.

It’s a normal fear, I suppose. I just don’t quite know how to address it. And this isn’t the usual fear that converts face: my partner and I are queer. That does make it different, because there’s so few resources out there for people like us.

Now, I can’t imagine a future where I would leave him, for any reason. From my conversations with the people at the local temple yesterday, I don’t think that they would make him uncomfortable, or me either, just for being GLBT or for being an interfaith couple. When I brought it up last night, the rabbinical student said, “You will not be the first ones here.”

He was also worried that I was going to start keeping kosher, but I reassured him that that’s not going to happen, because of my own current dietary restrictions. But I can see his point. I will be praying a lot more than I have been, which up until I decided that conversion was right for me, was zero times per day.  I’ll be wearing a kippah most of the time, so it will change how I look. And those are mostly just surface changes.

Frankly, I think that he will enjoy some of the other changes – like the fact that I won’t feel the need to talk religious people down (although I still reserve the right to call certain religious people out on their bad behavior, but that’s a different thing). I’m already calmer than I was, and I think I’m happier. And I think he sees that. He’s already said he thinks this is a positive change for me.

I’m sure that part of his worry is: what will me being Jewish do to our sex life? And I’ve been wrestling with that in my own time, with a few trusted correspondents. Let me put it this way: I’m not going to let it damage our sex life.

But I think most of what he’s worried about is just the changes he can’t predict. The unknowns. And I can understand that.

So, since there are so few resources out there for queer people in this situation, I could use some help from my readership. Is there anything that you can think of that might make him really uncomfortable, that I can address now, to make it less scary? Any ways in which I can help him so that he doesn’t feel so threatened? Any heads-ups I should be giving him now?

And, while I’m at it: does anyone have any advice for me? I don’t mean just about my partner’s worries, but about my own coming out process as I begin to tell friends and family members what I’ve chosen to do. Really, I think one of the things that is stressing me out the most is that so few people that I care about know that I am moving towards conversion to a religious path, after being so vehemently atheist for so many years. When I came out as queer, there was one friend who was very dear to me that completely rejected me and never spoke to me again. That still hurts, and it’s been 14 years since it happened. And just in the last week, reading Facebook and another blog site that I’m part of, I see my atheist friends running down religious people simply because they’re religious, making really nasty and hurtful comments, and just generally being as intolerant as fundamentalist religionists are of anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

It took me over 20 years to understand that I can’t measure spirituality using the same tool as I used and still do use for the material world. I can’t expect my atheist friends to make the same shift as I have.

But it occurs to me I should probably document why I have.

I’ve mentioned the helicopters before. One of them was an article about near death experiences. What convinced me that they have to be the real thing – which means there has to be a soul or something beyond what our material self produces by electrical flashes in the brain – was that the people who went through the NDE could independently verify things that happened while they had absolutely no brain activity. Their lack of brain activity is a matter of medical record, and yet they knew things that they could not possibly know, if the “personality and self are entirely made up of electrical flashes in the brain” school of thought is true.

I am a scientist. At this point, the only explanation that fits the evidence is: there is a soul.  It is independent of the body. And we don’t understand anything about it.

Another helicopter is one I’ve talked about at length here: the fact that I equated my mother’s abuse with how G-d operates. When I realized that my view of G-d was based largely on a faulty filter system, that changed everything for me.

But do I expect these helicopters to mean anything to my friends who are atheist? No. I will be pleased and surprised if they do, but I expect to lose quite a few friends when I come out and say, “Hey, guess what? I’m converting to Reform Judaism.”

My partner is much more understanding than my atheist friends will probably be. For one thing, he believes in G-d. But he still has fears and I can understand that. So please, give me some ways to help him deal with the fears that he’s going to have.

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My First Shabbat Service: Diving in Headfirst with Both Feet

23 Iyyar 5774

After an hour-long wrestling match with myself and my nerves, I’m going to go to my very first Shabbat service tonight.

I haven’t heard back from the rabbi (yet), so he may take the traditional route of making me approach him three times, or he may just not have had time to respond (it is the daylight before Shabbat services; I’m sure he has a lot of stuff to deal with today!).

But I’m still going to walk over to the Friday night Shabbat service tonight. On my own.

I’m nervous, but I’m not going to let the knot in my stomach convince me that it’s anything more than nervousness. This is not anxiety, it is not panic, it is not fear. It’s just nerves. It’s nerves just like I get any other time I have to do something new (I did mention I’m high-functioning autistic, right?). And I’m not about to let nerves stop me.

So I have to find something appropriate to wear, and I’ve been given advice about that – a good button-down shirt and a pair of nice jeans will be fine. I can do that. I don’t have slacks right now (I’ve lost weight over the last year and nothing fits!) but I should be able to manage basic business casual. I hope.

I also hope that my Hebrew studies will help me with keeping my place in the siddur, and that I won’t do anything too obviously not-Jewish during the service. (I do know that any time the Ark is open I have to stand up, right?)

It just occurred to me that I’d better eat before I go, too, as the oneg will very likely not have grain-free or gluten-free options, and I don’t know how long the service will last. So I’m going to go do that now.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about this experience, and on Sunday I’m going to try to write about sin – specifically sins of omission. I will try to figure out whether just not talking about certain aspects of my life counts as a sin of omission, or as just keeping my privacy intact.

But tonight, I’m going to see what it’s really like, going to an actual Shabbat service. I’ve been to a seder, a wedding, and a bar mitzvah – and now I want to see what a regular weekly service is really like.

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Here goes nothing: A letter to the rabbi

So after my earlier nervous breakdown, I took myself in hand and said “Self, this is nonsense. You know it’s the next step. Take it already.”

So I did. My letter follows below.

Dear Rabbi,

My name is [shocheradam], and I am interested in converting to Judaism. I send you this request in email because I am partially deaf and hearing on the phone is sometimes difficult for me. I lip-read quite well, however, and in person most people can’t tell I have a hearing loss.

I have been feeling what I can only describe as a “pull” for some time, but I have not had words for it until I was able to talk in-depth with a Jewish friend of mine about her religious path. Since then, I have been studying Judaism and finding answers to questions I’ve never had answers for before.

To date, I have read about two-thirds of Joseph Telushkin’s “Jewish Literacy,” Ronald Isaacs’ “Becoming Jewish,” Prager and Telushkin’s “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” and Kushner’s “To Life!” I am currently reading through Kertzer and Hoffman’s “What is A Jew?” I have also put Diamante’s book on order at the local library and should soon be able to read that as well, along with several other books I haven’t had time to read just yet due to work constraints (I’m a teacher and it’s the end of the term).

In addition, I have been reading everything I can find on the Web about Judaism and conversion, from aish.org and chabad.org to Reform Judaism sites. I have joined two message boards for Jewish converts and have found some answers there. I have started a blog about this process, both to work out my own ideas and thoughts and to provide an eventual resource for future converts.

Most of my friends would find it very strange that I want to convert to Judaism, because I have been a fairly staunch atheist for the last decade and more, and I was raised evenly split between Roman Catholicism and fundamentalist evangelical Christian prior to that. However, I can only say that in my ongoing exploration of this pull I am feeling, I have been like Samuel, who heard G-d calling but didn’t know, at first, what he was hearing. That’s the best way I can put it. My partner also observes that every year (around my birthday in April), I go on a hunt for G-d. This year, that hunt didn’t end two weeks after it started, which tells me that I’m on to something real.

Professionally, I am a college teacher, and I have a deep love for learning. In my head, this process has felt rather like preparing for my dissertation defense. Knowing me, I can prepare forever on my own and I still won’t feel like I’m entirely “ready” to reach out for guidance. I am therefore pushing myself to do it anyway (I can always find one more thing I “have to” do before I’m “ready,” even if I’ve been “ready” for months by any reasonable standard).

As I live within a very short walking distance from your synagogue (which seems to me quite serendipitous!) I would also like to know more about [temple name] than I have been able to discover on the website alone. I am glad to see that you are a welcoming congregation that accepts GLBT and interfaith couples, as my partner and I would be both.

Having now dropped all this in your lap, I would like to request a meeting with you, at your convenience, so that we might discuss whether I would be a suitable candidate for conversion under your guidance.

Sincerely,

[shocheradam]

So… we’ll see what happens next.

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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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