Tag Archives: first steps

The Spirit of the Law and the Value of NOT Doing It All

"Sunrise Los Angeles" by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Sunrise Los Angeles” by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Things looked better on Shabbat morning. And fortunately, that continued for the rest of the day into our afternoon at home and our evening with friends. 

Things usually do look better in the morning, did you ever notice that? Something about sleeping on it really does help fix most of the problems of low spoons, lack of energy, and general overwhelm.

Of course, I was trying too hard. I was trying to live by every rule, everywhere, to be a perfect Jew, even as I had admitted that it’s okay not to be perfect. There’s a definite difference between saying it and practicing it, and G-d called me on it on Friday, I think. I was at the end of my rope, frazzled, tired, worn out, overwhelmed, and still thinking I could somehow put together the equivalent of a holiday dinner AND bake challah for the next day’s temple Kiddush service when I was almost completely out of cope and energy. I was convinced that I could still follow all the rules and make things somehow come out perfectly even though I was scraping the bottom of the energy barrel.

Reality. It hits you in the strangest ways. Obviously none of those things happened. I’m just glad that the fallout was a few pieces of dough hitting the coffeemaker and the carpet, and nothing worse than that (like a cut hand due to a knife accident, or a concussion because I slipped and hit my head on a wet floor). 

It occurred to me this morning that one of the things I find so healing about Judaism is that Reform Judaism is not a rule-bound system. I grew up with a strong and frightening sense that if I didn’t follow every rule perfectly, all the time, to the letter, then I was in big trouble. Yesterday’s experience at temple in the morning, where I participated in the mid-service Torah study, and where I was reassured that everyone has had kitchen disasters and not to worry – we’ll love to try your challah next week, showed me it’s the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that we’re trying to get at here. People (and G-d) don’t expect perfection. They expect an honest effort. They don’t expect me to do it all correctly the first time. They expect me to focus on doing my best to do a little bit better next time.

It’s not about perfect adherence to the rules. If that was all it was, any religion would do. 

My life before Judaism didn’t allow a lot of time for contemplation or doing things deliberately. Due to some disabilities I have, for example, getting dressed in the morning can be a very complicated process. If I put on my jeans before I put on my socks, it’s harder to reach my feet, for example, because that restricts motion enough that bending my knees far enough to reach my feet becomes almost impossible. But there have been times when I’ve been rushing because I feel like I’m late (I rarely am) and then I have to undress and start all over again, usually berating myself for not paying attention well enough. Eating deliberately? What’s that? I have still caught myself being halfway through the meal before I realized I haven’t really tasted it (and that I haven’t said the brachot yet), and then kicked myself for it. I wasn’t raised with the habits of deliberation or contemplation. I was raised with the habits of rushing, doing it quickly, getting it done, and getting on to the next thing. While going to church was calming, it was only one hour a week. That’s not enough to get used to being calm and quiet (and for me it was always upset in the middle by the angry sermons I had to sit through). 

But with Judaism (at least as I’m practice it), it’s not about rushing out of bed and running around like a headless chicken trying to get six things done before breakfast so that things are always perfect. It’s about staying in bed when I wake long enough to remember to say the Modeh Ani before I get out of bed. It’s about taking the time to remember to say the brachot over my morning coffee. It’s about remembering to slow down and take time so that those become things I remember before I need to do them, not after. It’s about taking an entire 24-hour period every week to NOT rush, to NOT hurry, and to let that peacefulness carry over into the rest of the week. It’s the complete opposite of what I was raised with – reflection, rather than rushing.

The rushing seemed to me to be required. If you aren’t running around “looking busy,” you’re lazy, aren’t you? But then I wonder how many people would call a Buddhist monk “lazy” for his meditation practices. I know a few Westerners who probably would, but that’s not the point here. The Type-A personality should not be setting the standard for what reasonable effort looks like – they’re at one end of a very long spectrum. It is possible to be unrushed and not be automatically lazy. It is possible to take time to think and contemplate and not be lazy. 

And it is all right to take a day where rest, contemplation, consideration and thought take precedence over running around trying to do everything all at once. It is all right to live by the spirit of the rules as much as, if not more than, their letter. A blogger I follow on Facebook calls this “living hands-free” – to stop worrying so much about what everyone will think and start focusing on the moment, the process, rather than the goal. 

This is still very hard for me to grasp. We live in a culture that values speed and efficiency and the goal over reflection and deliberation and the process. But living a hands-free kind of life – which for me, more and more, means a Jewish life – demands adherence to the spirit of the rules over the letter of the rules, more often than not. It’s also about bringing that sense of reflection and consideration into the rest of the week, not just leaving it on Shabbat. I had had an entire week of no reflection or consideration, of feeling rushed, of trying to do too much at once, and I paid for it on Friday evening when things finally fell apart because I couldn’t keep all those balls in the air and the plates all spinning at the same time. 

This week, I will forgive myself for dropping the ball. This week, I will not punish myself for taking time to reflect and consider. This week, I will work on reducing my need to live up to every rule and stress myself out by rushing through every process. This week I will make room for contemplation. 

And next week will take care of itself. It always does – have you ever noticed that? 

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Filed under Day-to-Day

On a happier note… met with the new rabbi

I feel much more comfortable with this rabbi than the previous one.

For starters, he was patient with me and understood the issues I was bringing to the table. He also invited me to attend High Holy Days as a guest. (Now I just need to check with the partner and clear September 25th from work calendars.)

They use the same mikveh as the other temple does, so no change there. But my best friend can be my witness if I want and if she’s okay with it. This is a huge relief for me.

I love the sanctuary of this new temple – they apparently leveled the old building and built a brand-new one a while back.

If I go through the 18-week classes in the spring and then convert, I get a complimentary one-year membership in the temple. And my partner can attend the classes with me if he wants to. Also, they can help people with the cost of the class if they have financial issues. 

The rabbi also said that I seem to already have a lot of basic knowledge but that if I want to take the free Taste of Judaism class in November I’m welcome to do so. I am leaning that direction.

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When HaShem Tapped Me On the Shoulder

14 Sivan 5774

It occurs to me that I should talk about the spiritual helicopters.

Let’s start with my first encounter with anyone Jewish. I was about eight, I think. I didn’t grow up in the Northeast or any big city area with a big Jewish presence, so for me Jews were oddities that I wanted to understand. I heard a couple of boys at school making fun of the little girl with the six-pointed star necklace, and I found out she was a Jew. At church (at the time, the Crystal Cathedral was “church”) I heard a Sunday School teacher saying that the Jews were going to go to hell for killing Jesus if they didn’t get saved. I was pretty upset, since the little girl at school seemed like a nice person. So I went to my Dad and asked him what this all meant.

He told me, quite gravely, that the Jews had kept their covenant with G-d and that there was no good reason why they should go to hell just because some bigoted people wanted to blame the entire Jewish people for something that only a few of them did. Then he gave me my first copy of the Diary of Anne Frank.

I read that book and I wept. How could anyone be okay with what had happened to Anne? How could anyone be okay with letting the government take people away from their families or put them in camps to let them die? I couldn’t fathom it. But as a kid who was also on the outs with everyone at school at that point because I was smart and queer and it was obvious, I identified strongly with Anne and Peter and the other kids in Het Achterhuis.

From time to time over the years, I’d encounter Jewish characters in books or movies and immediately be drawn to them. I remember them, even if I don’t remember anything else about the books. Abie, in The Great Brain, who was assumed by everyone in the town to be rich because he was Jewish, and who died of starvation because nobody was patronizing his store – he was one of the ones I remember well, and with pain. Many, many characters in Judy Blume novels were Jewish as well, as were several in Paula Danziger novels. Both the main character and the bullied girl in Blubber, for instance, were Jewish.

By the time I was in my teens, I was reading Stephen King, and I was drawn to the characters of Stanley Uris and his wife in IT. I was also revolted by the kid and the Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil. In my 20s there was a character in this movie who was a Jewish kid in an all-Protestant 1950s prep school for boys. A character in that book who was careful to keep his Mogen David tucked under his collar. I saw Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. The character I keyholed in on in Ryan was not Tom Hanks or Leonardo diCaprio – it was Adam Goldberg, who played the Jewish private Mellish. Schindler’s List is one I still, to this day, cannot talk about. It hit me so powerfully that tears come to my eyes every time I think about it.

But that’s all groundwork and background, I think. I’m not sure HaShem was tapping my shoulder at that point. It’s just that my first deep identification with the Jewish people was that feeling of ostracism. Of being different. Of being part of a people set apart and special and reviled and persecuted all at once. I had that, being queer and smart and fat and socially slow due to the autism. I know what that’s like. I get it. I always did.

In my twenties, I had a Jewish friend  – a friend of my ex-spouse’s – for a while, and a friend of my own who was in an intermarriage but was not herself Jewish. I went to the second friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, and wished I could understand the Hebrew he was chanting. I went to the first friend’s wedding and marveled at the ceremony and ritual that seemed so real and majestic. In my thirties, I discovered that many of my friends in far-flung areas were Jews: friends in Boston, friends in Texas, friends in San Francisco.

But I don’t think HaShem started tapping me on the shoulder until my father died just over five years ago. I wrote about this in my post on ritual: I wished I was a Jew then, so I could sit shiva. That was probably the first real tap on the shoulder. But I had closed my ears to G-d at that point.

As I’ve said before, I go on a hunt for G-d every year around my birthday. Not this past spring, but the spring prior to that, I found myself reading John Shelby Spong’s book Jesus for the Non-Religious, which is a deconstruction of the Jesus-as-G-d myth.

Remember, in every Christian church, there’s a huge emphasis on affirmation of belief – of saying you believe. The most constant demand for that, in my experience, was the Nicene Creed, which spells out what you are required to believe, including this:

– There is one G-d, the Father Almighty.

– Except there isn’t, because Jesus was also G-d. Oh, but he’s “one in being” with the Father.

– Also, did we mention the Holy Spirit, who somehow “proceeds” from the Father and the Son? The one who’s spoken through the prophets?

– But they’re all one G-d, you know?

Yeah. To me it sounds ridiculous now. But when you’re raised Catholic, you say it at every Mass you go to. It’s part of the service. It’s not optional.

In his book, Spong pointed out that the entire Jesus story, if you put the Gospels and other New Testament books in the order they were written, becomes gradually more and more insistent on his divinity and G-dness, and bends itself more and more into pretzels trying to tie his life to the Hebrew scriptures so that he can be the Meshiach. But – and this was the kicker for me, that absolutely knocked the struts out from under whatever was left of the Jesus story that I still held on to – those stories were and are written in an order that follows the Jewish liturgical year.

That means that it’s very likely that the Jewish followers of Yeshua ben Yosef, the rabbi and teacher, simply substituted their stories about him for the haftarah readings at synagogue services.

To me, that was a helicopter approximately the size of Texas, sweeping away the last vestiges not just of the Jesus myth but the imperative to believe in it with the force of its propeller’s wind. It finished any belief in Jesus that I might have had. He was a man – a rabbi – and I had no obligation to believe anything beyond that about him.

So, that brings us to this year.

I have never trusted my feelings, because when you have a narcissistic mother you learn not to. G-d mostly talks to us through feelings, so I was functionally spiritually deaf. But in learning about and processing the abuse, I began to realize that there were all kinds of signals that I had been missing, or ignoring, like the fact that I had come out and claimed my real self thirteen years ago, after staying functionally a child through my twenties due to pain and abuse and other problems. (A Jewish friend of mine said “Happy bar mitzvah!” when I pointed out that helicopter.) I read about an acquaintance’s Seder plans, and felt a strong pull to go to one. And then I did go to one. And then I felt like I was home, like this was me.

I started reading online blogs about Judaism. I found Mike’s blog at Chicago Carless and wept when I read his post about G-d being on the Brown Line and finding Him there. I identified so deeply with Mike’s journey that I was shocked at myself. And in reading about Judaism, I found everything I had looked for and never found anywhere else: an ethical structure that made sense. A G-d that made sense. The right to doubt. The right to disagree and still be part of the group. Ritual. Music. Tradition. It was all there, just waiting for me to wake up and say yes to it.

I started this blog a few weeks later. Up until that point I’d been cagey on my Facebook and other social media, trying to pretend that it was going to go away. But it didn’t go away. The pull kept getting stronger, and stronger. Finally I had to put it somewhere. I think I opened my first account on a Jews-by-choice forum somewhere around the 21st of April, the day after the Seder I went to for Pesach. Eventually I came here.

When I hesitantly started to ask friends about Judaism, and especially when that whole “fear G-d” thing was blown out of the water at the Seder, there was no going back. I started reading Telushkin the very next week.

Another spiritual helicopter: I’m two blocks away from an open, accepting, interfaith-tolerant, GLBT-welcoming temple. I can WALK there. It’s like G-d was saying “Hey, you have a place you can go even if your partner needs the car.” That, I can’t ignore, can I?

It really was like HaShem had been tapping me on the shoulder but, like Samuel, I couldn’t figure out who it was or if it was a real thing, so I ignored it. But thankfully, HaShem is patient. He can wait until you figure it out.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Now Comes The Resident Stranger: The First Meeting With The Rabbi

How perfect is it that these verses appear in this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Sh’lach):

15 There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord; 

16 the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.

Stranger. Ger, in Hebrew. The stranger who resides among you.

Today, I spoke with the rabbi at the temple down the street, where I’ve been attending, for two hours. We talked about my religious background, my struggles with G-d, my struggles with religion, my current partnership and my ex-partners, my children and my family. We talked about the fact that I’m in an interfaith, GLBT relationship. We talked about my partner and about the spiritual helicopters. We talked about my difficult relationship with my abusive mother. We talked about Kabbalah. We talked about music and ritual and learning and argument. We talked about tikkun olam.

At the end of that two-hour meeting, I was accepted as a candidate for conversion under his instruction and guidance. His estimate is that it will be about a year. He’s still putting together the conversion class curriculum and hopes to start classes in the late summer for me and the other conversion candidates he’s got learning from him.

I have waited for 43 years. Another year will not be a problem. I was originally going to type “another year won’t make a difference,” but that would be a mistake. This coming year is going to make an enormous difference.

He also approved of the name that I chose. I’m going to keep that to myself for now, but when the time comes, you’ll all know it.

And yes, I said a shehecheyanu when I recovered from the shock.

I talked with my best friend about it over lunch, and just now, walking back to my apartment. I asked her if it was going to change things, now that I’ve been accepted as a candidate for conversion. She asked me why it would. I said, “Because my Yiddishkeit is probably going to get more overt.” She said she would not have a problem with that, so I don’t have to, either.

My partner texted me to find out how it went, and whether I was accepted. When I told him it went great and yes, I was, he responded back that he was happy for me. Even if he will never be a Jew, he supports me in this. It means more than I can put into words.

So now I suppose I should say my rabbi and my temple. My congregation and my shul. My faith and my practice.

My Yiddishkeit.

Because I will not be a stranger for long.

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Hurdles on the Path to Conversion

7 Sivan 5774

Conversion is an exhilarating process, no doubt about it. I’ve been happier, calmer, and more focused ever since I realized that I have a yiddishe neshama.

But like all things that are exhilarating, it’s not totally a happy experience. It’s like a roller coaster – there are scary parts and parts that are hard to deal with, too. Along the way, there are challenges that you have to face in order to get to where you want to be. It’s kind of like that “fear G-d” thing that I wrote about after the Seder: the word in Hebrew actually means something more like “be overwhelmed” – but being in fear is part of being overwhelmed, even if it’s not the main thing.

Like many other bloggers who have written about their first realization that they had a Jewish soul, I knew that I was Jewish as soon as I started to look into it seriously. I knew this was who and what I was supposed to be. The ethics made sense, the beliefs made sense, the theology even made sense.

Putting it into practice, however, has been a little harder than just realizing that this was and is who I am. Some of these challenges are what this post is about. I’m sure there will be more as I go along, but I’ll just list the main ones, for now:

1. Practicing what I believe instead of just saying I believe it. As I wrote about yesterday, learning what forgiveness and apology mean in Judaism, and really putting them into practice, has been humbling. I’m a grudge-holder. I tend to hold on to grudges for years and years, even after I’ve received an apology. Now that I’m actively converting to Judaism, I cannot do that any more. I’m going to have a lot of people to reconcile with this coming Yom Kippur for a lot of different reasons, and I know that I’m going to writhe inside while I’m apologizing to many of them for what I’ve done and said over the years. But that’s what happens when you run up a big debt: it eventually and always comes due.

Just in the last day, I’ve had to throttle the bad feelings I was holding on to about the person I apologized to the day before yesterday. I’ve had to remind myself: we apologized to each other and now it’s over. I don’t get to remind myself of what was said or done before the apology and forgiveness. I have to actively keep forgiving until I can stop thinking about what led to the forgiveness, even if it takes the rest of my life.

Lashon hara is another thing I have to work on. I tend to be very ascerbic about people when I’m annoyed, but that’s lashon hara almost by definition, and I have to cut it out. I’ve started installing something of a censor on my mouth and my hands, and keeping more of my opinions about other people to myself. I’m trying to use the “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary? At least two of these must apply before you say it” metric for saying anything about another person before I open my mouth or start posting to Facebook. But this is a thing I will always have to work on, and I accept that.

This is one of those challenges that says “you must change the way you’ve always done or thought about this issue, because the way you are expected to do it or think it is different now.” This one, so far, has been the roughest one for me to accept. Learning that G-d is not what the Christian churches represented to me was surprising, but a relief. Learning that thoughts are not sins until and unless you speak them and/or act on them was surprising, but a relief. Learning that in Judaism, you really do have to put your money where your mouth is – you can’t just pay it lip service – was humbling and scary.

2. Who is a “real Jew?” I’m currently converting Reform, because converting Orthodox or Conservative would make it impossible for me to live the life I am supposed to live. I don’t think that agreeing to laws I can’t follow (for example, kashrut) is honest, but many if not most Conservative (and all Orthodox) temples would be very not-okay with me not following those laws, pikuach nefesh all aside. My current Conserva-form temple may be unusual in that they accept interfaith and LGBT folks, and I may end up converting Conservative if this rabbi believes he can guide me through the process with a clear conscience, but it will have to be with the understanding that there are some mitzvot I will never be able to perform.

To some Jews (I’m looking at you, ultra-Orthodox) this means that I’m not going to be a “real Jew,” and that hurts. I refuse to believe that Orthodoxy is somehow a “more real” practice than Reform or Conservative Judaism, but there will always be people who feel the need to reject my conversion or my practice as somehow substandard or incomplete.

Dealing with being othered and seen as less-than has been, so far, coming at me from inside the Jewish community rather than outside it. On no less than three different message boards, I’ve been told that the only “real” Jewish conversion is an Orthodox conversion. We all know how I feel about that, but it’s hard to run into this kind of bigotry and rejection inside my chosen community.

3. Am I worthy? The whole presumption thing is a big one for me. The “Am I really worthy of this? Do I really deserve this?” still comes up even now, and probably will until I’ve worked with a rabbi for a while. Every time I take another step closer, I have to actively fight that feeling of not-deserving, of unworthiness. And the othering from the Orthodox folks I mentioned above isn’t helping me shed it. On the other hand, I’m as stubborn as a mule when I want something and I think someone’s trying to keep me from it, so in some ways fighting that feeling is easier when there’s an outside person trying to impose it on me. Being brave enough to reach out to the rabbi and to go to services was one way of fighting that feeling.

4. Coming out as a believer. This one is especially hard for me. People who start out as believers and convert to a different belief system often face rejection, blame, and disappointment from their former belief community. It’s rare, however, that they get challenged on their belief in G-d (apart from the Christian who converts to Judaism and has to explain to their parents that no, they don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah or the son of G-d). I’m going to be coming out to a lot of atheist friends and rejecting their premise that there is no G-d. I am certain I will lose friends over this. This is the one that my mind and soul are still shying away from, because I know it’s going to hurt. I am trying not to pre-judge any of my atheist friends, but there are several who have made very cutting comments about believers on their blogs or on Facebook just in the last few weeks, and I’m trying to reconcile myself to the fact that these folks may not be my friends for much longer. As I said to a friend who is in the know the other day in chat, I’m not afraid of coming out as Jewish – just as theist.

This is especially hard because I still have doubt sometimes too. I still wonder sometimes if I’m making it all up in my head. The thing is, in Judaism it’s okay to have doubt – one of the big attractors for me! – but it’s going to make it harder to defend this change to my atheist friends. It’s also going to be hard because many of them have a bias towards interpreting Jewish scriptures literally and demanding that we provide literal, empirical evidence for events that many Jews understand are figurative stories to make a point about the human condition.

I have to learn – and this is forcing me to learn – that what I can’t change, I must accept. And if I can’t accept, I must endure and go on in spite of it. Yes, it will hurt me, but I doubt it will kill me. And I have to get good with that in ways I’ve never really considered before.

5. What being a Jew means to me. Defining the boundaries of my own Jewish practice has been interesting. Michael at Chicago Carless takes great comfort in davening, laying tefillin, and saying the brachot over meals. Another blogger I know finds that kashrut is especially meaningful to her and can’t understand how anyone who calls themselves Jewish can be Jewish if they don’t keep kashrut. I don’t feel right about laying tefillin, yet, and maybe not ever (sensory processing problems whee). I don’t keep kashrut because of medical issues.

But I pray quietly when I get up and when I go to bed; I try to remember to say the brachot over meals; I am wearing a kippah more and more often now. I am going to go to Shabbat services every Friday that I can, and on Saturdays when possible. I am going to learn how to make challah that is both gluten/grain-free and lighter weight than the current bricks I’ve been turning out. After today’s visit to Fairfax and Pico, (I hope) I am going to wear an obvious (not big-like-a-dinner-plate, but not hidden-under-my-shirt either) Mogen David. I am reading every book I can get my hands on to find out more about Judaism from all points of view. Oh, and of course, I’m putting the hard things into practice like forgiveness, apology, letting go of grudges, and avoiding lashon hara.

And I think one of the major parts of my practice is going to be study. Lots of study. Torah study, Talmudic study, learning to read and speak Hebrew – these are going to be the meaningful things that really make my Judaism mine. A friend said to my partner that she was so pleased he was supporting me in this, and he said “Well, he’s a scholar. This is what’s right for him.”

Now, does that look “Jewish” to others? I don’t know. And I do care, I admit it. I’m not so far along that I can just decide not to care what others think of my Judaism. But I have to remember that nobody else gets to define my Jewish practice or my Judaism. I am the one who gets to define it – the one who has to define it. And the way I’m defining it is mainly through Micah’s delimiters: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my G-d. Praying and saying the brachot, wearing a kippah and a Mogen David, attending services and being part of the community are the part where I “walk humbly.” Making a point of doing the hard things like avoiding lashon hara, learning to truly apologize and forgive, and putting my actions where my mouth is, are “doing justice.” And being kinder to myself as well as to others – that’s the “love mercy” part.

I’m sure that I’ll run into other hurdles on this path, but right now these are the ones I’m in training to overcome.

This will probably be the last post until after Shabbat is over, so I wish you all a very good erev Shabbat. See you Saturday night or Sunday!

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism

My first Torah study session

So I went to the Tikkun Leil Shavuot at my temple tonight. I found out when I got home that the loaner kippah I wore is WAY too big for my head – ack. But that’s vanity, and minor anyway.

The lessons were interesting. First, of course, we studied the giving of Torah – and the 10 “Commandments,” which (we counted) are more like 17 declarative statements and four promises, depending on whether you count each separate “covet” commandment as a new commandment, but anyway. That part of the lesson dealt with two things – what are the declarations? and what is this thing about Moses going back and forth between the people and G-d?

The first part I don’t think I need to go into detail about, partly because we weren’t allowed to take notes and my memory is not wonderful. The upshot here included a fable that the rabbi told about Moses having to justify why humans needed the Torah and angels did not. It was pretty good, actually. I wish I had a copy.

The second part had several interpretations: Moses needed to have power over the people to be an effective leader; G-d only wanted to deal with Moses; Moses was acting as a buffer/ambassador between G-d and the people much as the Americans were acting as diplomatic go-betweens at the Camp David talks between Egypt and Israel; but the one the rabbi presented us with was interesting. Here it is:

We only pray if we’re actually speaking – whether under our breath or not doesn’t matter. Our mouths have to move for it to be prayer. It has to be deliberate action. What we think is between ourselves and ourselves – our own stuff, in our own heads. It belongs to us and it doesn’t have consequences until and unless we act upon it. Essentially, by making Moses a go-between, G-d was saying “Yeah, you all know I could read your minds – but I won’t. You get the privacy of your own skulls and minds.”

I REALLY like that interpretation, and I said so. The way I was raised? G-d hears everything you think, too.

Another point of the lesson was – human beings are not perfect. We are not angels. And we are not expected to be angels. We are expected to do our best and be honest about it.

Then we got into an interesting Babylonian Talmud reading. I’m not sure how to name it (because I can’t find what I thought was the name of the tractate it’s from) but apparently it’s Shabbath 33b through 34a. This tractate is long, and I’ll come back to it in future posts I’m sure, but the upshot is: two rabbis, a father (who spoke against Rome) and a son, paid for it for 13 years of being in hiding from the Roman emperor, who had sentenced the father to death. Their being in hiding is a little weird, and I’ll talk about that in depth in another post after I’ve slept on this, but when they emerged, they were furious that the regular people were not doing what they had been doing for the last decade-plus: studying Torah. It took a while for them to be convinced that it was okay that not everyone was studying Torah in the depth that they had been (because they were in hiding – what else was there to do?). They were judgmental and self-righteous until they realized that they had judged unfairly – and it took a while.

Now the interesting thing here is that these were tied back to the original Torah study, which I guess is the point. Yes, study Torah – but yes, do the real work of life, too. One of the minyan present talked about a poster he’d seen in Israel which directly challenged the Orthodox haredi (who rarely have jobs outside of Torah study, apparently) that listed all the important rabbis and their worldly professions (vintner, doctor, cobbler, etc.), making the point that they were not just rabbis – they did their Torah study in their spare time.

After the study was over, I got to chat with E, one of the other gentlemen there, who is also converting. He encouraged me to come to daytime services when there were going to be a lot more people – and he cautioned me that when and if I do, to be sure to borrow one of the tallitot that the temple provides for people to wear during services, because that’s expected. He also said that he couldn’t find a non-Orthodox mikveh anywhere in this area, which makes me sad and stressed, but that he wasn’t in a hurry to take his dip, either. I am, but that’s me.

When I first got there, I introduced myself to the rabbi and the one other person who was there, and said “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m borrowing one of your kippot.” He said “Eh. Take it home, it’s fine.” So I did. And I felt conspicuous and completely right at the same time.

I like this temple. I hope that the rabbi and I click as well as we seem to have, tonight, when I talk to him on Tuesday.

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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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Getting My Feet Wet: The Outcome

It turned out to be a very small service. They were one person short of a minyan (if I had already been Jewish in fact and not just in wish, they would have had one). Lots of singing. Good conversation afterwards. Nobody blinked at me being queer. Nobody blinked at pretty much anything. I felt accepted.

Turns out the reason the rabbi hasn’t responded yet is that he’s on vacation this week and moving house. Hey, I’m not going to press him for an answer in that case! I was able to talk to the rabbinical student who ran the service and to one of the older members afterwards. I only felt awkward once, when they realized they didn’t have a minyan because I wasn’t Jewish (yet). And they still offered me wine or grape juice for the kiddush blessing anyway, which shocked me (I didn’t know a non-Jew could be included in that).

One of the women had come to say the Kaddish for her late father, but because there was no minyan, that couldn’t happen. But when I said during the social time after the service was over that I wished I had been able to give them their minyan, but that I wasn’t Jewish, two people said “Yet.” When I explained about my allergies, they said “Then why not make potato-flour challah and say the hamotzi over it? I don’t think HaShem would have any problem with that.”

Yes, it was a good experience. Yes, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be back. And I look good in a kippah!

(For those who are confused; my kids and I and my ex had a communication malfunction; they’re going to be here next weekend, not this weekend, which is why I was able to go tonight.)

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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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