Tag Archives: identity

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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From My Readings: Judaism as Adult Community and Identity

22 Iyyar 5774

I’m finished with Isaacs (although I’m going to keep his book as a good reference) and I’m now working my way through To Life! by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. First, I assume that the title, translated into Hebrew, would be L’Chayim!, a very common Jewish toast to happy times and events. I love this as a book title; it expresses the underlying optimism I find in Judaism over and over again, in so many ways.

The first chapter of the book is titled “Life is the question, Judaism is the answer.” This appeals to me on a number of levels. But in order to put this particular post into context, I need to talk about the Christian approach to the issues I’m going to discuss so that I can show why, for me, Judaism is a) not like that and b) a much better fit for me than Christianity.

Today, those issues are: childlike belief vs. adult understanding, and inclusion based on belief vs. inclusion based on community.

In my experience, modern Christianity tends to have a bias towards childlike understanding of the world, and of G-d. This really bothers me, and always has. It’s the source of “don’t ask those questions,” in my view and experience. The fundamentalist statement “G-d said it, I believe it, that settles it” is another expression of this. “The Bible says…” is yet another. When I hear someone say “The Bible says…” I know it’s going to be followed by “this rule, which we’re not allowed to question or break, end of story.”

I think most of this comes from the way Christian children are raised, combined with the basic processes of learning that every child goes through, no matter their religious background.

When you’re a child, you learn by rote. You memorize and parrot back what you’re told, without much understanding of what it is you’re memorizing and parroting. Children tend to take things “on faith,” intuitively, when they’re very young – say, between two and six years old. This stage is what Piaget called the “pre-operational” stage, where magical thinking and animism (attributing souls, motivations, and personalities to inanimate objects) are prominent, and where cause and effect are not really understood yet. In this stage, children learn symbols (such as letters, words and numbers) by rote, without inquiring into their meaning.

Most Christian children between the ages of two and six are taught Bible verses and Bible stories as if they were literal truth. At this stage, they have no ability to understand that many of the stories they are taught were probably fables (told to express an underlying truth of the human experience), not facts. So they take them as factual, long before they have the ability to question whether or not they actually are. This becomes a problem later, when they reach the concrete operational stage.

I read an analysis once, and I can’t remember where I read it, that said that most conservatives today have the analytical abilities of a seven-year-old. Piaget called this time in a child’s life, from seven to twelve years old or so, the “concrete operational” stage. In the concrete operational stage, children cannot solve hypothetical problems or use thought experiments. “What if?” is not yet a question they can understand or process. Everything is very tied to the concrete – what you can see, feel, touch, hear, taste, etc. While children in the concrete operational stage can use inductive reasoning – looking at a few examples and seeing a pattern – they cannot use deductive reasoning, or predicting an outcome from a known pattern, because that process requires analytic, “what-if?” thought.

And they love, love, love rules. Rules are great. Rules are important. Rules are necessary. The problem is, since all they can do is concrete thought, their understanding of the rules is limited to “these things are okay to do” and “these things are forbidden.” The only “because” that enters the equation is “because the rules say so.” Why the rule says so is not something people in the concrete operational stage can figure out yet, because that requires abstract reasoning. As a result, children in this stage are very literal-minded.

Now, let’s combine the two so that this makes sense. In the pre-operational stage, they have learned what they intuitively understand as “facts.” Now that they are in the concrete operational stage, those “facts” become literal, concrete reality to them. They don’t yet have the ability to question those “facts” or interrogate them in any way. Not only that – they are not allowed to. They are expected to remain “like a child” in their understanding of their religious beliefs.

Most Christians seem to fall into the concrete operational stage, to me. Now, be aware that I’m not speaking of all Christians everywhere. There are certainly Christian theologians who have gone beyond the concrete operational stage – C.S. Lewis, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg – but your common or garden Christian tends to say “What do the rules/the Bible say?” and to take it concretely (aka literally), without questioning it further.

Judaism isn’t like that.

Within the first five pages of To Life!Kushner is already saying “Though there is much in Jewish life that children can enjoy and be thrilled by, and though children can read and respond to biblical tales, the real stuff of Judaism is a system of great power and subtlety. It is meant to be confronted by adults, not children. Becoming Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen was meant to begin, not conclude, the process of learning what it means to be a Jew.”

When I read this in Kushner’s book, I damn near cried. Just finding out that this was a religion for adults, who question, criticize, interrogate, and argue – that’s a big, big deal to me.

Kushner follows up a few pages later with this observation: “Rule One: Any time we ask a question ‘What does Judaism say about…?’ the only correct answer will always begin: ‘Some Jews believe as follows, and other Jews believe something different.’ The reason for this is not just that we are highly individualistic, independent-minded people. The main reason is that we have never found it necessary to spell out exactly what we are supposed to believe […] because Jewish identity is not centered in belief. It is centered in community and history. We can tolerate great diversity of theological opinion, because […] Jews have something that binds us together beyond, and more effectively than, common belief.”

In Christianity, what you believe about G-d is paramount. It’s the first and most important thing. The fact that you identify as a Christian may not fly with people who think that their way of believing in G-d is somehow superior. This is why we have so many sects of Christianity, all of which believe they have the right way to believe in G-d. Whether it’s a divide about the right date for celebrating Easter (which split the Orthodox and Catholic churches) or the right way to talk to G-d (which split Protestantism off from the Catholics), or an argument about whether the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus or if that was just symbolic (hello, split between the Catholics and the Episcopalian/Anglican churches) – every time a Christian disagrees with his current church, he has to split off and create a brand-new Christian church so that the rules are consistent with his beliefs.

Judaism isn’t like that either. Except for the ultra-Orthodox haredi (who don’t like the other movements of Judaism very much), a Jew is still a Jew whether he’s Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or somewhere in between. She’s a Jew whether she attends synagogue or not. He’s a Jew whether or not he observes Shabbat or wears a kippah. She’s a Jew regardless of her orientation.

This is because Jews, Kushner tells us, were a people first. The religion part came later. They were (and are) a community, a culture, and a way of life before G-d ever said “OK, folks, here’s what I’ve got for you” at Sinai. This means that Judaism does not demand a specific set of beliefs or a creed the way Christianity does. The closest we probably get is Maimonides’ thirteen Articles of Faith, and even some of those are argument points among Jewish scholars.

Kushner tells us that in Judaism, the emphasis is on devotion to the Jewish people and its community, not on religious observance. It is more like being part of a family than being part of an organized group dedicated to a cause.

In many books, I’ve run across the statement (or variations on the statement): “What one Christian does is what one Christian does. What one Jew does reflects on all Jews.” And thinking about it, this is true. It isn’t just outsiders who tend to blame all Jews for one Jew’s behavior. Jews take pride in the success of other Jews in ways that Christians do not acknowledge the success of other Christians, and Jews feel shame when a Jewish person does something wrong in ways that other Christians do not feel about Christian wrongdoers.

I think that if I were to ask a Jewish person their feelings about Bernie Madoff (who bilked many of his fellow Jews and others out of $30 billion over a period of thirty years, running the biggest Ponzi scheme known in history) they would express shame and disappointment, because regardless of how bad he was and is, he’s one of the Tribe, and so what he did reflects on everyone in the Tribe. But ask a Roman Catholic about their feelings on Charles Keating (the Roman Catholic who was behind the big S&L collapse and scandal of the 1980s, and they’d probably say either “Who?” or “He was a bad person” or, if they knew he was a Catholic, “He was a sinner.” But none of them would probably feel any personal connection to Keating or feel that Keating’s crimes reflected on them as a Catholic.

In the same vein, Jews thrill with tribal pride when a Jew does something noteworthy. Ask any American Jew to list the most well-known or influential Jews of the 20th century, and you’ll see names like Einstein, Freud, and Chomsky come up in conversation. Jews feel a visceral connection to Jewish success stories. But I don’t think that most Lutherans feel the same kind of pride about the accomplishments of Steve Jobs or Johannes Kepler. While they’re part of the same group, they’re not part of the same Tribe.

As Kushner says, “Judaism is less about believing and more about belonging. It is less about what we owe G-d and more about what we owe each other, because we believe G-d cares more about how we treat each other than He does about our theology.” (This spelling of “G-d” is not original to Kushner’s text.)

For me, this means that theology is secondary. Yes, I’ve wrestled with G-d and largely come to terms with what that means – but I will never stop wrestling. But it also means that I don’t have to stop wrestling. I will not be shunned or put down or shoved away because I disagree with a point made in the Talmud, or even in the Torah. I will not be ejected from the Tribe just because I have a different opinion about what G-d wants.

It’s a Tribe I really, really want to be part of. I just hope that I’ll be worthy of it.

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From My Readings: “Becoming Jewish” by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

20 Iyyar 5774

Although I started this blog thinking about different kinds of oppression and othering and rejection, I don’t want people to think that’s the only thing this blog is going to be about. I mentioned already that I’ve started reading books on Judaism, to better understand whether I really do fit in this niche that I’m becoming increasingly convinced is the one I’m supposed to be in. So in addition to the wrestling matches, the conversations, and the meditations, I plan to use these books as jumping-off points for blog posts here as well.

The first book I’m going to talk about is Becoming Jewish: A handbook for conversion by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs. This book was written in 1993, so it’s about 20 years old. It also seems to be geared towards people who are converting in order to get married to someone who is Jewish (and planning to have Jewish children with them). Like many books about conversion, it doesn’t take people like me and my non-Jewish gay partner into account. So, that’s a weakness.

The part about talking to your non-Jewish family about your conversion looks remarkably similar to advice I’ve seen about coming out to your parents as gay: be prepared for them not to be happy, tell them in person, don’t pick a holiday or a birthday or other special occasion to break the news, stay calm. So that part, at least, has nothing I can really learn. Been here, done this.

However, it also has many good things to say about your new Jewish identity, the process of conversion, what the program of study looks like, and how to lead a Jewish life. It’s that last part that I want to start with here, since many of my earlier posts have already gone over the “identity” thing, and I won’t know what my program of study or my process of conversion will look like until I talk to a rabbi.

For anyone who started out as Christian and is now considering conversion to Judaism, one of the most startling things will probably be exactly what I found: it’s not about what you believe, it’s about what you do. That’s a huge shift in thinking for most people who come from a Christian background, but for me it’s a huge relief. Practice, not belief, is the basis of this religion.

Several of the main practices that Isaacs suggests in order to begin living a Jewish life include holiday celebrations, synagogue attendance, Shabbat observation, making prayer a regular part of your life, practicing Hebrew, and collecting the various ritual items that go with these things: Shabbat candles and candlesticks, a Passover seder plate, a matzah cover, a challah cover, a menorah, a Havdalah set and Kiddush cup, and so forth. He also suggests immersing yourself in Jewish culture: going to Jewish museums, reading Jewish literature, watching Jewish drama, and learning Jewish music. Becoming part of a Jewish volunteer organization is also a good idea.

Obviously, I need to watch Fiddler on the Roof. But I’m listening to popular Jewish music, including the work of Neshama Carlebach; I try to pray the shehakol over every meal (since I can’t pray the ha-motzi, not being a bread eater); I say the Sh’ma whenever I wake up whenever I’m going to bed; I’ll be back to my Hebrew studies as soon as the hand heals up and I can write again; and I’m working on collecting the items that will allow me to celebrate Shabbat (I need a challah loaf pan so that I can bake grain free “challah,” but I’m not quite there yet). Once I can get to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah and a Mogen David, too.

I’m still wrestling with kashrut; I already have to give up quite a bit of different kinds of food because of my health issues, and kosher meat is more expensive than I can currently afford. Vegetarianism made me physically ill, because it’s so high-carb (I’m a diabetic), so although I do feel a small pull towards kosher, I don’t realistically see that happening.

(About the “challah” loaf pan: this is another thing I struggle with, but I have nearly reached the point where I’ve decided that if I cannot eat bread made of the five brains because of my allergies, I really don’t think HaShem is going to punish me for making a grain-free challah look-alike for Shabbat and praying the ha-motzi over it.  And in any case, that’s between me and G-d. A lot of what we do is symbolic; that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.)

Isaacs’ book is actually quite short, and it seems to be more of a reference than a standalone book. More than half of it is filled with appendices: jewish holidays, the names of Jewish months, Shabbat rituals, and daily prayers. It’s a good place to start, although I’d really like to see one geared toward people who are converting Reform, especially queer people with Gentile partners.

 

 

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Hagah #3: The Law – Spirit and Letter

18 Iyyar 5774

I grew up in a rule-bound religion, with the emphasis on following the rules, rather than understanding their intent or their spirit. In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t leave much wiggle room for people who don’t fit inside what is actually a very narrow rule set.

Every religious movement has its rules lawyers: the people who, when faced with a hard question, will check the rule book. Indeed, this phenomenon goes beyond religious groups to cultures, societies, and nations. It becomes more prominent when the rules are written down, but even when most of the law is unwritten, there will be people who push for strict adherence to it.

I will use the gay community and its norms as an example of this rules-lawyering. The modern gay male community, at least the one that is most prominent and visible, has a very distinct “look”: Young (under 30 years old), white, athletic, well-off. In recent years, “straight-acting” has been added to this list “what gay males are like.” Queeniness and effeminacy are no longer considered appropriate. In this most visible of all the gay communities, you are expected to work hard and play hard, be sexually active and attractive, find social activity to be extremely important… Well, you get the picture.

None of these norms are written down anywhere, except in books of comedy about the gay community.  But they are enforced in dozens of subtle and unsubtle ways, including being part of the in crowd this week and on the outs next week.

However, adherence to these norms is only the surface of what it means to be a gay male. Being gay is not about following these norms; it is about being attracted to people of the same gender. As a mid 40s, heavyset, un-athletic, slightly queeny gay male, I don’t fit the “letter” of gay community norms, but I absolutely fit the spirit of them. Men are hot.

But even if you fit the spirit of the norms, if you’re attracted in any way to people who are the opposite gender, you are told that you’re not really queer, or to get off the fence. I still respond “gay” about half the time when asked what my sexual orientation is, because in the main I’m attracted to other men. My female partner is a rarity for me.

Some gay men can’t handle the idea that I have a girlfriend. In their heads that fundamentally makes me not gay. In their heads, anyone who is ever attracted to someone of the opposite gender cannot be gay. (I suppose they’ve never heard of the Kinsey scale.) But I’m still gay, for all that. I had to figure out which sub-community of the gay community I actually belonged to when I first came out. I found it–the bear community–but it took a while, and in the meantime I wondered how I would ever meet the standards set by those unwritten rules.

Finding out that I didn’t have to meet them once I found the bear community was a relief. But there will always be gay men who judge anyone who doesn’t fit those standard norms as “not really gay.” And I just have to live with that, while continuing on as the gay man that I am.

In the same way, there will always be Orthodox Jews who have decided that halachic orthodoxy is the only right way to be a Jew, and who will reject me because I do not fit the letter of their laws – they feel that I am not halachically acceptable. That still doesn’t make me any less of a Jew, however. They may never accept me, but I don’t need them to accept me. I just need my sub-community of Judaism to accept me.

I affirm that G-d is One. I affirm that we received the Torah at Sinai. But I also affirm that halacha is as much about the spirit of the law as it is about the letter of the law: to do what is right, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with our G-d, in the words of Micah. What “right” is cannot be solely tied to a narrow, letter-only interpretation of the Torah. There will be times when we must work on Shabbat. There will be times when we cannot keep kashrut. And many of the texts which do not let people live must be understood for what they are: a product of their time, written down by men who tried to understand G-d as best they could, and who ended up putting G-d in a box.

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Siyachot (Conversations) #1: Putting G-d in a box

17 Iyyar 5774

I have been preached at quite a bit in my time. Just in the last two days I’ve had a response from an Orthodox convert on a board for Jews by choice, insisting that only the Orthodox conversion process is “real” and that there are no “movements” of the Torah – and by extension saying that any conversion that isn’t Orthodox is invalid and not Jewish; and another response from my Christian correspondent (on the board I am part of for people with personality disordered parents, friends, coworkers, and other associates), asking me questions that, while not as preachy as those of the Orthodox person, still make me almost as annoyed.

It should be obvious why I’m annoyed with the Orthodox person. People who say, “my way is the only right way” are people that I do my best to find a legitimate way to flunk if they’re my students. I don’t put up with absolutism. About the other, I’m annoyed because I’m not sure what the Christian correspondent wants, but all my past experiences say “she’s trying to make you turn away from this path that you have chosen.” Several codewords in what she writes jump out at me as “evangelical” and thus more than a little bit pushy. As an example, the word “Biblical” seems to be one of her favorite words. I don’t know of any other group that over-uses the word the way that evangelicals do. So that, already, has me a bit on edge.

As a result, I’m hesitant to go into too much detail with her about this process. Instead, I’ll put most of that here. I’ve also told the Orthodox person on the convert board that I will not be responding to them further, but I do want to address some of the things they said here as well.

See, here’s the thing. This is my process, and mine alone. I have to justify it to my Rabbi, and to my beit din. I don’t have to justify it to some random Orthodox person who has apparently decided, like so many fundamentalists, to try to put G-d in a box. Nor do I have to justify it to someone who is trying to put G-d into the evangelical Christian box. I will give an example of each, so that you’re all on the same page with me.

Here’s a quote from the Orthodox person:

your conversion studies are conveniently leaving out that G-d is eternal and does not change and the Torah likewise is eternal.

Notice the box? Right there: “G-d is eternal and does not change.” Really now? Where exactly is that written? Certainly we say in the Shema, “G-d is One,” but that does not necessarily mean unchanging. The eternal part, I will buy. The unchanging part? Not so much. Last I checked, anything that doesn’t change, dies. And that bit about the Torah not changing – no, but it’s open to interpretation, or we would not have the Talmud.

In reading more of the Orthodox person’s response to me, I find a lot of concern for the rules, and hardly any concern for human beings. That rigidity is a huge turnoff for me. And like many Orthodox, this person equates Orthodox with observant, which means there’s no talking to them. I doubt that the rabbi that I choose to help me through my conversion process will have a problem with me saying “I’m not interested in dealing with that question.”

And regardless of what Mr. or Ms. Orthodox thinks, I will still be a Jew at the end of my process, whether they like it or not. Their argument comes across like an Amish person telling a Mennonite that they’re a heretic. While the Amish may believe that, the Mennonite does not have to take it seriously.

On the other hand, here’s a quote from the Christian person, after I sent her Rabbi Bardin’s explanation of why Eve ate the apple, which goes like this:

“Imagine,” Bardin taught, “that a young woman marries a young man whose father is president of a large company. After the marriage, the father makes the son a vice-president and gives him a large salary, but because he has no work experience, the father gives him no responsibilities. Every week, the young man draws a large check, but he has nothing to do. His wife soon realizes that she is not married to a man but to a boy, and that as long as her husband stays in his father’s firm, he will always be a boy. So she forces him to quit his job, give up his security, go to another city, and start out on his own. That,” Bardin concluded, “is the reason Eve ate from the tree.”

My Christian correspondent objected: “in this analogy, Eve ends up being wiser than G-d.” (When I shared this with my Jewish best friend, she said wryly, “No, just wiser than Adam.”)

My correspondent then goes on to say that by using this analogy, I am putting G-d in a box – the box of “why bother following him or worshiping him if Eve is smarter than G-d?” Never mind that the point I was trying to make is that most Jews don’t really see the story of Adam and Eve in the garden as all that serious, while for Christians it’s the origin of the Fall and original sin and all the attendant bad effects.

But here my Christian correspondent is also putting G-d in a box: this box is one where G-d is perfect and infinite, one that we finite, fallible humans might not understand or accept.

This correspondent has been really concerned, throughout our entire conversation, that I get the “facts” about G-d. A lot of times this ends with a reference to “Biblical” reasoning. Whenever I tell her that I’m not interested in Christianity because of [insert reason here], for response is invariably, “Well, that reason is not really Biblical.”

The problem is, I don’t care if it’s Biblical. It is still a valid reason for me to say I’m not a Christian and never will be.

As another example, my Christian correspondent asks:

How do you determine what to incorporate into your idea of G-d? … what measuring stick do you use to determine which of your feelings about G-d are valid?  Where do the Hebrew Scriptures fit in, since you don’t see them as all literally true?

Neither of my correspondents seem to understand my position on G-d; the Orthodox because they’ve decided that their position is the only correct position, and the Christian because she seems to think I’m still trying to understand G-d. Neither of them is correct.

What I have discovered is that I don’t need to understand G-d. I just need to know that G-d is there. My concept of G-d is that he’s there. Period. Full stop. If I had to do anything boxlike, I would say that the way G-d is represented in the Hebrew scriptures fits with my intuitive understanding of what he is, which is why I feel called to Judaism. I shy away from a point-by-point list because I don’t want to put G-d in a box.

Personally, I believe that both my correspondents are incorrect in their views, but mainly because both of them like to have G-d in a box. I’ve given up my need to put him in a box. I don’t need to know the specifics.

Both of them seem to think that that’s the important thing: getting the specifics. But all the mystery of G-d is destroyed if we try to get at them.

I tried that for years, but I’m over it now.

 

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Hagah #2: “Coming Out” Has Many Meanings

16 Iyyar 5774

There are many guides on the web about how to tell your family or friends that you are converting to Judaism. Really, they’re very similar to guides about how to how to tell your family or friends that you are gay.

Most of those guides tell you to expect two things:

1. People will be shocked. Usually they will be shocked because this is a change and they didn’t expect it.

2. People will be upset. The upset usually comes because this change feels like a rejection of who you were to them, who they were to you, or both.

The usual suggested methods of dealing with their shock or upset are to remind them that you’re still the same person you’ve always been, and that this change has nothing to do with them, and it’s not a comment or a judgment on how they live their life.

That’s all well and good, but for people who have no prior experience in coming out, it can be terrifying. For many people, declaring that you are different from your parents, or your best friend, or your grandparents, or your coworkers, can feel like putting yourself on an island that no one else can really reach.

Also, I’m not entirely sure that it’s honest to say that you will be the same person you have always been. For example, being gay might mean that you choose a different church (being Jewish almost certainly means that!). It might mean that you no longer find certain jokes appropriate. It might mean that some of the topics of your conversation will change. Depending on which movement of Judaism you are converting to, it might mean you’re no longer available on Saturdays to mow lawns, hang out, or go to football games. It might mean that you have to be more picky about where you go out to eat if you are keeping kosher. Family holidays might become problematic.

On the other hand, this also gives you new topics of conversation. Who knows? Your parents might be absolutely fascinated about Pesach or Hanukkah. One of your friends might want to go to a Pride parade with you just to see what it’s like. So it’s not necessary to approach conversion conversations like this with fear.

Still, you will need to take into account the beliefs and practices of the person to whom you are coming out. That’s where it can get a little tricky.

Since starting this journey towards Judaism, I have realized that many of my friends may not be okay with me becoming religious. After 13+ years of being an atheist you tend to collect a lot of atheist friends. Many of my atheist friends are quite vehement about their position on Deity: that there isn’t one.

Part of the reason why I write this blog is to work through the objections that I expect from many different sides. I’ve mentioned my Christian correspondent, as well as my Gentile partner, as people whose concerns and questions I’ve already had to respond to. I’m sure that my atheist friends will have concerns and questions as well.

Answering their questions is very much like coming out as gay always has been. In a sense, I’m “coming out” as a Jew. Yesterday, I made my first foray into non-theist territory by telling one of my research partners, a non-practicing Jew, that I was converting.

He is not precisely atheist, but he is areligious. Culturally, he’s Jewish, but he doesn’t practice Judaism in a religious sense. And that turned out to be okay when we talked about my conversion. He said, “it shouldn’t be about whether we care if you convert. It should be about what works for you.”

Still, I know that some of my atheist friends may not take it very well when they find out that I am converting. But then again, I’ve handled this coming out process before, and I know that most people may be surprised, but very few of them will leave. I’ve already worked out many of my responses to the questions that I know they will have, just by posting here.

So I know what it’s likely to be like when I do come out. The friends I’ve told already are largely people of faith of some kind: Christians, pagans, other Jews. They’ve all been happy, so this has been a good start for me. My research partner’s reaction is also heartening. But there will probably be two or three friends who say, “How ridiculous. I can’t believe that you would be this weak-minded.” And I’ll lose those friends. It’s just part of what you get used to when you come out.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Hagah, Identities, Judaism

Wrestling Match #5: Doubt is the Handmaiden of Truth

13 Iyyar 5774

It occurs to me that if I’m going to convert (and I am), I’m fortunate to live where I do. In Los Angeles, there’s a much bigger Jewish presence than I originally thought, and it’s not all located near the intersection of Fairfax and Pico (although that’s probably the best semi-local place to go shopping for Judaica)*. I live up the street from a Conservative temple (two or three blocks from my apartment), there’s a Lubavitcher center half a mile away, and there are several other temples of various movements in the area. My Jewish best friend has also offered to take me to her Conserva-form temple in the Glendale area if I want, so I have a lot of places I can go to find and talk to a rabbi and attend a Shabbat service.

Only I haven’t done it yet. I’ve had a prior obligation every weekend day for the last six weeks, which ends after next weekend, and until those are over, Fridays are designated laundry-and-sleeping days (the weekend obligations are quite physically exhausting). I’m also finishing the school year and so I’m rather buried in grading papers, setting up exams, grading final bits of homework, and setting up an intersession class for spring and summer. If you’re an educator or know one, then you know the drill. Being a convert doesn’t mean that the world stops and waits while you pursue conversion.

So I’ve been doing my reading, studying, and exploring here and at home, as I have time and energy. I’ve read about two-thirds of Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, and that’s helped. I have about two hundred bookmarks in my browser of sites I’ve read and found useful. I’ve been praying – a lot – and it’s not just pious mouthings. I’ve been trying very hard to remember what the Hebrew words mean whenever I say them, and I have a translation and transliteration in front of me so I can memorize both the sounds and the meanings. I have not laid tefillin yet, and I probably won’t for some time, but I say the Sh’ma morning and night, and I do my best to remember the blessings over meals. I’ve subscribed to a mailing list which sends out the weekly Torah portion so I can study those. I’m planning a trip to my local library tomorrow to see if I can find any of the other books on Michael Doyle’s “read this” list. And as you know, I’ve been examining my motivations for conversion here, in some detail. I’m even grateful for that correspondent who has been trying to convert me to Christianity; she forced me to really look at my reasons in a deep, meaningful way.

None of that prepared me for last night.

My best friend was over for a visit and we decided to walk to a local coffee shop for dinner. The temple is on the way, and although the office was closed, we were able to walk over and look at the grounds. If this becomes my temple, I’ll be pretty happy, I think. I still need to talk to the rabbi, of course, and go to a few services to see if I fit, but one can hope.

It also made me anxious in ways I didn’t quite expect and wasn’t quite prepared for. I felt… again… like I was being presumptuous, and I had to fight that feeling. This is who I am. I am allowed to want to convert. I am not stepping on anyone’s toes or pushing my way in without real consideration of what I’m doing. But I also felt a sense of disorientation and unreality standing outside the sanctuary, and I recognized it immediately – a mixture of doubt and guilt. I know that feeling well. It’s the feeling that crops up any time I trust my feelings over my intellect. It’s the feeling that says, in part, What if you’re just kidding yourself? What if you’re just making up how you feel? What if all that stuff you wrote about G-d was just you pretending? And that hurt. I’ll be honest about that. It made me feel like maybe I was just being a credulous fool.

When you’ve been trained to doubt your feelings about the world, it’s hard to get past it when the doubt comes up and hits you in the face. So I had to fight that feeling, too, and I got a little lightheaded in the fighting. My friend could tell I was upset, but I couldn’t explain exactly why I was. I said “overwhelmed,” which wasn’t a lie; it was just what I could say at the time.

When we returned to the apartment after dinner, my friend had brought her own tallit and her siddur (the 1975 edition of Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book) to show me – kind of a religious show-and-tell, I suppose. She showed me how to put on the tallit (on herself, not on me) and she walked me through saying and singing a few of the evening prayers used at services. I now know that I’ll need a large-print siddur with transliterations, or I’ll be lost and quickly. I can get the phonics from transliterations, but reading directly from the Hebrew text is daunting. And with that feeling of being daunted, the doubt came back: can I really do this? do I really deserve this? am I being presumptuous? am I just faking this or pretending? It brought back the lightheadedness, too. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her tallit, either. It felt like I was doing something wrong. Being an ex-Catholic, I guess I have a bit of a cultural hangup about vestments, and the tallit sure looks like one to my inexperienced eyes.

After a few prayers, she let me take a look at the siddur, and in turning the pages to just glance through it, I found this meditation written in English (which I’m going to copy here). I’ve mentioned the helicopters? It was like Adonai sent me another one, to let me know that a) it was okay to doubt and b) he’s real and I’m not kidding myself.

MEDITATION

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.

Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.

For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear; the house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.

But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.

They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.

Therefore, let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.

That hit me so hard I nearly started to cry. All those years being told doubt was a sin, that doubt was not allowed, that my questions were unwelcome? Reading this meditation in the siddur completely validated my need to doubt and the fact that I doubt. It was a message that said “You are not a sinner just because you doubt. In fact, doubt may make you even stronger in your faith, as you test what you think and see whether it’s true.”

Thank you, Adonai. I needed that.

*The weekend after next, we’re going to visit the Fairfax district. I have a small shopping list: kippah, mezuzah, Mogen David, and large-print siddur. I might not find them all, but here’s hoping.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches