12 Iyyar 5774
Preface: In talking about why I feel that I (am/need to be) a Jew, one of the things I’ve had to think about is what religion means to me now that I’ve started listening to the intuitive, experiential evidence that I would not pay attention to previously. This does not seem, to me, to be a wrestling match, so I’m categorizing it under “Hagah,” which is the Hebrew word for “meditation, pondering, contemplation, or examination.” These are not me fighting with anything, but rather organizing, or sorting out, what I feel and believe. Hence this category.
NOTE: What I write here may offend some Christian readers. I do not intend offense, but in order to show my reasoning, some of what I say may feel like attacks on your belief. I’m not saying your belief is wrong; I am simply saying why I do not connect with it.
So, since I have abandoned atheism, I really have to push on this question: Why Judaism? I mean, if it’s all just about believing in G-d, Christianity should suit me just as well as Judaism, right? If I was misled about who the G-d of the Christian churches was by my bad experiences with an NPD mother, I should be willing to try Christianity again before I make this huge and irrevocable step of declaring that I am Jewish and becoming Jewish, right?
Well… no. Not really. The atheism is only part of the issue I was having. There are two other important components: theology (or what the religion says about who and what G-d is) and whether the religion and I “fit” with one another on four metrics that are important to me: ethics, learning, ritual, and community.
I did believe in G-d until I was in my early teens. Then things that happened to me, as well as discovering science and finding how appealing it was to my logical mind, made me declare that if it can’t be empirically measured, it wasn’t real. But that denied many of my experiences: singing in church always made me feel there was Something there beyond our shared experience – and what else to call that Something but G-d? I knew people who were quite holy and spiritual, including my own father – what else to call them but G-d-filled? Yes, as an atheist, for quite some time, I called them “delusional.” But that was my thinking/reasoning brain trying to deny any reality or credibility to emotions or experiential evidence. That was me with the hammer of logic, looking at everything like it had to be a nail of empirical evidence or it wasn’t a real nail.
Being in Christian churches – first Catholic, and then some very right-wing Protestant, and then Catholic again – never spoke to me. The ritual, yes. The music, yes. The theology? Absolutely not. Some of the main backbone beliefs of Christianity, concerning what and who G-d is, are either very strange or downright horrifying to me.
For example, the belief in original sin – that all of us have to pay, forever and ever, for Adam’s mistake in the Garden – seems rather vindictive, doesn’t it? (I personally prefer Rabbi Bardin’s take on that: Eve had to push Adam to grow up, so she made it possible for them to leave the Garden by forcing the issue. Read Telushkin’s account of that in Jewish Literacy, if you’re interested – it’s well worth a read.) There’s also an amusing play called “The Creation of the World and Other Business” which goes into this issue – until Adam and Eve knew about good and evil, until they grew up, G-d had zero hope of grandchildren.
Another bit of theology that horrifies me about Christianity is this whole G-d-sacrificed-his-son-to-pay-for-our-sins thing. Central to Christian theology, this just doesn’t make sense to me. When I discovered Judaism I discovered why.
Jews don’t believe that anyone other than the person who did the harm can atone for the harm (see Yom Kippur). Since you, and only you, can atone for your sins, the idea of G-d sacrificing his son to pay for your sins makes zero sense. This is echoed in the story of Abraham being sent to sacrifice his son Isaac, and being told by G-d not to do that after Abraham demonstrated that he was willing to do so. If G-d wouldn’t let Abraham sacrifice his son (an act which was intended to demonstrate to the Jews of the time that human sacrifice, commonly practiced by their neighbors, was no longer an acceptable act), the logic of him killing his own son later on makes zero sense. If G-d is not logical, he is not G-d. The G-d of the Torah is logical. Everything he does or makes happen, happens for a logical reason.
Let’s not even get into the whole “he died, was dead for three days, and came back to life” thing, okay? I’ll just say my position here as succinctly as I can: biological reality all aside, if G-d brought him back to life, did killing him even count? To me that’s not only icky, it’s kind of ridiculous and negates the whole stated purpose (as confused as it is) of killing him in the first place.
Finding out that the Jesus story as explicated in the four books that Christians call “the Gospels” is actually engineered to fit with the Jewish liturgical calendar gives me further evidence that the Jesus story is, at least in part, a made-up story. You can read more about that argument in John Shelby Spong’s book “Liberating the Gospels.”
After discovering Judaism I found other reasons that the Jesus story makes no sense: he doesn’t do any of the things that the Messiah was supposed to do (see Michael Benami Doyle’s explanation of this, which is better than any I could do at this point).
In any case, it isn’t just about whether there’s a G-d or not. It’s also about whether the theology surrounding G-d makes sense. The Jewish theology makes sense to me; the Christian theology does not.
Now that I’ve dispensed with that, let’s get on to why Judaism calls to me by fulfilling what I need from a religious practice.
What I need from religion can be boiled down to four main things: ethics, learning, ritual and community. In order to explain why Christianity and paganism did not accomplish this for me (including my stint in the Unitarian Universalist church as a UU pagan/atheist), I’ll explain what each of these needs means to me, and then go over each religion I tried to explain why only Judaism fulfills them.
For me, ethics boils down to “do no harm, and if you see harm happening, prevent it if you can and help the one harmed if you can’t.” While this sounds a bit absolutist, it’s not. The ethics that a religion espouses have to fit with my internal sense of justice for it to work for me; otherwise, I’m swimming upstream against a whitewater rapid.
The ethics of Catholicism, frankly, alienate me. The idea that we have the right to ostracize people because they are women, or queer, is not a holy idea. To this day, the Catholic church issues edicts that say that women are second-class citizens, that gays only have the right to be celibate, and that women have no right to decisions about their own bodies. Every time I had to listen to a homily about abortion, or gays, or feminism, I walked out of the church with a face streaked by angry tears at the injustice of the belief system espoused in those homilies. And let’s not go into the pedophilic scandals that have rocked the Catholic church for twenty years or more.
The ethics of the Christian churches I attended alienated me for similar reasons. Again, the demand that women take a backseat, that gays get off the bus entirely, etc. just made me disgusted and angry. I think what made me even angrier was that so many of the sermons claimed love at the same time that they were preaching abuse.
The ethics of the Unitarian church worked fine for me, as did the ethics of paganism, but I missed other components in these faith practices, which I’ll get to in a few more paragraphs.
Learning is one of the loves of my life. I’m an academic and a teacher. I need a religion that constantly pushes me to learn more, and has more available for me to learn. A religion that has finite answers that don’t invite discussion, questioning, or doubt is not a religion that will fill this need for me.
In the Catholic and Christian churches I attended, “learning” meant “parrot back what we tell you to believe.” It did not mean what I consider learning: exploring, engaging with the text, questioning the text, debating the meaning of the text. It also means the freedom to make mistakes and to doubt and still be considered a good person. That was not my experience of Catholicism or of Christianity. Instead, I was ostracized, talked down to, and scolded for asking questions or doubting. When I expressed doubt, I was told to pray harder, not to ask questions. I was told to accept the mystery, rather than investigate it to find answers. I found this attitude really difficult to deal with; I’m the son of two teachers and now a teacher myself. This rejection of learning did not sit well with me at all.
Paganism and the Unitarians, again, encouraged learning… but in paganism I didn’t find the answers I wanted, and in the Unitarian church, many of the answers were “we don’t know, and that’s okay,” without encouraging discussion.
I’m a sociologist, and yes, I understand what ritual is all about. But for me, the repetition and dependability of ritual is a bedrock for me. If there is no ritual, I have no meaningful way to worship. If I have no meaningful way to worship, I lose my connection to the Divine. If I lose my connection to the Divine, well… what’s the point?
While the Catholic church and paganism completely satisfied this need for me (I still love “high church” services), the other lacks I felt in each practice made it impossible for me to continue. Most Christian churches rejected ritual, including the Unitarians (who started out as nominally Protestant), so I couldn’t find ritual there at all.
Ritual goes hand in hand with community. A ritual performed alone is not satisfying to me. I need to feel my feelings from other people around me. I need to see my awe reflected in other people’s eyes. If I don’t have that, the religion does nothing for me. The very word, “religion,” can be broken down into its two roots: “re,” to do something again; and “lig,” to connect. Religion, then, is the reconnection you feel – and for most people, including me, reconnection takes a community.
Paganism largely failed me here, because the pagan community is overwhelmingly online, not an in-person community. Although there are occasional celebrations that happen throughout the year, it’s hard to get to them. Also, for me, a community has to be people that I know and meet regularly. I could never get that in paganism. I kept searching for, and not finding, much of anything.
While the Catholic and Christian churches I attended did give me some feeling of community, the overwhelming feelings of disapproval that were directed at me for doubting, or for being queer, or for supporting women created a deep feeling of disconnection – invalidating what community is supposed to do in the first place.
SO, WHY JUDAISM?
First, the theology of Judaism makes sense to me, as I talked about in the previous Wrestling Match. The way that Judaism sees G-d doesn’t frighten me; it fills me with awe and peace. Knowing that I do not have to figure him out (that is, that it’s not an expectation that I will figure him out) but that he won’t be angry with me if I have doubt and questions – that is exactly what I need from a G-d. And Judaism fulfills that need.
Second, the ethical structure of Judaism pretty much rests on the idea of tikkun olam – “heal the world.” This fits exactly with my own internal sense of justice. The arguments in Reform and often Conservative Judaism towards allowing women equality, treating gays the same as straights, etc. is a huge, huge deal to me. I won’t have to walk out of a Shabbat service with tears of anger on my face.
Third, learning is central to Judaism. I’ve heard of other converts who were told, “Of course you’d be a good Jew – you’re a scholar.” As an academic who loves investigating and learning more, Judaism offers me the opportunity (and more than that, mandates the responsibility) to investigate and learn for the rest of my life, as a core part of my religious practice.
Fourth, Judaism has ritual. I was relieved to find out that Reform shuls have largely re-embraced ritual, because it’s extremely important to me – daily ritual, weekly ritual, and year-round ritual. The ritual of the Seder I attended during Pesach made me feel supported and included, rather than being an outsider looking in. Learning about the Jewish liturgical calendar and calendar of holidays and festivals feels like coming home, to me. There will be a rhythm to my life, instead of a disjointed “what are we going to discuss this week?” uncertainty.
Finally, the community in Judaism is a welcoming community. I know this not only from my own experience but also from the experiences I’ve read from other converts. While individual shuls may not offer this welcome, as a Jew you have the right to pick the shul that makes you feel welcome. There are in-person regular meetings, classes, and a concern for those in the community that transcends a simple religious belief.
Christian friends and acquaintances may find it hard to understand why the theology of Christianity doesn’t make sense to me, but even if it did, Christianity would fall down in at least two other areas that are requirements for me in order to follow a religion.