Tag Archives: meditation

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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Epstein: A Common Ancestor

19 Tamuz 5774

Epstein asks us in chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism:

“What would it mean if we all shared a common ancestor?”

This bothers me, the idea that having a common ancestor should be this important. Of course, religiously, Epstein means Adam and Eve (and, I suppose, Noah and his children, since nobody else survived the Flood). But he also acknowledges genetics in the chapter that precedes this question. Chapter 4 is largely about balancing scientific findings about evolution and natural selection with Biblical teachings about the origin of humankind.

If we all shared a common ancestor in the sense that we all looked alike, we’d still find other ways to separate ourselves out and treat others as less-than. I’m a social scientist; I study this stuff.

However, we do (technically) all share common ancestry, if not a single common ancestor. And as such, we need to talk about things like race, and how we let this social construct separate us in ways we should never have let it separate us from each other.

Race is entirely a social construct. Evolution has a lot to do with it, but there are no separate “races.” There is the human race, and variation within it. The darker you are, the closer your ancestors were to the equator, and the more sun they were exposed to. Our bodies protect us against skin cancer by increasing melanin content. Conversely, the farther away from the equator your ancestors lived, and the more Vitamin D you needed to attract, the paler you’re going to be, to protect yourself from rickets.

But both of these things are just evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. There are no “races.” There are only human variations.

I really wish people could understand this better.

The problem is, humanity is, by its very nature, an ingroup-outgroup kind of creature. We like our groups and our tribes and we often define ourselves by what we’re not (the outgroup). I think, as a social scientist, that ingroup-outgroup is sort of the fundamental problem with humanity today. We can’t seem to see everyone as part of our group.

This applies to race, and it applies to gender, and to religion, and even to occupation. When are we going to get our act together as a species and see that we all share common ancestry?

So, what might it mean, if we all understood that we have a common ancestor? Maybe the end of us-and-themism. Maybe the end of ingroup-and-outgroup. Maybe the end of fighting with each other.

Yeah, I can dream, can’t I?

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Back to Epstein: What About the Body?

18 Tamuz 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the mikveh.

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

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

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From My Readings: Leonard Epstein, Chapter 3 – G-d and the Creation of the World

9 Tamuz 5774

In this chapter, Epstein asks us to look at possible explanations for the creation of the world (and, by extension, the universe) that will both allow for what we know from science and what the Bible tells us G-d did. Epstein’s discussion points out that G-d creating the universe implies a moral dimension to the universe, and that the idea that G-d is simply a First Cause (as Deism posits) is antithetical to Jewish thought, because Jews see G-d as involved with humanity, not separate from it.

My take on that, going back to my discussion of Kushner’s view of the limitations on G-d’s omnipotence due to natural law and free will, is that you can be involved without interfering directly. Think of the universe as G-d’s petri dish, if you will. Any scientist worth his or her salt knows that once you start the experiment, you do not interfere with it if you want to see what comes out of your first principles when you started the experiment. Watch? Certainly. Record and learn? Definitely. But you don’t open up the petri dish and mess with what’s going on inside it. And this may be how G-d is involved with humanity at this point – he is watching what is happening as his experiment plays itself out in the petri dish called our universe.

So it is possible for G-d to be involved, then, while still not interfering. I kind of like the idea of G-d as a scientist, myself.

Epstein also discusses possible explanations that integrate both G-d and what we know from science when it comes to the creation of our universe.

First, there’s the idea of G-d as a First Cause that created everything through starting the Big Bang. This doesn’t explain or factor in G-d as involved with humanity, but Epstein also points out that even if we can’t prove that G-d was behind the Big Bang, we also can’t rule out that he might have been.

Second, there’s the idea of the “fine-tuned universe.” There are some characteristics of our universe that seem uniquely suited to life, and if these characteristics did not exist, life as we know it could not have come to exist. The distance of the Earth from the sun provides optimum temperature and living conditions here, but a difference of as little as 5 percent of that distance closer would scorch us off the face of the Earth, while 5 percent further would leave it frozen and unlivable. According to Epstein there are more than thirty different examples of the fine-tuned universe. This, again, does not prove that G-d exists, but it also means we can’t rule out the possibility that like any good scientist, he set up optimum physical conditions in the universal petri dish.

Finally, we have the worrisome fact that the world is random and chaotic – so does G-d, as Einstein once famously rejected, just “play dice with the universe”? Well, Epstein responds, the fact of the world being random and chaotic to us does not mean it’s random and chaotic to G-d. There’s also the fact that supposedly-random, supposedly-chaotic situations still produce predictable outcomes over time (Epstein uses the example of a gambling casino making a reliable profit). The fact that we can’t perceive the underlying order of the universe right now does not mean we never will. We may simply need better tools that have not yet been developed.

Epstein eventually comes to the conclusion that “We are left without an ultimate answer. There is no adequate explanation for creation. Everyone is left believing in some force beyond our understanding.” This is kind of where I am about G-d generally. Given that he can’t be understood with our limited human faculties, I have to accept that he is a “force beyond our understanding.” There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have fought that with every particle of my being because I found it offensive that there were things I could not understand with my limited human brain. I’m past that now, fortunately (and part of me actually finds it a bit childish and arrogant to have ever thought that I ought to be able to!).

In the first exercise of this chapter, Epstein asks us to find ways to connect with the world with wonder, rather than analysis. I will be doing that today and tomorrow, mindfully. A friend of mine on another site wrote about how one of his proofs for G-d is “that there exist things in this universe which are pointlessly beautiful.” He’s got a point, certainly. What is the point of the beauty of a sunset? And yet it is beautiful, for no apparently functional reason. While there are people who will insist that the beauty of a flower is completely functional, I haven’t seen any explanation for the function (or utility) of the beauty of a sunset.

But since it’s hard to write about that exercise (since it’s more experiential than analytical), I’m going to look at Epstein’s next exercise, which goes like this:

“Consider all the options about understanding natural evil. Is there no [G-d]? Is there the traditional [G-d] who is all-powerful and all-good and therefore responsible for natural evil but whose ways we don’t understand? Did [G-d] create the natural world in a way that would inevitably lead to life but which isn’t controlled?”

Interestingly, I think I’ve addressed these in prior posts. At this point, I believe there is a G-d, at least in an agnostic way – I do not have beliefs about his specifics, but I do believe he exists. The reasons why would not satisfy any scientist because they’re experiential, but I still believe he exists. I dealt with the all-powerful issue in posts about Kushner’s work where we find logical reasons why G-d was all-powerful when he first put the universe in motion, but how some of the things he gave us (natural law, free will) now act as controls on his power. And because he started us out with optimum physical conditions and is now letting the experiment run its course, of course it isn’t controlled except beyond the controls of natural law and of moral decisions by those who can exercise our free will – in a word, humans.

I’ll come back to Epstein again tomorrow. For now, though, I’d like to have your thoughts on this as well. Does it bother you that we do not have, as Epstein says, an “adequate explanation for creation”? If it does, why? If not, why not?

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From My Readings: The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, by Leonard Epstein – Asking G-d Questions

2 Tamuz 5774

Continuing on with Epstein’s second-chapter questions, in this one he asks us to “Make a list of questions you would ask [G-d] if you could.”

This one is a toughie for me, as it feels presumptuous. It feels like I’m challenging G-d or something. There’s also all those questions I already asked G-d, which I now have some answers to, thanks to Kushner and other authors. I can accept, for example, that G-d did not have control over my father dying, or over a horrific event like the Holocaust. Because of the way He set up the world so that we could have humans in the first place, he had no control over what those humans did with their free will.

But what would I ask G-d today, if I could?

What does one ask G-d? Epstein’s prompt seems geared towards “if you could get an answer,” because anyone can ask G-d questions without getting an answer to them – people do that all the time. So, going on the assumption that I could actually get answers, I would ask G-d these questions…

1. Is my father safe? Is he happy? 

For me, this will always be the most important question. My father was the most important person in my life for a long, long time. He was my cheerleader and my counselor. When I had questions I couldn’t get answers to any other way, my father would at least try to help me understand. He accepted me when I came out and I truly believe he’d accept my conversion if he were alive today.

The way he died scarred me – not just that he died, but how he died, and when he died.

It is really important to me – more than I have words for – that he is safe and happy now. I miss my father so much, and I resent that he’s gone, even now.

2. If I have a yiddishe neshama, why wasn’t I born into a Jewish family?

While I know that the family I grew up in made me the person I am today – including my Yiddishkeit – the fact remains that it feels strange, being a Jew-ish person with a Gentile history, past, and memory. I feel a little cheated – as I’m sure all gerim probably do – of not having memories of Shabbats and Chanukkahs and Pesachs and High Holy Days, instead of the memories I have of Christmases and Easters and long Sunday Masses. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up knowing how to speak and write in Hebrew, instead of the vestigial Latin that I learned while singing Mozart Masses for my father’s choir. What would it be like to have memories of Chankkah songs and Hebrew prayers, instead of Christmas carols and Latin Masses? What would it be like to have memories of sitting shiva for my father, instead of the chaotic grief that never really went away? What about a Bar Mitzvah, instead of a First Communion? What would that have been like?

So why did G-d put me in a Gentile family, if I am supposed to be a Jew? What was the purpose behind that?

3. How do I know that it’s You speaking and not just my imagination?

I have nothing if not an active imagination. Sometimes it worries me that I might be simply making all this up. And yet, I can’t quite push away the feeling in my gut that there is Something out there – what better to label that Something than “G-d”?

This is harder than it looks, asking questions of G-d. Some of the ones I’ve thought of, I’ve also shied away from sharing here, either because they’re too personal or because they feel like asking a genie in a bottle for a wish, or a deck of Tarot cards for a prediction about my future. And I’m not into treating G-d as a genie or a fortuneteller. That seems worse than presumptuous; it seems downright disrespectful. So I am not going to ask them anywhere except in my own heart, and maybe not even then.

What questions would you ask G-d, if you could?

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From My Readings: The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, by Leonard Epstein – The Mystery of G-d

1 Tamuz 5774

This book is probably the most recently published of all of the many books on my to-read list. Epstein condenses much of what great thinkers like Telushkin and Robinson have expounded and expanded upon at great length into a relatively short book of ten chapters. Except for chapter 1, which gives an overview of the book, each chapter has a set of exercises at the end for the reader to ponder, think about, and discuss with others. I will be making these exercises the themes of this blog for the next two to three weeks, and I invite my readers to join in and discuss these questions as well.

Epstein begins his series of exercises and questions by asking us to consider G-d. In his second chapter, “The Mystery of [G-d],”* Epstein considers Jewish beliefs and ideas about G-d throughout the centuries, from his qualities to the questions we have about him and everything in between. At the end of the chapter, Epstein sets the first exercise in front of his readers:

“Consider when you feel close to [G-d]. Make a list. This might include, for example, being present at the birth of a child, or on a holy day, or when you are singing. But also consider when you feel distant from [G-d], such as when someone good dies young, or when you read about some tragedy or a great tragedy such as the Holocaust.”

So when do I feel close to and distant from G-d? It’s a good question.

Epstein certainly hit it when he said singing makes me feel close to G-d. It’s practically the only reliable thing for me when it comes to prayer – singing is prayer, for me. When I need to feel G-d, I sing. I love that so many of the prayers that Jews commonly use, such as the Sh’ma and the brachot for meals, can be sung.

Music, generally, makes me feel close to G-d. Right now I’ve got a Spotify playlist playing in the background with several Jewish artists and a few more generically religious artists (or at least songs by more Christian artists that do not hammer on Christian-specific beliefs). And each one makes me feel G-d’s presence a little differently. “Flood” by Jars of Clay talks to me about the support of G-d – “Lift me up/When I’m falling/Lift me up/I’m weak and I’m dying/I need you to hold me/Lift me up/To keep me from drowning again.” As you might expect, this makes me feel G-d’s presence as safety and rescue, when I’m really drowning in despair or depression. It often makes me cry. But it feels, to me, like G-d speaking in my ear: “I’m here. It’s all right. You’re safe.”

Another song by Jars of Clay, “Sinking,” makes me weep for needing forgiveness for the years that I simply ignored and blamed G-d:  “So I don’t need you / I don’t think I need you / Deny myself, deny my heart / Deny your hand, deny your help / and you offer me eternity / but why should I buy that?” This song is all about doubt, which makes it uniquely suited to say what I need to say sometimes. I found myself choking out “I’m sorry, Father!” when I heard this while driving to work the other day. It caught me by surprise.

“Return Again” by Neshama Carlebach makes me long for return – to return to G-d and to the person I know I can be in his presence. Both her arrangement and Aryeh Kunstler’s arrangement of “B’shem HaShem” make me feel protected and surrounded by G-d’s unconditional love. The Josh Nelson Project’s “Seven” makes me feel an intense approval of my Yiddishkeit and my intentions, although I don’t know why. “Hu Elokeinu” by Neshama Carlebach makes me feel exalted.

I feel G-d’s presence when I create. When I’m writing, when I’m cooking, when I create something that is worthwhile – even if it’s temporary – I feel G-d’s presence. I couldn’t say exactly how, but there are times, especially when I’ve been writing, that I feel like I’m the tool of something powerful, a channel to something greater.

And oddly, when I see an ambulance or a fire truck, or I hear sirens, I feel G-d’s presence when I pray for the people those sirens are on their way to – that they will survive and be safe through whatever is bringing the sirens to them.

And of course none of this is rational. It can’t be. G-d can’t be sensed with our rational senses; he transcends them.

When do I feel distant from G-d? When I’m alone and have no music. Being still and quiet does not let me hear G-d or feel his presence. I’m a doer, a mover, a creator, so being still and quiet does not make me feel G-d. Learning to hear him was an active process of curiosity and searching. I’m still not sure how others can hear G-d when they’re sitting and not doing anything, but that may just be me.

I feel distant from G-d when I can’t keep my life together. When the bills are mounting, or when someone I love is hurting and I can’t fix it, or when I feel despondent, I feel like G-d has retreated somewhere unreachable. I have to put on music to bring him back again. I also feel distant from G-d when I have to admit I’m human, with human failings. When I feel tired, or when I’m in pain, it’s hard to feel G-d. That’s probably that ol’ debbil Perfectionism raising its ugly head in my psyche, and I’m trying to learn to recognize that.

Reading about tragedies doesn’t make me feel either close to or distant from G-d. It just makes me feel numb and shocked. It also makes me picture, what it must have been like to be in or present at those tragedies, and that often crushes me flat. Now that I know that G-d does not have control over those things because of the logical requirements of humans having free will and natural law, all I can feel is shock and sadness when I hear of them.

So now I ask you: What makes you feel close to G-d? What makes you feel distant? Talk to me.

*In the original, Epstein includes the vowel in G-d’s name. I have indicated replacements by bracketing the word in any quote from Epstein’s book.

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Hagah #1: Why Judaism?

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.

THEOLOGY

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.

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.

Ethics

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

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.

Ritual

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.

Community

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.

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