Tag Archives: why Judaism

“Deserve” is a Toxic Word

22 Tamuz 5774

Ursula K. Le Guin, an author I admire tremendously, has one of her characters say this in her book The Dispossessed:

“We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free yourself of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

In the scene in question, the speaker is quoting Odo, the founder of the anarchist community on the planet Anarres, which has rejected capitalism for communalism. Much of the book’s description of Anarresti life looks a lot like the life of Israeli kibbutzim, so to me this is a special book. But that quote above, especially, resonates with me.

We use the word “deserve” in a toxic way far, far too often. Many times, recently and not-so-recently, I’ve seen the word used towards a group as if each person in it were homogenous and exactly like all the other members of that group. I’ve seen that word used to exclude, to shut out, to oppress. The Palestinians in Gaza “deserve” to die from Israeli bombs because they were warned the bombs were coming and they refused to get out of the way; the Israelis “deserve” to be called murderers for defending their borders against Hamas’ terrorism (although the news media often conflates Hamas and the Palestinian people – an inaccuracy that enrages me every time I see it). In the United States, poor people “deserve” their fate because they’re somehow “lazy.” New college graduates “deserve” low-paying jobs because they should have to “earn” their way up. I’m sure you can think of other examples, none of them flattering. And let’s not start on the comment threads on these news items, okay?

I’ve also seen that word used to encourage people to buy things, not because they need them or because the things are especially useful, but to show off how special they must be if they own one of these things. You “deserve” that new car, that diamond ring, that new house, that expensive meal. Why? Because you are rich enough to afford it, and you should be ostentatious about it.

Can the word “deserve” be used in any positive way? I don’t think it can. It’s inherently a value judgment, and a negative one. It’s not based on the individual human being’s personal traits or their actions, but on their group identification or on their material circumstances (which, most of the time, they have only limited control of). And I think this ties into one of the big differences between Jewish thought and non-Jewish thought, for me. Remember that whole thing about “thoughts are not sins, only actions can be sins”? That means we should only be held responsible for our actions, right?

The poor rarely did anything to be poor. Many of them were born into poverty. Many others were victims of unpredictable economic shifts. Those who are members of marginalized groups rarely chose to be part of those groups (converts being an exception). And nowadays, there are very few self-made rich people, either. Most of them inherited their wealth, so they didn’t do anything to “deserve” their wealth. They just got lucky in the birth lottery.

And yet, more and more, our Western societies insist on the “deserving” poor being the only ones who “deserve” to get any help – if any – at all. Who are the “deserving” poor? Apparently, they’re the people who show enough shame at having to use an EBT card to buy their groceries, who drive crappy cars, and who have no internet-worthy machines (smartphones, computers, etc.). If they have an iPhone, they don’t “deserve” any help, apparently.

In what world does the word “deserve” show even the slightest bit of compassion? In what world is the word “deserve” worthy of any consideration?

We all “deserve” an adequate standard of living because we are human beings. We are the children of G-d – Jews and gentiles alike. Life and the support of life should be our birthright. And if it is not, for some reason, then it is everyone’s job to make it so.

I challenge you to go a week without using the word “deserve” or any of its related synonyms. See what it does to your ability to be compassionate when you stop using that word for other people’s situations – and your own.




Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

Friday Feature: What Good Thing Happened To You This Week?

29 Sivan 5774

Telushkin’s Jewish value for day 69 (in his book The Book of Jewish Values) asks: What good thing happened to you this week?

This is going to be a regular Friday morning feature for me from now on, I think. Telushkin intended his book to provide topics for Shabbat discussions for at least a year, as each “week” is composed of six values (one per day) and then Shabbat, where he encourages us to talk about those values at our Shabbat dinners and services. I feel that the idea of gratitude is so central to Jewish practice that we should be reminded weekly of what we might be grateful for, so I’m going to make this my regular Friday morning feature.

In yesterday’s post I talked about making gratitude part of my daily practice even before the idea of converting to Judaism had become part of my reality. Gratitude doesn’t have to be about Big Things. It can be about little things, too. Being little doesn’t make a thing trivial. And over the past week, I have had all kinds of things to be grateful for.

In terms of my career and my job, my summer class is completely prepped, which is a new thing for me – I won’t have to worry about scrambling to get anything set up for students, because it’s all done. That gives me an extra hour or two per week, at least. My online course will be done on Sunday and I hope to have grades ready to file at that point. Both of these make me thankful because I get to be with and interact with students, which is a powerful experience for me. They also make me thankful because they will produce a paycheck, with which I can meet my family’s needs. I will have time on Sunday to write, very likely, which will allow me to finish the student-success book that I want to put up on Amazon for sale well before the school year starts.

In terms of my health, I’m grateful that my blood pressure is back down in a normal range. I’m grateful that my blood sugar is mostly stable. I’m grateful that I am getting good sleep every night and that I wake up rested instead of tired.

In terms of my household, I’m grateful that my car has nearly a full tank of gas. I’m grateful that the refrigerator is full of food after my grocery run on Tuesday. I’m grateful that we made it to the laundromat on Sunday so I have clean clothes, and that the kitchen is clean so that baking challah for Shabbat dinner will not be a problem. I’m thankful that my partner got paid and that the bill that was waiting is now paid as well.

In terms of my studies, I’m grateful that I can now write out transliterations for most of the Hebrew I’ve been studying, which means I know the letters and the nikkudim well enough to stumble through it. I’m not fluent yet by any means, but it’s coming along. I’m also grateful that I have been able to take the time to read through most of the library books I picked up two weeks ago, and that I have the ability to go online and renew some of them so I can take a deeper look at them this coming week.

In terms of friends, I’m grateful for getting to have lunch with one of my newer friends yesterday, for seeing another friend for most of Monday after work, and for having plans to see other friends this weekend. I’m grateful that I have so much love in my life.

In terms of family, I’m so glad that I got to see my children this past weekend, and that my partner and I have been able to see each other every day this week. I’m grateful for his presence in my life. I’m grateful that my other partner is in my life.

I’m also grateful for the music of the Josh Nelson Project, Neshama Carlebach, and Aryeh Kuntsler. I’m grateful for authors: Telushkin, Epstein, Diamant, Leaman, Kushner – all of whom have enlightened and educated me this week as I work towards conversion. I’m grateful for the good weather we’ve been having locally, and that I was able to walk to and from my lunch appointment yesterday with minimal pain.

And, in the wider world, I’m grateful for the recent court rulings in favor of marriage equality, which tells me that justice may take its time in getting here, but once it’s here, it stays.

As you can see, once you start listing the things you’re grateful for, it can get out of hand. But perhaps that’s a good thing to do on erev Shabbat. We often look at our lives and only see the bills, the worries, the stressors. While it’s human to notice the bad things first – because in an evolutionary sense, that helps us avoid danger – an over-focus on bad things can be damaging. So take some time today to list the things you’re thankful for. Talk about them with your family over Shabbat dinner.

One of Josh Nelson’s songs, “Seven,” talks about the Sabbath being a time to slow down and consider what the seventh day means:

I am waiting for the sunset

I am waiting for the peace

I am waiting for this holy moment

For a moment of release

Seven days, take my worries

Taking time to catch my breath

Seven days, start me over

Slow me down and clear my head…

Now I ask you – what better way to enter the seventh day than with gratitude? What better way to calm down and catch your breath than by spending a little time listing and thinking about what you’re grateful for?

So let the day take your worries. While you wait for the sunset, let yourself start over and clear your head (from negativity and stress) by listing the good things that have happened to you during the week. Feel free to use the comment thread here to state it, if you like.

And that said, I wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll see you back on Sunday morning.

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Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

Shiva for a Six-Year-Old: Community and Shared Pain

25 Sivan 5774

An Internet acquaintance of mine very recently lost his god-daughter Rebecca to something that should not happen to children. She made it to her sixth birthday, but she had an inoperable brain tumor. She died on her birthday.

Naturally, her parents were hit hard by her death, and so was he. Apparently this little girl was a light to the world, funny, silly, snarky, and she deserved a much longer time here than she got. Saying “It was G-d’s will” or any of the other Standard Platitudes would be a shonda.

He’s been very open about what’s been going on as she went through her dying process, and recently he wrote about the week of shiva for her, and what it was like for him. I can’t do better than to link to it, so I’m doing that here: Shiva Is. Would that there were something more I could do for him beyond saying “Baruch dayan emet” and offering my condolences, but I live nowhere near him, and I’m just an acquaintance.

I never got to sit shiva for my father, because at the time I wasn’t Jewish. I will never have had that experience. Of course I will remember him on his yarzheit and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him from now on. But too much of my memory of the time of his death was his disbelieving friends coming to his funeral and demanding to know what had happened to him, at a time when I was least equipped to deal with questions (especially questions that, to my ears, sounded accusatory). How different might it have been if the community I was part of at the time had had that process of shiva in place for us?

Oh, I had a community – don’t get me wrong. I had a blogging community that rallied around me while he was dying and afterwards, when I poured out my grief into my LiveJournal. But that is not the same as being able to sit with the pain and process the grief while trusting that others are taking care of food, and running interference between you and the questioners.

So it hit me hard, reading about him sitting shiva for her (and how he ended up being a comforter, rather than being allowed to really mourn). It hit me how much we really do depend on community to get through this kind of pain. Ursula LeGuin had a character say once that “brotherhood begins in shared pain,” and perhaps that’s part of what shiva is for. Another writer, Spider Robinson, had a motto for the bar he wrote about in many of his books: “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased: thus do we refute entropy.”

When we visit the grieving or are grieving ourselves, isn’t that about sharing pain? Isn’t it about refuting entropy? And even sharing happy stories about the person who’s died is increasing shared joy, isn’t it?

G-d forbid you should have to sit shiva for a loved one now or anytime soon, but we all have pain, sometimes daily. What pain are you having today? What pain does your neighbor have? How can you help and be helped? What joy can you share?

How can we, as a people, make each others’ lives a little less painful?

Perhaps that’s what shiva is for. It’s a way of formalizing the ancient Greek axiom (variously attributed to Plato and to Aristotle): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.

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When HaShem Tapped Me On the Shoulder

14 Sivan 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– But they’re all one G-d, you know?

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

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

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

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

So, that brings us to this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Hurdles on the Path to Conversion

7 Sivan 5774

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism

Here goes nothing: A letter to the rabbi

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

So I did. My letter follows below.

Dear Rabbi,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



So… we’ll see what happens next.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism

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.


Filed under Identities, Judaism

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.


Filed under Conversion Process, Hagah, Identities, Judaism

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.


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.


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.


Filed under Hagah, Judaism