Monday, May 28, 2012
When the children of Israel were finally ready to enter the promised land, it required a step of faith. Moses was gone, having died within sight of the land of Canaan, and the tribe was under the guidance and leadership of Joshua. When they escaped Egypt, God had parted the yam suph and the peoples crossed through on dry land. But, the entrance into Canaan would be different. God told Joshua that the priests were enter into the Jordan River – while it was still running high from the rains. . . it was only as the priests were obedient, and stepped out into the flowing river on faith, that God held back the river, which enabled the people to pass through on dry ground.
It has been almost a year since I felt the pull of Judaism was too strong to ignore and I reached out to a friend and a local Rabbi for advice. I attended a class required for conversion, “Pathways to a deeper Judaism”, and began to attend the synagogue whenever my schedule would allow. As a part time graduate student and full-time department manager- that meant that I haven’t been able to make every Shabbat service. In addition, I have found it completely overwhelming at times to sit alone in an unfamiliar place, fumbling through the prayer book sometimes completely lost. Sometimes what you know is easier – even when your heart is really someplace else – and thus I still found it much easier to attend church – all the while wishing I had the courage and self-assurance to attend Shabbat on my own.
When my partner agreed to attend some Friday evenings with me it was a God-send – it was a chance for me to gain a foothold without being completely alone. On the other hand, it revealed an essential truth to me: I had to transfer my spiritual loyalties from the church to the synagogue, regardless of my comfort level. Almost everyone that I knew in the church had already expressed support for my decision and had wished me well. I just hadn’t taken the next step because – I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was simply waiting until I felt more a part of the synagogue. But, then I realized that as long as I clung to the church, I had no need to really cling to the synagogue and work toward becoming a contributing member of “the tribe.” I had to formally end my church membership in order to move toward the “Promised Land.”
It sounded pretty cut and dry, and the process was a simple one But I found it was far more emotional than I anticipated. I began to feel really lost – untethered from any spiritual anchor, unaffiliated with any religious organization. That didn’t matter when I was in the midst of my angst about being gay, hating fundamentalism and denying the existence of God. But once those things regained importance – and I was able to reconcile sexual orientation with faith – the need for a spiritual home was important again. This lack of attachment was disconcerting, but taught (is teaching) me a valuable lesson about that old story from Joshua: the importance of actions and deeds in relation to faith. When the letter from the church arrived, it stated, tersely, that as per my request, and by recommendation of the diaconate and vote of the church members, I had been removed the rolls, it was difficult to take in. It had all been at my instigation, but it really marked a death, a finality that was undeniable. That was it, I was no longer a church member.
So a new journey begins – I have crossed – not my Rubicon – but my Jordan River. Now the work begins to create a new spiritual home, a new loyalty to the Torah, Judaism and the the Synagogue . . .
Sunday, May 20, 2012
My faith journey has taken quite a few twists and turns. I was raised Roman Catholic . . . became born again at the age of ten . . . survived six years of Christian School education and four years of Bible College (earning a degree in Biblical Studies). I was squarely in the fundamentalist camp for many years – and by the “fundamentalist camp”, I mean I adhered to the theological fundamentals – the deity of Jesus, the veracity of the virgin birth, the reality of the resurrection. I was not a fan of the strict legalistic side of the religion: no pants for women, no movies, no rock music, no holding hands, etc., etc.
Coming out changed all that and necessitated a restructuring of my faith. How could I believe anything I’d been taught before in light of the fact that everything I’d been told about gay people was wrong? A long period of wrestling with God over my sexual orientation and the fundamentalist viewpoint ensued, and after a decade of being a part of the “un-churched”, I found a new church home in a welcoming and affirming congregation. For much of the time it was like spiritual triage. I couldn’t sing the old hymns because of the painful memories, I couldn’t pick up a Bible since had been used as “blunt instrument”, and I had not yet acquired enough distance from dispensational premillennial eschatology to look at scripture as it was meant to be read.
Slowly, the gentle caring of a wonderful body of Christian believers created a safe space for me. I began to sing again, to read scripture again, and believe that God had a plan that included full participation in a faith family. As I began to study scripture anew, after enough time had elapsed from the old fundamentalist dogma, I began to see new beauty and new possibilities in the old familiar books. But I also began to see something else . . . that the early believers did not necessarily see Jesus as God. In fact, since they were Jewish, it is more than likely that Jesus was seen as a prophet and a rabbi rather than as God himself. But I also began to see the Jesus movement in context – the context of first century apocalyptic movements that included a host of would-be Messiahs and groups like the Zealots, the Essenes and the Sicarii. The Jesus movement, however, had something the others didn’t – and that was Paul, who re-vamped the mostly Jewish Jesus movement, and made it palatable for gentiles.
But I also stumbled across a statement by Thomas Jefferson in the correspondence between Jefferson and John Adams dated August 22, 1813:
“I remember to have heard Dr. Priestly say that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all: and I observe a bill is now depending in parliament for the relief of Anti-Trinitarians. It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three: and yet the one is not three, and the three are not one . . .”
I can recall reading these words in 2009 because they shot through me like a trumpet blast. That’s it! I thought. Jefferson is right! In other places he would state that “No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of Christianity” (letter to theologian James Smith -- December 8, 1822). But Jefferson’s words – reaching across the centuries crystallized the truth for me in an instant.
The net effect of the historical context of Christianity’s apocalyptic birth, the words of Jefferson, and a subsequent study of the book of Revelation (in preparation for teaching an adult Bible Study)– which borrows lavishly from the Jewish pseudepigraphal book of Enoch led me to a place I had never dreamed . . . acknowledging the truth of the Shema “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one . . .” There was nothing left for me to do but to find my Jewish soul and begin a journey that will one day lead to my complete conversion to Reform Judaism.
There will be many, both Jews and Christians who will question my decision to convert. And I am not naïve in thinking that my conversion will satisfy Orthodox authorities for what they consider a “proper” conversion. But, like coming out of the closet, I have found that acknowledging my lifelong interest in Judaism, and the overwhelming sense of “coming home” spiritually as I stutter and stumble my way through Lecha Dodi and Shalom Rav has, in itself, affirmed the truth of Judaism to me.
I may not always get each ritual perfect, but I keep trying. With each Shabbat that I’m able to light the candles, or each holiday I imperfectly celebrate, I hope that it brings me one step closer to the mikveh. Each Shabbat that I’m able to attend synagogue and with each song I’m able to sing without looking at the words, I feel myself becoming more and more a part of the great sweeping history of Jewish religious tradition and belief. A tradition that creates a wholeness and a centeredness I had not anticipated.