Saturday, November 9, 2013

Laying Down My Cross . . .

I can still hear the words to the old hymns and the contemporary music of my youth – urging, beseeching, pleading . . . “Follow Jesus, I will follow Jesus . . .,” “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, Come home . . .,” “Take up your cross, and follow Jesus . . .” They take me back to a time of simple belief that was tinged with doubt, but saturated with earnestness. Maybe zeal is a better word. I longed for peace, assurance, and a sense of finally belonging somewhere – and Jesus wanted me. His arms were always depicted as outstretched, or he was continually knocking at the door of my heart, or the church, or the house. I just needed to be willing to let him in and take control. I needed to take up my cross and follow him down the Via Dolorosa and be willing to crucify my old self – offer up a living sacrifice – holy and acceptable.

 I really tried. I would go knocking on the doors of strangers’ homes and offer to share the good news. I would talk to kids playing outside and make them kneel on the sidewalk to pray the Sinners’ Prayer after I had led them down the Romans’ Road. I studied the Bible, could win all the sword drills, memorized scripture – and sang – fervently sang – “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” I made countless trips down to the altar to confess stubbornness and hardness of heart – asking for Jesus to help my unbelief – for Jesus to save me because I wasn’t sure I believed hard enough the time before. I desperately wanted to “lay my all on the altar” and know the “peace and sweet rest” as I yielded my body and soul to his ultimate will.
 And yet . . . doubt persisted  . . . and in spite of what I thought was my single-minded devotion, peace and sweet rest proved illusory at best. Often I felt as if I was alone in the world. Everyone else could see the power of God in a thunder storm – and I only heard the thunder – and feared the fire and brimstone that it seemed to portend. What was wrong with me that “blessed assurance” seemed so impossible for me to find?.

Throughout college and young adulthood I never did  find the security in Christianity that everyone else seemed to find. But I didn’t want to give up. There must be something to this if so many people could devote themselves wholeheartedly to Jesus – right? While I could not manage to drag myself through the doors of any church, I couldn’t let go of everything I had been taught.  Even after wrestling with my sexual orientation and coming out of the closet, I tried to figure out a way to remain in the Christian Kingdom. I tried to reconcile the truth of who I was with everything I had been told to believe about people like me. It was by no means an easy time. I had literally cursed God – I hated God for all those years of feeling isolated and trying so hard while heaven remained so silent and closed. Now – after all of my attempts to enter the kingdom of heaven though the one who proclaimed himself the “way, the truth, and the life”– I had been given an additional burden – a stigma far greater than anything else.

But I did find my way back to God and the slow, sometimes painful process of becoming reacquainted with my Creator began to melt the anger that I had carried for so long. At first I could not sing the old songs or even open the Bible. But I was surrounded by love. It was love in the form of a caring congregation that cradled me in their arms and allowed me to find my own way in my own time. Slowly I found it easier to sing again – and to talk about God  - and experience a faith tradition that was not so alienating and judgmental. But it was also a safe place – this wonderful congregation. I was safe to explore my spirituality, to ask questions, and – most importantly – to be myself. Their nurture and caring enabled me to begin the next phase of my spiritual journey with courage.
In 2011 I knew God was encouraging me to begin a new faith journey. I was scared but confident. Years of questioning the validity of my faith tradition had led me to the brink of the Jordan River – all I needed to do was take that first step. Nervous, but knowing that staying put was no longer an option, I called to make an appointment with a local rabbi – the first tentative step that eventually led to my conversion to Judaism. I had no precedent – no real exposure to Judaism – but I  had been convinced by my own study and by reading the works of Abraham Heschel that Judaism was my spiritual home. I had heard "Lech l’cha” – Go forth from your people, your friends, your faith – and everything that was spiritually familiar – to a new place – and find yourself.
From that first timid meeting – to a succession of false starts and then consistent meetings with a new rabbi – I grappled with the realities of leaving behind everything I knew and traveling to place that was both familiar and foreign – new and yet so old. Sitting in the middle of the synagogue during Shabbat services I felt conspicuous. I tripped over the unfamiliar Hebrew words, I got lost in the prayer book, I didn’t know when to bow or how to bow or if I should bow . . . but in a strange way I felt I was home.
As the months passed and a became a year . . . and then two years . . . I grew impatient. I began to feel the weight of Christianity pressing hard against me like an unwanted burden. I struggled with the political commentary of fundamentalists as they made their pronouncements against the LGBT community. I wanted to desperately to shed the label . . . to lay down my cross. I had been existing in a limbo – untethered and between faiths – not a practicing Christian – but not quite a Jew. And in those few months toward the end of my conversion process, I began to feel suffocated by being linked to something I no longer wished to be part of.
When my rabbi sent me an email with a date for going to the mikveh I was ecstatic. As the date approached I was nervous, excited – and joyous. I met with beit din and after gaining their final approval – entered the warm waters of the mikveh to a new life. I had experienced baptism by immersion at the age of 10 – but there was no equivalent to shedding myself of everything – even my clothes – and entering into a sacred ritual that would bind me forever to the Jewish people. I recited the prayers and the Shema – and as I came out of the water for the final time I felt this incredible sense of peace and wholeness.
I am an imperfect Jew at best- still working out what my Judaism will ultimately look like . . . still trying to get through a hectic academic endeavor to create space and time for study, growth, and mitzvot. But I am excited that the next phase of my journey has begun. It may be as slow and halting as my initial steps toward conversion – but progress will come.   And now, standing on the opposite bank of the Jordan, I can look back and be grateful for everything and everyone that brought me to this place. . . . and proud to be Elisheva bat Avraham v’ Sarah

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tisha B’Av and Reflections on Trayvon Martin


I found an article that discussed Facebook and the tasteless posts using the body of Trayvon Martin  while was doing some research on FB memes that had come across my newsfeed the week before my vacation . . . images of Trayvon Martin's body with hateful remarks and racist comments -- images of someone's dead child used to score a political point -- and yes - these points were on the extreme right of the spectrum . . . and I wondered to myself - how are these images any different than the images of triumphant good ol' boys standing next to the lifeless body of any number of un-named black men as they hung from trees in the south? The images were of black men that were murdered - and were used to send a message - to other blacks - to whites who sought to help blacks - to anyone who saw the images -  and even as souvenirs.  But they also demonstrated to all who saw them that black souls came cheap – and could be tortured, beaten and killed with impunity.

What struck me throughout these last 18 months or so - is that a young man - who was not in the process of committing a crime was shot and killed after being stalked by someone with a gun -- and the dead young man was subsequently put on trial both literally and figuratively in the blogosphere and social media. But why? For wearing a hoodie? For images on his FB page? For using the term "White ass cracker?” For buying Skittles?  Because he looked “gangsta?” Or was it because he fit our media driven profile of a criminal: young, black, male. 

This incident – along with the relentless flow of “information” (loosely called) on FB has made me angry. I’m angry that so many people I thought were "smarter than that" - just aren't. I’m angry that people  who love to sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. . . . “ Only mean little black children that they know – or that go to their church – or who act like “the rest of us” – you know – don’t act too black, don’t like rap or hip-hop, vote Republican,  talk like “us”, keep their pants pulled up, and don’t rock the boat. But it doesn’t apply to black children who fail to make us comfortable, or who force us to confront our own prejudices.  I’m angry that ‘pro-lifers’ (so called) are pro-life in utero and play fast and loose with “life” after birth. They will bomb a health clinic to save a fetus, and be willing to look the other way when minority children grow up in substandard housing, go to substandard schools, and have substandard nutrition. While for them a fetus is everyone’s responsibility, a living child – especially a minority child – is no one’s responsibility. Suddenly, – “the right to life” doesn’t apply to a young black man with Skittles and Iced Tea – a  young black man that might make us nervous – or that might just be some mother’s son.

And the constant stream of social media has demonstrated to me that we are still far removed from being a “post-racial” society. Rather, it has reaffirmed that uncomfortable feeling that race is still a major player in American culture and in American politics. And those who claim otherwise are really only fooling themselves. If anyone has taken just a peek at the invectives thrown at President Obama – not on policy – an arena of legitimate criticism in a democracy – but on the basis “otherness” – then you can only conclude that we are far from where we need to be.

Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av begins tomorrow after sunset. For orthodox communities it is a time of mourning the destruction of the Temple accompanied by fasting, prayer, and abstaining from things that are otherwise enjoyable – including Torah study. For other Jewish communities it is a time to contemplate the impact of “sinat chinam” – baseless hatred. Eitan Press quoted a passage from the Talmud in a Huffington Post article last year. It asks and answers the question of why the Temple was destroyed:

"Why was the first Temple destroyed? Because the three cardinal sins were rampant in society: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder ... And why then was the second Temple -- wherein the society was involved in Torah, commandments and acts of kindness -- destroyed? Because baseless hatred was rampant in society. This teaches that baseless hatred is equal in severity to the three cardinal sins: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder.”

He goes on to say that, “One of the most destructive ways baseless hatred manifests itself is through judging others. . . . Baseless hatred dehumanizes us, until we lose our empathy and no longer see the "other" as people like us, who feels like us.”   I would also add that baseless hatred begins by dehumanizing the “other.” They are not only different from us, they become “less than.”  The person on the other side of the political divide becomes a non person to us, which allows us to throw out all decency in how we speak to one another. The person who speaks a different language or practices a different religion becomes an enemy and someone or something to be feared rather than someone who has a family who loves them, who dreams of a brighter future, or  who seeks peace. Baseless hatred allows us to see the other as a criminal first, rather than as a son, a brother, or a neighbor.

Rabbi Micah Peltz of Cherry Hill notes in a recent Haaretz article  that, we read Lamentations – “Eicha”  on the Ninth of Av  and that “Eicha” – or "How?” is the central question of the day. “How do we find meaning in this ancient destruction?” He goes further and draws a parallel to God’s question of Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil: “Where?” The same Hebrew letters are the basis for both words. This is the first question God asks of human beings. "Where are you?”  Peltz continues, “When we hear the word eicha repeated on Tisha B’Av, we are not only crying out for answers, for insight into how these many tragedies could have happened to our people, but we also hear God’s question coming right back to us. Eyeka, where are you? What are you going to do to repair the brokenness that still exists in the world? How are you going to help?”

And so for this, my first Tisha B’Av as a Jew by Choice, I find myself wrangling with what this day of mourning an ancient catastrophe means to me. And how do I , as a Reform Jew, find meaning in this day? I can mourn the past, but I cannot change it.  I can be outraged and mourn the senseless death of a young man, but I also know that I cannot stem the tide of racism alone. That will require the work of all of us together. For my first Tisha B’Av I have chosen to reflect on my own “sinat chinam” – my own failures to see people as individuals with value and worth and the ways I can change my own thinking in order to help others change theirs. Because if there is to be change in society – and a move toward understanding and peace it begins with individuals. As Sy Miller and Jill Jackson wrote: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”