Confessions · faith

Essay: Why I want to become Jewish

Note: As part of my conversion process, my rabbi requires that I write my religious autobiography, which is made up of a series of essays. I’m posting these essays here, as well, to share my journey. I’m nearing the end of this process and will soon meet the beit din (rabbinical court) who will decide my Jewish “fate.” If my request for conversion is approved, I’ll then enter the mikveh and, when I emerge, I do so as a Jew.

Here is my first essay in the series, which is all about what compelled me to make this decision.

When starting out on my faith journey in my early twenties, I carried with me the God of my youth. This God was one that, if my prayers were sincere enough, my heart true enough, and my deeds good enough, would grant whatever it was that I wanted. If my prayers weren’t answered, it was because I had sinned or had fallen short of God’s plan for me. God was like a magical ATM in the sky, dispensing money, happiness, and an occasional new car to those that were worthy and devout.

This concept of God became darker and less generous when I married a Roman Catholic and converted to Catholicism. There inside those stately cathedrals, surrounded by stained glass, statues, and the comforting scent of incense, the message of sin, guilt, and death as evidence of God’s love was repeated, again and again. I was told what to believe, indirectly told who to vote for (only the pro-life candidates, of course), what I could and could not do with my own body, and that, to be seen as “whole” in the eyes of God, I would have to confess my sins to another human, a “man of the cloth,” so that he and he alone could absolve me.

Interwoven through all of this was the message of Jesus, both supernatural and divine, as the “true” heart of God’s message to the world. When I look back now, I see with clarity that I always had a tenuous relationship with Jesus. I would view stories of his life with scrutiny, eyeing him with the same questionable gaze that I reserve for sales people and telemarketers. Of his virgin birth, I was suspicious. Of his crucifixion and resurrection, I was skeptical. At sunrise Easter services, when some of the people around me would fall to their knees in tears over Jesus’ crucifixion, I would stand nearby, uncomfortable and silent. I was expected to express that same level of belief, yet I could never compel myself to do so. I said my prayers, always directed to the “Father” and never to the “Son.” And each time, I chose silence instead of denial until the denial finally became too loud to ignore.

This change was precipitated by a move to Washington from Indiana in 2014. Putting 2,300 miles between me and my evangelical Christian family and my husband’s Catholic one gave me the break I needed. I tried for a while to assimilate into various Christian denominations (having left Catholicism behind long ago), but I reached a point in 2015 where I couldn’t do it anymore. I could not walk into yet another church and pretend for one second longer that I felt Jesus was my savior.

This moment in my life, aptly described by Roman Catholicism and Jewish mysticism alike as the “dark night of the soul,” was one that compelled me to make a choice. I knew that I believed in God, but I could no longer say that I professed a belief for the Christian god. It was that divorce from belief that I went through that made me stop and ask myself the question: what do I truly believe? The need to answer that question plagued me and for a while, I continued to try to shoehorn myself into Christianity. I was soon aware that these attempts were futile and that I could not go back, and that realization is what led me to my safety net, which is conducting research. When in doubt, I research. (When not in doubt but just because I’m curious, I research.) That experience of fact gathering and reflection (along with a few helpful online quizzes) showed me, over and over again, that the core beliefs I actually held regarding God and spirituality fit within Judaism. I cannot explain the feeling of realizing that my beliefs actually lined up somewhere. Up until that point, I felt like I would never fit in anywhere.

So what did I find with Judaism that told me that it was “my” place to belong? In all honesty, it was probably in my first Judaism 101 class when the teaching rabbi explained the Talmud and how it was filled with Jewish scholars arguing the finer points of scripture through the centuries. Rabbi explained that there were often varying and dissenting opinions and that all of those opinions were okay and that believing one or the other did not make a person any more or less Jewish. It was at that moment that I remember being the most excited, because I could believe in a monotheistic God and not have to subscribe to the confusing idea of the Trinity. I could find ways to worship God in nature and not be considered a Pagan. I could approach God in a completely different way and still be prayerful without expecting reward or punishment for my actions. In short, I found spiritual freedom within a religion guided by law.

Since then, I have started studying Hebrew, attended services at several different synagogues, and instituted Shabbat observance within our home. We’ve adopted a far more Kosher way of eating. I study a myriad of Jewish books and listen to Jewish podcasts that share ideas ranging from Modern Orthodoxy to Reconstructionist. I’ve fallen in love with the Lecha Dodi and the Nisim B’Chol Yom and so much in between. I love that my first observance of the High Holy Days, particularly of Yom Kippur and of the act of working to repair my relationship with my brother, has had a stronger impact on me than every other Christian holiday that I previously celebrated combined.

And most importantly, I love that I can experience all of this while being true to myself. I don’t feel like a fraud when I’m in a synagogue. I may not know everyone or how to chant correctly, but I feel natural and comfortable when I’m standing there with a book that opens backwards in my hands. I don’t feel like I’m pretending to pray to a God I don’t believe in because I’m allowed to live within my own understanding of God and the Divine.

Yes, I am choosing to become Jewish now, when a new wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping through the country as hate is being normalized. Yes, I am choosing to join a people that have endured thousands of years of persecution. Does that scare me? Sure. Is it stopping me? Not a chance. I have to do this. To be true the most authentic version of myself, I have to enter that mikveh and come out the other side. Anything short of that would mean a life full of contradiction and fraudulent faith. I can’t do that again, not even for a moment.

 

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