Tuesday, February 21, 2012

We will do and we will hear

Last week in the Torah's Parsha Mishpatim, while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God stopped them at Mount Sinai to give them the Ten Commandments and a long series of other laws. After receiving these laws, the people responded, "naaseh v'nishma" which means "We will do and we will hear/understand" (Exodus 24:7). 

This one phrase in the Torah has sparked years of theological discussion. Shouldn't the phrase be flipped around? How can you do something before hearing what it is and understanding it? So at Torah study, we talked about rituals - those things in our lives, religious or not, that we do without ever having been told and without quite understanding why. What do you do regularly for no discernible reason? How many things do we have to do first in order to understand them? Before I had ever heard this line of Torah, the philosophy of doing before hearing/understanding was the guiding force in my conversion.

It took a year and a half of regular Shabbat observance, theological study, and cultural immersion before I felt comfortable and at home in Judaism. I progressed from awkward newbie to "hey, this is fun" to spiritual frustration as I failed to connect on the higher level I was hoping for to desperate prayers to God for a connection with a religion until, finally and suddenly, everything clicked. I "did" Judaism and then I understood it, connected with it, and heard God's response to my prayer for a religious home. I don't think it could have happened the other way around. To hear/understand and then do is logical. Faith is not.

Friday, February 17, 2012

By Choice

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the "by choice" part of my Jewish identity. When should I mention that I converted? How will people react to the news and how will I handle those reactions (externally and internally)? If I don't mention it, am I hiding it? To illustrate why I am so preoccupied with it, here are a few interactions I've had:

I am forthcoming, then defensive
I love talking about religion and I'm happy to answer questions about why I converted. These conversations go something like this:

Me: "I converted" (somehow this is part of the conversation and not just blurted out)

Other person: "Cool, what made you want to convert?"

Me: Short explanation of my religious upbringing, dropping that religion and all religion, deciding years later that I was missing that spiritual element in my life, searching for a religious home, finding Judaism, becoming comfortable with Judaism, and everything finally clicking. Somewhere in there, I mention my fiance.

At this point, whoever I am talking to will ask two perfectly fair questions with offensive implications:

1. "How did your family handle your conversion?" My family was awesome about the whole thing, but most conversion books and discussions you come across will warn you about all the terrible reactions you may face when telling your family about your decision. You are leaving the religion they gave you, which some can take as a personal rejection. You are taking up a religion with a different culture, religion, diet (if you follow kashrut), etc, which can make them feel distanced because they don't understand your new religion. Depending on their religious beliefs, they might worry about your soul in the afterlife. Anita Diamant has a great chapter on talking to your family and handling their reactions in Choosing a Jewish Life. I generally respond to the family question with a list of specific ways they have supported me, even though a simple, "They have been completely supportive" would suffice. I feel like I have to prove that my family isn't like all of those families, as if people wouldn't believe me otherwise.

2. "Is your fiance Jewish?" My answer: "Yes, he is, but that's not why I converted." Some people (maybe most people, but I'm not sure) really want to know if I converted for my fiance. My fiance gets asked more directly if I converted for him when he tells people that I am a Jew by Choice, so I assume that is what people really want to know when they ask me this. That idea offends me, so I react to this question very defensively. I want to be considered on my own Jewish merits, not as an extension of him. Converting for him implies that I am indifferent to my religious identity (that I would be whatever he is), or worse, that I am insincere in my Judaism. This may not be what people mean when they ask me this, but that is the implication as I see it.

Whenever the differences between Christian and Jewish beliefs are brought up, everyone who knows that I converted looks at me
I am uncomfortable in this situation because I am not the right person to ask for the Christian perspective. First of all, I am not a Christianity expert anymore than the average Jew is a Judaism expert (probably less so). Being raised in a religion doesn't mean you understand it. I didn't attend Sunday School regularly and I stopped going altogether in junior high, so what I did learn and remember is juvenile at best. Christianity doesn't make sense to me either; if it did, why would I have gone looking for another religion? I don't want to misrepresent Christian beliefs - there are enough misunderstandings of Christianity among Jews as it is. When I do compare how I was raised to Judaism in a discussion, I always say, "My experience with Lutheranism" or "in my opinion." I don't represent Christianity, I don't want to, and I wouldn't be good at it anyway. Even if I wanted to, there is no way to represent all of Christianity - there are so many denominations and their beliefs are extremely varied. That said, I am more than happy to talk about my religious upbringing and the differences I see between Christianity and Judaism, as long as it is understood that I am not trying to speak for all of Christianity.

People mention all the other Jews by Choice that they know and how great/smart they all are
It seems like almost everyone knows someone they like who is a Jew by Choice. This is nice. There are a lot of things Jews by Choice have to deal with: playing catch-up on a Jewish education, learning Hebrew, learning to like lox if you didn't already, making time for a Woody Allen movie marathon/understanding Jewish culture, figuring out what Yiddish phrases mean, trying to learn how to daven without sticking out like a sore thumb, etc. Being reminded that there are other Jews by Choice out there (and that they are awesome) makes me feel like I'm not trying to do all this stuff alone.

I've often thought there should be some kind of Jew by Choice support system for the times my born Jewish fiance or friends just doesn't understand my frustration or I want to ask a question without seeming dumb. I'm not sure what a Jew by Choice support system would look like or really what I would want it to do, but I came across this blog by a twice-converted (Conservative and then Orthodox) Jew by Choice the other day that does the trick.

The fact that I converted actually comes up in conversation more often than you would think, so these scenarios happen all the time. I've tried all sorts of things to make these conversations easier or smoother, from honing my "why I converted" story to a two minute explanation to combing the internet to see how other Jews by Choice deal with these situations. If I bring up my conversion, I am just as likely to be asked about my family or fiance as I am to be compared to other great converts, so each conversation is a gamble that can end with me being either offended or flattered. This is what has me so preoccupied.