Archive for October, 2010

When I was a little boy, I used to create fantasy lives with the characters I saw on TV. Among my earliest memories of such fantasies were with Michael Douglas in Streets of San Francisco, with one of the boys from Zoom, and, later, with the pilots from Baa Baa Black Sheep. Only in retrospect do I see this is the budding erotic life of a soon-to-be gay teenager. The practice of re-imagining the narratives on screen to match my narrative needs—to fulfill my own desires as someone craving reflection in culture—could only carry me so far. By the time I was in high school, I was conscious of the unbelonging, the exclusion from the narrative, and the imagination became interlaced with shame, frustration, anger, and self-hatred. I knew what I was doing, and I knew why I was doing it. And it was exhausting.

In graduate school, I would learn that hundreds, maybe millions of gay people did as I did, rewriting scripts, recasting romantic interests as they watched t.v., and that theorists called this “queering the text.” While it may seem easy to trivialize or dismiss the significance of television or movies, the lengths that many minorities go to to see themselves reflected in dominant narratives that were written to exclude them (either consciously or tacitly) or to identify with characters who are unlike them—in short, the effort it takes for the Other to find herself represented in the dominant should attest to the psychic significance and power of mass cultural narratives.

In my religious life, there was no way to queer the Mormon text, which explicitly condemned me. And so I tried to re-write myself, recast myself as another man. As I got older and my intelligence and personality continued to progress, I realized that gayness was not the only part of me that needed to be “read into” the mormon script I’d been given: I was a budding feminist, an intellectual, and increasingly agnostic. It took me longer than many people to realize that there was simply no room for me within the religion of my parents and ancestors. It takes a lot of energy to maintain yourself in a symbolic world that doesn’t want you there (other than as a foil for the righteous characters in scripture, or a clown for the heroes to laugh at on t.v.).

Since Yom Kippur, I’ve been put back into the position of having to read myself into texts, rituals, and life—this time, into Judaism. I’m thrice an outsider: I’m a goy seriously considering conversion (but not seeking a new ethnicity); I’m gay; and I’m agnostic-atheist-humanist. The fact that I’m exploring the liberal wing of Judaism eases this process enormously (Conservative-Reform-Reconstructionist-Renewal), and in many ways, there are people around me who are wrestling with the texts, prayers, and practices of Judaism alongside me. But even in the liberal theologies of these modern forms of Judaism, I find myself coming up against the idea of God and those who believe in him.  Given that I’m in the very odd position of seeking religious tradition, ritual, and community from a humanist perspective, this is not an unexpected development and, indeed, is something that I had anticipated.

What I had not anticipated is the difficulty of experiencing the outsiderness again in such strong feelings. In talking to friends at shul, men and women I really like and admire, and realizing that they are coming from a place of belief that I do not share has made me stop and question my attraction to religion generally and judaism in particular. While it is clear that being atheist is, in many ways, a very Jewish thing to be; within a community of practicing Jews, it feels odd and excluding.  My beginning assumptions are different, off-kilter, and would maybe even be offensive if they were known. There’s an odd way that I feel I must be closeted with my unbelief (although in practice, I don’t think that’s true—I’ve heard people at shul talk openly about not believing in God); it makes me question what I’m doing at all.

Then there’s Rabbi Heschel. I’ve been wanting to read God in Search of Man for several months, because Heschel is one of those rare people whose moral life and dedication to justice and tikkun olam has been an inspiration to me since I taught about him to undergrads at KU in the late 1990s. Arthur Green and Arthur Waskow, whose writings and activism have guided my journey through Judaism this past year, were both students of Heschel. But whereas Green and Waskow are relatively rationalist and, although practicing and spiritual, have unconventional and universalist notions of God that work really well with my agnostic-humanist belief. In reading Heschel’s book, I encountered an unexpected drawn-out argument for belief in God, complete with the typical science-can’t-know-everything and intelligent design lines.

And so I found myself reading a man I greatly admire and whose ideas I want to love, and find myself instead having to “read myself into” his text, just as I’ve had to read myself into the siddur, as I learn more and more Hebrew. And I don’t know if I have the energy or headspace or will to engage in another process of constant reinterpretation and re-imagining.

What I loved in Heshel’s book is the notion of the Holy and the human engagement and perception of it through wonder and awe. Heschel calls it the Sublime, and he argues that we have flashes of Insight throughout our lives that are windows onto the sublime. For Heschel, these experiences lead to a belief in the “living God” who is a “reality beyond realities”. That is where I kept snagging on his God concept, and having to stop and re-imagine the meaning. Clearly, Heschel was a believer; am I doing him an injustice by disagreeing and reading my humanist views into his work?

From my humanist perspective, awe and wonder (or the sublime) are aspects of human experience of the world and of each other. But holiness (the sublime) is not an intrinsic characteristic of any object or individual. Indeed, I would argue that it doesn’t exist at all, other than as the human experience of the thing. Heschel explains that the way we can ensure experience of the sacred is through recognizing it in the World (or in his words, in all of creation), that is, in all that Exists; through Torah; and through Ritual. The power of ritual is easy to get my brain around anthropologically, as it is both well-documented and, for me, I’ve experienced it myself; the weirdness there, for me, is that I’m having a different kind of a ritual experience as a non-believer. Torah I’m going to have to grapple with that later—I like the idea of wrestling with a text for meaning, but I have a hard time not seeing Torah as a political and cultural product of those who wrote it. And my American, post-transcendentalist, quasi-pagan, environmentalist, naturalist self is completely on board with Heschel that it’s Existence itself that cries out for holiness.

William James tried to describe the religious impulse, the thing that drives so many humans to seek the divine, as the drive to know or experience the MORE. The MORE is James’ abstraction of the desire, bordering on the erotic, for humans to experience something beyond. For James, this involves a Will to Believe, on some level, a conscious choice. A tragedy of his own life was his desire but inability to believe. Around the time of the Civil War, he lost his faith in God, but spent his life studying belief and practice of all kinds. That is perhaps why I feel such a kindship with James, in that his own spiritual life (not to mention his ethical orientation to the world) resonates so strongly with me.

In this instance, I think that James’ concept of the MORE is very useful to explain what I mean by my humanist conception of holiness as an experience: It is a willed affect, a willed outcome of a kind of ritual or action to produce the sacred in one’s life.

Where Heschel (and theists generally) loses me is in the notion that this holiness constitutes some kind of evidence for God, for his [sic] existence, reality, and “livingness.” I believe in the experience, but I believe the experience is the thing itself, rather than a sign of something exterior, least of all of someOne exterior, with agency and intention. For me, my idea of the meaning of the experience of awe, wonder, and the sublime resonates more closely with Heshel’s definition of faith, as “a sensitivity, understanding, engagement, and attachment; not something achieved once and for all, but an attitude one may gain or lose.”

For some time now, I have thought of the importance of the experience of the sublime as the taking of an attitude in the social-psychological sense, as in taking a position vis-a-vis the object that is guided by affect and manifest in behavior. To choose to experience holiness in another human being, in a giant sequoia, or in the red earth of southern Utah is to take an attitude in how one feels about the non-self and in how one treats it. In James’ terms, it is the manifestation of the MORE that we consciously chose to experience and make real in our actions. The MORE does not exist in an objective, exterior sense; but it can be experienced and/or made manifest.

Heshel ends the first section of his book with what I consider to be the most important reasons to choose a religious life and my explanation for why I continue to follow this path. If I lay aside Heschel’s theistic insistence and read myself into the text, this could be the best explanation for why I seek out a meaningful religious experience in Judaism despite the amazing amount of effort it takes to read myself into it:

To summarize: The power of religious truth is a moment of insight, and its content is oneness or love. … A genuine insight rends the enclosure of the heart and bestows on man the power to rise above himself. … [The experience of oneness] is astir with a demand to live in a way that is worthy of its presence. … The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, and amazement. Religion begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us. It is in that tense, eternal asking in which the soul is caught and in which man’s answer is elicited.

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Then who will I be?

Warning: navel gazing ahead.

Since the High Holidays, I have been in deep contemplation mode. The value of ritual for me has always been its ability to focus my attention on the salient issues of my life, and the ten Days of Awe were transformative for me on many levels. I sat out sukkot because I felt overwhelmed and overloaded by the experience. From what I’ve read, many modern Jews see sukkot as a regrounding, a coming back to earth after the heady days of self-examination. But i needed some time away, alone to think.

Since Yom Kippur, I’ve come back to the problem of identity. So far, I’ve been framing my journey into Judaism as an accretion, a layering onto myself; not a renunciation of my past or heritage, not an overthrow of the Ego. Judaism has filled many holes in my life, spiritual and social, but it feels like a continuation of who I have already been rather than a replacement.

Judaism is an ancient tradition, whose history of outsiderness has produced a tight identity structure that is unique among the monotheisms and which keeps demanding that I pay attention to it and take it seriously. It’s so tight that many of the world’s Jews will never consider me Jewish at all. A dear friend of mine, Jew by birth, notes frequently that Judaism is both an ethnicity and a religion. The ethnicity appeals to me on an aesthetic level, in the way that human culture generally appeals to me. I find Jewish tradition beautiful and life affirming on the ethno-cultural level. But I’m not sure that I would or ever could be ethnically Jewish. [Part of the Americanization of Judaism has been the restarting of a rather robust conversion stream, historically, which had been dead for centuries. So many of us Jews begin in a non-Jewish ethnicity. I think this could be a vital and important piece of the future of Judaism writ large, but that is for another post.]

What has drawn me to Judaism as a convert is the spiritual, or religious, piece. (I still have a bit of a scholarly, rationalist shudder when I write or say something like that.) For my personality and spiritual needs, Judaism is a near-perfect fit. As an ongoing struggle with god and text, and as a sanctification of everyday life, of the mundane, and as a tradtion anchored in some of humankind’s deepest yearnings, I find Judaism to be a grounding and meaningful way of life, one that says “home” to me in an irrational, intuitive way.

Yet I’m still stymied by the identity piece, the thought of what this all means for who I am. Full disclosure: I am not by disposition a joiner and I’m deeply uncomfortable claiming and living identities generally. This is partly due to a my scarring early life experience with Mormon identity; but it is also as much my personality. I have always bucked against being put in any kind of identity box. Identities feel reductive and confining to me, almost like a cognitive or social jail. Dangerous. Suffocating. Whenever people put me in any kind of identity category, I resist. For example, 15 years ago I accepted the fact that I was sexually attracted to men rather easily; yet it took me years longer to make peace with being called or calling myself gay. Another example, my refusal to identify as a professor early in my carer ended up leading me to some bad pedagogical decisions.

Identity categories come with sets of assumptions and scripts that I may or may not want to be associated with nor obliged to perform. Whereas I’m perfectly comfortable saying “I love men” or “That guy is hot” or “I teach university” or “I practice Judaism”, all “I am” constructions feel constraining, imprecise, too easily misunderstood or purposefully manipulated, fraught with rules and expectations, constricting, suffocating.

And so I find myself resisting the part of conversion that brings with it a new identity, an “I am”. What would identifying as a Jew mean? How can I be the kind of Jew I find the most meaningful, when “Jew” as an identity carries with it tight scripts and a world of assumptions, both within and without the Jewish community? That means people around me will assume that I think, believe, and act a certain way. Confining. Restricting. Can’t breathe. If I, Todd Ormsbee, identify as a Jew, then who will I be?

• As a Jew by choice, am I still the child, the great great great grandson Danish Mormon converts?

• Would I still be a seeker, or does conversion imply that the search is over?

• Can I still be a freethinker, one of my most treasured identities? One who refuses to believe without evidence?

• Am I still of northern european descent, and may I still honor my ancestors with objects and stories from my biological past? For example, can I still observe solstices and equinoxes?

• As a humanist, it has been nearly 20 years since I believed in Jesus, but as a Jew, can i still love Jesus as a devout Rabbi who sought to reform Judaism with a pharisaical focus on the greatest commandments of ahavah?

• I have admired the a buddha as a key figure of Human history and thought and spirituality for nearly 20 years, and have considered myself a casual buddhist. What becomes of my Buddha nature upon conversion?

I am universalist by disposition, but have come to believe over the past few years, that living as a universalist without a chosen path of practice is to be unmoored. In many ways, that unmooring can be deeply nurturing to a wounded soul, and indeed it has been nurturing for me over the past fifteen years. But now I’ve arrived at a point where being a lone seeker is no longer enough. I need to share the journey. My thought is to make of Judaism a home base from which to be a seeker, a place to anchor myself in ritual and ethics and community. A way to create a cohesive daily, yearly, and lifetime practice. But I don’t see myself ever stopping from learning and exploring other traditions.

I still feel a deep connection to this process of learning and adopting Jewish practices and hope that my shul can give me some more concrete direction in the required process in the near future (my only complaint about my shul has been the very California, inchoate process of conversion, in sharp contrast to the clearly delineated requirements at other shuls).

Judaism is the path for me. So this post isn’t an indication of doubt or wavering. The choice is the right one, in a way that I thought would never be possible. It is instead a searching of what this means for me. Once I am officially a Jew (to be honest, I already feel Jewish and already practice Judaism), then who will I be?

[edited 10/17 for clarity]

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