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Archive for the ‘Conversion’ Category

In a fascinating interpretation of Moby Dick in the book All Things Shining (1), Ahab is seen as a representation of a kind of Christianity that seeks closed-ness through completion, a view of the world where Truth is already known, so all other possibilities are cut off and where seeking other or more truth is foreclosed. In the story, Ahab can only see the white whale as the object of desire and of aversion, the singular truth of his universe is to avenge himself upon the whale’s body. But Ishmael represents a different orientation to the whale, upon whose head he sees a blankness, an emptiness devoid of any meaning at all, which then opens Ishmael up to a different kind of truth, joy, and meaning. Further, Dreyfus and Kelly, the two philosophers who wrote the book, read Ishmael’s relationship with the pagan Queequeg as an implicit critique of Christianity, where “Christianity goes astray not in its basic religious impulse, but rather in its totalizing turn,” where Christianity becomes all that exists, Truth itself. Ishmael represents a new kind of truth, a new orientation to being, that finds joy and beauty in an embodied, social openness to finding relationship, ritual, truth, beauty, joy in the every-day, in the mundane, in the foreign and exotic as well as the familiar. Ishmael moves easily from his Protestant worship to joining Queequeg in his pagan ritual. Ahab, on the other hand, single-mindedly and blindly pursues the whale as the only truth of his life and is destroyed by it. “Ishmael’s polytheistic view finds in the communal rituals of daily life, contradictory and polysemic and plural as they are, the meanings that can drive away the drizzly November of the soul.”

The book provoked me to seek and to name what I have found most valuable in my own spiritual path, and where I have found meaning over the past 16 years since leaving Mormonism. I found myself reflected in much of the book’s conclusions, in the way I came to redefine the sacred as immanent and joy as embodied and present rather than deferred and transcendent. I had through life’s experiences come to the same conclusions as Ishamael had, at least in Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s reading of Moby Dick. And I found that I loved that about my spiritual life and that I feel like those lessons learned have been useful and meaningful to me over the past decade. [Caveat emptor: The book is receiving some pretty scathing critiques from philosophers (2).]

I read this book at about the same time that I hit a wall in my exploration of Judaism. I find myself asking often, “Why?” Why am I doing this? Why am I exploring a spiritual community that would add yet another outsider status to my already sufficient outsiderness? Why do I need a community at all, especially a deeply traditional one? Why can’t I continue on my individual spiritual path that I’ve been walking since I left Mormonism 16 years ago? What is in Judaism that would make me want to commit to it in a way that I had given up on years ago? Is choosing Judaism a step backwards into Ahab, or can it be a further step into Ishmael?

Whereas everyone in my Choosing Judaism group is exploring conversion because they have married a JBB and are looking for spiritual harmonization and/or exploring the religion of a spouse, I come to Judaism on a rather individual path. As a single gay guy, I have come up hard against the social and communal and familial aspects of Judaism generally (not to mention the somewhat closed relationships at the shul I’ve been attending). There’s a contradiction between my search for spiritual community and the increasingly isolating experience I’ve been having on this path.

The past few days, I have (serendipitously?) stumbled upon expressions by other people of a few of the things that resonate so powerfully for me in Judaism, one in an article about Tuny Kushner and the other in a Conservative rabbi’s articulation of Jewish pluralism.

Last fall, I’d been asked by a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal to write a brief review of a book about representations of Mormons in popular culture (3); and this week, I began reading the book for that purpose. The very first essay in the collection was an engagement with Tony Kushner’s two-play cycle Angels in America, where in the conclusion of the essay, the author lists off a set of congruences between Mormon belief and practice and Jewish belief and practice that account for Kushner’s public statements of sympathy with Mormon belief (despite writing a play wherein the gay Mormon character is the only one in the play who is not redeemed in the play). The writer states:

Elsewhere, Kushner has spoken positively of certain aspects of Mormon theology, particularly those that he thinks reflect Judaism: the emphasis of practice over belief and the de-emphasis on damnation, the centrality of a text, the importance of diasporic experience in forming identity, and the positive theology of the body. (4)

Is my attraction to Judaism that simple and obvious? Of course, Mormonism is far more complex than those issues cited above (for example, the emphasis on practice over belief is far from clear, in my opinion), yet there is a kernel of truth there. And these are most of the values that I take from Mormonism that still inform my personal ethics and spirituality, so many years after leaving Mormonism behind. I do not think that I am merely seeking a surrogate or replacement for Mormonism. I’ve been through too much over the past 16 years for that. But as a sociologist who researches the social construction of perception, values, and cognition (i.e., culture), I have to stop and recognize the possible influences that Mormonism may be having on my exploration of Judaism.

Because I do not come to Judaism from a place of belief (I’ve spoken at length about my agnosticism in this blog), but rather in search of spiritual practice, I’m definitely drawn to some key practices in judaism, especially the yearly ritual calendar and the weekly shabbat. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of daily practice through what I think of as humanist prayer; but my buddhist background leads me to continued meditation practice. So far, my daily practice has remained pretty firmly buddhist. Since my favorite Conservative rabbis were also buddhist (even though I’m converting at a reform shul), and since my own teacher also relies heavily on contemporary american buddhism for her teachings, I feel pretty comfortable with that practice for the moment. That said, I find that although Mormonism is an intensely legalistic and socially surveilled system, it still emphasizes belief extensively in a way that I do not find in Judaism. In fact, my current research project at work shows that Mormonism’s efforts to control the beliefs of its adherents is very often what pushes people out, particularly questioning and seeking personalities. The lack of this kind of orthodoxy in Judaism is, for me, is a very good thing.

But the other pieces outlined in the essay about Kushner I hadn’t really connected to my Mormon past before: a positive theology of the body, de-emphasis on damnation, etc. My main concern at this point is that I’m moving through my Jewish experience on its own terms, and not out of habit from my Mormon upbringing. But I’m not sure how to do that.

The second piece that articulated a deep resonance for me was in a book about Jewish social ethics by Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff (5). In a chapter examining the multiple views and movements and ideas and contradictions within Judaism, R. Dorff explains the Jewish approach to Torah as a system of arguments that are “not only rationally but theologically necessary, for all sides bespeak “the words of the living God.'” In my early 20s, I had developed an idea that “truth” was something that emerged out of the spaces between contradictions, that paradoxes where two logically opposed ideas were both true revealed a truer kind of truth, almost like a Zen koan. In graduate school, I encountered William James’ notion of truth as a process, or an emergence out of social, human interaction. James had been studying cultural religious diversity and had come to the almost postmodern conclusion that truth was a culturally conditioned value judgment rather than an essential quality of a pre- or extra-human object. James spoke of truth as a verb, something that we do rather than the quality of something that exists. [Note: In this view, the scientific method produces truth, but it is a socially produced human truth, not an existential or ontological truth; James does not mean to devalue scientific truth, but rather to frame and account for its origins.]

Since the ages of the Pharisees, according to R. Dorff, Jews have turned away from prophecy and toward dialectical scholarly discourse for truth. This brings with it a system of ethics in the discourse, wherein those who disagree with you are accorded dignity and a respectful hearing, and wherein participants are (or should be) always willing to change their positions upon hearing a good argument. Dorff also discusses the notion of learning to read the “white fire”, the empty spaces between the words of Torah as an expansiveness and openness to creativity and novelty in interpretation and exegesis. This Jewish view of Talmudic, midrashic truth seems to be a continuation of my personal efforts to redefine and understand truth that began in my early 20s in college, and the possibilities of finding that intellectual base within a spiritual tradition is more than a little exciting for me.

And so this week, I have re-connected with the why of my Jewish path. But at the same time, those whys have reinforced the alone-ness of my particular journey. Jews and jewish communities seem to function generally more on an ethnic model, which I’ve discussed before. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it means that the highly intellectualized version of Judaism that I’m getting from my reading is not exactly the judaism that I’m encountering in face-to-face interaction with the Jews around me. Just as my academic career can be socially isolating generally, so my path to judaism feels to me like it’s going down a road that puts me yet again on the outside of an already outside group.

I cannot apologize for who I am or what makes me tick. Nor do I regret these things that are so resonant and important to me within Judaism. But it does leave me with the problem I stated up above: that for me, in distinction with everything that Judaism is socially, my Jewishness is for the moment a piece of my alone-ness.

teku

Notes:

(1) Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011).

(2) Gary Wills. “Superficial and Sublime?” in New York Review of Books. Vol. 58 No. 6 (April 7, 2011).

(3) Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010).

(4) Christine Hutchinson-Jones. “Center and Periphery: Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America” in Decker and Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010): 26.

(5) Elliot N. Dorff. To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002).

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As a ger (גר), a Jew by Choice, a convert, or a “righteous goy”, it is often difficult to figure out where you fit in to the whole ethnic side of judaism. Many born-Jews have told me that being Jewish in contemporary America is both an ethnicity and a religion, and that for me, only religious Judaism is available. As a sociologist, I have never found that completely convincing, mainly because it has echoes of racism in it, as it essentializes jewishness, making it an in-born quality rather than a learned ethnos.

Clearly, I will never have ancestors who were Jewish or have a tradition of familial connection to the Jewish people (at least, not that I know of—there is always a possibility of a Jewish ancestor, but at the moment I don’t know of any). And clearly I will never repeat my childhood and grow up Jewish with Jewish parents. But I remain firmly social constructionist about ethnicity: It is a quality of human interaction and human production, not of birth or essence, so while I will never be the same as someone born into a Jewish family, I don’t think that my “ethnicity” can help but be transformed and “judaified” by the conversion process.

Assimilation (or integration or acculturation or whatever term you prefer) is a difficult and controversial topic on many levels for many different minority populations; and it occurs in both directions, between the subordinate (minority) and dominant (majority). In our modern, pluralist societies, we have come to treat ethnicities as ends-in-themselves, and have created a whole culture of expectations about the “autenticity” of cultural identities and practices, how they should remain unchanged, and the imperative to “preserve.” Historically, I would argue that in today’s pluralist societies we are experiencing not a difference in kind, but of degree or intensity; that is, ethnicities have always had processes of boundary formation, assimilation, blending, and conflict, but now because of the frequency and scope of global migration combined with the rights discourses of democratic institutions, we live in a world of intense and constant ethnic conflict.

In addition, I think that Judaism, because of its particular history of outsiderness and persecution, has had intensely policed ethnic boundaries since about the time of Ezra (with the notable exception of a period of about 300 years during the Hellenistic diaspora around the Mediterranean where Judaism welcomed and actively proselytized converts). Even during the most open times, Jews had to maintain a communal distance from the dominant culture (e.g., in caliphate Spain). That has meant that, historically, Judaism has been perhaps more conscious than most of its ethnic boundaries.

As I have mentioned before, I have been wondering about the relationship of a ger to Jewish ethnicity (actually, there are multiple Jewish ethnicities, but for the sake of clarity here, I’ll pretend that it’s a singular, unitary thing) and what my own conversion means to whatever ethnicity I will eventually be and my relationship to the ethnic attachments I already have (American, northern European, Mormon). In a scholarly mode, I understand that empirically, humans tend to blend ethnicities as a matter of course, almost unconsciously, and in contradiction to their feelings or beliefs that their ethnicities have remained unchanged and remain “pure”.

In personal terms, in this process of exploring judaism over the past year, I have changed, even without being aware of it. I have developed habits of mind, habits of practice, habits of speech that are (American, liberal) Jewish, even if I’m not aware of them. I find myself identifying with Jewish characters and Jewish figures on the news (e.g., Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. who was shot last week), without even realizing it (but I have also not lost my identification with my other ethnic commitments). Yesterday I was walking from my car to my office when it occurred to me that I was humming a Yeminite sh’ma that I particularly love. Without even meaning to, I have blended my ethnicity already.

For me, though, there is a deeper level of identification that I have never experienced. I always feel like an outsider at shul, not because anyone makes me feel that way, but just because I’m hyper-aware of my difference. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, one of the things that attracts me to Judaism is that it’s a religion of outsiders. And given my personality, it’s probable that I’ll always feel like an outsider, even after conversion.

In reading a brief history of Jewish liturgy this morning by Rabbi Sacks (head Orthodox rabbi of the UK), I came across a brief passage where he explains how the Jews who were taken into exile to Babylon had to contend with the loss of their primary religious practice, the avodah or sacrifice (burn offerings). He notes that it was in Babylon that the exiled Judeans (Israelites?), separated from their holy city and knowing that their temple had been burnt to the ground and sacked, dealt with their loss and grief, and their subordinate status as exiled outsiders in Babylon, by gathering to read Torah together and through three-times daily prayer, corresponding roughly to the times of daily avodah/sacrifice (except the evening prayer).

It struck me in reading that, that my own personal experience of religion or spirituality, if you will, has been an experience of exile and longing; of trying to understand and create a meaningful spiritual life for myself after radical separation; of mourning the loss of a previous spiritual life and community; and of return or redemption. I suddenly found myself feeling intensely Jewish, of identifying with a lost and exiled people who longed for their spiritual home. In a fleeting moment, I felt for the first time that the Jewish story was my story.

As someone who is primarily rationalist (with an openness to the human (shared) experience of the sacred), I find that I can’t read the Exodus story as history, a recounting of actual events and people. The archeology just can’t support, for the moment, a literalist or historical approach to the text. But when I think of Exodus as the expression of a lost and exiled people in Babylon, it makes complete sense to me: The story of the triumph of their G-d over the local gods, the constant reassurance that they are G-d’s people, the catharsis in Pharoah’s punishment and learning, etc., all point to the story of an exiled people longing for home. It occurred to me (perhaps not an original idea or even all that interesting to those of you who are well-read in Jewish history and Jewish thinking about history) that what has been preserved in the Jewish story of the past 2500 years is the experience of being an exiled and scattered people who long for wholeness (שבת) and who find it through return (תשובה) with each other in community and in (ancient) tradition. This resonated at a deep level for me. The Jewish story is my story.

This new-found identification, however, is only one of two strands in the story of Babylonian exile that felt particularly salient to me this morning. The other half is an identification with those Hebrews who had been left behind after the exile, the Judaeans who remained in the land after the destruction of the temple. The exiled leadership, now what we would recognize as Jewish (probably the first time historically we can properly use this term), were freed from Babylon by the Persian empire and returned to Jerusalem. They found to their horror that those who had been left behind were radically different from them: they had a syncretic (blended) culture and religion, they had intermarried, and they no longer spoke Hebrew (sound familiar?). The returnees reacted with anger, indignation, moralizing, and violence to the new practices of those Hebrews/Judeans who had been left behind; and they exerted a culture of tight ethnic monitoring, tight control over practice, language, marriage, prayer, text, food—in short, of Jewishness, all backed by the power of the Persian Empire. The returnees’ practices, which had surely developed during exile, were transplanted and forced onto the remaining Israelite population.

Just as I felt an identification with the exiled, the Babylonian Jews, I simultaneously realized that I also identified with those who had been left behind, and who had made different choices vis-a-vis their religious and cultural alliances. I found myself defending the assimilated, the blended, the syncretic, and intermarried Judaeans against the orthodox onslaught of the returnees. Those who had been left behind had created new and vibrant forms of Hebrew religion in their syncretic practices. I cannot align myself in good conscience with the returnees who sought to “purify” and “correct” the “Bad Jews” who had been left behind. Everything from the new, strict rules of practice to the restructured Temple priesthood of the 2nd Temple to the forbidden practice of intermarriage and religious syncretism ring to me, from my 21st century ger-ische perspective to be unethical and a profound misunderstanding of how culture (ethnicity) works.

And so I ended up with a very broad sense of Jewishness and identification to an entire range of ancient Jews 2500 years ago in the breadth of their experiences, identifying both with the exiled and those who remained in Judea, the oppressed who became the oppressors and the “assimilated” who were perceived as a threat to Jewishness: Both were ethnic and religious innovators, both had survived an unimaginable (cultural) loss, and both ended up with a workable survival strategy: They were all Jews. Yes, the Jewish story is my story.

teku

edited for clarity

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Tonight’s post is more practical than reflective: What to do between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25 as a Jew?

Since I haven’t believed in Christianity for over a decade, and since I was raised in an alternative religion that didn’t really observe the full range of traditional Christian holidays (really, most American evangelical religions don’t observe the vast majority of traditional Christian holidays anyway, so there are millions of Americans in that boat), I didn’t really think that my path into Judaism would bump up against anything important on the calendar. Anita Diamant’s book for people choosing Judaism spends a whole chapter on the dynamics of Christmas, which is such a huge piece of the American (Christian) psyche.  I read her book last Spring, and didn’t really think much of it.

Now I’m here on the threshold of winter holiday season and suddenly I find myself very upset about Christmas. In fact, I feel a deep powerful urge to sing Jingle Bells and smell pine boughs. I’ve been surprised at my born-Jewish friends’ antipathy toward Christmas. But I get it: From a minority position, it can feel like a massive imposition or assertion of the dominant culture’s privilege in the world around you. But as someone who was once a Christian, it just feels banal (not dangerous or imposing) to me; and as someone who is culturally curious and expansive, it just reads like a cultural practice to me. On an intellectual level, I understand my friends’ hatred of Christmas. But I don’t feel it.

Do I have to hate Christmas to be a Jew?

When I was in graduate school and was self-consciously trying to de-Jesus my life, I spent a couple winter breaks reading histories of Christmas, folklorists’ and historians’ best guesses for the origins of some of the practices. I was pleased to find a thoroughly hybrid, mish-mash of Roman, near eastern, and northern Germanic and Celtic, and even a bit of Persian practices all rolled into this mid-Winter festival. I found (and find) that I am for some reason strongly attracted to the old Germanic religions and old pre-modern, pre-monotheistic nature-observant practices. [In fact, one of the things that is so attractive about Judaism is that a lot of those pre-modern, agricultural, nature-worship elements are evident in the texts and practices; I love them.]  Over a few years between finishing my master’s thesis and passing my doctoral exams, I developed a set of personal practices for Midwinter (solstice) that included some deeply personal moments of reflection, more meaningful gift-giving, and symbolism of hope for a renewal of life. I had blended my personal practices easily with the dominant ones around me. And I had come to see the common experience of a winter holiday in many cultures around the world as a sign that living through the receding sun had inspired our many ancestors to celebrate in the darkest of days.

Now Hanukah is just around the corner (Dec. 1st this year) and suddenly I’m facing my first real dilemma in this process: What to do for the holidays? I don’t mean where will I go or what will I eat…I mean really what will my home practice and personal life look like? There are several interlocking problems, some easier than others to resolve.

First, my parents still expect me to show up for Christmas Eve and Christmas day, to exchange gifts, and eat a gigantic meal, and generally party with the family. This was actually the easiest part of the holidays for me to work out. Diamant suggests that mixed-faith couples simply celebrate Christmas at the home of the Christian side of the family. That seems fine, but in reading the Biale collection of essays about Jewish cultural history, I came across a really interesting passage about the Babylonian Jews. The rabbis in Babylon taught that Jews in Babylon were also Babylonian and that they should honor their non-Jew neighbors by celebrating their holidays with them, and then inviting them into their Jewish homes for Jewish holidays, so that their non-Jewish neighbors could celebrate with them. It was, in all, a message of not just peaceful coexistence, but of a conscious effort to honor the Other and welcome the Other into their lives. It makes complete sense to me, perfectly rational and multicultural, relaxed and hell, it gives you access to twice the feting. I’m a bit stubborn, so I probably would have done this regardless, because it’s just my personality to experience as broad a range of cultural and religious practices as possible.

So parents and family Christmas issue easily solved.

Second, Hanukah itself feels a bit anemic and, problematically, just like Christmas, based on a few unhistorical myths that I find vexing. Without going into a long Jeremiad, let me just say that a lot of the dominant Jewish discourses about Hanukah today are about the anti-Helenizing maccabees, with thinly veiled ethno-nationalism at its core and then not even trying to hide the Zionist parallels. When Hanukah talk glides into Israel-Palestine politics and Zionism, I’m out the back door. Just can’t do it. But even at its core, the mythologized version of the Maccabees is pretty far from history itself: The Maccabees weren’t anti-Helenism, they were Greek speaking, thoroughly Helenized and bloody violent rulers. Further, the majority of the world’s Jews during that time were Jews living outside of Palestine and were Greek speakers living fully helenized lives. Politically, I’m generally against forced assimilation; sociologically, I also know that most people as they move around tend to transform their languages and practices to meet new needs and environments. Humans are constantly modifying their cultures and adopting from people around them. So whereas I’m sympathetic to arguments against cultural imposition, assimilation by force, I’m highly dubious of the moral position that cultural change is bad tout court, and that culture must be maintained over time (which is actually an impossibility). So they way Hanukah gets talked about pushes my sociological buttons, my historical buttons, and my political skepticism of modern Zionism buttons all at once.

The upshot is that Hanukah just doesn’t seem like it can fit the bill of a Midwinter holiday for me. One dear born-Jew friend said that for her Hanukah is about the lights; and I do love that idea. And the idea of the “miracle of light” fits in nicely with my own spiritual need for Midwinter. So I look forward to seeing what is there for me.

Hanukah is a minor political holiday that, due to pressure from the dominant culture, has grown into  Jewish consumer extravaganza not unlike the hot mess that is Christmas on Union Square or any mall in the country.

So third and finally, the real issue is what my personal Midwinter practice as a Jew will look like. My instinct is to add Hanukah to my current practice. But I worry about what born-Jews would say at a wreath on my door (evergreens, eternal circle, rebirth, hope) next to a mezuzah (shma!); or pine cones and twinkly white lights and candles on the 21st for solstice night. On the other hand, when I was attending the Wiccan circle at the UU a couple years ago, half the people there were born-Jews. So perhaps my worries are only because I’m a JBC? But I’m left with figuring out what pieces of Hanukah are meaningful to me (for one, the Klezmekah at shul with the Klezmer band is hot hot hot (it was my first service last year when I started this journey)) and how to deal with the Christian imagery which is so embedded in the season (which has never bothered me even though I haven’t believed in it for 15 years).

Suggestions? Ideas? Thoughts?

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Among the many Hebrew terms for spiritual practice is avodah, work. Spirituality is a disipline. When people say to me, ‘I’m a spiritual person,’ they often mean that they treasure some vague feeling of connection with God, nature, and humanity that is most often divorced from any behavioral obligation. Spirituality is not a feeling, nor is it vague. Spirituality is a conscious practice of living out the highest ethical ideals in the concreteness of your everday life. The disembodied spirituality so often spoken about by those who do not practice any spiritual discipline rarely obligates them to anything and often excuses the grossest behavior. —Rabbi Rami Shapiro, from Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity

As the month of Elul progresses, I find myself in a new kind of introspection, different from my usual neurotic worries. For the first time in a long time I’ve been asking myself what kind of man I am, have been, could be.  I wonder whom I may have hurt in my carelessness or anger; I look at what I’ve done to myself, my body, my life; I look at what I’m doing to the earth. It’s a harrowing and sobering affair. My usual day-to-day worries are pretty selfish: I’m lonely, I’m horny, I’m hungry, I’m bored, I’m poor…

Learning about the practices of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, I have started a self-conscious process of turning, returning, transformation. But I’m choosing this practice, with awareness and desire, rather than doing it by rote or tradition. I want transformation. I want the practice.

The word practice to denote religious ritual and behavior is interesting. Not only the belief or feeling, but the decision to apply or translate into deed what one professes to believe. Although this isn’t true in other Western languages, in English, it also carries the hint that the deed is imperfect, incomplete, flawed in some way and bears repeating. So you not only practice what you believe, but you have to keep practicing it because it’s never quite complete. I find the notion of repetition especially useful in terms of ethical practice, loving-kindness and equanimity.

I worry about adopting a new Jewish practice sometimes, because in Mormonism, for me, practice was a psychologically draining and painful part of the first 25 years of my life. The demands of perfection or having at least the appearance of perfection were a burden that I do not want to shoulder again. Honestly, I don’t think I could ever actually go back to that state of mind, just be virtue of being older and more secure in my own identity and self. Yet I’m deeply mindful as I gradually adopt Jewish practices that I don’t return to that place of judgment and exclusion that was so destructive in my earlier life. This means in some cases even choosing to be Jewish in ways that are different from the Jews in my community, to be more open and to refuse to be prescriptive in my adoption of practice.

For the past 15 years or so, I have considered myself a seeker. I have explored Buddhism extensively (especially vipassana), liberal Christianity, neo-paganism, and taoism. But most of my exploration has been through reading and trying to teach myself practice because my experiences of those communities were so suffocating.

Now, at age 40, I find an intense desire to return to religious practice and community. Not belief per se, but practice. Talking to the Rabbi this week, I said to her in passing, “I’m really craving practice.” I hadn’t actually ever thought about it consciously, and I’d certainly never said it out loud to anyone. But there it was. The Rabbi just continued on with the conversation as if I had said something completely normal, and recommended the book I quoted above. But for me, this was a moment of clarity and revelation.

For the past few days I’ve been trying to figure this desire for practice out. Several of my good friends, fellow academics, with religious backgrounds, have a deep aversion to practice and ritual. A few of my friends who were raised without any religion at all are even more baffled by what seems to them a sudden conversion. For me, this feels like the end of a 15 year wandering period, which was necessary and healing and authentic to who I have been. Now it’s time to settle down, to stake a claim in a tradition and create a home for myself, a place from which I can live the rest of my life in awareness and ethical fruition, that is, fulfillment.

Should I feel guilty, inadequate? flawed? unintelligent? for desiring practice? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I crave a meaningful life, something more than just work, television, food. I crave the ability to live life fully aware and conscious both of the world around me and of my effect on the world. When I’m gone, that will be the end of me. So what kind of life will I have now? I’m sure that for many, a meaningful life is possible without religious practice. In fact, I have had moments of great meaning since I left mormonism 15 years ago. I have lived fine without religion. And I will continue to live fine without belief. But I find that at this turning point—the cliché of mid-life—practice gives me a structure and, importantly, a community to build meaning with greater focus.

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B’reishit

When I was younger, I was a deeply religious kid. Raised Mormon by loving and well-meaning parents, by the time I was 12, I had pretty much dedicated myself to a religious life. Unfortunately, two things blocked my way: 1) I was pretty smart and tended to distrust things for which I have no evidence; and 2) I was a closeted gay teenager. But I also have always had a deep sense of the sacred that manifested in experiences of awe and boundarilessness—in mormonism I would’ve called these “spiritual experiences” and I would have interpreted them as the Holy Ghost or God’s Spirit. I also developed a love and reliance on the drama of communal ritual. And, although I wouldn’t fully understand it until I was older, I had come to rely on the comfort and belonging of a religious community.

But by the time I was about 20, half way through my Mormon mission, I was starting to grapple with the fact that I wasn’t sure the Mormon church was true in the way it claimed to be. By 22 I had admitted to myself that I was gay, but had no way to deal with it. By 23 I had admitted to myself that I didn’t really believe in God, at least not as a being with will, agency, and power. So by 25 I had left the mormon church and begun to come out as a gay man.

I have spent the last 15 years exploring all kinds of things, from Kabalah to Episcopalianism, from yoga to vipassana buddhism, from unitarianism to neo-paganism. I have come to be a universalist of sorts, seeing religion as a manifestation of some kind of deep yearning of, if you’ll excuse the expression, the human spirit. By training I am a sociologist with a heavy dose of historian, so I tend to approach religion as a human phenomenon, a piece of the puzzle as to how humans cope with their lives and surroundings through rituals, symbols, and beliefs in relationship to the supernatural. I don’t believe the supernatural exists on any literal sense, and I see the beauty (and horror) that seems to inhere in all religious traditions.

Turning 40 this year has pushed me to stop and ponder much about my life. In fact, hitting the half way point (more or less) has really pushed me to question everything about who I am and where I’m going. I have realized that at age 40, I still have a “god-shaped hole” in my heart, a longing for religious belonging and ritual, and a context to have deeper, intimate conversations about ethics and meaning in life.

When I was 13, I read The Chosen by Chaim Potok, and developed a deep love of judaism. To this day, I’m not sure what that resonance was. Mormonism had somewhat sewn the seed of Judaism, in its belief that it was the continuation of the religion of Abraham and that Jews were simply the “lost brothers” of the House of Israel (Mormonism even refers to non-Mormons and non-Jews as Gentiles). But I think it was more than that. Potok’s narrative and description of Jewish community, ritual, and intellectual life profoundly affected me and stuck with me for decades.

I have been surrounded by Jews since I started graduate school in 1995, where most of my professors and many of my classmates were Jewish. As an American, I also have a good deal of Jewish sensibility built in to me by the entertainment industry (even my rural parents sprinkle their language with Yiddish, having grown up on 1950s television variety shows). But it has been the spiritual pull, something about the religion and tradition itself that has pulled me in.

I have resisted ever learning about Judaism in a serious, personal way, because as an atheist, ex-mormon, gay man, I couldn’t imagine myself ever “getting sucked in” to another religion. I couldn’t imagine joining a religious community or taking religious practice very seriously in an organized way. I have deep mistrust of organized religion, having experienced both spiritual violence in the religion I was raised in, and having studied the social history of religion in the U.S.

But then I turned 40, and things have changed for me. I’m still an atheist. Definitely still gay. Still distrustful of organized religion. And still dubious that a non-Jew could ever actually convert. But I liberal modern Judaism seems like a place that I could actually be, a new home for the second half of my life. And so a few months ago, I embarked on this journey. I have given myself a year of exploration to figure out what I want to do, who I want to be, what, if any role religion could actually play in my life, and if that path for me is Judaism. I have begun attending shul (Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco), learning Hebrew, reading about the history and culture of Judaism, and practicing Jewish ritual.

To my great surprise, it feels like home.

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