The Question

Among the Jews of West Los Angeles, I am cautious about mentioning my husband for an entirely different reason: guilt. Judaism is transmitted to children via mothers and even though Phil and I have no children, the notion that if we did my non-Jewish status would rob them of a vital birthright is enough to make many Jews, even those on the less traditional side of the spectrum, uneasy.

According to some orthodox strands of thought, the question exists as to whether my marriage is even valid.

The only thing that could potentially rectify the situation is if I convert. It doesn’t matter that Phil considers himself a None: the onus is on me as the potential vessel of life. When I do mention Phil, I can tell the question is on people’s minds—do I intend to convert?—though they are too polite to ask. I have a feeling that how they perceive me hinges on the answer. Even if I am the one within the marriage who is interested in Judaism, most eager to understand, and the only person who may eventually soften Phil’s heart toward a religion that currently makes him bristle; in my current state, I am an agent of harm to the Jewish people.

Non-Jews who wish to officially convert must receive formal education under the guidance of religious leaders. By contrast, it’s far easier to become a Christian. I just have to accept Jesus as “my savior”—though, frankly, I still don’t know exactly what that means. I suppose it has something to do with recognizing that Jesus sacrificed his life to absolve my sins, but the details of the transaction remain hazy. Luckily, I am about to get a tutorial on this exact subject.

I arrive at Saddleback on the perfect day. The church has constructed a replica of the original biblical tabernacle, which is temporarily being displayed on its grounds.

That the ancient Jewish tabernacle has been constructed at a church is not too shocking, as the Torah has been adopted by Christians as the “Old Testament,” making all the stories and characters it contains vital to their history as well. That the tabernacle is at the Saddleback Church is a bonus as far as I’m concerned since visiting a “mega-church” headed by a celebrity preacher is a gaping hole in my Christian experience.

I had to dig around on the website to find out that officially Saddleback is Baptist, as the denomination is overshadowed by the star power of Pastor Rick Warren, author of New York Time best seller Purpose Driven Life (a book that has apparently sold more copies than any other nonfiction book ever), and frequent Christian commentator on various cable news programs. Online, I find I can choose between three times for Sunday services, given at two hour intervals to accommodate the estimated 20,000 people who attend in person (or via video streaming) from all over the region, country, and world. Apparently, it’s become something of a tourist destination—the Sunday plans for families visiting other hot spots like Disneyland and Sea World. From my dad’s house, it’s about a 45 minute drive south on freeways blissfully free of traffic.

The pain

“This is a critical juncture in the history of Jewish identity,” the rabbi says in his talk after the day’s Torah portion. “The foundation of Judaism, monotheism, is tested.” I’m at a reformed synagogue in Santa Monica housed in a plain, square building. In high school, I used to drive past it regularly on my way to my friend Becky’s house. Inside, the atmosphere is laid back. Only a handful of people have come to formally celebrate Sabbath.

The exact Torah section we read begins at Exodus 32.

The crowd Moses has led to freedom is freaking out. Moses promised to return from his mountain-top meeting with God in 40 days, but now those days have come and gone. The rabbi explains that more than likely Moses wasn’t really late, that it was probably a misunderstanding—the people had started counting the days at sunrise while Moses was counting them according to sunsets, something like that. Either way, collectively, the people enter the throes of a classic panic attack, their anxiety like a runaway train. If they couldn’t trust Moses, then maybe the God who helped them escape wasn’t reliable.

To stop from spiraling out of control, they revert back to what they know: worshipping something they can see and touch—an “idol.” The invisible one-God idea is too scary. They melt down all their jewelry and shape it into a calf, giving them something on which to focus their energy. Soothed by the certainty and solidity of the object, their anxiety subsides. Of course, at that exact moment, Moses returns.

Moses is furious. It’s not so much the idol itself that makes him angry as what it represents.

Before monotheism, people were accountable only to those who shared their gods; it was considered a crime to steal from members of one’s own tribe, while stealing from other tribes afforded you a hero’s welcome. One God introduced the concept of a unified humanity, making everyone connected—the entire world as a single tribe of people derived from the same source. To create an object to worship is to break apart the one-God idea. It might seem a small fissure, but it challenges the very essence of monotheism. It shatters the possibility of a unified humanity and, perhaps to make this exact point, Moses throws down the stone tablets with the commandments from God and they break into pieces.

The rabbi slows down. In his talk about the Torah section, he wants to make an important point about the human condition. He says that when we are faced with ambiguity, we tend to default to anger, depression, or fear. The one-God idea comes strapped with a degree of ambiguity—there can be no proof, nothing concrete to touch—as illustrated a few sections further along in Exodus when Moses’ request to see God’s face is denied. So the very thing we hope will alleviate our anxiety inevitably leaves some intact. “This pain,” the rabbi says, “is written into the human condition.” If you learn to tolerate it, you can trade certainty for faith. If you learn to trust it, you can swap being a part of something small for being a part of something infinitely vast. Here is the key: to bypass quick fixes for the slow trudge toward a deeper, more powerful solution. The rabbi puts a finger in the air and offers a sly smile that suggests he’s sharing the simplest and most profound of secrets. “The pain,” he says, “is the opening for the divine.”

Temple in time

My understanding of the significance of Sabbath opened slowly like a rose to reveal a more complicated and alluring beauty than I had imagined.

We humans think we are in charge of our worlds. We organize, create, build, and sweep up as if we are running the show. Sabbath is about giving up this control, acknowledging we aren’t the bosses by surrendering for a day the drive to alter the world in any way. At the same time, it’s a celebration of being. It speaks to the fundamental struggles of the Jews. For a people with a history of being slaves, this day of is a powerful statement of freedom. Slaves can’t decide when they’ll work and when they won’t. Sabbath is an exercise of free will. The fact that Sabbath can be practiced anywhere is vital for a people who spent generations on the move. Unlike temples made of stone, temples built in time are yours no matter where you are. Far from just the Jewish day of worship, when Jews go to synagogue on Saturdays, it is the Sabbath itself they are celebrating.

Yet, I wasn’t surprised to learn that even the most observant use creative loopholes such as lights on timers and slow cookers set on Friday morning. Some also have low-tech solutions. One man I met at Saturday worship services told me that growing up as an Orthodox Jew his favorite Sabbath activity was playing Scrabble with his siblings. To keep score, they would fold pages of a book, a dog-ear for each point. “It’s not writing!” he said when I narrowed my gaze at him. I wasn’t too shocked to find out he was a lawyer.

It took a while, but eventually I was able to pull my attention away from the activities that are not allowed on Sabbath to those that are encouraged. What’s a Jew to do? Say her prayers and go to synagogue—of course. Other than that: read for pleasure, tell stories, play games that don’t involve writing, nap, eat food that’s been prepared in advance, kick back in a hammock, daydream, take a walk around the neighborhood, eat some more, nap again, contemplate the beauty of creation, be grateful to have one day every week when hustle of normal life is set aside.

The idea of a weekly block of time free from work is a notion that much of the world has embraced, religious and secular alike. The weekend has become so central to how we experience time that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. Yet, the original intent has been turned inside out: we use our weekends to prepare for the work week—not vice versa. Laundry, groceries, cleaning—Saturday and even Sunday are opportunities to get chores done so that come Monday we can focus on our jobs or school or whatever it is we really do. Even the most observant Christian family does not use Sundays to officially suspend the daily grind. Meals will be cooked and cleaned up after, laundry will be washed and folded, errands run. Special “family time” may be carved out, but no radical existential statements underlie the day. The Sabbath may have been a potent gift to the world, but we’ve been running with it so long and so hard that not only has the contents dropped out along the way, we’ve forgotten what was ever in the box.

Book of Doubt

When I first arrived in Los Angeles from Dallas, we—my dad, stepmom, and I—lived for over a year in a 500 square foot bungalow in Santa Monica. It was a few doors down from a small apartment complex occupied exclusively by a family of Hasidic Jews. The front of their building was quarantined by a low fence and crammed with playground equipment. I traipsed past countless times on my way to the candy counter at the neighborhood liquor store. Along this route was the stretch of sidewalk that my dad wanted to search, believing we would find my name among the many scrawled into the concrete.

Some of the Hasidic boys were my age. I had never seen anything like them. They had tassels at their waists and curls at their ears. In those months, I officially went “boy crazy” and I weighed even those boys as romantic partners. I would see them in the evenings walking in their uniform of tiny suits with the rest of their family members: one dad and one mom, and a string of siblings from big to small like stairs stepping down. I thought they looked particularly fetching when they topped off their outfits with kid-sized fedoras like old-timey gangsters from a school play.

For all the time I spent eyeing those kids, I never once spoke to them—nor they to me. Whatever made their world operate was too different from the particulars of mine; it was like we occupied dimensions so distant that any sound I might utter would dissipate before it reached their ears. I had the idea that they might be an optical illusion, a projected image on a screen; if I snuck up and looked behind it, I’d see only dust bunnies and boxes.

My dad and I walked back and forth in front of the apartment building, searching the names and messages left in the sidewalk. I kept glancing up at the building. It looked exactly the same, right down to the playground equipment.

Dad and I came to the corner without finding my name and then doubled back. A hundred other names were there, but we couldn’t find mine. Had it been washed out by time? Had my father only imagined our subversive act?

At first I was disappointed, but then I decided maybe it wasn’t there for a reason.

According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the “Book of Judgment” is opened and those who have lived righteously will find their names inscribed in the “Book of Life,” while those who have not will be written in the “Book of Death.” It’s a theme that Christians have galloped away with, sometimes to horrifying effect. When I encountered it at a Baptist church, the Book of Life was presented as set-in-stone—your name is either in there or it’s not. If it’s not, then you can forget about spending eternity with God.

In Judaism, I discover a more flexible interpretation. Besides these two options, there’s another place your name can be. It’s the location of a majority of our names. Those who are neither all bad nor all good, but a mixture of the two, will find their names in the “Book of the Doubtful.” Technically, the period of reflection and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provides the opportunity to have your name reassigned to the Book of Life; more realistically, I think it’s a long-term goal: you hope to do enough good during your days on earth that the scales tip in your favor.

Perhaps all sidewalks are an extension of the Book of Life, I thought. My name wasn’t there because it is in the Book of the Doubtful. Like most people, I have some work before it gets reassigned.

As my dad and I got back in the car, I spotted a Hasidic man standing near the apartment complex. I knew then that I would try to visit the synagogue in which the residents of this building worship—due to the rules about not driving on Sabbath, it had to be within walking distance. At the very least, a visit to that synagogue would allow me to inquire about my old Hasidic neighbors. As long as I was righting the old wrongs I had drudged up with my Rosh Hashanah soul-searching, this seemed a good one to add to the mix. Maybe our two worlds could finally speak.

Atonement

When you haven’t eaten in 25 hours and you are dressed like a corpse, somehow it is easier to accept where you’ve gone wrong. Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Atonement,” or Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, the custom is to refrain from all food and drink for a period of 25 hours. If you really want to go all out, avoid bathing and dress in white to mimic traditional burial garb. It’s also best not to wear shoes, though sages have defined shoes as any footwear made of leather; plastic flip flops or rubber sandals are permitted. It’s fascinating how all these elements work together to send your body a powerful message: you are not the boss.

The sages created a list of 44 sins called “Al Chet” which observant Jews recite 10 times over the course of Yom Kippur in an effort to seek forgiveness. They range from the old-timey (“casting off the yoke”) to others that will never go out of style (“passing judgment”). Some Jews also create personalized lists. They say their lists out loud because publicly admitting one’s sins is a key component of this ritual. The first public admission is supposed to occur before Yom Kippur even starts, just prior to the meal that will sustain you before fasting begins at sunset. The timing of this first confession is intentional: if you choke and keel over during the meal, at least you had a chance to confess. That evening, I was thinking about my L.A. friends and the important events in their lives that I had missed.  Before Phil and I began eating, I announced, “I just want to say I feel terrible for not being there for my friends in Los Angeles. I have failed and I hope to be forgiven.” I suppose this statement appeared apropos of nothing and he looked at me like a ventriloquist’s hand was shoved up my back.

Back at the Unitarian church for the service the next day, I repeated my confession quietly. With my heavy heart and tired body, I did not feel like attempting polite conversation. I snuck in and sat in the back. The entire congregation appeared to favor the rear of the chapel. The community elder who had led the previous service was once again in charge. He said, “This reminds me of my criminal procedure class. No one wants to sit in the front two rows.” Everyone laughed, but I did not detect the celebratory mood of Rosh Hashanah. Now I understood it wasn’t just me—today we were all a bit wary, each of us a criminal in need of forgiveness.

In English, we read aloud a contemporary Al Chet provided on a photocopy. We asked forgiveness for not doing enough “to help the poor,” “to protect our earth, air, and water,” and “to stop violence and war.” We also admitted to “remaining silent or indifferent in the face of discrimination, mockery, and offensive humor.” Even though I try, I suspect somewhere along these lines I have slipped up as well. Next to these ills, my personal sins seemed ridiculously small. Yet I could also see how they were related. They were based on the assumption that I didn’t matter all that much—so what if I hardly spoke out or if I disappeared from the lives of people I loved?

 

P.S. Rabbi Aaron sent an email saying he is travelling for the next week or so. He looks forward to rejoining the conversation when he returns.

Chosen

The life-affirming rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah is born of the most basic notion in Judaism: the idea of being “chosen.” To be a Jew is to understand that your life is a purposeful creation; you have been selected by God to exist. The belief that one’s existence is intentional lends meaning to all aspects of the struggle—each day and experience, whether painful or joyous, is significant.

From what I can tell, it’s this notion—the belief in being “chosen”—more than any other that seems to rub non-Jews the wrong way. The problem, I think, is one of misunderstanding: “I am here on purpose” may get interpreted as “God favors me above you.” Or maybe non-Jews understand perfectly well, but the willingness to embrace such a bold claim runs counter to every fiber in their beings. Yet, Jews intended this belief to be embraced by all of humanity, which is why Genesis begins with one man and one woman, both intentionally created, from which all people descend. It is so radical a notion, so powerfully positive. Could it be the bedrock of other affirmative ideas like love and gratitude?

The Jews I grew up with didn’t go around talking about being “chosen.” They never once made reference to it or acted like they were better than anyone else. Yet I sensed a subtle difference in how they existed in the world. They didn’t seem uncertain about whether they deserved to be here, as I was. They may have had a host of other insecurities, but that most fundamental one didn’t appear to be among them. They took up their little bit of space in the world with a confidence I hadn’t realized was possible. During my teenage years, I remained tentative, but my proximity to an alternative outlook was a powerful antidote. I believe it was just enough get me through.

Rosh Hashanah’s encouragement to review my misdeeds brought up these memories because for all the good my time in L.A. did me, and despite how much I appreciated my friends and classmates, once I left the city I rarely returned. My constant moving made staying in touch with anyone from my past challenging and over the years the lines of communication between me and my L.A. gang slowly unraveled. I kept in sporadic contact with one of them, Lisa, who acted as a sort of a lifeline to the others.

In the time since I had last seen my L.A. friends, they had endured the usual hardships 20 years in any life brings, including the death of parents and, heartbreakingly, a would-be fiancé in a horrific auto accident. Yet, I had not offered a phone call or even an email of condolence. What did this failure to reach out say about me? What kind of friend was I? What kind of person?

Looser grip

I would never absorb all the rules and know the meaning and timing of every Jewish prayer. How could I? Rabbinical students spend years hammering out this stuff, and these are usually kids who grew up in observant households. I realized that if I wanted to explore Judaism, I had no choice but to loosen my grip. I would need to let the Hebrew flow without my understanding every single word—or even any of the words. Maybe I could hum along, or utter a syllable or two of a phonetic translation, or skim the English version if one was provided.

As I got further along in this portion of the journey, with more experience under my belt, I began to see that not understanding every word is the norm—especially for English-speaking Jews. Many have learned just enough Hebrew to say the necessary prayers; others have learned by ear and through repetition. The extent to which individual Jews are familiar with or follow “the rules” varies wildly. The labels of branches within Judaism indicate the degree to which that particular group chooses to adhere: the “ultra-orthodox” and “orthodox” stick as closely as possible to the law, while “conservative” and “reformed” have eliminated many traditional requirements.

Still, even the most observant among them can’t adhere perfectly. In fact, the sages and wise men have developed another set of guidelines for how to make things right when the inevitable mess-up occurs (such as how to “purify” a utensil intended for dairy that may have accidentally encountered meat).

When I began to grasp the meaning behind the rules and prayers, I had to laugh at my earlier notions. I thought the actions and words were like scientific formulas—conduct them perfectly and unlock the mystery of being Jewish. I wanted to say the exact words the observant utter every morning, afternoon, and evening. In Hebrew, these lines sound so complicated, so unattainable; I thought if I didn’t say them, Judaism would remain shrouded in mystery.

Eventually, I learned what the words meant and began to grasp the simple sentiments they convey. The prayer before eating bread? It translates as: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” The prayer one says upon seeing a natural wonder such as a rainbow or water fall? It goes: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who has such as these in His world.” Specifically, the prayers may offer a brief thank you or a plea or an apology—but they never stray too far from a simple expression of gratitude. The intention of the rules and the words is to honor God by demonstrating an appreciation for life and all that sustains it. They encourage Jews to stop and take notice.

An observant Jew might tell you the point of all the ritual is to remind him or herself, again and again, of the wonder of creation. But even then, he or she will probably fail at times to muster feelings of thankfulness. Luckily, an observant Jew has many do-overs throughout the day. Because the goal is not so much the flawless performance of whatever act is required, but the joyful appreciation it is meant to cultivate.

So even if Phil and I botched the Hanukah candles, what mattered most is that we recognized the flames as a sign of hope.

Transition

Dear Readers,

The next series of posts will focus on Judaism and Buddhism. However, the content won’t be exclusive to those religions. I will continue to touch on themes of Christianity (including describing my visit to the Saddleback Church south of Los Angeles) and religion in general.

The bulk of the action described in this section took place last year.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I did living the experiences they describe.

Thank you, Corinna

The transaction

Three men explain the “Doctrine of Imputation” on the DVD entitled the “Biggest Question.” They tell viewers that the infinite debt each of us owes before becoming a Christian is eliminated once we receive God’s gift of Jesus. In fact, not only is the debt paid, but lots of extra credit is deposited into our accounts.

However, to receive the bonus of endless funds, an actual transaction must take place. If this transaction is not performed “rightly,” they tell viewers, we won’t get “Jesus goodness.” It’s quite likely, they explain, that we’ve been taught the wrong way. For example, people might have encouraged us to “ask Jesus into your heart.” They tell us we cannot “ask” Jesus or “make” him our “lord and savior.” Jesus already is these things. The idea of “accepting” this fact is nearer to the proper characterization of the transaction, but even this is not accurate because we don’t accept Jesus so much as he accepts us.

To help us understand, the hosts provide an analogy. Imagine you want to belong to a country club. You don’t just walk up to the front doors and announce: “I accept you as my country club!” You don’t call up the management and ask meekly, “Will you be my country club?” No, you fill out the application and provide the proper information. You submit a request for admittance. You let the country club review the materials and accept you.

After you’ve been accepted, you can then “come to Jesus.” But even this must be done “rightly.” Your motivation should never be gifts. You must seek the giver of the gifts. If the country club analogy was still in play, I suppose this would mean your request to join would not be accompanied by an expectation of access to the amenities the club offers. Golf? Tennis? Bonus!

As the instructions grow more complicated, I question my ability to pull off this transaction. I picture the distance between Jesus and me as a field scattered with land mines. I don’t know what’s less reliable: the map I’m being offered or my ability to read it. Either way, I’m anticipating flying shrapnel.

Thankfully, according to this thesis, there’s reason for hope. In a sense, the more I screw up, the better off I am—as long as I recognize my own ineptitude. The men assure me that what the divine has to offer is not something I can earn; nor is it something I can fail to earn. They assure me that believing I have anything to do with the acquisition of “Jesus goodness” is self-righteous, as is feeling superior. Apparently, the absolute worst thing I can do is believe I’m even just a tiny bit less wretched than anyone else. How this works with their assurance that once I embrace the Doctrine of Imputation, I no longer have to feel “lacking in goodness,” I’m not sure. To embrace my badness or not to embrace my badness—that is the question.

I watch the DVD twice. The first time I’m wide-eyed at all the fancy terms and the nuanced explanations and the banking metaphors. My second viewing, I struggle to grasp the meaning behind what they tell me, especially since all three of them seem confident in their interpretation. That’s when something troubling occurs to me: isn’t such certainty a form of superiority? If you think you know the right way of forming a relationship with Jesus, doesn’t that implicitly give you an edge, however slight, over the rest of wretched humanity?

My soul

On December 28, 2012 I went “public” with my desire to explore religion.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

I thought I’d have a little op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times about how I was visiting lots of places of worship. People who read it might think “that’s nice,” and then toss their papers into the recycle bin.

At the bottom of the op-ed, the editor asked if she could print the internet address for the blog I had just begun. I was only toying with the idea of doing a blog; I didn’t cough up the internet address until the very last minute.

It came as a complete surprise to me when that original article was re-printed in other newspapers. It popped up in Dallas, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Atlantic City.

People from across the country—and around the world—logged on to my blog. Some began to follow my journey and comment along the way (I love you, dear readers!). Others wished to send me a note telling me a bit about their own journeys—in, out, around—religion.

Many who sent messages said they would pray for me. A few said their entire church group was praying for me. In my secular lifestyle, I’d rarely had anyone say they were praying for me. I thought it sounded nice, like they would place my name on a gentle breeze. “Thank you,” I typed back to each and every one.

When the numbers who said I was in their prayers climbed, I started to get nervous. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean: my entire nervous system began to jangle. I felt caffeinated even when I wasn’t. I had trouble sleeping. It was hard to concentrate. I had heard that praying can be a powerful act: all that thought-energy directed at a single source. Now I believed it. I thought too many people must be praying for me. Then I thought they were simply praying too hard. This wasn’t my name on a gentle breeze; this was a bolt of electricity to my poor synapses. I wanted to write them again and ask if they’d dial it back a notch.

Perhaps all this praying was a bit presumptuous. Was my soul in such a sorry state? A week or two into January, it dawned on me that I had unwittingly become a poster child for the “unchurched.” I fancied myself a “religious explorer” but, apparently, that’s not how others perceived me. One morning I looked in the bathroom mirror and glimpsed what they saw: a face of the “Godless” masses.

How had this happened? And, more importantly, why?

After some initial wallowing, I decided to buck up about it. If this was my calling, I would accept. See, world, we aren’t so bad. Some of us are even curious.

People sent me letters and packages. I got books and expansive thesis statements. I received CDs of sermons. I spread out these gifts on a table near where I write. Something about my little essay had spoken to people and inspired them to affix postage to envelopes that appeared in my mailbox. These kind people were sharing with me words and ideas that rang true for them. I committed to reviewing every last item even if it took many months. Who’s to say God wasn’t giving me a message through some sweet lady living in Milwaukee?

Many of the people sending me stuff were, in their own ways, encouraging my journey: they wanted to make sure I didn’t miss something they held dear. Others, perhaps, thought such an exploration sounded unnecessary and were hoping to save me the bother. They had found the right answer and were passing it on to me.

One DVD I was sent is entitled “The Biggest Question.” I put off watching it for fear it might provide the answer.

A few days ago, I finally popped it in…