Ten years ago, when I was 40 and single, I converted to Judaism. For me, my conversion represented a milestone in a long journey of spiritual exploration that began in college. At the time I thought what I was doing was unique. That was until I learned from a recent Pew study that over one-quarter of American adults have changed their religions too. Apparently, we are a nation committed to choice, and we decide what and how to worship with the same fervor for independence as when we choose a place to live, a profession, or a marriage.
My life over the past ten years has been deeply enriched by my decision to become a Jew. Right now, I’m attempting to incorporate the Jewish practice of brakhot – or blessings – into my daily habits. The idea is to pause and offer a small prayer of gratitude for each minor wonder encountered throughout the day, like simply waking up or seeing a yellow finch or eating a peach. My goal is to increase my level of mindfulness of the everyday miracles that surround me, or as I learned in my conversion class, to make each mundane act a sacred one. I fail miserably at this, of course, but then each new day I try again. That’s the Jewish concept of sin: missing the mark. A temporary shortfall in behavior as opposed to a permanent blot on my character. I like that. It gives me hope. So I try over and over again.
No doubt, the other converts reported about in the Pew study, whether they’ve chosen Buddhism or Catholicism or Mormon, have been enriched by their choice as well. I hope their sense of fulfillment and purpose has increased as they practice their new faith. But the news about how commonplace conversion has become has got me thinking. Amidst all the upside there must be a downside too. There has to be some aspect of loss. And so I wonder. I know what I gained by choosing Judaism, but what did I lose?
It isn’t Christ. Remember when Charlotte in Sex and the City converted to Judaism and told her husband-to-be, “I gave up Christ for you.” Now, I giggled along with everyone else, but that was Charlotte’s story, not mine.
I was raised in the 1960s in a liberal, Lutheran church where social activism was emphasized as much as Jesus. Each week in Sunday School, I learned hero stories about Martin Luther, how he reformed the church by standing up against an oppressive and corrupt institution. Our minister encouraged us to take a stand too, so I led my Sunday School class in a march against world hunger. We learned that reformation applies to women’s roles within the church, and I became our church’s first female acolyte, the Lutheran equivalent of an altar boy. To make sure everyone got the point, our minister scheduled my inaugural performance as acolyte for Christmas Eve. The entire congregation was there to witness me, at twelve, guiding my fellow Lutherans to feminism. In high school, I was elected president of the church youth group, and with that came the opportunity to deliver sermons to the congregation whenever we had a youth-led service. I reveled at each chance to stand at the pulpit, all eyes fixed on me, as I preached my sixteen year old heart out about economic injustice.
By the time I was in college the church was changing. The 60s were over, Nixon had been in office, and a conservative tone seeped into politics and my church. Activism was out and Jesus was in, front and center. And when forced to ponder the whole God-in-the-form-of-man concept, things just didn’t hold enough water for me. I tried, I equivocated, and then I left. I spent the years after college toying with eastern meditation, researching the Unitarian church and the Quakers, and then wandering through being nothing. And in time, I realized I needed a spiritual practice that encouraged me to wrestle with the concept of God, that offered guidance for making ethical decisions, and that challenged me to take action to repair a broken world. When I learned that this encapsulates the essence of Judaism, I knew I had come home. So when I converted, I didn’t lose Christ. Christ hadn’t been at the center for me all along.
I didn’t lose Christmas. I converted to Judaism. My family didn’t. So, while I don’t have a Christmas tree in my house, I visit with my parents and sisters and always enjoy theirs. I’m not deprived. Quite the opposite. With every city street decked out and every store and radio station playing carols from Halloween on, it’s next to impossible not to be inundated by Christmas. Things have gotten so out of hand that most Christians I know prefer to skip a year or two. So Christmas? There’s no loss for me there.
Did I lose pork? Well, I never was a ham fan anyway. And as for shrimp, it’s the appetizer of choice for most Jews I know, so there never really was any giving up. The rabbi who counseled me throughout my conversion explained, “Shellfish is treif (non-kosher), but pork, now that’s anti-Semitic.” The message to me was clear and perfectly acceptable. Lobster is fine but lay off the bacon.
Here’s what I did lose when I converted to Judaism. I lost my sense of competence and comfort. I attend services at my Reformed synagogue on Friday evenings and see five year olds, graduates of the temple preschool, belting out the shema with confidence. There are prepubescents, fresh from Hebrew School, rattling off the mourner’s kaddish. I never was good with foreign languages, and after three attempts at Hebrew classes in the past ten years, I still fake lip sync the words, hoping not to be caught mouthing kedusha when it should be kadosh. I struggle to keep up during the free-wheeling discussions that substitute for sermons in my new congregation. The rabbi asks for interpretations of the biblical story about the red heifer and I’m amazed as my fellow congregants not only know the story but toss out theories that demonstrate a deep knowledge and understanding of Torah. “Red heifer?” I muse. “We’re talking about a cow?” And my memory fails me as I try to practice Jewish rituals. Ten years after converting, I still stop, lit match in hand, and ask before I light the Chanukah candles, “It’s right to left? Or do I light them left to right?”
In short, except for the Jesus part, I was a really good Lutheran, but I fear I make a very bad Jew. I don’t have the competence to participate effortlessly. This takes hard work. I don’t have the knowledge-base to offer well-formed opinions. I sit silently and weigh the opinions of others. I don’t have the confidence to be a leader in my congregation. I have become a follower. As a Jew, I sit on the fringes. I realize that what I lost most by changing my religion is my place at the center. This is all so humbling. And perhaps in choosing my religion, that was the point all along.
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