Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Problem with Labels

Looking over my first full year as a mother, I noticed something about myself.  I'm not as superstitious as I used to be.  Tonight is New Year's Eve, and normally I run around making sure the house is clean, there are no outstanding balances anywhere, no grudges held, everything ready to ring in the new year with no old baggage.  But tonight, I'm not stressing about any of that.  There is nothing magical about tonight's midnight.  It's an arbitrary social convention established to help us divide events in time.  I will not jinx my 2015 if I'm still line drying clothes washed in 2014 (the day before).

Similarly, I've noticed that I'm not as religious as I was when starting the year. I hate to say it (Ok, the old me would hate to say it), but there's a  lot of overlap between what's deemed superstitious and what's considered religious.  Mainly it's a matter of perspective.  And this year, try as I did, I just can't recapture my old sense of religiosity.  My last ditch effort was to convert to Judaism, but then I realized it made no sense to do so if it wasn't because I thought there was more truth in Judaism than there is in Catholicism, where I'm already comfortable at least.  And while the unofficial Quaker in me still hopes to one day find a meeting where I will feel at home, as it stands, all religion seems to be an elaborate system of myth, legend, superstition, brainwashing, and power trips.  On one hand, these are meant to encourage the masses to follow some level of ethical living.  On the other hand, they mask the truth and beauty and genius of God that is buried deep underneath all the excess baggage.

As I've considered my spiritual journey thus far, I've noticed that I give way too much thought to external validation.  I've always been an outsider, so I don't know why I ever thought that I could actually find a religious community where I fit right in, both in terms of practice and belief.  And yet I've tried, and taken way too personally when others take it upon themselves to tell me I'm not "..." enough to really call myself X. 

Well, I've just about had it with trying to please fellow human beings.  Perhaps they actually believe everything the Catholic Church (for instance) teaches, and that's great for them.  But for them to try to tell me that unless I am at least trying to accept the official dogma I'm not "really Catholic", that's just absurd, ignorant, and their problem - not mine!  Being Catholic, heck, being any religion, is merely one aspect of one's culture.  I grew up with Catholic tradition, I went through the external Catholic sacraments of initiation, I choose to worship at a Catholic church (for now), and that's as Catholic as I'm going to be.  So what if the more observant Catholics bemoan my presence?  So what if they try to tell me to "go where I do believe what is being taught"?  Why should I have to leave?  That is only applicable if I'm working within their framework of what is True and holy and valuable. 

I'm not purposefully going to go out of my way to disrespect any religious sentiment (so long as it doesn't fly directly in the face of my values, which sadly some religious teachings do).  But I'm not going to be pushed out and treated like a pariah for being a free thinker. 

My problem all along, of course, has been that I wanted to belong.  And when I couldn't conform my own mind in order to belong, I set out to try to find those who already agreed with me so we could belong together.  Now that I'm finding that hard to find, I may need to reassess this need altogether.  Why do I need to belong to an official religious community?  Why must there be a commonly understood label for my spiritual experience?  Why must I be like everybody else?

Politically speaking, I'm an Independent.  I do not vote based on a candidate's party affiliation because individuals vary too much.  What a party may typically stand for doesn't necessarily mean each individual candidate will uphold that ideal.  And what if - hold onto your hats - there are things that each party stands for that I value?  In other words, I may not be a fan of big government, but I believe in helping the poor even at the expense of the filthy rich.  Or I may not agree with abortion on demand, but I do think gay couples have a right to marry.  If I officially say "I am a Republican" or "I am a Democrat", this automatically conjures up all the affiliated stances on various issues, regardless of my actual opinion on each.

Similarly, I've found the trouble with religion.  If I officially say "I am Catholic", the assumption (perhaps even rightly so) would be that I don't believe in using birth control, IVF, gay marriage, and that I pray to different saints based on my needs at the moment.  The holier-than-thou would say that if I disagree with them, then I have no right to call myself Catholic.  But the better question is - why do I want to?  Just to have a label to fall back on?  If the Catholics don't want me, why do I keep trying to justify why I should be allowed to keep calling myself Catholic even though I disagree with several key Catholic social teachings and, what's even more troubling, the major basic tenets of Christian faith.  They are right.  Religiously speaking, I'm no more Catholic than a Quaker or Buddhist is Catholic.

In a way, my Catholicism perhaps is similar to my Polishness.  I still have fond memories of living in Poland.  I still hold to some Polish traditions that are dear to me.  I still speak the language.  But just how Polish am I, really?  I'm not up to par on the latest Polish news, nor do I even espouse to some popular Polish outlooks on life anymore.  I haven't exactly stopped being Polish.  It's just that my Polish identity has faded over the years.  It won't ever totally disappear, and I'm glad for that, but I'll never resettle in Poland again and feel at ease living and working there.  I guess that's the same with my Catholicism, too.

And even my Americanness hasn't exactly simply taken the place of what my Polishness used to be.  I'm glad to be an American because of various reasons, but not because I fully agree with everything "America stands for".  Materialism, keeping up with the Joneses, the whole Savior-complex when it comes to interfering in world events.... I could do without those.  And perhaps my pro-immigration and universal healthcare attitude is enough to make certain Americans tell me to "go back to where I came from", or otherwise that I'm not "American enough".  If I disagree with every private citizen being allowed to carry a weapon, I must not be American.  It doesn't matter that I served in the US Army while some of these gun-happy "patriots" didn't.

If I keep letting people tell me what I can and cannot call myself, I'll no longer be Catholic, American, or a slew of other labels that perhaps don't fit me to a T.  (Feminist?  Not if I'm pro-life.  Mother?  Only if genetically related to my offspring.)

So I'm going to try something new in the New Year.  I'm going to use labels if doing so helps me, and I'm not going to worry if anyone disagrees with my use of the label.  Ideally, I'm going to try try TRY to live label-free.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Swapping Religions

As I was afraid, I may have jumped the gun on the whole potential-Jewish-convert idea.  But it's a thought process, and as long as I'm headed in the right direction, it doesn't matter where I thought I was going.

On a daily basis, for several weeks, Judaism and a Jewish life were at the forefront of my mind.  I discussed the possibility of a family conversion with Alex, who said both, that he was uncomfortable with the idea of converting but was open to learning, and that he is who he is today because he seeks to please me.... He probably knows by now that usually I just need to be able to hear my thoughts out loud, try ideas on as if they were decisions, and then sleep on the result.

Over the past few weeks of discernment, I've realized several things.  I need a label to give myself a spiritual/religious identity.  I thrive on compartmentalizing things; that's how I make sense of the world.  All the more when it comes to answering a question like "who am I".  Up until now, I've struggled with my lifelong identity as a Catholic.  I've given it adjectives (cultural? Christian?).  I've considered alternatives that don't stray too far from the Catholic home-base (Orthodox? Protestant?). No matter what I've tried, I've felt that I'm trying too hard and my religious identity should not be this difficult. That's why I thought a conversion to Reform Judaism would provide me with an official label/category that accurately reflected my spiritually liberal views.

Also, I've realized that I want a spiritual community of like-minded individuals to validate my own spiritual beliefs and values.  I wish this weren't the case.  I feel downright moronic to have admitted this, but if I'm going to move forward on this journey, I need to know exactly where I am, not where I think I should be or where I hope to be.  So, the community at our Catholic church doesn't quite fit the bill.  I recently went through a small-group series at the church where I so wanted to fit in.  I wanted to recapture my faith.  Yet by the end of the series, I knew I was a Catholic in name only, by virtue of my upbringing, nationality, habit, comfort level, but not faith.  I couldn't openly share my views on things that the Magisterium officially teaches against.  I mean, I COULD, but this would create an uncomfortable situation of others seeking to revert me back to the fold, convince me I'm wrong, pray for my salvation even (not so much in the Catholic tradition, which I think is why I've stuck around for so long.)  Again, belonging to a synagogue where the focus is not on belief, but where I know everyone most likely at least believes in a personal God, would allow me the freedom to express my thoughts and opinions without risking shunning.

Finally, I wanted a set of practices that would weave my faith into my daily life.  I used to enjoy the rituals of Catholicism when I was oblivious to what they stood for, even more when I believed what they stood for.  But once I began to be uncomfortable with worshiping the alleged incarnation of the Almighty instead of worshiping God directly through no intermediary, I could no longer in good conscience perform rituals meant to align me with a specific member of the Trinity, which 99% of the time was NOT the Father (the Creator, Source, Spirit).  I felt empty when considering non-ritualistic denominations, like Unitarian Universalism.  But if I'm being honest, the specific details that enriched my spiritual and religious life in the past - stained glass windows, beautiful artwork and statues, candles, silence in the sanctuary, timeless and uplifting music - have long left most Catholic churches anyway.  These are not what makes a Catholic church.  These are details, and many would argue insignificant at that.  Yet to me, they are not insignificant.  They are the stepping stones my soul would use to reach up to God.

As it turns out, I've been looking for something that doesn't exist.  I've been looking for what is perfection to my particular sentiments and needs, and organized religion can't possibly please everyone.  (Of course, that's not its point, either.)  But there was one more consideration that was giving me a sense of urgency about figuring out who I am spiritually once and for all:  my daughter Maya.  I don't want to pass on to her this spiritual uncertainty.  I want to raise her with a clear notion of God's presence in her life.

I don't know how exactly it happened, but yesterday it just dawned on me to reword my hopes for Maya's (and my) spirituality.  I had to peel back the last layer to get to the root of what I believe and start from that central point, not by negating where I happen to be right now.

I believe there is a God, a God who cares about me and whom I will join for all eternity after this life. I believe that the details cannot be known this side of heaven, yet it is precisely the details that every organized religion seems to try to nail down and pass on to its adherents as truth.  The truth is that God cannot be limited by any one religion.  The truth is that God cannot be limited by words, descriptions, explanations.  The truth is that God can only truly be known through direct experience.

So, if that's my understanding of God, and this is what I hope to teach Maya, does it really make sense for me to try to convert the family from any one particular religion to another? I've been looking for a one-size-fits-all religion that will fulfill all three of my needs - an officially recognized religious label in a community setting where my beliefs and values are reinforced and expressed in rituals and practices that can be incorporated into daily life, and this package deal is what I've wanted to pass on to my daughter.  Realizing that I don't believe any one religion is "true", it became pointless to convert from one to the other.  If we think of a pyramid divided into several levels, with the bottom level representing official organized religions, the middle level representing more general dogmas and creeds not necessarily tied to a single religion, and the very tip representing the actual truth and union with God, then I've been headed in the wrong direction - horizontally instead of vertically.

By the grace of God, it was this realization that made me realize that the best way to teach Maya what I believe about God - that He is not limited to a single religion - is actually to expose her to many different religions and NOT to merely pretend we "belong" to one interpretation but not another one. Granted, this immediately presents an obstacle to the first need I have - a label for that part of me that is religious.  There actually are a few labels I've considered before that came up, and some new ones I recently read about.  The idea is, if someone asks "what religion are you?" they're just looking for a label.  I can say "Spiritually Independent" (because indeed, my beliefs are independent from any organized religion), or "Seeker" (because indeed, I'm seeking God, and as I just realized, not religion), or "Ethical Monotheist" (something Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all purport to be at their core but sadly often fall very short in practice).  But considering actually identifying with any of these labels to the exclusion of a better recognized religious category seems cumbersome.  In a real life conversation, my interlocutor would either have no idea what I'm talking about and I'd have to explain, or, as with "Seeker", the assumption may be made that I'm sort of "in between religions" and open to considering theirs.  Sometimes, in life, a quick label that doesn't beg any further questions is needed.

And lo and behold, that's when it occurred to me that God has been drawing me to Himself all along (as if there was ever any doubt) by bringing me back around for the third (?!) time to Quakerism.

I've long held that I am a Quaker at heart.  My attendance at Quaker meeting-houses has been sporadic at best, so I've never even attained the status of ongoing attender, much less come to a place where I might request that a clearance committee consider making me "official".  The freedom of belief that nonetheless remains based on the teachings of Jesus - something I'm familiar and comfortable with - does beat out the freedom of belief available in Reform Judaism, since Jesus would pretty much have to become irrelevant all together.  I've heard it said that Jesus is to Judaism what Mohammad is to Christianity.  Perhaps he's fine as a teacher for those who follow him, but he's outside the scope of our world view.

For a long time, whenever I looked outside of Christianity for a potential spiritual home, I didn't feel right leaving Jesus behind.  Not because I believe that he is God, but because I'm familiar with the wording of his teachings.  I know that many of his lessons can be found in the teachings of other sages, those that came before him and those that followed him.  But I cannot pretend that my culture doesn't in part make me who I am, and my culture happened to include the particular teachings of Jesus.  So I never really liked the idea of leaving Jesus behind, but I felt I was between a rock and a hard place.  It seemed that I could either have Jesus as God or not at all.  Most recently, it became apparent to me that if indeed I had to choose, I couldn't continue to worship anyone but HaShem the Almighty.  Every time I thought of praising Jesus, I thought of the Jewish and Muslim accusation of idolatry.  I couldn't, in good conscience, continue to divert my worship from Allah the Creator.

But going back to Quakerism, I was reminded that I actually did have another option.  I could join a group of people who speak of listening to the Christ Within, a group of people who believe as I do that Jesus can teach us how to live right by God, without any particular creed or dogma about the theological details.

In Quakerism, I can have the label I desire, the community of like-minded people, and some tradition (mainly in the way things are worded, which is cool because as a linguist, I like words!).  But what about my stained glass and candles?  And what about not being able to have Alex worship with me because the silent worship leads to his snoring (ahem)?

Well, having come to the realization that what I actually believe and what I actually want to teach Maya is that it doesn't matter to God where or how we worship Him, so long as we serve Him by doing His will, it no longer became necessary to have a "family religion".  I could fulfill all of my spiritual needs so long as I quit fixating on trying to stuff them all into a single religious prepackaged box.

So how do I envision our family spiritual life now?

For starters, I'm going to have to make a better effort at finding a meeting house where I can feel at home.  I may have to drive a bit farther than I'd like to do that, but something's got to give.  Since Alex and I have not both been able to be attentive at Mass since Maya started walking, we've toyed with the idea of Alex going to a different Mass, my himself, and then watching Maya while I attend another Mass.  Well, this phase will end once Maya is old enough to sit somewhat still and pay attention to what's going on.  At that point, we can go back to attending Mass together as a family. Hopefully by then we'll find a church whose beauty is inspiring enough, whose music is uplifting enough, whose homilies are engaging enough, where I can still get some of my spiritual needs met there (while of course simply ignoring those aspects that I find questionable, objectionable, or unnecessary). In the meantime, I'll watch Maya while Alex attends Mass, and he'll watch her while I attend worship at a meeting house (there are two about 12 miles away that I want to check out).

That takes care of the weekly corporal worship aspect of our family's spiritual life.  But there's more.  Once I'm a full-fledged member of a meeting house, I'll feel a lot more comfortable participating with the Catholic community, since I'll be able to voice disagreement on theological issues without causing concern as a "lapsed Catholic".  Instead, I'll simply be a Quaker whose views differ from those of Catholics  In the meantime.  I'll need to become an integral part of my meeting-house and make friends there.  Not only will we be able to participate in each other's primary places of worship's activities, but Maya will also be able to benefit from the children's programs at both.

Furthermore, we'll periodically visit other places of worship and incorporate learning about other faiths into our homeschool curriculum.  As for Maya's religious identity, she can either be both Catholic and Quaker (at least the Quakers won't mind), or we can say that she is too young to have a religious identity of her own, and that she will decide when she's old enough.

With this arrangement, we can continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter and focus on our understanding of these holidays.  The same goes for religious art around the house, and the wording of our prayers.

Thank you, Lord, for opening my eyes to the possibility of serving You if only I think outside the box of a single family religion.  Amen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Seriously. Jewish?

I hesitate to write this post, because I do not know where the future may lead, and for some reason I worry that I may be made to feel silly for every feeling the way I do currently.  Yet that's the worst that may happen.  On the flip side, if the future indeed leads to where I'm headed right now, it may prove useful to look back and see how it all began.

There really are many starting points on my spiritual journey.  I've discussed this elsewhere as well. I grew up in a culturally Catholic household with an equal dose of pagan influences and Church attendance/various Christianity-related traditions, something I actually was not aware of until I became more and more spiritual and religious and found resistance from my family.  The horoscope and astrology in general were discussed as fact for as long as I can remember. It coexisted with regular Mass attendance, catechism classes, and home celebrations of holidays found on the liturgical calendar.  What was not present, which finally tipped me off as to the lack of actual religious Catholic influence in my family, was that there was no discussion of Christian beliefs aside from the very vague existence of God and going to heaven after we die.  There was likewise no family prayer, not even at mealtimes.  Being Catholic was a fraction of our cultural identity, something we fit in between Polish sentiments, like the importance of the Polish language, agreement about the deliciousness of Polish foods, and a common history of persecution from all sides over the years.

It wasn't until many years after immigrating to the United States that my idea of what it meant to be Catholic was contradicted by what my family considered "Catholic enough".  My senior year of high school, I felt a desire to draw closer to God.  The only way I knew how to do so was to consider a religious vocation.  I wanted to become a nun, and spend my days in prayer, study, and simple jobs around the convent.  I never had the chance to actually discern this vocation, because I was promptly discouraged by my family.  The idea of taking on such a lifestyle was akin to sadness in their eyes.  They couldn't imagine that I might actually be fulfilled by a life of simplicity. Lacking any seriously religious adult role models in my life, I followed the advice of my family and gave up the idea of a religious life before it ever had a chance to germinate in my mind any further.

Some years later, after my journey took me out of the Church and to various denominations and non-Christian world views, I came across another road block from my family.  I had come to feel God's presence envelope me and invite me into a personal relationship with Him.  Since previously I thought the only way to have a relationship with God was through the consecrated life, and since that idea was quickly squashed, I hadn't pursued that relationship in any other way because I didn't know another way existed.  And then, through years of exposure to Protestant Christians, I finally started to consider a life lived for God without the Catholic church.  For a brief while, I was excited about my born-again faith and tried to share my excitement with my mom.  In spite of what I thought were compelling arguments, she responded with "that's nice, but I'm still Catholic".

Then I tried to bring that fire I had for living for God into the Catholic sphere. I delved into Catholic history and theology and realized for the first time that what I was taught as a child was not the official, religious, Catholicism meant to bring me closer to God, but rather a mere cultural Catholicism.  As it would turn out, in spite of both of us "being Catholic", my religious reasons and my family's cultural reasons put us at odds with each other; we might as well have been of different religions.  My attempts at modest dress were ridiculed.  My frequent activity at church functions was tolerated at best.  I was keenly aware of my inability to say grace before meals in the presence of my family without it eliciting some sort of reaction - a raised eyebrow, a tongue-in-cheek joke, a sigh, or a discussion afterwards pointing out my lack of holiness in some area of my life.  Any public display of my religious sentiments was a threat - presumably - to my less religious relatives.  I was seen as acting holier-than-thou.  My religious behavior was seen as unnecessary.  Again, none of my relatives considered that perhaps this is just something that helps me live a more fulfilling life.

And so, with no support from my family to be religious, I found myself on my own as I searched for religious truth.  Thankfully, God sent my husband Alex into my life early on in my adult life.  He has always been open minded, and with time became religious as well.  Let me clarify that he is religious in an open-minded sort of way.  He is open about his belief in God, yet he does not presume to be certain that there is one religion that holds all truth about God.  That is precisely where I find myself as well.

Yet in spite of my conclusion that no religion can possibly contain everything there is to know about God, I still long to belong to a religion I can live out with integrity and joy.  It is not enough for me to simply be aware of my convictions without a larger body of believers reaffirming those convictions for me.  It is no longer appropriate for me to worship at a Catholic church and simply tune out the parts of the liturgy that do not resonate with me.  In fact, I can no longer, in good conscience, continue to associate myself with a Christian identity of any sort.

I love the teachings of Jesus, and for a long time I couldn't imagine abandoning his influence in my spiritual life.  Yet I see my relationship with Jesus akin to my relationship to the late Polish Pope.  I remember vividly keeping vigil when St. John Paul II's last days were being televised.  I mourned my fellow countryman and namesake as if I knew him personally.  Yet shortly after he died, I realized that since a Pole was no longer at the head of "my" church, I was relieved of my obligation to remain Catholic.  Similarly, the more I've studied about religion, the Bible, and Jesus, the more I've felt that I've been fed an image of Jesus that does not belong to the actual Yeshua who walked this earth 2,000 years ago.  I've been guilt tripped into believing without question.  I was taught that my shortcomings in this life (my "sins") literally have a supra-temporal affect on Jesus; every time I "sin" (as defined by Christian authorities), I crucify Jesus!  Can you imagine?!  How does one get away from that level of brain-washing intact?

At any rate, with my daughter Maya having recently turned one year old (!), the dry spell of my spiritually journey has also turned from a very short lived but intense deepening of Christian Catholic faith to a months-long dark night of the soul, followed in recent months by a reemergence of a desire to reconnect to a spiritual community.  Except that I've come out the other end of this past year with an itch that cannot be left unscratched; I simply do not believe that God is trinitarian.  I do not believe that Jesus meant to start a new religion.  I do not believe that the holy spirit of God is its own person.  I have tried to believe what would make my life the easiest.  Staying Catholic would be the easiest.  But how can a religion be based on a mandate of belief?!  We either believe something is true or we don't.  We cannot help what we believe.  That's like saying we must find someone attractive.  Ludicrous! We are either attracted to someone or we aren't.  There's no logical explanation for it.  Same with religion. So I have to opt out.

I have tried to continue with my Catholic religion on the surface - attendance at mass, Catholic prayers and practice... but I am not Catholic at heart any longer.  My heart is bursting with a desire to know God on a level that is not hindered by a sense of loyalty, or guilt, or mere convenience.  The Christian programming I have received over the years - while perhaps well-meaning - has left me with a conundrum similar to the one I faced when my early desire to take vows of religious life were halted.  I have been unable to get past those aspects of the Catholic Christian faith that I simple cannot accept.  The result has been a stagnant personal life of the spirit.  If I can't, in good conscience, tap into Christian prayers and practices in order to build my relationship with God, that leaves me high and dry.  I have no framework to work with.

I was so excited about the whole Spiritually Independent notion that I wrote about previously.  But once I wrote about it, I realized that it didn't resonate with me.  It felt fake.  Not having a community to share a spirituality with felt as though it wasn't real.  Not having a history or tradition to link my spiritual practice with previous generations felt forced.  These are the sort of things that the Catholic church provided that kept me around for so long.... until finally my conscience could no longer play along.

I believe in one God, indivisible, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient.  I believe God created me - and all of creation - in love.  I believe that God desires for me to draw closer to Him, to know Him, and to seek to please Him.  I believe that He realized my limited ability to do so perfectly, and therefore will accept my good intentions and fill in my shortcomings with His grace.  I believe that the only way I can have meaning in my life is if I am rooted in a religion that has a strong history and tradition, a religion that incorporates ritual to help the entire person become in tune with praying to God, a religion that focuses more on what we do know and can do, without getting tripped up about the details of God's nature or how we can never be good enough for God on our own.

If God is my father, how can my good intentions not be good enough for Him?  If my daughter misses the mark and upsets me, but I know she meant well, how can I not instantly forgive her and give her another chance, again and again if need be?  I don't need the blood of a substitute sacrifice to forgive my own child!

And so it is with this understanding that I slowly turn towards Reform Judaism.  I have high hopes for this new leg of my journey.  In practice, I believe it has many of the aspects of Catholicism that I appreciate - the history, tradition, ritual.  In theology and lived spirituality, I see it close to Quakerism - free to discern where God is leading me and open to His spirit to have a unique road for me to travel. (I want to quickly note that while I felt drawn to Quakerism for a long time, a Quaker once made a negative comment about Catholics that actually explains precisely why I couldn't officially take on the full Quaker identity.  He said that "some people [referring to Catholics] feel the need to light candles".  Indeed - I need that ritual, which Quakerism lacks.)

So, practically speaking, what is my next step?  Well, I have been open and honest with Alex about how I am feeling, because I know that my decisions will involve the entire family.  We want to raise Maya with a strong faith in God, and we need to be on the same page regarding what context that will take place in.  Alex seems open to learning about Judaism with no strings attached, and I couldn't ask for any more from him at this point.  We will be attending our first Shabbat service in a couple of weeks at a Reform Temple.  I imagine that actually coming in contact with other Jews on their own turf and seeing first hand how they worship will either entice me to continue, or stop me dead in my tracks.  I pray to God that this will not turn into another dead end.  I need to be settled spiritually by the time Maya is ready to start asking questions about God.

(I should note that as I read about Jewish practice, I am slooooooowly hoping to start incorporating some of these into our life.  For several days now I've recited the Shema prayer in Hebrew twice daily.  I've been trying to wrap my head around the wealth of grace prayers and at least say the Baruch "call to prayer" before eating.  I'm learning to resist the automatic habit of crossing myself at the start and end of prayers.  And while my participation at Mass has been distracted anyway since Alex and I take turns watching Maya and not really being able to pay full attention, there are two aspects of Mass that I need to eliminate right away if I am to truly discern Judaism: reception of Communion and recitation of the Nicene Creed.  [Since weekly attendance at some sort of place of worship is important to me, until we establish a presence at a shul (syagogue), we need to stick with Mass attendance.] I've toyed with both of these ideas before, and ended up continuing with my own understanding.  But now that I want to give Judaism a try, I need to focus my attention on what the Torah teaches, and not what the Church of Karolina teaches.)

Have I mentioned that I long to celebrate a true Shabbat?  With the candle lighting, blessing of Maya, grace before and after meal, conscious attention paid to what we do and don't do from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and gathering for corporal worship at shul.  Have I mentioned also that I long to study the Torah?  Something deep inside tells me that there is a hidden jewel inside the Torah, and that I will not be disappointed if I undertake serious study of it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What About Judaism?

I reverted to draft several of my posts from this year that dealt with my spiritual journey.  I felt a bit uneasy about having these personal thoughts in the virtual world.  I felt... embarrassed (?) for not having a firm grasp on my religious or spiritual life as a thirty-something adult.  But upon further reflection, I decided to repblish them.  They are reflections of where I've been on the journey, not a declaration of my final arrival.  Rather, I'm finding that my spiritual journey continues....

It's interesting.  At the completion of the Called and Gifted small groups program I blogged about earlier, I started reading a book on deliverance and was signed up to receive intercessory prayer... a talk during the meetings made Satan a possibility to me.  But I couldn't finish the book.  I found that blaming Satan for my own weakness of character, my own having missed the mark, is a copout, much like turning over my salvation to the sacrificial gift of Jesus on the cross.  Rather than being personally responsible for my own actions, I merely aligned myself with the good or bad powers that be and let them duke it out.  Also, a list of potential activities/experiences in the book that claim to have possibly let the influence of evil into my life included visiting non-Christian sanctuaries and practicing yoga.  Um, ok.  So our very own popes have been guilty of the first infraction due to their attempts at interreligious dialogue, eh?  And I only hear this nonsense about yoga from people who have never tried it for the physical benefits.  Just because it happens to come from a Hindu tradition doesn't mean it's impossible to do certain poses or breathe in a way that is non-Christian!  This sort of narrow-mindedness brought me back to a level of even-headedness.

I swapped the book for another, on forming intentional disciples of Christ.  The first chapter read like a textbook - something I actually found enticing, given my extended academic history.  What I read was the percentages of people converting into and out of Catholicism, and their reasons.  And what resonated with me was that it made no difference in the bigger scheme of things.  I am coming to the end of reading a series of books on mystical experiences in the world's religions.  I read the Bagavad Gita with interest, though it was certainly a foreign concept to understand the different manifestations of "God" in non-Christian language.  I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead.... correction, I read half of it.  The introductory chapters were very insightful.  The actual meat and potatoes were a series of instuctions and descriptions of realities for those transitioning from this life to the next.  It was so cumbersome that I felt I was reading the same thing over and over again.  I read the Tao Te Ching with a lot more excitement, and everything in it resonated with me... everything except the lack of a personal God.  I read half of the Essential Rumi, and even though I enjoyed the imagery in his poetry, to be honest, I got bored.  I stopped without finishing the entire book.  Then I read the Essential Kabbalah, and again, I was fascinated like with the Tao Te Ching.  Only this time, God was there!  I finished the whole book with delight.  I am now on to rereading The Way of a Pilgrim, a book I ready many years ago, for the Christian rendition of mysticism.

But the reason I bring this up is that the timing of these various books, along with the books and talks stemming from the Called and Gifted workshop, slowly etched a solid realization in my heart. Religion does not hold Truth.  Truth cannot be contained in any one religion.  It cannot be contained period.  It can merely be alluded to, but as soon as we begin to describe God and ultimate reality with words, we do God a disservice.  The Essential Kabbalah said as much, too.

On a whim, as I do every now and again, I viewed a few YouTube videos about conversion to Judaism.  I like to hear other people's stories about their spiritual journeys, and I hadn't spent much time with Judaism before.  I became intrigued.  Later that night, I looked up some basic information on Reform Judaism on my smart phone, as I was waiting for Maya to drift off to sleep.  I don't know why I hadn't given Judaism more thought in the past.  I know that I was always attracted to the simplicity of the theology - that the Jewish God was not Trinitarian.  But being opposed to circumcision on ethical grounds (and from an attachment parenting perspective) I have long assumed that Judaism just wasn't going to work for me.  For one, I wanted any potential conversion to be something we could do as a family, and I knew expecting Alex to get cut was not going to fly, not that I even wanted him to.  Plus, if we ever had a son, I wouldn't cut him, so I just couldn't belong to a religion that expected something I considered cruel.

And then I read that Reform Judaism does not require circumcision of its converts.  It's as if the one stumbling block to even looking into the faith has finally been removed for me.  Once I didn't have that consideration blocking me, I was able to read about the other aspects of Reform Judaism that I am finding very enthralling.

Aspects of Judaism in general that I find interesting (even if some are very small):

1. Mezuzah (a tiny scroll found at the front door of a Jewish home).  In movies I've seen Jews touching it as they entered or left and then putting their fingers to their lips.  This always reminded me of the holy water font in Catholic churches, and I long wanted something like this at my front door, some symbol, some way of reminding myself of God's centrality in my life in this way.

2. Shabbat (the Sabbath).  I respect the way Jews truly honor the Lord's Day, while only few Christians do.  I like the idea of setting aside this time for God and family and nothing else.

3. The importance of study.  Studying the Torah is central to Jewish life, at least to Jews who are not mothers to young children!  Given my extended history of study, the idea that this can be a part of my religion is exciting.

4. The centrality of the family.  As much as I respect the Catholic notion of having various vocations, including the religious celibate life and the single lay celibate life, in addition to marriage, family is where the heart is, after all.

5. The undeniable oneness of God.  I simply cannot get this in a Christian denomination.  No matter how the Trinity is explained, it muddles the oneness of G-d for me. Essentially, G-d cannot be explained, and the Trinity is a human attempt at explaining G-d.

Now, specifically within Reform Judaism, I find the following to be further aspects of interest for me:

1. Circumcision for converts is not required.

2. There is no creed that all Jews must adhere to!  There are broad guidelines, but outside of the basic belief in a single God and the Torah being instructive for our moral life, each individual is to discern faith. Judaism is about practice, not belief.  I love this, because one cannot help what one believes.  However, one does have control over what one does!

3. Torah interpretation is left to individual discernment. Which mitzvohs one follows are likewise left up to one's own discernment.  This includes to what degree one keeps kashrut (kosher).

4. Women and men are more equal - both can be rabbis, for instance.

These aren't all inclusive considerations by any means, just based on my introductory understanding of Judaism and Reform Judaism in particular.  Essentially, I wanted the freedom that comes with Protestantism in terms of discernment of how God wants each individual to live their life, expressed most liberally within Quakerism.  Yet I also love the ritual and mystery I grew up with in Catholicism.  At first glance, it seems that Reform Judaism may be able to provide a bit of both.

I found a synagogue nearby and hope to make it to service this Shabbat.  Alex is down with it, so we'll see.  I've been disillusioned with a faith in the past after visiting their communal worship space. But maybe I've grown in my expectations.  Shalom :)