We Jews are nothing if not bigoted amongst ourselves. If the entire Jewish world were one single denomination, no one would be Jewish anymore. Because without a different group of Jews to throw under the liturgical bus, how in the world would we define ourselves?
The old joke makes a brilliant point. After many years lost at sea, a Jew is discovered on a desert island where he’s built two synagogues for himself. When his rescuers ask why he built two of them, he answers: “I had to build two. This is the synagogue where I pray. And that’s the one I wouldn’t set foot in.” Fellow Jews laugh because it’s true.
I navigate in those waters from time time from a Reform perspective on my blog, holding to the Jewish right to define yourself and your Jewish journey on your own. As far as I’m concerned, no other Jew or Jewish denomination has a right to determine your journey for you.
Celebrated Jew-by-choice, Jew-of-color blogger Erika Davis navigates those waters as well, from her own Orthodox experience. Returning from a study trip to Israel recently, she posted about her love for Torah, and wondered whether she would ever feel religious enough.
God, I’ve been there. The love-at-first-sight with my original synagogue that ended badly. The semester-and-then-broke stint in rabbinic school that ended badly. The arguments with Ryan about his level of observance before he was Jewish that always ended badly.
Nobody ever said being Jewish was easy. In fact, many of our teachings drive home the exact opposite being true. But in my heart, I know there’s a middle ground. Being Jewish has a lifelong fluidity to it. By dint of Jewish law both a religion and a people combined, Judaism, itself, is hard to pin down.
Often, neither are we.
I’m no longer the Jew-by-choice who wants to dive down into our tradition and never come up for air. That changed when my family came back into my life last year and helped me remember so many pieces of myself that I had left behind—some by accident, some deliberately. Pieces that I no longer want to live without. My urbanism. My hometown. My own inner diversity.
I understand better the depth of the journeys of my fellow liberal Jews that I found so shallow during the piss-and-vinegar of my first few years after converting. No, I’m not the kind of Jew who can be satisfied expressing and experiencing my Judaism only culturally, or only through social justice, or only during once-in-a-blue-moon visits to synagogue. But neither anymore am I the kind of Jew who needs to be at temple every Shabbat, or dreams of a life in service to the Jewish community, or wishes that there were free Birthright trips to Israel for post-26 year old Jews-by-choice.
There’s my native New York City and my beloved Lisbon to reconnect with. A much wider world to be of service to. And a month of Friday night chickens to roast at home, two candles, my Ryan, and me. I’m finally at ease with my Jewish choices. I love my Jewish tradition. But I no longer feel the need to define myself solely by it. My kippah isn’t leaving me head. But the language I can’t get out of my head is back to being the language of Camoes, not the language of the land. I guess you could say I finally settled in.
Davis’ blog post reminded me that the yearning to be a better Jew isn’t the only kosher yearning. No matter convert or Jew-by-birth, ethically liberal Jew or biblically literal Jew, as creations of God we are more than the sum of our parts. And far more than the sum of the parts we usually allow ourselves to recognize.
Is being religious for a Jew limited to how closely you can adhere to 613 commandments, a third of which haven’t been possible for two-thousand years and all of which gleaned by man? How devoutly you bend at the knee at the mention of Adonai’s name? How much guilt you carry when a member of another denomination—or even worse, your own—tells you that you’re not doing it right? Well? Enough? At all? Or even worse, when you find yourself telling a fellow Jew they’re not doing it right? God, I’ve been there, too.
Let me tell you what I yearn for now, on this side of six years living Jewishly. I yearn for the deepening my connection with God. I yearn for my connection with that which created me, and is inside of me, and me inside of it. I yearn to be true to the Divinity that is inescapably in all things and in me. I yearn to be true to my exploration of my free will, with the guidance of the impulses and interests given me from above and of the will and joy and fortitude and imagination with which I’m endowed within.
I live for the moments of connection when I am sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that God and I are aligned within the great creative context of the Universe and canvas of my life. And at those moments I know that 613 commandments are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the infinity of joyous, loving probabilities toward which I can navigate by, as Martha Graham implored, keeping the channel open.
Only by honoring my measure both as Jewish and as so much more can I ever live in true consonance with the desires of my maker or of my own. On conversion day, they say you shouldn’t dry off after you finish your preparatory shower, before you enter the waters of the mikvah. Conversion is never meant to be a clean break. The droplets you carry with you into the mikvah waters represent your old life mixing with the new. You’re not even supposed to dry off when you’re finished dunking.
Sometimes, though, you go overboard. But God never meant for us to live in a bubble—not in our communities, and not in ourselves. I’ve had six years of finding out who I am as a Jew. As a Jew finally in the groove, now I think it’s time to remember who else I am and have always been, and bring all of it, finally, back together. That doesn’t mean stepping down from my Judaism. It just means finally reopening my mind.
There are those who would suggest that rote observance equals piety. But I think mindfulness is as religious as it gets.