Is it just me or did April just fly by? I can’t believe we’re already in the last week of Judaism, but here we are.
Tradition holds that I take this week to reflect on what I’ve learned, what I’d change, and what I’ll carry with me going forward. Honestly though, I wish I could have spent more time with Judaism and its people. So much of this religion identifies a people rather than just a faith. The fact that there aren’t many Jews in my area ensured that I spent this month hungry for that familial interaction that is the foundation of this ancient, world-altering religion.
What I’ve learned:
1) No two Jews look alike. I know this sounds petty and sophomoric, however going into this month I thought that most Jews shared a genetic and therefore physical identity making them appear similar (i.e., Israeli or “New York Jew”). Stereotype is the most common word for this and innocently enough, I fell for it. The truth is that as with any other faith, Jews hail from virtually every ethnic and national background. This stems from the long history of the Jewish Diaspora where their influence planted cultural, ethnic, and religious roots around the globe. Just in my short tenure as an honorary Jew, I sat in synagogue congregations as diverse as America itself, with Jews speaking with accents stretching from the deep south, the busy north, and the Holy Land. The moral here is to never stereotype; never judge a book by its cover.
2) Food, family, and faith. To Judaism, these are bonded together like the three parts of an atom. Dietary laws within Judaism (kashrut) and specific foods used to honor holidays create a unique culinary tradition among the Jews which permeate everyday life. Food is the centerpiece of family ties and therefore a Jewish kitchen itself becomes hallowed ground where recipes are argued over, modified, and guarded like Talmud (Jewish religious law and commentary).
3) Judaism is a tradition of open debate between man and God. Of the four religions I’ve explored so far, Judaism is the only faith which encourages one to not only openly debate religious texts between one another, but to question the divine. This is a tradition that dates back to the patriarch of the Jewish people, Abraham, and many other prophets and popular Jewish historical figures who argued with God without shame. This relationship often reminds me of that between a growing teen and their parents where the teen is almost expected to rebel while the parent patiently awaits their illumination. Judaism holds a deep tradition of rabbinic and lay debate over the Talmud and its commentaries, thus creating a crucible through which students of Torah and Talmud come through the other side trained in the art of reason, debate, and a secure knowledge of their faith. This aspect of Judaism offered me great comfort, for it seems that among Jews throughout history–no matter the ordeal–the existence of God is so ingrained and part of their cultural DNA, that it’s almost taken for granted and therefore this close relationship between God and his people allows such a dialogue.
What I Would Change
I will always come away from each month wishing I could have done and seen more. My Mentor, Michael J. Solender and his wife Harriet, provided a wonderful foundation at the beginning of the month. Without their help and the experiences they provided, I would not have the insights I have into the Jewish faith and its people today. That being said, it is important to understand what community means in Jewish culture. In fact, I would be surprised to ever find a Jew in isolation. Generations of Diaspora meant finding refuge within a mobile community for security and comfort. I certainly felt this during the month with constant contact via email and phone with my Mentor and the Jewish members of the Project Conversion Facebook page. I wish I could have spent more time in a synagogue and therefore will purpose to spend more time with different faith communities going forward.
My advice to anyone considering Judaism as their faith is to immediately find a local shul or synagogue and link up with the congregation there. Also, talk with your family. Becoming Jewish is no simple matter of saying a few lines of creed or faith and you magically become a Jew. Many aspects of your life change. Indeed, when becoming a Jew, you aren’t simply converting to a faith, you’re becoming part of a global family.
What I’ll Take With Me
This really is a physical and spiritual journey. I spent the last Shabbat hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my brother-in-law and it was on this day trip that the journey aspect of Project Conversion really hit home. We eventually came to the end of the trail and decided to explore the less-traveled portion of the mountain. This decision led to more difficult hiking, however the beautiful sights, sounds, and discoveries made the sweat and bruises worth while. In many ways, Project Conversion is the same. Each month is like a new path which invites me to explore at every turn. Sometimes I rediscover aspects of the faith I never fully appreciated before. One of these is Shabbat.
1) As a Christian in high school, I understood Sabbath (Shabbat) to be a day when I attended church. That was it. Now I know the deeper meaning of Shabbat; this concept of profound rest–a mandatory weekly vacation. There is great difficulty in separating ourselves from work and the constant interaction with the outside world via social media and television, but after cutting these aspects of my life off for my first Shabbat, there was no going back. The rest was peaceful and rejuvenating. I came to look forward to lighting the candles of this holy day every week. Going forward, I will recognize one day a week of complete separation from work, the internet, and anything else that might distract me from family and rest. We all need some time off to decompress. What do you think? Is this something you could use in your life?
3) The comfort of knowing that doubt and questioning is natural and okay. There are few words in the world of religion more terrifying than “blasphemy.” While there are common threads of religious truth within Judaism, for the most part, Jews are encouraged to struggle with Torah and Talmud in a way that encourages growth and learning. One should never fear their own curiosity, regardless of faith. If you ever find yourself in a situation where your opinions and questions are cast off as blasphemous or unworthy of exploration, you might need to take a good hard look at the faith tradition in general and the community in particular. Accusations of blasphemy throughout history are usually nothing more than attempts to control the masses. The simple fact is that we are curious beings, and if we are to believe that a wise creator fashioned us in such a way, then this curious aspect of our nature is holy and necessary.
So this is where I stand at the end of my journey with Judaism. This is an intense, dynamic faith which stretches back through much of recorded history and due to its influence on humanity, demands our respect. I will take many lessons from the various teachers of this month to help guide me through the rest of the year. I appreciate you following along. What have you learned this month?