Despite the busy-ness of teaching my own classes, I'm currently taking a class -- yay for classes, with syllabi and new notebooks and books! Tomorrow will be the third of our Tuesday night 2.5-hour class sessions.
And here's the class: Introduction to Judaism, offered through the local branch of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Yes, at the ripe old age of 46, I'm rethinking my religion.
On the one hand, this feels ridiculous. I'm middle-aged and should know who the heck I am by now.
On the other hand, (1) I think I should probably give up on ever knowing exactly who the heck I am, and (2) why not keep exploring?
So here's the genesis (heh heh - religion joke) of my taking this step: I've never really believed in the divinity of Jesus. I've tried to, really hard. I remember talking with a priest about prayer years ago, and he was really surprised when I said that it had never even occurred to me to pray to Jesus -- it just didn't make any sense to me at all. He urged me to try it, and I did, and it felt ridiculous. (A quick note here: I'm not saying it should be ridiculous for anyone else, obviously -- this is just about my religious journey, no one else's!) I totally dig Jesus, don't get me wrong -- the Gospels are awesome -- but it's the whole trinity thing that doesn't work for me. At more than one point over the years I've looked into various unitarian churches, thinking that would be the answer, but for various reasons they didn't feel right; several of them explicitly sneered at Christians, which annoyed me, and most of them seemed more invested in community service than in worship -- community service being a good thing indeed, just not what I was looking for. People kept telling me that the Trinity was simply a "holy mystery" that one had to take on faith rather than try to fully comprehend, and so I went along with this mystery for years and years. And I read books about Jesus and tried, really, really tried, to be a devout Christian, even though when I read the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer I usually prefer to just leave off the part about Jesus at the end of each prayer.
And of course over the years I've had fulfilling and important moments with specific churches and members of those churches, no matter my struggles with trinitarian theology. But I haven't really had a worshiping life and community that felt grounding and real to me since I left Grad School City, which was in 2001. That's a long time ago!
In all of that time of searching and flailing about, it never occurred to me to look at Judaism when I was exploring things like Unitarianism. I think it just felt too outside of my ken and my world; one can be a WASPy Unitarian, but a WASPy Jew seemed wrong. And besides, there's all of that Hebrew.
Maybe 4 or 5 years ago, however, I took the plunge and took a three-week teaser course from the URJ here in Adventure City. I loved, loved, loved the first two weeks of it, and then I was unhappy in the third week, which was the big Q&A session. The URJ mostly holds these outreach courses for interfaith couples, and so most of the folks in the class were Jews and their Gentile mates, and most of the questions were about whether one could still have a Christmas tree in a Jewish or interfaith home. And then I got to ask a question, and I asked whether there one could think about Jesus as another prophet within Judaism, which I would argue is pretty much the way he presented himself.
Well. I would have gotten a better reaction if I had farted audibly. The people nearby literally scootched away from this person who had rudely mentioned the J-word. The rabbi looked shocked at my question, didn't really respond to it at all, and quickly moved on to the next person, who wanted to talk about Christmas trees some more. I went home feeling very discouraged, pretty sure that, if I'm a bad Christian, I would be an even worse Jew, and that there's just no place for me at all.
So then I just left the whole issue. And I joined my local Congregationalist church, which had a minister I totally loved; and then when he left to go to another church after a couple of years, I left that congregation, because he was the only reason I was going there. And he and I had had some lovely arguments about Jesus; when I joined it was with the specific caveat that I didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus but did believe that looking at Jesus tells us something about God, which he thought was sufficient to join the church.
That was a couple of years ago. In the interim, I've visited Episcopal churches a couple of times and liked the liturgy, as usual, but not felt any need to go back again. And I haven't been happy in this limbo, but it wasn't clear to me how to get myself out of it.
Then last summer I made an overture to a colleague that maybe some time I could chat with her a bit about Judaism. She was happy to do so, but I didn't follow up at all; it all felt too scary and vulnerable to even talk.
But then in December, I approached her again and asked if I could go with her to Shabbat services at some point. I didn't say anything about why I wanted to go, and she carefully didn't ask but invited me to go with her the next Saturday. She's part of a tiny Reconstructionist synagogue that meets on the second floor of a Congregationalist church, so there was something very familiar about the experience even as other things were different. And of course I've had years of training as a person of the book -- liturgy, following along in a prayer book, etc. -- no worries. Well, except that a lot of it was in Hebrew, of course, but surprisingly that didn't stress me out. I was there sort of in ethnographer mode, I think.
For the last four years or so, on a semi-regular basis, I've been checking out the URJ webpage on a regular basis, looking at the schedule for their 16-week Intro to Judaism course and thinking about taking it but never quite taking that step. But the week after I went to services with my colleague, I told D. that I was thinking about taking this course, the next iteration of which started in January. And she was really interested and said she'd take it with me. So there we were -- commitment!
The reason that I was interested in taking this particular iteration was that it was taught by the rabbi of a local synagogue that I was partial to based on its website. Oh yeah, because I was also doing things over the years like doing internet searches for local synagogues and wondering which one I'd go to if I were Jewish, which of course I wasn't. And I had found this local Reform synagogue that appealed to me in a couple of ways, and then its rabbi was going to lead the 16-week class -- maybe it was fate! But I wanted to check him out before I committed to the course, so a couple of weeks ago I toddled off to Friday night services.
And whom should I run into but another colleague, who was also visiting this synagogue for the first time! But she's actually Jewish and knows her way around the service, so even though I was initially dismayed at being "found out" on this exploration, I was then glad she was there. And she and I (and her boyfriend, who was with her) went to the oneg after the service and chatted with the rabbi and the president of the synagogue and a few other folks -- all very friendly. (And hey, did you notice me throwing around the Hebrew there?)
So now I've dived in. Tomorrow is the third week of the course, and I'm enjoying doing my homework and taking part in the discussions, and for the last couple of months or so I've been reading Jewish book after book. I'm trying hard not to be at all goal-oriented in this process. It's a journey, not a destination, etc., and I'm just trying to take each week for what it brings with no clear sense of where it will end.
And that, my friends, is this thing I'm doing right now.