a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

How and Why do you Jew?

Posted on: December 5, 2010

I’ve started to write this post at least a dozen times.  I’ve recently received 3 books on Jewish prayer from Amazon, To Pray as a Jew by Hayim Halevy Donin, Entering Jewish Prayer by Reuven Hammer, and Minding the Temple of the Soul by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld.  I’ve purchased them to better understand the things that happen at service; when to bow, why we bow, how to bow…should I bow or does that feel strange?  I purchased language  aids to help with learning Hebrew so that I can read or at least try to read the language of Jewish pray.  Am I a Jew if I pray in English?  Am I connected to the Jewish people if I don’t pray in Hebrew?  I’ve also purchased them because I want to know the different ways to enter Jewish prayer…meditation, concentration, proper mindset.  I’m reading the first two in tandem and they’re both written from an Orthodox perspective-I’ve skipped entire chapters.  Mainly I wonder why do I want to pray and what difference does it matter if I pray the “right” way.

Friday night Mirs and I had our Hanukkah Party we had 13 people in our small apartment to bring in Hanukkah with food, drinks, music, drinks, food, drinks, drinks, drinks.  One of our friends asked me why Judaism and I’ve been thinking about that question since she asked.  We were both pretty…wasted so the conversation jumped around but it’s a valid question whose answer changes the more that I learn.

Being without religion doesn’t work for me.  I tried and I failed and felt empty inside, which sounds incredibly dramatic.  With personal issues looming, family issues bogging me down I needed something.  In a drunken stupor with Mirs falling asleep fast next to me I came up with my analogy of the religions that I tested before coming to Judaism.  They’re all like being in a room.  As a Christian, specifically a Catholic, the room may be large but eventually you get to a wall so you walk in the opposite direction and eventually get to another wall before you realize that you’re boxed in and that you can’t get around or through the walls because there are no doors or windows.  With Christianity there are facts that you cannot dispute, doing so makes you a non-believer.  The need to be saved, the need to believe that Jesus is not only man but divine, the son of God.  The Bible is the living word of God and cannot be changed, altered, or argued without damnation of your soul.  For me, personally, Islam is like that too but with a stronger God connection.

Living in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood a block from a mosque I’m surrounded by believers.  Seeing them, very obviously Muslim, devout in dress and manner on the block holding prayer beads is intriguing  The dedication that these Muslims have to their faith, their prayer specifically, is inspirational.  Still, to me, Islam is like being in a boxed room with no doors.  In order to be a Christian one needs to declare Jesus as their saviour and then you’re a Christian.  In order to become a Muslim you must declare that there is only one God and his prophet is Mohammed.

Buddhism, while there are definitely beliefs was like being in a room and realizing that there were no walls.  When you thought you’d approached one you realized it was just an illusion and you could essentially keep going in every direction without coming to an end.  It sounds amazing but for me the lack of boundaries was daunting and overwhelming, still the connectedness to divinity in meditation and practice was inspirational.

When I found Judaism it was the best of everything I was looking for.  The idea of one God is comfortable for me but Judaism doesn’t require that you always agree with him, and in fact, encourages the argument in terms of discovering truths.  The Bible, depending on which sect of Judaism you believe, can be challenged and when you’re in the large room and you hit a wall you discover that there’s a door that you have a key to that you can walk through.  You find yourself in another room and you can walk until you hit a wall that has another door that you have a key to that you can walk through.  It can continue that way for the rest of my life as a Jew.  As a Jew, you’re allowed and encouraged to “wrestle with the Torah”  we’re encouraged to ask questions.  We’re encouraged to not believe based on faith alone, but based on knowledge.  Judaism allows you to think with a rational mind while asking you to think like a Jew, live like a Jew, and work towards making the world a better place not only for Jews but for human kind.  Christians do that too, as do Muslims and any faith but for me, Judaism works best.

My Netflix has been clogged with Documentaries, docudrama, and National Geographic, PBS, Discovery Channel looks into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  It’s almost insane how similar the three religions are and by far, Judaism and Islam are the two that make me most excited, most intrigued, most fascinated.  It’s because at their core, their very roots, you will find God and no one else.  Just God.  With Judaism, like Islam, there is no messenger, there isn’t an intermediary, there is only God.  You pray to him and him alone.  No angels to carry your prayer, no saints to put in a good name.  Just you and God.  I’m also reading Finding God by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme.  I’m still very early in the book and it’s captivating .  It’s made me realize a relationship with God that I’ve never learned before.  As a Christian, you often end prayers with, “In Jesus’ name we pray” but Jewish prayers start, Baruch atah, Adonai.  Blessed are you, Adonai, Our God.

“A man enters a synagogue, and stands behind a pillar, and prays in a whisper, and God hears his prayer, and so it is with all His creatures.  Can there be a nearer God than this?  He is as near to His creatures as the ear to the mouth”

JT Brachot 9:1. 13a

Jews, like Muslims, are instructed to pray in the tongue of God.  For Jews, that tongue is Hebrew.  It is the language of the Torah, and arguable, the language that God spoke to the prophets.  Do I really believe all of that?  I shrug as I write this.  The beauty of Judaism is that I’m “allowed” to shrug whereas Christianity commands you to have faith.  I do feel close to God in many ways.  I feel God’s presence in the laughter and smiles of my nephews.  I see God in the beauty of the world and oddly I see God in the ugly.  I see God in the homeless people on the streets of New York and I am lost and confused when I try to ignore them.  One of my favorite Christian Bible gospels, The gospel of Thomas isn’t in the Catholic canon or the King James version of the Christian Bible.  It reminds us that God is in everything, we just have to seek him out.

So how do I do that?

4 Responses to "How and Why do you Jew?"

I find bowing to come very natural. One day while I was in minyan at the Conservative shul I realized I was swaying. I felt stupid especially since I wasn’t even praying (because I couldn’t read Hebrew at anywhere near their pace). Then I realized the girl next to me, a conversion student about my age was also swaying in exactly the same way. I don’t know if it was because we were next to each other but it was interesting. I didn’t feel so weird when I realized we were both doing it.

Do you know if you will wrap tefillin? It’s something I think I want to do but they are expensive so I don’t know when I would have my own set. It’s also one of those things I won’t do until after my conversion, so I have no idea what is really feels like yet, you know?

Bowing should come naturally to me, too but it doesn’t. In Catholic School growing up you bow as you approach the alter and kneel before it-I was just following the leader, mostly. I always forget to bow in shul…

Swaying I naturally do as well. Not with as much vigor as Hasidic men in service but sort of find myself moving side to side or forward and backwards.

I do not know how to wrap tefillin either-I’m intrigued though.

[…] I said in an older post.  The way that I Jew and How I Jew is not always going to be the way that you Jew or How you Jew […]

[…] way to wrestle since Torah times.  One of the first metaphors I used to describe Judaism was like being in a room, and it’s still like that for me.  It’s also about making it my own, and not being […]

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