It is hard to believe that another year in the Jewish calendar is almost here.
It is big milestone for me, as it was five years ago that our family first observed Rosh Hashanah (my wife wrote a very eloquent and powerful essay about this which was later published by Kveller.com), and not long after that we plunged head first into observing Jewish spiritual practices in a family context, especially Shabbat and many of the holidays.
In the years that have passed, religious identity has been pretty murky for me. I’ve been immersed (quite literally when it comes to baptism!) into Christianity for all of my life. I’ve spent big chunks of my life in several Christian traditions (the acapella-Churches of Christ, evangelical/charismatic churches, unprogrammed Quakerism, and the liberal Mennonite tradition) and have also spent much of my life vocationally and educationally in church contexts — in fact two of my degrees are in theology.
And yet, I’ve known for some time that I don’t fit well in the Christian theological box any more. I still love and am inspired by Jesus, but I see him as a flesh-and-blood human being who lived and ministered in the context of First Century Judaism. I don’t see him as a “savior” in the ways that Christians commonly teach, as a substitute blood sacrifice to avenge an angry God. I just don’t.
As for God — I can say a lot more about what I don’t believe about God, than what I do believe about God… I don’t think that God is the petulant tyrannical deity depicted in many parts of the Bible (i.e. the story of the flood in Genesis, the story of the bet with the Devil in Job, etc.). I don’t think that God’s blood lust is satiated by the blood of animals, and certainly not of people. I just don’t.
And so in many ways the liberal forms of Judaism have greatly appealed to me, as these traditions provide ritual (something that I yearn for) and ethical teachings without the need for intellectual agreement with a set of suppositions about God. And of course there are the emotional ties, our family’s story (as discussed in the links above) and how we found such peace and joy around the Shabbat table.
But I also don’t have any deep connections with Jewish community beyond online connections. Oklahoma City has two very good Jewish synagogues (one Reform and one Conservative), but neither is a good fit. And despite my theological problems, I stil love my quirky non-conventional Mennonite church, which has provided me a platform for ministry and activism for many years now. And so I tried to have it both ways. After a lot of prayer and soul-searching, I found a Jewish tradition (the Society for Humanistic Judaism) that would allow me to convert (or in their terms “be adopted”) into Judaism without giving up my Mennonite identity,(here is an essay I wrote in September 2014 about all of this) and I’ve also done a lot of personal Jewish study through Darshan Yeshiva, completing their Certificate of Jewish Studies program. And as a family, we’ve tried to find ways to engage with both traditions (as discussed by my wife on her blog a few years ago)
But then got life got difficult and even more complicated.
Our quirky church community had difficult conflicts (not unexpected, any congregation with meager finances and members with a multitude of hurts from their previous religious traditions is going to have conflicts) and my times in worship in that community felt more and more stilted and hollow. At our better moments I still felt love and connection with the members of that community, but more and more, those connected moments didn’t happen on Sunday mornings, and often I even dreaded Sunday mornings.
But at the same time, my feelings about Judaism became more complicated as I came to see how that the rituals that felt so alive and invigorating, seemed so dead to so many Jews…. and I was coming to see in even deeper ways the ways that the neo-apartheid state of Israel has failed in so many ways to practice the Jewish values of hospitality and justice to their Palestinian neighbors. As much as I yearned to connect with other Jews, I couldn’t reconcile myself to worshipping in a sanctuary that displayed the flags of the USA and Israel, two nations that in my eyes embodied values that were so contrary to all that I loved and found valuable in Judaism.
Part of me has considered walking away from religion altogether, but I just can’t do that. There is something in me that keeps pulling me back, but also there is my family. My wife and I have always had spirituality as a cornerstone of our friendship and later our marriage and it is hard to imagine how we as a couple would “work” if we didn’t have that. And then there is our son (technically my step-son, but he is my only son, so I will call him my son) who is continuing to evolve into a complicated, beautiful young man, who has an evolving sense of what it means to be a spiritual person growing up Jewish and Mennonite and free-thinking and open. I think it is important than he has places of connection and learning, and folks he can learn from besides just me and his momma.
So… I started to disengage. I still showed up most Sundays for church, but I just didn’t have my heart in it, the way I once did. And we still lit our Shabbat candles and blessed the bread and wine, sometimes, but it was less special and it was becoming easier and easier to just not do it. — And now I can feel the loss and i miss those things. I don’t want things to stay like this.
So where does all of this leave me…
Since, Rosh Hashanah is the “head of the year,” a time of new beginnings, it’s time for some resolutions…
1. I affirm again I am both Mennonite and I am Jewish, but that there are times that I may not be very Mennonite and/or Jewish, and that this is ok too.
2. I will seek to connect, engage and serve alongside my brothers and sisters at Joy Mennonite Church, even when I sometimes may feel tension or that I don’t belong.
3. I will seek to connect, engage with my brothers and sisters in inclusive Jewish communities (such as OneShul and OurJewishCommunity) and interfaith contexts, even when I sometimes may feel tension or that I don’t belong.
4. I will seek to support and encourage our family of three to recommit ourselves to the rhythm of Jewish home life, especially that of Shabbat, seeking to live of life full of mitvot that are life-affirming and joyful.
5. I will seek to encourage and support my son in his own journey to understand and connect with the Divine, in whatever places that takes him.
6. I will seek to encourage and support my wife in her spiritual journey.