Why becoming Jewish is attractive.
ר’ חנינא אמר הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן
Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them. (M. Avot 4:6)
What are the odds that a couple raised in a fundamentalist Christian faith, who were missionaries, church founders and Christian educators, would find their way to Judaism’s door? There is a Tlingit Indian saying that goes like this: “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.” I think that saying is apt in Jennifer and James Keegan’s story. (Their names have been changed.)
Jennifer describes her upbringing in an evangelical Christian faith as one in which her family went to church “every Wednesday, twice on Sundays, and basically any time the doors were open.” She and her husband, Jim, continued that church-based life together as they raised their two children. But serious Bible study eventually led them to have doctrinal questions about some of Christianity’s foundational theology. They stumbled upon a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was quite different from the Christian translation they knew. It caused them to ask even more questions.
The more questions they asked, however, the less satisfied they were with the answers. For instance, Jennifer struggled with trinitarian doctrine, which she was told is “a mystery that requires the gift of faith.” This answer seemed evasive, and she and Jim eventually began to question the truths of which they had once been sure. When your religious belief system is completely congruent with your social structure—when everyone you know believes as you do—it’s hard to contemplate a spiritual journey that makes you rethink everything you have held to be sacred. But that is indeed what happened. Jennifer and Jim grew confused and conflicted about inconsistencies that seemed to them to “jump off the pages of the Christian Bible.”
There was one group to which Jennifer still held tightly: her weekly women’s Bible study group in Tacoma, Wash. These women were her closest friends. Because of these relationships, she continued to attend the group. One day, Jennifer raised questions in the group about a subject that proved to be taboo. The leader pulled her aside and told her that her questions were not welcome, as they would cause confusion among the other women—and that if she could not refrain from asking such questions, she should not return.
Devastated and unmoored, Jennifer drove home, crying uncontrollably. It started to rain hard, and she could barely see. She pulled into a parking lot to wait out the storm. When the rain stopped, she dried her eyes and looked across the parking lot, finding herself at a synagogue called Temple Beth El (“House of God”). She had pulled into the lot of a synagogue, off of a side street on which she’d never driven.
She entered the building and found the rabbi, who told Jennifer that she was welcome to pray in the sanctuary for as long as she wanted, as Jennifer had requested. Jennifer told the rabbi of her confusion and frustration with some church doctrine, and that she believed that there was only one God and no additions. The rabbi responded that her questions were valued, and that Judaism welcomes questions. This was a new idea for Jennifer. She and her questions were welcome.
Why be Jewish? Because Judaism does not require a belief system of us, though does bind us tightly to one another and to humanity. Because Judaism insists that we care about the least in our society as much as ourselves. Because there’s no one way to be Jewish, and those who are Jewish in a different way than ours are also part of our community. Because many of the arguments about how to be aligned with God’s expectations of us found in the Oral Torah (the Talmud) remain unresolved, and that’s OK. Because even when Jewish law has been determined through that sacred argumentation, we preserve the minority opinion. Because Judaism asks us to be better than we otherwise might be, and not for some promised reward or from the fear of some dire punishment.
Why be Jewish? Because we rabbis who are privileged to accompany those who step onto our particular pathway to holiness learn from our students every day. And while we may not have the answers to their questions, we are excited about exploring the many possible answers—or even about embracing the ambiguity with them.
Rabbi Sarah Newmark, a graduate of RRC, lives an hour south of Seattle in Gig Harbor, Wash. Under the rubric of “Locally Sourced Judaism,” she performs handcrafted life-cycle events, does pastoral counseling, accompanies those on Jewish journeys, does interfaith work and teaches in adult-education settings.