D’varim: Bereshit (1 of 5)

Ye-hi ratson mil’fa-ne-cha Adonai elo-hei-nu vei-lo-hei avo-teinu sheh-toli-cheinu l’shalom v’ta-tzi-deinu l’shalom, v’tad-ri-cheinu l’shalom v’ta-gi-einu lim-choz chef-tseinu l’chayim ul-simcha ul-shalom V’ta-tsi-leinu mikaf kol oyeiv v’oreiv v’listim v’cha-yot ra-ot ba-derech u-mikol mi-nei fur-a-niyot ha mit-ragshot lavo la-olam.  V’tish-lach b’racha b’chol ma-asei ya-deinu v’tit-neinu l’chein ul-chesed ul-racha-mim be’ei-necha uv-einei chol ro-einu, v’tishma kol tacha-nu-neinu. Ki Eil sho-mei-a t’fi-lah v’ta-cha-nun a-tah. Ba-ruch a-tah Adonai sho-mei-a t’fi-lah.

It’s said that the souls of Jewish converts stood at Mount Sinai, present with all the Jewish people to receive the Torah.  These souls of the gerim were merely placed into non-Jewish bodies, with the end result being a slightly longer journey home.  To be honest, I don’t know if I was born with a Jewish soul or if I was raised with a Jewish soul by my thoroughly non-Jewish parents.  But reflecting on my childhood, my Jewish nature was always, clearly there.

The Jewish historically-baked obsession to understand and repair things came early to me.  My baby pictures capture my earliest facial expressions, revealing my attempt to understand what was going on around me; I make some of those faces even today.  Books captivated my attention from an early age and my parents were kind enough to indulge my curiosity with frequent trips to the library, museums, and bookstores.  My parents also embraced my chronic urge to question and to understand everything around me by guiding me into the harsh realities of the world with sound judgment and a moral compass swayed only by the magnets of justice and love.  Their active participation in our local community conveyed the importance of social involvement and sparked an interest in politics and public policy, subjects that intrigue me to this day.

So, while today I can see my Judaism fermenting from birth, I wasn’t aware of it then.  What I was keenly aware of, however, was the secular nature of my parents’ household, the Christian fervor of my grandparents and extended family, and the religious radicalism in my newspapers and evening news.  I grew up with a mile wide and inch deep knowledge of the approximately twenty religious traditions practiced in my school district and an outward respect for their adherents.

In reality, I carried a deep disdain for religious individuals.   Granted, my exposure to religion at the time was overwhelmingly the media coverage of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, at home and abroad.  Based on my secular upbringing and fueled by my adolescent rage, these people who read ancient texts literally and who controlled entire populations through manipulative socio-economic tactics contradicted my ultimate belief in the capacity of mankind to do good and be good; I thought to be a champion of progress and freedom and humanity, you had to be an enemy of religion.

Today, I suspect that part of that condescension was jealousy cloaked in the guise of disdain.  As much as I would have resented being told what and how to believe—particularly because I viewed many of the dictated beliefs in religions to be misogynistic and fundamentalist—I envied the framework religion provided to my peers: the outlined tenants removed the difficult ambiguity in determining our origins, morality, and life’s purpose, and they had a built in extended family that nourished friendships and provided support during times of hardship.  Despite my parents’ love and support, I was keenly aware of this social structure’s absence in my life.  The value I placed on community was not strong enough to overcome my internal struggle to balance freedom of belief and prescribed faith, however.

This internal contradiction is one reason Judaism appeals to me today.  With its emphasis on orthopraxis and restrained orthodoxy, I appreciate Judaism’s sense of moral order, one that pervades the universe and provides a sense of purpose through ritual and liturgy that organize the chaos.  I knew long ago that Judaism worked for me; I just had to determine if the feeling was mutual.

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