Note: I edited the last portion of this post on September 26, 2014 to include links to the different books and resources I was citing.
I have been engaged in recent months with the self-study program for adoption (an alternate term used in lieu of "conversion") by the Society of Humanistic Judaism.
As part of my final assignment, I have written an essay that explains my decision to become Jewish, while also maintaining my identity as a Mennonite. I have decided to share it here, because it is a pretty big step in my life (and today is Rosh Hoshanah - the Jewish New Year - so it feels like the right time to step into a new stage of life).
Here is my essay...
A Short Essay on why I want to be identified with Humanistic Judaism
by James M. Branum
I have struggled with writing this essay for several months. Every time I decided to sit down and write it, I would convince myself that I just needed to study more and that I didn't really understand what to say to such a huge question: Why do I want to be a Jew? –- But as the Jewish calendar has been approaching the mile marker of another Rosh Hoshana, I decided that this was the time for me to make my commitment and move forward on the process of adoption into the Jewish community.
Rosh Hoshana is significant to me, partly because of the powerful symbolism of a fresh start with a new year, but also because it was Rosh Hoshana that was my first real introduction to Jewish ritual practices. My wife has written about our first Rosh Hoshana more eloquently than I can at Kveller.com, but in short I can say that the powerful connection between the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis and Rosh Hoshana falling at the same time, was one that we wanted to celebrate.
And so we read up on Rosh Hoshana and celebrated it in a simple way at home. The experience meant a lot to us, particularly since it was a moment of deep connection for us as a fairly new family unit (my wife and I married nine months previous, which meant that I was also a newly minted step-dad to a tjen six-year old).
The experience was so powerful that we decided to start celebrating other Jewish holidays, especially Shabbat. We decided early on that we would give ourselves permission to adopt those practices that were life-affirming and helpful and discard those practices that felt dry, lifeless or just not helpful to us in our context, and so we started with Shabbat suppers on Friday nights. Later on we added other holidays, our favorites being Sukkot (yes, I did build a shack in the backyard where we ate some meals), Haunakah, and Purim. In all of these holidays, we did this with a spirit of playfulness, seeking to make these times joyful for us but also kid-friendly.
During this time the issue of identity started to pop up. We had read some books and resources on the Jewish holidays that tried to “christianize” the holidays with new meanings, but this just didn't feel right to us. While we were willing to pick and choose specific practices we engaged in, we didn't feel it was appropriate to try to give the practices we were doing a new meaning.
At the same, my wife and I were (and still are) active in a small very open-minded urban Mennonite church, and I am a part-time seminary student (through the distance learning program of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). We love the community we are a part of, many of whom I work alongside on a regular basis in peace and social justice activism. I couldn't imagine leaving that community, but thankfully this group does not seem to be threatened by us having a bi-religious identity. In fact we are known as a church that is ok with agnostic members who are stirred by the ethical teachings of Jesus, even if they are not sure if they believe in God.
My son also picked up on the issue. One day he came from school, asking his mom “Are we Joes?” We then asked him what he meant, and he said, “you know, the people that Esther saved on Purim. One of the kids at school asked me, and I didn't know.” In this moment, it was clear to me that my son was frankly gaining more from our home observance of Judaism than he was from the experience of going to church. (again my wife has written about this incident much more eloquently than I did here. )
And then finally there was the issue of cultural misappropriation. One of my close friends expressed concern about this, in that he thought it was inappropriate and even offensive for a Christian to adopt Jewish spiritual practices. At first I was offended by the question, but in time I came to see that he had a point. There is a big difference between choosing to adopt another culture's practices and actively joining another community and becoming a part of.
In light of this, I decided that I wanted to find a way to be Jewish without abandoning my current community. This led me to a process of reading and study, as well as reaching out to different Jewish communities, both locally and online. It quickly became clear to me that for almost all Jewish communities, that it would be unacceptable for me to retain my ties to the Mennonite Church while also adopting Judaism. Some communities were somewhat ok with interfaith families participating in their worship, but it was also very clear that the delineation between who is a Jew, and who is not a Jew, was pretty ironclad. This hostility (while understandable give the long history of anti-semitism in many parts of Christendom), still felt pretty hurtful, especially given the fact many Jews do in fact practice more than one religion (my favorite being Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author who is also a practicing Jew). I did not want to choose to being either/or.
Some friends suggested that the obvious solution was to affiliate with a Messianic Jewish community, but this was not a real possibility for me, as I am not “christian” enough in my theology for them. –- In short, I waver between agnosticism, deism and Unitarian theism. I also see Jesus as a great ethical teacher and prophet, but not as a substitute blood sacrifice to appease an angry God (which is the primary concern of so-called Messianic Judaism).
I of course also considered the possibility of just self-identifying as a Jew and leaving it at that, but I felt that this would also be disrespectful to the value of community and cultural identity of Judaism. To try to keep some kind of connection, I participated in online worship services of several Jewish communities, but I still felt a sense of distance. I wanted to know that I was a real Jew, and not just a curious outsider.
From my explorations, I narrowed my consideration to the Jewish Universalists of Sim Shalom and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, both of whom were welcoming of individuals who identified with more than one religious identity. The SHJ was in the end the best fit, because of its humanistic orientation.
I probably am more “religious” than most other members of the SHJ (i.e. I pray) but I find common ground with the humanistic approach that focuses the individual's and community's attention on the human-centered values that we hold in common.
So going back to the original question – I want to be a Jew, because I want to participate in the ritual life, culture, history and traditions of Judaism, as a participant, not as an observer.
And I want to be a Humanistic Jew, because I think that Judaism only makes sense through the lens of universal human values, that affirms those parts of the tradition that good and life affirming and discards those parts (such as homophobia, genocide, patriarchy, etc.) that are not.
In writing this essay I commit myself to the ongoing journey of living a Jewish life, understanding that it will often be messy and complicated. I acknowledge that my journey will be even more complicated than most, in that I am choosing to be connected to two spiritual/cultural communities, but I believe that this is part of what it means to be human. All of us have to spend our lives bridging cultural differences. As hard as it might be, this process can be a good and life-affirming one.
A list of some of the readings I did in my process of self-study
note: Some of these books I studied in detail, others were more of a quick read, and some I am still working my way through (most notably A Provocative People).
- A Provocative People by Rabbi Sherwin Wine
- Guide to Humanistic Judaism
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism - by Benjamin Blech
- Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today's Families - by Anita Diamant and Howard Cooper (probably the most important of my earliest readings, in that it freed me to consider the idea of mitzvah as not being binding laws but rather possibilities that can be chosen or not chosen)
- http://www.amazon.com/American-Judaism-Jonathan-D-Sarna/dp/0300109768 by Jonathan D. Sarna – This book, coupled with A Provocative People, helped me to understand better, the many streams of Jewish culture, particularly in this country.
- Introduction to Judaism (Great Courses Series – Audio) by Professor Shai Cherry
- Great World Religions: Judaism (Great Courses Series – Audio) by Isaiah M. Gafni
- Am I a Jew? (audio book) - by Theodore Ross (I really identified with some of the author's struggles to clarify his religious/cultural identity)
- Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals by George Robinson
- Being Both: Embracing Two religions in one interfaith family – by Susan Katz Miller (a very helpful book that helped me to believe that not only could be bi-religious, but also my family could be, and everything would be ok)
- Emerging Jewish: Surviving the conversion process with your ideas and relationships intact – by Rabbi Daniel Kohn
- Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook – by Lawrence J. Epstein
- Choosing a Jewish Life – A handbook for people converting to Judaism and their family and friends – by Anita Diamont
- OneShul Community Siddur (a very good Siddur that has been helpful to our family. It uses more traditional language but was a good starting point for us)
- The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life , the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival – by Marcia Falk (my first introduction to the idea of non-theistic prayers and blessings)
- Kveller.com – a huge resource for us as a family as we have explored the spirituality of the family in a Jewish context
- That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist – by Sylvia Boorstein
This blog post is cross posted at YacobMatityahu.com.
Summary of the text: This parsha (torah portion) is one of the stranger ones of the Torah. Chapter 19 gives a discussion of the ritual of the Red Heifer, which involves the ritual killing of a purely red cow that is then burned, with the ashes being used afterwards for a variety of purification rituals, most notably the cleansing rituals one must perform after having come in contact with a corpse.
Chapter 20 moves back into the narrative with an account of the people grumbling, Moshe (Moses) striking the rock, and then God punishing Moshe and Aaron for speaking in a way that did not affirm God's "sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people." The punishment was severe: Moshe and Aaron would not be allowed to enter the promised land with their people.
The chapter then continues to a discussion of interactions between the Hebrew wanderers and their distant kin the Edomites (in short the Edomites do not show their kin hospitality), and then to the death of Aaron at Mount Hor.
Chapter 21 continues the narrative in telling of a set of battles between the Hebrews and the Canaanite king of Arad. The Hebrews were victorious but the people were becoming restless. Before long God sent "seraph serpents" into the camp to bite and kill the people until Moshe prays to the LORD, who then instructs Moshe to lift up a copper seraph snake on a pole, which magically would heal any of the snakebit dying people who looked upon the snake. (yes, this part is getting really weird).
The people of Israel continued in their wanderings and engaged with more battles against their neighbors, until finally they made their way (in 22:1) to camp on the "steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho."
My reflections: This passage is strange and to me reflects some of the early pre-Jewish roots of Judaism, which includes the use of a copper serpent (which suspiciously like a kind of idol to me) to bring healing and the strange rituals involving the ashes of the red heifer (more discussion on some of the archetypal origins of the Red Heifer story can be found on the Velveteen Rabbi commentary on this parsha).
The question might be asked, what do the ancient stories mean to us today? Surely we are not supposed to kill red heifers to use for healing rituals (since that ritual is tied to the "tent of meeting" and later the temple), but I wonder if maybe there is a place for some kind of physical representation of cleansing.
We all have moments when we encounter death. Most of us don't encounter corpses very often (with the exception of combat veterans and those who have survived terrible traumas --- and of course doctors and morticians), but we all do encounter points of seeing death and decay, either literally or figuratively. Frankly every time we watch the evening news, every time we step outside of our comfort zone and go to comfort those experiencing trauma, we touch a little bit of death. And so maybe we need a bit of that "water of lustration" (talked about in this parsha) to cleanse our hearts and souls too. I'm not sure what the answer is (and I really am not advocating that we make copper serpents to gaze at or start killing red heifers), but I do think that our physical human bodies often need tangible experiences to remind us of the inner healing that God can bring.
Another key theme in this passage is the issue of hospitality. Israel encountered several of its neighbors in this passage (and even some kinfolks), but none of these neighbors let the Israelites pass peacably through their lands. Later on these old stories were used as justification by later generations for genocidal acts by the Israelites against these people, but at this moment in time these stories speak of the tragedy of hospitality that is not extended.
And finally there is the death of Aaron (and the prophesied death of Moshe to come). On the surface of it, God's punishment of Aaron and Moses seems supremely harsh (after all these heroes led the people to liberation), but on further thought I wonder if these stories were in fact not the whole story? Maybe Aaron died of old age, and then Moses in turn died. Both died too soon, before they entered the land as a free people. And so maybe these stories sprung up to explain away the shame of these two great liberators not reaching the promised land.
Or maybe the story is true, and like Dr. Martin Luther King did in his final sermon ("I've been to the Mountaintop"), Aaron Moshe knew that their deaths were coming but that the mission of liberation would continue. Who knows really? The possibilities are so interesting to think about though.
For myself, I find comfort in knowing that even great leaders are human, that they die just like all of us do. We all might be a little bit divine (after all, we are made in the image of God), we all all will die. Even Aaron and Moshe died and so will we. We can remember and honor our heroes but we shouldn't worship them either. And we need to remember that the struggle for justice can go on without them.
A few weeks ago I committed myself to blogging about the weekly Torah portions for the coming year... but I didn't get started with the actual blogging, in large part because I was being too perfectionistic about it.
And so for this week, I'm going to plunge ahead and acept the fact that this will not be the final or even a great word about this particular parsha, but will be a word, at least some provisional thoughts for where I'm at right now in considering this text.
And so let us begin...
The next Torah portion is a troubling one. Korach (or Korah depending on how you transliterate the Hebrew) is the account of a challenge to the power structure among the Hebrew people.
Korah (Hebrew for "bald"), a levite (but not of the priestly line of Aaron), joined with several from the tribe of Reuben and 250 others (described as "chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute") launched their attack. The words they chose are provocative:
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, "You have gone to far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then did you raise yourself above the LORD's congregation?" - Numbers 16:3 (JPS, 1999 version)
What happens next is predictable. Moses creates a divine test to see who is right, with the 250 followers of Korah offering fire and incense to the LORD and then Moses and Aaron did the same thing. When they do this, the presence of the LORD speaks, and shows who is holy (in this case Moses and Aaron) and then announces God's intention to kill all of the Israelites (since the whole community is to be blamed for the sin of Korah and his follwers). Moses intercedes, so instead only the rebels are punished, in this case by some of the rebels being swallowed up by the earth (along with all of their property, wives and children!) and the remaining rebels being burnt alive.
The message of this text is clear. Rebellion against God's established authority is always punished severely. And the message is reinforced by the commandment that the fire pans used by the rebels to offer their sacrifice be hammered down and made into a new plating for the altar (as a perpeptual reminder of what happens to rebels).
But of course the story isn't over. This time the people of Israel themselves rise up against Moses & Aaron saying "You two have bought death upon the LORD's people!" (Numbers 17:6) And so the LORD proceeds to send a plague on the people, killing 14,700 of them before Aaron is able to persuade the LORD to stop the slaughter by offering incense.
The remaining portion of the text is a further reinforcement of the message that Aaron's family are to remain as the only priests and that no others can appear before the LORD in the temple.
Wow! What a text! Deeply, deeply troubling. To be frank, on the surface it seems to have a pretty vile message, that God is on the side of the powerful and that God is against those who stand up against injustice.
Considered in context, this message is slightly tempered by the remembrance in the previous torah portion of the crushing news that (after the bad reports of the 10 of the 12 spies) the current generation (except for Joshua and Caleb) will not enter the promised land, and would instead be cursed to remain as wanderers. And so arguably a change in leadership would likely mean the return of the Hebrew people to bondage back in Egypt (there were few options left since they had just been beaten badly in their attempt to invade Canaan).
Who knows really? I can't help but see this story as an example of the messy interplay of power struggles. Moses and Aaron behaved liked tyrants sometimes (not always of course, but sometimes). Korah and his people made the theologically profound statement that "all of the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst," and yet I have no doubt that he would have been a tyrant too if he had come to power, because power always corrupts. Likely he was a charismatic and dynamic leader (or else he wouldn't have been able to create such a broad-base of power to challenge the Moses-Aaron leadership), and so the chance of him having the ability to become an abusive leader was high.
What is the take-home message of this text? Certainly I don't think this story is literally true. I don't think the Source-of-all-life is the kind of rash deity depicted here, who not only kills the rebels but "their wives, their children and their little ones." (Numbers 16:27) Such a deity would not be worthy of worship but rather of rebellion.
Rather I think this story is a spiritualized version of an early power struggle among the Hebrew people. Later generations retold the story to reinforce the Mosaic power structure, but in their telling they actually put a powerful word in the mouths of the enemy in this story, "For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst."
What if this were true? The idea of being holy (kadush) is to be set apart. Obviously the whole community is by definition not set apart (because what would it be set apart from?) but maybe this idea of at least potential inner holiness is always present, and hence the idea of deep community leadership, rather than hierarchical leadership is present.
And so, maybe Korah is the hero of the story; Korah the "heretic" who ends up speaking a profound word of truth? It certainly makes me wonder.
Hard to believe this is the last day of our trip. It has been an incredibly good time. Lots of good family time (and we all still like each other after 11 days of traveling together! Miracle of miracles!) and lots of good reflective time.
My class at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary? was particularly good. It was called "Performing the Faith" and was mix of performance theory with reflections on the practical application of the idea of performance and ritual in the context of the church.
I had an unexpected take-away message from the class (which I should say is still going on, the online component continues for another month), namely that my calling is in large part to preach and teach. I love speaking but have held back from pursuing this seriously due to insecurity. But it is very clear that this is what I am most passionate about (and frankly is one of the parts of lawyering that I still enjoy, despite my jaded disenchantment with the professional generally).
I don't know what the future holds for me. I love my church but we are full of good speakers. Our pastor delivers excellent thought provoking messages three times a month, which leaves 1-2 messages for others to speak. Our
other church members are also excellent speakers, who speak from the heart not only about matters of faith but about the practical implications of Jesus' revolutionary nonviolent teachings RIGHT NOW (we are decidedly not a "pie in the sky by and by" kind of church). So I don't want to take away from that by asking to speak more than I already do.
But I also can't imagine leaving my church. It is a real family to me and has sustained me for a long time. Maybe there will be a time that I would need to serve elsewhere but now is not that time.
So I'm trying to think creatively. Maybe about finding a non-traditional venue to preach, maybe online or maybe on a time other than Sunday mornings.
Besides vocational stuff, I'm also thinking a lot about my family. We had a good time on this trip, despite the fact that we often didn't get enough sleep and were having to navigate lots of minor challenging situations (i.e. the Chicago Union train station). I think this trip went well because we decided to craft our trip based on our preferences and not on anyone else's expectations. We took the train (a glorious way to travel if you aren't too time crunched) but rented a car when we got to Indiana. We spent our free time (for me mostly in the evenings and afternoons when class wasn't in session, while my wife and son had extra time to explore when I was in class) doing little things that we enjoyed.
And so the highlights of the trip are small moments like the glorious food served family-style at Amish Acres in Nepanee, the Wakarusa "Dime" Candy store (no longer priced at a dime but still loads of fun), the Venturi pizza in Goshen and the little museums like the Comic and Superheroes museum, the Midwestern Museum of American Art and the NY Central Railroad museum (all in Elkhart), as well as the the Menno-Hof Museum in Shipshewana (my son was very insistent that he and Mamma go there early in the trip because "I want to learn how to be a Mennnonite today!), and of course the beautiful quilt gardens all over the region.
And that's just the highlights... I still haven't yet talked about other moments like the awesome (and cheap --- only 99 cents!) authentic tacos from the Mexican grocery store north of the AMBS campus, and getting to have my family be at chapel when my class led worship on Friday. Oh and the wonderful stores in Shipshewana! Yoder's Meat & Cheese, Yoder's Hardware (which sells all kinds of kitschy awesomeness) and Yoder's Department store --- yes, apparently everything in Shipshewana is named after a Yoder or so it seems.
And we celebrated Shabbat! It was a simple affair in the student housing apartment we were staying at --- little electric tea candles (easier to travel with), triscuits for the bread and a little bit of wine and juice (the juice came from the Mexican grocery store), but we still said the blessings and sung our songs together as a family.
There was just so much that happened, and yet all of these things were little, not big. There were no big amusement parks and nothing flashy. But it was right for us.
And so that is the other big lesson I'm taking away from this trip. Be true to yourself, but also to your family. I think that finding the right family rhythm is the key to happy travels, and I'm assuming happiness back home as well.
We have a couple more hours on this train (right now we are somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth, TX), and then another train back to Oklahoma. I'm hoping I can carry this good feeling with me for the coming days. Life at home poses a different set of complications but I'm hoping I can keep coming back to this idea of a good rhythm to keep me going on the right path.
I've been giving some thought to the upcoming Jewish holiday of Shavuot (also known as the Feast of Weeks), which celebrates the giving of the Torah (Law) to the Hebrew people at Mt. Sinai.
There are several traditions of this holiday (such as eating dairy products, reading the book of Ruth, etc.) but the one that interests me the most is the tradition of studying Torah all night long.
As much I would love to study Torah all night long, I think maybe a more fruitful exercise would be to study through the Torah over the course of the coming year and then to blog about the experience. So, here's my plan...
1. I will study the weekly Torah portions that are read by many Jews each week. I hope that in reading the text in the context that Jews read it, I will see it with new eyes.
2. I will translate some portion of the week's text in Hebrew (even if only a verse or two) as a way to maintain my Hebrew skills.
3. I will read some of the Jewish commentaries on the week's portion, both scholarly ones (like the JPS commentary) but also less scholarly ones (blogs and the like).
4. I will write some kind of response to the text on my blog.
5. I will express my thoughts on the text openly. If I have doubts about the text's wisdom, I will say so. I will bring to the table both an attempt at an objective historical consideration of the text, but also will bring my interfaith/feminist/anti-oppression perspective to the text. And I will consider the devotional/spiritual aspects of the text as well.
6. I will seek to engage with others in thoughtful dialogue about the text but I will do my best to avoid pointless arguments.
So that's the plan. Shavuot starts on sunset of June 3 and runs until sundown on June 5, so I will start with next week's Torah portion. Stay tuned...
A bit of explanation: I am a seminary student but previously was a law student (I graduated from law school in 2005 and have been an attorney since 2006). Much of the experience of law school and seminary is dissimilar, but one element is the same --- the need to comprehend, remember, organize and apply large amounts of information.
A common study technique in law school is the preparation of “outlines,” normally about 20-30 pages for student-written outlines, or between 200-300 pages for commercial outlines (sold by companies to help law students prepare for exams), as well as some unusual forms (I often condensed longer outlines down to 2 pages, and sometimes even 1 page as a method of studying). Since Biblical Hebrew has been an incredibly difficult subject for me, I decided to use the outline technique to prepare for my Hebrew final (which fortunately was open book, allowing us to use our textbook and lexicon, which meant the most important thing to do in preparation was to be able to quickly find relevant information in the textbook on the fly, which is why this outline is keyed to our textbook.)
As for coverage, I think I did a decent job of outline the first half of the class (all of the grammar besides verbs) but it is much weaker in the second half of the outline. In the future (for my own learning) I will probably rewrite this section. But for those interested, I’m sharing the outline anyway incomplete as it is. Use at your own risk.
My wife and I are thinking about starting a monthly gathering that would meet to engage in informal Jewish study and worship here in the OKC Metro. The group would be interfaith in nature (with all being welcome to share of their understandings of the divine) but with the focus being on Jewish faith practices such as celebrating Shabbat (Sabbath) and holidays, as well as learning more about Jewish history and culture, all in the context of an informal, family-friendly home gathering.
This gathering would be modeled after the Jewish Chavurah movement (Hebrew: חבורה) which means "fellowship" or "friendship") which sprung up during the 1960's as an alternative to traditional synagogue services. Chavurot (plural of Chavorah) are traditionally lay-led and egalitarian in nature... or to say it another way, everyone is a participant and leadership is shared.
This is a lively and rich movement. It includes small fellowship groups that are sponsored by a larger synaoguge, but also include many independent Chavurot such as the Longmont, CO Shabbat Group, NefeshSoul in Phoenix, Tikkun Olam Chavorah in Germantown, PA and HaMakom Shalom in Germantown, MD
There is a lot more that could be said about this movement (actually I will provide two more links: Joys of Chavurah (AKA The Jewish Party thing) from Interfaithfamily.com and the National Havurah Committee Resources page for those who want to learn more), but maybe it is best to just say that it is time to try it out and see for ourselves what this kind of informal community would be like instead of just reading about it.
So, the community might start with some of these activities...
1. Shabbat suppers - The group would gather for dinner at one of our homes. We would light the candles and say the shabbat prayers together, and then eat a long lazy meal together (with of course wine and challah bread) while sharing about lives and the ways we attempt to connect with God in the context of our lives.
2. Torah Study - We might meet to read and discuss the Torah portion of the week.
3. Hebrew Study - This would not be learning to read and speak Hebrew fluently, but rather a kind of introduction to Hebrew, a "Hebrew for the rest of us" (quoting from a book title of the same name) in which I would teach participants how to recognize the Hebrew characters and vowel markings, how to pronounce Hebrew, and some of the basics of Hebrew grammar, so that participants could use some of the standard Hebrew language tools to study the Hebrew scriptures.
4. Service - We might choose together to do a service project of some kind together.
5. Holiday gatherings - There are so many wonderful Jewish holidays we can observe together in an informal way. Sukhot (the feast of booths) and Purim would be both very fun holidays to do together.
As far as who can participate, the meetings would be open to anyone who is interested in learning or engaging with Jewish practices. Certainly participants are welcome to discuss connections between Jewish practices and their own beliefs in appropriate ways, but this would not be an appropriate occasion for seeking converts.
And of course this group would be focused on Jewish practices, but is not intended to require any kind of doctrinal conformity. I expect (and hope) that we will have participants come with a variety of theological beliefs (including those who are agnostic).
Anyway that is my not-so-short explanation of what we have in mind. I'm now curious who might be interested in joining us on a trial basis, maybe starting with a Friday night supper sometime in May or June. If you are interested in participating, please email or text me (405-494-0562). Also please let me know what things you would be most interested in (shabbat meals, holiday celebrations, study, etc.).
I have had this blog post percolating for awhile in my head but today seems like a good day to write it. It will be long and meandering so it will probably only be of interest to close friends. That's ok because this is my blog and I write it mostly for myself.
For those of you who know me, I'm a free-thinking Mennonite, drawn to the tradition's emphasis on Jesus' radical teachings on nonviolence and social justice. I'm also a seminary student and work part-time at my church in peace ministry.
But I also have lots of doubts about the Bible and orthodox Christianity, especially regarding the issue of atonement and hell. In fact, I should rephrase that. I don't have doubts anymore, I just don't believe that way. I do not think that God has an insatiable blood thirst to kill and torture sinners that is only quenched by a substitute human sacrifice of his own son.
I remain committed to my church and faith tradition because I believe in the power of community and Mennonite ethics (as I discussed in a previous blog post) but I have felt a longing for a spirituality that I have not found there (or in any other Christian tradition).
Explorations in Judaism
My wife and I have fallen in love with Jewish faith practice over the last couple of years (something she has written about on the website Kveller.com here and here). We love the tradition's orientation of having most of the rituals and holidays centered on the family and home, but also we love the tradition's embrace of free-thinking and even disagreement. We began our observance with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) two years ago, then we started celebrating shabbat (sabbath) with joyful Friday-night shabbat dinners and at least an attempt to maintain our restfulness into Saturday. Then we started doing other holidays - Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Haunakah, Passover, Purim, and Yom Kippur. We tried to be faithful to the traditions by reading heavily from a mix of Jewish authors, but also adapted some elements to our family's context. And then we took it a bit further by adding a nightly singing of the Shema Yisrael to our bedtime routines. And I'm working on learning Hebrew.
We of course aren't observant in every way. We haven't made any attempt to do kashrut (kosher) and are taking a more liberal approach to some of the prayers. And we have adopted some services which are traditionally done in a synagogue for home observance. --- But this is part of the tradition too. Many liberal Jews (especially from the Reform and Reconstructionist traditions) pick and choose those mitzvot that are life-affirming and meaningful to keep, while not following those mitvot that are not life affirming. I like to think of this as being creatively observant.
It has been a joy doing these things. There of course are moments of tension --- times when I wonder if our borrowing of another culture's faith practices is a kind of cultural misappropriation or not, and times when I wonder if we are just attracted to the exotic and different (rather than the mundane aspects of the Christian traditions we grew up in). But most of the time I feel clarity that these faith practices are in fact transforming me and that God is at work in this.
Spiritual practice brings physical transformation
A recent example of this transformation is going on as we speak. It began shortly before Passover. I told my wife that I was wanting to get serious about getting in shape and losing weight (I am diabetic so this is always a struggle), so she suggested that I begin my diet during passover, by keeping the traditional rules which forbid the eating of chametz (fermented grain products like bread and beer) during the 8 day passover festival. So I decided to do this. I quickly ended up turning this practice into a low-carb diet, in which I ate lots of meat, veggies and dairy but no carbs except those in veggies and those in Matzah (unleavened bread). I also started working out most days of the week.
And then a miraculous (at least in my eyes) thing happened. My yo-yo-ing blood sugar levels evened out. My moods stabilized. I became much less irritable and generally was just happier. Certainly the better diet was a part of it, but I think part of it was also that I was really committing to life-giving spiritual practices, and that this was doing very good things to me.
When Passover ended last week, my wife made another suggestion. Traditionally Jews Count the Omer, a 49 day time of expectancy and waiting for the Torah to come. Many observant Jews refrain from certain actions during this season (not listening to music, attending weddings, etc.) as a way of making this time sacred and a time of mourning for great losses. So my wife said that I should maybe just continue my diet as my way of counting the Omer.
I decided to do this (except that I'm now just eating a limited number of carbs per day --- I'm shooting for no more than 80 grams per day, rather than avoiding chametz). I'm also trying to do the daily prayer for the season and maintaining my exercise routine. I make mistakes along the way (I had one bad day when I was depressed and broke down and ate a donut) but I am resolved to keep trying. Obviously this is about my physical health, but I also do believe that our bodies and souls are intertwined and that this will do good in other ways as well.
Questions of Religious Identity
I have been thinking a lot lately about the issue of religious identity (see my previous blog post on my celebrating 10 years at Joy Mennonite Church). I feel very committed to my local congregation. It is faith community that is open to all and that has chosen to maintain its identity as being centered on a commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus' teachings. This is something that I can strongly affirm.
At the same time, I'm not sure that I'm a Christian, at least in the way it is often defined. Most people say that a Christian is someone who agrees with the historic creeds of the church and I don't. I have too many issues with creeds, partly that I'm agnostic on the subjects of Jesus' supposed virgin birth and resurrection, but also that the creeds pay no attention to the most important part of Jesus' life: what he taught and how he lived. And most daming of all, I don't believe that Jesus "died to save us from our sins." Rather I believe Jesus allowed himself to be martyred (as others have in history) to show us how far one should go for one's deepest beliefs.
In some ways I think would be more comfortable in the Jewish tradition (seeing Jesus as a great rabbi and teacher but not as a savior) but that leaves me with another problem. The Jewish conversion rituals are all very exclusivistic. So far every school of conversion that I'm aware of asks this question (with some variations in wording) of converts: "Do you renounce all beliefs you may once have held in any other religion?" (examples: here and here) This is not something I am comfortable with.
Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to forget the ethical (and arguably Jewish) teachings of the historic Jesus?
Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to renounce my understanding of the Buddha's teachings on the way to end suffering?
Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to leave the spiritual community that has made my life so rich and full?
I don't think so.
And so I will continue to feel more and more Jewish every day, and yet not really be Jewish. I'm praying that someday there might be a way possible for someone like me to find a universalist Jewish community of some kind to connect with. (or else that I am able to someday find that I have Jewish roots somewhere in my family tree) But I want to make this connection without severing the other God-given connections in my life.
Thank you for staying with me in this long and meandering read.
Nathaniel Batchelder, Director of the OKC Peace House has written an op-ed in the latest issue of Oklahoma Peace Strategy Newsletter, which I believe merits a response.
First, though here is reprint of Batch's op-ed:
About Earth Day & The Green Party
I love Earth Day. And I love the Green Party Platform, including serious planks for environmental sustainability and preservation of Nature. I understand that the Green Party advocates a week of activities around Earth Day, encouraged by Green Presidential Candidate Jill Stein and other leaders of the Green Party. The idea is to make the connection that serious Eco-Policies are inherent in the Green Party.
But, although I love the Green Party PLATFORM, I do not support the Green PARTY. I've opined for years that Green Party candidates could register and run as Democrats, not Independents, identifying themselves in the primaries as Green Democrats. The Greens I've suggested this to are almost universally offended or puzzled by my suggestion. I suggest they study the Tea Party movement.
Tea Party strategists knew NOT to start a new party, but to agitate within the Republican Party. Today, moderate Republicans are terrified of primary challenges by Tea Party candidates. The Tea Party has become the tail wagging the Republican dog. Not bad for a bunch of rabid extremist right-wing fundamentalists who don't believe in science!
Meanwhile, Green Party Independent candidates typically draw less than 10% of the vote on election day, and the consequences are to hurt liberal candidates, thus inadvertently helping conservatives.
Had Ralph Nader run as a Green Democrat in the 2000 presidential primaries, George W. Bush would never have become president. Bush's 8 years cost America $15 to $20 TRILLION, adding up his two unnecessary wars, the 2008 economic crash (because regulation under GWBush was absent from 2000 to 2008), and the huge bail-outs.
Then Nader ran for President again, as an Independent, in 2004 and 2008. Eeek. Politics is the art of the possible. I believe we must first defeat the worst. This would generate hope among potential candidates that victory might be possible.
By Nathaniel Batchelder
I disagree with several points made by Batch, but primarily I object to this topic being considered by OPS Newsletter at all, because the Oklahoma Peace House is seen by our community as being the primary speaking point of the peace movement, and the peace movement is not, and should not, be a partisan thing.
When I think of my comrades in the cause of peace activism, both locally and nationally, I see a motley group of folks. Some of them are Democrats, some are Republicans (one of them, Ethan McChord, is running for Lt. Governor in Kansas), many are independent, a few are from third parties (including Greens, Libertarians and Socialists) and a decent number are anarchists who eschew all electoral politics.
We need all of these folks to engage in the cause of peace. Wars won't end by electing one side or another. Lots of politicians will use the peace movement to gain political points but then do little to change the culture of militarism. Two recent examples come to mind --- Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam but instead secretly expanded the war to other countries, and Obama promised to end the war in Iraq while a the same time expanding the use of drone warfare against targets, both civilian and military. Change won't came from the ballot box.
Ending war is hard-work. It requires deep organizing and sometimes even direct action to stop the machinery of death. In comparison, partisan politics is easier, but it frankly doesn't work.
I respect the fact that Batch is an avid Democrat and he has the right to speak about his views on politics in other venues (or maybe even in the OPS Newsletter if he clearly states this is his opinion only and not the opinion of the OKC Peace house), but I don't think that partisan advocacy should be done by the Peace House itself. Such advocacy is divisive and pushes potential peace activists away.
I think it is time for change at the Peace House, by embracing the idea that the peace movement is a diverse movement, with multiple political tendencies. I am sharing this message publicly in the hopes that supporters of the Peace House might voice their concern to the Peace House board.
If you share my concern, please send your thoughts on this subject to the Peace House using this web form.
Lastly, my criticism of the Peace House is rooted in my belief in its potential for powerful positive change. I care about this work too much to stay silent.
James M. Branum
(speaking only for myself)
P.S. This is a side point, but as a former Independent/Green Party state house candidate, I obviously disagree with Batch on the value of third party politics. I am one of the folks he spoke of, who was "offended" by his suggestion of running as Green Democrats, primarily because I see no reason to support a political party that doesn't believe I should have the right to vote for the candidate of my choice in Presidential elections. I have voted for some Democrats (and Republicans and folks of other parties too) over the years, but I can't support the Democratic Party as long as it refuses to take a stand for democracy through the enactment of reasonable and fair ballot access laws.
Also, Nader and the Green Party did not let Bush win in 2000. The false assumption is that all Nader voters would have otherwise been Gore voters, when in fact many would have been non-voters if they had not voted for Nader. See http://www.cagreens.org/alameda/city/0803myth/myth.html for more discussion on this myth.
Today, Easter Sunday 2014, was a joyful day at Joy Mennonite Church, in that we welcomed 12 people as new members of our church.
But today also was especially joyful for me, because I joined Joy Mennonite Church on Easter Sunday 2004 (ten years ago).
Other than my decision to marry my wife, joining Joy was one of the best decisions of my life. Much of who I am today is because of this church, so I wanted to reflect back a bit about why I chose to join Joy in the first place, but also what my experience in the JMC community has been like over the last ten years.
Ten Years ago
I first started attending Joy in November 2003. I was a very unhappy second year law student, but I was also a recently fired part-time minister.
A bit of background might be in order here - I grew up in the Churches of Christ (the legalistic, acapella-only music wing of the tradition) but began to question many of the core ideas of the tradition in late high school and early college. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible from a COC-affiliated theological college but continued to explore my faith, which led me to a faith walk that emphasized Jesus’ life and teachings (which in time led me towards Christian pacifism) but also the power of Christian community as illustrated by the accounts of the early church in the book of Acts. My desire for deeper community led me to being part of several charismatic-evangelical churches (Hope Chapel and then Hope in the City in Austin and late Shekinah Fellowship in Oklahoma City) but felt increasing discomfort with the growing practice of mixing patriotism and faith in the evangelical tradition. I finally wound up back in the COC, in the congregation I grew up in, Newcastle Heights Church of Christ, about the same time I was starting law school.
During my first year of law school I was asked to serve as the congregation’s interim minister. This was a challenging experience, made especially difficult by the experience of being a full-time law student (and also experiencing significant depression), but I made the best of it. I focused my energy on preaching sermons that taught about the life and teachings of Jesus. By the end of my first year of service in the church, there began to be bubblings of tension in the congregation and finally a decision was made to hire another minister who had more of a heart for “evangelism” (a concept I increasingly struggled to believe in).
I was given another month of time to serve, but I ended up leaving the position earlier than planned as I had reached my breaking point. I couldn't muster up the energy to keep preaching two times each week in that church. I needed to be in a church where I could be honest and frank about my faith journey.
Meeting Sadie Mast
Towards the end of my time at the COC, I met Sadie. I met her standing on a street corner protesting during the early days of the Iraq war. She and I talked for a long time about peace and faith. I expressed interest in her church and told her I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, but she told me that I should “grow where I was planted” and not leave. Still a connection was made and I was even invited to come speak at Joy as a guest speaker.
So, when a few months had passed and my time was ending at Newcastle, I wanted to go back to Joy. I was considering other churches but I felt a tug towards Joy so that’s where I began attending.
Becoming a Member
During my early days at Joy, the congregation was tiny. Most Sundays we had 8-12 people in attendance. There were very few children and no young adults (except for a college student in the area who started coming occasionally not long after I was a regular). But I liked the group nonetheless. They were accepting and friendly and encouraging to me in my faith journey. They also immediately let me serve, by letting me preach and lead singing occasionally.
Over the next few months I considered membership. Our pastor at the time, Moses (husband of Sadie), talked quite a bit with me about the decision. He explained that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition took membership to be a very high thing and the choice was not to be made lightly. I read through the Mennonite Confession of Faith and did other reading in Anabaptist history, but primarily I learned about the Mennonites from Moses & Sadie.
One particular conversation stands out in my memory. We were eating at a cheap Chinese restaurant one Sunday after church, talking about the questions I had about the church. I told Moses that I didn’t think I believed in hell as a literal place anymore and asked him if that would be a problem? Moses’s answer was very reassuring: “I’m not sure I do either!”
And so on Easter Sunday 2004, I joined the church (along with Shirley Hughes, an elderly lady who has now passed on). I took the decision to join the church very seriously. I had been a part of many churches before but I knew something was different about my decision to join Joy.
Years of Growth
The next few years were tremendous days of growth for me. I began to live at the building of Joy Mennonite Church (we met and still meet in an old house in Northeast OKC. Our house has space for renters both upstairs and in a garage apartment) which introduced me into a deeper level of community. And I was given the chance (with a group of others in and out of the church) to form the Center for Conscience in Action, an organization that would be central in my activist life in the coming years.
During this time period Moses began to consider retiring as our pastor, so when the position opened, our congregation decided to hire two ministers, a pastor (who would do most of the pastoral and preaching work of the church) and a minister of peace & Justice (who would help to do some of the preaching, but also coordinate the congregation’s peace & social justice work). I stepped into the second role, while another member of our church, Norman (a former Baptist pastor), became our new pastor.
The next three years of service were challenging. There were some early tensions between the methods of the new pastor and our congregation, but in time things got better. The new pastor and I often did not see eye-to-eye (he was theologically evangelical, while I was theologically universalist) but we had enough common ground to work ok together.
And our congregation started to grow. First it was through Mennonite college students and recent graduates who were moving to our area who wanted to maintain church involvement, but later it was from refugees from other faith traditions who were drawn to Anabaptist practices and our non-traditional church community. It was a good time.
A time of crisis
And then the crisis came: by way of a fire that hit the church’s garage (and my upstairs garage apartment). This fire, for reasons I still don’t understand, set in motion a bubbling-over of tensions which had been dormant in the church. Our pastor decided that I needed to leave the church (as well as some of the other younger members who dared to think for themselves) because we had bad theology and/or weren’t willing to live up to unspoken standards of behavior that he had set. The nitty gritty account of these days is too painful to write even today, but I can say that it was a testing point for our church, and one that we barely survived.
Finally I submitted my resignation to the church, believing that I could no longer be a part of the congregation in its present state, however, the congregation instead voted to not accept my resignation. Norman instead left the church and formed another Mennonite church in the area with some of our members.
The rift in our church was deep and painful and the wound might have been lethal, but thankfully God had another plan in mind. It began at Zach and Britney’s house, when they provided me and the other displaced tenants of Joy Mennonite a place to live temporarily.
After things got bad in our congregation, Zach and Britney continued to provide a place of support for us through the times of trial. And so when our church was left pastor-less, it was obvious to us that Zach should be our next pastor.
And things have continued to evolve since then. Some folks have moved due to jobs and school needs, but others have joined us. We have grown in new areas of ministry, such as our gardens and our children’s programs, but also have deepened our involvement in other areas (most notably our music program). And I'm especially proud of the fact that our congregation has members who are actively engaged in the struggle against the Keystone XL Pipeline.
And even more recently our congregation has taken the stand of welcoming all to the table, including LGBT people. This was not an easy decision for our community to process through, but I'm very proud that we did it.
Our future is uncertain. We are a small church with a big mission. We don't have enough resources and not that many people. And yet we keep going. I think the one thing we can count on is that we are not alone in this journey of doing our imperfect best to follow the difficult way of Jesus.
What Joy has meant to me
When I reflect on these last ten years, I have to think about what kind of person I might have become if I had not found Joy when I did. In 2004 I was discouraged and battered from my experience at the COC I grew up in. I was struggling to maintain my faith and didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. I frankly do not know if I could have maintained my faith without Joy.
I am certain that I would not have had the life of activism that I have had (practicing law in support of war resisters and conscientious objectors for the last 7+ years) if it weren’t for Joy. Joy gave me the encouragement to go for it, to seek to be a lawyer in an area that few practice in. I did have support and encouragement from other sources (most notably from the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild) but the drive and inspiration to do the work came primarily from my church.
Most of my closest friends today come from my church. I’ve kept a few friends over the years from other times and places (and am very grateful for those friends), but it was my Joy friends who have provided me my primary place of belonging and connection, particularly during the last few years. These are folks who accept me and like me for who I am, quirks and all. That is a powerful thing.
And it was Joy that prepared me for marriage and fatherhood. Partly it came from seeing the examples of married couples like Moses & Sadie (partners in activism and in life), but also from an unexpected source. Back in I think 2008, our then pastor Norman (yes, the same minister I later had conflict with) counseled me that I should get a dog as a way of treating my depression (to supplement the other things I was doing). At the time I thought my life was too busy to get a dog but he was insistent and finally gave me a dog! The experience of dog ownership for me (this was the famous but now-departed Sandy the Peace Dog for those who knew her) was a transformative thing. It did help me with my depression but it also cracked the door open for me to be more open to relationships and even parenthood. I can’t help but think that our old pastor and that dog helped me to be ready for marriage.
And frankly that dog also was a loyal companion for me during some dark days of struggle, times when I was taking on too much work for the cause of peace. I was burning out but as it sounds that dog kept me from giving up. Having her with me on the road for my cases was a wonderful thing.
And so I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my Joy friends but especially for Moses and Sadie (who I now think of as my adopted grandparents) and for Zach and Britney (for pulling us together as a community when we most needed it).
And I'm grateful to be part of a church that is not scared of questions, that is ok with my doubts and my explorations of other faith traditions. It is this freedom that fundamentally keep me plugged into this creative faith community.
And I’m thankful for God who is always at work, even when we aren’t expecting it.