Updated: 1:22 pm CST – I forgot to mention a prior blog post that I wrote on this same subject. It can be found here.
I have been thinking a lot about the idea of religious conversion lately especially as to how it relates to my own journey.
Part of me is stirred by the idea of awakening, of enlightenment, of realizing that one should be on a different path and then choosing that path.
Another part of me is put off by the idea of conversion as being the rejection of one’s roots, even as one awakens to new level of understandings.
I can think of several possible points when I went through something of a conversation process…
1. At age 9, I decided to be baptized. This was formally the point of initiation into the Church of Christ (the tradition I grew up in). It is see as the moment when one choses to follow the path of Jesus and take on the spiritual responsibilities of adulthood. I took this idea very, very seriously. At the same time it wasn’t exactly a “conversion” since I had grown up in the tradition. In theory I chose it for myself, but it was really not a choice at all, since no other religious paths were really open to me (i.e. my parents would not have allowed me to join another church or to be initiated into another faith tradition).
2. In college I began to be awakened to the idea that the exclusivistic ideas of the Church of Christ were not right for me. I later joined Hope Chapel (a non-denominational semi-charismatic church in Austin, TX) and was even baptized there (I decided to be rebaptized as a symbol of my commitment to the path of Jesus and my rejection of my previous exclusivitist beliefs). And I came to experience what I believe was the baptism of the Holy Spirit (glossolalia and other phenomena that I thought were supernatural in nature). Yet, I never really left the Church of Christ. It was still in my spiritual DNA.
3. In Austin, I also began to have stirring towards pacifism. I eventually came to believe that Jesus’ teachings were both non-violent and communalistic in nature. (the story of how I got there will have to wait for another blog post)
4. I eventually did find my way back to the Churches of Christ for awhile, even serving as an interim minister in my home church for a year during law school. Yet, I never really lost my “conversions” towards charismaticism and nonviolence.
5. Not long after this I found my way to an open-minded urban Mennonite Church, where I am now serving in bivocational ministry. This was another significant point of conversion for me. But at the same time I was also exploring the ways that God spoke through other faith traditions, most notably the Catholic contemplative tradition and the Buddhist/Taoist traditions. This led me in time to involvement in the Quaker tradition (but I did not leave the Mennonite Tradition during this conversion).
6. And then since marriage, I have plunged headfirst into the practice of the Jewish faith tradition. My wife and I chose to do this mostly because we found the Jewish practice of Shabbot (Sabbath) and the holidays was more meaningful to us than was the Christian calendar, but also because the Jewish faith tradition is so centered on the home. We have a shabbot supper each week (and often try to carry over at least some kind of shabbot observance into the next day). We do almost all of the Jewish holidays. And lately we have been singing the Shema at night as a family before bed. – By way, if you are interested my wife talks about these practices quite a bit on her blog, Our Last Homely House.
So where does that leave me? I’m not sure. Of late I have even felt the stirring to want to formally connect with the Jewish tradition. I love the history of the Jewish people and would love to be connected to that history (as a genealogist I keep hoping I can find some Jewish ancestry so I can claim this heritage without conversion, but as of yet I have found not definitive proof other than a passing reference to a French Huguenot ancestor in the 1600’s who married a “German Jewess” – but this doesn’t seem like much, especially since I don’t even know her name).
But every conversion ritual I’ve read about requires that one completely abandon their old faith traditions and practice Judaism alone. That is not something I am willing to do.
Interestingly enough though, there is a long tradition of Jews who practice other religions, often without abandoning their religion of birth. The most notable such case I can think of is the Buddhist teacher and writer Sylvia Boorstein. Sylvia’s writing makes it clear that she is very Jewish AND very Buddhist. She is both. So why can a Jew-by-birth choose to practice more than one tradition, but a Jew-by-choice is not allowed to do this?
At the same time I can also understand the concern of Jews (and people of other faiths) who fear that a cafeteria-style kind of faith waters down the tradition to the point of meaninglessness. That’s a fair concern. And yet sometimes this anxiety seems to come out in strange ways, often articulated the loudest by those who only have a tenuous relationship to the tradition that they are trying to preserve.
So I want to be both. I want to practice the radical teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, but interpret those teachings through a questioning Jewish lens. I want to pray the shema but also sit in Buddhist meditation. And I want community, but not at the cost of exclusion.
I did hear one more hopeful thought, from a Rabbi writing on the website interfaith family who argues that:
Those who choose Judaism as their path and Jews as their people serve as bridges. They are links to our non-Jewish families and inspirations to Jews by birth, who so often fail to see the richness and profundity of their own tradition. Nor is there a need for new Jews to deny their families of origin. Instead, there is a new opportunity to bring a tolerant and respectful Judaism into the homes of our non-Jewish relatives. Remember that our tradition has always claimed to believe that “the righteous of all the nations have a share in the world to come.” What a wonderful moment this is when we can actually practice this teaching, learning to model a strong commitment to Judaism while recognizing the beauty and depth of other traditions and paths at the same time.
The end of this particular part of my own journey was to stop using the term “conversion” to describe this process and ritual. In the days when it was impossible for a person who chose Judaism to continue interacting with his or her family of origin, perhaps it made sense to speak of a conversion. Now, however, a person who chooses Judaism both can and should continue to be connected to his or her family of origin. Further, since Judaism has never laid claim to sole possession of “truth,” there is no need to use this word “conversion” any longer and I have come to prefer “initiation.” Full initiation into Judaism and the Jewish family means the conferring of all the benefits and responsibilities of membership in our people. These include financial commitments, being included in a minyan (the count of 10 people needed for public worship), and being called to the Torah. Today, there are many non-Jews who like to be around Jews and synagogues. Without initiating, however, we usually don’t include them in a minyan or ask them to come up to the Torah and say the blessings (“who has chosen us…and given us the Torah”). To decide to “take the plunge” and be immersed in the living waters of the mikvah, is to become an initiate, one who is a full participant in all the rituals, joys, and responsibilities of this wonderful people.
While I’m not interested in an exclusivistic kind of conversion, I do yearn for the chance to be initiated in this kind of way. Maybe one day I can do this. But for now I think I’m ok being a fellow traveler at least, even if I am not a Jew.