When I first tell people I converted to Judaism, there is, initially, surprise (I use enough Yiddish to fool anyone into thinking I attended Hebrew school) and then something else, something like… worry?
My social circles skew nonreligious, and any spiritually-inclined friends tend towards the occult; usually, the worry is that they have unwittingly said something to offend me.
I don’t blame them. Even my Jewish friends, most of whom are agnostic or atheist (and, therefore, understand that Jews don’t have to be theists), react similarly when I reveal my conversion. To be honest, I’d do the same.
Part of the problem is that many people can’t imagine a conversion story not rooted in faith claims. I get it: I grew up the child of evangelical pastors, and I saw my fair share of ecumenical spats and hermeneutical disputes. But no matter the denomination, Christians are united in their belief that Jesus is the messiah. To become a Christian is, at minimum, to embrace this belief. Jews, on the other hand, have no such convenient baseline to predict one another’s belief. As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.” So what essential belief does one embrace to become a Jew? There’s no easy way to shoehorn that narrative into a casual interaction with friends. What would one say? “I actually converted ohandbythewayI’malsoanatheist.”
What does the religious conversion narrative look like once deprived of its well-worn climax of spiritual awakening?
It looks a little something like this:
As adulthood dawned, my belief in the Divine waned. Biblical inconsistencies as well as the issue of theodicy (the question of evil) began to poke holes in my belief in Jesus as my savior. And then a hellishly psychedelic experience on marijuana dabs recontextualized the mystic facets of my upbringing. I no longer interpreted the worshipful reverie of my childhood as interactions with the Divine. Instead, I now perceived them as merely chemical hallucinations, the product of meditation, group psychology, and often music psychology. I was a freshman in college, and the structure holding my life together had now fallen apart.
But a life of religious fundamentalism is not so easily left. This kind of faith rebukes and prescribes certain behaviors, establishing mental patterns that I’m still deconstructing years later. The most stubborn mental stain, by far, is how this kind of faith frames one’s very perceptions of life, death, and their purposes. I liken it to scaffolding supporting a building. As one deconstructs the scaffolding (beliefs), so does the life framed within these beliefs seem to collapse. Most apostates weather this storm of demolition, to rebuild with a new blueprint in the dust of the old. They find their own ways to approach the questions of life and death, and give meaning to existence. But when my scaffolding collapsed, I feared that I couldn’t get through my rebuilding period without the support of a religious community.
That’s when I found Judaism.
The evangelicalism to which I belonged was that fervently Zionist sect that elevates fetishizing “God’s chosen people” to an art. I cringe, now, when I remember our christianized Seders and pastors who wore their tallit at services, but these things did contribute to my sense of being at home when I attended a Rosh Hashanah gathering on my college campus sophomore year. The smell of pomegranate and the sound of Hebrew were old friends, and I needed an old friend to hold my hand as I de- and reconstructed my life.
On one level, the story of my conversion is one of fear and comfort. I feared losing the only thing that had structured my life and my values, and Judaism was there to comfort me. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I had just held my breath and closed my eyes till the dust of my deconstruction settled, instead of reaching, like a child, for the first thing that seemed familiar. Yet I remain grateful for my Jewishness. Because even as I healed from the loss of my Christian faith and regained my footing, I continued the conversion process because I perceived many benefits.
The first, of course, was community. Just as I could once connect with fellow Christians anywhere in the world, I can now connect with fellow Jews. My Magen David necklace inspires conversations with strangers who reveal themselves to be fellow members of the Tribe. Another layer of social network and support is always welcome.
Secondly, Judaism is a social justice-oriented faith that also accommodates diverse beliefs. Thus, it offers me a home to connect with people motivated by the principle of tikkun olam while still affording me room to continue evolving.
Thirdly, Judaism’s bounty of Hebrew prayers contribute structure to my gratitude practice, something that I’ve found improves my mental health. Multiple times a day, when I’m struck by the beauty of nature, I mutter Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, oseh ma’aseh b’reishit. We praise you, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes the works of creation. I may not believe in God but I believe in being grateful for the miracle of the natural world.
Lastly, there’s the Chemical X factor: I just love it. I love being Jewish and eating Jewish food and singing Jewish melodies. I am Jewish and, in some ways, feel like I always have been. I certainly always will be. Sometimes, though, I’ve scrutinized these feelings. Isn’t conversion without belief in the divine mere cultural appropriation? But as writer Yair Rosenberg reminds us, Jewish identity is not quite a culture, race, ethnicity, or religion because it predates these delineations which are a Western (read: Christian) creation. Instead, it’s an amalgam of all of these things. But Rosenberg likes to use the phrase “family.” I empathize. During this past year’s Seder, I slapped my hands hard against the tabletop with others while belting “Dayenu,” belly full of lamb and matzoh, all while drunk on Manischewitz. I felt part of the tribe, part of the family, part of this group of people. It’s a family that I’m proud to be part of and whose legacy I’m proud to continue.