Friday, April 27, 2007

Hmph.

Still no word from the rabbi about a group class. We haven't met in more than a month.

I am officially annoyed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Two quick thoughts and a correction

Thought 1: Rabbi Jacob e-mailed me on Saturday to get times I would be available for a Basic Judaism course with other people interested in converting or learning more about the religion. Part of me is upset he didn't do this months ago, but I'm trying to be happy that he's gotten this far.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my crazy schedules will be able to work with other people's crazy schedules. Here's hoping.

Thought 2: My friend went to a literary festival in Little Rock this weekend. A prominent writer on atheism was there. She wasn't sure, but she gathered from the talk that he was a born-Jew, because he talked about how Judaism was the most secular religion. I'm definitely find some truth to that, but I think a lot of religious Jews would find a lot of fault in that as well.

A correction: Last week when I wrote about the afterlife, I mentioned that Thursday was the 15th anniversary of my sister's death. That is wrong. Thursday is her 22nd birthday. I must have been writing faster than my brain was processing. I just wanted to clear that up. This summer, July 11, will be the 15th anniversary of her death.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Solo Shabbat

This Shabbat Ryan was in Athens, Ga., so we had to do our Shabbat time by ourselves.

Quick aside: How funny is it that Ryan called me from the Holiday Inn parking lot upset over the notion that barhoppers had used up all the parking spaces? (Damn kids.) When did he get so old?

Anyway, I did the best I could. I lit the candles without burning myself, and muddled through the blessing, mispronouncing every fourth or fifth word.

I didn't want to get behind so I copied the latest chapter in Basic Judaism and gave it to Ryan for his trip. He sent me his notes this morning, like the good student he probably never was. :)

It was a chapter I had been looking forward to for a while. The chapter discussed dogma, G_d and evil.

The overarching theme? Do and believe what you want. The only absolute is that G_d exists (in whatever form you want to believe) and that G_d is one, not two, not three like in the Christian trinity and not none.

The book waged a written debate over the merits of a Judaic dogma. Apparently Maimonides wrote a Jewish dogma, but no one could agree on it. Some say that without a creed, isn't Judaism the "jellyfish of faith?" And if there is no creed, what did the martyrs die for? What holds us all together?

Steinberg writes that the Jewish principle of questioning G_d and free-thinking about G_d comes into direct conflict with the idea of having a formal creed of faith. He also writes that Jews are not Jews by faith alone. Unlike Christians, Jews are Jews for cultural and historical reasons aside from religion, whereas Christians unify around a singular faith in Jesus. Therefore, it also would not make sense to have a singular formal creed.

Because Basic Judaism was written before the founding of Israel, I did some quick research to make sure he was still up to date in regards to the creed topic. The only Jewish creed I found reference to is the Shmah creed, which simply states: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G_d, the Lord is One."

In terms of who G_d is to each person, Steinberg writes that Judaism takes a libertarian approach to that as well. Same goes for evil on earth: Steinberg lists numerous reasons for evil's presence on earth and then says "the Jew is free to make his selection, adopting the response or combination of responses which best satisfies him."

What I thought was the more important message: "That man's ignorance of God is greater than his knowledge..." Steinberg here quotes a Proverb: "In all they ways know Him." His commentary: Nowhere is it written: "In all His ways know Him."

My first reaction to all this chapter: What? It's that easy? I get to choose what I want to believe?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how many questions such a free-flowing idea of G_d requires.

How do you all feel about have set requirements for what you believe? How are creeds and dogmas used in different religions? (Here is a copy of the United Methodist creed.) Is it something you learn at a young age? Something you gloss over? Were you taught that you could believe in your own version?

Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive creed entry with links. There is also creed.net.

Friday, April 20, 2007

What are your beliefs?

One of my friends sent me his results from Beliefnet, so I thought it might be appropriate to revisit my own:

1. Liberal Quakers (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (96%)
3. Reform Judaism (89%)
4. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (88%)
5. Neo-Pagan (77%)
6. Secular Humanism (74%)
7. New Age (66%)
8. Mahayana Buddhism (63%)
9. Orthodox Quaker (63%)
10. Bahá'í Faith (62%)
11. Sikhism (60%)
12. Theravada Buddhism (58%)
13. Orthodox Judaism (56%)
14. Jainism (52%)
15. New Thought (51%)
16. Islam (50%)
17. Taoism (48%)
18. Scientology (44%)
19. Nontheist (44%)
20. Hinduism (41%)
21. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (38%)
22. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (38%)
23. Seventh Day Adventist (38%)
24. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (31%)
25. Eastern Orthodox (31%)
26. Roman Catholic (31%)
27. Jehovah's Witness (26%)

I found myself rating many of the questions as a low priority. A few of the social questions I did rate as a high priority. I wonder how much that really affects your results. The first two religions are fairly liberal and accepting of divergent beliefs. The next three — Reform Judaism, Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants and Neo-Pagan — all seem intrinsicly different from each other, at least in a theological sense. When I read the descriptions, it seems they all coincide with my social beliefs. Theologic beliefs versus social beliefs seems to be a reoccuring theme throughout this process.

I think it would be interesting if a bunch of people took the quiz and posted their results here.

I'll write about The Chosen and the rabbi situation soon.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What's next?

When people find out that I am considering conversion, they always have lots of questions. Probably things they have always wondered about Judaism, but never had an "in-between" to go to for answers. It's often intimidating to ask questions about different people's beliefs, because you never know what is a sore point for each person.

One of the many questions people ask me is about Judaism's beliefs in heaven and hell. I think a lot of Christians ask this question because of the teaching that the only way to heaven is through a belief in Jesus, and obviously, that would be a sticking point in Judaism. Also, people who were raised Christian and no longer consider themselves so tend to ask because the idea that non-Christians are banished to hell is generally a hard pill to swallow.

Just like in Christianity, there is a wide range of Jewish beliefs on the concept of afterlife. There are opinions on cremation, burial, funeral services and even reincarnation. But here's the basic gist from Beliefnet.com:

"The highest good in Judaism is living a moral life; that is its own reward. The concept of an afterlife is emphasized in Orthodox Judaism, where it is usually referred to as Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. The Jewish idea of heaven is generally known as Gan Eden, or as the Garden of Eden, and hell is called Gehinnom.

"All righteous people, not just Jews, get a place in the world to come, but not all places are equal. A person's status in Olam Ha-Ba depends on actions in this life. Before going to Gan Eden, many people first have to spend time in Gehinnom, which is described by some as a fiery place of harsh punishment and by others as a place where the soul contemplates its past life and repents misdeeds. Except for the worst human beings, the maximum stay in Gehinnom is one year, after which the soul ascends to Gan Eden.

"There is debate about virtually every aspect of Jewish views on the afterlife, including the question of whether Judaism has a concept of an afterlife at all. For those who believe in Olam Ha-Ba, there is debate about whether the term refers to heaven and hell (Gan Eden/Gehinnom) or whether it refers to this world as it will be in the messianic era after the resurrection of the dead (tehiyat ha-metim)--or whether it is something entirely different."

I really like Beliefnet because it gives you a very basic understanding of a lot of different religions, and doesn't paint all Christians and Jews with a broad stroke. It points out the differences between say a Southern Baptist and Episcopalian and a Reform Jew and an Orthodox Jew. It also has an interesting, fun quiz. You answer questions about yourself and it matches you up with a religion. Has anyone used this site before? What did you think of it? Is it fairly reliable?

The afterlife has always been a curiousity for me. My sister died when I was 9 years old. In fact, next Thursday is the 15th anniversary of her death when she was only 7 years old. Naturally, as I child, I focused a lot on the afterlife to get me through my grief. My mom did, too, and started collecting angels. I never really worried about going to hell, though I'm sure some do. I never really thought it was a possibility that God would allow that, no matter what I did wrong.

I never was really taught that non-Christians were intended for hell. I don't think I even understood this concept until I had a Jewish friend in high school. In our tight-knit group of friends, she was the only non-Christian, and I could tell for some of the girls with more fervent, traditional beliefs, that her faith might be an issue. I never really heard it talked about much, but it was brought up maybe once or twice. My friends respected her religion, even went with her to services from time to time, but that didn't change what they were taught to believe.

It was hard for me to rationalize that. Part of me wanted to believe in everything I was told. And another part just couldn't.

I started thinking about all of this these past 36 hours after the shootings at Virginia Tech. I'm usually very detached from tragedies. I guess it's part of the job. I have to take a 20-inch story about a bus plunging off a mountainside in Mexico and turn it into a 50-word bite every day. But I guess my recent time in college and my fondness for the KU campus made this all touch home a little bit more. I've never felt truly depressed after a major event -- even 9/11 -- before. I just still haven't been able to shake this.

And I find it hard to believe that if there is a God, he would keep some of those 33 -- yes, even the shooter -- out of heaven for eternity. I don't believe we're here on Earth as part of a test. We're here to do as many good deeds as possible before our time runs out.

Sorry for the long post, but I've felt the need to ramble today. I'm almost done with The Chosen, and I've been marking it up like I'm a freshman in high school again.

But until a later post, I'd love to hear you all's struggles with the after life, beliefs or questions... Thanks for reading.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Out, Thoughts, Out

The rabbi suggested that Ryan and I take time each week to observe Shabbat in whatever way we can. Traditionally, Shabbat would begin with a Friday evening meal at sundown, which would include candlelighting and prayers. Depending on how you observe Shabbat, the following 24 hours are intended for prayer, soul-searching and rest.

When I first thought about observing Shabbat, I was incredibly intimidated. I am definitely incapable of not making mental lists in my head of all the things I need to do. I often use Ryan as my springboard. I ramble things to him, hoping that by doing so that I'll remember them tomorrow. I can't even imagine praying! My mind can't stay quiet long enough to have any persisted thought. The minute I start to think of something to meditate on, my mind sprints to something else. Thoughts are constantly crawling around in my head, driving both me and Ryan insane.

One of my friends says she sets a timer every time she wants to connect with G_d. I think if I did that I would keep looking at the digital numbers and just grow frustrated as lists upon lists keep formulating and time keeps dwindling.

I think the rabbi understands my confusion/frustrations regarding prayer and G_d, so he kept it simple. He said our Shabbat should be a time for us just to enjoy each other as human beings and not housekeepers, landscapers, dishwashers or any other kind of taskmaster. He discourages us from even talking about the things we need to do around the house. The rabbi himself observes Shabbat by not talking on the phone during the period. To each his own, I guess.

Because I work every Friday night and Saturday, we obviously can't observe Shabbat in any traditional way. So we've taken to having Saturday brunch. I light the candle, Ryan recites the prayer and we have whatever breakfast entree I have come up with at the last minute. This morning -- French toast and scrambled eggs.

We follow the Shabbat meal by reading aloud from Basic Judaism, one of the three books the rabbi has suggested I read. The book is interesting, but a hard read. It was written just before the founding of Israel, so we find ourselves stumbling over words and grasping at meanings.

Today's reading was about the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It mostly delved into the two interpretative theories -- traditionalists and modernists. Traditionalists believe the entire word of G_d was delivered to the Jews on Mount Sinai, and that the Talmud and even the rabbinic writings were predetermined at that point. Modernists believe in flexible interpretation of the Torah, that it can mean something different today than it did in the last generation.

Ryan and I are going to Great Bend for a few days, so I'll be away from the computer for a while. It'll be a nice break for someone who is on the computer at least half the day for work or leisure. I plan on speeding through The Chosen this weekend, so I'm sure I'll have some thoughts come Tuesday.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

My Rabbi

The rabbi for the southern half of Northwest Arkansas is a little flighty.

We've met twice now in his office at the University of Arkansas. Both times he has been late, mostly because of his habit of biking to work every day. He is a professor of philosophy and studied at Harvard. He's an interesting guy, but our personalities don't mesh very well. I like to be on task and know exactly what I need to be studying to prepare for our meetings. His lessons tend to wind around in circles and finally end when he's forgotten where he's started about three times.

He became a rabbi about a year ago. He took a sabbatical in a recent semester to study in Israel. He knows a lot about a lot, I think. He just doesn't do a very good job of filling me in.

I think he's a bit overwhelmed (aren't we all?) because he has eight candidates for conversion. He wants to arrange a group class, which I'm all for, though I worry I'll miss out on one-on-one interaction I think is necessary. Additionally, my schedule is crazy, so I'm not able to attend Shabbat services or other group activities.

I keep telling myself that this will only make the experience better for me personally. Like shopping for Passover, this teaches me how to be independent in my faith wanderings and not rely on someone so much. I keep telling myself that.

Here's hoping the rabbi will finish his taxes and get together a group class soon, because I have lots of questions.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Chosen


No, I'm not going to get into a theological debate (at least not yet) regarding one of the fundamental principles of Judaism.

Instead, I'm going keep this short and recommend a book.

For those of you who have known me for a decade -- and there are a few of you -- you'll remember sitting in Miss Emert's class (or the other teacher...I can't remember her name) and highlighting and marking up The Separate Peace by John Knowles. It was our first introduction to dissecting a novel, and most of us, if I remember right, loved the book. There's just something about a story about boys attending schools post-World War II and forging unusual friendships. I don't know what it is.

My friend JT, who I had morning drinks with the other day and who is trying to be Epsicopal, told me about the book. She adored it so much, and the book that came after, that she had already given them away to pass them on to others.

So we trotted over to a used bookstore that rivals The Dusty Bookshelf on Mass Street and found some copies. The sales clerk, an older man in his 70s, added up the cost of the books on a piece of paper and I gave him my credit card. Old style met new-fangled and now the books are mine.

I'm starting to read The Chosen, and I love it so far. If you love a good coming-of-age book, you'll love this. It's about a boy from a Reform synagogue. He meets a boy from a Hasidic neighborhood when their yeshivas (Hebrew schools) take on each other in a baseball game. The Hasidic boy taunts the boys from the Reform neighborhood, telling them that his team will kill them all because they speak sacred Hebrew instead of Yiddish, because they don't wear their tzitzit on the ballfield, because they were "apikorsim," secular Jews. Like Buzz said in an earlier comments, even Jews can be anti-semitic.

It really is a great book, and touches on so many issues within Judaism that translate to the world at large.

Oh -- and I ate bread for the first time after Passover last night. The pizza buffet was delicious!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hillel, Methodism & The Darn "ch"

First I want to share a story I've read in nearly every book or article:

"A man went looking for Rabbbi Hillel and said to him, 'I want to become a Jew. But only on the condition that you teach me the Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.' Hillel looked at the smart aleck and said, 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the entire Torah -- all of it. The rest is commentary. Go and study.'" (Choosing a Jewish Life)

Funny that the simplest message of the Torah isn't all that different from the New Testement I grew up with.

I should explain where I am coming from in order for anyone to understand where I'm going.

I think some people, especially those who still identify as Methodist, wonder what I meant in my first post when I mentioned "anything goes Methodism."

What I meant to imply is that being Methodist in modern-day Christianity doesn't have as strong of an identity as some other religious affiliations. For example, Catholicism, Baptist, Judaism, Mormon, etc. I know a lot of Protestants who choose their denomination based on the pastor, not on its beliefs. Yes, I know this is not the case for all Methodists, or Protestants in general, but I do believe in recent times denominations' beliefs are falling into more and more grey areas. And maybe that's a good thing.

My family, on my mother's side, is United Methodist. I grew up going to the Methodist church all my life, and some of my fondest memories are of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I often find myself asking Ryan if he had any of the same experiences in Hebrew school as I did in Sunday School. ("Hey, Ryan, did you guys have the felt boards with the felt characters for story time?"..."No? Oh that's too bad...")

I stopped going to church in 2003 while I was in college. I mostly felt that our local Methodist church didn't seem to have any relevency in my life anymore. It was a time of change for me, and as it is with people in every faith, sometimes spirituality goes by the wayside when dealing with stress.

I feel very lucky that my experiences with Christianity have been in a United Methodist home. In fact, I think there are a lot more similarities between Methodism and Judaism (especially the Reform branch) than some might think.

Like Judaism, Methodism is based on service to those less fortunate and to the broken world at large. The denomination is known to stress service and charity work. It is a very socially aware and one of the most liberal denominations of Protestant Christianity.

Like Judaism, it is against the death penalty. It also takes no definitive stance on homosexuality and abortion rights. (I heard many "Methodists on the fence" jokes growing up -- usually during Methodist sermons.) And the denomination stresses the importance of peace over war. Now let me make clear -- these are the denomination's stances, not necessarily the stances of parishoners themselves. (And I should say I'm describing these all from memories and through the purvue of past teachers and pastors, so I'm sorry if I've misconstrued anything I have been taught.)

To round out my list of three topics -- the dreaded "ch."

I chose the Hebrew name "Michal" as some of you might remember. Well, that's all fine and good except I CAN'T PRONOUNCE IT! There's something about that "ch" or "chet" sound. I just can't do it, especially when it is followed closely behind by the dreaded "L" (Think: challah...yep can't do that one either).

So I think I'm in trouble. I'm going to have to learn to say the name, or it'll just be silly for the rest of my life. But it's ridiculous to have to repeat rudimentary words to your boyfriend. It just makes you feel dumb.

For the record, I can't roll my Rs either.

Monday, April 9, 2007

G_d or God?

I've gotten tons of feedback on my blog so far. For everyone who has written, commented or called: Thanks for the feedback. For those of you who have just read, thanks, too, and I hope to talk with you soon.

The most frequent question I've gotten so far is about the spelling "G_d." In truth, I didn't fully know the rationality behind spelling it that way. In the last few months, I have been reading a lot of articles about Judaism and I noticed that almost everyone wrote "G-d" or "G_d." So I simply adopted it here without thinking much of it.

Then my non-Jewish readers started to question me. (Which is the exact purpose of this blog, so it is already a success.) So I decided to do some more research on the topic.

It appears that the practice is limited to mostly Orthodox and some conservative Jews. Jews leave out the vowels in words referencing the creator as a way to show reverence. (Also while speaking, Orthodox Jews don't use the word for Lord in much the same way. Instead of saying "Adonay" -- usually translated as Lord -- they will say Hashem -- trans. "the name." Instead of Elohim, or God, they will intentionally mispronounced it "Elokim.")

Here are some references:

AskMoses.com
Chabad.org

So what do you think? Which spelling should be used?

Also: Some of you have asked to be e-mailed every time I post, so I created a listing on Blogger. If you're reading this and would like to be on that list, shoot me an e-mail or comment below.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Passover and Vodka

There are a lot of rules in Judaism. According to Basic Judaism, there are 365 prohibitions, one for every day of the calendar year.

I think I broke a few Saturday morning.

This year, in my attempt to immerse myself in as much Jewish culture as possible, I am observing Passover. For those of you who were as clueless as I was a few years ago, that means no leavened bread, or chametz.

The story of Passover is the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt. (For those of you raised in Sunday School, that's the story that involves Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.) It is called Passover because one of G_d's numerous plagues involved the killing of the firstborn, but Jewish children were passed over.

So as the Jews fled slavery in Egypt, they didn't have time for leavened bread (bread that rises). So during the eight days of Passover, those who observe the holiday abstain from eating it to remember the hardships and sacrifices of the ancestors.

Passover began on Monday night at sundown and ends at nightfall Tuesday. It's a loooooong eight days. I've eaten fruit -- lots of it -- and lots of matzoh sandwiches.

For someone who almost entirely subsists on bagels, cereal, pasta and sandwiches, it has been especially long. Add in the smorgasboard of goodies from the Mexican bakery that appeared at work last week and the snickerdoodles (!!!!) that are about five feet away from me right now, and I'm sweating it.

This my second Passover, but the first I'm trying to take seriously. It has gone well for the most part, but I have not been without my slip ups -- namely my Bloody Mary at brunch this morning. As soon as I sipped it, I knew I had screwed up, but I kept on slurping anyway. It was just too good.

But the holiday is not lost on me. In fact, it has a special meaning for me.

As Ryan and I prepared for the week, it has brought us closer together. It has also brought me further into the Jewish fold. Try shopping for matzoh the week before Easter in the Bible belt. There's one place to get it, and they just have a few boxes. Try finding a shank for the seder plate. Try finding a copy of the Haggadah. Try explaining to co-workers on a daily basis why you won't eat the goodies that you usually gobble up without prompt.

I'm starting to understand that trying to learn to be Jewish in an un-Jewish place is a blessing. It makes it that much harder. I have to explain things just a little more. And it makes this process all the more purposeful.

Here are some photos from our Monday night seder:

This is our seder plate. Note the comical size of the "shank." When Alex went to the butcher, he didn't have anything resembling a shank so he gave him a lamb femur for free. Clockwise from top: The Shank, haroset, bitter herb, vegetable and the egg.





Our seder dinner table.








Our guests Alex and Liz peeling the hard-boiled eggs.










Ryan and I before the seder.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Who is like G_d?

In the beginning...

I haven't officially chosen a Hebrew name. In fact, I'm not even sure when I'm supposed to. But all my books and all my research says I should. So I have. At least temporarily.

Introducing....Michal.

Yes. I know, not original. It's the Hebrew version of my name, Michelle, which means "Who is like G_d." Michal means the same in Hebrew according to several Web sites I consulted. I thought about going with Leah, my middle name, but she has a very unsightly place in the Torah and her name means "she who is tired..." Not exactly the name (or message) I want to enter my Jewish life with.

I've always liked the meaning of my name. And as I begin questioning G_d and G_d's place in my life, I think it is very appropriate. I'm starting this blog to correspond with my journey to Jewishness. And I'm using that meaning as the name for this blog -- with the addition of the ever-important question mark. The question mark will likely be a large theme for these posts.

Why Judaism? I'm considering converting for several reasons. Yes, there is a man involved. I'm not going to lie, be trite and say "I've always felt Jewish in my heart, and that's what led me to him" or any of that. So I will lay it all out there and say "Yes, Ryan has led me to Judaism." And I'm grateful for that.

Other reasons: The sense of family and tradition that goes along with such a persecuted faith. The tight-knit sense of community I hope my children will have that I lacked growing up in a Methodist, "anything goes" kind of faith.

Most importantly: Identity. How do you whittle yourself down to one word? Do you say: Wife? Journalist? Woman? Mother? Sister? Friend? Christian? I hope by studying Judaism, I'll be able to discern whether the identity of Jew is right for me.

We're in the 24-hour period of Shabbat right now. Ryan and I had our fried matzoh and read another chapter from the book, Basic Judaism. The chapter talked about how intrinsic the Jewish faith and Jewish actions are. Without one, you can't have the other. It is impossible to be a pious Jew and not do good for others.

I've talked to Ryan's mother about this via e-mail. She devotes a lot of time to the federation and raises money for Jewish causes around the world. It's nice to see that there are places for all kinds of Jews in the faith. I see myself more of a person of action, not as a person of prayer and spirituality.

I had morning drinks with JT this morning. I hope this can be a semi-regular Shabbat tradition, because I'm able to think/talk more freely about G_d and Judaism while I've had some Bloodys (or Mimosas...Mmmm). The rabbi said there wasn't a wrong way to observe Shabbat, but I don't know if he had fried matzoh, Bloody Marys and mimosas in mind.

Onto work...

Topics to come soon -- Passover & Vodka and My Rabbi (or lack thereof)