While driving down Route 95 on the East Coast, one has the ability to survey hundreds of billboards along the way. They aim to tell the passerby that life without their product is a life that is incomplete. Without that specific phone, insurance plan, TV show or washing machine, one may run the risk of being an outcast, unaffiliated, and simply on the wrong train. All too often, the sole intent of the advertisement company is to draw one away from their current status of living and suggest that uniting with their agenda is the best way to succeed in the world, denying diversity, for the sake of uniformity.
In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 11:1-9) we read about the demands of the nations to create a world of sameness and uniformity: the Tower of Babel.
“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech… And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth… And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; … So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth… Therefore was the name of it called Babel…”
Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (Italy, 16th century) comments that these nations desired to create a world of homogeny because they believed that Man’s ability to proliferate as a species (remember we weren’t that old yet) would only be possible with universalized speech and thought, hence never causing separation and differences to surface. Surely there have been times where we may strongly relate to these nations’ desire for uniformity. By nature, avoiding conflict is one of the basic tenants set out by Anna Freud in her work on defense mechanisms. Granted, placed there in order for us retain our peace of mind, but this was not the intention of our Creator. God did not want us to look the same, speak the same or act the same, and thus the call for diversity caused the tower of exclusivity to crumble.
In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century), “Mankind must be scattered, must distribute itself among all the different regions of earth in order that the most divergent and contrary faculties of the human mind may find in nature the needed opportunities of development, in order that experience become full and complete…” We learn here that the Torah does not only welcome diversity, but insists on it. Though we may have been scattered to the far ends of the earth, our ability to create our own borders, languages, and theological premises, has been the gift that allowed for civilization to thrive economically, culturally, and intellectually from Noah until now.
It is our duty as Jews to not only welcome-in the other because it “feels” like the right thing to do, and more so, because God’s intentions were never to produce a world of uniformity, but strengthen us to call far and near for a world of diversity.
Change is an inevitable part of our lives. Most changes, however, happen to us from the outside: we age, we move, the world changes around us regardless of our desires to frame it in a moment. And yet, the most meaningful changes are often those that we set in motion on our own: our voluntary transformations. In the Jewish tradition, the New Year is a time for collective soul-searching and metamorphosis geared towards a positive transformation of ourselves and the world around us.
Central to the liturgy of the New Year is a recurrent Medieval poem which describes God as “a King sitting in a throne of Mercy” (Melekh yoshev ‘al kisse Rachamim). But there is something awkward about “a throne of Mercy.” Throughout the Bible and Midrash, the idea of a throne is associated with judgment and power. Kings, including the King of King of Kings (God), sit in high and lofty thrones that separate them from the ground. It is from this high and separate place where they dispense justice to the people below. The throne is a symbol of the power possessed by one party and not possessed by the other. Power and judgment seem to depend on differences, on distances and on separation; ideas we seldom associate with mercy, which we imagine thriving in contact and intimacy. As any playground kid knows, forgiveness (mercy´s delicious byproduct) is never really true unless sealed by that handshake or, better yet, a hug. And yet it is incredibly difficult to shake or hug someone who is sitting high above you in a throne.
Thus, the idea of a throne of mercy seems strange, even oxymoronic.
However, it precisely because of this contradictory nature, this image seems to be a perfect metaphor for the time of the High Holidays and the possibilities it encapsulates. The Jewish idea of repentance, teshuvah, is connected to the view of our own free will and our power to create- a power we share exclusively with God. Although we are constrained by limitations set by our physical, social and behavioral surroundings, there is a component in us that is absolutely free and, at any moment, can choose to act in a completely unexpected way. In the same way that a throne does not seem a fitting tool of mercy but rather just the opposite, the power of repentance is such that it can alter the expected shape and function of an object into something that it did not seem it had the power to be.
This wondrous act of transformation is made so much more powerful when it goes viral and the entire Jewish people does it together. That is the true power of the High Holidays: focusing the entire attention and energy of a people into the sole purpose of betterment and transformation. When we, collectively as well as individually, choose to do something unexpected and seek for unity instead of division, for connection instead of hierarchy, for closeness instead of judgment, our true potential as a people and as Jews becomes unlocked.
My personal blessing for these powerful days, pregnant with possibilities, is that we look into those things that we think as unchangeable and set in our lives: our surroundings and ethnicity, our situation and our language. And like the throne of Judgement, see ourselves transformed into an improbable but amazing new people with less hangups, less distance between us and other Jews, between us and our fellow human beings.
It is, after all, a question that does not (and probably should not) have a completely rational, logical answer. Religion is not like algebra; it’s not even some sort of complicated spiritual calculus. At the core of it, faith cannot be deduced from a set of rational principles; it requires a leap of the heart.
The problem was that I didn’t feel religious, not for a long time. I had spent years envying my friends who were confident in their Christian belief; I only had doubt to console me. And yet, I was also driven by some need, a quiet longing buried deep, like a song I could not quite hear, a desire for something greater than myself. I wanted to pray and feel like it mattered that I did.
Of course, I felt ridiculous for wanting these things; I felt that it was irrational to think I had any concern for God, or that God had any concern for me.
Once when I was small, I left a plastic purse behind in a restaurant. My grandma patiently took me back, and we found the purse still sitting on the floor where I had left it. Happy to have it back, I told her how lucky I was to have found it. She shook her head: “No, God was watching out for you.”
My grandma’s response sounded reasonable at the time. But as I grew in experience, I slowly came to the realization that God doesn’t rearrange his schedule around my convenience. God doesn’t even let me choose at which times these things will work out to my advantage. And so I prayed: O God, I wouldn’t mind losing now and then, if only I could choose when I win!
When I first started the process of conversion, I really didn’t think that I would ever become a Jew. It was inconceivable to me. As a friend of mine once exclaimed when I told her I was converting “you can’t become Jewish; that’s like saying ‘I want to be Italian” — you can’t just wake up one day and decide to become Italian.” But the truth is, I didn’ t just wake up one day and decide to become Jewish. It was a gradual process that took several years.
I would have to say the day I first considered converting to Judaism was the first time I saw a page of the Talmud. I was talking with my boyfriend (now my ex-husband) about my reason for disliking religion (it’s one of those conversations college students are bound to have) and I told him that I didn’t like the emphasis in religion on having faith in a certain set of beliefs. I felt that my church had not let me have room to doubt or to argue or to disagree. He said that Judaism did not insist on a set of beliefs; in fact, arguing was part of the tradition. I didn’t believe him, so he took me down to a bookstore, pulled out one of the volumes of the Talmud (the illustrated gift set, stored next to the presentation bibles). He was quite proud of himself: “See, this here in the middle is the text, and round the sides are the commentary. They’re arguing about the meaning of the text.” I was immediately intrigued. I could like a people who would write their arguments along the margins of the text.
That day, I started quietly reading about Judaism, hiding the books under my bed. Years later, my husband insisted that I buy just one Jewish book at a time. I was lucky, actually, because I was able to find what I was looking for: a warm religious community at Temple Beth El, and educational opportunities like an Introduction to Judaism, the Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, and the weekly Torah study. Maybe my grandma was right after all: God was watching out for me.
The question is sometimes also asked: Could I have found what I was looking for if I had stayed a Christian? The answer probably would have been yes. But it’s a moot point now. To paraphrase Robert Frost: I have taken the road less traveled, and for me that has made all the difference. Even so, I recognize that conversion is not the answer for everyone. It is a process a person goes through for their own reasons in their own time. It is, after all, a private choice, probably the most private choice of all. No one can make that decision for you.
So, to answer the question, why did I convert: I converted to Judaism because it provided me a way to answer the longing that I felt. Or to put it more poetically: I changed my name to Israel because I was wrestling with God.
If you’re exploring conversion or know people who are, we recommend Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for the Family and Friends.
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Oklahoma City, where I live, has an amazing Jewish community. And, unfortunately, this amazing Jewish community is an expert in dealing with disaster. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the relentless wave of deadly tornadoes that have hit the area, Okie Jews (as we proudly call ourselves) respond with generosity, gumption, and optimism. So when this week our rabbi told us that two relatives of members of the community were in the affected area of Typhoon Haiyan, the community sprung into action. Donations were requested, support for the concerned families was arranged and we decided to help with our prayers by reciting the entire book of Psalms in the coming month (5 Psalms a day covers it all).
In Jewish tradition, whenever disaster strikes it is customary to accompany our physical response together with a spiritual response: prayer, action, and tzedakah (charitable deeds) are the Jewish response to tragedy. Traditionally, prayer come from the book of Psalms with its evocative language of raw humanity and hope has been a preferred tool to raise our awareness of the suffering of those affected but also to inspire us to compassion and proactivity.
As part of my work with Be’chol Lashon, I teach Torah online to Spanish speaking Jews and Spanish speakers interested in Judaism. Inspired by the Okie response, that night I invited my Spanish language learning community on Facebook to join us in the recitation of Psalms for the victims.
“Why are you doing this?” some wanted to know. The answers came from the students themselves. A student from Honduras recalled the help they had received when Hurricane Mitch hit this country. A student from Colombia emphasized the responsibility he felt as a human being with any kind of human suffering. A Mexican student quoted the words of Hillel “If I am only for myself, what am I?” The support was overwhelming. Scores of people volunteered to connect with my brick and mortar community in Oklahoma to reach out in prayer and action for a community halfway across the world.
These feelings of altruism and generosity are not new but what is surprising is the way in which living in a wired world has expanded the breadth of the planet´s capacity for empathy. In this world where no longer are we separated by six degrees (latest studies calculate it at four and plummeting) of separation. A synagogue in Oklahoma might be the vehicle for scores of Latin-Americans to connect with a tragedy halfway around the world and to do so in unmistakably Jewish ways. Tehilim are being said, and donations are being gathered by total strangers for total strangers. For all of its downsides, our global village has allowed the highest forms of tzedakah (in which both the donor and the recipient do so anonymously) to break the barriers of the pushke and the local synagogue and go global.