Saturday, April 09, 2005

I'm doing laundry tonight, which fragments time and concentration. Instead of working on my paper, I'll blog about it while I'm waiting for the washer to wind down.

I'm working on a project near my heart right now, a theology of Jewish peoplehood. The questions behind it have been bubbling away for a while now.

I became a Jew at age 41. The rabbi who worked with me, who was my midwife into the Jewish People, warned me that many Jews of the world won't accept a Reform conversion. I had noticed already that the Jews of the world don't agree on much of anything, so I wasn't too troubled by that idea. My resolution was that if there was a problem, it was THEIR problem, not mine. I still find that that's a good working atittude: My reality or validity or authenticity does not depend on a poll.

Still, I've had experiences that challenged my resolution. El Al security didn't like my WASPy name or my Irish American face, and my story didn't make any sense to them. (You became Jewish just because you wanted to? What, are you nuts?) I wish I had a nickle for everyone who has said, "Gee, you don't look Jewish." One of the downsides to being a student rabbi is that the snappier comebacks to that one are now very unprofessional and not an option!

On the more professional side, I can quote chapter and verse on the requirements for conversion, and on
the elements of Jewish law that say that with a very few exceptions having to do mostly with marriage (a convert may not marry a Cohen, a member of the priestly families). Jews are Jews, whether they come through the waters of the womb, or the waters of the mikveh [ritual bath, part of conversion.]

This winter, when I read that Franz Rosenzweig defined Jewish peoplehood in terms of "blood," I felt my dander rising again. It's one thing to hear this stuff from an am haaretz [ignoramus], it's another entirely to see it written in one of the great Jewish philosophical texts, The Star of Redemption. Worse, this isn't a slur on the Reform movement, or my rabbi's semichah (ordination), it was a bald statement that if you don't have Jewish blood, you aren't really Jewish. Reading it, I felt angry and repelled -- it looked racist, and it also looked like the undertow to all the comments on my face and name. I asked my teacher, Dr. Adler, about it. "I wondered if that was going to bother you," she replied.

It bothers me. I don't want it to bother me, but it bothers me. It happens that for her class, I am supposed to write a paper in which I hash out some of my own theology. I decided to take this thing on, and wrestle it to the ground: I'm writing a paper about theologies of Am Yisrael [The Jewish People] and specifically, MY theology. I want to know precisely where I stand on this, and my gut feelings of connection to Am Yisrael are as much a part of the data as anything I think about it. I know that nothing I write is going to change anyone else's mind, but that's not the point: I want to be clear in my own mind.

I am a Jew. I've been a Jew since June 17, 1996. My soul feels like it's been Jewish forever (which it turns out, is part of this equation, at least according to some of the theologians.) The question is, exactly what does that mean? How am I a Jew? What does it mean to be a Jew?

Stay tuned.

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