There is an obvious way start to this story, and a more round-about way. The obvious way to start this story is when I was 18: my hall-mate freshman year of college invited me to Friday night Shabbat services. Her mother had died of cancer only a few weeks before the start of the school year and I remember feeling keenly how important Hillel was to her. My own father was in remission after a second fight with cancer and the specter of his illness traveled everywhere with me. And there, in Hillel, saying Psalm 51:15 — Open my lips that I may praise Your name — I felt God. Not that God entered the room, not that God spoke, but that I became unmistakably aware of God’s presence for the first time in my life.
The round-about way to start this story is when I was 8: I read a book about Wicca and, entranced by the idea that there was something larger than myself, I convinced my parents to let me light candles and spread circles of salt. The less obvious way is to start the story with me, age 12, dragging my parents from Catholic church to saint’s home to Catholic church across Europe, lighting candles at every opportunity. Less obvious, of course, because they are not, on the surface, about Judaism.
But underneath the surface, the seeking is still true: I have spent most of my life chasing answers to the question, “How should a person be?” And by that I mean — What does it mean to do good, to be good? What does it mean to be in a world that is chaotic, in a world made up of fallible, mortal connections and structures? I have been looking for a safe place to land the vessel of my heart and soul, a safe place that does not erase the brokenness of the world but instead energizes me to help repair it.
I am having a hard time explaining this even to myself: there are two things at play, but they are essentially intertwined. I want to be Jewish because it is through the rituals, the prayers, the history, and the community of Judaism that I become aware of God’s presence in my life and the world around me. Heschel wrote that “We are alone even with our friends. The smattering of understanding which a human being has to offer is not enough to satisfy our need of sympathy…It is such a sense of solitude which prompts the heart to seek the companionship of God” (Man’s Quest for God, 17). I have always felt this solitude and unmooring, this sense of needing a safe place to land — and that no person or human-created structure could offer that safety.
But God can. So — I want to be Jewish because through Shabbat, through Passovers at Amy’s house among her laughing children, through the melody of the cantor on Yom Kippur, through reading Heschel early in the morning before I face the day, through saying berakhot, I find more and more moments when I can feel God’s presence in my life, when my soul finds a safe place to land. It is through the “sanctification of time” that Judaism releases me from the solitude of being human and into the presence of God (Heschel, Sabbath, 8)
But there is a second part of reaching for Judaism, that while fundamentally tied to my personal experience of God, is also rooted in the world around me and what kind of person I am in that world.
I want to be Jewish because I understand that life is built not from one epiphany, but from the choices we make every day. The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, and to build a life that tips the balance towards good requires that we choose every day to orient ourselves towards justice, reflection, kindness, and curiosity. I want to be Jewish because Judaism is an actionable framework for doing and being in the world, for building a life that tips the balance towards good — towards tzedakah — despite the fact that “the world is unredeemed and deficient” (Heschel, “The God of Israel and Christian Renewal”).
I want to be Jewish because to be Jewish is to believe that what I do and how I treat people matters — to God “above”, to God within me, to the God within those around me. In my early twenties I read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s Surprised by God, in which she describes her own reading of Buber’s I and Thou — which I promptly went out and read for myself. It’s beautiful and important, I think, that in the original German Buber used the intimate “du,” rather than the formal English “thou.” There is an intimacy to standing “in relation” to one another — the sort of profound, focused attention that much of society only reserves for romantic or familial relationships. But Judaism — through the idea of b’tzelem Elohim, through the teachings of Hillel (“If I am only for myself, what am I?”), through Buber’s I-Thou, demands that we hold this relational space with the world around us (and not just the abstract world, but the specific world, the specific people in the world).
So, Judaism offers answers to that question which I have held for my whole life: How should a person be? And Judaism offers answers not through dogma or conclusion — the answers to be found in Judaism continue to yield questions, continue to invite debate and discussion, continue to deepen through time and study.