An Open Letter to Orthodox Christians
I've been posting on these forums for a little over a month now, and I've enjoyed conversing with its members. I'd like to make my formal introduction.--- PART I: BACKGROUND ---
I was born to a Jewish mother and a gentile father (who was raised Presbyterian but stopped practicing once he reached adulthood). This, according to all Jewish authorities, makes me a Jew. Before two years ago, this did not matter to me; I lived a secular life with Christmas trees and Menorahs sitting in the same living room. By adolesence I was privy to bouts of depression, and I did not believe in God. After graduating college, I tried to make it in the big city with art, but I was soon swept by a sea of melancholy. I no longer felt there was any purpose in life, and though I did not contemplate suicide, I felt both lethargic towards my own actions and embittered towards everyone else's. What was right? What wasn't? Why is nothing working out for me?
Then, I went on a free trip to Israel as part of the Birthright program
. For 10 days, I breathed in the sights and sounds of the holy land. Although I did not think it holy back then). We were chaperoned by two young rabbis from an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization.1
They tried clumsily to capture our hearts with ideas about God and the Jewish people, but no one bit -- no one, except for me.
In the Jerusalem hotel, the rabbi lent me a book to read that talked about how it's possible to live life without every knowing God, and why one should strive to know him and serve him. Suddenly, I wasn't an agnostic anymore; no, I realized that God could be explained differently than how I saw him portrayed in secular media. He was this indefinable power, master of all reality yet infinitely beyond it, controlling the world through a perfect system that I once called mere nature. He was not, as I had been led to believe, a grey-bearded man in the clouds with a suffering son who was also somehow the same person.
As the plane touched down in the states, I was changed. I began to seriously consider a god (who seemed to answer all the questions I had before), and I wanted to pursue things further. Just as I was about to claim membership at a reform synagogue, a friend stopped me and pointed me to Orthodoxy. His father was Jewish and his mother was a gentile, which meant he had to convert to earn the recognition of Orthodox authorities. Before beginning Orthodox conversion, he went through Reform and Conservative phases, until deciding that if he was going to be Jewish, he better do it all the way. And I agreed with that sentiment, so I followed him to a community for a weekend Shabbat getaway.
I was blown away by the experience. Here was a whole neighborhood turning off the electronics to eat meals together, spend time with one another, pray, and read about the awesomeness of God. I longed for that sense of community, that sense of trust that everyone seemed to have for one another. I knew I had to experience another Shabbat next Friday, but I was unable to go downtown; that's when a Jewish co-worker of mine told me about Chabad Lubavitch, another Orthodox outreach group that was in town.
I showed up twenty minutes before candle-lighting, the (not just symbolic) beginning of Shabbat. As I approached the Chabad house, I saw two young men in full beards, black coats, and fedoras. They spoke fluent English and introduced themselves. I was welcomed inside and had a wonderful time, sharing with them my stories. I felt a tinge of guilt when I left for the night in my car (a forbidden act on the Sabbath), but I came back in the morning to attend the service and learn with the rabbis.
I kept returning on Friday nights, and it wasn't long before I was sleeping over and spending the whole day at the house with the other religious Jews. I caught on quickly to the externals, and began dressing the part. I covered my head, I didn't shave, I grew out my sidelocks. In retrospect, these should be have been goals secondary to the main goal: a better understanding of God and Judaism. But I didn't want depth, I wanted a quick but total transformation. I was sick of my old, secular, relativist lifestyle. I craved order, ritual, rules, structure, discipline. I figured that the "fake it til you make it approach" would work the best; immerse yourself in the culture and it will become natural. While I did eventually develop beliefs in God and got a formal Torah education, my foundation was rocky from the start -- I wanted the routine, not the religion.
After some harrowing experiences in a religious school and the heart of the Chabad movement's Messianic members,2
I began losing my faith, although it did not happen over night. I distanced myself from the more radical Chabad and tried to live a more modern, sensible, albeit still very Orthodox life. But the curtain had been pulled; I began to see ugliness everywhere around me -- Jews hating gentiles, Jews hating other Jews, judgmental eyes, cruel teasing, slandering, self-righteousness, intellectual haughtiness. I wanted to be a simple God-fearing Jew, but I had no models to follow.
This caused my depression to act up, so much that I had to begin treatment. After a few months of medication and therapy, what I kept denying would happen happened: I became a non-believer again. It struck me one night, as I lay in bed, ill from the fever and exhausted, that I was using religion as a coping mechanism for my own inability to deal with the complexity and seeming absurdity of the world. I was diagnosed with severe OCD, so I determined that all my craving for ritual and order was a result of my disease and not my religious longing. And I was not worshipping God, but some fake God who I had created in my head, who judged me harshly and forced me to destroy myself for the sake of become a holy person.
I was pretty perturbed by the sudden shift, and I was angry for a good long while. I've been doing a lot better recently, but there's one thing I can't deny: my longing for belief.
Try as I might to accept an absurd, incomprehensible world with no answers and death at the end of everything, I cannot keep these ideas grounded. The relativism, the insistence of proofs that will never exist -- it all torments me to know end. Not because I can't accept a world like this, but because I know that there's another possibility: that God does exist, that he did create the world, that he does enter the world, and that maybe, just maybe, two thousand years ago, he became a man and died for me.--- PART II: BELIEF? ---
I am at a crossroads: believe in a secular, uncaring universe where death is final, or believe in a God who created the universe and who will judge me after I die. I have just recently been able to accept that no definitive proof exists for either scenario, but I still cannot choose which path to go.
But here's the thing: I don't want to live in an uncaring universe. I want to believe in God who has set absolute guidelines by which to live, especially one who changed for humanity and will accept me for the flawed person I am, and not expect me to follow 613 commandments (and countless rabbinical laws and customs) in order to be "saved." I can relate to the universal message of Christianity, that we are all saved in Christ, Jews and gentiles alike. And there seems to be much more room for reconcilation with philosophy and science.3
But I also fear that wrathful beast that I once knew, who expects me to deny basic biological desires, who detests homosexuality and fornication, who is always watching and judging. Who always expects more of me and who will make me feel guilty to no end for taking it easy on myself. I don't want to go back to that, and I feel as if that fear is one of the main barriers from recovering my belief.
I'm conflicted. And so I've taken it upon myself to clear things up a bit by starting from the top, something I should have done before. I'm reading books that introduce me again, to the idea of God, this time a Christian one, and books that attempt to reconcile my moral, intellectual, and scientific objections to the Bible. I'm attending Orthodox Christian services and talking to congregants and priests (but also keeping somewhat of a distance, not wanting to be indoctrinated at an unstable state and end up not believing again later). There's a wealth of resources out there, and it's all pretty overwhelming, so I guess what I'm saying is: I need you, Orthodox Christians, and your guidance.
Now, I don't know what will come from all of this. I may decide that I can safely remain a non-believer. I may become a Christian, but not an Orthodox Christian. I may become a Muslim, or maybe even some pantheistic or nontheistic faith. I'm trying not to align myself to any one path out of the gate, and weigh the options as equally as I can, although, admittedly, since I'm posting an on Orthodox Christian forum and reading books that argue God's existence, I suppose I'm drawn to what appeals to me the most: a loving creator with an afterlife and absolute truths, and one different than the one I knew when I was Jewish.--- PART III: QUESTIONS? ---
I would appreciate any guidance you can provide; please do not hesitate to speak what you believe is true, as I have. If you have any questions that can aid this dialogue, ask away.
A Love Supreme1 Back then, I did not know there were different "levels" of Judaism--the three main ones, in order from most liberal to most fundamental, being Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox).
2 Who believe that their deceased rabbi is the one and only Messiah, and will raise from the dead to bring the Jewish people back to Israel. They would chant out, "Long live our master, our teacher, our rabbi, King Messiah, forever and ever!" during services. As a strict monotheist, this frightened me to no end and I prayed that God would forgive me for associating with such blasphemy. Of course, they have their own justifications, for which I care not anymore.
3 It was pounded into my head that I should stay away from philosophy and secular works because they'll only "confuse" me. Torah was the only thing you should spend time on