A few weeks ago, I forwarded an article on the New Atheism to a longtime friend with the message, “This seemed like something you would appreciate, as a historian and ex-Christian!” My friend is a scholar of the history of science and its intersection with religion and politics. He grew up in the evangelical heartland but is highly critical of its beliefs and emotional dynamics. He replied:
“How could I claim to be an ex-Christian after I was indoctrinated to be a Protestant fundamentalist and have spent most of my life in Christian circles and societies? Only by defining a Christian abstractly and intellectually as an adherent of certain doctrines would it be possible to say I’m not a Christian, i.e. that I do not or no longer subscribe to a certain creed or screed of metaphysics. Sociologically, ethically and even to some extent intellectually, how could I be other than a Christian? The same can be asked of you, Adam [my now-Buddhist husband] and all my atheist Jewish friends in relation to a different religious heritage—how could y’all not be Jews (whatever else you may also be)?”
This brilliant, unexpected twist on self-definition set me wrestling once again with my complex feelings about my heritage. Even calling Judaism a “heritage” is difficult for me for two reasons. For one, I was not raised Jewishly enough to fit in and follow along when I tried to take up Jewish observance in my early 20s. I didn’t have the shared memories of youth camps, ethnic recipes, rites of passage, or the general sense of unquestioned membership in an extended family. I was like an adoptee who goes back to her birth country, only to find that she’s too Americanized to blend in with the people who look like her.
The second reason for my unease relates to the blending of religion and ancestry. I chafe against the implication that I’m not allowed to discover my own religious worldview, the one that solves the problems of my life. “Heritage” suggests that my parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs are the filter I must see through, or the weight that I’m obligated to carry on my journey. It gives other people the right to intrude on my most private and sacred relationship (with God), simply because I share their genetic material.
And yet, ironically, this objection is so powerful for me because of my psychological heritage as the child of a narcissist. A freethinking narcissist, to boot, who didn’t expose me to synagogue and Hebrew school because she’d found those institutions oppressive and lifeless during her own youth. My bio mother was “spiritual but not religious” before it was cool.
She also got me a passport when I was born, to escape to Israel if America ever turned against the Jews. She told the story of FDR refusing to accept boats of refugees from the Holocaust. She said Jews were outstanding in society because we valued education, debate, and questioning.
I have strong emotions about the endless conflict in Israel but no useful insights, so let’s leave that topic aside. If I have anything like a Jewish identity that I’ve taken into my Christian life, it consists of this outsider consciousness and the spirit of free inquiry that was formative in my upbringing. Because Jesus was Jewish, too, it seems like a legitimate perspective from which to critique the authoritarian and unworldly features of Gentile Christianity that cause me so much distress.
For instance, when I feel the dead hand of the past suffocating me in debates about Biblical inerrancy, I recall the Talmudic story (Baba Metzia 59b) where two factions of rabbis are debating a point of kosher law. One group successfully calls on God to do miracles as a sign that their position is correct. But the other group wins the day by countering that the Torah is on earth, not in heaven. Having given the law to humankind, God has to step aside and let us figure it out! Delightfully, the story ends with God laughing that his children have bested him.
Going back to my scholarly friend’s distinction between identity and beliefs, I also think often of the Jewish emphasis on spiritual practices when I become angry or frightened at the Bible passages in my daily prayer liturgy. Not to put my situation on a par with his, but I take comfort in Elie Wiesel’s anecdote from Auschwitz, where the prisoners put God on trial and found him guilty…then said the regular evening prayer.
The phrases, images, and rituals of the Book of Common Prayer are part of me at a level deeper than agreement or disagreement. Sometimes that makes me feel helpless. I chose to become a Christian, it’s true, but I was also responding to the fact that Christianity was already a part of me, through immersion in Western sacred art and music. Who can explain why my family’s trove of Jewish-American literature and Isaac Singer folktales didn’t speak to me so personally? Was my conversion a response to God’s call, an assimilationist desire to break my family’s isolation, a rebellion against an overbearing parent? Perhaps it only matters because the abused child in me is still desperate for freedom, triggered by the idea that an all-powerful being would initiate a relationship with me. Was I ever free to refuse consent?
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door…” (Rev. 3:20)
At the end of all this reasoning, I don’t genuinely doubt that Christianity was where God wanted me to be when I converted. Do I still belong there? I’m going to pray my way into the next step. My (Jewish) Jesus likes people who keep asking questions.