I confess that I was disappointed by the mikveh.
I did not expect to emerge from the waters with fully grown peyot and spouting Yiddish. Nor was I unhappy with the aura of the mikveh, quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of the womb of which it is symbolic. Rather, I was unprepared for the mundanity of the instance of conversion, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which I had not prepared myself. Introspective but self-absorbed and weaned on television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, I expected the significance of the moment to present itself to me. Having spent over a year studying to become a Jew, it didn’t even occur to me that I should prepare myself for the moment of conversion. I can now say that, in that moment, I lacked sufficient kavannah, which may be translated as “intentionality” or even “mindfulness.”
Contrast my experience at the mikveh with Elijah’s encounter with God. Elijah stood atop the mountain as “the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire.” And what then? “A soft murmuring sound,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God was not in the fire, but in a whisper, and in order to hear a whisper, one must listen.
There is no magic in our rituals. Reciting the motzi over a loaf of challah does not make that bread more sacred than any other. But saying a blessing over food we are about to eat does change our relationship with it. The profundity of a ritual, then, is to be found not in the change it makes in the world, but in ourselves. We cannot, like God, call down wind and fire but, through ritual, through saying a blessing or lighting the candles, we can create the space necessary to listen to that still, small voice and, having heard it, can ourselves go forth to effect change in the world.
Shannon and me at a recent Finnegan family BBQ.
Just as I did not prepare myself for the mikveh, I did not consider the implications of converting to Judaism before I married Shannon. It didn’t occur to me that our different “statuses” might be an issue, or that some people might deny altogether the legitimacy of our (Jewish) union. Indeed, it was only earlier this year, after I had begun to “settle into” my Jewish identity, that I discovered how hotly contested intermarriage is. A conversation begun in Reform Judaism Magazine over whether or not rabbinical students at HUC-JIR should be admitted if they are married to non-Jews continues to provoke responses on both sides of the debate. (IFF founder Ed Case relates some responses here.) I read the editorials that were published, and I read the comments on the editorials, and I began to worry. Was I doing something wrong by planning a Jewish wedding when my partner isn’t Jewish?
A friend told me that no matter how “humane” or “compassionate” the arguments one makes, a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot be Jewish. And I confess to writing an e-mail to a Reform rabbi who published an editorial condemning intermarriage. I explained to him my relationship with Shannon, much in the way I described it in my first post here. And he responded that, while I am “on the playing field,” Shannon will find herself “increasingly on the sidelines.” I don’t view performing mitzvot as a sport, and I’m not trying to achieve a high score. Nor is Shannon a benchwarmer.
Over the weeks, the editorials and comments about intermarriage continued to pile up. Friends told me not to read them, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like being buffeted by a mighty wind, shaken by an earthquake, or burned with fire.
I had read about the issue. I had talked about it with friends. I had thought about it. And so I did what any good liberal Jew would do: I made up my mind that I would do what I think is right, and to hell with what everyone else thought. As a rabbi and friend of mine has put it, “Haters gonna hate.” I can’t control what some members of our community think.
I intend to approach our wedding with greater kavannah than I did my visit to the mikveh. The debate about intermarriage rages on, but I’ve stopped paying attention to it: God is not in the fire. Now I’m free to listen to the still, small voice.
When I became Jewish, I began seeing homeless people.
I was not unaware of the homeless before I converted to Judaism. When I moved to Philadelphia in 2008, it was the first time I saw people living on the street. I was shocked. I grew up in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There were poor people, certainly, but no obviously homeless people. So I was unprepared when, while walking to the office on my first day of work in the city, a homeless man accosted me. Unnerved, I passed him without responding. He cursed me. “Welcome to Philly, country boy,” I thought, amused by my uncertainty. When I told friends the story, I made it about myself. And thus I began the process of cynically numbing myself to the sight of people begging in the street. Within a few weeks I was so acclimated to city life that I had adopted the standard reaction to the homeless. I didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them. And I certainly didn’t give them any money.
My conversion to Judaism lifted the veil with which I had covered my eyes. A famous verse from Torah reads, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20.) The verse is usually translated into English as “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” But “tzedek,” meaning justice, may also be translated as “righteousness,” and, less exact, perhaps, but more common, “charity.” Thus righteousness, justice and charity are bound together in one concept. We give to others not necessarily because we like to, or even because we want to, but because we are instructed to. (And the repetition of “tzedek” in the verse, unusual in Torah, is interpreted by the rabbis as an indication of its importance.)
On the day of my beit din, the rabbinical “court” with whom I met prior to my conversion, I confessed to my rabbis that, as a result of my studies, I had once again begun seeing the homeless as people. I at that time had not been able to bring myself to give change to anyone who asked, but just as I had not hardened myself to my fellows at one time, the act of breaking old habits would be a process. I continue to work on it. I think this is the purpose of the mitzvot.
Last year's Rosh HaShanah table. Note the tzedakah box front and center!
Right now you might be wondering: “This is a wedding blog. What does any of this have to do with marriage?”
Jewish values are really universal values. Most people, and all faiths, believe in the importance of charity. And that is something that Shannon and I have in common, despite the fact that she is not Jewish. Tzedakah is the Jewish tradition of charity, and Shannon and I both have embraced it as part of our lives together. We find common ground in the Jewish expression of a universal value.
The last line of our ketubah states, “Together, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.” We give tzedakah, sometimes in money, sometimes in units of time, as our resources permit. I believe I speak for us both when I say that, as our resources grow, so too will the amounts that we give. To that end, we have a little tzedakah box into which we put change on Shabbat and on holidays. (We inaugurated it during last year’s Rosh HaShanah dinner with 18 cents, 18 being the Jewish symbol for life. Tzedekah is often given in multiples of 18.)
Shannon and I are building our future together with shared values, expressed “Jewishly.”
When Shannon and I fight, I assume the worst. We’re going to break up. We’ll never speak again. We’ll be torn apart by wild dogs. “I just want us to be happy,” I’ll say. “We can’t always be happy,” Shannon responds, ever sensible, ever right. “Sometimes we’re going to fight.”
No love story is entirely happy. Sometimes there are fights. But what are the fights of an interfaith couple in the midst of wedding planning like? They might start with one partner exclaiming, “But I’m not Jewish!” As if that fact were not obvious to the other (possibly male, Jewish and occasionally dense) partner. “I’m not Jewish!” Shannon would shout. “Okay!” I replied, angry and baffled.
Shannon’s exclamations were in response to expectations I put upon her. As I mentioned in my first post here, I’m a recent convert to Judaism. And, like many converts, I feel a particular zeal. Combined with my typically male expectation that Shannon would take the lead in the home, that zeal resulted in certain expectations I forced upon Shannon. I thought, for instance, that Shannon would light the Shabbat candles. Weeks passed; no candles. When I finally mentioned it, Shannon replied, rightly, that’s she’s not Jewish. I am, and I should take the lead in Jewish activities. Shannon was right. (This is not to say that Shannon is any less involved in making a Jewish home. Rather, she supports those events I arrange and excuses herself from those she perceives as onerous, such as Yom Kippur.)
For a long time, when Shannon said, “But I’m not Jewish!” what I heard was “You’re not Jewish,” the personal baggage I carry knowing that traditional Jews will not recognize me as a member of Israel. Shannon doesn’t think that, of course; I was projecting my fears onto her. It took me a long time to realize that and now, I hope, I no longer do it.
How to make sense of such fights, though? With the zeal of a convert, I suggest this interpretation.
The shofar Shannon gave me. Perhaps I'll use it to wake her on Rosh Hashanah?
A few weeks ago we observed Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating the losses of the First and Second Temples. The “Three Weeks,” a mourning period, immediately precede Tisha B’Av. The Three Weeks are known in Hebrew as bein ha-Metzarim, literally “between the narrow straits.” Readers familiar with Torah will recognize in “Metzarim” echoes of Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt. Tisha B’Av and Mitzrayim are symbols of emotional and spiritual constriction. Just as our ancestors experienced the disorientation of slavery and conquest, we, too, have known isolation from one another, from God, and from ourselves.
Jewish weddings traditionally end with the breaking of a glass. The most popular interpretation of this custom is that, even during our happiest moments, we remember the destruction of the Temple. Shannon and I are uncomfortable with expressing such a negative thought during our wedding. Rather, we will recall with the breaking of the glass not only our hope for the (metaphorical) rebuilding of the Temple, but also “the spheres of light” the mystics say shattered when God created the world. Just as performing the mitzvot is supposed to allow God to reenter the world, “rebuilding” the Temple would restore God’s dwelling place on earth. When we break the glass, then, Shannon and I will consecrate our marriage toward the living of righteous lives, with the intention of contributing to the increase of justice in the world. Of course, this being a Jewish marriage, we will begin this “mission” in the home.
Shannon and I are alienated from one another when we argue. We become lost in the “narrow places” of our relationship. Our vision becomes restricted, singular. But we remember the wholeness we search for, and we always make it through, each time a little stronger than before.
A fitting thought to leave you with for the beginning of Elul and the season of repentance.