(This is a letter from my Mixed and Matched column of May 14, 2015)
I was raised Christian and had terrible experiences in my church, including abuse. I am still a spiritual person and want a faith community. I married a Jewish guy who is very low-key about religious practice but does belong to a synagogue. I’d like to explore Judaism, but I can’t commit to converting. Can I talk to the rabbi about this, or is that not appropriate? — Ex-Christian spiritual seeker
Dear Seeker: Please accept my sincere sorrow that you suffered abuse at the hands of those you trusted. No clergy members of any faith should harm those who trust them; that is a crime. You, perhaps even more than someone who does not have your history, need and deserve a place of spiritual nurturance. Such an environment has the potential to be very healing.
It is completely appropriate to talk with a rabbi about this. Rabbis are trained in pastoral care and interact with many non-Jewish people daily.
You don’t have to be Jewish to be part of the synagogue community. Go to services, but as a tourist. In other words, don’t expect to understand everything. Take in the ambiance, the music, the cheerful sense of community. Think of the experience as you would a vacation; the street signs are in another language and the people all speak that language, but it is still an interesting, beautiful and fun place to explore.
Take comfort in knowing there is one eternal creative force, and that force is everywhere — in synagogues, churches, mosques, beaches, your own kitchen.
In Isaiah it says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” These words are sometimes found on the walls of synagogues. This does not mean that only after converting are people welcome to pray there. It means anyone who is seeking the consolation of prayer can come in and pray. Once you get to know some of the members at the synagogue, you will find that other people have a variety of reasons for being there.
You say you want to explore Judaism without committing to conversion. That’s fine; all the rabbis I know would not accept anyone who walked in and said, “Convert me.” The expectation is that you must learn what Judaism is about before you can know whether it is right for you. I like to say, date us before you commit to marriage.
It would be nice if you asked your husband to accompany and support you, but if you want to start exploring on your own, you certainly can. Tell him that you want to better understand his religion and are going to move forward with your learning.
Discuss with the rabbi the avenues your shul offers to learn more about Jewish theological and spiritual teachings. There are classes at a number of Bay Area synagogues and Jewish community centers that cover basic Judaism and are open to anyone. Your rabbi can help you find one that is expressly for people coming to the topic with little to no knowledge. You’ll find a classroom of adult students who may become some of your new and dearest friends. There is nothing like the shared experience of learning! What surprises you also will surprise fellow students. You are all new to the ideas raised.
Judaism encourages questions. In fact, Judaism teaches that you must not study alone, because you can easily fall victim to believing your own conclusions are always right. You need others to question you and to reveal what you did not see.
Certainly you can read on your own. Here again, your rabbi will have suggestions for books that meet your particular needs. Be bold, and ask if you can meet with him or her once a month to discuss what you are learning. A rabbi will not want to pressure you, so you must speak up. Trust me, the rabbi will be delighted that you want to have such a deep learning experience.