For many people arriving at a new faith the landscape can be confusing and maybe even a little frightening. You have come from somewhere in which you have invested time, love, trust and that was responsible for helping you build a belief system, moral framework and probably had connections to your family, work and social life. Now, you find yourself alone and wondering where to go next. For many people the ingredients that remain will point them towards Judaism. Some will jump straight in, exchanging in a breath their previous ritual of prayer and doctrine with another without giving it appropriate time or study, others might carry with them the baggage of their old ways and the weight of the common christian church message that ‘jews’ are bad.. in the middle there will be some who say, ‘right, i’ll take a look with a clear and open mind’ only to be greeted with a panorama of different branches, traditions, levels and labels that they don’t understand or recognize.
I’m not here to tell you what to think or what choices to make regarding your walk within Judaism. But I did want to share a little on what NOT to do.
Please, for your own sake, do not assume that the first definition or opinion you read on any subject on or within Judaism is the definitive word on it.
Do your own study, be diligent. Not everything done by a Jew is Jewish and not everything done under the banner of Judaism is in fact central to what Judaism teaches.
Any given ‘thing’ in life has its boundaries, for example, a kettle is for boiling water and not for skydiving, School Teachers are for enabling children to grow and learn and not for brushing you teeth and pacifism is a movement that promotes non-violence and not one that argues the merit of re-cycling text books. Silly points but you see my case.
Judaism is a title that umbrellas many topics, movements, people and information. It and it’s content have boundaries. Interestingly some of the items within these groups share boundaries when some don’t. The different branches of Judaism for example, you might have Orthodox and Conservative sharing many points but not sharing others. You might come to the conclusion that, after study and ‘this’ or ‘that’ might be the path for you OR on the other hand you might choose to not take a side and walk the middle, picking the parts that you think are right.
The real ‘issue’ though comes from saying ‘this’ is right and that’s my choice. ‘This’ is the only way for me. Doing that, blinding accepting the title without looking for the boundaries opens you up to accepting things that you might not have if you had spent a little time in study.
You might, for example not agree that your reform Synagogue should allow a Jewish person to marry a non-Jewish person within its walls.
You might, for example not agree that your liberal Synagogue should allow the belief that God is ‘whatever you want’.
You might, for example not agree that your progressive Synagogue should allow the teaching that the Torah was not given to Moses at Sinai.
You might, for example not agree that your Orthodox Synagogue should allow the practice of only allowing females to walk on one side of the street.
None of the points above are typical across the board of those movements. You will find Synagogues, many, many, Synagogues that do NOT do what I said above.. and a small group that will.. and that will do other things you won’t or will agree with.
Judaism as a teaching tool is about how to live with the Creator, with people and with yourself. It refines and defines the mountains and cliffs, the highs and lows, the ways to elevate yourself and that can be a danger to yourself.
Those dangers are set out there.. with signs to tell you, ‘this is a danger’. Then many branches of Judaism will place a fence up to stop you even having a chance of falling off. Time and ritual and thought may result in more fences.. sometimes the fact you can even see a fence is worrisome enough and another might be added. The result can be that what you are told is ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Conservative’ isn’t, not really, it’s a tradition held by ‘this’ Synagogue, ‘that’ shul or ‘those’ people and is not at all in common with that movement or group as a whole.
Look, Judaism has a rich and amazing history of sages, teachers and scholars that have over hundreds of years thought over the most difficult spiritual matters and created a deep and helpful tapestry of writings that should be essential reading to anyone. Do not think that this library of the best minds is in any way something you can ignore. It is a jewel to be engaged with and benefited from. BUT – if you don’t give the free will and brain that you were gifted the chance to test and try out the concepts that you might find being taught then you are eating blindly. In which case those fences are worth nothing.
Don’t assume that something is ‘right’ just because it’s there. Chew your food. Use your eyes. God never punishes a person for asking questions and neither will a good Rabbi or teacher.