Welcome to my first Meta Monday post! Since my stories all contain a hint (or more) of spirituality, I figured I’d let you know where I come from. Not to convert you, but just to help you figure out, for yourself, what to take from my works and what to leave behind.
When you convert to Judaism—after studying for, like, ever—you get to sit in front of three rabbis who judge whether you’re ready to become a member of the tribe. Nothing intimidating about that, right? You just have to answer questions and wait to find out if you wasted the past couple of years of your life.
So this experience sucks. Especially when your beit din (that’s what you call this rabbinic court) questions you for over an hour.
I wrote tons of essays while I studied for conversion. A bunch dealt with where I came from, religiously speaking. Most of my family is Catholic, with some token Protestants and a couple of Jews in the mix. So these essays largely dealt with Christianity. So much so that one of the rabbis couldn’t believe I was ready to leave it behind. And he called me on that. Wouldn’t I want to go back to it some day?
I didn’t panic. I smiled instead and told him the truth. Christianity is awesome, but for me it’s a road to Judaism. I love it most when it’s most Jewish. So if ever leave Judaism behind, it won’t be to become a Christian again.
No, I’d only leave Judaism to go all out for Vaishnavism: to be a devotee of Lord Vishnu.
Oh yeah. I did mention that in my essays. And I mentioned it big time in front of the beit din: I have a thing for Vishnu, the Hindu deity who’s best known, in the west, via his avatar Krishna.
Just to clarify, I’m not a Hindu. I mean, yes, Hinduism is awesome too. But I appreciate it as an outsider, not as a practitioner.
Yet I still have my thing for Vishnu. He’s generally conceived of as either the Almighty or an aspect of the Almighty, so I don’t see this affection for Him as idolatrous. No, to me, Vishnu is just a different way of conceptualizing the Divine. And back when I first learned about Him, I really, really needed that.
I was in a shake-your-fist-at-the-Divine phase back then. And I think that phase is healthy and necessary . . . but I was ready to move past it. Seeing God as Vishnu helped me do that.
Why? I’m not sure. When you study Vishnu superficially, you learn about His mercy and His wide acceptance of people as they are at that moment and His more-or-less gentle sense of mayhem and mischief. Of course, this is God we’re talking about, and God is always scary. Master of life and death and all of that. So Vishnu is scary too. But that’s not the part of Him I learned about first, and by the time I did I was okay with the idea that the Divine is inherently frightening.
So that’s where I am—some weird balancing act between the lessons I’ve learned in Judaism and the lessons I’ve learned from my own strange and possibly misappropriative devotion to Vishnu. And that’s the spirituality behind whatever I write, whether it’s Crevlock Tower or The Horned Gate or a piece of fan fiction. Jewish lessons and Vaishnavite lessons colliding.
Sometimes these lessons clash. Sometimes they don’t. There are some weird similarities between Judaism and Hinduism. Both are broad-minded when it comes to big-picture theology, for example. In either, you might believe not only that God is one, but that everything is One. Or you might believe that God is distinct from creation. Or you might fall somewhere in between.
Anyway, religiously speaking, I’m a progressive Jew now. (Yes, the beit din gave me their seal of approval.) I belong to a progressive synagogue. I owe a good deal of my social life and religious education to that community.
And I love it. I love the challenging spirit of progressive Judaism: nothing’s off the table. You can question anything, no matter (pardon the expression) how many sacred cows you shoot in the process. I love the broad mix of people who gather in synagogue: the traditionalists, the eclectics, the mystics, the token atheists, the social justice warriors . . . all of them. And I love that Judaism requires action. We have no altar for sacrifices, not in this era, so we turn to repentance, prayer and deeds of loving kindness instead.
But the lessons I’ve learned from Hinduism are pretty awesome too: lessons about bhakti yoga—the path of devotion. Lessons about renouncing the fruits of our actions, about doing our work and leaving the results in God’s hands. (The Gita really drives this home.)
So whenever I’m in synagogue services, and the silent Amidah starts—that’s when we all stand up and pray inside our heads—I find myself with a choice. Go with the traditional Hebrew prayers, which I love. Or pray spontaneously, whatever’s in my heart. Or chant the famous mantra to Vishnu: Om namo Narayanaya. (It means something like a salute to, or glory to, the Divine as infinite and all-pervading.)
I like to think that God is okay with all three choices.