Now that my Me’ah cycle is complete, I want to express a few thoughts on the experience and how it shaped my relationship to Judaism. First, about me: an “interested gentile,” mostly non-believing, with one foot in Jewish practice and observance. Married into Judaism, understanding that we would raise our child as a Jew. The seeds were planted much earlier, however, as much in Judaism resonated for me: the ethical commitments and prophetic call to justice, the sense of being a people of learning, a community with a long historical memory. The culture of debate and humor reminded me of my own family upbringing. Something in my DNA that caused people to mistake me for Jewish (and I didn’t always correct them). The image of “wrestling with God” – religion as an unclosed circle, rather than a closed book – appealed deeply to me.
People who knew my intellectual interest in Judaism prompted me to consider Me’ah. Some time ago, my then-supervisor at work, whose husband was a rabbi, urged me to check it out. At that point, my unfinished dissertation loomed larger, so I postponed enrolling. More recently, as our son Micah prepared his D’var Torah to become a Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Eitz Chayim in Cambridge, I did my own wrestling with Torah. As we passed evenings making sense of Ki Tissa, the Golden Calf, Moses making man’s case to God, I was transported to my own adolescence and college days, debating points of history, politics, and philosophy with my father – a professor of management, a lover of argument (and a steadfast atheist who begged us, half in jest, not to “bring home religion” from college). A complicated and thorny personality, he was also deeply ethical and instilled this, and a love of ideas, in his four children. So my Me’ah journey rightly begins in both our father’s embrace of ideas and argument, and his rejection of religious thought and experience, particularly as I began to attend Shabbat and other services more frequently at our temple and look for my own place, if any, in Judaism.
When I learned that Me’ah would be offered at our congregation, I considered it but also hesitated at the time commitment. Our rabbi, Liza Stern, urged me strongly to enroll, knowing both my deepening interest in Judaism and involvement in our shul, but especially my intellectual curiosity, whetted by our son’s Bar Mitzvah. I signed up, with at least the knowledge that I could finally fill in those embarrassing omissions in my cultural literacy regarding the Bible. (In the brief interval of my childhood where my parents sent us to Christian Sunday School, I was dismally lagging behind eager classmates who raced through the Canon to the right Chapter and Verse during “Bible Drill.” Talk about your “Protestant Ethic.”)
The Hebrew Bible we encountered in Me’ah was an altogether different volume, at least from this reader’s perspective. It was multiple, open-ended, prismatic. Above all, it was deeply strange and Other, demanding slow reading and rereading, and constant interpretation. To keep up with the reading demands for the Bible semester, I sometimes dived in afterhours at my office as well as on the T. (Once a work associate from Louisiana called me at 6 pm one evening and asked if it was a good time to discuss a project – when I told him I was studying Bible, he quickly apologized for “interrupting my meditations.”)
This exposure to multiplicity – not only among Bibical texts but of the whole of Jewish history and literature – is one of the most powerful gifts of Me’ah. Each of our four instructors, radically varied in approach but equal in intellectual quality and drive, brought this home. So did the diversity of personalities and positions and background among classmates. People really pushed and probed, unafraid to declare their beliefs or unbeliefs. I tried to drink it all in, even if it was all (or mostly) new to me, not having grown up with Jewish texts, rituals, or relatives. The slaveowners as well as those enslaved. The voices of women as well as men, mystics as well as scholars. The constant presence, and even comingling, of gentile cultures with Jews in medieval and early modern times. All of this pushed me to think hard, as well as feel deeply, about the extremely unlikely persistence of a people, making and remaking themselves through the ages.
At different points during my time in Me’ah, I’ve been caught up short occasionally by people wondering why I’ve committed time and effort to this work. Early on, an old friend (and congregation member) asked me if it was “devotional.” No, not exactly – it’s an historical-critical reading of Jewish texts, not a path to conversion or a catechism (to borrow a phrase from my own tradition). More recently, a Seder guest just bluntly asked me, “well, why haven’t you converted?” I couldn’t answer him, but I can say now that in a sense, I am converted – to an avid and continued vocation of learning about Judaism, arguing with it, and soaking up its strange, exquisite, and sometimes terrible beauty and wisdom.
by Randall Wilson
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