So this week I had initially planned to talk about the prom for adult nerds that I helped throw. It was going to be me waxing poetic about belonging and having a safe space, letting people reclaim milestones, etc. It would have been great. However, this week also marked the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah began Wednesday night, and so I went to synagogue, and I want to talk about that.
My friend Ellen, born and raised in Brooklyn, and her family have always been ones to fling their doors open during Jewish holidays and take in all the orphans. I’ve spent two Passovers and a Purim with them since moving to the city. But this was the first High Holiday I spent Chez Shadburns — the first time I’ve had a real job and the holidays didn’t coincide with my vacation, but I also didn’t have vacation days to go down to Philly to see my surrogate family there.
Ellen and her family belong to a reform synagogue in Park Slope. It’s open and welcoming and was filled to the brim on Wednesday night. They rent out a church to allow for the larger crowd each year, and the doors to the social hall are opened wide to create even more space. It feels like you could just walk in, and in fact, you could. The High Holiday services there are not ticketed, unlike many synagogues, and never have been. The rabbi wants to keep it that way as long as possible. It’s a wonderful place, not afraid of alienating people by tackling complicated issues. For example, this year, they invited the congregation’s members of color to re-dress the torahs in their white High Holiday covers, and to talk about whiteness and what it means and why we need to talk about these issues in relation to Judaism and privilege in our current climate. They reminded us that to be Jewish means to listen and to love justice and to rise up if necessary.
I’ve talked some about my Jewishness here on the blog: my love for Passover, my struggle to find my version of Judaism in college, my yearning to be “Jewish enough.” In general, I am pretty confident in my faith, but it has become a bit of a routine in the last couple of years. I observe the holidays because that’s what I am supposed to do. I sing and say words I memorized a long time ago without taking the time to think about what they mean. I haven’t really thought all that critically about Judaism (outside of a few posts here on this blog) since my confirmation class back in high school, when my rabbi reminded us that our Judaism was about us and what we choose. I am a Chosen person, because I chose to live that way — to be observant, to reflect.
Sitting in crowded, hot, but homey sanctuary on Wednesday night, I was reminded of this lesson. The sermon was about doubt, how doubt is an act of faith. The rabbi brought her wife, an agnostic, to the bima to talk about doubt and how doubt led them in two different directions, how we cannot have faith unless we have doubted.
Doubt is an act of faith, she said. It really got to me, because I had never thought about it in that way before, but it’s true. We cannot believe something, really believe it, not blindly but with eyes wide open, unless we have also questioned its truth, its validity, its meaning. I’ve always known this to be a part of Judaism; it was in my bat mitzvah Torah portion, after all, which was all about Abraham questioning God. But I have never thought about it that deeply, and listening to a fifteen-minute sermon sometimes forces you to think deeply. Sitting there in that pew, I had to really think about Judaism and what it meant. I had doubted its validity, its rightness. I had to doubt that it was the right way for me before I could come to the conclusion that it was. And I remembered that I have to continue to question it as I grow and change, because that is how I reaffirm my faith.
I think this principle applies across life, not just in religion. To have faith in something or in someone, you have to have doubted, at least for a moment. That’s what makes it real. It means something to you personally because you weren’t sure it would work. Maybe you still aren’t. But you choose to believe.
Not long after this sermon, I sat in a meeting at work, where we were discussing what drives us. We did an exercise where we had to whittle our motivations down from fifteen to five words and then share those five words with the group. I wrote down “doubt” and shared the themes of the sermon with my colleagues. It got a lot of nods and agreements. We all work in a non-profit, so we are constantly waylaid by doubt, but we keep doing it because we believe. Doubting makes us analyze and recognize our own beliefs and reaffirm them: This is what we want and who we are. Just like in schul.
I am Jewish because I was given a chance to decide to be Jewish. I may have been born a chosen person, but it has meaning because I chose to believe it was true. I choose how I want to be Jewish. I choose to question, to listen, to believe, to learn, to doubt. And all of these are acts of faith, because I choose them to be.