Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Sacred Journey

In December, I read an essay by Bruce Feiler on the allure of religious pilgrimages at a time when there is a notable decline in participation in organized religion. As the Pew Center has shown in various surveys, attendance at, and membership in religious institutions is down, as is the number of people identifying themselves as religious. Feiler sums up why traditional religious practice has become unappealing.

“So much of religion as it’s been practiced for centuries has been largely passive. People receive faith from their parents; they are herded into institutions they have no role in choosing; they spend much of their spiritual lives sitting inactively in buildings being lectured at from high.”

What makes physical pilgrimages appealing is it that they allow seekers to take control of their spiritual lives, to move from passive participation to active engagement. Feiler writes, “[A] sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real. And it provides seekers with an opportunity they may never have had: to confront their doubts and decided for themselves what they really believe.”  

Feiler focuses on physical pilgrimages, but his points made me think about my religious journey, a journey that didn’t require travel to far-off places in order to question my beliefs and figure out what I believe. My involvement in an interfaith relationship provided the spark.

Typically, intermarriage is thought to cause people to lose their beliefs and disengage from religious life. But as I write in From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, instead of threatening my Jewish identity and causing me to disengage from my Jewishness, intermarriage presented an opportunity to deepen my Judaism.  

It forced me to confront my feelings and beliefs about religion, spirituality, and God and think about how they influenced other aspects of my life. It made me a more mindful and deliberate Jew. As I looked to be a good Jewish role model for my husband and son, I often considered when making decisions what it meant to be Jewish in name and deed, and I still do.  

I wasn’t always this thoughtful. I got to this place by looking inside myself and facing my prejudices, stereotypes, and fears, as well as really thinking about what I believed. I had to come to terms with Jesus, make peace with the kippah and its public declaration of Jewishness and get past biases in order to commit to a Jewish education for my son.  

I had to I move outside my comfort zone, and beyond my preconceived notions of faith, Judaism, and Jewish identity, in order to grow. The more I explored, the more comfortable I became with my spirituality, and religious and cultural identities. My interfaith experience made me into an involved and empowered Jew.  

It’s possible that I would have engaged in a similar religious exploration if I had inmarried, but I’m not sure I would have had the same determination, the same sense of purpose to do it. Only when I was faced with a different religious identity or none at all did I see just how important my Jewishness was to me.  

When I met my not Jewish husband, Cameron, I had no idea that our relationship would start a religious journey that would take me to new places spiritually and help me answer the question why be Jewish. Like Feiler's spiritual tourists, questioning led me to clarity and taught me the power of continual exploration.  

Never in my wildest dreams did I consider that intermarriage would lead me down an emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually stimulating path. What makes this counterintuitive Jewish trip sweeter is that I’m able to share my discoveries with my family – Jewish and non-Jewish, immediate and extended.