I promise. I’m running out of Shavuot conference stories. It won’t be long now until I’m tapped out. Be patient.
I mentioned in my recent review of Toby Janicki’s book God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel that I was just a tad disappointed that he didn’t describe anything about his personal journey in transitioning away from One Law. I kind of expected that he would have included some of those details, because he told a lot of his personal story at the conference last week.
I promised to share one of those stories with you (I have Toby’s permission to do so). I don’t think I’ll be able to tell it as well as Toby did. Certainly, I’ve forgotten a lot of the little details by now. In fact, since I’m telling all of this from memory, doubtless my story will contain just a ton of errors. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to get the main point across. Then I’ll tell you a story of my own.
But Toby’s story first.
Toby talked about visiting what sounds like some sort of upscale food store in the Denver area several years ago. He was wearing a talit katan under his shirt with the four tzitzit extending out into public view. He apparently was very satisfied with the tzitzit being the correct halakhic length and with the proper blue for the techelet threads. His observance of the mitzvot of the tzitzit was just flawless.
As Toby was approaching the check out line, he heard a man’s voice from behind him, “Excuse me.”
Toby paused and turned as the man continued to speak.
“Are you Jewish?”
At this point in Toby’s story, I can imagine him freezing momentarily in a sort of “deer in the headlights” pose.
Toby said, “No.” This prompted the other fellow, who was Jewish, to ask Toby a number of questions. Why would someone who wasn’t Jewish wear tzitzit, and particularly pay such fine attention to the relevant halachah? Toby most likely answered each of this Jewish person’s questions and I don’t doubt it would have been a fascinating conversation to watch and hear. I somehow believe that the Jewish gentleman never quite understood the whole concept of “One Law” and why anyone who wasn’t Jewish would desire such an experience. On the other hand, he may full well have understood the implications of people who were not Jewish entering into behaviors that, on the surface, made them seem as if they were.
It’s what I would call an epiphany event for Toby. The light bulb went off over his head. He realized something that had never occurred to him before on a very fundamental level.
That’s the best I can do about Toby’s story but before getting to my own, I want to share another one I heard at the conference.
A non-Jewish fellow at the conference described how he once went into a church, not his home church by any means, wearing a kippah and carrying a talit gadol over his arm. He elicited a lot of questions from the other Christians there, particularly, “Are you Jewish?” Of course, the answer had to be no, but the fellow in question felt that dressing as he did would be a witness to the Christians and allow him to speak about the Jewishness of Jesus. Perhaps in that one church it did, but what does it say when someone who is not Jewish dresses in a manner that seems to say he is a Jew? Toby’s encounter was accidental. This other gentlemen deliberately presented a confusing message about his identity.
What are we really saying to the Jews and Christians around us when we create the impression that we are someone we really aren’t?
Like most people who live in a suburban home, my house’s master bedroom has a walk-in closet. It used to be my habit to pray in that closet in the mornings. I would take my siddur with me and reciting the proper blessings, don my talit and lay tefillin (I want to thank my friend Baruch Hopkins for teaching me the proper manner of laying tefillin, particularly since being left handed, my technique must be different from most other people). My Hebrew is terrible (as many people at the conference I recently attended can attest), but I prayed from my heart and my humble devotion to God. I believed that, imperfect though my prayers were, imperfect though my Hebrew was, and imperfect as my performance of the relevant halachah was, I was doing my best. I hoped God would understand.
And I didn’t want my Jewish wife to walk in on me during my prayers. I tried to time everything so she’d either be asleep or already gone to work when I’d pray. I know it may sound silly to you, but I had a couple of important reasons.
The first was that I wanted to be able to completely focus on my prayers. I didn’t want to be interrupted or to have to worry about being interrupted during prayer. I wanted and needed to have a private time when I could connect to God.
The second reason was that I was embarrassed. It wasn’t just that I have no command of Hebrew and that I don’t really know how to don a talit, although that’s embarassing, too. It’s that she’s Jewish and I’m not. Although she wasn’t raised in a Jewish home and for many years, did not have a lived cultural and religious experience, she has overcome many barriers and worked extremely hard to connect and integrate with the Jewish community. She has finally become a member of our local Jewish community and her habits, viewpoint, and even thought processes have become increasingly Jewish.
I certainly can’t say the same thing for me, and yet there I was, wearing a kippah, wearing tzitzit, binding tefillin on my arm and on my forehead, and trying to pray in bad Hebrew from a siddur.
When Toby was telling his story and how he felt when he was speaking with a Jewish man about why a Gentile Christian should be dressing like a Jew, I wondered if he felt even half as uncomfortable as I did when I just imagined how my wife pictured me. Toby’s encounter was with a stranger he probably never saw again. I had the same encounter but with my wife who I see all the time.
Toby’s encounter was probably only one of the steps he took on his journey which resulted in him re-evaluating his One Law beliefs. My “quasi-Jewish prayer life” was only one of the steps in my journey. But they’re both examples of our realizing that there is some part of the One Law assumption that just doesn’t “feel” right. When we put it into practice outside of our cloistered little groups, we have experiences that help us realize, however unintentionally, that we are putting on a mask when we wear tzitzit in public. As Gentiles, we are telling the world that we are a person who we really aren’t. Regardless of our intent, we are saying we’re Jewish when we know we’re not.
And when we do that, what do we do to the Jewish people around us? That’s a question I had to ask myself. What was I telling my wife about her Jewishness when I behaved in a manner that is unmistakably Jewish? What was I saying about how I viewed her unique choseness by the God of her fathers? Was I cheapening that specialness by adopting Jewish prayer behaviors? My prayers were in private. No strangers could have been offended. But if I don’t choose to respect my own Jewish wife and instead, I insist I have a right to wear tzitzit and tefillin, what commandments am I “obeying”…and which ones have I just shattered?
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. –Genesis 2:24 (ESV)
I’ve probably made a mess of Toby’s story and want to apologize to him and to everyone else for getting most of it wrong. However, I can tell you that I got my own story “spot on.” I’m not telling anyone out there what to do. I can only tell you why I stopped doing many things I still cherish and put away my tallit and tefillin. The siddur still sits on my night stand, but often it is abandoned. I still talk to God, but I’ve removed the “Jewish” elements.
When I was at the Shavuot conference, I arrived early on Friday morning. As I sat in the sanctuary, I heard the faint sound of praying from the direction of the library. I followed the sound and discovered that a number of men had met in an upper room for shacharit prayers. The Hebrew was beautiful, but it wasn’t just the language. Although Hebrew will always be a challenge for me and most likely beyond my grasp, these prayers speak to my heart in a way no other type of prayer can. I really miss it. I can’t explain why, but I really do.
In fiction, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In real life, the story continues as long as we can draw a breath. My heart is still beating and my lungs still take in air, so my story is still moving forward. I still have no idea how it will end.
The only thing I can do is keep writing my story one blog post at a time and see what happens next.