Growing up in the New York City public schools, I did not talk much about my Judaism. My interest was kind of a secret that I shared with my family and the Reconstructionist congregation in which I had been raised and become a bat mitzvah. I loved Judaism’s music its candles and rituals, and I loved the Bible stories that had always fascinated me. It was easier to fit in, though, if I could label religion as simplistic, ignorant and boring.
Then, as a sophomore at Haverford College, I took “The Bible and Literature,” and it marked a turning point: I felt my Jewish identity wake up, and it was starving.
I had been prepared to look at the Bible as a work of literature. However, it began to sink in that I could not separate myself from it, for I was dealing with a text whose consequences I could barely comprehend – the bedrock of the tradition that I had inherited. I felt chained to characters I did not like and a God that struck me as mainly selfish, who seemed utterly removed from any deity to which I could ever relate, let alone speak. I had overwhelming questions: Why had so many of us died for these stories? Why did we still care about these traditions and rituals that seemed so ancient and so out of place?
For our first paper, Professor Finley asked us to test a passage from Genesis with the theory of Erich Auerbach, a literary critic whose words would be the launching point of my academic trajectory. The biblical text is “fraught with background,” says Auerbach, and reading the Hebrew Bible calls the reader to be directly involved in filling in its baffling gaps. I selected the most shocking passage I could find: the story of Lot’s daughters, tricking their father into having intercourse with them after watching their husbands-to-be and their homes burn to the ground. I joined an extended millennia-old conversation, and I have been having that conversation ever since. But I found that the writing and the talking, which for me often consist of breaking apart what seems familiar and exposing its flaws, could not exist in a healthy way without something whole out of which it could grow.
That something took shape at the Jewish Student Union, a group of about six regular participants, which was student-led with the help of an advisor from the nearby Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. We were all of it: the prayer-leaders, the cooks, the listserv monitors, the event planners, and the text-study group organizers. I found a holding place for my joys and frustrations in a little room in the basement of Jones dormitory complete with wall hangings, the most comfortable couches, and the tea-lights from Friday night resting on a mysteriously sticky coffee table. Here, even as I considered my own skepticism about our sacred texts, I felt encouraged to lead others into my discoveries.
As there was no outside person who would lead us or gloss anything over on our behalf, it seemed almost impossible to be a passive participant. We were a team of spiritual questioners. I would go over to Jones with my guitar and sing with other tired people on Friday night; afterward we would catch up about the week. On other nights, this was one of my favorite spots to study, where I would find some slightly stale challah, candy and tea, and feel grounded.
I began to discover comfort in holding what seems to be a paradox: the thirst to challenge, to struggle and to fight my tradition from every which way, and the start of my Jewish leadership, curiosity about the details of Jewish ritual, and comfort in relationship to myself and others. I need a lot of courage to plumb the depths of what I have inherited. Realizing that I was not alone in my need to do this was one of the most important gifts I received during college. Out of the quiet spaces of Shabbat, I could learn to understand that the purpose of Judaism was not to lull me to sleep with ignorant dogma, but to give me the strength to find my own meaning in its foundational texts, its prayers and its ideals, and then to hold up that practice of quiet criticism to anything else that comes my way.