The identity I’m not obligated to explain

The other day I had an existential crisis in the Religion section of Barnes and Noble. No matter how much the doubts build up, I can’t stay away from the words of apologetic preachers and theologians. Each time I walk through those aisles, I hope my eye will catch sight of a title that will clarify things for me, or at the very least, help bring back a spark.

I walked past titles of books recommended to me in college; books that came to me in such perfect circumstances, I wondered if God deliberately put me in that particular space with that particular person so I would receive the book not one moment later. I remember devouring words and chapters that fed me and gave me life. Several years later, rereading those words is like finding stale pretzels under the couch.

Something wasn’t working. The words hadn’t changed, so obviously that something that “wasn’t working” had to be me.

Hours earlier, one of my professors sent me an email to wish me a happy new year, and my heart lit up like I just heard my favorite sermon. And it confused me, because never in my life have I made a big deal out of Rosh Hashanah. In fact, my father died on Rosh Hashanah, so it’s definitely not a highlight on my calendar anymore.

It was more the camaraderie of the greeting, a shared secrecy. Not many people know what this holiday means, but she did, and she knew I did too. I was part of an “in” group, even if it’s a small one.

Maybe that’s it: it’s the feeling of camaraderie that I miss. Pair any number of Christians together, and you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes not even a mutual declaration of love for Jesus is enough to ease the strain of disagreement about issues like abortion, homosexuality, works-based or faith-based salvation, old-earth or young-earth creation. You can’t expect complete homogeneity in any religion, really, but there is one thing I can generally count on when in the presence of other Jews: a shared understanding of what it is to be different. To hear politicians rattle on about a “Christian nation” and feel like they’re leaving you out, or worse, that they’re implying you don’t belong here.

Even after adopting a new faith, I never ceased feeling like an outsider. Suddenly my Jewishness, my “otherness,” stood out like a bright cell phone screen in a dark theater, and I wasn’t even doing anything to make it obvious. I still chafed at the thought of Jesus being the only way to heaven. Still dreaded not having anything to do on Christmas; still felt like a Grinch who would rather stick forks in her ears than hear yet another carol (hymns are good, though).

I have bobbed and weaved around this question for years: What do I do about Judaism? It’s like it’s destined to follow me, regardless of the fact that I’ve actually never been a practicing Jew. I have no plans to start, but it’s a staple of my identity just like my blue eyes and “coffee stain” birthmark.

I don’t have to “do” anything about it, but it’s there anyway. It will throb under my skin any time I hear Christian-ese language that reeks of exclusivity, of intolerance, and implies eternal torment for those outside the tribe. It’s my knee-jerk reaction to mass condemnation of LGBT people, and my internal battle cry of Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a minority?!!

Interestingly, I believe Jesus does. But to believe in Jesus and remain indecisive about everything else that goes with him — the exclusivity, the eternal separation from God without him — well, I’m pretty allergic to cognitive dissonance. I’d prefer a little more stability if I’m going to pledge my allegiance to anything.

A few hours after I left Barnes and Noble, I saw this meme on Facebook:
Life is so much simpler

when you stop explaining yourself to people

and just do what works for you.

It’s a very simple statement. It’s not deep, it’s not complicated, it’s not much. Yet it was just what I needed to hear in my moment of excruciating anxiety (and I’m not exaggerating: I’ve lost sleep over this “I don’t know what I am!” dilemma), because the fact is that God knows what I am. He knows and understands the constant battle of “in-between-ness.” It’s other people who put the stress on me to have An Answer, a definitive label that everyone can recognize: Christian. Jew. Agnostic. Whatever. For some reason, I’ve been caring too much about what others will think: “She’s a walking contradiction!” being the worst possible pronouncement.

Somehow I got it in my head that it’s not okay to say, “I’m figuring things out.” It’s even more okay to say, “I’d rather not discuss this.” I’m more than willing to talk about it, but if a situation feels unsafe, then I won’t.

I’ve always been free to turn down dates with men I’m not interested in, right? Why did it never occur to me that I’m free to do the same with religion-themed discussions that feel uncomfortable?

Maybe my real issue is not “What do I do about [insert religious conundrum here]?” but rather, “What do I do about establishing boundaries?”

Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.

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