As I have signed onto various mailing lists focusing on Judaism, the Goddess, Kabbalah, Wicca, and various other spiritual topics, I have often been asked to write an introduction about myself and my beliefs. This is a summary of some of those. People who enter my room and see my collection of religious items -- the rosary and dreamcatcher on the wall, the Tibetan prayer wheel, the cauldron, the stone fetishes, the Kwan-Yin statue, the defuncto, the malas, the pentacles, the miniature Torah, the dreidels and hamsas, not to mention books ranging from Native American legends to Sanskrit mantras to paintings of goddesses, etc. are often puzzled about what religion exactly I practice and whether it isn't heresy to have all these things. It's very simple: I am a Jew on an eclectic feminist path.
My spiritual road has been long and winding, so I am going to abbreviate it as a book review of sorts. I was raised as a Reform/Reconstructionist Jew by agnostic parents who wanted to make sure I had an appreciation for Jewish history and culture, but downplayed the spiritual content of holidays and rarely celebrated Shabbat. My grandparents, who were raised in Brooklyn's Yiddish-speaking community, spoke darkly of the Holocaust and happily of Israel but never directly told me anything about their own religious upbringing, other than the fact that one of my great-grandfathers left Eastern Europe to get away from his Orthodox family and their oppressive traditions. They were very much products of Jewish culture, refusing to mention the C-disease aloud and informing me that one was supposed to slap a young girl upon the occasion of her first menstrual period, but I truly have no sense of what, if anything, they believed about the divine.
So I grew up rather superstitious and very disconnected from the Jewish rituals I performed, even my own Bat Mitzvah. Like many Reform Jews, my formal religious education ceased the next year, after my confirmation. There were ten kids in my class and we were each given a commandment to interpret; mine was "Thou shalt not steal," which seemed both clear and compatible with my own ethics. I might have thought much more deeply about theology had I drawn "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," but I didn't. We used the old Union Prayer Book, and though I was unaware at the time of the growing critique by women of the patriarchal language and structure, I was conscious of feeling distanced and indignant by the roles for women in Judaism as I perceived it at the time.
I gained as much of my spiritual and ethical values from two commercial successes -- Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery-winning novel A Wrinkle In Time and Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek -- as from anything I learned in Hebrew school. I read widely among sacred texts -- the Old and New Testament (King James, NIV and later St. Joseph), parts of the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, lots of mythology -- but none of it spoke to me on a personal level. It was all a fascinating metaphorical lesson in history, sociology, psychology, ethics and politics. I was always drawn to stories involving goddesses, though I have never been polytheistic. I suppose I always had a vague sense that there must be a highest power in the universe, genderless and incomprehensible to our understanding, but I had no idea what form of ritual might make me feel any connection.
On a family trip to King's Dominion, a two-and-a-half hour drive from my home outside Washington, DC, I read two books that changed my life. (Before you gag when I mention the titles, remember that I was only eleven at the time.) On the way there, I read Ayn Rand's Anthem; on the way back, I read Richard Bach's Illusions. Though Rand was hardly a fount of spiritual thought, Anthem, the most esoteric of her novels, is a story about rejecting immoral authority, particularly if the authority is based only on consensus. Bach's declaration that we were all free to choose our own messiahs resonated with me in a way nothing else ever had. It was honestly the first time I ever considered the fact that people could choose a path different from the one prescribed by their backgrounds. Illusions was also the first place I encountered the technique of opening a book to a random page and reading the first sentence one's eyes fell upon for guidance; I did not know the term "bibliomancy" until years later, nor had I ever used a Tarot deck for anything other than card games, so this was my first real experience with a technique used by those who practice magick. I don't believe that either bibliomancy or Tarot channels supernatural wisdom, but I've found they're both excellent methods for making me think of different approaches to life's questions and problems.
I read the third novel that changed my life in high school: Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. (This sounds like a Gen X-New Age cliché, doesn't it, but I believe there are good reasons the books I've mentioned have been perennial bestsellers in our culture.) Bradley led me to Goddess-centered theology, which in turn led me to Starhawk, Zsuzsanna Budapest, Diane Stein and others who taught me about ancient and modern religions of the Earth. Not long afterwards I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which though highly questionable in methodology blew open the central myths of Christianity for me by asking a single question: if it's so easy for so many people to believe that Jesus walked on water and raised the dead, why is it so hard to believe he might have married or fathered children?
I have no personal opinion on whether Jesus did any of the above; I don't believe either is outside the realm of possibility. I don't read the New Testament as literal truth, just as I have never read Hebrew scripture as literal truth, but amidst the various theories concerning Jesus as heretical rabbi, Essene, traveler in India, Son of God, adaptation of Mithraic myth, etc., I do not have nearly enough knowledge to assert my own. Oddly enough, though, it was through Christian re-telling that I worked my way back to Judaism, also via two works of fiction that I read early in college. One was Clysta Kinstler's The Moon Under Her Feet, a novel of Mary Magdalene as a Jewish priestess of a Jewish Goddess. The other was Milton's Paradise Lost.
I should note that I first encountered Milton in a class that affected me on dozens of levels -- I can trace my decisions to major in English, to go to grad school, and ultimately to run a fan club for Kate Mulgrew all to that class, though those are all different stories. Suffice to say that had I studied Milton under any other teacher, I have no idea whether Paradise Lost would have forced me to wrestle with its spiritual implications or if I would simply have dismissed it as a Christian rewriting of a Jewish story, with rampant misogyny and an unattractive social order. Instead it became the text that led me to Stanley Fish's Surprised By Sin and the world of literary theory; it also led me back to C.S. Lewis, whom I had adored as a child but put aside, feeling betrayed, when the beautiful metaphor of Aslan crumbled into Christian proselytizing, to which I had already been subjected far too often.
By the time I left college, I knew I was never going to be a "nice Jewish girl" -- for one thing, I was engaged to the (agnostic) son of a Lutheran pastor and had been snubbed by my parents' rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation among many others, and for another, I knew that despite my ingrained superstitious fears -- kain ein horeh, as my grandmother would have said -- I was spiritually more comfortable around many Wiccans than Jews. To some extent this is because the Wiccans I met saw less contradiction between my practicing Judaism, with its traditions of kiddush and Kabbalah, gematria and golems, than the Jews I knew proclaimed in pained tones when I wore a pentacle in their presence. I knew that my ancestors in Europe had practiced Judaism very differently from the version practiced by my Marxist great-grandparents, my Zionist grandparents and my post-Holocaust parents. So I studied Jewish heroines and Jewish feminism -- along with feminism in general, since that had been a nasty word of sorts when I was growing up, equated with "lesbian" which was an even nastier word. Qabalah provided a bridge between my two paths; though I don't believe it myself, I was thrilled to discover that some people believe Tarot has Hebrew origins.
When Raphael Patai published The Hebrew Goddess, he gave me a link between my Pagan beliefs and Jewish identity. Penina Adelman's Miriam's Well gave me a way to practice both simultaneously -- I knew I had to have this book when I discovered the decorative motif of the zodiac, which I later learned had been used to decorate synagogue floors and had inspired Yiddish names for each constellation. I am finally able to identify myself as a Jew oriented toward the Schechinah, to send my kids to Hebrew school without feeling torn about investing them in an inherently patriarchal tradition, and to practice eclectic Wicca influenced by both the Jewish and Pagan wheels of the year (which have more in common than not). My talismans include hamsa and Star of David charms, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a Guatemalan stone rosary, a Nepalese skull mala, a crystal ball, an antler, foo dogs, numerous clay sculptures of deities, and an IDIC (I really dislike the commodification of the Trek franchise these days, but The Spiral Dance has been revised for commercial re-release too, and I'm not likely to dissociate the Vulcan meaning of the hand gesture for the priestly blessing any time soon).
When I must use a public craft name, I use Asherah, but I'm really most comfortable going by my own name (or by that of my favorite fictional misguided spiritual leader, Kai Winn, a strong woman on a complicated spiritual path). I am on internet lists with names like Jewitchery, PaganMaidens, Beresheit, Earthwise. I believe that the divine appears to different people in different ways, sometimes even within a single person's lifetime. In moments of spiritual crisis I am equally likely to read Genesis, I Corinthians, The Tempest, Dante, Tennyson, or Pattiann Rogers. I accept no text as absolute yet my beliefs are very clear -- I oppose capital punishment in all cases, I will fight for a woman's inalienable right to make her own reproductive decisions, I support the formation of a Palestinian state and an end to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories but I am committed to the continued existence and safety of Israel and its citizens.
This is a vast oversimplification, of course, but if you want a basic statement of my religion, here it is. I don't believe in a Supreme Being who requires a place of worship built on any particular rock. I believe the Shekhinah has always dwelt among us, exiled neither from the Creator nor from Jews in exile. From a theological, ideological and political standpoint, I do not desire the restoration of the Priesthood or the Temple. I do not believe that the Promised Land is circumscribed by geographical boundaries; it exists wherever Jews are free and sharing in the freedom of others, but it cannot exist alongside oppression even for Jews living on the soil of the ancient Holy Land.
I believe in the essence of the Ten Commandments but not the literal translation that has been handed down. (The commandments by which I want to live and which I want to teach my children are here.) Some of the originals are much more problematic than others, particularly the first commandment, which orders Jews to have no other gods elevated to the level of the God who brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Yet during the retelling of the story of the Exodus during the Passover service, we acknowledge through the story of the four children that different people have different ways of understanding, different spiritual needs, and different degrees of devotion. Is it so difficult to believe that divinity manifests itself in different ways to different cultures, yet remains part of the same greater reality? I do not believe it to be a betrayal of the first commandment to accept that the spiritual beliefs of others may be just as valid as our own; in fact, since we all must share this planet and its resources, I believe the ability to accept and honor that notion has become essential to our survival. The true test of faith is not only whether we will hold true to our own beliefs in the face of adversity, but whether we can acknowledge the beliefs of others in the face of adversity while remaining true to ourselves.
The sixth commandment works best for me in its purest form: THOU SHALT NOT KILL, given the propensity of members of most of the world's religions to commit murder in God's name. For me, that commandment also means I cannot eat meat from animals killed inhumanely or needlessly -- I'm trying to give up poultry, but my principles thus far have lost out to my stomach. This disturbs me not so much out of a belief that eating meat from animals is wrong -- I do not have any theological or ideological dedication to the belief that human beings should remove themselves from the food chain, nor with the use of clothing and medical products made from animals that have been treated well by humans -- but because for ME, it feels wrong, yet I do it anyway. The tenth commandment has always troubled me in a similar regard because it contains a "thou shalt not," not about what people should avoid doing, but about what people should avoid thinking. I do not believe in a God who deliberately puts temptations in our path to judge us as we fall; I do not believe that lust in one's heart constitutes adultery, nor that murderous rage is equivalent to murder, so a commandment against coveting rather than actively trying to steal seems troubling.
I don't mean to sermonize on my beliefs because I honestly believe everyone has to work theirs out for themselves. I know there are people who take on verbatim the beliefs of their parents, and people who reject completely the religions in which they were raised; for me either of those paths would have been an injustice to myself, let alone to my Jewish ancestry and the Almighty. I'm a Jewitch; if that makes me not Jewish enough or not Wiccan enough for someone else, it's based on standards not my own.