I'm a Russian Jew. I see myself as Jewish, even though I don't live Jewishly. I practice Buddhism, have non-Jewish boyfriends, and think that believing in G-d the way prayers show me makes man into a weak and helpless being. And yet I feel united with all Jewish women through the centuries when I light Chanukah candles, get liberated from Egypt and certain personal slaveries each Pesach (even though I don't keep any Pesach mitzvoth), and etc. It hurts me to feel that I would not be accepted as I am by other Jews. I don't want to comply and be "a good Jewish girl" just for the sake of it - it's not the kind of life I see for myself. Yet I want to find my place among my people and I don't know where it is... What can you tell me to help me? How can I find a way to fit into Judaism?
How wonderful to hear from you, a Russian Jewish woman who is seeking to deepen meaningful connection to Judaism where you will be accepted for who you are. Your writing reveals you to have skills of critical thinking about the language of prayer and your future explorations in Judaism will be greatly helped by the appreciation of silence and awareness through contemplative skills that you have cultivated by engaging in Buddhist practices.
You also have the experience of feeling "touched" in a deep way by the Passover metaphors relating to freedom. And you carry the almost Olympian "torch light" of the Jewish peoples' historical passion for collective and individual emergence from places and states of oppression -- personal and political. Our people's, the Jewish people's dedication to honoring and keeping the mitzvah of "freeing those who are bound" and remembering we must do so for ourselves as Jews too, through the lighting of the Hanukkah Menorah, runs so deep as to seem imprinted upon our very spirit. As a Russian Jew, you know this all-too-well, for Soviet Jews were horribly oppressed before Perestroika and religion was illegal under Soviet law, with horrible punishments were associated with being caught practicing one's religion.
I wonder where you live and whether you are a second generation immigrant to America? Israel? or Germany? Or still living in one of the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union? I taught several retreats for Jewish women in Russia and Ukraine shortly after Perestroika and so, I can appreciate how alien and uncomfortable the God-language in Jewish prayer books sounds to many of those of first, second or third generation immigrant or resident Russian-Jewish backgrounds.
Most especially, you write that you "want to find my place among my people"..."to fit into Judaism." Feeling isolated or unwelcome is no fun, and I have deep respect for your desire to connect while being able to retain critical thinking (in the best sense), contemplative practice, and a rich sense of the importance of core traditions and metaphors. Lots of suggestions come to mindl:
1. Make contact with Project Kesher, an organization of amazing Jewish women with whom I have had the project to teach Judaism to Jewish women and their daughters in Russia and Ukraine. "Across 9 time zones from Russia to Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Kazakhstan, and in Israel, Project Kesher transforms women’s lives, restoring their Jewish identity and providing training in leadership and social activism." www.projectkesher.org
2. Many contemplative traditions - Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American traditions and more, provided safe harbor for wounded Jewish souls in the wake of the mass horrific behavior of humans during the wars of the twentieth century. So my first suggestion is for you to seek out Jewish teachers who will be able to help you draw upon this connection with creativity, depth and integrity. For example, Rabbi Shefa Gold www.rabbishefagold.com or Rabbis Sheila Weinberg, Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz www.awakenedheartproject.org.
4. There is an emerging field of Jewish guidance called Hashpa'ah, with formal training and certification. My colleague Rabbi Shohama and I were the first to introduce this into contemporary seminary training. One of us, or any of our students and graduates could work with you, and refer you to a community in your region where you are likely to feel welcome and supported on your Jewish journey. Be in touch if you are so inclined, firstname.lastname@example.org
You have been requested to be the Response panelist for the following question: I'm a Russian Jew. I see myself as Jewish, even though I don't live Jewishly. I practice Buddhism, have non-Jewish boyfriends, and think that believing in G-d the way prayers show me makes man into a weak and helpless being. And yet I feel united with all Jewish women through the centuries when I light Chanukah candles, get liberated from Egypt and certain personal slaveries each Pesach (even though I don't keep any Pesach mitzvoth), and etc... It hurts me to feel that I would not be accepted as I am by other Jews. I don't want to comply and be "a good Jewish girl" just for the sake of it - it's not the kind of life I see for myself. Yet I want to find my place among my people and I don't know where it is...What can you tell me to help me? How can I find a way to fit into Judaism?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik classically distinguished between two Jewish covenants, the “Covenant of Fate” and “Covenant of Destiny”. The “Covenant of Fate” involves identification with the Jewish past; “The Covenant of Destiny’ involves identification with the Jewish future.
It seems clear that you identify strongly, passionately, and beautifully with the Jewish past, and I don’t want to downplay how significant that is. It takes courage to identify with a past as difficult as ours, and to assume a Jewish identity knowing our often lachrymose history. And that courage has often led to both small and great acts of heroism.
But it also seems clear – I hope you’ll forgive me for being blunt – that right now you don’t identify with any Jewish future. It therefore seems reasonable for Jews to accept you exactly as who you are, and simultaneously fair for them to tell you that full membership in the community requires identifying with its destiny as well as its fate. More than that, full membership requires you to shoulder responsibility for making that destiny happen.
In other words, I am deeply sympathetic with your desire not to adopt Jewish practices and beliefs simply “to comply”. But is it necessarily true that our prayers “make man (or woman) into a weak and helpless being”? Much of Jewish prayer is about the astonishing human capacity for both self-transformation and world-transformation. Prayer must also be set in the context of a system which prioritizes study and action, each of which emphasizes the grandeur and glory of human existence as beings of free will with the dignity of taking responsibility for their actions and of imagining a world different than the one they immediately confront. If you were convinced that Judaism offers ways to think of human beings as, in the words of Psalms, “only slightly less than Divine”, would new Jewish possibilities open for you?
I can think of two ways that might offer you entrée to the world of Jewish destiny. The first is study – here I recommend of course Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “Fate and Destiny”, or almost anything by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of England. The second is Zionism – not just in the sense of supporting Israel’s right to existence and self-defense, although these are certainly vital and necessary preconditions, but in the sense of envisioning and working for a Jewish state that embodies Jewish ideals and values. But this should lead back to study, as how else is one to discover authentic Jewish ideals and values?
The Jewish past you identify with was created by people who lived it every moment of their present. My hope and blessing for you is that you indeed find a way into Judaism such that your present will be an everlasting inspiration to a Jewish future you help create.
Thank you for your question. I appreciate your honesty in the struggle that you continue to experience in your life. Before I respond to your questions, I’d like to encourage you to think more deeply about the following: Why is “fitting into your Judaism” so important to you? What does feeling accepted look like? While it sounds like the laws don’t necessarily resonate with you, you do find a personal meaning in some of the stories, customs, and rituals that are at Judaism’s core. If we were talking together one on one, it would be as important for me to explore with you why you feel so strongly/passionately about wanting that connection and what it would look like and not simply having the recipe for how to get there. Often times, answering the former leads to the latter.
I ask you to ponder these questions is because on the one hand you like being you, who you are, doing what you do, and not feeling restricted by religion or observance. At the same time, there is obviously something deeper that draws you to your Judaism that compels you to feel accepted without wanting to fit in.
From a Jewish legal perspective, Jewish identity is determined by your parentage. In the more liberal streams of Judaism, the Reform Movement for example, as long as one of your parents is Jewish, you are Jewish. In the more traditional streams of Judaism, Conservative and Orthodox, Jewish legal status is determined by matrilineal descent, meaning if your mother was Jewish, then you are Jewish. Yes, there are Jewish legal definitions, but for now, depending on your personal beliefs and your own understanding of your Judaism, if you say you’re Jewish you’re Jewish. Without placing a label on you, my sense is that you could find a connection to your heritage knowing that some would accept you as Jew unequivocally while others might not depending on who in your family is Jewish. For now, how you identify yourself is probably the most important first step to having a more deeply rooted connection to your Judaism, be it religiously, culturally, spiritually, historically, in terms of narrative or customs.
I also wonder if there is something about your being Jewish and being Russian that draws you to having some semblance of connection to your heritage. As you intimated, you have a strong connection to certain themes and stories in Judaism: feminism, the slavery to freedom motif of Passover, and the metaphor of the miraculous light of Hanukkah that burned perpetually when it seemed unlikely to last beyond a day. The story of Judaism and of being a Russian is one of perseverance, overcoming adversity, strength, and courage. In a way, embodying those qualities and characteristics is exactly what it means to be a Jew. Drawing on our tradition in this way can help create an authentic relationship between you and your Jewish identity.
Lastly, I think it is worth sharing that there are many parallels between Judaism and Buddhism. Check out this LA Times Article or this one from ABC news from 2006. And if you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to read Rodger Kamenetz’s book The Jew and the Lotus. In terms of prayer, often times it’s better to start with what moves your soul and your heart. Liturgy aside, what do you pray for? What do you hope for yourself, for others, for the world? My guess is that starting with your own worldview will open new doors for your prayer life, and most likely, depending on what you feel best nourishes your soul, there is probably something in Jewish tradition/liturgy that I could point you to that might resonate more strongly than what you read at first glance in the prayer book. Especially themes like peace, freedom, equality, identity, and the like. Above all, seeing yourself as a Jew and living as a Jew, regardless of what other people say about you, requires that we treat others, our friends, our partners, our family, and those with whom we disagree and who disagree with us with respect and dignity. What’s amazing about Judaism is that multiple opinions can coexist side by side about how we understand the tradition and how that tradition relates to our lives, not to mention how our lives fit in with Judaism. Be patient with yourself as you continue on your journey, keep questioning, and appreciate that your willingness to explore is already a major step in the right direction toward finding how Judaism can fit into your life in a meaningful way.
Your question is a common one in many regards but especially in the Russian Jewish community. That does not mean you can not find your place among your people.
I would suggest the following: try to find a local rabbi in whom you can confide. Tell him/her your issues and they may be able to guide you. If you wish, you can also seek out a Reconstructionist or Humanist synagogue where some of your issues can be addressed. You may also find that, liturgically speaking, a Reform congregation best fits your needs. The truth is that you can find a place for yourself among your people if you are willing to look. There are lots of people who feel the same way and you can integrate into such a community.
Being accepted is something that other people have to struggle with. If you do things to be accepted by other Jews and embrace what they think is right, then you have not become Yisrael - one who struggles with God and wins. Struggle and you will find your place. Worry about being accepted and you will lose your soul.
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