God is like an icon which never changes, yet everyone who looks at it sees a different face.—midrash Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
Most prospective converts to another faith are seeking answers to questions that their religious traditions either do not address or for which their answers do not ring true. This is certainly true for people who study LDS Christianity, and it is also true for converts to most faiths. When I called a former-Mormon-turned-Jew last week to discuss what had attracted her to her new faith, I expected her to discuss a few points of theology with a little Jewish culture thrown in as well. However, I was surprised to learn that what had attracted her to Judaism was in fact the religion’s lack of official, unequivocal answers to many of life’s questions, which she called a “refreshing” approach to faith.
Rae is a well-known young Jewish leader in Orange County, California, and attends a Reform synagogue in Newport Beach. She was born and raised in the LDS faith and got married at age 18 in one of our temples, where couples are “sealed” for eternity, not just until death. Unfortunately, the marriage only lasted 18 months, and not long after her divorce she asked the church to remove her name from its records (i.e., she excommunicated herself). Rae did this because she felt that she had tried to please others through her religious observance and had not done enough spiritual introspection to know whether she really wanted to cast her lot with the LDS Church. During the next few years her relationship with her parents became somewhat strained, and Rae became unsure of her ability to make good decisions. She was not sure that she believed in God. In short, “I was not in a good place.” She decided to make a bargain with God that if He would provide her with the life experiences she needed, she would become the person she was supposed to be.
One day she was standing in the kitchen of her Jewish grandmother, who had never expressed any desire to have Rae convert to her faith, when the thought came into her mind that she could not only be proud of her Jewish heritage, but she could also be Jewish. Until then, Rae had only been exposed to Jewish culture on a superficial level, but she eventually signed up for a Judaism course at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) and underwent a conversion ceremony with immersion in the university’s mikvah. She said she had never seen her grandmother so happy.
Rae is enormously proud of her adopted faith’s ability to produce thinkers, along with its ability to evolve with the times through constant questioning and new textual interpretations. She sees beauty in Judaism’s willingness to live with uncertainty and doubt. Like most Jews, Rae views halakhic pluralism – the equal validity of different interpretations of Jewish law – as a strength. Such a concept, of course, is very foreign to her former faith, which does not claim to have all of the answers, but does claim to have some answers (e.g., the divinity of Jesus Christ) that can’t be challenged because they were divinely revealed to prophets both ancient and modern.
While I sincerely wish that the LDS Church had been able to meet Rae’s spiritual needs, I am always happy to hear that people are productive, committed members of their new faith. Rae firmly believes that her Jewish neshama (soul) has found its home, and she loves to share the joys of being Jewish with others. Readers of this blog know that I think Judaism should become a proselytizing faith once again; people like Rae would certainly make fine missionaries. Not only does she love her new faith, but she respects her old one. Several times she stated that religion should “fulfill your spirituality,” and she has no objection to LDS Christianity doing that for others. These statements show that she has internalized what I consider to be one of Judaism’s signature attributes: religious tolerance. Yasher koach, Rae.
Rabbi Lori Schneide and I will be making a presentation on the role of Israel and the Abrahamic Covenant in our faiths on Wednesday, February 9 @ 7:30 p.m. @ USC Hillel (3300 S. Hoover)
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Dr. Armand Mauss, and Brett Holbrooke will conduct an LDS-Jewish dialogue at University Synagogue in Irvine on Friday, March 11 @ 8:00 p.m.
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