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Jewish Journal

A Coming Out Tale: Getting Over My Embarrassment and Calling Myself Religious

by Tamara Shayne Kagel

February 12, 2014 | 12:30 pm

Source: Gallup Credit: Matt Stiles/NPR

I have always been cagey when detailing information about myself that might classify me as religious.  Not that I was ever embarrassed or cryptic about telling people I was Jewish.  Telling people I was Jewish when people asked what my Christmas plans were, or just offering up the info sua sponte, had always been easy.  Telling people I was religious is another story.  Even though I’ve blogged for the Jewish Journal many times, I’ve rarely if ever written about religion.  So when my fiancé who was raised agnostic asked me after only three months of dating if I cared about my kids being Jewish, I was nervous to give my answer.  I wanted to give an emphatic yes, but I was scared he would immediately think I was a brainwashed nutcase who rejects Darwinism.  But, at the same time, as my father told me at services that year, at some point, my new boyfriend was going to find out that Judaism was a part of my life and I could only keep it at bay for so long.  Yes, I answered, resisting the temptation to squirm.  I care a lot, I fessed up.  He was silent for a while, and after I asked him for his thoughts, he responded with a prophetic explanation of I’m just processing this because I didn’t realize I was going to have Jewish children.  He was surprised because, though he already knew I was Jewish, he never imagined I was religious.

It was a strange and awkward journey to go from someone who avoided discussing religion in social situations to being engaged to someone who ended up converting to a new religion, making religion very prominent in our lives for a period of time.  Even with my closest friends, I rarely discussed religion, so when my fiancé began the arduous process of a halakhic conversion to Judaism, it started to come up a lot in our social conversations, in a way I had never expected.  And in many ways, I also feel as though I’ve been converted from one type of Jew to another.  I’ve had to come out as a religious person to many people.  Even though they all knew I was Jewish, what they didn’t know was in their words how much I care about religion.

In a lot of circles, including yours probably if you're reading this, religion is the last frontier of things we’re not supposed to talk about.  Discussing money, politics, and sex have all become pro forma in our more casual, more open-minded, world.  But talking about what we actually believe, delineating if and when we pray, what sort of God we might believe in, or what if anything happens to us after we die, those details are never spoken.  I would feel more comfortable talking about sex with my eighty-nine year old decorous Grandmother than asking my Christian friends if they think I’m going to hell because I’m not Christian.  Which is probably why I’ve actually done the former but never the latter.  And even though I’m guessing that based on their use of birth control, their decisions about sex, and their pro-choice positions, that they probably don’t believe I’m going to hell the way the strict theologians at the top of their Churches do, I still have never felt comfortable enough to flesh it out with them over a bottle of wine, although no one seems to have any qualms about discussing vibrators and pornography.  But at the same time, none of them have ever asked me if I believe Jews being a “chosen people” means that I think I am better than them.  And while if they did, I would explain that chosen is a poor translation for what the word in Hebrew actually is which is more akin to different and that there’s no sense of superiority in being a chosen people, but rather just an explanation that we are a different people, my guess is the fear that I might simply say I believe all Jews are better than Christians is what keeps them from confirming this with me.  What we truly believe seems to be the last frontier of what we can’t publicly discuss.

But over the last two years, the luxury of avoiding the topic was stripped away from me.  I first had to discuss what I believed in detail with my future life partner in way that I would never have been forced to do if I were marrying someone who was raised Jewish, which for us turned out to be a wonderful thing for our relationship.  And as our relationship grew, we discussed many times what I believe, why I believe it, why Judaism specifically is important to me, what I want to impart to children, and why I could never be anything but Jewish although sometimes I toy with atheism.  And though, he told me right off the bat that he would help me raise future kids Jewish, but he would probably not be the type to ever convert, I was more surprised than anyone when after we were already engaged, he told me he wanted to convert because he had developed his own relationship with Judaism.  And, just when I finally felt comfortable talking to my partner about all aspects of religion and our beliefs, we had to tell friends and family about his choice and I found myself again forced to talk about my most discomfiting subject all the time.  But of course, the reason my now Jewish fiancé told me he didn’t think he would ever convert is the same reason I avoided the subject all together.  He didn't know he could be religious and not have to believe that everyone else was sinning and going to hell.  He didn't know that converting to a religion could have nothing to do with 'salvation.'  In other words, 'religious’ people had given religion a bad name.

And as I’ve gotten more comfortable with the subject, I’ve come to realize that a surprising number of my intellectual progressive friends felt the same way I did.  Many of them, some Jewish, many Christian, were religious in their own quiet way; in a way that’s not casting aspersion on ‘sinners,’ but brings families together and honors traditions.  But they too didn’t want to be associated with the “religious nut-jobs” who quickly come to mind when we think of religious people in this country and especially in relation to politics.  So why did we, the sane ones, lose the term “religious” to extreme fundamentalist groups?

Recently, Bill Nye the Science Guy debated Ken Ham, the man behind the Creation Museum and the internet lit up with commentary about the Science vs. Religion debate.  And even though I count myself as a religious person, I was, obviously, rooting for science to win because creationism is so dumb I won’t waste another sentence explaining why (you can read about it from someone who has more patience than me here).  But what bothered me was that I then had to root against religion.  And while I was rooting against an extremist version of religion that to me is similar to a cult, I didn’t want to root against all religion.  Because the religion I know taught me to believe in science.  It was at a conservative Jewish Day School that I was taught about Evolution, it was at Hebrew High that I learned stories in the Torah (Bible) were parables not meant to be taken literally, and it was at the American Jewish University that I learned last year that a pagan Babylonian Bible predates the earliest Jewish texts and is likely the origin of many of those parables.  Seeing as religion taught me and I’m sure many others the importance of science, shouldn’t the science vs. religion debate be rebranded?  Shouldn’t it be Science vs. Extremist Fanatics?

Nye came under attack from a lot of people who said that by simply engaging creationists in a debate, he lends them validity.  I was happy he engaged them because I wanted it to be a smackdown against extremists, even though I couldn’t bear to watch it because listening to junk science makes my blood boil.  However, a debate I would have loved to watch, is a debate between an atheist who thinks evolution is evidence of God’s non-existence and a religious person, Jewish or Christian, who believes in both God and evolution.  I would love to hear their arguments on how they interpret evolutionary science and how they explain the very first particle of matter ever created in our universe and how morality fits in.  Because these are big issues worthy of grappling with and I have no clear answer on them.  But it seems that many intellectuals feel uncomfortable being associated with a term that is often used to refer to the religious right, religious nut-jobs, and creationists.  Those people who use religion as an excuse to propagate anti-gay pro-life anti-climate change theories have so little to do with religion as I know it that I was loathe to identify myself in any way with them. 

The media and we as individuals have let the religious extremists take over religion in America.  When the Times or NPR report on religious perspectives, they always go to the extremist who wants Creationism taught in schools or who don't believe in any birth control.  Why is that person the representative of religion as opposed to the Christian who wants only evolution taught in schools?  Smart people don’t seem to talk about religion in public and it’s done all religion a huge disservice.  It gets me angry that rational people who love science and use religion as a tool to focus on their families and lead a more moral life, then get lumped into the same category as religious people who blindly follow irrational dogma.  Religious shouldn’t be a dirty word.  And just like coming out as a gay person can be one of the most powerful factors in changing other people's mind about homosexuality, it’s time rational religious people did the same for their cause.  So I’m saying it loud and proud: I’m Jewish and I’m religious and I’m not crazy.

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