Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I've been studying the bible...in church!

I have mentioned in other posts that I have recently started a bible study with some of my girlfriends at their church. I hemmed and hawed over doing it. I worried, that as a Jew, the group would feel compelled to do one of three things:

1) Pray for me and my soul
2) Attempt to persuade me to see the "truth"
3) Disregard any input I offered to the class

Somewhat predicatably, none of these things have happened. Partly, its because I've kept my Jewish identity to myself but now that I am thinking more rationally, I'm fairly certain that none of those things would happen even if I did share my Jewish background. (More on that in a bit).

I worried about having to be the one coming up from behind. About having to defend my views and beliefs at every turn. I worried that I was looking like a sell out to my friends, that it would apper that I was just taking the class for the social aspects and casting my faith aside just to be part of the crowd. And finally, after thinking on it and talking about it with one of my dear friends, I had to just stop worrying about what OTHER people were thinking about me, because doing this bible study has nothing to do with what other people think. It has to do with me and what's in my heart and what I can learn from it. And the truth is, I can learn a lot. Whether or not the teaching is a Jewish teaching or a Jewish thought isn't the important part...what's important is if I can apply it in my life and make myself better and more spiritual and more kind and more patient and closer to G-d. Understanding how I can fit what we learn within a Jewish framework is just an extra assignment that I have that the rest of the class does not.

As for the Jewish part, I haven't kept it quiet because I'm embarrassed. Or afraid of the reaction and reception I might receive. It's mostly because in the setting of the class, it just became not that important. What I believe in my heart and what the wonderful women that I meet with each Thursday morning believe in their hearts are not all that different. We all pray for wisdom and patience and kindness and help and guidance and for G-d to be near to us. We all have our challenges and fears and trepidations and heartaches. We all have questions and sometimes we look to G-d to answer them and sometimes to each other. I'm not there to change their mind about their faith and they're not there to change mine. So, until it comes up or becomes appropriate or neccessary, I'm happy to continue learning with the rest of the class in my own way. I don't feel like I need to make a big announcement but I also I don't feel like I'm selling out on my faith by not speaking about it. I know who I am and what's in my heart and I don't neccessarily need to make sure that everyone else does too.

As for the study itself, I love it. We read a lot of Old Testament as well as a lot of New Testament. I had to borrow a bible from my friend that has the New Testament because my Tanakh (the Jewish bible) does not have it (duh). Oddly, last week, my Rabbi spoke about the New Testament during his sermon on Shabbat. I about fell out of my chair. Not because he spoke about it during services but because I'd been feeling a wee bit guilty for reading it...and there goes my Rabbi talking about it and even quoting it! So yes, it is a historical document just like the Old Testament, and though we don't use it as guideline in our faith, it is there. I think I am a bit more sensitive to the Old Testament/New Testament stuff simply because I am a Jew by choice and there was a time in my life where the New Testament did hold significance for me and I think that part of me has felt that in order to "prove" that I'm a Jew, I have to close my eyes to the existence of the New Testament...I of course now realize that this is a ridiculous thought.

The other day in class, I had out my handy Tanakh (which is in English and Hebrew) and one of the girls sitting next to me, peers over my shoulder and says, "Oh. Is that Arabic?". To which I answer, "No. It's Hebrew." Her eyes get wide and she says, "Can you read Hebrew?". And I answer honestly, "No. Well, sort of. I can muddle through it. Slowly." Reading Hebrew and understanding Hebrew are very different. I say lots of things in Hebrew but have no idea what I'm saying. Our services, except for the sermon and a couple of prayers for our country and Israel, are entirely in Hebrew. How do I understand what is being said? I couldn't tell you how I understand. I just do. You can just tell. Most of the service is chanted in a variety of beautiful melodies, so using that alone as a clue kind of tips you off to the theme of what is being said. Some parts of our siddur (prayer book) have the English translation, so that helps, but I rarely read the English. Some days, when I feel unfocused, I will use the English to help, but I feel very generic when I do that. In the early days of my Jewish study, I only read the English (which was difficult because it isn't available for the entire service, just bits and pieces).

It takes practice, reading and saying the service in Hebrew. And I'm pleased to say that I am (slooooooooooooooooowly) improving. A wonderful thing happened during the last two Shabbat services I attended. I was struggling with keeping up with the hazzan (the person leading services...our services are lead by the congregation, the Rabbi leads very little, if any of the service). During my struggle, I took a moment and prayed for G-d to be near me. "Be near me, G-d. Help me focus. Please be near me." Not exactly word for word, but along those lines. I almost always start off my prayers in Hebrew..."Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam..." (roughly translated to mean blessed are you, Adonai, our G-d, creator of the universe....). Anyhow, I had my struggles, said my prayer, stared hard at my siddur, listened to Joanna's (my friend and rabbi's wife who was leading this particular part of the service) beautiful voice, and then I realized I was following along, word for word, the Hebrew. Sounding out letters that I didn't know I knew. Not missing very much at all! It was wonderful and I felt so full.

Anyway, back to my bible study...suffice it to say that I am enjoying it, enjoying the community, enjoying having something to discuss with my girlfriends other than kids, gossip, housework, etc. I think it is strengthening our friendships and even for that reason alone, I am enjoying it. But it also teaching me to be better, to think in different terms, to understand that what might be perceived as "fair" doesn't neccessarily mean it is "good" or "right". I am learning (slowly, ever so slowly) to process my thoughts and to present my reactions with more patience, with more purpose, within a framework rather than with an instinct. I am a long way away from where I'd like to be, but I know that I am on the right road.

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