In 1999 when my born-Jewish but non-observant wife and I decided to get married we began a slow embrace of Judaism. I had been studying Judaism, especially mysticism, for years by then, as a secular scholar. I had already been spending some time in a kosher household, visiting the family that would become my in-laws. While working on my master’s degree I had a job at a Conservative synagogue in Boulder as their Shabbos Goy. I got to be a fly on the wall for services and other gatherings. I also started attended services occasionally at the campus Hillel and was getting familiar with the prayers from both sources. I even toyed with the idea of converting then so I could become a Reconstructionist Rabbi.
As talk of marriage progressed, now in California, we found a Reconstructionist woman who performs ceremonies, a Mesader Kiddushin. It was quite the adventure. We wanted a ketuba but the Mesader didn’t read or write Hebrew so she couldn’t fill it out. (I recently called the Reconstructionist headquarters to ask the proper term for her role, and they were entirely mystified and amused that anyone would call them with a Hebrew question, but one rabbi did figure it out eventually). This was while I was doing my PhD in Religion. My friends at Claremont, who were textual scholars spending their lives studying Hebrew and other ancient languages, couldn’t make heads or tails of the ketuba’s modern Hebrew. Eventually we convinced the local Hillel rabbi to fill it out for us.
We procured all the other accessories to have a Jewish wedding, and were married in 2000 under a chuppah on the beach in Malibu. After moving back to Seattle in 2001 we began exploring services. Progress was slow. Chance intervened when my wife met a young rabbi in 2004 while they were both walking babies around the park. Rabbi Michael Latz had recently helped found Kol HaNeshamah in West Seattle. We joined and over time I started talking about formally converting, inconveniently just before the rabbi left for a bigger temple that needed him. With help from an interim (Rabbi Anson Laytner) and then a new permanent (Rabbi Zari Weiss) I finally converted in late 2012, took my Hebrew name in early 2013, and did my Bar Mitzvah in 2016. My Hebrew name, Yehuda ben Gershom v’ Yehudit, is to honor the great scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem and the very important feminist theologian Judith Plaskow.
It was complicated figuring out my relationship to a religion that still sees itself as theistic. Here it might be worth mentioning, my specialty is religion and my current research involves developing the idea of non-theistic religion. God never made sense to me, but religion does. The conversion worked in the end because Judaism is not a dogmatic religion. There is no belief requirement, just belief conversations. What really matters is ethics and community.
From the beginning of my study of religion 30 years ago, Judaism has been attractive to me. For scholars who convert, especially those of us in the Humanities, the attraction seems to be the egalitarian moral system at the heart of Judaism. For me the sociality of the ritual life is a significant attraction as well. Judaism, if nothing else, is an organized system of caring for one another, wrapped around some interesting, pleasing and ancient rituals. I feel deeply connected to this morality – to humanity – in the presence of those rituals; and deeply connected to love and perseverance as well.
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