How I Set Out to “Follow” Jesus… and Found My Way to Shul

“Sometimes, one must look into the ashes to find a solitary spark.” Dov Ber of Mazeritch
“Torah is not education, it is transformation.” Rebbitzen Dena Weinberg


So, you may have gathered from the title of this piece that what I will say here is a little more personal than usual. It could be said I’m coming out, again, in a different way.

       I want to share a few things about my own spiritual path, how I view that, and where I am, currently, on the journey — and, to me, it is that: a journey, a path, one where the seeking leads the way and everything along the way is an essential part of the going. I am also beginning from a certain set of assumptions. 

       The first assumption is: that to be a person, a human being, is to be spiritual. However, I do not conceive of “spirituality” as meaning something to do with religiosity. Said another way, being spiritual is less about some otherworldly supernatural state of being, attempting to follow the rules of a particular deity, and more about what it is to be a person in a corporeal, temporal world. 
       I arrive at this position through blending theories of human embodiedness and psycho-dynamics with a somewhat nuanced perspective embedded in two Hebrew words. The first is the Hebrew word Ruach, which means “wind,” and thus, spirit, essence, as well as breath. Through this, I frame the idea of “spirit” as the essence of a being, a being’s living, breathing, essential selfhood. The second Hebrew word is related to this and is, Nefesh: meaning, that which breathes, the breathing substance of a being; therefore, nefesh means: a living, breathing being; soul; life; person; as well as, and equally, desires, appetites, emotions, and passions, depending on context. The term also applies to other creatures; I add even plants and trees; because they “breathe” they are also possessive of a spiritual nature. (In my raising and heritage, that makes sense to me.)
      Therefore, to be a human being is to be a breath-filled, embodied being of living essence, endowed with personhood, appetites, desires, emotions, and passions: a being-ness of body and essence; of spirit-selfhood, breath, and earthly physicality. Psycho-dynamically, we could frame this being-ness as identity: a subjective sense of self that, somehow, both pre-exists, comes into fuller beingness, and is made manifest, shaped and affected by bodiedness — predispositions, experiences, perceptions, appetites, inclinations — and the continuous encounters of self with an interconnected, interdependent world of being-ness. Thus, simply, but profoundly, spirituality is a state of humanality; a state of being. It is characterized, I propose, by continuous, interrelated states of being in longing — for everything from sustenance and shelter, to meaning and purpose, connection, intimacy, belonging, and, especially, the freedom, space, and means to discern and express a congruent sense of self. For some, but surely not all, this includes a desire for connection with some sense of holy otherness.  
       The point is, spirituality exists outside of religious contexts, rooted in the reality of human beings as persons of being-ness, blood, breath, and essential selfhood characterized by various states of being-in-longing — to be regarded, to have and express some sense of self, place, purpose, meaning in life, and freedom to be and become a self in some measure of relationship with others seeking to do the same. The “spiritual” path is, really, a path to selfhood, to personal fullness of humanality. Religious experience may, or may not be, part of that.
       The other primary assumption I make is this: embarking on a growth journey of any kind necessitates following the path where it leads, going where the growing self leads us — even, and especially, when the journey leads us to unexpected, unplanned, perhaps even unimagined, places. This is so because real growth seems to always lead to unexpected, unplanned places.

       That said, throughout my life, I have felt the presence of some Wholly-Holy Otherness, an abiding, sustaining force-presence: the voice in my head gently urging me to hold on until morning; the strange sense of being held when everything in me wanted only to stop being; the oddly external, yet intrinsic ability to get up — the persistence of something within me but more, finding a way to keep going, not completely alone, somehow tethered to something beyond myself, yet part of me and everything else in the cosmos. My understanding of this force-presence was, and continues to be, framed in the teachings I received from my Scottish-Indigenous grandmother — the Great Something who abides and sustains; the G-dhead of irises, black-capped chickadees, rocks and streams, earth and sky; the Creator who accompanies and comforts, who acts in and through us, nature, things unseen and forces not-yet-understood. This, the benevolent Otherness beyond yet within us, shot through everything, is the ever-creating, Many-Named One, abiding everywhere; the G-d who teaches us how to conduct ourselves, how to love, and how to thrive and suffer together by placing us into relationship with each other in the natural world. The means available to me for seeking relational understanding of this G-d were, of course, creation, other persons, and the world of Christendom. 

        For most of my life, I performed all manner of intellectual, theoretical, and psychological gymnastics trying to adapt to and understand the inherently self-contradicting, often troubling faith of Christianity. I’ve struggled, in and out of the church, to make sense of the striking differences between Jesus’ teachings, which I value, and the tenets of Christianity. All this, of course, was complicated by the facts of my queerness, gender identity and gender expression. Most of my experience with the church was complicated at best, harmful, damaging and abusive, at worst. These early experiences influenced my already-forming, justice-oriented inner advocate. Still, while Christians and the faith, itself, harmed me and drove me away, that teacher from Nazareth remained. And the voice of grandma’s G-d kept talking me through the loneliness-drenched dark nights, no matter how much alcohol and self-destruction I employed.
       For more than 30-odd years, certain recovery practices framed a sense of G-d and a practice that worked for me: prayer as a means of growth and revelation; reckoning thought, word and deed; a way of discerning wisdom, insight, and courage rather than expecting G-d to do for me what I must learn to do for myself; a grounded way of being in relationship with Spirit-Otherness, myself and other people. I applied these principles to seeking to follow Jesus. Still, no matter I tried, I kept bumping against things that just didn’t work for me and which seemed contrary to what we are told Jesus actually taught. Fall-redemption, substitutionary atonement doctrines. Resurrection. Or the conflict between a “follow me” real-world, social gospel supplanted with professions of belief, assuring a personal, sin-redeeming ticket to heaven. The more I studied Jesus, the less I could understand how the religion of Jesus — his Judaism — became a religion about Jesus. I determined I just wasn’t a very good Christian. Still, I kept trying because I dig Jesus. Then, to achieve more training for addressing queer justice by effectively challenging religious institutionalism, I decided to pursue theological education. Though it was often troubling and re-traumatizing, it sharpened my craft. I found and followed a little brambled trail leading to a wider path. 

        For over six years, now, I have been studying Hebrew, Torah (and all that includes), Jewish theology, and Jewish history through Jewish theologians, thinkers, and historians, rather than Christian scholars. This study has given me better understanding of how Jesus the Jew was intentionally transfigured and transcripted into Jesus the Christ. Continuing study confirms, daily, that my sense of the Jewish, justice-seeking, Prophet-quoting, street-teaching, Torah-doing, empire-resisting, status-quo-rejecting, homeless traveler, Jesus, is far removed from the Christian Christ and from Christendom, itself. I continue to deepen understanding of the means by which a grassroots, collective-building, anti-empire, colonizer-resisting religious movement had to be squashed and, then, transformed into a sin-salvation-centric, master-slave-modeled, personal-savior religion: one which became the religion of the colonizer-empire. I continue to understand, more deeply, the workings of power and authority, the formation of Christianity, and the evolution of the faith, theologies and philosophies of Judaism. Subsequently, I am (and I am becoming) a better, more critically adept inter-textual religious scholar. 

       Interestingly, I appreciate Jesus even more, now, because I understand his teachings through his own religion. Theological education taught me how to more properly read Jesus through Judaism, rather than reading Judaism through Jesus (as Christianity generally teaches). Seeking to follow Jesus, in practice rather than creed, led me to a journey of understanding why I suck at being a Christian.
       I make a stumbling, frustrated, questioning Christian because, at heart — perhaps by nature and development — I am a Jew. Through this ongoing process of study, self-discovery, and personal practice, I am finding a sense of place I never imagined in the living Hebrew texts, in Judaism and all its humanality, and more, in the Great Oneness at the heart of all my seeking.
       I am not saying it is bad theology, unevolved, or somehow wrong for others to be Christian. I am simply saying that, on my personal journey, I have found a place where I belong: a place where longing and seeking, questioning, even wrestling and contending, with Oneness meet; where the individual and the community meet as a differentiated collective, and the journey to Sinai is a cyclical path of longing, wandering, learning and returning. Judaism fits me.
       In measuring and honoring cycles of sacred time; agricultural practices; rituals regarding food, prayer, study and discussion as expressions of prayer, praise and thanksgiving, I find resonant connections with the Celtic-Indigenous, earth-based life-way passed on to me, stored in teachings from my elders, memories, and perhaps, my own DNA. In the way of Jewish prayer, in the practice of kavanah, in the rhythms of lightness and darkness and Jewish worship, I sense and settle into the care of the abiding Oneness which has accompanied, held and sustained me, always. In the practice of Shabbat, the lighting of candles, the melody and rhythm of chanted prayers, I find the gentle whisper of Shekinah, rising into a joyous, dancing, coming home. In the act of placing the kippa on my head, I am reminded Shekinah dwells above and within me, even as I grow in learning to put my feet on the earth, each morning, and lift my face to the sustaining sun. In the study and practice of Torah, in inquiry, d’rash, and interpretation, I find El Olam (Everlasting G-d) who teaches, guides, and inspires through ethical conscience, instincts, experience, relationality, and intellect; in Torah I find the teachings, human stories, questions, problems and insights that inspire and enliven a justice-seeking, peaceful warrior’s weary heart.
So, this is my coming-out confession of sorts.
      Long ago, I set out striving to follow Jesus, seeking a life-way to walk, to grow in selfhood, willing to go wherever the growing self might lead. I set out searching and, unexpectedly, wandered into a distant homeland and, along the way, found a Temple, and within it, an earth-bound, community-rooted, ethical justice-oriented, life-way toward growth in communal beingness (we might say, spiritual growth) that resonates with my self-understanding, experience, and world view.
      In practical terms: as I engage conversion, I will be relinquishing my authorized standing as ordained clergy. This in no way nulls or voids my theological education, nor does it mean I can no longer teach, speak to congregations, or consult and work with faith groups working toward fuller acceptance of trans, gender non-conforming and LGBQ persons (even as I continue to work with secular groups). The work remains. In fact, the more I study, the more competent and well-versed I become in this work. I am still available and will continue to be available to do this work: seeking a just-peace for all of us through deeper appreciation of human beingness, gender, sex, sexuality, and the dominant intersecting, systemic forces of oppression intended to keep us divided.
  

 

  

About liammichael

I am a gender theorist, theological activist, writer, trans activist-advocate, and educator. I also work directly with trans and LGBTQ persons through workshops, support activities, and community-building. My work is informed and shaped by a deep concern for addressing the intersecting layers of disenfranchisement and oppression which stymie our efforts to create a just and meaningful common good. I work with, consult with, educate, train public sector groups, secular groups, and faith groups seeking to be affirming, accommodating, and celebratory of trans/non-binary and gender non-conforming persons. This space is a small part of the work.
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