Neshamah - The Discovery and Journey of a Jewish Soul
Portions adapted from Angela Dekort's story at Jews For Judaism (as her story amazingly parallels my own so closely).
My whole life, as long as i can remember, has been driven by a spiritual quest. i was brought up Methodist, though i never really took it very seriously. Both of my parents were raised Catholic/Methodist to various degrees and they were married in the Methodist Church. There wasn't much actual religion in my house in the early years though we did regularly go to church on Sundays and i was brought up attending Sunday School and observing traditional Christian holidays.
In my teenage years, my beliefs became a mix of Protestant and Christian Fundamentalist/Evangelical belief through exposure to other denominations of Christianity through friends in high school. My mom and dad never talked about religion, having very little religious observance or practice other than my father singing in the choir, so most of the instruction came from the Methodist church itself and then later a Fundamentalist/Evangelical church.
i was also one of the early fans of Christian rock music, listening to such bands as Stryper, Petra, Kansas, Whiteheart, and Bloodgood, before this branch of the music industry became acceptable and almost cool. As a blossoming musician in high school, i started writing Christian songs to express my blossoming spirituality.
Toward the second half of high school i became less interested in the Methodist Church although G-d was still a big part of my life. i still wrote Christian songs, still tried more so than some of my peers to follow Jesus, and nightly prayers and Bible reading were still a part of my regular routine.
This all changed in 1987. In my junior year when i was 16, i was 'truly introduced to Jesus' through the Calvary Chapel Old Bridge Church who was sponsoring a movie called "Fury to Freedom" at my school. After the movie (based on the life of Raul Reis, a pastor at Calvary Chapel in Golden Springs, CA.), i was made aware of my sin and went down to the front to 'accept Christ' and ‘invite Jesus into my heart’. i was told i was ‘born again’, but for some reason it didn't really take. And when i began college, with all its pressures and temptations, G-d gradually faded in my list of priorities. Over the next 12 years i continued to still try and live a Christian life and attended church services on and off throughout my 20’s while still remaining firmly planted in secular life.
i remained some type of Christian bouncing from church to church until i was around 29. i am a questioner by nature. Everything has to make sense in my feeble mind, though i have been more successful lately of not dissecting everything. i started encountering difficulties in Christian belief and theology and became very frustrated by all the contradicting theological views and systems. But i kept trying to fill my head with Biblical knowledge and creeds trying to figure it all out - trying to find the perfect system of belief (a problem that plagued my entire life and that would recur in my life for the next few years). But the frustration proved too great and so i left Christianity in pursuit of another ‘spiritual system’ that i thought might work for me.
i have always felt a spiritual calling in my life. No matter what stage of life i was in, the calling was always very strong. Even after i left the pain and guilt of trying to live the Christian life, I still felt drawn to pursue spiritual things; though at first i had become very bitter for awhile and denounced all things religious. But after the anger subsided and the healing began, i still felt that I should pursue something. i was still being drawn by G-d (though i didn't know it at the time). And even though i thought i had abandoned G-d, G-d had not abandoned me - that quiet Voice within never stopped.
In 2001, at 30 years of age, i fully celebrated the Jewish Holy Days and most of the Jewish holidays with my wife who is Jewish by birth. i was surprised to see how much i enjoyed them. So i did a little research and reading about Judaism from a Jewish perspective (rather than a Christian perspective). To my surprise, i found that the beliefs in Judaism were very much what i had believed for most of my life regarding G-d and that the Tanach (what Christians call the 'Old Testament') was crucial to my faith. Judaism didn't demand that i follow any creed or dogma. i discovered that it was actually quite intellectual, yet no less spiritual, in its approach to G-d. Judaism encouraged thought, conversation, and even debate. It made me wonder how i didn't see it as my answer all along! The mitzvot, rituals, and traditions gave a sense of stability and discipline while the prayers gave a sense of connection with G-d and unity with other Jews. i was truly bowled over by its depth and warmth. The whole premise of Judaism was based on struggle - something i had done my entire life!
i wondered, "Could Judaism finally be the destination that i set out to find since i was a kid? Is it G-d's plan for me to deliver me to the family of Judaism? What better way to reconnect with the G-d i abandoned than through the faith of my wife and my future children?"
i had discovered my Neshamah - my Jewish soul.
i came to believe that G-d did have a plan for me, so i took a 6 month course, studied with our local Reform and Conservative Rabbis, and converted to Judaism through a traditional conversion (Bet Din, Ritual Circumcision, Mikvah) on November 10, 2002. During the following year i tried to practice Judaism from a Reform perspective since my wife Helene and i thought Reform would be a good place for us to explore Judaism together. But after a year of lackluster practice, i started to feel an uncertainty. i was still feeling distant from G-d. i realized it wasn't enough to just claim to be Jewish and then go about my daily life. i needed to learn. i needed to study. i needed to practice. i needed spirituality. i had discovered my Neshamah, but i needed to make that a full realization in my life - not just a system of beliefs, but a way of life. We were also attending our local Reform synagogue at the time but it just wasn't 'working' for me either. It seemed to lack spirituality and Jewish authenticity and it left me still feeling empty.
It was around this time that the old ghost of Christianity reared its familiar head. Because of my inability to grow beyond my Jewish conversion, i simply stopped moving forward. This lack of growth created a space that allowed for familiarity to creep back in. The guilt of 'denying Jesus' eventually flooded back in and for a short while, i found myself straddling the fence between Judaism and Christianity. My connection to Judaism was very real. Yet my fear of 'going to Hell' and my connection to Jesus' teachings wouldn't allow me to shut the door completely on Christianity. And once i cracked the door open again to peer in, Christian guilt blew the door wide open.
i eventually found myself sitting in a meeting with a local Calvary Chapel pastor being encouraged to 'turn back to Christ' and 'make him Lord of my life'. i was told i either, 'left Christ and needed to return to him' or i was, 'never born-again to begin with'. Despite my built-in reservations about returning to involvement in Christianity beyond listening to Christian music that i still enjoyed, i found myself taking his lead, praying the "Sinner’s Prayer" (again), and inviting Jesus into my heart (again), which had happened over and over from my teenage years right into my 30’s. Here was someone promising a way out of the spiritual mess that i found myself in, and i thought i had nothing to lose. i had yet another 'born-again' experience. This was April of 2004.
i was suddenly back into my 'old Christian life'. For the next year i saw some truly beautiful things along with some pretty terrible things in the church. But i was mostly bothered by a seemingly staged spirituality and rarely connected to ecstatic so-called 'Spirit-filled' patterns of worship. It just seemed so forced and so easily faked; or, when it was good, it seemed that it was more the music that provided the experience rather than anything particularly G-dly that was behind it. People would think, for example, that the ‘praise band’ musicians were being led by the Holy Spirit, but often they were just noodling on their instruments until an appropriate length of time went by to either enter a 'feeling of worship' or enough guilt was laid for people to respond to the altar call to ‘accept Christ’.
After a short time, i found that i wasn't even getting anything out of the sermons i was listening to — i had heard them all before and they just didn't appeal to my liberal sensibilities. Bible study seemed to require a relinquishing of the intellect that i had difficulty forfeiting. Try as i might, i could never fully accept a strict literal reading of the bible, more specifically the New Testament (which i call the 'Christian Testament' as the word 'new' implies that the Jewish Scriptures are 'old' or obsolete), and the kind of theology that it produced even though i was determined to force myself to accept it literally. i found myself constantly wrestling with the Bible to make it all 'connect'. i kept finding myself having to reconcile obvious contradictions in the Christian Testament knowing deep in my heart that the Bible was/is a human-written document - inspirational and perhaps inspired, but still human.
In trying to find answers, i saw that modern Christianity might be my problem and so i began looking for another way. It was important for me to get as far back to the roots of Christianity as i could. The early Christians were Jews who followed this Jew, Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah. They observed the Sabbath, worshipped at the Temple, kept the Law of Moses, none of which modern Christians do. Any student of the history of the church will quickly see that there were a lot of changes and Paganism introduced in the 'received faith' of the institution when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. These changes took it away from the pure, early Christianity i was looking for.
In early 2005 after doing a lot of research on the internet, i learned about the 'Messianic Jewish' or 'Hebrew Roots' movement. Messianics call themselves 'Hebrew Christians' or, more commonly, 'Messianic Jews'. They observe a lot of modified Jewish rituals and customs in their synagogues. i tried to imagine if i was a Jew at the time that Jesus (who i started calling 'Yeshua') lived, and i had decided to follow him, what my faith and actions might look like. i decided it might look a lot like what the Messianic Jews were modeling. This appealed to my connection to Judaism, and intrigued, i attended a Messianic congregation and continued to read about the movement on the internet. And with that, i morphed into a Messianic Jew. i even began studying with a 'Messianic Rabbi' in Israel and after some time i believed i had finally reconciled my Christian background and my Neshamah.
But as with everything else i had experienced, it didn't take long for Messianic Judaism's false beliefs, glaring contradictions, and dishonest tactics to rise to the surface. An obvious contradiction in their beliefs and practices was claiming to embrace Orthodox Judaism, its practices, its texts, and its prayers, while rejecting one of its primary texts, the Talmud. Also, a common tactic was to suggest to born Jews, many of whom were severely lacking in their own religious education, that the most natural and most Jewish thing in the world would be to recognize that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah; to become a ‘complete Jew’. While i embraced this idea at first, it later became offensive to me to insinuate that a Jew wasn’t ‘complete’. With the Jewish trappings of the Messianic service, and the loving welcoming atmosphere, a Jew who had been reared in a dull, lifeless synagogue may have accepted that claim without realizing the next step is acknowledging that this ‘messiah’, Jesus, is G-d incarnate; something that is most definitely not a Jewish thing to do. The unity of G-d and the fact that G-d can never take on fleshly form (that G-d is not some mysterious member of a hard to grasp Trinity) are central ideas in Judaism. It seemed a dishonest approach for the Messianics to take and it made me simply walk away from that as well.
i was confused. Unhappy. And very unsettled. i was still trying to convince myself that Christianity's view of the Messiah was true and that 'true Christianity' could be found in the Messianic Movement if the movement could ‘tweak’ it a little bit. i was desperately trying to marry Judaism and Christianity. The struggle finally caused me to let go of everything and to try and simply ‘seek G-d in the Bible’. Of course, at first i was trying to do this through a Christian lens. But as always, it just wasn't working. i just didn't believe the tenants of Fundamentalist Christianity anymore; i tried everything but nothing worked. i was starting to see that Christianity's claim of Jesus being the Messiah in the traditional Christian understanding of Messiah was untrue for me. But i couldn't fully admit this without exploring traditional Judaism and its views on the Messiah a bit more deeply first.
In my research on the internet i came across a lot of Jewish reaction to the deceitful tactics and just plain false teachings of some members of the Messianic movement. One organization stood out as being a good source of this Jewish viewpoint: Jews For Judaism. i began to read their counter-missionary material aimed at providing a reasoned, scriptural basis for rejecting Christianity's various Messianic claims, particularly the deity of Jesus and his status as Messiah.
Through many lengthy conversations with one of their Rabbis, Rabbi Zalman Kravitz, i was taught the Jewish view of Messiah, what the true Messiah was supposed to accomplish, and how Jews were to relate to the Messiah (i.e. you didn’t have to ‘believe in him to be saved’). Instead of it reaffirming my own faith, my own belief in the superiority of Christian apologetics (defense of the faith), it was weakening my certainties. What followed were several months of reading material on both sides, comparing Bible passages, and reading as much of the outside material i could get to which both sides referred. Messianic Judaism/Fundamentalist Christianity and Jews For Judaism were in my courtroom and i was the judge. But Rabbi Kravitz was providing a very good case for rejecting Fundamentalist Christianity that i found very hard to deal with. Again and again, i was struck by the depth, by the wisdom, by the consistently scriptural responses he gave to Christian Messianic claims. Conversely, i was struck by the blatant faulty logic of those Christian claims, the kind of thing that would have been blown out of the water easily in any Philosophy class in Informal Logic.
Through it all i was confronting a tough question: Why is anyone a Fundamentalist Christian? And, more personally, why was i one? There are many reasons people are Christians: They were born into it, raised that way, they are spiritually nourished by it, they have had some intense personal experience with something they recognize as Jesus, they like its moral teachings, they have a sense of needing to start over or be forgiven, it aligns with their personal politics, or they are afraid that they will go to Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus and ask for forgiveness (which is mostly what kept me still clinging to that 'brand' of Christianity). My reasons for being a Christian were the same, i suspect, as most Christians who actually took the time to think about it: i believed the Bible was inspired by G-d and it demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah indicated by prophecy, that he was the only way for me to escape Hell on account of my sinful nature, and that he was, in fact, G-d as well.
But let me now share what i learned. It will only be a very quick overview. For an in-depth understanding, one needs to go to his own Bible and read thoroughly as well as a good Jewish source of information.
i learned that Jesus couldn't have been the Messiah. The Jewish Scriptures, the Tanach, indicate very specific criteria for identifying the Messiah. The Messiah will be a special Anointed One, or leader, of Israel, who will rule at a time of a restored third Temple (Ezekiel 37:26-28), of world peace (Isaiah 2:4), when there will be universal knowledge of G-d (Isaiah 11:9, Jeremiah 31:33). He will also be instrumental in all Jews being brought back to Israel (Isaiah 43:5-6). Clearly, a brief look at the world today shows that these things have not been fulfilled—by Jesus or any other person who has claimed to be the Messiah over the years. There is no third Temple, no world peace, no universal acknowledgement of G-d, and the Jews have not all been restored to the land of Israel.
The Christian apologists admitted, as they must given the evidence, that the above four criteria were indeed not met by Jesus, but they insisted they would when he ‘returned’ (called the Second Coming). There are two problems with accepting this though. One, is that there is no prophecy of the Messiah dying and then coming again to fulfill his mandate, and two, is that it doesn't prove Jesus is the Messiah any more than any other figure who wants to invoke the doctrine of the ‘Second Coming’. Rabbi So-and-So might be the Messiah by that criteria, because when he ‘comes back again’ he will fulfill the things that will prove he is the anointed one. It is a classic case of faulty reasoning. The question is why should we recognize him as the Messiah before he's actually fulfilled the things the Messiah is supposed to do? Furthermore, nothing in the Scriptures prophesizes a need to simply ‘have faith’ in a Messiah claimant, either before or even after s/he has done what the Messiah is supposed to do.
Yet i desperately tried to hold on to a belief in Jesus as Messiah by other means, but every investigative path i chose led me to the same conclusion - he was the last great Jewish Prophet. A gifted and brilliant Torah illuminator. Someone we could and should still learn a lot from as he lived the Torah life perfectly. But not the Messiah. It really was quite simple and clear, although i had to go through the process of exhausting other options before i could see that.
There are supposedly hundreds of prophecies in the Tanach which point to Jesus. However, when you read them for yourself (which i never really did as a Christian) you discover that they are used out of context, are the result of mistranslations, or are simply invented by Christian Testament writers.
Perhaps, i thought, it really wasn't important that Jesus hadn't fulfilled the main prophecies of the Messiah if he had at least fulfilled some of the others. i started to go through the prophecies outlined in the Gospel of Matthew, who, as a Jewish writer keenly interested in establishing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, relied heavily on these prophecies. But i didn’t get far into the book before i realized that there were serious problems. In Matthew 2:23 it says that Jesus "went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" This would certainly seem to point toward Jesus. Unfortunately, there is no prophecy in the Tanach about him being a Nazarene—this quotation seems to be completely made up! Even if i could forgive the gospel writer this indiscretion, his misuse of the Scriptures in other places is even more disturbing. He writes that the reason Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt was "to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt have I called my son'" (Matthew 2:15). However, when you read this quotation in its original context in Hosea 11:1, you see that the verse doesn’t refer to the Messiah; rather, it clearly refers to Israel! Matthew is using it as if it predicts something about the Messiah, but that is not what it is saying at all and it was never interpreted that way before—hardly a fulfilled prophecy.
Not only did these two uses of the Scriptures cause me to seriously question the veracity of the Christian Testament in regards to Messianic claims, they led me to explore all of the other supposedly fulfilled prophecies, and to see that they were equally dissatisfying. i was grasping at straws and i knew it, for none of them mattered anyway, if even the basic criteria of the Messiah had not been fulfilled.
A broader look at the Christian Testament wasn't any more helpful. The Christian Testament claimed that there was ‘Original Sin’ for which we were all condemned, but i could find no evidence of that in the Tanach. The Christian Testament writers stated that there was no forgiveness of sins without a blood sacrifice (blood sacrifice in the Tanach was only for unintentional sins, not intentional sins), but there clearly was forgiveness in the Tanach for intentional sins—through prayer and repentance with no intermediary required. Christianity asserted there was eternal Hell for those who rejected the Messiah; the Tanach made no such claim, either about the existence of Hell or of the necessity of belief in ‘a personal Lord and Savior’ in order to avoid it. The Christian Testament put great stock in the miracles and wonders that Jesus performed, as evidence of who he was, but the Tanach clearly warned that miracles were not to be trusted—only G-d's Law. It was very apparent that the Christian Testament was not consistent with what G-d seemed to be teaching so repetitively in the Tanach. In the absence of proof that Jesus was the Messiah, there could be no reason to accept any of the Christian Testament as being the inspired Word of G-d any more than i should accept what Mohammed, Buddha, or Joseph Smith wrote.
But i was still desperately clinging to Jesus as the Messiah for fear of 'going to Hell', still trying to find some loophole in the Jewish arguments, some way to keep the faith i felt about to slip away from me. But after a few months i knew that it was no use. Jesus' insights into Torah and the human condition were some of the most profound teachings ever given to human beings, and we can still learn much from him today, but he simply was not the Messiah according to Christian definition of that term. i had learned the truth and there was no unlearning it. i was no longer a Fundamentalist Christian. All that was left was to admit it.
The realization was devastating at first. i cried. i mourned. i refused. i felt ashamed at crying ‘Jesus/Yeshua’ from the rooftops only to have to retract everything i claimed to believe. There are some wonderful, comforting things about Fundamentalist Christianity, and those things would never bring me wonder or comfort again. i was losing my previous foundation. My whole world view crumbled. It was like Neo in The Matrix taking that pill, seeing the matrix of his life as it really is, seeing the futility of so much that had seemed so important before.
And so...I finally let go.
Not without a fight, not without investigating all of the prophecies, not without reading Josh McDowell’s (leading Christian apologist) and others’ arguments, and not without one final look at the evidence in the ‘changed lives’ of modern day believers of Jesus.
i know many Fundamentalist Christians who make the claim that they have 'Jesus in their hearts', or who say they are 'filled with the Holy Spirit', and that their lives testify along with their spirit to the reality of a ‘risen Christ’. Unfortunately, i do not know a lot of them who demonstrate this when faced with situations that truly challenge them. When i compare their track record of demonstrating the 'love of Christ' to those who are non-Christian, or even atheist, i can see no marked difference. About an equal number are loving and selfless in both categories. About an equal number are not. Therefore, the final 'mystical/personal experience/changed life' test failed as well.
Why Judaism? Why not Gnostism? Why not Atheism? Why not Buddhism? Well, there were many things about the Jews that still held my attention.
One was the fact that they even existed. Jews as a people had survived terrible persecution in countries throughout the world for almost two thousand years without their own homeland. Nowhere in history has this been replicated. It seemed to me as if G-d was protecting them as a testament to G-dself.
Another was the fact that out of all the religions in the world, only Judaism was founded on the basis of a national revelation. All the Jews were present at Sinai when G-d revealed G-dself to Moses and the Jews agreed to be The Eternal's chosen people. It wasn't a group of disciples or some prophet somewhere who transmitted a revelation from G-d. It was everyone bearing witness to the event — something that, if it didn't happen, would be hard to lie about. Everyone accepted it because they heard G-d as well. It wasn't just Moses convincing the people. If this revelation from G-d had been made up by Moses, then one would hardly expect him to claim that everyone had been there as witnesses — there would be too many people to deny it!
Finally, the Jews attribute their survival to following the Way of Torah (the first five books of the Tanach is called the Torah). To me, this makes the Jewish Scriptures very important sources for guidance on how i should live my life. It says in Zechariah 8:23: “Thus says the G-d of hosts: In those days ten humans from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you.’”
i saw that G-d was truly with the Jews...and i wanted to go with them.
So after discussing my struggles with my wife, i decided that it might be beneficial to learn more about Traditional Judaism to make sure i had made the right decision to come back to Judaism. i already knew a bit about the Reform Jewish approach and had also begun studying Renewal Judaism and authentic Kabbalah (not Madonna's version!) to help to develop my spiritual life. Now i wanted to learn from the Orthodox Community to see if i couldn't pull all the aspects together. So i made some connections through Oorah and Eternal Jewish Family (Orthodox organizations whose mission is to help unaffiliated/uneducated Jews to reconnect to their heritage) and began studying with an Orthodox Rabbi in Lakewood as well as a local Chabad Rabbi in the next town. Through these studies with them and through research online with Kabbalaonline.org, Chabad.org, and others, i started getting a taste of Traditional Jewish philosophy/theology, study, and practice. i started to understand that Traditional Judaism, Reform, Renewal, and Kabbalah, were not mutually exclusive. All could be part of one cohesive whole.
The next step i took was to actually start attending traditional Shabbat (Saturday morning) synagogue services at our local Conservative synagogue - something i didn't do when i first converted to Judaism in 2002 as we were attending a Reform synagogue which didn't hold these services. What i discovered surprised me. Despite the fact that most of the proceedings were in Hebrew, a language i did not understand, and despite the fact that i was unfamiliar with the customs and rituals and prayers, i felt a sense of comfort and belonging, a connection to G-d, and a deep spirituality that was every bit as nourishing as my previous Fundamentalist Christian experiences. The more i read and studied about all the aspects of Judaism, and the more i began to incorporate different Jewish approaches and practices into my life to develop my Jewish identity, the more i felt at home, at peace, like i had found something i had been looking for my entire life. It was so refreshing to have some puzzling issues make sense and to not have to engage in mental gymnastics to reconcile notions of, for example, a loving merciful G-d and good people 'going to Hell'. i did not have to turn off my intellect or my emotions. i did not have to abandon my liberal world perspective. Nor did i have to try and reconcile 'New Testament' vs. ‘Old Testament’ scriptural contradictions anymore. i was finally free.
i finally realized my biggest mistake through all those years of searching - i was searching for a system of belief. However, as i learned, i didn't need a theological system. i needed a way of life. And my Judaism provided that for me.
This is an exciting time for me and one that i want to chronicle as i embark on this journey with a new set of eyes. i want to record what i learn and discover as well as some thoughts and life experiences along the way. i have come to realize it is never too late to find one's spiritual path, to study Torah/Talmud/Kabbalah, and to live a faithful life committed to G-d.
i have found my way of life and it's good to be home...