My path to Judaism was filled with all sorts of different faith-based and spiritual practice. My favorite, and some would say my “gateway drug to lesbianism” was my dabble in Earth-based/Pagan/Wiccan spirituality. Before you get all bent out of shape, let me remind those of you who have categorised paganism and wicca with devil-worship or baby sacrifice, Wiccan holidays are actually quite close to Judaism’s agricultural holidays and lunar cycles.
When I explored Wicca in my senior year of high school and into college I was shocked to learn that the Church had done a pretty decent job of trying to wipe earth-based and nature-based religious practice off the European map. By burning “heretics”, erecting churches on former pagan holy ground and the strategic placement of holidays like Easter and All Saint’s Day around the pagan holidays of Ostara and All Hallow’s Eve they were able to turn most of these people (by way of the sword) into well-rounded, good Christians. Of course some of those people held tight to their faith and continued to practice in the same way they did before in secret. Any of this sounding familiar?
Pagan religion, at its core, recognizes divinity, the sacred, the holy in everything from the earth we stand on to the wind that blows. Pagan religions are regulated by the moon’s cycle and the changing of the seasons. Harvest holidays, fertility holidays, and a holiday to reconnect with relatives we’ve lost in the previous year are all vitally important to people who follow earth-based religion. Of course, like every religion there are some wackadoos, but most pagans do not consider the extremists part of their path. Instead, most pagans I know, and the group of women I did circles, with were tree-hugging, veggie, hippie lesbians.
My parents were pretty sure I would burn in hell, but in earth-based religion there is no hell. I tried to explain the similarities of Christian holidays and tie them to their earth-based holiday origins but they remained deaf to my words. They prayed for my soul and I kept hugging trees and meditating.
A decade and a half and multiple spiritual/religious journeys later here I am, a Jewish woman. I feel like I’ve made a complete spiritual circle. While I believe there is only one Gd, there is comfort in the fact that I can find Gd in so many spaces, usually most powerfully when I’m in nature, in awe of the beauty of the world.
The first Shabbat I spent in Israel on my Big Gay Trip to Israel was in the Negev. Our fearless rabbi lead us out of the Bedouin tent we were praying in during L’cha Dodi just as the Kabbalist did in Tsfat. We timidly emerged from the tent into the stark coldness of the dessert and fumbled over the verses of the song we all thought we knew. As we ventured further away from the tent and just the sounds of our voices humming and singing filled the vast space around us we looked up to the most perfect full moon I’ve seen in years. It was perfectly round and so bright that the stars closest too it were dimmed. I sang the rest of L’cha Dodi with the group and felt a bit odd. Here we were, out in the open, under a full moon praying-it was strangely familiar and strangely pagan-I’d been here before.
Throughout my conversion process as I learned about Jewish holidays and why we and when we celebrated them, I kept interrupting my rabbi to comment that it all sounded really pagan. They would nod in agreement and the rest of my class looked at me like I grew horns. To most people, “pagan” means devil-worship, to me it means earth-based. The fact that Jews have not hidden our very earth-based, agricultural roots from our lives as 21st century Jews was welcoming to me. Shaking the lulav in the four corners, dwelling in a sukkah, even the celebration of a new moon is a part of Jewish practice that I relish.
I’m not sure if it comes from my long and varied spiritual journey, my exposure to many different religious practice, or my interest in religion but, seeing the similarity in religions and spirituality is astounding. The big-picture of religion is that we’re pretty much all the same from Wiccans to Jews to Buddhists. When you focus the microscope down to monotheism and sift away the outer layers at the core you will see similarities than differences. Focus in a bit more to Islam and Judaism and we’re even more similar than we are different.
It’s possible that my naivety is the driving force behind the wonderful similarity I recognize in our two religions, but I don’t think so. I’d see a Muslim as my brother and not my enemy. This is where I get all preachy: This week we read about the ancient Israelites exodus from Egypt. Every Passover we read that a “mixed multitude” left with the Hebrew people from Egypt. We’re reminded to welcome the stranger because we were strangers. My namesake, Batyah, Pharaoh’s daughter (an Egyptian) goes with Moses and the Hebrew people out of Egypt. We say it over and over again. It’s in the mission statements of synagogues, it’s on our lips. We use the phrase to say that we welcome Jews who look different, we welcome Jews who are LGBTQ, we welcome inter-faith couples, we welcome everyone who is a stranger.
I find that it’s usually lip-service. It has to be more than just welcoming the stranger with words. Welcoming the stranger is about appreciation, love, respect, acceptance and learning. Just like the wackadoos on my pagan journey there are extremists in every religion. They’re the minority and often the loudest. They’re in our newspapers, making headlines online and on the news. They make a big stink and attract a huge spotlight, but they don’t represent the whole.
Choosing to become a Jew came with a lot of responsibility. It meant adding another minority status, it meant giving up foods that I love. More than that it means understanding my history and how it relates to the history of the rest of the world. Most of all, to me it’s about learning that never ends. I find that the more I learn about Judaism and impart Jewishness into my life, the more similarities that I see with other religions that I’ve learned about. It is a truly remarkable and beautiful thing