As part of my conversion process I’ve been asked to write a 500-word spiritual autobiography, and to pick out a Hebrew name. I thought I would choose Israel or Yisrael, but then I found Nachshon, and it is perfect for me. I’m weirdly excited about it.
Reading back over my own autobiography, I feel a need to thank and apologize to everyone who has known me too much, especially my poor Mom.
Here’s the final version, 72 words over the limit, but OKed by my rabbi.
I was born into a religious vacuum. The worldview I inherited had no space for religion. My first memory of religion is my 4-year-old self sitting on the potty asking my mother what God is. Her answer: “God is love.” I became an atheist.
Once I could read I gorged on mythology and Mark Twain. This antithetical pair of threads drawn from my earliest reading — a strand of constellated meanings twisted around a nasty strand of critique — has run through my life and connected my various interests and activities.
When I was ten my family moved to a town with a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I was made to attend Sunday services. I’d rant all the way home. According to adolescent me, UU was vapid! insular! a parody religion! a detox program for religion addicts! But when I charged UUism with hypocrisy, it backfired: attacking UUism with UU values, I internalized them, and infected myself with faith in reason, tolerance, self-criticism, pluralism, and dialogue.
My atheism ended after I met my future wife, Susan. She crushed me in an argument on the foundations of my morality, which resulted in 1) self-demotion to agnosticism and 2) love.
Before we were married, Susan joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. I went with her to liturgies, and that was my first exposure to Judeo-Christian scripture. I tried to get inside the perspective but I was unable to connect with the doctrines or practices. My wife and two daughters were enmeshed in a community who regarded me as blind, ignorant and possibly wicked. My devout agnosticism appeared to most people in my life as a blotch of nothing to be disregarded. I think this is why I embraced Vipassana meditation. I appreciated its focus on practice and its deemphasis of doctrine, and it dignified my outlook with a name. Plus, it made me nicer, and the insights gained in meditation have helped me understand mysticism.
Late 1999 we moved to Atlanta. I stopped meditating, got consumed with work and became depressed. I learned a lot from this. Coming out of it I re-centered my thinking on lived experience, rather than abstract ideas.
Then I was transferred to Toronto. I started reading Nietzsche — initially to understand the “slave morality” in my workplace, but it was soon obvious the critique applied to me. I interrogated my moral, philosophical, and religious conceptions until they dissolved. What remained was a new and odd mode of thinking. I found myself unable to convey what I was learning without resorting to symbols and metaphors. Religious writing now made immediate sense to me. My agnosticism became irrelevant. It was exhilarating but painfully isolating.
The urgent need to explain — and later, to exit — this state of mind, and to reintegrate with humanity drove me into phenomenology, hermeneutics, pragmatism, and eventually to Judaism. I kept noticing that Jewish thinkers like Richard J. Bernstein and Martin Buber were especially, distinctively helpful. The values I kept finding in Jewish thinking resonated — especially around the religious significance of intersubjectivity. As I continued, I came to see Judaism at the root of everything I care about — the values contracted from my childhood harangues. I felt room in the pluralism of Judaism for religious life as I know it. I am a contrarian, but that doesn’t mean I do not need a home; it just means I can’t live most places. Coming here, I feel home.