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Finding in My Own Tradition What I Was Seeking All Along
Morgan Anderson's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 25, 2017
Growing up as a Jew*ish* millennial I’ve been simultaneously gifted and tested by the myriad of options for spiritual pathways available at my fingertips. I’ve always felt a deep longing for connection, but Judaism somehow seemed too obvious, too traditional.
A turning point came a few years ago when I discovered that the core teachings of Judaism align perfectly with the few essential truths I had amassed through haphazard and largely isolated spiritual questing. How beautiful and ironic that what I’ve been seeking all along has been in my religious and cultural tradition, waiting patiently to be unpacked.
So much gratitude to rabbis like Bridget Wynne of Jewish Gateways for gently and wisely guiding me along this ancient path.
Let me begin by thanking everyone who came today. I’m aware of the effort it took, and I hope you understand how much your presence supports me. Anyone who knows me knows I cherish this learning, but by nature it’s emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually challenging. It’s not the kind of work that I can push through with more coffee, but the rather the kind that requires the support of community. So thank you.
Standing here now and revealing my heart is a fitting conclusion to this year of Jewish learning. It’s very rare that I am this open about my spiritual life. Just the simple act of speaking about it publicly is a major personal milestone. Rabbi Bridget once joked that I sometimes sound like a “closet religious Jew” which made me laugh because it’s kind of silly and, I’ve realized, completely true.
Growing up in a liberal, educated, secular social circle, there was little opportunity to explore my relationship to G-d and prayer. For years I internalized the idea that religion is childish, anti-scientific, and antiquated without really ever examining it personally.
A turning point came when I started a Buddhist meditation practice in college and really resonated with the concept of nonduality – Oneness with the universe – or no separation between me and you and everything else. This perspective catalyzed a shift and I began to get curious about my own religious traditions.
I was fascinated to find that the concept of Oneness I connected with so strongly not only exists within, but is at the heart of Judaism. The Shema - the central prayer Jews everywhere say before sleep, upon waking, and ideally right before death, embodies and expands upon that same experience of Oneness. This coincidence, or I believe, discovery of an essential universal truth, has captivated me ever since.
I tend to get caught up in the excitement of these revelations and the glowing transcendence I sometimes feel in prayer. But I know I’ve only scratched the surface and need to slow down and examine the questions that are surfacing. I still struggle with a lot Judaism – the consistent discipline of prayer, the embedded patriarchy, and especially the confusing Biblical language.
For example, in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, G-d explains the laws of the red cow and ritual purification. It’s a strange set of laws, even by ancient Israelite standards. We learn that after coming in contact with a corpse, one becomes ritually “impure.” The antidote to this impurity: find a completely red cow, without blemish, that has never worked a day in its life. Then it must be slaughtered and burned with a combination of hyssop flowers, cedar wood, and crimson-red wool. Then these ashes combined with water, have the power to purify after one touches a corpse.
Weird, right? Totally irrelevant to my lifestyle and a hyper-specific solution to a problem I’ve never even considered. So why do I find it so interesting?
I’ve made the mistake before of brushing off ancient teachings because they seem foreign and unrelatable. Now I understand that there’s always a jewel of wisdom embedded within the mystery if you look close enough. Even with the teaching of the red cow in Chukat. I read this Torah portion and notice a deliberate intentionality around life and death. We are assigned tasks to keep us busy and get directly involved with the death ceremony – to inspect a red cow for black hairs (no more than 3), to go out and harvest flowers, to find an exact shade of crimson wool...all while thinking about, honoring, and holding in our hearts the memory of the person who has passed.
Compare that to the death of a loved one in our modern culture - a remote and sanitized experience, handled by an array of doctors, morticians, and other strangers, which often just delivers us a state of detached numbness. So to me, this passage communicates the necessary intimacy and intentionality around the death of a loved one in order to mourn fully and begin the healing process.
So I understand now that we’re meant to be confused by these teachings, to struggle and question until we find meaning beyond the words on the page, which serves to build a deeper personal connection to Torah.
My journey to becoming a Bat Mitzvah at 26 is unusual, but for me it’s the perfect time. I hardly understood what the ceremony meant when I was 13, and reflecting now, I’m glad I waited. Now I have the wisdom and self-confidence to discern what feels truly meaningful for me and therefore the lessons feel all the more powerful. I’m so grateful for the twists and turns of this journey and wouldn’t change a thing. Thank you again.