It was simple and easy in the beginning. I was born Jewish. Since our wedding, however, my wife and I have affiliated with and been active in congregations that are Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Modern Orthodox. Ultimately, we found none of them met our needs. We did, however, manage to continue our 36-year commitment to the Baltimore Chavurah, which has members from all of them.
My children attended schools and camps sponsored by three of these movements, as well as the JCC, and added Habonim for good measure. I have been, at various times, a firm believer in God, an indecisive agnostic and an adamant atheist, sometimes all of these at once. I even studied with Chabad. So who is this God, and what is this religion with which I wrestle?
I’m not the only one with a confused identity. While out tending his non-Jewish father-in-law’s flocks, Moses the Egyptian, as told to us in Shemot, came upon a bush that was in flames but not being consumed.
He heard a disembodied voice saying, “Moses, Moses,” and his truncated response quickly followed: “Here I am.”
Not much imagination there. But in trying to authenticate the source of his subsequent conversation, he asks the name of the God with whom he is speaking. This is in preparation for (re)identifying himself as an Israelite and establishing credibility with his people.
The answer was “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” “I will be what I will be.”
To define something means to put limits or boundaries around it, which effectively separates it from things that are not it. A Reform Jew is not a Conservative Jew or an Orthodox Jew or any other kind of a modified Jew, but I am none of those or all of those. Moses was born a Hebrew, raised as an Egyptian, married to a Midianite and soon to become a leader of the Israelites. All of this at the behest of God, who hasn’t quite decided on his or her own identity and is looking forward to an unspecified future where this will be determined. It’s unclear how that will happen, though our ancestors have dedicated volumes to the subject. I suspect that this has substantially more to do with us than God.
We live in a complex world with a multiple of identities and a myriad of options available. These shape our lives and influence the choices we make and the paths we follow. Like others, I have struggled with the role that Judaism should play in my life. Do I embrace it or reject it? Will it be a pervasive force or a more tenuous one? Are there values inherent in that identity worth preserving and passing on to our children? Is there a God, and if so, what does that mean? If not, does it matter?
God is quoted as saying, “I will be what I will be.” This could make God like art, where beauty — or in this case, meaning — is in the eyes of the beholder. To freeze an idea by limiting it with an adjective destroys its essence.
We are all Jews — period. Our diversity is our greatest strength, and it is as a community that is constantly questioning and learning that we best define ourselves. God is still yet to be.
Dick Goldman is co-chair of the 2013 Limmud Baltimore Jewish learning festival.
The event will be held April 21 at Johns Hopkins University. For more information, visit limmudbaltimore.com.