"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Girl Meets God -- Converting to Judaism & The Appeal of Incarnation

Yesterday I mentioned a book - Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner - that I happened to come across while at a different library branch about ten days ago. I had barely started this book when I wrote about it yesterday, but since then I've read quite a bit more and have greatly enjoyed it!  Just like I thought, I love the aspect of seeing Christianity through a former Orthodox Jew's eyes.

Actually Lauren was raised in a household that didn't talk much about God yet her parents had decided before their children were born that they would be raised Jewish. Lauren's father was Reform Jew and her mother a "lapsed Southern Baptist" so technically - by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish standards - she was not a Jew.  Jewishness is passed through mothers, not fathers.  Lauren wanted to be a Jew in the "real" sense so she converted to the Orthodox Jewish faith when she was a teenager.  She described the learning period with a rabbi where she was taught much about the faith and its laws.  Later she was questioned by three rabbis prior to her being given the OK to convert.  None of this say a prayer and you are a Jew stuff .. it's quite involved!   Also she told about the mikvah which has two purposes.  It is the purifying bath women must take seven days after their periods have ended and for converting to Judaism.  You go in the evening and then

"An attendant will lead her to a bathroom, where she will undress and remove her wigs, all her jewelry, any Band-Aids she might have wrapped around a cut on her finger or her calf.  She will shower. She will peel off her nail polish, and she will floss, because the water from the mikvah must touch every part of her body; the smallest speck of spinach stuck in her teeth would interfere. Sometimes even scabs were questionable."  (pg. 50)

Men have to be circumcised.


Several times Lauren mentioned the Incarnation's role in drawing her to Christianity. I will copy two sections she writes about it because I am amazed how this aspect of Christianity appealed to her. I guess I've been influenced too much by reading Muslim blogs and books which abhor the idea of God making Himself into a man.

Lauren writes that

The very first thing I liked about Christianity, long before it ever occurred to me to go to church or say the creed or call myself a Christian, was the Incarnation, the idea that God lowered himself and became a man so that we could relate to him better.  In Christianity, God got to be both a distant and transcendent Father god, and a present and immanent Son god who walked among us. Christians, unlike Jews, spent their time talking to a God who knew from experience what it was like to get hungry, go swimming, to miss a best friend.

The Incarnation appealed to the literature buff in me. Embodiment was the novelistic culmination of anthropomorphism, of assigning God human characteristics. All through the Torah, God is pictured as having hands, a face. The rabbis say, Of course God doesn't really have hands, but the Torah uses the language of faces and hands and eyes so that we will have an easier time wrapping our minds around this infinite, handless God.  That is what you say if you are a rabbi. But if you are a good novelist, you actually give Him hands and eyes by the end of the book, and that is what the Bible does. It says, in Deuteronomy, that God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; and then it gives Him an arm in the Gospel of Matthew. (pg. 51-52)

The Incarnation, that God took flesh, is the whole reason I am not an Orthodox Jew ... Here is the thing about God. He is so big and so perfect that we can't really understand Him. We can't possess Him, or apprehend Him.  Moses learned this when he climbed up Mount Sinai and saw that the radiance of God's face would burn him up should he gaze upon it directly.  But God so wants to be in relationship with us that He makes himself small, smaller than He really is, smaller and more humble than his infinite, perfect self, so that we might be able to get to Him, a little bit.

Being born a human was not the first time God made Himself small so that we could have access to Him. First He shrunk Himself when He revealed the Torah at Mount Sinai. He shrunk Himself into tiny Hebrew words, man's finite language, so that we might get to Him that way.  Then He shrunk Himself again, down to the size of a baby, down to manger finiteness.  (pg. 74)

There are other things from this book that I might share later, but this post is long enough for now!  What do you think of the mikvah ritual? The difficulty in converting to Judaism?  Her thoughts on Incarnation and God shrinking Himself previously when He revealed His will to Moses in Hebrew words? Any other thoughts?


Amber said...

Some of the things that I found appealing about Judaism and Islam were the rituals. I don't like the nebulous *waves hands* it's all in the attitude and belief thing. Rituals help humans take in the spiritual things that are happening. Because we're both body and spirit, both aspects have to be involved.

I have a problem with the whole literature makes the Incarnation make sense thing. Literature anthropomorphises beings because that's what humans *do*. We see humanity in animals and plants and spirits that aren't human at all. Because we're built that way. Besides which a good writer would be able to write their story without humanizing their god. 8)

I also don't like the language of 'God making Himself small'. I don't think that that gives any accurate idea of what happened with the Incarnation, or even with the giving of the Law. God didn't make Himself small or big or anything. God *is* Himself, in a way that nothing else can ever be. He showed us parts of Himself in both instances.

Susanne said...

Amber, actually she likes rituals too and she goes into that and why in another part. I was just pointing out the mikvah because I found it so interesting since it was new to me! I really think you'd enjoy many things from this book. I keep thinking to myself that I wish Amber read this and told me her thoughts on what Lauren says. :)

The author says rituals/liturgy is one reason she became Episcopalian rather than some Protestant branch that separated Tradition from the Bible. So please dont' think she was pooh poohing rituals based on what I shared here. I did not mean to convey that and I'm sorry if I did.

The literature thing was her opinion and how Incarnation appealed to HER. If you read the book, you'll see what a bookworm she is and why she compares so much to literature. Her priest wanted her to given up books for Lent because he knew it was the thing she loved most. :)

Yes,maybe God revealing parts of Himself is the better way of putting it, but I understood what she meant. She was saying that God wanted to fellowship with us so He made Himself available to us in terms we could understand (human language for instance).

Thanks for your feedback! Always good to hear it. :)

Amber said...


Oh, I didn't mean to sound like I thought she was down on rituals! You asked what we thought. That's what I thought. I still do ritual cleansing baths myself, so I can imagine the feeling of going into the water and coming out feeling lighter and clean, right with the universe/God. Though I admit I never worried about whether or not my scabs would detrimental to the ceremony. :D

Hah! Oh, I got that. I just find that it's flawed as an understanding. So...I'm judging the way her brain works. I get how silly that is. But there you go. :)

*snort* Bookworm who likes ritual? Are you sure this woman isn't me?

Susanne said...

Great! Sorry I misunderstood. I sometimes fear that I misrepresent the people in books because I forget to put the proper context so I was just explaining in case I didn't make it clear. :)

Yeah, I thought you could relate to the bookworm thing! Actually maybe this is why I like this book so much. Lauren reminds me a bit of my dear little sis! :D

Susanne said...

Here is part of a comment my cousin left on this post when I linked it at Facebook. I liked the verses he mentioned.

From Doug:

And so far as God "shrinking Himself": I believe the Psalmist put it best,
"Who is like unto Yahweh our God, Who dwells on high, Who humbles himself to behold the things which are in the heaven and in the earth!
(Ps. 113:5-6)

Solomon was amazed that God would inhabit a temple when even,
"the heaven, and Heaven of heavens cannot contain Him."
(I Kings 8:27)

I think again of the words of the Psalmist,
"What is mind that Thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man that Thou visitest him? (Ps. 8:4)

sanil said...

I love her thoughts on the incarnation! And also Amber's comment on the "making himself small" bit. That bothered me for a reason I couldn't put into words, but she did it. Thanks, Amber! I also think the two points of view together make better sense - it means that the descriptions of God's hands and such aren't ever purely symbolic, whether the writers knew it or not, they always described a part of who God already was. That's kinda neat. :)

I always liked the mikvah ritual. :D I thought it was weird but also beautiful, and I used to dream of building a Messianic Jewish community that would have its own mikveh so we could meet that requirement. I loved Orthodox Judaism so much back when I was Messianic and studied that stuff all the time. :)

Susanne said...

Sanil,I'm glad you enjoyed it! I really found all the Jewish stuff interesting in this book! Maybe I need to find a book and read about their practices in more depth. At times I was really amazed by what they either taught or did.

Thanks for your feedback! Your little Jewish community dream sounds great! :D

Becky said...

About the mikvah, and having to remove nail polish, it reminds me that conservative Muslims believe that you have to remove all nail polish before performing ghusl (the ritual bath, after sexual intercourse or menstruation) or wuzu (the ritual cleansing before prayer), as otherwise the water will not reach the nail and, according to this opinion, will render the cleansing invalid.

I too find great consolation in rituals, it is a way to prepare yourself and your mind for encountering the Divine.

Lat said...

Interesting post! I don't mind rituals as long as it's not burdensome to people.Worrying about it too much to affect your views can be dangerous and i don't think God wants all that ritualistic stuffs followed every second so that we'll be considered pure.I believe we are all pure to start with.

I concur with Amber's comment about how humans see humanity around us and that's why we give features to God.If a plant was thinking about God,it will probably give Him roots or leaves.We want to make the connection more human and therefore hands,face and languages are applied to God.I think God knows how to 'reach' everyone without making Himself 'appear' the way we want Him to.When He does so,we simply miss the cue because it could be so simple and subtle as the breeze.We just want and expect more and so our mind is all wrapped out around this.

Susanne said...

Becky, I actually thought of Muslims when reading that about nail polish because I've read the same thing many times on blogs. :) Quite a number of times I was reminded of Islam while reading Lauren's comments about Judaism.It was pretty neat!

Lat, I enjoyed what you shared especially about how a plant would describe God and all that. Good stuff!

Thank you for your feedback!