Conversion in the Corona Age
At the time I start writing this, our parsha is Chukat. This parsha tells a particularly dramatic story where G-d asks Moses to speak to a rock and command it to produce water in front of the thirsty. Moses in fact hits the rock and, subsequently, is denied access to the Promised Land by G-d. Plenty to dive into there, but this week it is the first chapter that really resonates with me.
Numbers chapter 19 describes how Moses was taught the law of the red heifer. In a nutshell, a heifer (or cow) without blemish shall be burned, its ashes collected and used as a means of purification for those who come into contact with death. Each person involved in this process (by my count it is three: one to bring it to Eleazer the priest, Eleazer himself, and then a ‘man who is clean’) must remove his clothes and isolate in his state of uncleanliness until evening. Does this ring any bells? The similarities to our current world are clear. Sadly, we have all come into contact with death in a way we never have before.
It is a very minor effect of the pandemic, I am aware, but, at least in England, all places of worship were closed down. With unbelievably poor timing for my Jewish journey, the Covid-19 pandemic had more or less taken the legs out from underneath my steps into the Jewish community here in Gloucestershire. Suddenly I found myself all on my own with, frankly, an overwhelming amount of scripture, debates, literature, and analysis to parse. It is not for nothing we are called the People of the Book!
Being the studious person that I am, I did something that in hindsight seems pretty naïve, but I think I’ll put it down to an abundance of enthusiasm. I jumped in and bought the first couple of volumes of the Talmud, thinking I could read along with Daf Yomi audio companions. A new 7 and a half year project? Sure why not! To put a long project very shortly, Daf Yomi is the practice of reading the entire Babylonian Talmud one page a day. Respect for those who complete it is, thus, rightly earned.
If some of you are laughing right now, all I can say is that I get it! However, if you have never delved into the Talmud, what you need to know is that it is a Jewish text made up of 38 volumes, in which generations of rabbis debate and dissect Jewish law in a non-linear, dense set of writings. Looking at the first volume in my bookshelf here, there are upwards of 400 pages in that alone, and the volumes don’t really get any thinner as they go along. It’s like learning Judaism with the settings on ‘hard’.
Ultimately, my first instincts proved to be ambitious, but misguided. So what did I do? After an ‘I’m sure this will blow over phase’ waiting for everything to go back to normal, I did a couple of things. Firstly, I decided to do what I would anyway -- I carried on reading the Torah…and then I read it again…and again. It has been a great blessing that we live in the modern age as technology has been a terrific lifeline over the last 16 months or so.
My trusty copy of the Torah became accompanied by an audiobook version, and then by podcast companions to the Torah, where I was able to get everything ranging from rabbinical insight to modern, informal discussions where the topic is set in the context of today’s society. If there exists a better and more inspirational discussion of the creation stories than that with The Big Bang Theory’s Amy Farrah-Fowler in the podcast ‘The Study’, then I am yet to find it. Gradually, I built up my own constellation of these assistants to help me get my head around all this learning!
If I’m honest, the whole thing was a bit much. There is a reason that we don’t traditionally learn this on our own, but find, or are assigned a partner. The Torah really does come alive in discussion. I can’t count how many times I have heard this over the last year or so and now I know that teachers, commentators and rabbis repeat this for a very good reason.
Making my own way through this was bewildering, frustrating, and full of potential pitfalls. Who was going to tell me I was doing the right thing? I can hardly wait for our return to normality, so I can experience the warmth and community in the synagogue, but another little part of me will simply be glad to have the guidance of the rabbi, so that someone isn’t going to catch me out, tell me I’m going about this all wrong.
This brings me to the second thing that I did to get through this. I tuned in to a live stream from a synagogue in the London area. I listened to the prayers and songs. I even dusted off my very rusty Hebrew and tried singing along in parts…but not too much. I didn’t want to make myself feel even worse by adding guilt about my abysmal reading of Hebrew. A wonderful half hour or so of celebration and singing brought us then to Parshat Chukat. It was the visiting Rabbi, Mark Solomon, who highlighted for me how the very beginning of the parsha can speak to us today across countries and cultures, even.
Instantly I knew that this was what I had been missing when he said that, although he was alone, he could feel all the souls, the neshamot, with him filling the synagogue. Why had I left it so long to tune in? For someone who likes to study so much, I certainly felt pretty stupid. Definitely a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. I had been trying to learn everything about Judaism like I was in a race. However, if the uncertainty, the maybes, the changing of minds and missed deadlines in England have taught me anything over the last 16 months, it is to just let go and enjoy what I have as it is.
I have a Jewish community that welcomes me right now. There will be many lessons and things to learn in the coming months and years, but I didn’t start this journey because I want to learn about being Jewish. I want to be Jewish. The more I think about it, and the longer I’ve been writing this, I suppose however I do it can’t be wrong. So I’m just going to get started how I can for now.
Enjoyed reading this blog post? Stay tuned for future blog posts from David, on the last Thursday of each month, about his conversion journey.
Author Bio: David Evans lives in Gloucestershire, England, where he studies therapeutic counselling. Having spent years engaging with Jewish life and culture as a ‘non-Jew,’ he is now making his way into Judaism, every day discovering new things about what ‘Jewish’ means for himself and others.