Can you hear me now?

I’m going to visit the ConductMom and my old Kansas City gang this week and next, so posting may be slow. Which reminds me of the last blog break I took, over Passover. I wrote,

Anyway, I’m going to take a few days off to get my head straightened out. I am not connecting a whole lot with my religion these days. Like any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you go through the motions and wait for grace.

It turned out to be more the “going through the motions” kind of holiday:

The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses ? the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if there is anything to hope for, really — them, I get.

In response, commenter Molly wrote:

I’m wondering at the moment if those of us who are Jewish-by-choice* feel more of an obligation to feel connected with our faith than born Jews. It’s sort of like “Well, since I chose this, I SHOULD feel that it’s Deeply Meaningful ALL THE TIME, and if I don’t feel that way, did I make a mistake in the first place?”

*Or any other religion-by-choice, I suppose, but I don’t have experience with those.

This is a good point. We do feel a stronger sense of obligation when we’re engaging in something chosen, for at least two reasons. One is ethical — if I’m engaging in a task or relationship of my own free will, then I feel more strongly obligated to tend that task or relationship. The Jewish people didn’t have to accept me. They did, and because of that I believe that I have a particular responsibility to do right by God, Torah, and Israel. Being a Chosen Person is a certain level of responsibility — being a Choosing Person feels like even more!

The other reason for this sense of obligation is more internal, more about how we reason things out. Experiments have shown that if you make people do something really boring and pay them good money for it, they will tell you that they are doing something really boring for cash. Make them do something boring and pay them nothing or very little … and people will come to believe that they enjoyed the task, because there is no good external reason for them to have done it. So converts have to be really religious, because there’s no real external reason for us to be where we are.

These are two reasons why the circumstance of being a convert might lead to a feeling that every damn holiday has to be a big deal — the social psychology perspective. Going from a personality psychology POV, I wonder also if people who convert aren’t by nature the kind of folk who want every damn holiday to be a big deal. Who want religion to feel meaningful all the time. Maybe that’s why we’re converts. Changing religions isn’t a small thing, after all. Maybe if we were the kind of people who were better at taking things as they are, at going through the motions and waiting for grace, we’d have stayed in the worship communities we were born into.

Kestrel and I once did an interesting project that, while inconclusive, was intriguing. Much of her research is about how people react emotionally to words. Show people words in their native language, and they have an emotional response (to swear words, sexual words, emotional words). They don’t have a similar response to words in a second language, even if they are fluent. Hit your thumb with a hammer and “merde!” won’t relieve you as much as “shit!”

Kestrel has done this research mostly with immigrants and ESL speakers, but we once tried an experiment with religious converts, too. The idea was to see if learning a new religion was like learning a new language — do you have a greater response to the words and images associated with the religion of your upbringing, or of the religion you chose?

It turned out that people who had not changed religion had a galvanic skin response to words associated with their religion, but not to words from another religion, or to neutral words (ball, sky, orange). Converts, on the other hand, had an emotional response to words from their original religion, and the religion they converted to, and to neutral words. To put it another way, show us any stimulus at all and we flip out all over creation like we’d seen the world in grain of sand and eternity in an hour. It’s all wildly significant to us.

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