Can you hear me now?

June 1st, 2011

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.


4 Responses to “Can you hear me now?”

  1. Rachel on June 1, 2011 11:57 am

    I think similar things are true for me as an adoptive parent. As part of our adoptive parent “education” we were told that just because we went through so much to become parents that we don’t have to be “super parents” and that it’s okay to feel exhausted and frustrated and overwhelmed. But it can be difficult to feel those feelings because we made such a conscious choice about becoming parents and that someone else made such a sacrifice to allow us to do so.

  2. Geri Sullivan on June 1, 2011 12:27 pm

    What a chewy, interesting post, through and through.

    Here’s to a grand visit with ConductMom and your KC gang. Have a splendid, tornado-free time in the midwest.

  3. Julian Lander on June 8, 2011 9:25 pm

    I’m vaguely uncomfortable responding to this because it was drilled into me not to make a distinction between converts and Jews from birth (I’m one of the latter). I’m thinking about Molly’s question about whether Jews by choice feel more of a need to be connected to the religion that Jews by birth.

    My own take is that I’m connected to Judaism and the Jewish people in so many ways, many of them not of my choosing, that I couldn’t disconnect myself without enormous effort. I certainly have felt disconnected from various aspects of religious practice at different times (and my level of observance has varied widely over time). But my brain functions in ways that I consider to be identifiably Jewish; my family relationships are in many ways stereotypically Jewish (among other things, any problems we have are not the result of failing to communicate, but rather of communicating too much); my tastes in food are Jewish, even though I don’t keep kosher (but I can’t drink milk when I eat meat); even though I’m not Sabbath-observant, I’m aware that I’m not observing the Sabbath rather than not even noticing. In that sense, I’m a hard-wired Jew and I suspect that even if I joined another religion, I would still be Jewish in significant ways.

  4. bluemoose on June 9, 2011 9:48 am

    Okay, interesting. I didn’t relate much to the original post — I was raised Catholic and am a natural atheist now (I don’t believe in a Power, I do find solace in the world as it exists, especially the parts I do not understand). But I do very much relate to some of the comments.

    First, to Julian Lander — I am still Catholic in so many hard-wired ways that despite not believing or having faith, I am still Catholic. I think it’s why so many of us non-believers relate to the term “recovering Catholic,” jokingly and yet so seriously. I’ve found that as much as part of me would love to be someone for whom every holiday was a big deal, I just am not.

    Second, to Rachel — thank you for that comment. I love it. I am an adoptee, and to be honest, I find it hard sometimes to relate to what adoptive parents think/feel/experience, even though I still have one to ask. While there is a heavy element of choice in becoming an adoptive parent, there is a complete lack of choice or autonomy to being an adoptee that I know my mother has had a hard time understanding. I love my parents. I am not at all unhappy with the way my life has turned out, I do not feel abandoned or unloved or anything. But I am realizing as an adult that there is a part of me that reacts to the fact that so many choices were made for and about me before I was able to have an opinion, and to the fact that I am still not treated the same by my own government (denied access to government-held information about me). It’s an odd struggle, I admit, and hard to put into words. But I deeply appreciate your glimpse into the other side of things.

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