If you have ever been in a “complicated” relationship with your religion you understand my frustration when I receive the dreaded request to identify my faith. For better or worse, I come across this question often.
I am confronted with this question in many different ways. The two most prevalent ways are checking off the appropriate box on a survey and during the normal discourse of small talk (since I study religion). In both of these instances, the question is not meant to invoke profound thought or discussion. The one asking the question wants a simple, and in most cases one word, answer. I used to be able to give a one word answer, and I took that for granted.
A year ago, despite already knowing I would one day convert to Judaism, when I was asked what religion I was I would quickly and clearly answer Catholic. I already knew I wanted to be Jewish, but I understood the facts- I was not Jewish, and I was baptized Catholic. Therefore, with little to no hesitation, I understood myself as Catholic, albeit no longer theologically in agreement with my Catholic identity.
This past summer, while taking religious studies classes in Israel, students in my program began to bring up the question of what religion we each were as part of the small talk. By this point, I no longer felt comfortable responding Catholic, but knew I could not rightfully say I was Jewish. For the first time, I stepped outside my one word identity that I had clung to for the past 21 years and answered, “It is complicated.” While most people shrugged off my answer and continued on with their conversations, I had one friend who would not let me off the hook so easily. I stepped outside my comfort zone, after much probing, and began to explain my situation of being in-between religious identities.
At that time, the explanation of being in-between religious identities was sufficent for me, but in the past few months I have realized I am not really in-between religious identities either. I mean, technically yes, I am moving from identifying myself as Catholic to identifying myself as Jewish, but theologically, I am not between identities. I have clear beliefs and practices that I ascribe to despite the fact that I do not Jewish. For some people, it is enough to be spiritually secure in your beliefs, but I do not feel comforted by this alone. It is wonderful to have faith and beliefs in certain things, but I need the construction of a community and a formal religion that reflect my beliefs and practices. It frustrates me that I have been lacking a clear religious classification that reflects my lived theology for years now.
The most frustrating part of the conversion process has been this feeling of not belonging anywhere. Religion has always been an important, if not the most important, way for me to identify myself, so it really upsets me that I don’t have a clear, defined religious identity at the moment. There is a division between what I believe and practice and what I am. Right now, I am outside of organized religion altogether. I go to shul and believe in the Jewish ideas of G-d, but Judaism involves more than ascribing to certain precepts. To be Jewish, I need to join the people of Israel. I hate the question right now, because I don’t have an easy answer. I am doomed to the one word answer of “other.” “Other” becomes a very lonely identity, especially when all of your family is “Catholic” and all of your religious community is “Jewish.” It feels as if you do not belong anywhere. I am trying my best to realize that the ambiguity does not have to be only frustrating and lonely, but can also be empowering and beautiful. Recognizing myself as “other,” while I do not like it, allows me to look closer about what makes my identity unique.
While I still hate the complicated story that accompanies someone asking me what religion I am, I want to challenge the form of one word answers to that question. Everyone has a complex understanding of where they stand in the world and their religious identity. Even people who are secure in their one word answer, like I will be when I am able to answer “Jewish,” have a complicated understanding of what it means to be that religious identity. The security in knowing your place among a larger community and the ability to answer the question with one word is amazing, and I cannot wait to get there again, but we need to be challenged to go deeper than that one word identity. Our relationships with G-d, others, and the world deserves more reflection than one word allows. I am in the process of exploring my honest answer to the question, “which religion are you?” The ability to think deeper about what is valuable to me in my relationships to the world, others and Holy Other is a very positive experience in getting to know myself better, beyond a label .
I look forward to the day I can answer “Jewish,” but I recognize that no matter where I am in my life, the honest answer will remain more complex and dynamic.