By Dikkon Eberhart
“Hi, you two little munchkins, Shabbat shalom.”
“Hi, Grandpa! Hi, Gramma! Mommy made challah.”
“It smells so good in here. And what a lovely table.”
Our youngest daughter beamed to see us. This was our first visit to her home to enjoy one of her frequent Shabbat dinners. Pregnant, and with an almost four-year-old and an almost three-year old, she moved slowly, while her husband managed the quick stuff.
On Fridays, when the sun sets, the Jewish Sabbath begins. The next twenty-four hours comprise the day sacred to the Lord because that is the day when He rested.
I myself had “rested” about thirty years before. I had rested from the stringency of my agnosticism. The exactitude of my agnosticism had been fueled by self-regard and by academic doubt. My agnosticism was a burden for me to bear, but I soldiered on. At the same time, I sensed that my agnosticism had clay feet. I wanted to kick its feet into smithereens, but I didn’t know how.
The Lord helped me to find the way. Thirty years before, our other daughter—our older daughter, then five—had questioned my wife and me about our family’s religious identity. What she observed was this: Mommy was sort of Jewish; Daddy was sort of Christian.
What was she?
We did not know how, honestly, to answer her question, which was dispiriting for her father who had a PhD in religion and art. Thank goodness that our daughter’s question was pointed enough that it forced a decision upon my wife and me, and that the force of our decision precipitated action.
My wife was Jewish. Therefore, formally, our children were already Jewish, too. I loved the Hebrew Scriptures (otherwise, the Old Testament), though I thought that story about Jesus, in the New Testament, was just too, too odd.
We made our decision and could then answer our older daughter’s question.
All four of our children—two boys and two girls—received their Hebrew names. For a while, we attended a small havarah—a gathering of Jews for prayer and learning, generally not led by a rabbi—and then later we attended our city’s largest Reform synagogue. My wife was energetic to find social and educational groups within the synagogue with which we could align. I—no Jew—was a stander apart although I was a helpful husband and an informative father when questioned about their Judaism by our children.
Despite my distance, as a family we commenced what was to be our two-and-a-half decades of Shabbat dinners. We dressed the table, we lit the candles, we blessed the wine, we tore the challah and ate it, and we performed these ceremonies while we chanted their accompanying Hebrew prayers. We were grateful, even fervent, to praise the Lord.
Our Judaism was of the Reform tradition. Reform Judaism arose in the 1860s in Germany as a way for Jews to honor their biblical heritage but, at the same time, to fit more neatly and less threateningly into European, Christian society.
Then something happened to me.
The Lord has a curious way about Him, does He not? First, He had our five-year-old daughter ask us a question we could not answer. Then, several years after we began practicing Shabbat, He whispered another invitation to me.
During a High Holy Day service, while we sat in synagogue and delighted to hear Kol Nidre on Erev Yom Kippur (the exquisite chant on the evening which commences Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), I heard His quiet voice. He stated that His doorway was open to me, should I desire to step through.
Of course, He knew that by then I was fervent to be with Him, and that I hated my position as a stander off, while my wife and our children stood in.
The Lord offered me a doorway. I assumed I knew which doorway he meant. After all, my Jewish wife and my Jewish children were beside me that evening, and I was lonely for complete companionship with them. So I converted—to Judaism. The process occupied several intense years—Judaism does not proselytize—and thus I became the Jewish father of my Jewish household, and, satisfyingly, the Master of our Seder, too.
But that is not the end of our story. The Lord knew there was to be more to come.
Here’s a puzzle. At the moment of my conversion, the Lord may have experienced one of two things. He may have known that, me being me, it was not yet time for Him to introduce me to His Son. Or else He may have shaken His head in sorrow that I had not understood which doorway He had meant for me to choose to step through.
So our family continued to rest from doubt in the comfortable ease of Reform Judaism, positioned theologically—as I interpreted it for a while—at the very beginning of monotheism, not a bad place to be. Like our distant monotheistic ancestors, our family’s minds, hearts, and souls were informed and were shaped by theophany within Torah.
And twenty-five years passed away. The children grew and went out on their own into the world, to strive along their own pathways.
My wife and I became disenchanted by what we perceived as the wearisome cherry-picking of Torah by our Reform mentors and friends. Some formal statements by the four rabbis whom we followed through our three successive synagogues did not seem true. When we studied Torah closely in regard to those statements, our study often left the rabbis’ statements as untrue and unsupported by Scripture. Over time, my wife and I even questioned whether some of our rabbis and Jewish friends, in their hearts, truly believed the worldview which is implicit in the five Books of Moses.
Once again, our spirits wandered in a desert, parched by doubt. Our doubt was not about the puissance of the Lord, nor was it about the righteousness of the Bible’s witness concerning the Lord and His intentionality. Our doubt was whether the religious community within which we had devoted twenty-five years of child rearing was committed to the truth.
The Lord knew that, for us, there was to be more.