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My Spiritual Journey: Remarks by Anne Irwin, Kallat B’reishit, Congregation Darchei Noam, 5783/2022

20/10/2022 12:30:47 PM




I feel incredibly honoured, and thankful, to stand before you as one of this year’s Kallot B’reishit.

What I’m about to talk about feels private, but I know that I’m supported in sharing my personal journey with all of you.

It wasn’t until the age of 33 that I became Jewish, but my journey towards Judaism began in my childhood. So I’m going to begin by telling you a bit about my family, and I’ll then briefly recount two childhood experiences, before moving on to my adult years.

I grew up in a completely secular household, here in Toronto. My family, on both sides, is ethnic Protestant, going back 100s of years, but my parents rejected organized religion. We did celebrate Christmas and Easter, but they had no significance beyond family time, fun and chocolate.

My Dad is an agnostic. My mom was not – she was a spiritual person who identified as Christian, but with a twist. She believed in God the creator, but she also believed in reincarnation. Her father had been a professor of comparative religion at Vassar College, and her approach to belief was personal and open minded.

I noticed at quite a young age that some friends of mine went to church with their families, and I was curious. I asked my mother, are we Christian? And, why don’t we go to church? In reply she said that she and my Dad had decided to raise us with no religion, so that we’d be free to decide for ourselves.

I took this to heart and immediately began to try to figure out what I thought. I was about 8 years old.

I started by reading a children’s book of bible stories that we had, with Jesus on the cover, arms out-stretched. Also, when I was home sick from school, no TV allowed, I’d sit in our living room with our massive old family bible, pouring over the dramatic renaissance paintings. I was moved by the story of Jesus, who was my first hero.

One day in grade 4, I was talking with my friend Amy about my hero Jesus, and how great he was, and she said to me, “Annie, he only did those things because he’s the son of God.” I had no idea what she was talking about – I had never heard that before, and in my mind, Jesus had nothing to do with whatever God was.

So Amy tried to explain to me about Jesus being the son of God. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I do clearly remember my reaction, which was anger. I was very offended on behalf of Jesus, because in my mind, she was saying that he wasn’t such a great person. This powerful God, who was somehow his father, had pulled all the strings and he hadn’t done anything wonderful on his own.

When I got home, I immediately told my mother, and she said, “Annie, Amy is right. One of the basic beliefs of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the son of God, not just a person.” I stood there feeling deflated, but then I rallied, thinking to myself – “Well, I guess I’m not a Christian.” And I never considered Christianity again.

There’s another formative experience that I had as a child that had a profound effect on me.  I need to tell you about it because it forms the basis of my spiritual understanding. I’m hesitant, because it doesn’t translate well into words. Most people whom I’ve tried to explain it to say, “So what?”, so if that’s your reaction, you’re in good company. But it’s central to my journey so I’m going to try.

I was lying in bed one night, when I was 9 or 10 years old, thinking that I didn’t want to go to school the next day. This prompted me to ask myself, what if there was no school? And with my eyes closed, I imagined the school yard with no building. And then I thought, what if there was no school yard, and then, no neighborhood, no trees, no planet, no universe. Well, I thought, there would be nothing, which I imagined as a light grey emptiness. I remember wondering if grey was the right colour. Black seemed wrong because I’d imaged the universe as being black, so nothingness was probably grey. But then it dawned on me that the grey space I was imagining was a thing, and therefore not nothing. And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t think of nothingness. There was always something in my mind.

At that point, I opened my eyes. And when I looked around my bedroom, my sense of everything was different. My perception had changed. I remember laughing because I felt like I was watching a movie where things seemed real but you knew that they weren’t, which I thought was hilarious. It felt like I’d been let in on a big joke – there’s no such thing as nothing, and things are not as they seem.

If you think about it, there’s never absolutely nothing, because the concept of nothing is relative. There’s always a context for nothing, like a space that is empty, a room with no furniture. The space is there, even if there’s nothing in it.

And if you try to imagine nothingness, I’m sure that you’ll struggle the way that I did, because an awake, aware mind is always thinking something. And defining that thing as nothing doesn’t change that fact. It’s a reality that can’t be defined away.

But I suggest that our everyday experience of the world is underpinned by a deep sense of nothing as a thing in its own right. We assume it unconsciously as it’s entwined with our intuitive sense of existence.

What happened to me that night, is that, as a result of contemplating nothingness, my intuition shifted, pulling the rug out from under my sense of things existing. So when I opened my eyes, everything seemed unreal.

Fairly quickly, things went back to normal. But I could think my way to the experience. And I still can, although it’s more difficult, as my aging brain is more set in its ways.  It’s not easy to mentally dislodge a fundamental assumption.

After that night, I didn’t tell anyone about my weird experience because I had no idea how to articulate it. I did try to tell a cousin but she got scared and asked me to stop, and I didn’t try again until many years later, when I was an undergraduate at an American liberal arts college that had an outstanding religion department. In my first year, I took an interdisciplinary seminar called Time and Space that was taught by two professors, one a physicist and the other a Buddhist scholar named Robert Thurman. When Professor Thurman explained the Buddhist understanding of what’s called “absolute nothingness”, I felt like he was talking to me. “The absolute is that everything is relative, including the absolute”, he said, and I nodded my head. So, I ended up majoring in religion with a focus on Buddhist philosophy. I wanted to figure out my thoughts about reality and God, and that’s what I did.

How I got to Judaism from Buddhism was by falling in love with Jonathan, my husband. Once we got serious, I became very interested in him being Jewish and wanted to know all about it. I had prior knowledge from having read Jewish literature, which I love, and from courses I’d taken as an undergrad, but I wanted to know more. So together we took the Jewish Information Course run by the Reform Movement in Toronto.  Jonathan grew up in Montreal attending Temple Emanu-El, so it made sense that we’d study a Reform perspective.

When the course came to an end, I decided to become Jewish, something that Jonathan was clear I didn’t need to do. But I wanted it for myself, as well as for our family.

Our kids would be encouraged to do their own thinking, but they’d be able to do so from within a rich, beautiful tradition that they could claim if they wanted to. I would have liked to have had that, and I wished it for them. I thought of Judaism as a gift that I wanted to give to our children.

And I wanted the gift too.

For me, becoming Jewish was not a tough decision because I didn’t view myself as converting from A to B, but rather as becoming a more complex person, like an onion taking on a new layer of skin. I became what I am now: an ethnic Protestant, philosophically both Buddhist and Jewish, Jew.

I’ve put a lot of thought, at various times, into figuring out what I think about God. To some extent, I view God as simply a word that can either facilitate communication or get in the way. It always needs to be clarified.  But as a word, it’s essential to the Jewish vocabulary of faith, so I grapple with it.

What I think is that there’s a profound mystery at the heart of all things. When my perception changes and things seem unreal, that’s what I sense: a strange but wondrous and unknowable mystery.

Is that God? Maybe, but for me God is more about living with this mystery than it is about the mystery itself.  It’s about living a meaningful life despite the strangeness of being alive.

In preparing to speak today, I went back to the take-home-exam that I wrote 26 years ago, when I was becoming Jewish, to see what I’d written about God back then.  I wrote the exam for Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, who guided me through the process. Here’s what I wrote:

“What, or who, is God? Judaism provides a great deal of scope for personal understandings.

“During one of our Jewish Information Class lectures, a rabbi told us that Judaism does not ask its people to believe in God, but rather to love God. God, he explained, is the reality that we love more than we love ourselves.

“This understanding of God appeals to me greatly. I’ve struggled with the idea of God because many years ago I rejected the whole question of whether God exists. I concluded that I was neither a theist nor an atheist but rather a non-theist who considers the very question to be unhelpful. (I’ve been very influenced by Buddhist philosophy) Over the past six months, however, I have come to an understanding of God that is meaningful to me.

“I feel that God is bound up in the experience of being alive among others, not in the fact of existence, but in the process of living and dying as one of many. I’m not interested in pondering whether God has a metaphysical reality, because God speaks to me of the spiritual world of what is meaningful and what is good, rather than of the physical world of what is material or what exists in time and space. To me, God is manifested in love, joy, beauty and goodness. I don’t think of God as an entity or being, but rather as a reality: limited in that it doesn’t encompass everything, but infinite in that it isn’t bounded by time and space.

“Judaism teaches that God created all things. I see God as a creative force, but in the spiritual realm of meaning, rather than in the physical realm of material birth. Genesis, to me, reveals how meaning is created through words, names and symbols. God speaks, and order is created out of chaos.

“The world of meaning, however, is not completely separate from the world of matter: the two are inter-related through thought, emotion and action. To the extent that God influences the physical world, I think it is through the actions of sentient beings (which might explain why action is more important than belief.)”

I wrote that back in 1996, but it still resonates with me today.

Given who we are, it’s probably not surprising that Jonathan and I ended up here at Darchei Noam. When our kids were still young, we chose DN because we really liked the friendly, engaged feel of the community, with its progressive thinking and focus on social activism; we loved its warm and inspiring Rabbi Grimberg; and we have cousins here.

Also, by then I had read about Reconstructionism, and when it came to looking into shuls, I was fairly certain that a Reconstructionist community is where I would belong.

We joined in 2006, and I’ve been actively involved almost ever since.

I’ve learned so much from you, Rabbi Tina, and from this remarkable community of people.

I’ve found my spiritual and religious home here with all of you. And I can’t tell you how blessed I feel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Anne Irwin

Sun, 29 January 2023 7 Sh'vat 5783