We met at a university speed-dating fundraiser during my first year of graduate school. We weren't matched up, but he got a friend to sneak up to me before one of the rounds to tell me that a special person would be waiting for me when it was over. There was.
I remember two things about the evening after that: one of my favorite songs was playing when he first walked up to me, and as everyone got ready to leave and I asked him where he was going next he said, "I don't care as long as it's with you."
We didn't date very long, a few short months. Just long enough for me to know how much he cared for me, and I for him. Amidst the bleakness of the Chicago polar vortex winter and the pressures of my Master of Divinity program, I knew one thing: my life was better because he was in it.
I still recall with the same intensity the moment he informed me that we were a ticking time bomb. Between bites of sushi, the words came tumbling from his mouth, "We can obviously never be together -- of course I will never marry you or have children with you. How could I? You're not... Jewish!"
I stared at him dubiously for a few long moments because I was sure that someone had come into the restaurant while I was in the restroom, overtaken his body and, hence, I was dining with the wrong person. When reality set in that this was not the case, I was shocked. And offended. And suspicious. Religion as a barrier to love was alien to, well, everything that I stood for.
I probed him, trying desperately to understand. How could I have been so wrong about someone -- who, though I certainly had no immediate intention of marrying or having children with, I would have never discounted based solely on his religious label either? A grown man, he cited the disapproval of his family. He also spoke feebly of a far-off, hopeful future in which he could share his Jewish cultural and religious customs with his children. By default, his wife would have to share these same traditions.
This from a man who, since I'd known him, had never gone to synagogue. He didn't observe Shabbat. I'd never seen his Hebrew Bible. (Did he even own one?) The only time he did something overtly Jewish was to attend a Passover Seder dinner at the Jewish student center. I happily accompanied him, even standing up in front of the room to announce that it was my first Seder and that I was excited to try the matzo. Everyone else seemed cool with Sarah the Gentile.
As "Not Jewish" rambled on in the restaurant, my mind wandered back to our conversations about morality and philosophy, complex subjects to which we found common ground. I remembered us laughing at the same things and delighting in foods we both loved. We shared an outlook on life and values such as the similar way in which we interacted with our friends and families. I thought of my own outward commitment to respect and learn from the beliefs and traditions of all and my willingness to walk with others on their journeys of faith, different as they may be from my own. Didn't he know all of this? I didn't get it.
Though this experience was exceptionally difficult, it was also immensely enlightening. I slowly began to understand -- through weeks of drawn out conversations with him -- that he, like so many of us, was raised in a way that shut him off to love. With familial and community pressure to find the right woman, the right Jewish woman, instilled in him since his birth, what tools was he given to open himself up to truly love and be loved?
I have had the privilege to watch as adults teach children what it means to be spiritual, and in some cases, what it means to be religious. Parents, teachers and spiritual leaders impart in the next generation various doctrines and rituals and dogmas throughout religious and spiritual modalities. Some are arguably better than others. Yet, it seems that one question -- given the bigotry, racism, intolerance and hatred in countless forms perpetuated today -- trumps all. Are we teaching our children to be open to love, or are we closing them off?
As I come into the final months of my divinity school education, I am giving increasingly weighted thought to the purpose and place of religion in the modern world. I strongly believe that when being "faithful" teaches children to build walls instead of to break them down; to turn away instead of to embrace; to create an "other" instead of widening their circles, religion -- in all of its forms -- fails us.