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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bringing myself to the Torah

I started reading Judaism as a Civilization today, and in my usual fashion, I did not start at the beginning. I skipped to the chapter on the Torah as a way of life. Something about the title of that chapter spoke to me, and though I wanted to start at the beginning of the book, I just had to read this chapter first.

Although I'm not done reading the chapter yet, I felt the need to stop and blog about a realization I just had. I remember when I first began to formally practice Nichiren Buddhism in 2007, I was having a hard time with the concept of the Gohonzon, which is the scroll that Nichiren Buddhists enshrine, and chant in front of.

Through years of independent Buddhist practice, I learned the value of meditation and chanting. I didn't even have a problem with a Buddha figure, but when people at SGI were talking me into getting a Gonhonzon, I really didn't see the point, and for some reason, I even felt uncomfortable about it.

This discomfort went away when I read an analogy between the Gohonzon and other pieces of paper that we assign meaning to such as money. A scroll with Chinese script hanging in a wooden cabinet does not have inherent meaning or power, just as a piece of paper with Benjamin Franklin's picture and the number 100 has no meaning to someone who has no frame of reference for it. We are taught these things, buy into these things, and then use them move through the world.

I've realized that some of my issues and stumbling blocks in beginning my conversion relate to a similar hesitation to give the Torah meaning and power in my life. Though I was able to make a mental and spiritual leap in Nichiren Buddhism, coming back around to familiar names like Leviticus and Deuteronomy put me back into an old frame of reference. In some ways I've felt that accepting liberal interpretations of scripture was lower on a spiritual hierarchy, despite the fact that I vehemently do not believe in taking things literally.

But as a friend commented, you bring your whole self to the Torah. I think that is definitely what makes it a living and relevant force and symbol in a person's life. If I as a trans person can only experience its power by conforming to something that is against my nature, then it serves no purpose and has no symbolism in my life. I think the Torah becomes more beautiful and powerful when it becomes the source of "trans" liberation, queer liberation, heroic inspiration, or maybe just a way to make it through ordinary life in any era.

When I was 20 years old and feared I was backsliding into Satan's world of things, I left a desperate message at a Kingdom Hall in the middle of the night. I told them that I felt like Satan was tempting me. I did not share with them that I had been exploring some of my issues with gender and my attraction to men. On some level, I really think at the time my subconscious mind was responding to the level of risk of meeting people online and basically being naive. This was in 1999 when meeting online was sort of a new thing, as was the internet in general.

They came a couple of days later, with their Bibles and Watchtowers in tow. They told me that we as humans were not wise enough to discern right from wrong, and that the Bible provided explicit instructions for how we were supposed to live. They also said that the presence of my guilty conscience over my actions was some kind of evidence that Satan had led me astray.

I still remember standing there and literally having two currents going through my mind and body. One current told me that these people were right, that Satan had lured me away from the flock, and that the outside world (especially college, they mentioned) was a dangerous place. The other, and thankfully more powerful current, said that even though I had no other worldview at the moment and couldn't argue with them, there had to be a better answer out there.

Writing this post is like creating a empty space in my consciousness for a new understanding of and relationship with the Torah and with sacred writings in general. However, I must always remember the danger of the old ways of framing and seeing those same words.

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