Like many Jewish people, I was raised in a home where Jewishness was more cultural than religious. Our family celebrated Passover and Hanukkah at our home in Brooklyn, we went to the Temple on the High Holy Days, and several afternoons each week I would attend Hebrew school. This upbringing ensured that I would always know something about what it meant to be Jewish. But cultural awareness and religious faith are two different things, and God was basically peripheral to my life.
Jewish identity and culture also played a part at the Zionist youth camp which I attended for two summers in upstate New York, sponsored by Hashomer Hatzair. At camp I participated in kibbutz-style work projects and intensive morning study sessions of Israeli Hebrew. Somewhat ironically, my appreciation of what Jewishness meant was broadened when I saw a camp production of the avant-garde play, The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Obviously being Jewish could mean going beyond the bounds of what was considered traditional! In this way I discovered new facets to my Jewish identity.
Around that same time, I entered Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, one of the better-known "radical" high schools, which for a lot of us meant staging student moratoriums and going on peace marches. (Since then, Stuyvesant has relocated to lower Manhattan, where it served as a triage area following the September 11 attacks.) We were idealists, and we saw Earth Day rallies and anti-Vietnam-war marches as a way to fulfil our idealism. Probably like a lot of others, I was tagging along not so much as a person of deeply held convictions as much as I was along for the ride, enjoying the electricity and the energy of the times. I wasn't really connected to the causes, though at a more or less unconscious level I felt that I needed to make some kind of connection.
Beginning college, the sense of being unconnected continued. Some of it was simply a case of freshman-year blues. But it was more than that. I listened to music by popular mystics and advocates of eastern religions, and for maybe the first time in my life I found myself thinking about spiritual things. Some college students lose their innocence; I lost my agnosticism. In the campus chapel, I would take time out to think about religion and God.
Then summer came, and I became a student of Edgar Cayce. By now he's a largely forgotten clairvoyant, but in his heyday several decades ago he was well-known and there's still an organization that promotes his ideas. I had discovered a book which explained that ill people, unable to be helped by their own doctors, came to see Cayce. In a trance-like state he gave the diagnosis and prescribed the cure, which was sometimes quite strange but which worked. Not unreasonably, I concluded that if Cayce was right about the physical, he must also be right about the spiritual. His "readings" about reincarnation, health foods and Atlantis fascinated me. As it turned out, I found myself listening to what Cayce said about Jesus, which was actually quite a bit.
Sometimes I am asked what Jewish people think about Jesus, and one answer is that Jews don't generally spend much time thinking about him at all beyond learning (usually when we're still children) that Jesus is not for us. Now, however, I was doing a lot of thinking about him. Edgar Cayce's depiction of Jesus was as different from the pictures seen on the walls of many Sunday School classrooms as Brooklyn is from the Bahamas. Cayce's Jesus was a cosmic Christ, a reincarnated person, mystical and Eastern. Ironically, this kind of Jesus was one that was acceptable to me within the parameters of my secular Jewish upbringing. (In today's Jewish community, almost anything goes except for Jesus, including Buddhism and New Age philosophies.) I took in all that Cayce had to say about Jesus, convinced that somehow, this cosmic Christ was the way to knowing God. But I didn't know where to go from there.
That fall, I began life as a transfer student, on a new campus with a new major. I was spiritually restless, and in a bookstore one day I came upon a paperback called A Catalog of Five Hundred Ways People Can Grow. Sitting on the grass, I began to systematically peruse the five hundred ways, starting with Aikido and ending in Zoroastrianism. By the time I reached the letter "Y," I was thinking of paying a visit to a Yoga ashram when somebody walked up to me. I found myself meeting a young man who introduced himself and asked if I'd be interested in taking a religious survey. It turned out that Dan worked with one of the campus Christian organizations. Since by this time I was open to talking about anything religious, I took his survey and then we spoke for some time about the gospel. I already more or less "believed" in a Hindu Christ, which for me meant believing and accepting a non-biblical Jesus without a sense of sin and without an understanding of who Jesus really was. In our conversation, I came to understand the centrality to the gospel of sin and forgiveness.
Though I remember praying to receive Jesus at that time, it was still without much understanding. I was still involved with Edgar Cayce, and spent many hours with Dan, the guy who had approached me, in arguing over whether Cayce was more of an authority than the Bible. Though Cayce's batting record left something to be desired, that didn't faze me. He had predicted that Atlantis would rise in a certain year, and though the newspapers hadn't yet reported this remarkable occurrence, I decided that Atlantis really had risen, only no one had noticed it yet. But neither Cayce nor his reincarnated Christ were bringing me the connectedness that I was seeking. Cayce's best advice seemed to be that eating almonds would prevent cancer. So my quest continued. I invested in a do-it-yourself yoga manual. I visited Hare Krishna meetings and listened, dubiously, to Guru Maharaj Ji, the "14 Year Old Perfect Master" of the universe.
One night at the close of the school year, I was still debating with Dan. I had the sense that I was fighting against God and decided the time had come to stop fighting. That evening in 1973, it must have been late spring, I placed my faith in Jesus as the "Word become flesh" and in his written word, the Bible. The Bible calls it the new birth. For me it was also a new connection. I felt connected with life and in a new way with my Jewishness.
Sometimes when I tell this story I say that it's like coming in through the back door. If someone had just walked up to me out of a church and said that I needed to believe in Jesus, I would have probably said no. Contemporary Jews are open to many things, but Jesus as we understand "the Christians" believe in him is not an option. Buddhism? Secularism? Those are OK. But Jesus? He's the god of the Gentiles or so we are taught. Yet through the convoluted route of Edgar Cayce and Eastern religions, God brought me to an interest in thinking about the real Jesus of the Bible.
Once I reached that place, the question wasn't, "Is believing in Jesus a Jewish thing to do?" That's a question we Jews have mostly answered ahead of time in the negative, as though we were leaving a voice mail for an interviewer who will be calling while we're out. The question for me became, "Is the gospel true?" If it was, then of course it was also Jewish to believe it, because shouldn't Jewish people believe in what's true? I concluded that it is true, and that by believing in Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles can come to know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.