Unlikely Enlightenment

My odyssey with Christianity began last summer at Wal-Mart, when I saw a teen New Testament amongst the romance novels

My odyssey with Christianity began last summer at Wal-Mart, when I saw a teen New Testament amongst the romance novels and bargain blenders. Since I’m Jewish, I’d never gotten to read the Holy Bible and was quite curious. Sadly, it lacked a barcode; the cashier wasn’t able to sell it to me despite her declaration that not owning it “was a shame, because that’s one good book to have.” I took her words to heart and began my quest to understand an essential literary text.

My mother was slightly confused by my desire to delve into the goyim’s good book, but I explained that I wanted to know more about a book which meant so much to so many people. She accepted that response until we received a phone call a few weeks later.

“Hello. Is Kasha Tinkelvitz there?” asked the telephone caller.

“Um...she’s unavailable at the moment. What is this regarding?” my mother responded. Kasha is our dog, a puff of a mutt who, though quite social, rarely receives calls.

“This is a representative of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Kasha sent a request for a Bible, and I wanted to find a time to visit with her to read and discuss the Church’s teachings.”

My mother was silent in contemplation. Quickly she realized what I had done: with my newfound curiosity, I ordered a free Bible online, registering as Kasha Tinkelvitz to avoid mailing lists. I did not realize Mormon missionaries would personally deliver and discuss their Bible with me, or my dog, as the case my be.

“I’m sorry. Kasha is only ten and devoutly Jewish. She’s just curious. Please don’t take the trouble to come. She isn’t interested in being converted,” my mother said. She hadn’t lied to them. My dog is certainly ten and quite curious. As for being devoutly Jewish, Kasha’s name is Yiddish and she can down a corned beef sandwich the size of her head. And she wasn’t planning to convert anytime soon.

The summer ended and I returned to “G-d-less Harvard.” With class selection and academia, my first week back was quite secular, aside from forays to Hillel for the best food on campus. But my interest in the Bible was rekindled when I decided to take a course on the literature of the medieval world. Reading about Paul’s journey to the Third Heaven and the Apocalypse, I came to appreciate the Bible academically, from the history of its creation to its later influence on pretty much all of Western literature.

However, absent was the deep spiritual and emotional connection with the good book that I had heard so much about from televangelists, Mel Gibson and the blurb on the back of my unbought Teen Bible at Wal-Mart.

As fate would have it, an acquaintance, Caleb L. Weatherl ’10, the Vice President of the Harvard Republican Club, was door-knocking in my dorm for new members. When he asked me to join, I respectfully declined, being liberal-leaning in most social issues, like gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. But Caleb’s reappearance reminded me of an offer he made to my practicing roommate last year to join him and some guys in a Bible study group. Last year, I was intrigued but fearful. I was born in San Francisco, where liberalism is all there is. I’m Jewish, and I am now the president of the Harvard BAGELS (Bisexual and Gay, Even Lesbian Semites). As interested as I was, a Bible study with conservatives just wouldn’t be the right place for me.

Yet this year, with my new-found intellectual interest in the New Testament, I put aside my fear and went to Caleb’s Facebook, ready to ask if I could join the Bible study. I skimmed his profile: his interests included Jesus Christ and Texas. His favorite music list begins with Country and Christian Rock. I began to get cold feet. Then, I saw under Caleb’s religious views five words that forced me over the brink: “Christian—ask me about it!” I did ask him about it, taking his exclamation point as a sign of enthusiasm. Happily, Caleb was open to my request and my background, so the next thing I knew, I was at my first Bible study.

I announced my Judaism from the start; I was Alex the Jew. To my surprise, no one recoiled or flung holy water on my unbaptized flesh. I was warmly welcomed. We started by reading the commandment against worshipping false idols from the Old Testament and its reappearance in the New Testament.

I was able to share my take on the origins of the law, since it’s a reminder of when Abraham, the founder of Judaism, gave up his occupation as a maker of idols and swore to worship the one Hebrew Lord. The guys in the group explained to me the context of Christian interpretation of the law. But I felt most at home when we started discussing how these passages were applicable to our daily lives. As an intense literature-nerd, this kind of analysis was very familiar. When I was reading Joyce’s “Ulysses,” I couldn’t help but think how I could be more empathetic, like the work’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. But this wasn’t Joyce, this was the Bible. And these weren’t English majors, but regular guys seeing how a book could fit in with their lives. Here was that emotional connection that the Wal-Mart Bible had promised!

We talked about “American Idol,” and how cultural figures and the lure of success have come to supplant spirituality and morality. Maybe the New Testement wasn’t so terrible after all. Some interpretations of the Bible have been a source of agony for some groups, like for Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, or for gay people seeking equal rights in today’s America. However, by overcoming my fear of conservative, Bible-loving Christians, I came to understand them a little better, for I found there just might be some parts of the New Testament worth reading and even enfolding into one’s daily life. And with my openness, I found that conservative values and close-mindedness aren’t necessarily synonymous, since I was warmly welcomed to the group and now plan on going as often as possible.

I’ll never accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, but I don’t see why that means I have to be merely tolerant of Christians. I’ve come to see that while tolerance keeps the peace, deep understanding by mutual exchange of beliefs and values can bring personal growth and reciprocal respect. A pretty good take-home message from a journey that began at a Wal-Mart.