The beginning of the end of my time as a seminarian was in a small classroom of less than a dozen students. Week after week, students were asked to lead the class in prayer before the lesson began, and week after week, I dreaded when it would be my turn.
I’m not here to become a pastor, I thought. At the time, I believed God was calling me to be a crisis counselor. So why was praying aloud mandatory? Why couldn’t introverts have a different set of expectations?
When my turn came to pray, I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I could fake it for a day – “fake it to make it,” as the expression goes. How hard could it be? If I adjusted my tone and my volume, I might be able to convince the class that I do this all the time.
In the end, authenticity won. I couldn’t pretend to be good at something I wasn’t; couldn’t pretend to excel at something I had been taught all my life was a private, personal affair. “I’m sorry,” I told the professor, “but I’m not comfortable praying out loud.”
“Why not?” she asked, incredulous, as the other students turned to stare at me. You’d think I had done something far more scandalous, judging by the facial expressions of my peers.
“I’m just not comfortable with it,” I edified, feeling my face turn several shades of red.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” the professor said, the other students half-smiling in agreement. She let me pass on the public prayer – but not before shaking her head in a way that let me know my request was not normal.I wish I could say that was my only brush with awkwardness at seminary, but it wasn’t. That same semester, there were people who questioned the authenticity of my worship during mandatory chapel because, again, I wasn’t comfortable raising my arms during the music. There were people who chafed when I explained how the word “unbelievers” is not part of my vocabulary, either, because it implied that people who aren’t Christian have no beliefs at all. And then there was the Christian guy with the “heart for Israel” who believed God had sent me to be his Jew-ish missionary wife (the second time in one year that that had happened to me). He later called me a heretic during a lecture when I challenged his interpretation of Isaiah 53.T
That was a defining moment; perhaps the final nail in the coffin of my seminary experience. All students, regardless of concentration, were required to take biblical history classes, and one of the last courses I took happened to dissect several Old Testament prophecies believed to point to Jesus. None of them seem to foreshadow Jesus better than Isaiah 53, better known as the passage of the suffering servant. The verses clearly describe a man being “pierced for our transgressions,” which sounds a lot like crucifixion. Except my understanding of that passage, per my limited Jewish education, is that the “suffering servant” is referring to the Jewish people as a whole. Historians have commonly used the male pronoun “he” to refer to all Jews as a single unit. Rabbis interpret the passage as prophesizing the future state of Israel.
Quite honestly, as a Christian, I sometimes wish I never heard that interpretation, as it tends to open a smelly can of worms in Bible studies. You can imagine just how unkindly the average Christian will accept that what seems like such an obvious passage may not be talking about Jesus at all. I found myself in a mental tug-of-war, wanting to follow the majority who read the Old Testament with Christian glasses, because it was an easier path to take. But then my stubborn inner Jew scoffed at the knowledge of missionaries who purposely mistranslated passages to confuse and convert Jews, and who understands the Old Testament better than Jewish scholars, anyway?I figured if my people had erred in interpreting the prophecies, they’d have owned up to the mistake by now. It’s been a few thousand years, after all.
I wish I could say I’ve figured this all out, but I haven’t. The Prophecy Dilemma is yet another subject to be filed in the “I Don’t Know” folder of my brain on faith matters. But since my seminary professor was a Hebrew scholar, I wanted to know his opinion. So, either bravely or stupidly, I raised my hand and asked about the possibility that the Christian reading could be wrong.
“What kind of heretical question is that?” the Jew-ish Missionary Man snapped.
The word heretical slapped, and my face burned. I’d honestly rather have been called a hypocrite, because just about everyone is at some point, but a heretic? As much as I used to dream about following the same path as Joan of Arc, my favorite saint, the heretic label I could certainly have lived without. Once again, culture and faith collided, and that incident proved fatal for my career as a seminarian.
I don’t think I said anything in response to that student; I was too stunned. At any rate, the professor quickly moved on to a different topic.
Again and again, the implication was the same: you weren’t a real Christian if you didn’t do and/or practice X, Y, and Z.
This is what happens when you grow up Jewish in a town of gentiles: you tend to view Christianity as more than just the prevailing religion in America. You learn to view Christianity as somewhat of a threat to your safety and significance as a would-be follower of God. Because I was an “unbeliever” for most of my life, I was told that God was off-limits to me until I accepted his son Jesus.
Pre-order Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic to find out what happens next! Available as a paperback this summer.