Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life
By Lauren F. Winner
Algonquin, 303 pages, $23.95.
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Once a committed, educated Jew, now a passionate Anglican Christian, Lauren F. Winner presents a problem to anyone who has thought about the sociology of conversion.
Today, Jews who have experienced traditional Judaism — learned it, been moved by it — rarely if ever become Christians. Jews who convert to Christianity tend to be either uneducated in Torah or, on occasion, are people who grew up in a traditional environment that was formalistic and spiritually dry. By contrast, many converts to Judaism are people who not only were well educated as Christians but also went through a long period of being passionately faithful in that religion. But in “Girl Meets God,” the now-26-year-old Winner tells of studying Judaism with some intensity, getting converted by an Orthodox rabbinic court when she was a freshman at Columbia and then, four years later, being baptized as a Christian at Cambridge University.
Winner grew up attending a Reform temple in Charlottesville, Va., the daughter of a Jewish father and lapsed-Baptist mother. In high school she came to feel that Torah is true in its traditional understanding and that, because the mother’s status determines the child’s, she needed to be converted. In December 1993 she was immersed in a mikvah, emerging, in her eyes and those of the local rabbinic court, a Jew. It’s not supposed to happen that such a person, only a year later, has a dream about Jesus and after two years comes to feel that Judaism has “stopped working” for her. Surprisingly, perhaps, her book is a delight to read. Dauntingly bright, exuberant, self-deprecating, she’s a vivid and highly personal writer. You know a memoir is successful when even the material that’s seemingly irrelevant — flaky details, e.g. that she and her mom tussle over the author’s custom of not shaving her legs — still compels your attention. And there is considerable flakiness here. Take that dream:
It’s not the obvious interpretation, but dreams can be funny.
The book is less successful as an explanation of why Winner believes what she does; throughout, her transformation seems motivated less by ideas than by sentiment. Then there’s the question of why she chose English Anglicanism, whose American counterpart is Episcopalianism. It’s the only church whose members put the church seal as a bumper sticker on their cars, the way some people have a Harvard or a Yale sticker. Yet Winner gives no indication why she didn’t become a Catholic — the seemingly obvious choice for an intense person like her seeking a church that emphasizes liturgy.
As you read along, you get the sense that Anglophilia, an enchantment with all things venerable and a certain upper-crust allure have guided her choice of churches. “I might attend Evensong every now and again,” she tells her father on departing for Clare College, Cambridge. Winner recounts visiting an Anglican spiritual adviser in her “rooms” at Clare, using the cute, old-fashioned Oxbridge expression that means “apartment.” Back in Virginia she tells us of “Grace Episcopal Church, best known for adopting the English tradition of the Blessing of Hounds.” And so on.
The harder question is how an educated Jew can justify accepting Jesus. One may speculate about why it’s usually untutored Jews who become Christians. Perhaps it’s because for a Jew who knows the Hebrew Bible and its spirituality first hand, rather than through the scrim of the New Testament, the principle Christian claims are difficult to sustain.
The Jews of the first century C.E. rejected Jesus as messiah, their liberator from the oppressive “Law,” as Christians mistranslate the word “Torah” (which means “teaching”), because the Hebrew prophets make clear what the messiah is supposed to do, i.e., transform the world; Hebrew Scripture contains no escape clause, because they found Torah observance to be a source of joy. But Winner never grapples with such problems.
Puzzled, I called her at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, where she’s putting in morning hours as a receptionist while working on her Columbia doctorate. She explained her gravitation to Anglicanism in particular as following from “the clearest sense of calling I’ve ever had, utterly, utterly drawing me,” along with the typical doubts people have about Catholicism — papal authority, the devotion to Mary, women’s ordination. As to everything Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other Hebrew prophets indicate regarding the messiah, she said, “We don’t need to get into this textual sparring. It’s the scandal of the Gospels that they turn all that on its head.” In Christian parlance, “scandal” is a word one uses to acknowledge cognitive dissonance while simultaneously claiming it as a badge of authenticity, as if to say, “It’s so unlikely, it’s got to be true!”
“It’s not a strictly intellectual rationale,” she says. “I know this is not an answer that’s going to satisfy you.”
So the mystery remains. Here’s a possible resolution: In the rabbinic understanding, conversion is not so much a transformation of the self as it is the legal recognition of a status that was always there. At Mount Sinai every Jewish soul heard God’s voice. Of those souls not yet born, a small number would later be cast into the bodies of infants born to non-Jewish mothers. They become converts. Once initiated into Torah, unless threatened or otherwise compelled by circumstance, these souls don’t end up embracing Christianity.
Rabbinic courts make mistakes. Winner is a charming memoirist, a thoughtful and well-intentioned person. My guess is, she was never a Jew.
David Klinghoffer is the author of a spiritual memoir, “The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy” (Free Press, 1998). His next book, “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism,” will be published by Doubleday in April.