To bat mitzvah or not The question prompts some soul-searching

When I first began my search for Jewish community in Oakland, where I live, my choices for affiliation were Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.

Of course, if I wanted to commute, my options were pretty much unlimited. We’re fortunate in the Bay Area to have so much variety close at hand.

Four years later, I’ve now taken courses from the Orthodox perspective, been a member at a Conservative synagogue and attended services in Reform congregations. And since Jewish Renewal came to town — moving to Oakland from Berkeley two years ago — I’m taking a look at it, too.

So I enroll in a course at Kehilla Community Synagogue called “Jewish Thought,” where I’ll hear about philosophy and theology from the time of the prophets and Plato to modern feminism. Two sessions into the five-session class, I think I like it, the way my brain hurts from all that thinking.

A total of 27 of us are here to think more deeply about Jewish thought. Four are men, including one who knows God through Jesus. I’m not sure why he’s here, but he’s taking notes, most fervently when the rabbi makes biblical references. When asked what we think about God, we range from atheist to dubious to curious to one who believes wholeheartedly that She exists.

The rabbi, David Cooper, has a ponytail, is wearing blue jeans and tells us that we’re going to become our own theologians. His goal is not to turn anyone’s question mark into an explanation mark, but to have us eventually be able to describe our own spiritual or philosophical theology.

Many of the Jewish thinkers are names that I’m familiar with, even if I can’t recall the details about them. One — Erich Fromm — I remember from my college psychology class. New to me are the women, Marcia Falk and Judith Plaskow. I like the inclusion of feminist thought and plan to add Miriam’s cup to our seder table next year.

Sitting next to me is a Catholic mother who turns out to be a valuable resource since she’s well-versed in the Bible. She’s here because she’s always been interested in Judaism and wants to learn more. She has young children at home, and hearing about Jewish thinkers is a nice change of pace. I tell her that it is for me as well.

Almost everyone is taking notes. Some of the ardent note-takers will write papers describing their own spiritual and philosophical theology. It’s a step on their way to an adult bar or bat mitzvah. I briefly consider writing the paper. I’m a writer, after all, and consolidating what I’m learning is the best way for me to really grasp and remember it.

Even though I never had a bat mitzvah, I’m not ready to embark on that path right now. I know it would be a great example for my daughter. It certainly seems like the next step. But for reasons I can’t quite articulate, it’s not for me, at least not right now.

So I don’t write the paper. But it doesn’t mean that Maimonides and Mordecai Kaplan and Jewish feminist thought aren’t still swimming around in my brain after the class is over. I find some of the handouts on my desk a few weeks later and flip through them: “Judaism as an evolving religious civilization,” one says. Another discusses “the effect of modernity and tragedy on the thinking of Jewish people.”

The depth and breadth of Jewish thought is imposing, I think to myself. I also realize how much more I have to learn.

A friend I hadn’t seen in a while asks, “So, how’s it going with the Judaism thing?”

I’m not sure if she’s referring to my writing this column, or about my ongoing education, or my efforts to raise my daughter as a member of the tribe. I must look confused, so she asks more specifically. “A bat mitzvah — do you suppose you should do it?”

Supposing one should is not a good enough reason.

“No,” I tell her. I think about the paper I didn’t write. “Not yet,” I add, leaving it open.

Truly, I don’t know what the future might bring. But I do know I’m not going to shut any doors.