“I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. And if I was good, I’d go to heaven. And if I’d ask Jesus, he’d forgive me and that was that. And here y’all are saying there ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like … you do God.”
– Tova bat Avraham v’Sarah (“Black” Cindy Hayes), Orange is the New Black
Most practitioners of the art of “binge watching” recognize that monologue, given by an inmate of the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility. In a rather humorous attempt to fake Jewishness to score better-tasting kosher prison food, Cindy ironically discovers that she wants to convert to Judaism, taking on the Hebrew name Tova (טוֹבָה).
Her speech inspires the rabbi, whom she solicited to be in her beit din (conversion court), and he instantly approves her to become Jewish. This is not how conversion works, since the rabbi would have her spend months reading, debating, and practicing Judaism and THEN approve her, but for all intents and purposes, after she took a dip in the nearby (also halachically-questionable) lake, she’s Jewish.
I really like this speech for two reasons. First, her experience mirrored my own (aside from the whole prison thing). I was raised in the A.M.E.C. (African Methodist Episcopal Church) and attended Christian school for most of my childhood. I’m grateful for this, considering I believe church and private school kept me out of trouble and instilled certain values which I still hold to this day. Additionally, as I matured, so did my faith, since Jesus became more of an authentic positive force in my life as a teenager, as opposed to just a living embodiment of God that I revered as a child.
However, I was also raised to believe in heaven and hell, the former for saved and baptized Christians and the latter for sinners and Christians who haven’t confessed their sins to Jesus. As a child with a fear of the unknown, the concept of hell terrified me. Eternity in a lake of fire? For committing even a minor sin like lying or swearing? It was what kept me praying all the time. Before every meal, before bedtime, even at random points during the day. I wanted so badly to be on God’s good side that I prayed to the heavens for forgiveness of my sins, always ending with, “In Jesus’ name, amen.”
The phrase “to the heavens” is important, because this is one of many instances where certain sects of Christianity and Judaism differ. This is not only because Jews are unsure of the existence of heaven, but also because God is not something “above” me, God is both beyond me and within me; God simply “is”. As humans, we partner with God, not simply bow to her.
This is why we say blessings over wine and bread as opposed to grapes and wheat. What’s not as crucial is the fact that God created grapes and wheat, but rather our partnership with God to create wine and bread as nourishment. The application of taking what is and transforming it into something else entirely for the good of mankind is “doing God.”
By observing Shabbat, I’m doing God. By communing with my friends and family, I’m doing God. By exercising and eating right, by writing and reading, by creating a life that brings happiness to myself and others and repairing the world, I’m doing God.
As a Christian, I worshiped God by flattering him. I prayed to the heavens in exaltation, I shouted and cried to God, getting lost in her, as if I were on some drug no man could ever duplicate. Jews exalt God during prayer too, but as a more focused (and emotionally collected) means to an end. Prayer and study bring us closer to God not because it flatters her, but because it empowers us. It gives us the strength and confidence to fulfill our goals and destinies, to change the world, to “do God.”
I have no need to find God. God has already been there even when I didn’t fully believe in him and even when I hated him. What matters to me now is seeing God not just as a proper noun, but as a proper verb.