“I grew up in an interreligious family as its most observant Jew. Through my mother’s side, I am connected with the Jewish people and through both parents to the wider world. I feel a tension between the value of loyalty to the Jewish people and the values of putting humanity first no matter the group of people someone belongs to.”
These are the words of Rory Michelle Sullivan, an incredibly talented musician and thinker whom I met in my role as teacher and life coach at the Pardes Institute. Rory Michelle came to me because she was contemplating making devotion to Judaism and the Jewish people more central in her career and choice of life partner but felt held back from doing so because she feared turning her back on her secular, humanistic values and her past.
During the session we discussed Rory Michelle’s passions – her love of music, dance, drama, and travels in Austria – and we agreed that she would bring in a non-Jewish text to examine this side of her life. Imagine my surprise when instead of bringing in a secular text as I had expected, she brought in a chapter from the Greek scriptures that speak of Jesus’ betrayal. Judas approaches Jesus to kiss him and Jesus responds, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:49).
Turns out, it was not only the fear of ethnocentricism that was preventing Rory Michelle from wholeheartedly embracing her Judaism, but the very real feeling of betraying her loving Christian father. We spent a lot of time discussing Christianity and its role in Rory’s life and we hit upon the idea of her writing up twenty ways that she is like Jesus. This is what she came up with.
- I know who I am and have the capacity to articulate and say/proclaim it.
- I am Jewish.
- Some people think that I am wise.
- I like to help people make decisions and become their fullest potential through stories.
- I love Midrashim.
- I am a child of God.
- I have Christian relatives.
- I have Jewish relatives.
- I call on God when I need help.
- I celebrate Jewish holidays.
- Some people think I’m divine/larger than life.
- I feel I have the potential to be bigger than life.
- I am a leader.
- I am an educator.
- I like to be subversive.
- I am anti-establishment.
- I am political.
- I have an art. (carpentry –> songwriting).
- I have a mother and father. (I have a Jewish mother).
- Some people don’t like me.
Exploring the ways that she was like Jesus made Rory Michelle’s choice feel less stark. It’s not that Rory ever believed in Jesus as the Messiah or God made flesh nor that she ever identified as a Christian. She was not looking for a fusion of her identities as found in “Jews for Jesus”, but she now feels that she can integrate familiarity with Jesus and Christianity into her overall identity without fear of losing her Jewishness.
The opportunity to explore something previously unthinkable set the foundation for Rory Michelle to think creatively. She now began to integrate the secular into her Judaism and to realize that particularity and universalism can co-exist. Reading Rav Kook’s “Four Fold Song” presented her with the option of serving and belonging to a group, and then connecting with other groups to together serve humanity
Through the life-coaching, Rory Michelle reclaimed her Judaism and from within it is using her past and present to better both the Jewish people and the world. She is loving her role as song-leader, producer of an original music album based on Jewish texts she studied at Pardes, and Hebrew school teacher.
This week in synagogues we read parshat Vayigash where Joseph reconciles with his brothers. If ever there was an example of somebody who was able to incorporate many worlds into a central core identity it is Joseph. Rory Michelle’s story is very different but I find her full embrace of Judaism and her ability to integrate her different identities no less inspiring.
To learn more about Rory Michelle Sullivan, and hear music that expresses some of this journey and its themes, please go to www.rorymichelle.com.