A Southern Baptist woman who wrote a book about her experiences worshipping with Jews has converted from Christianity to Judaism.
Mary Blye Howe, author of the 2003 book A Baptist Among the Jews, has written about her love for Judaism and participation in worship services with Conservative, Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, Jewish Renewal and Hasidic Jews, including occasional columns for EthicsDaily.com.
But what she never before shared, she says in a column on BeliefNet.com, was that she increasingly had doubts about the divinity of Christ.
“When I read the Gospels, I simply didn’t see Jesus in the way other Christians saw him,” she writes. “He seemed like a great Jewish teacher, someone who, like the Hebrew prophets, wanted to shake people out of their spiritual lethargy–a lethargy people of all religions go through at times.”
Howe said she finally decided to convert at a 2004 Jewish prayer retreat. Her husband, a conservative Christian, and other family members were supportive, she said, but her church “was deeply hurt,” in part due her changed beliefs about Jesus.
“Nearly two decades ago, I had begun having doubts about the deity of Jesus, but was too terrified to express these doubts to anyone,” she writes. “Unlike in Judaism, fundamentalist Christians are taught not to question. We are often sheltered from ‘the world,’ and we question the spirituality and ‘salvation’ of other people–even other Christians who don’t believe like we believe. Questioning orthodox Christian beliefs, especially when the questions revolved around Jesus, filled me with terror.”
Though raised in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church in southern Illinois, Howe and her husband joined a more moderate congregation when they moved to Dallas. In fact, she says, her interest in Judaism began when her church was invited to participate in an interfaith service with Temple Emanu-El.
Howe says she was active in her church, chairing a large committee and serving as outreach leader of her Sunday school class and a “faith partner” to a pastoral intern. Fellow church members’ shock to her conversion, she says, “was tangible.”
Howe’s pastor said any time people enter into genuine relationships with people of other faiths, transformation is a possibility, but no one ever anticipated that she would convert fully to Judaism.
“Although many of us regret that that is that path Mary’s heart has led her on, because it means a loss to our spiritual communion and to the Christian community, we respect her decision and love her no less,” said George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. “We entrust her fully to the God who is the keeper of our souls. Our friendship is undiminished, even if inevitably altered. We wish her God’s shalom and her continued joy.”
Howe said she fought for several years to remain a Christian.
“I tried to re-interpret sermons, hymns and even communion to fit in with my changing beliefs,” she writes. “I visited more liberal denominations, thinking that might satisfy me. But in the end, I knew that I was merely putting off the inevitable. Judaism fulfilled my deepest spiritual needs, and it was within Judaism that I most powerfully experienced God’s presence. I needed to follow the deepest call and yearning of my heart.”
Some church members supported her, despite hurt and doubts. She described one elderly friend, whom she struggled to tell about her decision. “I said that I knew this was difficult for people who believe Jesus is the only way to God. ‘Honey,’ she said, ‘I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe in you.'”
Howe’s conversion date was April 3, 2005, her 48th birthday. The ceremony involved immersion in a mikvah, a ritual pool used for the purpose of attaining ritual purity.
While she expected the ceremony to be nothing more than a formality, she says, she was wrong. “The ceremony felt like a marriage for which I’d waited a lifetime: a covenant of my love.”
She writes that unless she lives to be very old, she doubts will be Jewish as long as the 47 and a half years she was a Baptist. “I fully intend, though, to make every minute count, spending the rest of my life entering more deeply into everything I’ve come to love and embrace.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicDaily.com.