Charles Perkins: Public Affirmation Speech
Author’s note: With much gentle nudging and calm reassurance, our own Rabbi Daniel Brenner convinced me that my public affirmation ceremony would benefit from a few short words about my conversion process — my “journey home” into our beautiful Jewish faith community. I’m not by nature someone who enjoys public speaking, and sharing these words with CBB was a challenge for me. But I’m so glad that I was able to. Taking just a few moments to share these words during the ceremony made it more meaningful and powerful than I could have imagined it would be. The words I shared are reproduced in the following paragraphs with some light editing.
I’m grateful for your presence here tonight. Without you, this would be a little bit like the classic example of a tree falling down in the forest when no one is around. If no one hears the tree fall, does it make a sound? [Rabbi Daniel explained that this is in fact why we require ten Jews to form a minyan.] And now I think I will share a few of the main reasons that brought me.
Jewish values, as I understand and try to live them, assign a positive normative and spiritual value to asking questions for the sake of asking questions. As a philosophy PhD student, I have been devoting much of my life to extremely speculative and abstract intellectual problems that have no clearly plausible practical value. These problems are not even philosophical questions that connect to morals or ethics. My research is currently focused on the extent to which the scientific method constrains empiricism through its dependence on typology. And I know that topic can seem like an unclear, useless, abstract problem to solve. But if we ask ourselves, “Why did God make us?” one viable Jewish answer is that humans are here to make meaning in the world that God has created. Without humans, the world that God has made would only go or play, like a boom box in a vacant room. God would know everything about that world, but there would be no one else to know anything at all. Such a world, if not completely meaningless, would be a pale imitation of this world that God chose to make. So I feel that the philosophical questions I engage with are important, not because they necessarily help us live righteous lives or become better people, even if they might do that incidentally. Rather, engaging with abstract problems of metaphysics and epistemology glorifies Hashem through study, by making meaning primarily for the sake of meaning. So my first reason is that Judaism validates my choice to work hard on these problems that can be difficult to justify as legitimate problems.
Observing the Sabbath, if only through my persistent refusal to clock in for a Saturday shift at one of the many service industry jobs I have had to pursue during my years in graduate school, has been radically empowering. If you had asked me to describe my “best life” before I started observing the Sabbath, I think most of my description would have been highly acquisitive and shallow. Things such as employment, recognition, and money would have played a primary role, even if (out of denial, or in an attempt to be tasteful) I attempted to downplay their importance. The Jewish imperative to rest does not condemn my efforts to pursue those things, but it does limit them. And that limitation makes room for things that are more important, such as a relationship with God, love, friendship, feeling well, empathy for others, and concern for the collective good. Largely because of the Sabbath, the “best life” that I would describe now really would prioritize those things. The Sabbath radically changed my idea of success. So that’s my second reason. Of course there are more reasons, but tonight I wanted to share only a few that are, for me, the most meaningful.
Still there is a question, Why convert? I could still observe the Sabbath and justify my work through Jewish values without actually becoming a Jew. But if I did choose that path, I think I would be turning down an opportunity to be myself. Embracing the values I just described without converting would, for me, be living as “kind of a Jew” or “sort of a Jew.” I think I would be rejecting an opportunity for my true self, who is Jewish, to grow and flourish. In my personal situation (I cannot speak for anyone else) such an identity would not serve me or this Jewish community in a positive way. It would leave me with a vague, indeterminate, frankly blurry, sense of who I am. Answering the question, “Are you Jewish?” with “pretty much,” or “almost,” or “sort of,” is not, for me, that different from answering the question, “Who are you?” with “I’m pretty much,” or “I’m sort of,” or “I’m almost.” I don’t think this community should accept “sort of Charles” or “almost Charles” or “pretty much Charles.” I really appreciate that you are taking me in as Charles, who is a Jew.
Charles Perkins moved to Santa Barbara in 2018 to pursue his PhD in Philosophy at UCSB. He enjoys MahJong and is looking forward to welcoming his brand-new Bernedoodle puppy Tuesday into his home later this year.