2014 Religious Trends
Liminal Spaces, Witchcraft, and a Blended Jewish Life
Editors' Note:This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Jewish community here.
I'm drawn to liminal spaces: twilight and dawn, half-waking dreams, that slippery spot between intuition and intellect. I'm not surprised. I've spent most of my life in between.
Growing up, I got a lot of flack because I was only half Jewish. Surprisingly, I got it from my friends who were Reform or even secular—those who you'd think wouldn't care. Even outside of Halacha, there seemed to be great interest in firming up the lines between those in the tribe and those outside of it. As the realities of modern Jewish identity got more and more complicated, those who made the cut by traditional standards seemed increasingly eager to reinforce the boundaries and push people out. I've never understood why. How does it serve one Jew to exclude another?
I knew I was a Jew as deeply as I knew I was a woman. I've seen the letters and documents from my father's side of my family, all in Yiddish. I've heard the stories of my great-grandparents' life in Poland and their frantic flight to Los Angeles to escape pogroms. I've read the postcards from my great aunt Pesha, who sent my family continual updates as she and her family attempted (and eventually failed) to escape the Nazis. My Jewishness is written all over my hair and face. People can tell at a glance. Being told I wasn't Jewish felt like being told the sky was purple. It just wasn't true.
If I'd dedicated myself to religious Judaism, things might have worked themselves out. I might have formally converted, or I might have found synagogues willing to accept me.
But nothing's ever simple, is it?
* * *
In High School I discovered Witchcraft. From the moment a friend of mine explained it to me, I knew I had come home.
I think Wicca is common enough nowadays that most people have heard of it, but I still think a quick note on the word "witchcraft" is due. The concept is in a funny transitional time, another in-between space. Witchcraft used to be thoroughly associated with devil worship and malicious magic. Benevolent magic practitioners—healers and card readers and the like—were called Cunning Folk. Now, though, large swaths of Witchcraft in the West are rooted in reverence for nature and Paleolithic age-inspired Goddess worship. The founders of our various traditions reclaimed the word Witch from those who used it to punish and kill anyone (mostly women) who strayed from mainstream religion and culture. For many of us—perhaps most of us—God/dess is a nondual, immanent concept. God is the universe is God. God is our mother, and God is us—our bodies, our actions, our minds.
So, what do witches do? I can only speak for myself. I practice in the Reclaiming Tradition, which is similar to but distinct from the various traditions within Wicca. Reclaiming itself is an offshoot of the Feri Tradition. I consider nature sacred, of course, along with the four classical elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (the four things which, as Starhawk posits in her novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, should never be bought or sold). Like many Witches, I'm polytheistic with a nondual undercurrent, and a devotee of two specific deities. I love to dance and drum and sing. I keep an altar and pray in the mornings and evenings.
Asa West practices Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft and blends her practice with her Jewish heritage and Secular Buddhism. She blogs at asawest.wordpress.com and writes the column "Jewish Witch" for the Patheos Pagan Channel. She lives in Los Angeles, where she priestesses at Reclaiming public rituals.