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Lauren Winner

I write that headline sarcastically because so many Orthodox Jews I know believe I will end up returning to Christianity.

Khunrum writes: "Another neurotic weirdo who probably doesn't put out. Yeah! She'd be great for you."

Luke replies: "You're wrong... This girl is a looker and she enjoys a good time in a hotel room."

Amalek18: I'll bet she is way hotter than the vulgur Jewesses now writing about sex (Amy Sohn, et al.)

Fred writes:

She is clearly the one for LF:

1. Claims to cling to a higher religous moral order, but doesn't really obey the commandments;
2. Schtuppes a lot;
3. Converted from one religion into another, where she is almost certainly destined to become personna non grata;
4. Probably a young cutie and a shiksa with a fairly good knowledge of religion.

I have nothing against the Church of England, but I would have a problem converting to a religion that exists only because Henry VIII wanted to dump his ugly wife (Catherine of Aragon) and hitch up with a hot young cutie (Anne Boleyn). What ever happened to joining a religion that arose out of a vision from God (Abraham, Mohammed, Joseph Smith) or enlightment (e.g. Buddha) rather than horniness?

Anyway, Luke, get ahold of her e-mail address and propose marriage. If nothing else, I think you'll amuse each other.

Khunrum chides: Too much dogma counselor. Let's put some fun into religion i.e.. The Branch Dividians...bring on the girls...

Fred replies: The problem with Koresh is that only the cult leader got to schtuppe the fair young maidens. Now, on the other hand, the polygamist Mormons basically said you could have a stable of cuties as large as you wanted, and they weren't real big on age-of-consent laws.

Chaim writes: A happy life cannot be based on empty sarcasm, uttered from the sterile McBoxes of Silicon Valley. Admit it Fred, we on this list all wish we were living the sort of life that she seems to have.

Luke says: Someone like Lauren Winner who is most interested in personal salvation and a personal relationship with God will usually choose Christianity. Judaism instead emphasizes the community. It's not primarily about personal satisfaction.

Judaism does not put much stock in dreams like Lauren's as the guide to religious truth.

From the 10/4/02 Wall Street Journal:

In her freshman year at Columbia University in New York, after years of studying and somewhat tortured consideration, she [Columbia doctoral student Lauren Winner] immersed herself in the ritual bath, the mikvah, and converted. And thus Ms. Winner spent her college years doing things that were considered exceedingly weird by most of her peers: She wore long skirts, never exposed her upper arms, kept a kosher kitchen, didn't engage in random sex--indeed in her entire undergraduate career, she went to only two parties outside the orthodox Jewish community.

In short, she did everything a good orthodox Jewish woman should do, right down to baking two loaves of challah every Friday. Except for one thing. She began to doubt. And she had a dream about Jesus. She woke up in a state of certitude, deeply convinced that the dream was sent from God and that Jesus was "real and true and sure." By her senior year, Ms. Winner was feeling both disaffected from the orthodox Jewish community and spiritually blah. She was, in the God-talk phrase, having a dry spell. And, of course, there was that dream.

So Ms. Winner focused her scholarly attention on Christianity: She read books; she wrote papers about the Great Awakening. And, a few years later, when she was at Cambridge University getting a master's degree, she was baptized into the Church of England and became a Christian. A committed Christian--Ms. Winner has mastered the Book of Common Prayer, is active in a church, studies the Bible, practices a prayer discipline and worries about sin.

But the Cambridge experience did not end her anxieties. How could she go back to Columbia for doctoral study--to a neighborhood where everyone knew her as an orthodox Jew--and present herself as a cross-wearing Christian? Her first strategy, which she now admits was suboptimal, was not to tell anyone. She didn't want to appear ditsy. After all, she says good-humoredly, "it is flaky to be religious at all, and then it is really flaky to switch religions from orthodox Judaism to orthodox Christianity."

Lauren Winner writes in Christianity Today:

When people ask for my conversion story, from Jew to Anglican, I always emphasize the pro-Christian parts. I brush away my qualms about Judaism with a quick "and then, because I had grown increasingly disaffected from the Orthodox community…. " To say more, it seems, is to commit an even greater act of treachery against the Jewish community that nurtured me for so long than, say, getting baptized. It is to say, I left not only because there was this great new thing out there, this Christian thing, but also because there were all these unsatisfactory, unsatisfying features of Orthodox life.

I hesitate to say those things because the Jews with whom I have had the privilege to pray, study, sing, and eat are among the most loving and insightful people I know, and they have taught me almost everything important that I know about God. Not the Jesus part, no, but there is a lot about God you can learn before you learn about his son. I learned about God as creator, forgiver, lover, father, mother, quiet in-dwelling presence, and judge. There was one thing I did not learn: how to have an intimate relationship with Him.

And as such, everything I learned about God was incomplete. Take my Jewish understanding of prayer. One of the things that drew me to the Anglican church, one of the guarantors that I was baptized in the Church of England and not a Baptist or Methodist church, was liturgy. As a baby Christian, I took liturgy for granted; after all, I was used to saying set prayers, some times at shul and sometimes by myself at home, three times a day. That was the bedrock of my religious life, and, as such, of my life, period, on days when I could not force myself out of bed in time for synagogue, on days when I was supremely annoyed with God, on days when I really craved a piece of pepperoni pizza, on days when the last thing I felt like doing was being religious, I said set prayers. However, there were days when I wanted to do something more. When I wanted to talk to God about my boyfriend or my mother or the weather.

I once asked a learned friend about this. He grabbed a prayerbook, flipped it open to the Amidah, and pointed to the paragraph where, traditionally, people have inserted a few unliturgical words of thanks or petition. But what, I asked, if I want more than 30 seconds in the middle of the Amidah?

"Look," my friend said, "why don't you work on making sure you're saying the liturgy without fail. Then make sure you're saying all the additional prescribed blessings without fail, like before you eat, and after you pee, and when you see a rainbow. Then make sure you are saying these prayers with kavannah [intention]. There's really nothing you could need to pray about that's not covered somewhere in this prayerbook. So when you've mastered all these prayers with true kavannah, then if you still want to add something additional, come back and talk to me about it."

Which is why I was so thrilled to learn that at church I could have both: liturgy and Quiet Time. Liturgy and lectio divina. Liturgy and Tevye-like chats with God.

More on Lauren Winner

Sex and the Single Evangelical

Gene Edward Veith writes on djchuang.com:

Miss Winner begins by describing a nice evening among friends. Someone asks her where she and her boyfriend were last night. "Our whereabouts," she writes, "had been a hotel room. A hotel room with a lone king-size bed."

Then Miss Winner recounts the shock expressed by her Christian friend: "'I can't believe you two,' Sarah said.... 'Perhaps you've noticed that the Bible forbids this sort of thing?' ... Sarah glanced my way. 'I suppose that's what you get when you're dealing with the world's favorite evangelical whore.'"

The major problem with Miss Winner's article, though, is its tone of self-righteousness. She and her friends are good persons. The church needs to recognize how good she is by changing its standards and its language that might suggest otherwise.

Lauren Winner writes on Beliefnet.com: My unmarried evangelical friends, I think, are fairly representative. Some of them are virgins. Seriously chaste virgins. Others are virgins in Bill Clinton's sense: in the tactful euphemism of my friend Sheila, they "entertain through other orifices" nightly.

Then there are those who do have sex, like Jill, a Wheaton College grad who lost her virginity in the Billy Graham Center.

The problem isn't that Sarah made my sex life her business. It's that her evangelical vocabulary left her with nothing to say but "whore."

A Slippery Slope Into Debauchery

Lauren Winner writes on Beliefnet.com: Paul M. turned up at his pastor's house five weeks ago, in the middle of the night. "In the pouring rain," says Paul. "It was like something out of a movie. But I was desperate, and that's what pastors are for, right?"

Paul hadn't committed murder, or realized he was an alcoholic. He wasn't flirting with atheism. He was spending two hours a day glued to his computer screen, hooked on web porn. Paul--a Boston-based 28-year-old graduate student in sociology--says praying with his pastor put him on the right track. But he's not taking any chances."For now, my computer is in the garage."

A Baptist who was born again at age 12, he says he used to "walk right with the Lord." But once he was hooked on web porn, he began skidding down what could have been "a slippery slope into debauchery."

Girl Meets God

From Publishers Weekly: "Raised by a lapsed Baptist mother and secular Jewish father, Winner feels a drive toward God as powerful as her drives toward books and boys. Twice she has attempted to read her way into religion to Orthodox Judaism her freshman year at Columbia, and then four years later at Cambridge to Anglican Christianity. Twice she has discovered that a religion's actual practitioners may not measure up to its theoretical proponents. (Invariably the boyfriends or their mothers disappoint.) It is easier to say what this book is not than what it is. It is not a conversion memoir: Winner's movement in and out of religious frames, but does not tell, her tale. It is not a defense of either faith (there is something here to offend every reader); and Winner, a doctoral candidate in the history of religion, is in her 20s young for autobiography. Because most chapters, though loosely related to the Christian church year, could stand alone, it resembles a collection of essays; but the ensemble is far too unified to deserve that label. Clearly it is memoir, literary and spiritual, sharing Anne Lamott's self-deprecating intensity and Stephen J. Dubner's passion for authenticity. Though Winner does not often scrutinize her motives, she reveals herself through abundant, concrete and often funny descriptions of her life, inner and outer. Winner's record of her own experience so far is a page-turning debut by a young writer worth watching."

From Library Journal: "The book is a humorous, sexually frank portrait of a deeply engaged faith shopper, "stumbling her way towards God." The memoir focuses on her undergraduate years (when she converted to Judaism and then to Christianity) and her life as a doctoral student in religious history at Columbia University. One has a sense that Winner's head is still spinning and that she is still catching up with her changes of heart. The turbulent narrative is at first hard to follow, but its disorder becomes a delight as the author's gentle, self-effacing humor emerges. Winner offers a rare perspective, connecting Christian and Jewish traditions in unexpected ways."

From Booklist: "And yet--while her struggles to take a life turned inside out and make it fit are absorbing, there is enough self-indulgent nattering here to provoke the occasional wince. Also, she sidesteps some of the more difficult questions as she tries to reconcile her Jewishness and Christianity. What, for instance, does she believe is the fate of those not saved?"

Novelist Betty Smartt Carter reviews Lauren Winner's book Girls Meets God in the Nov/Dec 2002 issue of Christianity Today:

[Lauren] lived for a summer with an Orthodox family in New York, learning to make challah and study Talmud, dressing in ankle-length skirts. While at Columbia University, she formally converted to Judaism by going through a ritual bath called a mikvah. Rabbis streamed in to witness the bath, though allowance was made for female modesty:

when I entered the mikvah room, the rabbis all turned their backs, and then, robe on, I plunged into the water. The rabbis heard the splash, and then they filed out of the room. I disrobed, and the mikvah lady supervised my three immersions….And then I was a Jew.

Winner is honest, though, in ascribing much of her disaffection to her own failure as a Jew. After her initial love affair with Judaism, she lost her enthusiasm for it. She didn't study enough, didn't keep the Sabbath. "If it was a marriage," she says, "me to Orthodox Judaism, I failed long before I met up with Jesus. I failed from the beginning."

Having failed as a Jew, Winner set about learning to be a Christian. Ever orthodox by inclination, she found herself theologically most in line with evangelicals. But this made her yet another kind of anomaly: an artsy Ivy League grad student with friends who watched The 700 Club. The juxtaposition exposed the snobbery of her academic community, but it tempted her to snobbery of her own. When she overheard a fellow graduate student suggesting that she might be a fundamentalist Bible-thumper, she wanted to tell him, "No, no, I'm not one of them, I'm one of you. I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, but I also wear fishnet stockings and drink single-malt Scotch."

Besides the sense of being a stranger in at least two worlds, she faced internal struggles: gnawing loneliness, sexual desire, and doubts about Christianity itself. Then there was her nostalgia for the old life. It turned out that Judaism wasn't so easy to walk away from. It had become part of her:

I gave away all my Jewish books and let go of all my Jewish ways, but I realized, as I spent time with other Christians, that Judaism shaped how I saw Christianity….I found my heart sometimes singing Jewish songs. I thought I had given away all my Jewish things, but…I'd just given away some books and mezuzot and candlesticks. I hadn't given up the shape in which I saw the world, or the words I knew for God, and those shapes and words were mostly Jewish.

The task ahead of her was to discover what it meant to have Jewish vision from within the Body of Christ.

3/24/03

Girl Meets God

I just read Lauren Winner's book GIRL MEETS GOD and I loved it. It was beautiful and honest and haunting. I could identify. I found her personal strugges far more interesting than her theological and religious reflections. I do not seek spiritual, religious or moral truth from Christianity. Many critics slammed her for "self-indulgence" but to me these are the most interesting sections of the book.

JHamer writes on Amazon.com: "This woman is killer smart, funny, and immensely entertaining. I have met few people who are this candid in person; I have never seen anyone this honest in public. She creates these beautiful constructs, the conclusions of which go straight to your heart, making you cry because you are more than you were and you know she speaks the truth."

I saw saddened by the nasty tone of many of the negative reviews on Amazon.com. Critic after critic said she had to get older to get wiser to deserve writing a memoir. I disagree. Her youth, impetuosity, inexperience and vulnerability are precisely what appeals to me in this book.

I showed it to a bunch of Jewish friends over the weekend and they were aghast that any one could convert to Orthodox Judaism and then Christianity. As a convert from Christianity to Judaism, I'm not at all threatened by Winner's move. I understand that the heart has reasons of its own that the head will never understand.

I've changed away from religious triumphalism. While I believe Judaism is the truest religion, all religions, including my own, have such serious moral and rational weaknesses that it becomes absurd to say any one is the TRUTH and that all others are false.

Chaim Amalek writes: Concerning your take on that wonderful Winner book, is this not further proof that you are not an orthodox jew, if indeed, you are any sort of jew at all? A BELIEVER thinks his way is the best, and you do not. And speaking of believers, check out the sunday nytimes mag article on the spiritual founder of al qeada. It is what you think but more too. As with Pierce, even those who wish us ill can have interesting things to say.

Winner is a sweety. I could see why she would not feel at ease amongst the Jews. Not enough of the Levant in her. Ditto you. Judaism is for cynical deracinated hipsters and lefty lawyers and nerdy short accountants and guys who tattle on other guys in temple, don't you think?

Lauren Winner writes:

The story [of her leaving Orthodox Judaism] begins instead with a lacrosse-playing, Prada-clad college classmate of mine named Sarah. Sarah was a biology major from New Jersey. She had long, curly black hair and a wonderful, toothy grin. We were at a party one night, a party where I met a beautiful older man... I was standing with the men, over by the window, and Sarah leaned over to a friend and, just loud enough, said that I had only converted because I wanted to marry a Jew.

There were lots of Sarahs, lots of petty Orthodox girls who snubbed me, the convert, never mind all the rules the rabbis piled up forbidding Jews to remind converts of their background. Those small snide remarks, which I should have been able to overlook, those, I think, are where this story begins.

Or possibly it begins with Hank Hirschfield. [O]ne night he turned up at my dorm and said really he couldn't do this, date me he meant. "Because of your conversion," he said. "Because, you see, I want my parents to dance with my in-laws at my wedding, I want my bride's family and my family to have giant holiday celebrations together... So I could never marry a convert." I wept that night, cried myself to sleep for the first time ever....

I would also have to talk about the crass materialism that snaked its way around New York Orthodoxy and the anti-intellectualism of the community. My five closest friends in college were the most intellectually capacious people on earth, but many of the other Orthodox Jews at Columbia were the worst breed of intellectually insular, mastering just enough knowledge to scatter their dinner party conversations with references to Freud or Kant, never mastering any more than that.

Luke says: I identify with everything Winner writes above. Sitting at my table on Friday night was a Jewish woman who said to me with breathtaking confidence eight years: "You can't become Jewish. You're either born it or you're not." I've never forgotten or forgiven her words.

The lack of intellectual curiosity among people who practice Judaism never ceases to depress me. There's little excitement over intellectual discussion in Jewish life. Just check all the Jewish weeklies like the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. Dull.

9/9/03

Luke: "Did you ever read Lauren Winner's book and what did you think of her journey?"

Professor Ari Goldman: "I was sad to see her go but I wish her well. Her publisher just asked me to blurb her new book and I declined because I don't want to endorse what she's done. I'm happy that she found something meaningful in her life. I'm sorry Judaism couldn't fulfill her."

Luke: "She found something more comforting."

Ari: "Yeah."

Luke: "She found that closer personal relationship with God. You don't hear much talk about personal relationship with God in Judaism."

Ari: "Right."

3/11/05

But Can Sex Talk Be the Bride of Chastity?

With her new book, "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity" (Brazos Press), Ms. Winner, a 28-year-old evangelical Christian, intends to promote chastity among Christians while challenging the prevailing just-say-no approach with an unflinching, soul-searching, distinctly up-to-date alternative that urges people toward a frank assessment and acceptance of their sexuality. Drawing on her own history of premarital sex as a cosmopolitan, liberal single woman and delving into subjects like sodomy and masturbation, she aims her argument at sophisticated young working Christians who know the ways of the world. In her view, people are more likely to abstain from sex once they fully understand its power.

Ms. Winner certainly doesn't run from the topic. She speaks of her "endless numbers of boyfriends" after having sex for the first time at 15, an experience she discusses in "Real Sex."

All told Ms. Winner was celibate for only "a couple of years" earlier in her 20's ("with some backsliding," she said with a shrug).

Still, one odd aspect of "Real Sex" is that the book, while a passionate plea to postpone sex, can be read as a celebration of female sexuality, in particular her own.

11/7/05

The New Faces of Chastity

For Lauren Winner and Anna Broadway, married sex is the only sex

Lauren Winner (laurenwinner.net) is an unlikely poster girl for abstinence before marriage. Forget images of nuns, scolds, and dowdy politicians. She wears cat's-eye glasses, sparkly tights, and a charming smile. As we chat, our camaraderie is surprising; after all, her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity argues that the only good, honest, and moral sex is between a man and woman married to each other. Somehow, despite our differences, I'm at ease with Winner and can listen openly.

When I start to say "But I'm a feminist," she interrupts me: "I'm a feminist too." For her, sex within marriage is sacred, but she also takes the church to task for its sexist teachings and simplistic abstinence campaigns. Winner writes, "In insisting that premarital sex will make you feel bad, the church is misstating the nature of sin. The plain, sad fact is that we do not always feel bad after we do something wrong. To acknowledge that premarital sex might feel good is not to say that premarital sex is good." Other lies Winner blasts the church about: Women lack libido, bodies are gross and disgusting. "Just say no" doesn't work, for sex or drugs, unless you're giving people a better alternative.