Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Satan in Judaism-playing devil's advocate

Dear Tanta Golda,
At our book club meeting this month, one of my friends brought up this interesting question: If Adonai is perfect, how could he have created Satan, the embodiment of evil? We don’t talk about Satan much in Judaism, so we were at a bit of a loss. Can you help?
Bookishly Bewildered

My dear Bookworm,

Ah, when a bunch of scholars get together such interesting questions arise!
To begin with, not wanting to hurt your friend’s feelings, he is basing his premise on two fallacies. The first is the misconception that Jews believe Adonai is infallible. This is Christian dogma, not necessarily Jewish. Now, I’m not saying that Jews believe God goes around making mistakes at the drop of a hat. But let me make two points.

First, let us look at two prayers which are said everyday that heap praise on God. Avot: “The great, mighty and awesome God, supreme God...Sovereign, helper, rescuer, and shield...” Kaddish: “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored, magnified, and adored…” 
Nowhere in this litany does it saw “perfect, infallible, unerring, or faultless”.  I mean, wouldn’t you think that would be in there somewhere?

Second, if Adonai were unerring, why would God have remorse after the flood? “Tanta Golda, She did?” Yes! That is why She made a convent with Noah, sealed with the rainbow. Another example - the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. If God were unerring, would Abraham have stood a chance in ‘negotiating’? Wouldn’t God know whether the whole city was bad,or if there were fifty or ten good people within? And what about Lilith-God’s direct creation...

Now, the big question: Satan
My darling nephew Ethan wrote a paper for college (such a smart boy) about Satan in the Bible, and I’m going to use his research to help answer your question.  Believe it or not, the Torah does not mention Satan, at least not as the evil being that seeks the downfall of Humankind.

The original Hebrew term Satan is a verb that means “to oppose or obstruct” it is often found with the article “ha-” which translates to “the”. Ha-Satan appears thirteen times in the Masoretic Text, a word specific version of the Tanakh. The Masoretic Text/Tanakh includes not only the Torah (Jewish Bible), but also writings of prophetic scholars, and selected other Jewish stories. In it, ha-satan appears 3 times in Zechariah and 10 in Job. It appears another ten times without the article “the” elsewhere, and it is more often than not translated as ‘opposer’ or ‘adversary’.

For example, in the story of Baalam and his ass going off to curse the Israelites- Numbers 22:22 “God's anger was kindled because he (Balaam) went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary (לְשָׂטָן-l’satan) against him.” Here we see an angel acting as an adversary of Balaam at Godʼs command. Hardly the fallen angel, evil, soul-sucking, tempter of the Christian Bible.

In fact, out of the twenty-three different times that the word satan or ha-satan is used in the Jewish texts, not one time do they mean devil. Where did this concept come from? Honestly the answer in brief: mistranslations by the Greeks and other scholars along the centuries.

Thank you for your wonderful question! Much love and Happy Hannukah - TG

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shabbat Candles: Whys & How tos

Dear Tanta Golda,
My friend was given the honor of lighting the candles at Temple recently and we began to wonder about some of the customs about lighting the candles, like covering the eyes, the swooping motion with the hands. And, while we’re at it, why DO we cover the challah?
Sheepishly Ignorant About Shabbat

My darling Lamb, you ask wonderful questions!
I’d like to begin by differentiating between what we are required to do and what have become ‘traditions’. 

On Shabbat, one is commanded “to kindle the light of Shabbat”, and to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (sanctify it). That’s it. (Well, not counting the 39 labors prohibited on Shabbat.) Everything else we do is tradition - even if you don’t live in a village with a fiddler.

Let’s begin with the lighting of the candle(s), since this is how we bring in Shabbat. Did you notice above I quoted “ light of Shabbat”, as in a single lamp or candle? However, it is a widespread custom to light at least two since the the commandment to observe Shabbat comes up twice in the Torah. There is nothing that says one can’t light more than this, and some families have the tradition of lighting a candle for each woman in the family.

The blessing over the candles signals the beginning of Shabbat. Now my darling, all of Tanta Golda’s sources stipulate that we always recite blessings just before we do an act. However, the laws of Shabbat prohibit us from kindling fire on Shabbat, so how can one follow both? By being just a wee bit sneaky. One closes their eyes and or places their hands between their eyes and the candles to ‘hide’ the light until the blessing has been completed. Then, once the hands are removed  - viola! Shabbat has begun.

As you’ve noted, some women have the tradition of swooping their hands to their eyes three times before reciting the blessing. This is done to bring the light and holiness of Shabbat to you. This would seem contrary to the admonition of seeing the lights before the blessing is said, but even my Modern Orthodox friends at say it’s okay. Again, this is a custom, and not required if it makes you feel self-conscious. 

While we’re on the subject of covering things while performing Shabbat mitzvot, let’s discuss why we cover the challah. You might think it’s just to keep off the flies, or dust, but you’d be wrong (though, who wants to eat challah covered with fly-prints?) The actual reason has to do with protecting the dignity of the challah. Believe it or not, there is actually a hierarchy for eating foods. Bread, is highest on the list - the staff of life, so logically one should say the blessing over the bread first. Have you ever seen this? No, of course not! This is because we are commanded to sanctify Shabbat, and we do this by first saying the kiddush (which means ‘holy’ or ‘sanctification’) over the wine. We cover the challah so it won’t be shamed at playing second fiddle to the wine, a lesser food. The sages said that if we go to such lengths to pay respect to inanimate objects, we are lead to see the importance of showing respect living beings.

May this Shabbat, and all that follow be filled with holiness and joy - TG

Friday, August 3, 2012

If Judaism and Islam Both Use Lunar Calendars, Why Are They So Different?

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Dear Tanta Golda,
There’s been talk in the news about the Islamic holiday of Ramadan and how their lunar calendar works. It got me thinking, I know that the Jewish calendar is also lunar and has something to do with why the holidays seem to change every year, but I don’t really get it. Rosh Hashannah is always in September, but I remember when Ramadan was in October and now it’s in July.
Lunar Lunatic
Dear Loony,
The short answer: Yes, they’re both lunar, but both are modified lunar calendars.
For reference, most of the world follows the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, based on our rotation around the sun. One complete circuit=one complete year.
Many traditional societies follow(ed) a lunar calendar: one based on the cycle of the waxing and waning of the moon. In a true lunar calendar, each lunar month begins at the time of the monthly "conjunction", when the Moon is located on a straight line between the Earth and the Sun. Months alternate between 29-30 days. With one day added every 3 years. Both Judaism and Islam use some form of lunar calendar.
Islam’s calendar is close to a ‘pure’ lunar calendar. It consists of 12 lunar months in a year of 354 or 355 days. Being a lunar calendar, it is not synchronized with the seasons. With an annual drift of 10 or 11 days, the seasonal relation repeats about every 33 Islamic years. This is why Ramadan began in July this year. Each month begins when a crescent moon - or ‘new moon’ is sighted at sundown after the 29th day. If for some reason it is not sighted (clouds, the sky is too bright when the moon sets) then the month continues through the 30th day. (This lead this year to different countries beginning Ramadan on different days.) Years in the Islamic tradition are counted from the time Mohammed travelled to Medina. This is the year 1433.
Judaism follows many of the same practices, with modifications. However, in practice we follow a lunisolar calendar: a combination of lunar and solar cycles. It takes about 12 ½ lunar cycles for the Earth to travel around the sun. If we only followed the lunar cycles we would soon be celebrating Hannukah during the summer. To correct for this the Jewish calendar adds a leap month every 2-3 years. It comes after the month of Adar, and is called, creatively, Adar II. This means that Passover always occurs in the spring, Hannukah in the dark days of winter, and the High Holy Days - my little moonbeam - can start as early as September 4th (2013) or as late as September 28th (2011), but never in July or December. Years in the Jewish tradition are counted from the creation of the world. (Feel free to ask that lovely young man Rabbi Jeremy how the ancient rabbis determined this.) This year we enter the year 5773.
I hope this answers your question. Please keep sending your queries to

amazon reviewed Jewish Calendars

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Marriage - Interfaith, Same - Gender, What's the Deal?

Dear Tanta Golda,

I’ve been curious what the three main streams of Judaism have to say about interfaith marriage, and for that matter, what their stands are on same-sex marriage? And what about same-sex interfaith marriages while we’re at it?
Ardently Ambiguous

Dearest Ambiguous,
Very timely questions you ask!  What makes it timely? Well darling when I began looking into this I found out that just one month ago, May 31st, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards - which sets halachic policy for the Conservative movement - voted unanimously to provide the roughly 1,600 Conservative rabbis with guidelines on performing same sex marriages. According to my sources, this move constitutes an official sanction of same-sex marriage by the movement! 
In 2000 the Central Conference of American Rabbis - which speaks for the Reform movement - adopted a resolution which stated “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.” The Reform movement today sees the biblical injunctions against same-gender* couples and homosexuality in general, as being inconsistent with its long tradition of justice and compassion.  *This is the preferred term

The Orthodox movement however, still adheres to the traditional views of homosexuality expressed in the Torah. That is: no, never, no way. There is a nascent movement within the community to modernize this view, along with other egalitarian ideals, such as the ordination of female rabbis, but unfortunately as Tanta Golda sees it, same gender marriage has a long road to travel within the Orthodox movement.

Now, for your other question: interfaith marriage. Believe it or not, interfaith marriage has garnered far less acceptance across all streams of Judaism than same-gender marriage! Maybe you’re not surprised, but I was. (So, ‘no’ to the question of same-gender interfaith marriages.) As a Reform Jew Tanta Golda reads a lot about how the movement encourages reaching out to interfaith couples - but apparently this is after their marriage is a fait-au-complete.

Let me elucidate. The basic premise is that interfaith marriage “denies the distinctiveness of Jewish marriage, it weakens the fabric of family relationship and the survival potential of the Jewish community.” And this is from Mark Washofsky who wrote the definitive guide to contemporary Reform practice! This was re-affirmed institutionally at the 1973 meeting of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis).
The Orthodox have called interfaith marriage the “second silent holocaust”. No mincing of words here! They point to numerous sources to support their stance.

The Conservative movement ‘discourages intermarriage’, meaning their rabbis won’t perform any, but that they don’t shun those interfaith couples who wish to be members. They hope that eventually through acceptance of the interfaith couple, they will choose to raise their children as Jews, and the non-Jewish spouse will move closer to Judaism and eventually choose to convert.

The Reform movement holds similar views as above. You will find some Reform rabbis who will perform Jewish marriage ceremonies for interfaith couples, but they are in the minority.

Now perhaps you think the fears of the dilution of Judaism is unfounded, let me share some statistics gathered by the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001:
The intermarriage rate before 1970 was 13%. Between 1970-1979 it jumped to 28%. By 2001 it had reached 47%. That is, nearly half of marriages of Jews were to non-Jewish spouses. Half the couples in interfaith marriages  do not expose their children to any kind of (Jewish) religious instruction. 
Tanta Golda understands that these numbers are troublesome. But we live in an integrated society. Our social and business contacts are no longer limited solely to other Jews. You love who you love: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, gay or straight. Who can say that this is not God’s will? Tanta Golda for one, would not presume to know.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why Do We Bless Bread?

Dear Tanta Golda,
I’ve been asked to recite the blessing over the bread at a wedding and say a few words, but I am humbled to admit that I don’t know why we say a blessing over the bread. Could you help me out, please?
Bashfully Baffled B.
Darling Bashful,
Sometimes it is the most basic questions that are left unasked. Just because the question appears simple, doesn’t mean that everyone knows the answer!
First let us discuss briefly the purpose of prayer. The ancient rabbis (those slightly older than Tanta Golda dear) said that the purpose of prayer is to remind us of God’s presence at all times, and so that we don’t just take things for granted.
The Babylonian Talmud states: Whoever enjoys the fruit of this world without first saying a blessing has stolen from God. (B’rachot 35a) Goodness!
It is also stated in the Talmud that one should say 100 blessings - a day! Well if you have time to attend three daily services and throw in a few more blessings throughout the day for food, etc, you can easily get to 100, but really… 
Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher said that there are three types of blessings: Those recited prior to eating, drinking, or smelling nice things - Birchot Hanehenin, blessings recited before performing a mitzvot - Birchot Hamitzvot, and blessings that express praise of God, give thanks, as well as those that ask for things - Birchot Hodaah.
There are two main ‘formulas’ for prayers. The vast majority begin with the same six words: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam… Praised are You, Adonai our God Ruler of the universe…
The second important formula is the one recited for ritual acts that are mitzvot-things we are commanded to do. These have a ten word opening: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvoav v’tzivanu… Praised are You, Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to…
The blessing that we recite over bread is one of the Birchot Hanehenin, so begins with the six word opening: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Now to your question regarding the specific reason why we say a blessing over bread. Bread has always been seen as a symbol of life. In the Bible there are many examples of guests being offered bread to eat. (As you remember, Abraham and Sarah are famous for their hospitality.) In fact, bread is so important that this one blessing said at the beginning of the meal covers ALL the food to be eaten during the meal!
In other words, bread sustains us, and community sustains us, so we give thanks.
Keep your questions coming, whether basic or complex!  Love TG

Friday, April 27, 2012

When Does Chicken Moo? Or, Is Chicken Dairy?

Dear Tanta Golda,
A question came up at our pot luck the other night, can you eat chicken with dairy? If not, why not? 
Also, isn’t there some holiday coming up where we are supposed to eat dairy? What’s that about?
Debating Dietary Dilemmas 
Dearest Debating,
As always I’m impressed with the questions all of you send me. Chicken - oye! The biblical injunction states:”you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, & Deuteronomy 14:21) This would seem to any logical person to refer to mammals alone, since for all intents and purposes only mammalian mothers produce milk. (I recently learned on Science Friday about an insect that does, but how many of us intentionally eat insects?) So, it would seem at first blush that chicken and milk would get the rabbinic nod. Ha!
In traditional Judaism chicken is not considered dairy - that is a food that can be eaten at the same meal as dairy products. This halacha is found in the Babylonian Talmud. The reasoning behind this stems from a) the fact that beef, lamb, and chicken are all slaughtered in the same ritual fashion, and b) because at least in ancient times they were all cooked in similar fashions and people might confuse them.
This is another instance when Tanta Golda just shakes her head and thinks that this shows once again how little men in ancient times understood about what went on in the kitchen. It’s not like ancient housewives went to the freezer and pulled out “mystery meat” and thought ‘is this chicken or lamb?’ In an age of no refrigeration, chicken was slaughtered usually a few hours before consumption. If I had just spent a half hour covered in chicken feathers, I’m pretty sure I’d remember that the meat I was cooking was chicken, not moo cow.
Some Jews choose to follow the biblical rules of kashrut alone, for them chicken and diary would be acceptable. If you are having guests over who keep kosher, you should check to see at what level they observe.
Now for your second question about a dairy holiday.
In just a few weeks we will be observing Shavuot (May 26-27 2012). It has become tradition to eat dairy dishes on this day. Several reasons are given.
One is that Shavuot has become associated with the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. While they were learning about the rules of kashrut, especially those regarding ritual slaughter, they refrained from meat and ate dairy instead. Another reason is that the words of Torah are often compared to milk & honey. Similarly, the land of Israel is referred to as the land of milk & honey. I think it’s a wonderful excuse to eat cheesecake and blintzes! 
Enjoy - and keep sending those questions!
Love, Tanta Golda

Monday, March 26, 2012

What About Passover on Shabbat?

Dear Tanta Golda,
I understand that Passover starts on Shabbat this year. It there anything special I’m supposed to do?
Poorly Prepped for Pesach
Dear Poorly,
In case you haven’t noticed, Tanta Golda herself was not raised in an Orthodox home so she had to look this one up to be certain. The short answer – no. If Passover was starting on Saturday evening this would be a whole different story, but this doesn't occur again until 2021 so why look for trouble?
In this case the only effect on your Seder observance will the blessing said over the candles. – Remember, candles are lit for every Yom Tov.
So on Friday night you will say: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melach haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotov, v’tzivanu, l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat v’Yom Tov.
For more Passover questions answered, check out my blogs from March and April of 2011

Love as always, and may your matzah always be crispy,
Tanta Golda

Monday, March 12, 2012

Quinoa for Pesach?

Dear Tanta Golda,
I'm going to be hosting a large group at my house on the second night of Pesach. I was wondering, can I serve quinoa?

Dearest Curious,

An interesting question! I'd say yes as it isn't one of the 5 prohibited grains: wheat, rye, oat, barley, spelt.

As you may know some Ashkenazic Jews also refrain from rice, and legumes such as peas ( this always seemed silly to me - I mean if it isn't in flour form, why not?) and Sephardic Jews often refrain from corn and rice as well as legumes.

Quinoa doesn't make any of these lists. It originated in the Andes - historically not a part of the world that our ancestors migrated from. Now perhaps rabbis in South America have made "rulings" on this, but I'd say you're safe.

Have a Happy Pesach!
Tanta Golda

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Jewish Humor

Dear Tanta Golda,
I recently picked up a joke book and I noticed that there were quite a few Jewish jokes. This got me wondering: Why are there so many Jewish mother jokes? Don’t Catholics, Buddhists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have mothers? Aren’t they funny too?
Son of a Jewish mother

Dear son,
Jewish mothers are funny? I hadn’t noticed…
All I do is worry about you – Stop slouching, you think I don’t know you’re slouching out there on the other side of this letter? Do you want to be as hunched over as that poor hunchback of Notre Dame? Do you think he had a Jewish mother? Of course not! Look at him.

Now where were we? Oy yes, why Jewish humor. There are some who say that Jewish humor stems from the legal and intellectual methods used in the Talmud, where the arguments are so elaborate and situations used so absurd, as to border on humor. I don’t know that the scholars of the time saw themselves as comedians, but it’s an interesting concept to ponder.

Now that you’re done pondering, let’s look at more modern roots of Jewish humor. Much of what we in the United States think of as “Jewish Humor” had its roots in Eastern Europe. Why is Eastern Europe so important to humor? Well, bubalah that is where the majority of American Jews can trace their ancestry. So now, think pogroms, blood libel, and the Holocaust. Is it any wonder that Saul Bellow once said, “Oppressed people tend to be witty.” It was a part of a long tradition in Eastern Europe to mock powerful people. Look at Purim Shpeils. A scholar of Jewish humor – Rabbi Woldoks – said that humor defends the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures (even rabbis!)

This style of self- deprecating humor was brought to American consciousness first through vaudeville, then radio, stand-up, films, and television. It is true that comedians have been disproportionally Jewish, though the past 15 or so years as seen a rise in the same sort of self deprecating humor coming from the African-American and Hispanic communities.

The stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother and smothered son, was further fueled by fiction writers such as Herman Wouk and Philip Roth. Author William Helreich (another nice Jewish boy) posited that the attributes we associate with Jewish mothers (over protective, pushy, and guilt inducing) can equally describe mothers of other ethnicities. These traits have their roots in the self sacrifice of first generation immigrants who then transfer their aspirations onto their darlings. And why wouldn’t they? It has been noted that as the immigrant generation becomes further removed, mother jokes have morphed into the Jewish grandmother joke. Hmph!
If one does a web search (not for spiders, Tanta Golda wouldn’t tolerate them in her home!) there are plenty of jokes about Catholics (often listed as ‘clean’) and even Buddhists. The fact is – in Tanta Golda’s unbiased opinion – Jews are just funnier.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Yahrzeit Candle on the Birthday?

Tanta Golda,
I read your blog about lighting Yahrzeit candles (Oct ’10) and I was wondering: can I light a candle to honor my deceased father’s birthday?
Dutiful Daughter
Dearest Dutiful,
What a lovely question! To answer let us first look at why we light Yahrzeit candles in the first place. It is believed that the candle represents the soul of the departed which is never extinguished in our hearts. Like the flame of a candle, a human life is fragile and should be nourished and cherished. As it says in Proverbs, "The soul of man is the candle of G-d."
In other words, we light the candles so that every time we see the flame we are reminded of our loved ones. There is no prohibition that Tanta Golda can find against lighting a candle in addition to the traditional times (anniversary of their passing, erev Yom Kippur, and the conclusion of the three pilgrimage holidays: Sukkot, Pesach, & Shavuot.) I can see nothing wrong with wanting to honor and remember your father on his birthday by lighting a Yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit candles 
May their memories be a blessing - Tanta G

Where did the Star of David Come From?

Dear Tanta Golda,
A friend of mine asked me a question the other day and I was embarrassed to realize I didn’t know the answer! What does the Star of David represent, and why is it on the Israeli flag?
Hoping to Save Face
Dear Hoping,
Don’t be so hard on yourself my dear, that’s what Jewish mothers are for!
The star of David, or Magen David you may be surprised to learn, has no religious significance. It isn’t even mentioned in rabbinic literature until the Middle Ages. It is  however, an ancient symbol that was used by a number of cultures including Christians and Muslims. In the Middle East and North Africa the symbol of intertwined equilateral triangles is thought to be a symbol of good luck.
Some Kabbalists, who are always looking for hidden meaning in things, have proffered that the six points represent God’s presence everywhere - in the six cardinal directions: up, down, north, south, east, and west. (The same reason we shake the luluv in these directions during Sukkot.) They also believe the two triangles themselves symbolize humanity’s dual nature - good and evil. Think of it as the Jewish ying-yang.
Now of course other scholars have other ideas: that the upward triangle points towards God, and the downward towards the real world. Some say that the intertwining of the triangles show the inseparability of the Jewish people. Others point to the twelve sides as representing the twelve tribes of Israel. It’s amazing the symbolism one can find when one is searching for meaning!
There is a midrash, a Jewish Aesop fable of sorts, that when King David was a teen he fought King Nimrod. On his shield were two interlocking triangles. During the heat of the battle these fused together reinforcing the shield, enabling him to win the day. Such a lovely visual of strength! 
According to Tanta Golda’s sources, sometime in the 17th century the Magen David started to become a way to distinguish the Jewish part of town, and began to be used to denote synagogues, much the way a cross indicates a church.
On the less pleasant side of our discussion, Hitler was not the first to employ the use of the star as a means to single out Jews. During the lovely Middle Ages it was not uncommon that Jews had to wear some kind of identifying badge. Often stars, but I should point out, not always.
When the Israeli flag was designed there was some controversy because of its recent negative association with the Holocaust. And, there are those who feel that the star is a trifle, not really a Jewish symbol, and therefore shouldn’t be on the flag!
Bubbelah, let me end on a lighter note by sharing a little bit of Magen David trivia:
-In the 1950’s Heathrow airport had six runways that were laid out… you guessed it, in the pattern of the Magen David, each a little over a mile long!
-The largest Star of David is….a building on the Smokey Hills Weapons Range in Kansas. Or so Wikipedia claims.
-And finally, in 2007 an Israeli flag was unfurled near Masada, breaking the World’s Record as the largest flag ever recorded!    

Much love as always - Tanta Golda

Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Should You Convert in the Reform Stream?

Dear Tanta Golda-
I’ve become friends with two gentlemen who wish to convert, but I’ve been wrestling with the process they must go through. If only ultra-orthodox conversions are accepted in Israel and even in some of our own Jewish communities, why should a person convert in Reform Judaism? Why do we insist that they be more versed in Judaism than many who are born Jewish?
Struggling with Old Fashioned Conformity
My darling Struggler,
I’m glad that you have welcomed these proselytes, newcomers to our faith. A mitzvah on your head!
You have challenged Tanta Golda’s assumptions, so I’ve spent some time reviewing an excellent book on contemporary Reform practice – Jewish Living, by Mark Washofsky, for guidance on this question from your heart.
Even among the Reform, one does not become a Jew merely by declaring, “I am a Jew” or “I accept the Jewish religion.” One must either be born or become a Jew through a process recognized and administered by the community. It might help you to think of an analogy to citizenship.  Just because someone “feels” American and participates in many American traditions, even if they have a green card, they are still barred from participating in all the rights and obligations (such as voting) that someone “natural born,” or one who has completed the formal process of naturalization, is entitled to. Converstion is our form of naturalization. 
We ask the proselyte to undergo a formal process whose rituals evoke the experience of the Israelites at Sinai when we as a community accepted the Torah and all its laws. In a sense we all became converts at Sinai.
The Torah recognized that the ger-the stranger amongst us often does take part in some aspects of Judaism, and when they do “the same law applies to them as the Israelite.” However, the Torah also demands that we guarentee them justice. This very requirement testifies to their inequality in Jewish society - even Reform Jewish society.
Long ago there was a term - Ger Toshav - which refered to a gentile who had adopted a number of Jewish practices without converting. Jewish law no longer recognizes this semi-proselyte as a status. There have been some proposals in Reform circles to bring it back, to recognize the reality that exists within our congregations today, where non-Jewish relatives are not ‘outsiders’ but play an active role in our communities. I’m sure you can think of a number of examples within the TBI community.
However, Reform reponsa (written decisions and rulings given by scholars of Jewish law) do not accept this. Citing two reasons: 1) the term no longer has meaning as it applies to any monotheist -this was a bigger deal in ancient times when the term was first coined  2) this term for the ‘virtual Jew’ implies that they have the rights and obligations to participate equally, but except perhaps in the rare Reform syangogue, they don’t. These full rights come from full membership - just like your right to vote and serve on a jury come from full membership as a US citizen.
Continueing with the citizen analogy - are there ‘natural born’ US citizens who are all but ignorant of US history, the workings of government, or even how to read, write, and speak English well? Of course, just as there are ‘natural born’ Jews ignorant of Jewish history, rituals, and language. Yet in both cases these people are granted full rights and previlages just by virtue of birth. Should it be otherwise?  Well, this question is outside of Tanta Golda’s scope of advice! You have raised excellent questions and I hope I’ve given you guidance in your struggle. TG