How to Keep Kosher Just About Anywhere

Dear Josep,

The story of my getting stranded in Barcelona without kosher food and you trying to help me has now been immortalized both in nonfiction and, to a degree, in fiction. While both of us were mad at a certain-organization-that-will-remain-unnamed for this incident, the fact is, it wasn’t entirely their fault. They gave me misleading information (due to their own ignorance) that led me to come unprepared–and my being unprepared was the real issue.

This time, I put a lot of thought and effort into preparing!

I decided to write this post as a guide for kosher-keeping travelers or visitors–or non-kosher-keeping hosts who would like their kosher-keeping friends or family members to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves in their homes. However, a word of caution to those in the latter category: I wouldn’t advise trying to prepare kosher food yourself. When you’re not used to keeping kosher or don’t know all the rules (and there are many; I wrote three blog posts just to explain the very basics!), it’s very easy to screw things up. Discuss your plans with your guests and figure out how to handle the situation together.

Why Not Just Eat Vegan?

Many people who keep kosher feel comfortable eating at vegan or vegetarian restaurants that don’t have kosher supervision. The laws of kashrut, however, are more complicated than just not being allowed to eat certain types of meat, and for those of us who are strict about them, this is not really an option. Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • Utensils and cooking implements: You don’t know where they were used before being designated for this restaurant. The oven, for example, may have been bought second-hand. Additionally, you have no guarantee that kitchen workers aren’t bringing in their own food and warming it using the same utensils. You’d have to fully interview the staff to ascertain how strict their policies are. Even if the meal you’ve ordered is completely raw, you need to worry about knives that were used to cut things with strong flavors, such as garlic, onions, and lemons. (See Jew Food Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated for further explanation on why these things are an issue.)
  • Bishul akum and pat akumThese are rabbinic strictures that prohibit the consumption of foods cooked and baked by a non-Jew. (This is not because we think non-Jews are impure or something, it’s just because keeping the laws of kashrut is so complicated that it’s hard for us to trust that someone who doesn’t believe in its importance and isn’t used to doing it will be careful enough about it.) There are some loopholes, especially for Ashkenazim, where if a Jew starts the cooking process by turning on the oven or lighting the stove, the stricture no longer applies, so theoretically you could get permission to do that–but if you’re Sephardi, no dice.
  • Checking for bugs: Even the most respectable restaurants don’t check vegetables for bugs to the crazy OCD level kashrut requires. Some veggies don’t need careful checking, like zucchini, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc., but leafy greens, herbs, and vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are notoriously hard to check. (More on this under “Little Friends” in Jew Food, Part II: The Vegan Section (Well, Sort of))
  • Processed ingredients with additives: A very strict vegan restaurant may not use any spice mixes or oils that are not certified vegan, but you’d have to check and make sure. Vegetable oils require kosher certification because of the way they are processed. The only type of oil that doesn’t need certification is extra virgin olive oil from a reputable brand. Canned goods may contain additives that are produced from animals. Even baking paper needs certification because it’s sometimes treated with animal fats.
  • Wine and grape juice: There is a particular rabbinic stricture prohibiting the consumption of wine or grape juice that has not been produced from start to finish by a fully Sabbath-observant Jew. This means that kosher wine and grape juice are fairly hard to come by. You’d need to be sure that the dish they’re serving you was not cooked with non-kosher wine or grape juice.

In other words, unless you interviewed the staff very thoroughly and were very careful about what you ordered, you can’t be certain that what you’re eating is 100% kosher. In extreme circumstances there may be room to be lenient on some of the rabbinic strictures.

Kosher Restaurants

If you’re in an area with a significant Jewish community, there may be a restaurant or two that has kosher supervision. However, be warned: solitary kosher restaurants have captive audiences and no competition, and they need to work with more expensive ingredients, so prices tend to be high, and quality is generally not great. There are, of course, exceptions; Eitan and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food at both Shaq Shuq and BenBen Kosher House‘s café in Barcelona.

Thank God for Chabad

Okay but seriously, let me take a moment to heap praises upon the Chabad organization for everything they do to make the world a more comfortable and accessible place for religious Jews. They send emissaries out to the middle of nowhere to establish centers for Jewish life and provide religious services for visitors and residents. If you’re looking for information about keeping kashrut in a particular place, contacting Chabad is a great start. They often will have catering services or ready-made Shabbat meals you can order.

We contacted Rav Avi, the rabbi who runs the Chabad in Girona, before our trip. He gave us some helpful tips and invited us to make use of his kitchen during our stay in Girona.

So what do you do if you need to eat and there are no kosher options around?

The first thing to do is figure out what kind of local food products you can use.

How to Find Local Food Items That Have Kosher Supervision or Don’t Require It

In the USA, you can walk into any supermarket and find many products that have kosher certification: merely search for one of the many kashrut certification symbols on the package. In Israel, almost every product on the shelves lists some kind of certification. (It’s basically only imported products in specialty stores you need to worry about.) In most of the rest of the world, you won’t necessarily find the information on the package. You have to have The List.

Local rabbinic authorities draw up lists of products that are okay to consume in a given country. I found the most updated kashrut guide from the Madrid rabbinate and pored over it before we left. The gist was that options included imported products from big Jewish communities like France, the US, or the UK, or products that don’t require supervision anyway (as will be elaborated below).

Here are some of the ingredients you can buy at any supermarket that don’t need supervision (unless they have questionable additives: flavorings, glycerin, coloring, grape juice etc.):

Protein & legumes:

  • Fresh fish (if it has scales, it’s kosher! Best if it’s kept separate from nonkosher fish behind the counter; if it’s been soaking in water with nonkosher fish, could be an issue. In any case, best to rinse it off)
  • Dried beans
  • Dried lentils
  • Dried peas
  • Eggs
  • Raw nuts and seeds

Grains:

  • Plain durum wheat pasta
  • Plain rice
  • Raw buckwheat
  • Cornmeal
  • Pearl barley
  • Popcorn kernels
  • Raw, pure oats
  • Plain wheat flour
  • Millet
  • Quinoa (yes, I know quinoa’s not a grain, so kill me)
  • Plain couscous

Fruits & veggies:

*Note: If they’re imported from Israel, they need certification because of mitzvot hatluyot baaretz issues. Supermarkets in Catalonia clearly marked the origins of all produce, but in places where they don’t do that, you can assume the produce is not imported from Israel unless otherwise indicated.

  • Fresh–all kinds
  • Frozen (as long as they were frozen fresh without additives)
  • Canned fruit with permitted additives such as salt, sugar, E-300, E-330, ascorbic acid, and/or citric acid
  • Dried apricots, peaches, nectarines, dates, figs, prunes, pears, pineapples (sulfur dioxide is fine, other additives no)
  • Sun-dried tomatoes (not marinated or with additives)

Flavorings:

  • Extra virgin olive oil from a reputable brand (EVOO is not regulated in most countries, and companies have been known to mix it with inferior oils produced with heat, which do need certification!)
  • Salt
  • Pure spices (except smoked spices, chili powders, horseradish, or wasabi powder–and the package should specify that it’s 100% pure with no additives)
  • Sugar (white, brown, cane, beet, powdered, all fine)
  • Pure honey

Beverages:

  • Unflavored coffee (not decaf)
  • Unflavored tea
  • Coca-cola products such as Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, 7 Up
  • Pure fruit juices (fresh-squeezed or from concentrate) with no questionable additives. Grape, prune and tomato juices need supervision
  • Water. Duh.

No one will starve on that, right? You’ll notice there are three main categories of foods that most Westerners are used to eating and aren’t on this list: meat, dairy products, and baked goods. Outside the US and Israel, you can basically only find those things in specialty kosher stores like BenBen Kosher House in Barcelona. In other Western countries, you may be able to find imported products like Heinz ketchup and mayonnaise, Kikkoman soy sauce, and of course, the famous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that served as my main nourishment during my previous trip to Barcelona. (Haagen-Dasz is kosher too.) Some places will have an “American section” in the store where you are more likely to find such products.

Note also that in specific countries there may be no problem with other types of products, such as canned vegetables and beans, certain brands of milk and butter, etc. That’s what The List is for!

Well, now that we have all this food, how do we make it edible?

You can probably survive without access to a kitchen, especially if you’re only going to be traveling for a few days, but you’ll certainly eat a lot better if you can cook. For that reason, many kosher-keeping travelers opt to stay at an apartment with a fully equipped kitchen rather than a hotel.

But you can’t count on that kitchen being kosher, right? So how can you use it?

How to Cook Kosher Food in a Non-Kosher Kitchen

First off, all the pots, pans, plates, etc. that the food touches while hot need to be kosher. That means you’ll need to either bring your own pots and pans (and knife for cutting onions, garlic etc.) or buy new. Kashering pots and pans is more trouble than it’s worth for a temporary situation. At the bottom of this post I’ll include a list of recommended items to bring with you.

Microwaves

Microwaves are very easy to kasher, because the way they work is by making the food heat itself rather than applying heat to it, so the walls and floor normally don’t get hot enough to be a problem. The only potential problem is the steam. So simply ensure that it’s clean and hasn’t been used in the past 24 hours, then fill a microwave-safe cup (paper works) halfway with water and a little dish soap and microwave it for a few minutes (until the inside of the microwave is full of steam). You can also cook in a non-kashered microwave if you double-wrap the food in plastic.

Google is full of very creative microwave recipes, but of course you’re going to be limited by the ingredients you have. If you don’t have access to a stovetop, you can use a microwave-safe container to cook pastarice, beans, or polenta. You can poach eggs, too.

Ovens

So the thing about ovens is that they have to be sparkling clean on the inside in order to kasher. It’s kind of hard to clean an oven quite that thoroughly, especially if it’s in regular use (with the exception, of course, of self-cleaning ovens, which self-kasher when they self-clean!). To kasher an oven, you have to make sure there are no bits of food or crumbs on the inside at all (including the walls and ceiling of the oven–and this may take oven cleaner and heavy scrubbing), and then turn it on its highest heat for an hour or two.

If you can’t do this or couldn’t be bothered to do this, you can still use the oven to cook things, it just gets a little more complicated.

The easiest and surest way to get around the problem is to cook things double-wrapped in aluminum foil. That is, say, in an aluminum pan covered with foil, and then another layer of foil surrounding the whole thing. This is how airlines serve kosher meals on airplanes: everything that needs to be heated is double-wrapped and can therefore be placed in the oven along with the non-kosher food.

The problem is that things can take forever to cook this way–and from what I understand, it’s not actually necessary to double-wrap if no non-kosher food is being cooked in the oven at the same time. A single layer of foil covering the rack, and a single layer of foil covering the food itself, can be sufficient–and if the oven is very clean, with no food residue on it, it may be okay to cook non-wet foods uncovered (a.k.a., foods that are mostly solid either before or after cooking). Opinions vary widely because there is a debate about whether and how much steam transfers flavor, so you’ll need to consult your rabbi. When in doubt, stick with double-wrapping and take into account that cooking time will be long.

Stoves

Because stoves apply heat directly to the pot or pan, they more or less kasher themselves–and because their contact with the pot or pan is on the outside, which is usually dry, there is less of an issue to begin with. With a gas or electric stove, turn the burners on to the highest heat for a few minutes, and you’re good to go. To be extra careful, you can cover the grates of a gas stovetop with foil.

Unfortunately, induction stovetops are more of a problem. Ceramic is impossible to kasher, and so is glass if you’re Ashkenazi. They also only work with certain types of metal, so chances are whatever kosher pot or pan you bring won’t work on them.

And unfortunately for us, induction stoves seem to be all the rage in Catalonia. I couldn’t find a suitable place to stay in Girona that had a different kind of stove! Our place up in the mountains, however, had a gas range, and we did all our cooking on that stovetop.

If we hadn’t been able to find a place with a gas range, we might have brought a portable electric burner with us (something like this). Glad we didn’t have to!

Utensils

Theoretically, you can use non-kosher utensils to handle cold, non-spicy/strong-flavored food on an impermanent basis. It’s best not to rely on this, though, especially if you’re likely to be using garlic, lemons/lemon juice, or onions in your food. Best to bring your own stuff–metal or hard plastic. Don’t count on the mugs having been used only for coffee, either. People eat stews and soups out of mugs.

We did make use of a wooden salad bowl at our apartment in the mountains, since it was just holding cold vegetables.

Surfaces & Sinks

You don’t really need to worry about countertops that are clean if you’re not handling hot or strong-flavored food on them directly. You might want to bring a cutting board or mat for veggies. Still, marble countertops can be kashered by pouring boiling water on them, as can metal sinks. If the sink is ceramic or otherwise unkashered, just be careful not to leave dishes or pots lying in the sink or rest the pot on the bottom of the sink while washing it with hot water. (Cold water is fine.) By the way, best to get a new, unused sponge, but as long as you’re using it with dish soap, it’s not a problem.

When All Else Fails: Get Creative

I’ve heard of a few people who made creative use of the iron in their hotel room to cook fish or make grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil! Still others have used hot cars to steam frozen vegetables in their packaging. Necessity is the mother of invention…

What to Bring or Buy to Make Your Life Easier

There are a few key things you may want to bring with you, or purchase at a local kosher store, that will make it much easier for you and increase your options.

Equipment

Note that if you plan on cooking both meat and dairy, you’ll need to bring two sets of pots, pans etc.

  • A pot and/or pan for the stovetop
  • A good, sharp knife for vegetables (make sure to send it in your checked baggage if you’re flying!)
  • A cutting board or mat
  • A heat-safe large spoon and/or spatula
  • A few plastic, microwave-safe containers (for heating and cooking in the microwave and/or storing leftovers)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Plastic wrap
  • Plates, cups, and bowls (reusable plastic or paper is best, especially if you’re going to use them in the microwave)
  • Forks, spoons, and knives (you can bring a set or buy plastic)
  • If you’re not sure you’ll have access to a kasherable stove, you can bring along an electric stove top or hot plate, and/or a sandwich maker or electric grill. Sandwich makers are more compact and don’t require a pan to use, but they will obviously limit you more (though you can cook eggs, fish, etc. on them, not just toasted sandwiches!).

Food Items

  • Your favorite spice mixes
  • Powdered milk, if you’re going somewhere where you can’t have milk. If you’re not flying, shelf-stable milk is a good idea too
  • Canned beans and/or fish
  • Preserved meats/sausages that don’t require refrigeration, or can be frozen so they’ll stay cold until you can access a fridge
  • Filling snacks, such as crackers or granola bars
  • Instant soups/noodles
  • Freeze some bread to take with you–it’ll stay fresher and will be less easily squished

Some Meal Suggestions

Stumped about what sort of meals you can put together with the above limitations? Here are some suggestions:

Fish: This is probably the easiest meal, because fish cooks quickly even when sealed in foil, and don’t need fancy flavorings to taste good. We picked up some fresh salmon fillets at a store in Girona, fried them in olive oil (seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, and lemon), and served them with a fresh salad dressed with lemon and the tahini we brought along.

I’m not in the habit of Instagramming my meals, okay?

Legume stews, soups & salads: Lentils cook fast, don’t require soaking, and are nutritious and filling. Beans work too, but you’ll need to find them canned or otherwise soak them. (If you’re pressed for time you can use a quick-soaking method: cover the beans with water, bring to a boil, boil 1 minute, remove from heat and let them soak for an hour. Then drain, refill with fresh water and cook as usual.) Make a salad with other veggies, nuts, seeds, herbs, grains–whatever you’ve got!–and dress it olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Make a soup or stew with tomatoes, root veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, and whatever spices you can find.

Eggs: Eggs are versatile and filling and cook quickly. We fried eggs in olive oil and toasted bread in the pan for a filling breakfast. You can make a frittata with veggies and grains; add boiled eggs to a salad; or serve poached, fried, or scrambled eggs over polenta or next to green beans, peas and/or other veggies. How about shakshouka? If you can’t find canned crushed tomatoes, you can cook fresh ones in a pan with onions, garlic and water until they’re soft and saucy, then add your eggs. Sprinkle fresh cilantro on top when they’re done. I suspect you could improvise this dish in the microwave if you don’t have access to a stove.

Pasta: You might find pasta pretty boring without dairy or meat, but you can add some soft nuts like cashews and walnuts, or legumes, for protein. (How about throwing some pasta in one of the above bean or lentil salads?) If you can find avocados, you can make them into a creamy sauce with garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice etc., and I bet that would be awesome with cherry tomatoes. Sauteed mushrooms are great with pasta, and so are sun-dried tomatoes. (You may want to soak them in warm water for a bit to soften them.) Many Italians eat pasta aglio e olio, and that’s a cinch to make–just lightly saute some garlic in a pan with olive oil, dump the whole thing on the the pasta and toss.

Roasted stuffed potatoes and sweet potatoes: So you don’t have a lot of options for stuffing here, but this could be a good way to use up extra stew. Roast some potatoes or sweet potatoes in the oven, split them open, and fill with whatever’s at hand. Sauteed mushrooms would be a good addition here too.

Keeping Kosher in Catalonia

We were just two adults traveling from Sunday to Thursday, so it was really quite easy. We packed sandwiches, boiled eggs, sliced bell peppers, and some nut-and-fruit bars for breakfast and snacks on the plane on Sunday. We also brought the following:

  • A small pareve pot and lid
  • A dairy frying pan
  • A big pareve knife
  • Two cutting mats, one pareve, one dairy
  • Canned tuna (mostly for me)
  • Canned sardines (mostly for Eitan)
  • Small jar of mayonnaise
  • Small squeezable bottle of mustard
  • Jar of raw tahini (for dressing salads)
  • Small amounts of salt, pepper, and thyme
  • Small bag of chia seeds (we find that they make a more satisfying meal when added to yogurt)
  • 2 packages of whole wheat crackers

We bought yogurts, jam, fresh fruit and veggies, fresh fish, and eggs at regular supermarkets in Barcelona and Girona, and went to BenBen (the kosher store) for bread, cheeses, hummus, and a package of cinnamon tortas de aceite as a treat. (I mean, after traveling all the way to Barcelona just to eat Israeli food at Shaq Shuq, we had to try something local!)

In terms of restaurants, we enjoyed lunch at Shaq Shuq and breakfast at BenBen (which, to our surprise, serves pareve and meat, not dairy, but was still good). There is another kosher restaurant in Barcelona right near Shaq Shuq, called Maccabi. There are also five hotels listed on this website under “accommodations,” but I have no idea whether that means they can supply kosher catering or just that they’re near Jewish institutions. We stayed at Hotel Zenit, which was a 10-minute walk from BenBen, and we were very comfortable there.

We had more than enough food and ended up leaving a bunch for our Airbnb host!

Logistics would have been much more complicated if we’d brought our kids, especially since our middle son has celiac, so sandwiches, pasta, and regular crackers wouldn’t have worked. (Though I noted that there’s a decent gluten-free section on the kosher list as well as in most stores in Catalonia.) Hopefully, that’s a challenge we’ll have occasion to rise to. 😉

For more ideas on how to feed a larger family for a longer period of time and without access to a kosher store, you can check out this detailed blog post an American-Israeli friend of mine wrote about how she fed her family during their two-week trip to the Azores.

B’teavon (that’s “bon appetit” in Hebrew),

Daniella


Kosher-keeping readers out there–how have you handled similar situations? What creative ideas for meals have you come up with when you had limited access to kosher food and facilities? I’d love to hear in the comments!

A More Detailed Report!

Dear Josep,

Well, we are home, safe and sound, and I am procrastinating catching up on my workload to write this post…

This trip could not have been more different from my previous trip to Barcelona… in the best way possible.

For one thing, I was very well-fed. 😉 (A full post on keeping kosher while traveling in Catalonia and in general is on its way!) For another, while I wouldn’t exactly say I felt at home there, it felt, to a degree, like somewhere I belong. Having you there to pick us up at the airport and serve as our personal chauffeur and tour guide was a big part of that. Another was the familiarity of hearing Spanish and Catalan spoken around me, which I’m actually finding myself missing now! And yet another was the presence of the political symbols of this conflict I’ve been following so carefully for the past year–all the esteladas and yellow ribbons versus the Spanish and Tabarnia flags. I got a big kick out of being able to read and understand the political graffiti lining the roads in the countryside.

You know, I wrote an article about my experience exploring the Call de Barcelona in the newspaper we produced at the conference twelve years ago. A quote: “I followed the map to the Plaça Sant Jaume and dove into the alleyways branching off from the square. A steady flow of people streamed in and out of the alleys, visiting small shops and cafés that were built into the ancient stone. It took me a while to realize that this is the place I had read about. History has not been particularly respectful to the Call.”

Well, it was a relief to see that there is much better signage now.

And no obnoxious anti-Israel graffiti this time either!

Last time I was there, I had no concept of how close the sea was to this place, so it was cool to walk down to the port and the beach and see what your side of the Mediterranean Sea looks like.

The three of us on the boardwalk

We spent a quiet evening at the hotel after you dropped us off–picked up a few supplies from the store you pointed out, and then went to bed as the rain started really coming down. The next day we walked over to the kosher store and café for breakfast and to stock up, then we checked out of the hotel, picked up our rental car, and headed for Girona.

How gorgeous is this place?

We settled into our rented apartment and then Leah (my friend and founder of the Moving Stones project, for those who haven’t been following) came over to welcome us, and proceeded give us a personal tour of the Call de Girona.

Toward afternoon we went back to the apartment to eat (or in my case, force down a sandwich; I lose my appetite when I’m nervous!) and get ready for our event. I was glad you were able to come early and we had a little time to hang out before setting off for the bookstore.

During the event itself I felt flustered and tongue-tied and very focused on trying to make it through this thing without forgetting anything significant or sounding like an idiot. It was frustrating because this was totally a dream come true and I didn’t feel able to really be in the moment and enjoy it for what it was. Afterwards I felt tired and overwhelmed and sad about our brief and yes, hug-less goodbye, but in the morning I felt a little better. Eitan and I ate breakfast and then headed to the Jewish museum, which we hadn’t seen the day before, and Leah met us there. It was hard to say goodbye to her too, and I felt sad about leaving Girona. I’ve grown rather attached to the place through my connection with Leah. And goodbyes are always so hard for me.

We spent the next two days up in the mountains; I don’t think I told you anything about this part! When I first envisioned our mountain getaway, I wanted it to be somewhere way out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nature, preferably with flowing water nearby. That’s exactly what this place was. It’s this funky self-sustaining off-the-grid eco-home tucked into a valley in the pre-Pyrenees, right by Riera de Sant Aniol, a stream that feeds into the Llierca River in the upper Garrotxa region. It was so close to the stream that we could see it through the living room window and hear the rushing water from anywhere in the house. Like the sound machines I used to put on to soothe myself and/or my kids to sleep. But in real life.

This is literally a five minute walk from the house.

It was so beautiful there (and the drive to get there so rugged) that we decided not to try and go anywhere else, but rather stay and enjoy the river, the forest, and the mountains. And so we did. We woke up the next morning to the sound of the river rushing and the birds singing… and nothing else. It was paradise.

So no, we didn’t end up stopping in Besalú or getting to La Fageda d’en Jordà or anywhere else in La Garrotxa, but we were very happy where we were, and we fed ourselves well, too 😉 More details on that in the monstrosity of a blog post coming soon to an inbox near you…

You know how I whined to you on our way out that I didn’t remember the airport being this annoying? Well, aside from the layout, which I found obnoxious (the way they make you walk through the duty-free stores to get anywhere)… maybe it was just the weather that day, but it was extremely dim and gloomy at the terminal. During the security check they asked me to remove my headscarf; they were totally respectful about it when I told them I couldn’t, they just had a woman security guard pat down my head (?), but it still made me kind of uncomfortable. That happened to me only once before, in an airport in Florida, and it was because I was wearing a metal clip in my hair under my hat, which I wasn’t this time.

I was a little on edge about flying home through Istanbul because of the tense diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey these days, but the trip was uneventful.

It’s good to be home, though going back to routine after a trip like that is always hard. While I was feeling down about the goodbyes, I remembered a conversation I had with my son recently upon his return from an amazing summer with his grandparents–a conversation I recounted in a Times of Israel post–and what I said to him then: “Yes, it hurts, it hurts so much, but isn’t it wonderful that we have people who love us that much, and who we love that much, that leaving them is so very difficult? Isn’t it wonderful that [you] had the opportunity to have all those amazing experiences and create those memories?

Yes. Yes. How very wonderful. And this is certainly a memory I will cherish forever.

photo of Daniella and Josep in bookstore holding a copy of LtJ together
I love this photo to pieces and it has now taken up permanent residence on the “about” page of the blog!

More photos of the event can be viewed on my Facebook page here (you don’t need to have an account to see them), and once again, you can watch the video of the event here.

Thank you once again for everything you did to make our stay more comfortable and for everything you do to support me and my writing. It means a great deal to me. I hope we will have many more opportunities for real-life time together in the future–on your side of the Mediterranean or on mine!

Much love,

Daniella

Our Event in Girona!

Greetings from the breathtaking Alta Garrotxa in the pre-Pyrenees! I’m writing this from my phone and using patchy Wi-Fi, so I’m not going to elaborate much now, but suffice to say it’s been a dream come true.

You can view the video of the event here!

Update on Girona Event & ANOTHER Exciting Announcement!

I know, I know, we’re just overflowing with good news here!!!

First things first: we are now FOUR DAYS away from our event at Llibreria Geli in the Old City of Girona! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

On the original announcement I wrote that registration is required, but the powers that be haven’t been able to pull it together, so… uh… never mind that, just show up! The event will be filmed and I’m told it will broadcast via FB Live, but I’m not sure from which page or account! I will update you when I have more info. Leah is hard at work trying to get the landing page of Moving Stones up and running, and when that’s online you’ll be able to sign up to receive updates on our continued schemes activities–which will probably include additional events/classes/seminars I’ll be offering remotely. I’ll keep you posted!

And now, the other exciting announcement!

Well, actually, it’s sort of two in one. Part I is something I’ve mentioned in passing here and there, but now I can announce it officially: Kasva Press, the publisher of my novel By Light of Hidden Candles, is going to be republishing Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism this coming January!

Yael even made me a poster!

What this means practically is that the previous edition (which I self-published) will go out of print, and a new version of the book will become available through Small Press Distribution (which will then distribute to Amazon and everywhere else you can find By Light of Hidden Candles). It won’t be significantly different from the previous version; we’re just going to polish up the prose and layout a bit more and update the information where necessary.

It’s Part II that’s a little more exciting for you guys….

So, uh, funny story.

While the good folks at Kasva Press and I were discussing what we might like to change about the new edition of LtJ, the editor asked me if there was anything I might want to add to it. So I was scrolling through the archives of the blog, looking at letters that had been cut from the book or written since it was compiled, and I started copy-pasting, and long story short…..

Screenshot of Microsoft Word open to a document titled 'More Letters to Josep'

…turns out, I wrote another entire book without even noticing.

More Letters to Josep is of a collection of letters/essays on various aspects of Judaism and Jewish history. The letters are divided into four sections: Adventures in Jewish History, Life in Israel, Being Jewish in a Modern World, and Conversations with God. Because the passage of time is a common thread connecting the letters, the working subtitle is Judaism Then and Now.

Like its predecessor, it will have some “bonus features”; for instance, a compilation of the Whatsapp messages between Josep and me during the independence referendum drama and its aftermath. (I got the idea from this short documentary!) The manuscript is still a work in progress and we still have to make some decisions about what to include and what not to include. (So feel free to make suggestions for additional things you’d like to see in it!) We’re roughly aiming to release it about a year after LtJ’s re-release.

So… um… new book?!

Here we go again!

SUPER EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT

YOU GUYYYYYS

Okay so remember I mentioned I had some really exciting news I was dying to share with you all?!

Here it is:

Poster that reads: "An American-Israeli Jew and a Catholic Catalan walk into a bar... Join Daniella Levy, author of Letters to Josep, and "Josep", a.k.a. Jordi Martí, in a discussion and open Q & A on breaking stereotypes & bridging differences, A Moving Stones initiative, October 15th, 7pm-8pm, at Llibreria Geli, Carrer de l'Argenteria, 188, Old City of Girona. The event will accommodate speakers of English, Catalan & Castilian. Limited copies of Letters to Josep will be available. Entrance is free, but registration is required! More information at letterstojosep.com"

YES

EITAN AND I ARE GOING TO CATALONIA IN A WEEK AND A HALF

AND I WILL BE SPEAKING THERE

WITH JOSEP

THE TWO OF US

TOGETHER

IN ACTUAL REALITY

AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

So, some elaboration:

Moving Stones is a fledgling project my friend Leah Stoch Spokoiny has been developing for the past couple of years with my input. Leah is a Canadian Jew who has been living in Catalonia for more than 20 years (the last several in Girona), and she conceived of the project after noticing some deficiencies in the way Jewish heritage was being addressed in Spain. The project, as it stands, has two main objectives: to provide a reliable educational resource on Judaism and Jewish heritage, and to serve as a platform for open and respectful discussion of important issues. She stumbled across this blog while researching and reached out to me, and I responded with enthusiasm. We’ve been partners-in-crime ever since!

And I have been driving her ABSOLUTELY CRAZY over the entire holiday to finalize the location and we finally found the perfect place!!! Llibreria Geli is a historic bookshop established in 1879 and situated on the edge of the Old City of Girona. It was one of the oldest bookstores in Catalonia and carries more than 200,000 titles in Catalan and Spanish. The good folks at Pedres de Girona, a website promoting the history, gastronomy, legends, and culture of Girona, coordinate events at the shop, and they kindly offered to host and promote the event. They will also be filming it and will make the video available on YouTube and on their Facebook page. (So for those of you on other continents, fear not, this thing is gonna be well-documented!!!) And they will be making a poster way better than the one I threw together above, which I will share with you when it’s ready!

I know most of you readers aren’t in the area… but if you do happen to be near Girona on the 15th, we would love to see you there!!! About registration–we’re still setting that up; watch this space!

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE DOES NOT CONTAIN ENOUGH WORDS TO PROPERLY CONVEY MY EXCITEMENT EVEN WHEN TYPED IN ALL-CAPS

So, This Happened.

For those of you who aren’t following me on social media and aren’t Josep, who knows all about this: I caused a bit of a stir in the Catalan media at the beginning of this week with an op-ed for The Times of Israel calling for Israel to recognize Catalonia. TOI didn’t feature it, but Catalan Twitter picked up on it and within a few hours Josep sent me a link to an article in major Catalan news source El Nacional with the comment, “You are famous now”…

Whaaaaaaaaaaat

Text of article in which Daniella Levy is mentioned

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat

(You can read the full El Nacional article in English here)

So my Twitter kinda exploded for the next couple days and now I have about 180 new Catalan followers, including the international affairs coordinator for the current Catalan president and the general director of communications for the Catalan government. Someone even translated my article into Spanish!

If you’re wondering how I went from being completely ignorant about Catalan politics to a major Catalan newspaper dedicating an article to my contribution to a local political conversation… your guess is as good as mine!!! Let’s just file it–right next to this blog–under Bizarre Side Effects of the Friendship Between Daniella and Josep, shall we?!

On that note, I have some even more exciting news that I am dying to share with you all but need to wait until certain details are finalized. Hopefully within the next week. So stay tuned, and chag sameach!

ETA (Oct. 28th, 2018): SO APPARENTLY THIS ALSO HAPPENED.

screenshot of Carles Puigdemont's Twitter profile with "follows you" circled beneath his name

The day after I published this post. And I didn’t even know about it until more than a month later because Twitter notifications ARE THE ACTUAL WORST

This was tucked between two nasty comments, so I was probably just skimming… no wonder I missed it!!!

HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I AM A MAJOR FAN OF THIS GUY <3 <3 <3

What Mindfulness Meditation Taught Me About Prayer

Dear Josep,

In my second post about Jewish prayer, I mentioned that I have always struggled a lot with formal prayer: the daily recitation of words out of a prayer book. I wrote: “It is very difficult to maintain kavana (intention, concentration, and focus) on the same exact words every single day… I know the idea is perseverance, continuing to ‘show up’ even when you don’t feel like it and even when you can’t do it as well as you’d like or should. And obviously, that’s something I need to keep working on.”

Well, I recently took an online course on mindfulness meditation through FutureLearn, and through the course I gained an insight that suddenly helped me understand something about why I’ve always struggled with formal prayer and what its benefits are.

Meditation is a discipline that involves controlling the focus of your attention, right? And prayer is a form of meditation. When I was in second grade, I was taught how to pray the amidah prayer, and I have a very clear memory of being taught that “prayer without intention is like a body without a soul”. Our teacher handed out a coloring page with this line, with a drawing of a doll on it, representing a body without a soul.

From that moment forward–pretty much my entire “praying career”–I believed that the goal was to pray with complete intention, and that any word I said without intention was a failure on my part.

I understood that it was supposed to be a struggle and that even adults weren’t always able to concentrate on the words when they prayed. Later in life, I learned that reading the words more slowly helped me concentrate on them better. But I was living with a constant sense of failure every time I picked up and put down my siddur–and didn’t even realize it.

I felt exactly the same way about meditation.

I suffered from anxiety as a child, and one of the effects was insomnia. I’ve had a lot of trouble falling asleep for much of my life. My dad gave me guided meditation and relaxation tapes to listen to at night, but they always seemed to have the opposite of the desired effect. The guy in the recording would say, “Now relax your feet…” and I’d be thinking, “Okay… but… I think they’re already relaxed… what if I’m not relaxing them enough?! He hasn’t gone on to the next body part, which means it’s supposed to take longer, what if I’m doing it wrong?!?!”

(You are already more well-acquainted with the neurotic and insecure voices in my brain than anyone should have to be, so this may sound familiar to you. 😛 )

Over time I learned more and was able to engage in meditation better, but I think there was always a subconscious element of stress around the feeling that to really be doing it right, I needed to be completely focused and have my mind totally clear. Ideally, I thought, I should not have to “gently bring my mind” back to focusing on my breath or whatever the focus of the meditation was. It should not be wandering at all.

And then, one of the facilitators of this FutureLearn course said something that turned this concept on its head.

He said the goal is not to train your mind not to wander.

Your mind is supposed to wander.

The goal is to train your mind to recognize when it has wandered, and then gently–without scolding, without judgment–bring it back.

And then I had a flashback to second grade and thought: what if kavana doesn’t mean preventing my mind from wandering?

What if it means bringing my attention back to the meaning of the words when my mind has wandered?

The word kavana, which I translate as intention or focus or concentration, comes from the root כ.ו.נ.. The verb form of this root, לכוון, means “to direct” or “to adjust” as in adjusting the focus of binoculars or the time on a watch. Maybe kavana in this context is not “being in total focus”, but rather “the act of focusing”.

And maybe this is a micro-practice of something we should be doing in real life: though it’s fine and normal to be focused on the mundane things that need our attention in the moment, we should always try to bring it back to the things that matter.

Thinking of it this way, the table of contents of the siddur reads like a list of Things That Matter:

  • That I woke up healthy this morning
  • That I have everything I need
  • The miracle of creation and the beautiful world we live in
  • That “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”
  • The blessings and responsibilities our ancestors passed down to us
  • The well-being of our communities
  • Our hopes for the future

In my first post about prayer, I wrote that the verb for praying in Hebrew is reflexive, meaning it’s something you do to yourself; but I don’t think I ever understood what formal prayer was supposed to do for you until I had this insight.

It hasn’t revolutionized my life; I still don’t pray as often as I should. But when I am praying, and I find my mind wandering, instead of feeling frustrated that I’m “not doing it right”, I simply draw my attention back to the words I’m saying and think, “This is good practice.

It’s definitely a better way to live!

Love,

Daniella


P. S. This post is dedicated l’ilui nishmat Avraham ben Yacov Yitzchak v’Dina, in memory of my Zadie, who passed away on this day last year on the Hebrew calendar. Watching him pray with his tefillin and tallit is a strong memory I have of him. You can read more about him, and find a photo of him praying, here.

photo of Josep holding Letters to Josep

Guest Letter FROM Josep: A Clarification on Josep’s Religious Views

In my previous post I mentioned that I sometimes feel it’s a little disingenuous to describe this blog as one that documents a friendship “between a Jew and a Christian,” as that makes it sound like we are both dedicated members of those religions in the traditional sense, and that’s a bit of an oversimplification. “You’re more of a… how do I put this… secular humanist theist whose beliefs are vaguely structured on Christian concepts with a suspicious bias toward their Jewish sources?” I wrote. “Does that work?”

Well, guess who’s here to set the record straight!

photo of Josep holding Letters to Josep
This guy. (He sent me this selfie like 2 years ago, but I told him I’m not willing to feature it on the “about” page because I want one with him looking at least slightly pleased about the book in his hand. He claimed that he took this at 6 am and was therefore exempt from expressing any positive emotion whatsoever. Fair enough.)

This is the first time I’m writing a letter to the blog that is partially “dedicated” to me. ‘Bout time!

The reason I am doing that is that I normally am a very shy person, walking away from any spotlight. But reading letters of religious people here and reading in your last post that I was not a typical Christian, I decided to make my own position clear.

What do I believe in?

My background, both in terms of my family and in terms of my education is Catholic. And my family is pretty religious.

I can not identify myself as a Catholic for many reasons, the most important being that the Catholic Church requires strict adherence to many things that I do not believe in or I directly feel are wrong. But I consider myself a Christian with Catholic tendencies.

I believe in God.

I do not think God is a He or a She.

I do not believe in the Holy Trinity.

I do not care if the Virgin Mary was really a virgin or not. It does not take away the goodness of Jesus’s actions and words.

I believe Jesus may have been the son of God, but it’s not a requisite to believe he was inherently good.

I respect all faiths and beliefs that are based on love and/or doing good–and I do not care what other people believe in.

But I do not condone evil (in the sense of doing wrong), worshiping evil (in the sense of worshiping something that requires the spread of bad things, feelings, or actions).

I do not condone lack of civility, education, and good manners. I deplore selfishness above all and selfish people.

I believe in science.

I believe that all through the history of humanity, people have created gods to explain most of the things that happened around them (that they could not understand).

I believe that all through history, the powerful have used religion to abuse the frail, the weak, the poor… basically the other 99% of us.

I do believe that most religions, faiths, and beliefs want to complicate things unnecessarily with rules & guidelines in order to create a “cast” of people that can interpret what God wants from us.

I believe that most of religions and faiths do create “institutions” that are full of people that say they are mediators between the people and God and that they can understand God’s will and/or word for us.

I do believe in a simpler God: He does not care about rules/guidelines or complications (liturgy) for worshiping him.

(If so, bear in mind that the most popular religion is Christianity with 2 billion followers and within it, there are hundreds of branches that pray and believe differently. Therefore most of humanity is doomed if God wants us to pray in a single way, as there are 7.5 billion people in the world and most likely, 8 billion of them pray and believe differently.)

I do believe that God just wants us to: to do good, be good, spread goodness.

For me, all the rules I need are the 10 commandments plus one sentence from Leviticus: love your neighbor as you love yourself.

The liturgy and complication of things create dangerous cults, such as Opus Dei, Legionarios de Cristo and others that appoint themselves “religious” vigilantes.

I do deplore such practices within Christianity and believe they are just one level of danger below Islamists, Wahabists, and Salafists.

The thing that pits religions against each other is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. And then we hate each other and kill each other just because we are different. In reality 99% of humanity wants to have a normal life, have a house and a family and to take care of their children.


So basically, “secular humanist theist whose beliefs are vaguely structured on Christian concepts with a suspicious bias toward their Jewish sources” isn’t that far off the mark, eh? But if you identify as a “Christian with Catholic tendencies” I’m not gonna argue!

(Just kidding. Of course I’m going to argue. I’m always going to argue. ‘Tis the way of my people!)

Is Interfaith Dialogue Good for Religious Jews?

Dear Josep,

You may recall that last year, when By Light of Hidden Candles was released, I mentioned a certain reviewer of the observant Jewish persuasion who felt uncomfortable with the relatively positive portrayal of Christianity in the book.

Well, I also mentioned this in my TOI blog post on interfaith dialogue, and the reviewer in question happened to read it. She reached out to me, we respectfully debated the matter, and she decided to post our correspondence on her blog.

It was not the sort of thing I wanted to post here, partly because we got deep into Jewish sources and jargon and concepts that I felt were too involved and would require too much explaining, and partly because I felt that the debate was rather circular and extremely long-winded; but I gave her my permission to post it on her blog because I thought it would be good to have my position out there somewhere for people to find if I ever become famous enough for anybody to care. 😛

However, I recently discovered that she has deleted the post (no idea why). And since I’d still like my position to be out there, I decided to write my own post about it based on some of the answers I gave her.

But before I go on I feel I should clarify something. Though this blog has served as a platform for “interfaith discussion” in the context of the guest letters, sometimes I feel it’s a bit disingenuous to present our friendship as being one “between a Jew and a Christian”, because… well… let’s face it, you don’t really count as a Christian. 😛 I mean, when you start commenting here that you’re less “into Christianity” then my mother, I think it’s a biiiiit of a stretch to call you a Christian! You’re more of a… how do I put this… secular humanist theist whose beliefs are vaguely structured on Christian concepts with a suspicious bias toward their Jewish sources? Does that work? 😉 (Unfortunately it doesn’t fit very neatly into the blog’s subtitle.)

Then again, if people are gonna assume stuff about you, I’d rather it be “Christian” than “imaginary” 😛

ANYWAY. Where were we? Right–the scandalized reviewer. Below are some of the points she raised, rephrased in my own words, and my responses to them.

It makes sense to respect Christians as human beings, but why should we respect Christianity–a belief system that we believe is false?

For starters, I want to make clear what I mean when I say that I have “respect” for Christianity.

Respect doesn’t mean “agree with”. It doesn’t mean “condone”. It doesn’t mean “support”. It means “appreciate”–in the sense of hakarat hatov, gratitude, or ayin tova, generosity/seeing the good in something. I don’t think you have to agree with something to appreciate the good things about it.

I think it is possible to respect a religion (and not just the people who believe in it) without agreeing with it or supporting every part of it. Obviously, I completely reject the foundations of Christianity and the beliefs on which it was built. I have a post here in which I am very clear-cut about this (“What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?“). That doesn’t mean I have to completely hate and be repulsed by everything about the religion.

In fact, I think it is important for us as Jews to acknowledge that Christianity has had an indispensable role in helping us fulfill our mission in the world–spreading knowledge and awareness of God (though their understanding of Him may, according to my beliefs, be flawed), and the adoption of the Divinely inspired principles that now stand at the center of the Western world’s concepts of morality and justice. This isn’t just my opinion. The Rambam (Maimonides) himself wrote: “All these words of the Christian Yeshua and the Ishmaeli (Muhammad) who came after him, were there to straighten our path to the Messiah, to repair the entire world and to serve God together… How? The world has already been filled with the words of the Messiah and the words of the Torah and the words of the commandments, and these things have been spread to far-away islands and many remote nations…” (Maimonides, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, Chapter 11)

Why would friendly contact between religious Jews and religious Christians be a positive thing?

After that op-ed I mentioned was published, I got a message from Lee Weissman, one of the founders of the wonderful Facebook group for discussion between Jews and Muslims, Abraham’s Tent. Lee is a religious Jew with long payot (sidecurls) and a beard and he wears a streimel on Shabbat. He is also very involved in interfaith activism, particularly with Muslims. Lee thanked me sincerely for my post and said that it saddens him that so few Jews with rich religious lives are involved in interfaith activities. “When deeply religious folks talk to one another, there is a whole different dynamic,” he said.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who (if you haven’t noticed yet) I greatly admire, is also a Jewish leader deeply committed to Torah who actively works with religious leaders of other faiths. (I wrote a thorough review of his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, here.) I particularly love this line from his whiteboard animation video Why I Am a Jew: “I admire other civilizations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world… aval zeh shelanu, ‘but this is ours.'”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (second from the left) with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, and CEO of Sojourners, a progressive grassroots Christian movement, at a press conference in 2009. Copyright by World Economic Forum; Photo by Andy Mettler

I think most interfaith discussion and activity we encounter tends to be wishy-washy, with each side coming from a very watered-down version of whatever their faith is, and that’s a shame. Like Lee, I think that discussions between people are actually very committed to their different belief systems can be much more powerful and meaningful and should not necessarily feel threatening to either side. I would go so far as to say it’s a sign of maturity and security in your own beliefs when you are able to open up and listen to people who think differently than you.

What value can a religious Jew get out of such discussions, if not to influence the other person to come closer to an authentic relationship with God as we believe in Him?

First of all, I see these conversations as being of value to me, not necessarily to the other person–though of course I hope the feeling will be mutual. It’s not about them or what they believe. It never was. Judaism does not condone or support proselytizing, and I don’t think there’s any point in trying to convince other people to believe what you do.

I find that discussing Judaism with people of other faiths–explaining what I do and what I believe–strengthens my own commitment to Judaism. My goal is not to get them to change their beliefs, but just to help them understand who I am and where I’m coming from (which is the basic premise of this blog). Discussing our differences helps me delve more deeply into my own beliefs and clarify why I believe them and what they mean to me. These interactions inspire me and make me feel closer to God and to Judaism.

There is additional value in creating relationships among people who can help each other make the world a better place. I recently saw an interview with Rabbi Sacks where he says that he believes in “interfaith activism” as opposed to “interfaith dialogue”–that is, not sitting around discussing belief systems, but getting off our respective butts and working together toward our common goals–like feeding the hungry, treating the sick, etc. etc. etc. As religious Jews, we believe in ultimate redemption, and we also believe that we must do our part to bring it about. I believe that working with other peoples to prepare the world to receive God’s goodness is an essential part of those efforts. Tikkun olam, if you will.1

On a more personal level, I have noticed that there is a fundamental difference between my ability to connect with believing Christians over matters of faith and my ability to connect with almost anyone else–including many religious Jews, secular Jews, and even religious Muslims (with whom I generally have more in common than religious Christians).

There is something about the way many Christians talk about God that really resonates with me.

There’s a simplicity, an innocence, a sort of humility and wholehearted trust in God, that makes me feel comfortable talking about my relationship with God in superlatives and with child-like wonder, even with someone I hardly know. I can have this experience with other Jews of a certain flavor, but I think with Jews, everything tends to be more complicated, partly because Judaism is so complex, and partly because we already have so much in common. With Christians, talking about our relationship with God is our one common language when it comes to faith. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to cut right down to the deep stuff. Or maybe it’s something about the way Christians are educated. I don’t know, but it’s a definite pattern I’ve noticed.

There’s one point in By Light of Hidden Candles (page 271) where Alma expresses the thought: “How ironic was it that the person I seemed to connect with most deeply on matters of faith was a Christian?”

Her author doesn’t find it ironic at all.

But isn’t there a potential danger of certain boundaries being crossed?

Yes, there is.

And I think By Light of Hidden Candles is, among other things, a sort of meditation on that question.

We need to maintain proper boundaries; that much is clear. But what does that mean exactly? The characters of By Light of Hidden Candles consciously struggle with this question. Alma argues with her grandmother about it. Manuel consults his priest about it. Míriam hesitates–even while her life is in danger–because of it. But was their awareness of it as an issue enough? Did they draw the lines where they should have, and if they had drawn them differently, would there have been a different outcome? (Readers of By Light of Hidden Candles–I’d love to hear your thoughts, but please, no spoilers in the comments! Feel free to contact me if you’d like to share a thought that includes spoilers.)

I think my position on this should be clear from A) the fact that I wrote that book and B) the fact that I write this blog. I do think it’s possible to define and maintain appropriate boundaries, but it’s not something to be taken lightly; and though I struggle with it myself sometimes, I think there are enough benefits to justify the dangers–for me, personally. I think it’s a very individual question and I wouldn’t necessarily encourage everyone to make the choices I’ve made.

So in response to the question posed in the title of this post–is interfaith dialogue good for religious Jews?–I think it can be. And also not. It depends on the person, the circumstances, the goals of the individuals involved, and many other factors.

But doesn’t Jewish law consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry?

Now here is the real can of worms.

Time to get that can opener out again!

Yes, the majority of rabbinic authorities does consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry.

However.

While the majority opinion among sages–including the Rambam–is that Christianity counts as idol worship, there is also a respectable faction of rabbinic authorities who reject this idea–such as the Meiri (Menachem ben Solomon Meiri, 13th-century Catalan Talmudist), Rabbenu Tam (Jacob ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, 12th century France), the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 16th century Poland), and our friend the Ramban (a.k.a. the Badass Rabbi of Catalonia). It’s important to note that the Rambam was born in Muslim Cordoba and spent most of his life in Muslim Cairo, so he probably didn’t have much contact with Christians. The Meiri, Rabbenu Tam, the Rema, and Ramban, by contrast, all lived among Christians.

Furthermore, when one analyzes the writings of the Rambam in which he describes Christianity as idol worship, it is not obvious that this definition applies categorically to all types of Christianity.

There are a few reasons to consider Christianity a form of idol worship. The most important one is that the entire concept of the Trinity, which divides God into three “aspects” or “persons”; and we believe that “dividing” Him into three parts is still a form of idolatry even if you believe they are all parts of the same God. Same goes for the belief that God would manifest Himself in a human in any way (the divinity of Jesus as a son of God). Another problem is the use of icons, especially among Catholics. We understand that when a Christian kneels before a cross or a statue of Jesus or Mary, they are not really praying to the statue, but using the statue as a physical representation of the invisible God they are praying to. Still… I’m sure you can understand how we’d find that problematic. It’s right there in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness… You shall not prostrate yourself before them” (Exodus 20:4-5).

However, not all forms of Christianity accept the concept of the Trinity or take it literally. The Rambam lived in the 12th century, so to him, Christianity was Catholicism. Modern scholars argue that other streams do not count as idol worship even under the Rambam’s definition–including the Orthodox church, other eastern non-Orthodox streams, many Protestants, Unitarians, etc. (Basically, only Catholics are irredeemable according to this liberal interpretation of the Rambam. Sorry. 😛 )

If you look at the nafka minnas–the practical applications of these opinions–you’ll see that the Jewish attitude toward Christianity is not at all clear-cut. For example, most authorities forbid a Jew to set foot in a church, but they permit it if there is a case of need, such as, oh I don’t know, a tour guide who needs to take some Christians into a church while leading a tour. 😉 Idol worship is one of the big three commandments we’re supposed to give our lives over rather than transgress, so if Christianity were really considered equivalent to idol worship, a financial need would certainly not be grounds for lenience.

Also, there are a number of commandments pertaining to idol worship which we categorically do not apply to Christians. We are commanded to destroy idols and their accessories (Deuteronomy 12:2)–no one is advocating destroying churches and Catholic icons. We are commanded never to make a covenant with idolaters or show favor to them (Deuteronomy 7:2); no one is saying we shouldn’t have political or economic treaties with Christian nations or give them favorable treatment.

In Summary

It’s… complicated.

Isn’t everything?! 😉

Love,

Daniella


1. “Tikkun olam” is a kabbalistic concept that literally means “repairing the world”. It’s been popularized as meaning anything from environmentalism to social justice, but the source of the phrase is the kabbalistic metaphor that when God tried to bestow His goodness on the world, the “vessels shattered” and sparks of His goodness were hidden throughout the world, and it is our job to locate these sparks and “gather them back together”.

Guest Letter from Jackie: A Christian at an Orthodox Jewish Prayer Service

A Christian at an Orthodox prayer service, Josep? Whoever heard of such a thing? 😉

Well, unlike you, today’s guest lives in a country where they don’t need armed guards interrogating people at the door. Jacquelyn Lofstad is a 19-year-old college student from Minnesota, United States, who was raised in a Baptist family. She’s a reader who stumbled across the blog through Google, and her submission of this letter was the first contact she made with me (which is a first–all previous guest letters have been by people I know from other contexts and/or who I cajoled asked to write one!). She also writes a blog of her own about the Old Testament and how it relates to Jesus and the gospels, partially inspired by a trip she took to Israel not long ago.

She decided to share with us about an experience she had recently: observing the Shabbat morning prayer service in an Orthodox synagogue. (For those of you who need more info on what Shabbat is, click here.) I think this is a beautiful counterpoint to our previous guest letter, which was about a Jew’s positive experiences in churches!

Here’s Jackie:


Dear Josep,

Recently, I had the privilege of celebrating Sabbath at an Orthodox Synagogue. The Jewish people are beautiful, dedicated, and tenacious in their faith. I was extremely blessed to be able to observe a Shabbat (sabbath) service.

I am a 19-year-old college senior from Minnesota, United States, studying music education and history.  I was raised in a Baptist family but do not swear complete allegiance to any particular denomination.  I just believe the Bible, want to honor God and love people in the process.  After visiting Israel over spring break for a Bible study trip, I gained so much respect for the Jewish people’s tenacity and dedication to their faith.  Also, I love the Old Testament and am frustrated that the church does not talk about it enough.  Researching Judaism seemed like the obvious answer. Wanting to learn more, I contacted a local rabbi and asked to observe a synagogue service.

I entered the room during prayers and was handed a prayer book with English translations – praise God! My lack of education was clearly shown when I forgot that the Hebrew language and therefore the prayer books, read right to left!

One thing that struck me about the Hebrew prayers was how focused they were on God and God alone. So often I will only pray to ask for things. Their prayers focused on the glory, majesty, power, and love of Hashem (Hebrew name for God, literally translated as “the name”).

After the prayers, the Torah was brought out. The cantor and the congregation sang and chanted with joy as the Torah was lifted out of the arc in the front of the room and brought to the center of the congregation. The blessing of having the word of God IS something that we should rejoice over. The Torah in the center reminded me how God is a God for all people. He comes down, right into the middle of our lives. The word of God speaks right into the middle of our messy situations. The Torah reading for this day the “snake being lifted” in Numbers. They also read from the prophets on a yearly rotation – this week the men read from 1st Samuel.

The rabbi then spoke about a former rabbi who died at the hands of communist Russia because he refused to be transported on the sabbath. While he could have easily justified breaking sabbath to save his life, he decided not to because of the people that looked up to him. While I do not have the same sabbath convictions as the Jewish people, I also have people looking up to me. I need to take my actions seriously, because as a teacher, I will have people looking at my life as they make decisions.

After the service, which was over two hours (they are dedicated people), I was invited to the Kiddush lunch afterwards. The stew was cooked the night before and left on the stove because no cooking is done on the sabbath.

One lady told me about how she read a book about how a Christian converted to Judaism because she felt like Yom Kippur offered more room for grace than Christianity. This saddened me because we clearly are not showing/sharing the love and grace of God that well then!

I had a long conversation with another woman about Israel, Judaism, and many other things (Israel actually opened many doors for conversations so praise God!). She shared how it was difficult to get a job without working on Saturdays. I again was struck by how these people’s first priority was their faith. I can learn from this. I was then asked why many Christians don’t like Israel (This question was a bit stressful–19-year-old having to answer for all Christians 😛 ). I responded by saying that many Christians misunderstand both the heart of God and the Jewish people. At the end of our conversation, we thanked each other for sharing our perspectives–it was a really sweet moment.

I learned so much from this visit and hope I represented Christianity well. I am encouraging my friends and colleagues to be willing to experience new things and hear people’s stories. The world needs people who care. Be that person, because Jesus was that person. He heard people’s stories. He saw the beauty in diversity. And he was Jewish too 🙂

Sincerely,
Jackie


Are you a reader who has something interesting to share with Josep and me about religion or culture? Don’t be shy–be like Jackie! Submit a guest letter!