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.”
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!
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!)
You may recall that last year, when By Light of Hidden Candleswas 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.)
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.'”
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?
We need to maintain proper boundaries; that much is clear. But what does that mean exactly? The characters of By Light of Hidden Candlesconsciously 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.
Yes, the majority of rabbinic authorities does consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry.
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.
Isn’t everything?! 😉
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”.↩
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!
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 🙂
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!
Hey Josep! Been a while since we’ve had a guest letter, eh? This one is from a long-time reader, and someone I’ve known… since the womb, actually.
This was entirely her initiative! Don’t look at me!!! 😉
But while I’m here, I shall take the opportunity to brag about her shamelessly. You said once that I’m one of the most empowered women you know, and if you want to know why, it’s because this woman is my mother.
My mom, Jill Baker Shames, was raised in a secular Jewish family in New York and became religious in college, as she will describe below. But she’s always insisted on doing everything her own way! When she was pregnant with me, she woke up one day with a sudden urge to study a martial art. My dad thought it was one of her crazy pregnant lady things and that it would pass. Well, it’s been 31 years and it still hasn’t passed! 😉 She is currently a fifth-degree black belt in Shorin-Ryu Matsubayashi karate; one of the most experienced and celebrated empowerment self-defense instructors in the country; and a martial arts therapist (and licensed social worker) who works with kids with terminal illnesses and their families, teaching them to use tools from the martial arts to help them cope with pain and stress. She serves as coordinator for Kids Kicking Cancer Israel, an organization that trains and employs martial arts therapists to work in Israeli hospitals. And because clearly she has so much free time on her hands (…) she also volunteers for her local Psychotrauma & Crisis Response Unit, whose personnel arrive at the scene of a traumatic situation (sudden death, car accident, etc.) and work with the witnesses and bystanders at the scene to help them process what they saw and prevent them from developing PTSD. Did I mention also that she co-founded the Israeli national women’s martial arts organization, which she and I left last year for reasons I won’t elaborate on here, and helped establish a chapter of the Guardian Angels–an organization of volunteer citizen patrols for tough neighborhoods–in Israel? Oh and yes, this is the same mother who donated her kidney to a distant cousin two years ago. (And yeah, she’s a writer too–that link is from her Times of Israel blog!)
In summary, I may have followed in her footsteps in some ways–learning karate and self-defense from her and becoming an instructor under her tutelage–but I will never be as awesome as she is and we all know it 😛
I vaguely recall that you and her may have corresponded at some point many years ago, probably on something to do with Casa Shalom. In any case, she decided to write you a guest letter from her characteristically out-of-the-box perspective. 😉 Without further ado:
Your online Jewish Education has given me a great deal of hope and satisfaction. After all, what dedicated Jewish woman would miss the opportunity to be a Yiddishe fly-on-the-wall kvelling1 about all the things the world–particularly the Christian world–owes to its Jewish roots?
However, I am going to do something that is at once incredibly Jewish and… incredibly not. And that is to express my gratitude to Christianity for what it taught me about being Jewish.
Expressing gratitude is quintessentially Jewish.2HaKarat HaTov, literally “acknowledging the good,” is an axiom of Jewish life. On the other hand, given the amount of suffering that Jews have endured in the name of Christianity over the millennia, having anything nice to say about That Religion is an anomaly at best.
I was raised in a family with a powerful ethnic Jewish identity but received an extremely limited Jewish education. As a child, what I knew about being Jewish was pretty much limited to a handful of holidays (Chanukah and Pesach being the biggies), not going to school on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Bar Mitzvah parties, a few Yiddish phrases (not for polite company), chicken soup, bagels, and lox [smoked salmon–DL]. My family gave me a strong sense of loyalty and belonging to the Tribe intellectually, ethically, and ethnically, but spiritually? If Judaism had a spiritual side, I knew little or nothing about it.
Yet, even as a young child, I had a strong connection to Gd. My parents tell me that at the age of 3, I used to stand in the middle of the living room speaking aloud to Gd. I decided to fast on Yom Kippur at a young age. I fasted even when no one else in my family fasted. I wanted to go to synagogue even when no one else wanted to go. As I grew older, I felt my family members saw me as a strange bird in the flock. I was alternately praised and teased for my interest in things Jewish. I did not feel comfortable talking about my spiritual longings. I developed my own rituals and prayer practices. And I started going to church.
Mostly it was something I did on sleepovers. I was at my Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist or Episcopalian friends’ houses over the weekend, so why not join the family in church? I loved the mammoth stone buildings echoing songs and prayers. I loved the light pouring through the stained glass windows, the pageantry of the services, and the fellowship of the participants. I watched and rewatched classic movies like Ben-Hur, The Robe and all those films in which kindly priests stepped in to help young toughs move toward healthy adulthood.
Looking back, I wonder that my parents were able to see going to church as some kind of cultural experiment without worrying that I would be lured away by “the love of Jesus”, the material splendor of Christmas or the ease of assimilating into the majority culture. And they were right. Even when I joined the Methodist youth group, the token Jew arguing with Christian Youth Leaders about the prophecies of the End of Days, even when I watched Christian TV or listened to Christian music radio or sang Latin Mass in school choir, I was never tempted to stray. Rather, I was comforted by finding others in the world longing for Gd. I was filled with awe by the beauty, the faith and the compassion I found in Christianity in all its many forms. I found a fellowship of the spirit and a love and clinging to Gd that I could not find at home. I experienced awe that I had never experienced in the rituals of my own faith. After all, it was easier to get lost in the forest of Judaism’s rules and rituals than to delve into its deep and complex spiritual roots.
It was only when I went to college and could finally access Jewish living and learning by myself that I was able to take all the devotion that Christian institutions had kept warm and flowing for me for 18 years, and plug them into my spiritual path.
So, while it is true that the history of the Jews as a People in Christian lands is a sordid one, my personal history with Christianity remains one of fellowship and gratitude.
So, thank you, Christianity, for giving me the spiritual oxygen I desperately needed until I could learn to “breathe” on my own. In the Jewish Bible, Gd calls us Jews “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; it entrusts us with helping all the nations of the world find and follow their spiritual paths. Under your spiritual wings, you helped me remember that as long as I had faith in Gd, I was not alone.
In these days of skepticism and anti-theism, I consider it my sacred trust and honor to return the favor.
1. A Yiddish verb that means to take great pride in something or someone, usually quite vocally. Related closely to schepping naches, as defined in 10 Essential Words in Judeo-English.↩
2. The name Judah, from which the word “Judaism” is derived, literally means “giving thanks/expression of gratitude”.↩
3. Everything makes so much sense now, eh Josep?! 😉↩
4. In case you haven’t seen any of the Star Wars movies–and since you haven’t read Harry Potter, I wouldn’t be surprised at such grievous cultural delinquency on your part–the Jedi Knights are sort of mystical warriors who fight against forces of evil in the Star Wars universe. In her work with the Guardian Angels, there was a protocol not to use real names in radio transmissions, so all Guardian Angels had to choose a nickname. She chose “Jedi” because, aside from the obvious, it’s a word that has the same meaning in all relevant languages–English, Hebrew, Amharic, and Arabic. Not a lot of words like that!↩
I mentioned in a previous post that I had an exchange with one of our readers that I’d wanted to post here. Keith is a reader from the UK who carefully reads the parsha (Torah portion) for each week, and occasionally writes to me to ask questions about issues that come up in the parsha or in general. I want to take this opportunity to remind other readers that you are also welcome to write to me with any questions or comments you may have about topics discussed on this blog or Judaism or Israel in general (and I won’t post about them here without your permission!). You can use the contact form on this blog, or email me at letterstojosep at Gmail. 🙂
This question was about a story in the book of Leviticus about the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu brought an offering to God that he hadn’t commanded them, and received a very harsh punishment:
Each of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took his pan and put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and offered before the Lord foreign fire which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, when He said, “I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”‘ And Aaron was silent.
A very strange and upsetting episode to be sure, especially when we’re starting with the assumption that God is merciful and kind; why would he kill two priests just for being a little overenthusiastic with their offerings? But we won’t get into the explanations for their deaths here. Keith’s question was about the words, “and Aaron was silent”. We are taught that this means that Aaron didn’t protest or show any sign of mourning for his sons, and the Sages teach us that he was rewarded for his silence, ostensibly for accepting God’s judgment without protest. Keith asked for my thoughts on the matter:
Shabbat Shalom….and I hope you all enjoyed Pesach.
I wonder if I may ask you about Shemini?
When I read it I was shocked by the deaths of Aaron’s sons, and also by his reaction. The command to not mourn seems cruel. I know there have been centuries of debate about why they were killed but I wonder what your thoughts and feelings are please?
This was my answer:
I, too, have always been puzzled by this episode. In general, Jewish tradition condones expressions of grief regardless of the cause of death, even setting up a specific structure for mourners to work through their grief. So why was Aaron rewarded for his silence?
Your question made me revisit some of the sources and I found two interesting ideas.
First of all, why does Rashi [one of the most famous Torah commentators] say that Aaron was rewarded for his silence? The “reward” was that Aaron received directions from God through direct prophecy, and our tradition teaches us that one cannot receive prophecy in sadness. Prophecy is only received when the prophet experiences joy. That means that Aaron couldn’t have been feeling sad at the time, because he received a direct prophecy. So it wasn’t so much a “reward” as a consequence of Aaron’s state of mind.
Another idea I found that I really liked had to do with something the Sages teach us about mourners. There is an idea that someone who is experiencing a major event in his life that would cause him to be too distracted/troubled to focus on performing mitzvot [commandments], is released from his obligation to perform mitzvot–such as a bridegroom on his wedding night. An “onen”, a person whose close relative has died but has not yet been buried, is also considered to be distracted, but he is still obligated to keep all the mitzvot except tefillin, because, the Sages say, his distraction is “optional”. Rashi explains that the “optional” aspect of his distraction is that although he is obligated to keep the outward traditions of mourning, he doesn’t have to feel sadness. The article I was reading went on to explain that in many cases, obviously, losing someone close to you will make you sad; however, some people choose to express their grief not by turning inward and sinking into grief, but by taking action to allow the person who has died to live through us–either through taking over or continuing that person’s work in this world, or through learning from their lives and trying to absorb and apply the positive lessons we can learn from that person to our own lives. This is why the mourner’s prayer is the Kaddish: May His great name be magnified and sanctified… every human being is an expression of the Divine presence, and when they die, they leave an absence. We “survive” that person and honor their lives by filling in that absence as best we can with the glory of God, working harder to “magnify” His presence.
So bringing this back to Aaron, this is exactly what Moses said to him: This is what the Lord spoke: I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. Aaron and his sons chose to express their loss by taking action–continuing with the work of the Tabernacle as God had commanded them, to continue the work of Nadav and Avihu, and help fill the space they left behind with love of God manifested in the rituals of the Tabernacle.
I think this teaches us not that we shouldn’t give space to our sadness and grief when we lose someone–but that we should also use our grief to motivate us to proactively “magnify and sanctify” God’s name in honor of that person’s memory. Action is a common Jewish response to grief. Many people set up charities or host Torah classes to honor the memories of their loved ones. Jewish hospitals and synagogues are full of memorial plaques from people who donated money or items to the institution in memory of someone. Founding new Jewish settlements has been a classic response to Arab terror since before the State of Israel was established. I think these things are an expression of the lesson we learn from Aaron.
Just a quick note because I came across something that made me think of you and this blog. It’s today’s installment in a series called Covenant & Conversation: Life Changing Ideas in the Parsha [Weekly Torah Portion] with Rabbi Sacks (author of Not in God’s Name, which I reviewed in depth here). You can read the full article, Faith and Friendship (Beha’alotcha 5778), here; but here is the relevant excerpt:
It is part of the intellectual history of the West and the fact that from quite early on, Christianity became more Hellenistic than Hebraic, that people came to think that the main purpose of religion is to convey information (about the origin of the universe, miracles, life after death, and so on). Hence the conflict between religion and science, revelation and reason, faith and demonstration. These are false dichotomies.
Judaism has foundational beliefs, to be sure, but it is fundamentally about something else altogether. For us, faith is the redemption of solitude. It is about relationships – between us and God, us and our family, us and our neighbours, us and our people, us and humankind. Judaism is not about the lonely soul. It is about the bonds that bind us to one another and to the Author of all. It is, in the highest sense, about friendship.
This idea pinpoints something I wasn’t quite able to articulate in a discussion I had recently with one of our readers about the differences between traditional Orthodox Judaism, Karaite Judaism, and Samaritanism. He’s been writing to me for a while asking questions about Judaism and the Torah, and trying to figure out where he fits into all this. (Which reminds me, there was one exchange of ours I thought of posting here, and never did! Hopefully soon!) “In the end though,” he asked, “does all this Karaites v Orthodox v Reform v Masorti v Samaritans v Reconstructionist stuff matter ? I know I need to be a better human being. Does it matter which form of Judaism I choose or Righteous Gentilism?”
This question gave me pause. Sometimes we can get so lost in the details and little quabbles about who is right and what information is correct. How much does all that really matter?
Rabbi Sacks reminds us: the main purpose of Judaism is not to convey information, but to build and nurture our relationships–with ourselves, with our fellow humans, and with God. The Talmud tells us a story about a non-Jew who challenged Hillel the Elder to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” He said “go and learn” because the commentary is important, the details do matter–but they are not the heart of the Torah. Our relationships are.
No, I am not referring to Israel’s 70th birthday–that starts tomorrow night! Though I’m sure Josep is pleased about the proximity. 😉
Those of you who have been following the blog for the 3+ years I’ve been writing it may have wondered why I always make such a big deal out of Josep’s birthday.
Well, one reason is obvious: I am his self-appointed Jewish-mother-friend, and as such, it is my obligation and duty to treat him like an exasperated bar mitzvah boy being shuttled around the room to show off to all my friends and relatives. As you have probably noticed, I take this job very seriously.
Another reason I do this is that Josep has a very sad history of being forgotten on his birthday or on other occasions. A few months after we first met, shortly before Christmas, he told me some miserable stories about this, including one about being the only one among 25+ cousins not to receive any Christmas presents one year. I felt so sorry for that poor teenage Josep lying on the couch in that story that I couldn’t contain myself and had to send him a present forthwith: a copy of Judaism for Everyone by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. (This was, perhaps, the first symptom of my now-famous compulsion to surprise him with gifts.) And for his birthday that year I made a bunch of my friends and family members email him to wish him a happy birthday, because I never wanted him to feel forgotten on his birthday ever again.
SO YOU SEE, it is a MORAL IMPERATIVE that every last one of you comment on this post to wish him a happy birthday. Those of you receiving the posts via email who haven’t figured out how to comment yet–just scroll down to the bottom of the email until you see the words “Read in browser >>” in blue and click on them (or, click on the title of the post at the top), then scroll down to the bottom until you reach a section that says “Leave a Reply”. (You can also just send your good wishes to me and I’ll pass them on!)
AND AS FOR YOU, my exasperated bar mitzvah boy. (…) Per molts anys! I wish you a year of joy and satisfaction in all areas of life, peace and tranquility, physical and spiritual wealth, good health, and lots and lots of love 🙂 And books. Lots of good books. Only some of which were written to you. 😛 Hopefully some that were written by you! *hint* *hint* *nudge*
(Or maybe I should save that last wish for St. Jordi’s Day next week. Ah well.)
1. “Shayne punim” is Yiddish for “pretty face”, generally said in a high-pitched voice while pinching the cheeks of an uncomfortable child.↩
Ahh yes, greetings, my friends, and happy holidays to all! It is time for another Search Term Q & A session! Aren’t you excited?!
For those of you just tuning in: every once in a while I write a post responding to questions and phrases that people have typed into search engines, which led them to this blog. Hilarity often ensues! You can find links to previous Search Term Q & A’s at the bottom of this post.
But seriously–I have three kids, and looking a Jewish child in the eye and trying to explain what the Holocaust was, or the Crusades, or the Cossacks, or blood libels, or pogroms–or, more pressing, why we are huddling in the corner taking cover from Hamas rockets?… Not what I’d call “fun.”
But one thing’s for sure: fun or not, being a Jew is meaningful. It gives me a sense of purpose and mission, that I’m here for a reason and that I’m representing something greater than myself.
“orthodoe jews weird”
Orthodoe? Is that like a female deer, but Torah-observant? If so, yes, that is certainly weird.
“what is the most ridiculous jewish rule”
The problem here is the word “ridiculous”. Bizarre or random, I have plenty of contestants for. (How about the one where we’re not allowed to wear a blend of wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11)? That one’s pretty random.) We have rules that feel ridiculously complex, or ridiculously specific (like the endless disputes about exactly what time one day ends and the next begins). But just plain old ridiculous? That’s judgy, man. Judgy.
“ridiculous jewish beliefs”
Okay that last one was borderline, but this one is downright rude.
“what are some silly rules in talmud”
Really, Internet? Really?!
“why are jews weird looking”
I beg your pardon?!
We look perfectly normal!
Alas, I have not yet convinced Josep to fully embrace his celebrity status and open his own website where his adoring fans can properly venerate him. However, he actually let me post a picture of him wearing his IDF T-shirt on my op-ed about our misadventures with the Spanish postal service on TOI, with a caption reading: “And while we’re here, ladies, did I mention that he’s single?” so we’re getting somewhere 😛 (I think he didn’t actually believe I’d do it when he dared me to add that caption. Clearly he underestimates how much I love to embarrass him…. and that’s… fairly remarkable, considering what I’ve already done to him on this blog.)
Hmmm. Well, if you mean the word aseret (עשרת), the root would be, of course, a.s.r. (ע.ש.ר) meaning “ten”, which is pretty boring since the word aseret just means “ten” of something (in semikhut form).
“interesting facts about jewish culture and history”
Aha! You have arrived in the right place, my friend! Jewish culture and history are some of the major themes of this blog. You can explore the tags/categories of “Jewish culture” and “Jewish history” for a list of relevant posts.
“what jewish do with their thing”
*cough* Well. That would depend which “thing” you’re referring to.
Perhaps this post on circumcision is what you’re looking for? I should warn you, what we do with that thing is rather disturbing.
(Sorry, some of the previous questions have me in a rather combative mood.)
*muttering to self* What… language is this even… *tiptoes over to Google Translate* THAI! Thai. I knew that. The alphabet that looks like a bunch of dancing snakes. Right. And according to Google Translate this phrase means “beautiful birthday cake.” Aha! Hi person from Thailand! You must have found one of Josep’s birthday posts with pictures of cake.
I do bake cakes now and then, but I don’t know if they would really fall under the category of “beautiful”. You know what, though, an amazing cake decorator is just about to join my family. Meet my future sister-in-law, Bar Malca! She made this:
It’s the most beautiful birthday cake Josep has ever seen, right Josep?
You can check out more of her magnificent (and delicious) creations on her Facebook page! (Pretty sure she doesn’t ship to Thailand though. Oh well. But if you want to pay her airfare I’m sure she’d be more than happy to come bake you a beautiful birthday cake in the comfort of your home!)
“write a lettre invite your friend to visit morocoo a aid adha”
I have been asked by a Random Stranger on the Internet to invite you to visit Morocco, presumably during Eid al-Adha. Of course, “invite” is a kind of strange word to use, since I’ve never been to Morocco in my life, whereas there is a fair chance that you have. (Have you? I feel like you must have been to Morocco.)
Why do all these Muslims keep asking me to write letters to my/their friends? Must be because of those guest letters from Saadia and Yasmina…
ANY OTHER QUESTIONS? Feel free to contact me! If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy the previous Search Term Q&A’s:
I was planning to hold on to this post and write it for Holocaust Memorial Day, but writing is how I process things, and I’m processing, processing, processing.
So, to recap for our blog readers: at the beginning of last week I got an email through the contact form of this blog. It was from a man who introduced himself as a distant cousin. (I’ve since worked out that he’s my second-cousin-once-removed.) He had been looking for information on my grandfather, who had helped him with some details of a family tree years ago, and he came across the tribute to Zadie I wrote after his death last year. He offered to send me some photographs he had of my grandfather as a child, and I asked if I could see the family tree as well. I was excited, because up until that point, the origins of my father’s family were a mystery to me. I knew they were Ashkenazi Jews and that Zadie’s father was an immigrant from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but as I mentioned in that post, Zadie’s mother died when he was young and I knew nothing about her family. I wondered if the family tree would have any information on their origins. Maybe I would finally know what villages in Europe they came from.
I was not disappointed! The family tree indicated that my Zadie’s father, Yacov Shames (after whom my brother is named) was born in Ratno, and his mother, Dina Herman (after whom I am named, in part) was born in Kowel; both were villages with significant Jewish populations in the Volyn Oblast, a region which was then part of Poland and is now in Ukraine. The ancestors I have in common with my second-cousin-once-removed are Zadie’s grandparents, Shmuel and Yenta (yes, I had a great-great-grandmother named Yenta! 😛 ) Herman. Yenta was born in Kowel, too, whereas Shmuel was born in Włodawa, Poland and presumably moved to Kowel, married my great-great-grandmother, and raised eight children there. Shmuel came to America first, and then Yenta followed with her younger children, including Dina, in 1909. They arrived in New York and then moved to Denver, where a significant Jewish community had begun to congregate.
I immediately Googled these villages and consulted maps. I knew, of course, that my ancestors were probably from that general area, but I can’t quite describe the feeling of finally being able to point to one spot on a map and say, “This is where my ancestors lived.”
…And then I started to read about what happened to those villages and why there are no longer any Jews in that area.
I had known, in theory, that I probably had distant family members killed in the Shoah. With origins in Eastern Europe, and 60% of the European Jewish population wiped out during the Holocaust, it’s pretty unlikely for that not to be true. Still, I knew that all my direct ancestors had been safely settled in the USA by 1914. I had grown up with this sense that my family had escaped in time, and that they were safe.
Then, on Monday last week, I look a closer look at that family tree.
The oldest sister, my Zadie’s aunt, had stayed behind in Kowel.
Strongly reminded of Les 7 Caixes1, I slowly typed a phrase into Google I never thought I’d use in the context of my own family: Yad Vashem archives.
And there they were.
I immediately found records of my great-great-aunt Feyga, great-great-uncle Mottel, and their two youngest daughters, Hinde and Perel, who all perished at the hands of the Nazis in Kowel. Even worse, I discovered something my second cousin hadn’t seen before: that Hinde was married to Zisia, and they had two sons, Aba and Yosef, aged 10 and 8.
During my previous Googling about the villages, I came across this horrible page: translations of notes that were written on the walls of the Great Synagogue in Kowel, where the Jews were held before being carted out to the forest and shot. I just sat there and cried as I read it, knowing that my own relatives could have written those notes.
Being me, I decided to compile them into a “found poem”–a poem composed of bits of text taken from another source and reworked into something new. So I pored over the notes, reading them in their English translations and then finding the original Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish and going back and forth with Google Translate trying to make sure the translations were as accurate as they could be. (Alas, I can’t read in Yiddish. What kind of Ashkenazi Jew am I that I can read with reasonable comprehension in Spanish, French, and Catalan of all useless languages–what have you done to me?!?!–but not in Yiddish?!?!)
I was putting the finishing touches on the poem, deliberating on what to include in the little “prologue” explaining the source of the phrases, and I decided to read more information about what exactly happened in Kowel.
So I began to read an eyewitness account; the story of a man from Kowel who survived by being mistaken for dead (twice) and then living in a hole in the ground for a year and two months until the liberation. I’m linking to it here, and I don’t think you need this warning, but I’ll give it to you anyway–do not read it. I shouldn’t have. It’s beyond… it’s just beyond. And when I was done I couldn’t bear to look at the poem I’ve been working on because it felt too clean, too neat, too distant from the actual horrors of what happened to the people who wrote those words.
That night I lay down next to Eitan and we heard the sound of joyous singing wafting through our bedroom window. We live near a yeshiva, and they were probably celebrating something–someone got engaged, or whatever. I thought of the description in the eyewitness account of the Jews saying kaddish (the prayer for the dead) together: “All of those being taken to die in that vehicle sobbed brokenheartedly, repeating the words: ‘May his great name be blessed forever and ever’ with the devotion and eagerness of those about to die in the name of the Lord.” We die like we live, I thought–in song and in prayer.
It’s hard to feel connected to the joyousness of Jewish life while mired in memories of our tragedies, though. I feel now as I did emerging from the gas chambers of Majdanek on my trip to Poland 14 years ago, blinking in the sunlight reflecting off the snow, trying to readjust to the fact that there is a world outside those gas chambers and that my place in this story is to live, to thrive, to laugh, to embrace my loved ones, and to take everything God has given me and use it to do good in the world.
The past week’s headlines have not been helping much.
Eitan showed me a little poem he wrote as I was working through all this that I think sums the whole thing up beautifully. (You didn’t know there were two poets in the family, did you?!)
Notes from the Martyrs / Eitan Levy
Scrawled on a synagogue wall in Kovel
They ask to be remembered
and demand vengeance
May my sons be your consolation
May my home in our land be your vengeance
May the Torah I learn move your lips in the grave
and the life that I live be the blood in your veins
Amen, may it be His will.
…I think I need to go back to reading obsessively about the Spanish Inquisition now. 😛
1. A Catalan documentary Josep recommended to me that I watched just one week earlier, about a woman from Barcelona who discovered, upon her mother’s death, that she was Jewish and that her grandparents had died in Auschwitz. Alas, I don’t think it’s available with English subtitles, but here it is in Catalan and Spanish.↩