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!
With Holy Week beginning today and Passover beginning tomorrow night, this is a time of year that brings up not only joy and festivity, but also some complexity with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. In the past, Easter was a deadly time to be Jewish. All the focus on Jesus’s death stirred up a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment, because until very recently, Christians believed we were responsible for his death. Many of the worst anti-Jewish riots occurred around Easter time.
Eitan and I have both had the experience of meeting a Christian who has never met a Jew before. (I’m sure this is news to you. 😛 ) Especially if that Christian is a Protestant who grew up in a very traditional community, the first question we get, almost always, is:
“So what do you think about Jesus?“
We stifle a sigh and try to figure out how to answer that question as tactfully as possible.
Look–I get it. To most Christians, Jesus is God, except he’s the “personal connection” part that feels like your buddy and friend and father and confidante. For many of the people who ask me this question, their lives and the lives of their entire community revolve around Jesus. It’s very difficult for them to fathom how somebody could possibly live a deeply religious life with no Jesus.
Well… here is my complete and honest answer.
Truth Is–We Don’t Think Much About Him at All.
If a practicing Muslim walked up to a religious Christian and asked: “What do you think about Mohammed?”, many Christians would probably answer something along the lines of, “Uh… you mean that guy people got shot in France for drawing cartoons of?”
Mohammed is not even in their frame of religious reference. He’s not a figure involved in their practice, prayers, or religious contemplation.
That’s how it is for Jews vis-a-vis Jesus. He’s just not relevant to us.
We Think He Was Just a Guy
So there are a few things Christians believe about Jesus that Jews completely reject.
The first is that he was the Messiah and a prophet.
Both of these things are believed, to some extent, by Muslims as well as Christians. So give each other a high five. We Jews are gonna just… stay out of that party.
The reason we don’t believe he was the Messiah is pretty straightforward: he didn’t fill a single one of our traditional criteria. Our readings of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc. are very different from the Christian interpretations. See here for the Jewish concept of the Messiah.
We don’t believe he was a prophet for two reasons: one, we believe prophecy officially ended after the First Exile and that there have been no real prophets since; two, Jeremiah explicitly warns that anyone who tells us to defy the teachings of the Torah is a false prophet, and… well. (It may be arguable that Jesus never did tell anyone to defy the Torah, and that it was only Paul who did. Paul is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)
If this was the only difference, however, Christianity would still be a messianic subgroup of Judaism, as it was at first. It was only when the theological stuff started to get weird (*cough*Paul*cough*) that Christianity split off and became its own religion.
So the second thing we reject is the concept of the Trinity, and of Jesus being the son of God.
This theological concept is totally beyond the pale of Jewish belief. We believe in one invisible, omniscient, omnipresent God. Not in one God who is divided into three “parts” and certainly not a God who ever manifested Himself in a human being. That’s just… no.
Thanks, but We’ll Atone for Our Own Sins
The third thing Jews reject about the Christian idea of Jesus is this idea that he was the “sacrificial lamb” who died to atone for the Original Sin and all subsequent sins of humanity, replacing the need for animal sacrifices for atonement.
First of all–we have a very different concept of what the Original Sin was and what it means for humanity. You can read more about that here. In short: we don’t believe anyone is born “tainted” with it and we don’t believe atonement for it is necessary. We believe people are judged by God according to the choices they make during their lives, not according to an ill-advised bite of fruit taken by an ancestor thousands of years ago.
Second of all–we already have a way to atone for our sins. It’s called teshuva, and it is a deeply personal process that only the sinner can do for himself. You can read more teshuva about here.
Third of all–atonement sacrifices were only one kind of animal sacrifice, and as far as we’re concerned, those are still “on.” Most of us (Orthodox Jews) believe that when the Temple is restored we’re going to go right ahead and do those again. Replacing them with a dude who was actually God and sacrificed himself was definitely never on the agenda.
So If He Was Just a Guy–What Kind of a Guy Was He?
Right. So here’s where things can get a little hairy.
Jewish opinions on this range from the most generous: “He was a kind teacher who was misguided in his teachings, but they brought the world to an awareness of One God, more or less, and for that we can be grateful” to “He was a horrible person who defied his rabbis and tricked hundreds of people.”
The latter opinion I read in an essay in a collection of Jewish responses to missionaries, and I found it rather harsh. I tend to lean towards the liberal side, but… again, I don’t really spend a lot of time and effort thinking about this. I don’t actually care what kind of a guy he was. He’s not relevant to my life.
Why Jews Get Prickly When Christians Ask Us This Question
I really believe that most people who ask this question are genuinely curious and have the best of intentions. I’m even willing to forgive the gentle missionizing I’ve gotten here or there–“You really should read the New Testament, I think it will be very meaningful for you” type things. I know this comes from a genuine concern for my soul, as according to traditional Christian theology, I’m going to end up in Hell for all eternity after I die for believing all the things stated above. They don’t want that to happen to me. I really do appreciate the concern.
Let’s be frank: it was not so very long ago that Christians were burning us at the stake “out of concern for our souls.” Like, yes, I do believe many of them were genuinely concerned and acting out of what they thought was kindness, but… my appreciation has limits, mmkay?
In medieval Europe Jews were forced to sit in our own synagogues and listen to preachers lecturing about Jesus and salvation as part of a general strategy to get Jews to convert. Those days are over. If anyone, however well-meaning, starts aggressively proselytizing me, I am going to walk away. Because it’s the 21st century and I can do that now without getting my throat slit.
Therefore, if I just met someone, and they ask me what I think about Jesus, I will be on edge. I never know what their next question or statement is going to be. It’s not at all unlikely that it will contain some subtle or not-so-subtle attempt at soul-saving. And that’s gonna be awkward for everybody.
Speaking of which, a note to our readers: any comments to that effect will be deleted. You’re not going to change my mind about Jesus. Ever. Don’t waste your time.
“Jews for Jesus”
There is an unfortunate movement you may have heard of that calls itself “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Judaism.”
I prefer to call them, “Christians Posing as Jews.”
This group claims to be Jews who merely accept Jesus as the Messiah. They use Jewish lingo, Jewish symbolism, and Jewish rituals. But in practice, these people are not Jews, they are Christians. Many of them are not ethnically or halakhically Jewish and have no religious Jewish background. They claim outwardly to believe only that Jesus was the Messiah, but their beliefs about him are actually consistent with Christianity. They are aggressive missionizers and prey on lonely Jews with little knowledge. I know a few people who got involved with them and had a very difficult time getting out.
It may surprise you to hear me speak so harshly about a religious group. While I may have my disagreements with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, et al, I don’t have a problem with people who practice their faiths in earnest.
But you know me; if there’s one thing I have zero tolerance for, it’s dishonesty.
These people claim to be a stream of Judaism. They are not. They are, at best, a group of people who think they are following Judaism but are actually Christians. At worst, they are a deceitful stream of Christianity that is trying to save Jewish souls by pretending that Christianity and Judaism are not mutually exclusive.
I am not cool with that.
What I am cool with, is Christians celebrating their own faith and traditions. So on that note, a blessed Holy Week to you and all who celebrate, and Chag Sameach to all our Jewish readers!
Abortion is one of the most hotly debated and divisive topics in American politics. It’s one of the most important issues on the agenda for aspiring politicians, and the discussion around it comes up over and over again during pre-election campaigns.
In Israel, on the other hand, no one so much as mentions it when elections roll around. Abortion is practically absent from political debates in this country–as much as anything is “absent from debate” in Israel, that is. 😉 But really, for a country full of Jews–who are constantly arguing about everything–this has got to make you ask: what’s going on here?!
Well, first, let’s look at what’s going on in the USA. On one end of the spectrum we have the ultra-conservatives, influenced mostly by Christian thought, who believe that a baby’s status as a person begins at conception, and therefore abortion at any stage of pregnancy is nothing short of murder and should be illegal just like murder is.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the ultra-liberals, who assert that no one has any right to tell a woman what to do with her body, regardless of the status of the baby at any stage during pregnancy, and therefore any woman should be free to abort her pregnancy at any time.
These are the voices that shout the loudest, but the truth is that the opinions of the majority of Americans fall somewhere in between those two positions.
While many liberals find the ultra-conservative position horrible and wrong and possibly misogynist, I think it’s important to understand that if you truly believe that the status of “personhood” applies from the moment of conception, there is really no way around this as a serious moral problem. It angers me when I see people brush that opinion off as ignorance or bigotry. The question of exactly at which point a person becomes a person is not a matter of science; it is a matter of philosophy. If you spend more than half a millisecond thinking about it, it is not a simple question at all. According to Christian thought, a person becomes a person at the moment of conception, and at that point, the fertilized egg takes on exactly the same status as the mother. It is not ignorance or bigotry to think that no one should be allowed to kill what you believe is a person, even if that pregnancy and birth may cause suffering.
Fortunately for the world’s one and only Jewish country… the Jewish position on this matter is a lot more, shall we say, nuanced.
In the Talmud, there are several sources that state that in the first 40 days after conception, the embryo (or zygote, or blastocyst, if you want to get technical) is not considered a human by halakha. Maimonides says “All these forty dates, it is not a fetus, it is considered like water.” (This comes out to sometime during the 8th week of pregnancy.) So while Judaism would not advocate aborting a pregnancy in general, there is a lot more room to permit it in the first 40 days.
After this, the fetus has a sort of in-between status in Jewish law, one which I would call “potential personhood.” This applies practically in a number of ways.
Firstly: Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, does not consider abortion to be equal to murder. It is a sin, but not as grave as murder.
On the other hand, most authorities agree that it is permissible to desecrate the Sabbath to save the life of a fetus (a threatened miscarriage, for example), even though the fetus is not considered a person. One of the ideas behind the principle that allows us to break most commandments in order to save a life, is that we are desecrating one Sabbath so that the person we saved will be able to observe many Sabbaths in the future. This principle still applies in the case of a fetus, who will (hopefully) eventually grow into a person, who will (hopefully) keep the Sabbath. 🙂
From these two rulings we understand that the status of a fetus as a person is somewhat fuzzy.
Accordingly, the question of whether abortion is permitted has a rather fuzzy answer, too. As a general rule, of course, as we saw in the post about pregnancy and contraception, Judaism encourages us to bring life into the world, and therefore, by default, abortion is forbidden. However, under certain circumstances, exceptions can be made.
There is a well-known organization in Israel that deals with fertility and halakha, called Puah Institute. I have never needed to consult them for any reason–thank God–but the general sense I get from them is that their rabbis tend to be very lenient when it comes to aborting a pregnancy for “medical reasons” (a.k.a., the fetus suffering from some medical condition or other that would affect its quality of life and that of its parents and family). There is a general perception that religious Jews will not abort in the case of Down Syndrome, for example, and I personally would not (and not only for halakhic reasons). But I have heard of cases of the rabbis at Puah permitting a woman to abort in such a case where it was determined that having a child with this disorder would be catastrophic for the family.
Unfortunately, Israel is not particularly advanced when it comes to accessibility and equality for people with disabilities. Combine this with the fact that the Israeli medical system recommends more prenatal testing than any other country in the world, and you will understand why we also have the highest “medical abortion” rates in the world. I take moral issue with this, personally, but the point is that there is room in halakha to make allowances, even beyond what I personally am morally comfortable with.
So whether an abortion is permitted by halakha depends what the reason is, and it also depends on the stage of pregnancy. The later in the pregnancy, the harder it is to permit. Starting at around 24 weeks, a fetus could theoretically survive outside the womb. So if you think killing a 24-week preemie outside the womb is murder, it’s pretty hard to argue that killing a 24-week fetus inside the womb isn’t murder. Still, Judaism does not consider it the same as murder until the baby has been born. The guiding principle in halakha is “the life of the mother comes before that of the fetus,” meaning that if, even during childbirth, the mother’s life is threatened and could be saved by killing the fetus, halakha says that the fetus must be killed to save the mother’s life.
The fact that Judaism is more nuanced than Christianity on the topic of abortion is the reason the political conversation around it in Israel is so different from that in the USA. Abortions are legal until the third trimester and are funded by our national healthcare. There are theoretical criteria for an abortion to be approved for funding, such as the age of the mother, medical issues, or financial issues, and a woman must appear before a committee for approval. But in practice the request is almost never denied.
I consider myself to be “pro-choice,” in that I believe women should be allowed to have abortions even in some cases where I think it is morally wrong. But while I think women absolutely have the right to do what they want with their bodies, it’s more complicated than that when there is another life, or potential life, involved.
So I find the Israeli arrangement to be a good middle ground: abortions are legal and accessible, but not so accessible that women can take the decision lightly. It seems that the majority of Israelis are comfortable with this arrangement as well.
Another illustration of how different the discourse in Israel is from that in the USA is the difference between our anti-abortion movements. The most well-known anti-abortion organization in Israel is called Efrat. They claim that they are not anti-abortion, but merely offer counselling for mothers who were considering abortion for financial reasons, and if said mothers decide to have the baby, Efrat offers them financial assistance. I have read articles that call their integrity into question and claim that they are more sinister than they seem, but still… compare and contrast to those lunatics shooting up abortion clinics in the USA. O.O
(Seriously Americans. WT*.)
Shelo neda, as we say in Hebrew… roughly, “may we never know from this.”
So you may have noted that I mentioned that we had a “couple” of Christmas letters coming, and then only posted one. That’s because good things come to those who wait! 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit late, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to post this letter from my friend Alana.
I don’t remember exactly how I met Alana; probably through an online Muslim-Jewish dialogue group… which is funny, because she’s Christian! 😉 But there tends to be a lot of overlap between Muslim-Jewish dialogue and Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, so Palestinian Christians like her tend to get lumped in with the Muslims, I guess. We both got such a kick out of discovering that I live a mere five-minute drive from Beit Sahour, the Palestinian village where her father, paternal grandfather, and maternal grandparents were born!
Alana is currently studying international affairs, has written for various publications, and as you’ve probably gathered, is involved in peace and dialogue efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. I was especially excited when she offered to write something about Christmas because she has family in Bethlehem, where the Christmas story takes place! She grew up elsewhere, however, and she’ll tell you about that in a minute. 😉
But before I give her the floor, I just want to say that I am so grateful to her and her family for letting me share this little slice of their lives on my blog. Especially in light of recent events, I think it is really important for members of both our peoples to listen to each other’s stories. Alana doesn’t get into her family’s story here from a political perspective, but it was very important to me to discuss it with her and hear her parents’ feelings about it.
Anyway! Here’s Alana, and a painfully pared down selection of the bajillion lovely pictures she sent me 😉 :
Hi! My name is Alana and I’m a twenty-year-old university student. I would like to tell you about my religious identity and how it relates to my national identity and contradicts my local identity. I would say that I was quite religious most of my life. I think I lost a bit of my spirituality along the way as I became older, but as I explore my identity, I realize I want to have a better relationship with God.
Here is an anecdote to assist me in explaining who I am:
“Baba, I wish I was born in Beit Sahour! Or Bethlehem!” A little naïve girl version of myself lamented this while I was reflecting on relatives in town who happened to be born there.
“Why?” my dad asked, implying that American citizenship by birth is way more valuable.
“Jesus was born there!”
Even my dad who swears by his spirituality disagrees with the notion of his daughter taking her first breaths in the Holy Land. It’s ideal, but my father left for a reason. He wanted a change.
Where did my father, paternal grandmother, and uncles uproot to? Well, I’ll give you a hint, it’s referred to as “Sin City” where what happens there, inevitably stays there.
Yes, I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.
Almost my entire family is from a small village called Beit Sahour in the West Bank. It’s half an hour away from Bethlehem, the town that my paternal grandmother’s family is from. It also happens to be the famed Biblical village where once upon a time, Jesus Christ was born. No big deal. I just happen to find roots in the same area where Jesus Christ was born.
*nuns proceed to fangirl*
The reason that this might be a tad interesting is that my family is also Orthodox Christian. We are Christians who come from the Holy Land, and for at least over a hundred years or so, the place where Jesus Christ came into existence.
I think this is a huge part of why I, as a devout child, regretted not having the chance to be born near where my Savior was born. It seemed like an honor at the time, and celebrating His birth is definitely one of my favorite traditions every year.
My family is Orthodox Christian. My family in the U.S. are members of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. It’s the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the United States. Antioch is a city in modern Turkey. It was a part of what was formerly known as Syria (different from the modern nation-state of Syria).
So how does one celebrate Christmas in Sin City? Well, for my family it’s not too different from the Christmas you’ve heard. Ok, I guess the praying in Arabic at church is kind of a huge difference. Oh and I cannot forget the Christmas songs in Arabic! My mother has an entire album of songs that she plays in the car on the way to church on Sundays in December or in the house. They were always soothing to listen to, and to be honest, I like them better than Christmas songs in English sometimes.
One thing I want to point out before I explain how my family celebrates Christmas is that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. We have a different calendar than Catholics/Protestants. Here, in the United States though, we, along with those at our church and other Orthodox Christians, celebrate Christmas on December 25th. I think this was mostly done for assimilation purposes, but I’m not sure. (My family back home celebrate it on January 7th.) With that said, I do like that we in the west at least celebrate Christmas at the same time as western Christians.
It’s also important to note that Jesus Christ is said to have been born in the spring, at an uncertain date of course. During the rule of the Roman Empire, Christians were only allowed to celebrate the birth of Christ if it aligned with the pagan holiday of the Winter Solstice. Thus, this the reason why Christians now celebrate Christmas in the winter. The reason for the season technically also has a pagan layer with it, along with traditions like putting up a tree.
Now for an explanation of how my family celebrates the holiday!
My childhood was much more lively around Christmas time, for a plethora of reasons, both internal and external. One of the most profound ways that my family and I began the month of December was participating and sometimes hosting a Christmas party with our close friends. Every year, a different family (there are four of us) would take turns hosting our annual party.
The adults played games and drank, while the children played and ate cookies and the like. The patriarch of the family that hosted the party that specific year would dress up as Santa Claus and distribute gifts to the children.
These gifts were purchased by their respective parents prior to the occasion. It was a tradition that we always upheld. Our annual Christmas parties were always such an enjoyable time and I miss them dearly. The memories will last a lifetime.
Leading up to the Christmas Day, the Sunday before Christmas at my church is quite special, and not just theologically. When I was younger, the children, teens, and young adults would perform a play reenacting the birth of Jesus Christ annually. It became a tradition for our parish. The youth would participate and the adults would watch. Taking place in our church, the person playing Mary would be sitting on the steps in front of the altar, carrying a baby doll to represent baby Jesus. Whoever plays Joseph sits by her while the “three wise men” bring their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Shepherds that were called upon by an angel to visit Jesus filter in after the wise men. Lastly, angels, mostly young children, descend onto the scene. They walk in between the pews singing various hymns. To finish off the play, they sit down in front of Mary and Joseph. The play ends with Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, and angels gazing at their Savior. As a child, I was always cast as an angel. I longed for the day I would have a better role. That day would not come for at least several years though, especially since the tradition of the play was broken for a while.
Around the time I joined my church’s choir, when I was only ten years old, my priest decided we need a change when it came to our yearly play. He was getting tired of the old routine and wanted to liven up the Sunday prior to the day we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth. So, he decided that the youth of the church should sing Christmas songs for the parish. Our choir conductor agreed to gathering some of the children and teenaged members of the church to participate. We always managed to convince enough people to sing their hearts out for the special performance after our pre-Christmas service. My sister, godsister, and I always took it quite seriously though, since we all love to sing and we happened to be members of the parish choir in the first place. So, we always rocked the show, especially since the three of us started a tradition of choreographing a song-dance routine that we would perform after all of the general songs were sung. Everyone looked forward to us performing, it was the highlight of my day.
Another tradition that I found special was the integration of Arabic Christmas songs into the program, even though it was just one. At the start of the program, the children and teenagers would walk into the church ringing bells in their hands. While they did this, they would chant “Laylit eid” or the Arabic version of Jingle Bells! They definitely did this after singing it in English, or course. I love that song so much and to this day, it is still one of my favorite Christmas songs. After our Christmas choir program, a member of the parish, usually male would dress up as Santa Claus, knock on the church doors, and proclaim the phrase “Ho, ho, ho.” The doors would then be opened for this Santa Clause who would carry a red bag filled with small and usually identical gifts for the children. It was a nice way to end the program every year.
This tradition went on and thrived until one year when my priest decided to bring the old play back. We were all surprised, but we went with the flow. That year was 2013 and I was eighteen years old. Finally, I was at an age where I could play a part besides an “angel.” Guess what? I was not only promoted, but I was given the most important role of all. I played the Virgin Mary. Oh my, I was so ecstatic. Finally, what a huge upgrade it was for me to play such an important part, and I definitely made sure to do the beloved Virgin Mary justice. That had to be the most important performance of the play that I ever participated in, and it went very well indeed.
I have so many memories from those Sundays, including up until this past year. But the most important event prior to Christmas day is definitely Christmas Eve mass. This is when we really dress up and take pictures for Christmas. Everyone attends this service, especially those “Easter and Christmas” Christians (those who only come to church for Easter and Christmas services). Anyway, it’s a big deal, but alas, we do not get into the truly fun part until Christmas morning.
Christmas morning. For those on the outside who only see what it’s like through the lens of the media, i.e. TV’s and movies, it may seem a bit overdone. They practically memorize the stereotypical setting and custom and sigh thinking, “Why is this important?” I understand, but for me, it ceased to seeming like a repetitive thing and I hope the Christmas morning spark is something I will always experience. As a child, my mom, sister, and I would bake cookies that we would put out for Santa. We would also put out a glass of milk for that jolly fellow. After we would come home from church, my sister and I would soon fall asleep, giddy for the next morning. Soon enough, the sun came up. My sister and I would pop up from our beds and scurry to the living room. There they were, those magnificent gifts we were waiting for, under our beautiful twinkling Christmas tree. Believe me, that wasn’t it, once my dad started working the graveyard shift at his job, we had to wait, until around noon time. The wait was the best part though, but of course we wanted to finally see what we received from Santa Claus and our parents. Opening presents is a ritual. First, the stockings. My mother(Santa) would fill our stockings with chocolates, candy, tiny knickknacks, you name it! I personally loved the tiny gifts inside. Growing up, my sister and I were granted some pretty spectacular gifts.
Honestly, this is great and all, but that’s not what this is about. The fact that my parents spent their time and money to make our sisters happy, even in a material sense, showed us how much they truly loved us. Growing up in the Holy Land and the Middle East respectively, my parents did not have much. They both grew up mostly dirt poor. My mother always explained to me that she had few toys, and I cannot tell you how many precious Barbie dolls I had in my vast toy collection. The toys, clothes, shoes, electronics, etc. My parents bought it all and they sacrificed so much for indescribable Christmas mornings, and overall, our livelihood. They gave us so much; I do not think I will ever be able to truly repay them back. It would be a pity to take all of it for granted, but you do not ponder the extent of your parent’s love, i.e. the hard work it takes when you are a mere child. You just receive it with no questions asked. Writing this blog post makes me realize how lucky I am, that I have not only been able to experience a microcosm of Christmases in Bethlehem, but I have experienced Christmases that my parents could have only dreamt of indulging in as children themselves. They did not have what my sister and I have. They had almost nothing, but for some reason, seeing the smiles on our faces when we rip open that wrapping paper is all that they need to be happy. I may have begun to gift give to my parents and sister in the past few years as a young adult myself, but my parents always shrug off the gifts. The only gifts they have, the only presents they need, are the beaming faces that my sister and I produce on that lovely holiday of ours. Since they love us so much, that is the only Christmas wish they have ever had for the past twenty years and I am beyond thankful for that.
Celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday in a town of “sin” may seem strange or impossible, but as my story outlines, it’s not only possible, it’s extraordinary. I may not be able to visit the Church of the Nativity every year around Christmas time, or visit the huge Christmas tree that is put up in Manger Square. I may not even be able to see most of my family, but celebrating Christmas in my hometown of Las Vegas has always proven to be wonderful, and I would not have it any other way in my eyes. I’ve only celebrated Christmas or “Eid milad” in Las Vegas, Nevada, and to be blunt, I think I would prefer to take part in Christmas festivities in the city of sin for the rest of my life. It’s familiar and it’s home. It’s unique and creative and that’s what I love about it. I would not change that for the world.
I am pleased to present our first guest letter on Christmas, by my friend Jonathan. Jonathan is a devout Catholic, but has taken a bizarre interest in the Jewish roots of his faith, to a point that even you, Josep, would start shaking your head in disbelief. Living in NYC, he has been thoroughly exposed to Jewish culture, and knows more Talmudic texts, Hebrew, and Yiddish than any Hispanic Catholic should. (He’s the one I was joking with about the Pope. I often jokingly accuse him of being a Judaizer, threatening to report him to the Inquisition. He takes it very well.)
We have had many memorably amusing discussions concerning our religions. Such as that time when I complained on Facebook about finding granola bars in my purse on Passover, since oats are one of the five grains, meaning it was seriously hardcore chametz…
Now, before we proceed to his letter I must warn you that his terminology might be a little hard to follow if you’re not familiar with Catholic concepts. I tried to get him to tone it down, but what can I do, once you get him talking about Jesus he can’t help himself!
Okay, now that I’ve finished embarrassing him, here’s Jonathan. A joyful Three Kings’ Day to those who celebrate!
I pray that you are well by the grace of God when you so happen upon this letter.
My name is Jonathan. I am not quite sure how I came to have the pleasure of Daniella’s acquaintance. I can only assume that it was through her husband Eitan’s FB page, and our mutual interest in the religious climate of Inquisition era Spain.
I am a Latin Rite Catholic of Puerto Rican descent born and raised in “the diaspora” in New York City.
The Christmas season, or more appropriately the season of Nativity has come upon us once again. As you are more than likely aware of, this is the time of year when Christians the world over commemorate the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Contrary to popular belief the Christmas season itself begins on 25 December and ends on 2 February with the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord/The Purification of Mary which commemorates the Jewish rite of pidyon ha-ben (The Redemption of the First Born), of which our Lord was obligated to having been born under the Law of Moses. However for our purposes I will be focusing on Christmas as observed in my household.
Traditionally speaking, Christmas in my family would officially be ushered in with “La Misa de Gallo” (Translated literally it means “The Mass of the Cock/Rooster”), but in the English speaking world it is more commonly known as Midnight Mass. This mass commemorates the shepherds who kept vigil til dawn upon our Saviour’s birth. The reference to the cock in the Spanish name is thus an allusion to the cock’s crow at dawn when the Shepherd’s vigil ended. Most places however do not observe the Midnight vigil in this manner, but opt for a liturgy which ends at midnight, or begins at midnight. As I’ve gotten older I have opted to instead observe Christmas day mass on the morning of 25 December as I prefer the more hushed and solemn tone for personal reflection on the day’s mystery.
The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that what is of true importance is the historical and metaphysical reality we’re presented with during Nativity. Namely in that the very God became as one of us by partaking of our humanity (whilst preserving His divinity hypostatically), and radically elevated what it means to be human. Whether from East, or West, from eternity was the nation of Israel chosen as the center of the World to draw man to His center. To call man to a new way of being by means of participation in Christ’s Sonship. The Nativity is not merely an event that occurred 2,000 years ago, but one which takes place daily in our lives (that’s true of the Resurrection as well).
I don’t necessarily think the latter is a deviation from my upbringing, but if anything it paved the way for my preference for those respites into solitude and silence during the holidays.
Christmas day is relatively quiet in my home, with gift giving taking a back seat to the festive foods particular to the season, as well as the time spent with family. While I was born and raised in the US mainland, my family managed to preserve a number of cultural traditions particular to my Puerto Rican heritage. However, as with all communities in the diaspora, there is a give and take between the practices of the homeland and the new nation of residence, with a synthesis of sorts resulting between them. Amongst the more “American” derived practices was the decorating of a pine/fir tree (in my case synthetic) with all manner of lights and ornaments for Christmas. While I was raised with the practice from my youth (my mom having crafted an entire set of really beautiful ornaments at one point), this was not held in the same esteem as it may have been amongst some of my fellow compatriots and co-religionists. The tree would go up the day after Thanksgiving without any of the fondness or formalities associated with tree trimming, or its appropriateness or lack thereof within the season of Advent (the penitential period observed by Western Christians prior to Christmas which calls to mind not only Christ Jesus’ first coming, but also His Second Coming). Nevertheless, it was never really a central part of my upbringing, but something that we did because we lived in the States.
One peculiarity associated with our Christmas decorating was collecting pine needles which would be left in small bundles at the foot of the tree. These bundles of needles were intended for the reindeer who pulled Santa Claus’ sleigh (Not that Santa Claus figured much into how I observed Christmas growing up. The figures of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas were only vaguely associated with one another, even if the occasional “Behave or Santa Claus won’t bring you anything for Christmas” was uttered.). This practice might seem peculiar given that most families leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus, but in reality it was a synthesis of my family’s traditional observance of “Dia de Reyes,” known in English as “Epiphany”/“Three Kings’ Day.” (This feast is observed on 6 January and commemorates the visit of three wisemen/kings from the East who observed the Messiah’s Star from their respective homelands to adore the new born King of Israel.)
Traditionally on the eve of the feast, children would build small feeding troughs in shoe boxes filled with hay/grass (representing the manger that the Christ Child was laid in) and leave it beneath their bed in which the Three Kings would leave small gifts for the children of the house. The hay/grass within the “manger” was meant to provide sustenance to the camels (or horses) who had journey from the East with the Three Kings. A small bowl filled with water would likewise be left out that the camels might quench their thirst. Likewise in place of milk and cookies for Santa, a shot of rum would be left out for the Three Kings that they might share in the joy and merriment of the newborn King, Emmanuel, for He is truly God amongst us. However, in my case some of the traditions associated with Epiphany came to be transferred and adapted within the context of Christmas Eve. Growing up there was nevertheless an effort to preserve “Dia de Reyes” in my household by means of withholding the exchange of some gifts until Epiphany. As I got older and my desire for receiving gifts waned, so too did some of these practices, though in essence they got me much closer to contemplation of the metaphysical reality presented by the season of Nativity, the incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus.
In Puerto Rican households during Christmas you will invariably a feast composed of various festive foods. However no Christmas table is complete without the following staples: roast pork shoulder (pernil), yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules), and pasteles. Likewise, no Christmas is complete without coquito. However, if any Puerto Rican had to choose which of these ubiquitous staples reminds them most of Christmas, without a doubt they would say pasteles and coquito.
Coquito is a coconut cream based egg nog like beverage enjoyed throughout the holiday season. Traditionally it is made with overproof rum (pitorro). Every which family has their own closely guarded recipes passed down from generation to generation. Coquito like sofrito (A paste made of various herbs and spices used as a base for most traditional stews, sauces, soups, and rice dishes in Puerto Rican cuisine) is just one of those recipes you do not share with people outside of the family. In some way each generation is bound to the other through the dishes we share at the table. This is a common theme throughout most of our family gatherings, but in particular at Christmas time.
As mentioned previously, no Puerto Rican table is complete at Christmas without pasteles. Pasteles are like their more well-known counterparts tamales, but are comprised of an entirely different masa (“dough”), comprised of starchy tubers or made from unripe green bananas. This masa is placed upon a banana/plantain leaf which has been cut and slightly wilted, and greased with a bit of annato infused oil/lard, and is later filled with a stewed pork meat filling that includes capers, olives, and in some families raisins and almonds. The banana leaf enclosing the masa and meat filling are then folded into rectangular cakes and wrapped in parchment paper, tied in paired bundles with butcher’s twine, to then be frozen,. When the time comes to consume them they are taken out of the freezer and placed in salted boiling water for about an hour when they fully cooked and are then ready to serve. It might be laborious, but it is indeed a labor of love that I will always remember fondly, because of how it brings together generations of women in my family who have passed down the “sacred art.”
Amidst all the wonderful smells of foods being prepared in the kitchen for Christmas, none of them compares to the sight of generations of family matriarchs seated at the table in the kitchen preparing pasteles. Some of them grating the tubers and other vegetables for the masa, while others cut the leaves and parchment paper, and another the cords to bind the pasteles. Once all were seated at the table, you could hear all manner of catching up between them all. Conversations about current events, general catching up about friends and family, and the occasional argument between my mom and aunts, all under the supervision of my grandmother. On occasion when one of us kids would stumble into the kitchen to talk with our moms, we’d request customized pasteles which our moms would set aside for us when it came time to eat. (I have a particular fondness for green banana based masa over cassava (yuca) based masa, and like to vary between the standard pork filling, and the pork fillings with raisins and almonds.) If we were really brave, we would try our hand at helping with the wrapping and preparation, only to later be kicked out of the kitchen for taking too long to make just one, or some other mishap. To this day I am amazed at the speed at which my mom is able to make them, without there being a loss in quality. We either helped too little, or did not help enough; we could never win! However, in many ways it was probably a way for my aunts, mother, and grandmother to reminisce about the past with one another. Any of us kids who really took the time to listen as they prepared the pasteles would learn a lot about our moms and grandmother when our moms were just children.
Of course while our moms were in the kitchen, that meant that the men were in the living room having a few beers, or sipping on a bit of coquito chatting amongst themselves, and occasionally rough housing one of us kids. My cousins and I usually stuck to my room to play with our Christmas gifts and just catch up in general. Nothing out of the ordinary for us, just the usual, kids being kids. The occasional argument might break out over having to share with my cousins, but again, who hasn’t been in that very position when your cousins are on your home turf? But I digress. As my cousins and I got older, and our common interests diverged, we each came to a more mature relationship amongst ourselves.
As cited previously, what binds us together during the holiday is when we come together to eat. It wasn’t so much a formal affair wherein we all sat around a table to share a meal, but rather it was a more festive affair with extra chairs set about in the living room, some people on the sofa, other on the love seat etc., each being served by one of our moms, or as we got older, serving ourselves the foods that were in the kitchen. Each of us sitting around, with music in the background, just enjoying each other’s company.
When I was younger, I remember on more than one occasion during family gatherings being made to dance with my mom, that I might learn the dances of my homeland. One of my cousins and I would turn it into a competition of sorts between us, dancing with our moms who taught us the steps of the dance.
As the music waned, and people brought their dishes to the kitchen sink, stories of Christmases past emerged along with family stories and jokes. This was usually my favorite time with my family. It was the one time of the year when without prodding everything you ever wanted to know about your family just happened to fall right into your lap without prodding on your part. The deceased members of family though not present in body came to be present in spirit, especially those family members that I had never had the fortune to meet. Somehow in those remembrances of repasts we were all together again. Of course in God’s mind the past, present, and future do not exist, so in some way it was like experiencing a foretaste of eternity unbeknownst to us. However that shouldn’t surprise me, considering that Emmanuel, the Kingdom of God born and present amongst us, has by His incarnation (which by our baptism we become partakers of in dying with Him and being born anew with Him) unites heaven and earth. Those who have passed from this life and are alive in Him thus remain ever present in our midst through the Communion of Saints. The Saints being those who sanctified the world by virtue of their bearing and birthing Him within it. This in turn orients my gaze towards eternity.
The mystery of the Incarnation is ever present and pervades all things, but at Nativity (or more appropriately the Adventide vigil) we meditate on the incarnate Emmanuel, during His first and His eventual second coming. The Paschal Babe who has come, has died, has risen, and will come again to judge the living and the dead at the culmination of the ages.
This brings me to my final point of reflection on the mystery of the Nativity, namely what have I done to make the Kingdom of God present in this world?
I think my family has done their part in forming me within the various folk forms and traditions that facilitate that task. I am by no means perfect and have much room for improvement, but nonetheless I believe that amidst the chaos of the world I too can keep vigil towards that Silent Night of the eternal Yerushalayim.
May the peace of the Christ be with you and yours this day and all days.
One of the major philosophical differences I have noted between Christianity and Judaism is our concept of the nature of man, what he is capable of, and what he needs in order to elevate himself above the darker aspects of his nature.
When I first encountered this difference I was skeptical. I was educated from a strong Jewish perspective, so I was aware that anything anybody said about Christianity was sure to cast it in a negative light. Therefore, I thought that maybe those who had taught me about this aspect of Christianity had been exaggerating it. But the more I learned about the fundamental principles of Christianity, the more I realized that this difference does exist; and that maybe the fact that I see it as a negative aspect attests to how deeply ingrained the opposite idea is in my belief system.
The root of the disagreement is in how we interpret the results of what Christians call the Original Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve.
Both Christians and Jews agree that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it fundamentally changed the nature of man, his purpose and goals, and the nature of the world in which he lived. We also both believe that the sin caused some kind of intermingling, or “tainting,” of humankind with evil. But what Christians believe this means is that man can never redeem himself from his inherent evil; that it is part of his essence, from which he can never escape on his own. The only way to redeem oneself from it, Christianity says, is “salvation through Christ.” That is, that God manifested Himself in His son–Jesus–who then suffered and died on the cross to atone for that original sin. All you have to do to redeem yourself from evil, then, is to accept Jesus. (Obviously, different streams of Christianity have different ideas about exactly how to do that and what it means, but that’s the basic idea.) That way, God will grant you salvation and grace.
It took me years and a lot of reading to fully wrap my head around that concept, because it is just so foreign to me.
So here’s what Jews believe about the sin of Adam and Eve.
The Tree of Knowledge is actually not exactly an accurate translation of what the tree is called in Genesis. In the text, it is called “עץ הדעת טוב ורע,” “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” But the word for “knowledge,” “דעת,” does not simply mean “knowledge” as in wisdom, awareness, understanding, or the retention of information. “דעת” implies a deep intermingling, synthesis, and connection. When the Torah says a man “knew” his wife and then she became pregnant, it’s not just a euphemism; “knowledge” in that context is describing a deep connection. A more accurate translation of the name of the tree, then, would be “the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.”
So the effect of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil was not simply to give man “knowledge,” but to cause an intertwining of good and evil within man. Before eating from the fruit of the Tree, evil did not exist within man. It was embodied in the snake, which was an external source of doubt and rebellion against God.
In Judaism we have a concept of the “good inclination” and the “evil inclination”–yetzer tov and yetzer ra respectively. This is what we call these opposite forces that exist within us, the yetzer tov pulling us to strive for Godliness, and the yetzer ra pulling us towards our base desires. We believe that man lives with a constant conflict between these inclinations. The real essence of our soul, our higher self, is really the yetzer tov; that is how God originally created us. The yetzer ra was the result of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree. It was no longer externalized as the snake. It became an integral part of the nature of Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit.
Our goal, our purpose, in life and in the world, is to overcome the yetzer ra–first within ourselves, and then outside ourselves, in the world at large. We believe that man is capable of this–that indeed, this is the mission God endowed us as people and especially as Jews. We do not need God’s salvation to overcome the evil within us, Judaism says. It is a constant struggle, but we believe that our job is to do it ourselves.
That said, God does help us out in a number of ways. The most important way, according to Judaism, was the giving of the Torah. The Torah is essentially a guidebook on overcoming the yetzer ra on a personal and societal level, and that is really the purpose of the mitzvot–to help us attain that goal. That is why the Torah is represented in the Garden of Eden, and later symbolically referred to, as the Tree of Life. The “fruits” of the Torah–the mitzvot–are the antidote to the fruits of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.
Jews and Christians agree that there were additional punishments God gave Adam and Eve because of their sin. He banished them from the Garden of Eden; he made them mortal; he cursed both Adam and Eve with the difficulty of labor–Adam, laboring for bread, and Eve, laboring for children. My interpretation of the significance of these punishments is that they were direct consequences of the synthesis of good and evil within man. God created the world in order to bestow His goodness upon it. But now, because good and evil were hopelessly intertwined, man would have to work hard to overcome the evil and attain the Godliness that he was created to receive. He could no longer sit in paradise and bask in God’s light. He needed to search for it and work for it, in a world where it was no longer obvious and tangible.
While this sounds like quite a bummer, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points something out in his work, “A World of Love,” that reveals the unique power of a world in which good and evil can mingle. In the spiritual world, he says, proximity is determined by similarity. That is, if we wish to become close to God spiritually, we must become more like Him. The less we are like Him, the farther away from Him we are. By that understanding, in the spiritual world, nothing could possibly be farther away from good than evil. They are completely opposite and therefore can never engage with one another.
But spiritual matter can be anchored to physical matter–such as a soul to a body. And in the physical world, things that are evil can exist in very close proximity to things that are good. In that sense, then, this world, in which good and evil intermingle, is the only place where good can overcome evil. Our world is sort of a battleground between these two opposite forces, and we, human beings, are the soldiers on either side; it is up to us to choose which side. This battle wages within our hearts, but as you can clearly see, it also wages fiercely outside us, between different groups of humans who are making different choices about how to relate to the good and evil within themselves.
If you are interested in exploring these ideas more deeply, I highly recommend giving “A World of Love” a slow and careful read. It can be read online in its entirety here, or you can buy a copy of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “If You Were God,” which includes this essay along with “If You Were God” (which I have referenced before and is also mind-blowing) and “Immortality of the Soul.”
But for now, back to human nature according to Judaism and Christianity.
The reason I was inspired to write about this was a little post on Brain Pickings about Dr. Viktor Frankl. Now, if you have never heard of this man or his iconic work, “Man’s Search for Meaning“… well then I don’t even know what to do with you because if anyone on earth should have read that book it’s you! Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camp with a focus on his observations regarding the effect of the inmates’ attitudes on their survival, and goes on to describe the psychotherapeutic method he developed as a result of his observations, which he called “logotherapy.” His overarching idea is that more than anything else, man strives for a sense of purpose and meaning to his life, and that when he feels that his life has meaning, he can withstand even the most horrific conditions. And no one is more qualified than a survivor of Auschwitz to attest to that.
…Seriously. If you haven’t read it, get on that, pronto. It’s pretty short.
Anyway, the post on Brain Pickings brought a five-minute video excerpted from a lecture of Dr. Frankl’s, in which he says, “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him… we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way–because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.”
No wonder the Nazis tried to get rid of him. What a quintessentially Jewish idea.
Humans are not static; we are constantly evolving. You can’t give a precise measurement of a person’s goodness or potential, because these things are in constant flux. And when we believe in each other and in ourselves, believe that we are all capable of being better than we currently are, we create a supportive reality for ourselves to actually attain that potential. In essence, he is saying that the higher our expectations and hopes for ourselves, the higher we can reach.
That is why I find the Christian concept of the Original Sin and the inherent sinfulness of man so discouraging. Because in a sense, Christianity is telling us that we cannot make ourselves more than we are; only God can do that. And I much prefer to believe that I have the ability to overcome my darker nature and become a better person. But I can see something comforting in the Christian idea, too. When you don’t have the capacity to redeem yourself of sin, you don’t have that responsibility, either. You can (and indeed, must) hand it over to the priest, or to Jesus, or to God. We Jews don’t have that option. We have to take full responsibility for ourselves and our natures. A rabbi can only council us, he can’t absolve us of sin. God will only cleanse us of sin if we are willing to change ourselves, as I explained in my letter on teshuva. We must constantly struggle, believing that we have the capacity to overcome. This (among many other things!) makes Judaism a much more challenging and demanding approach to life. And obviously I am totally biased, but in my view–it’s well worth it. The reward of achieving something you have worked for is sweeter than any gift someone could give you.
ETA: Josep wishes to register his indignation at the very suggestion made in this post that he may not have read Man’s Search for Meaning. 😉 It was assigned as required reading when he was in middle school, around the time they took him to see Schindler’s List, and he remembers it as an extremely emotionally harrowing read.
Yesterday H wore one of the Barcelona soccer team shirts you gave us. The kids wear them frequently, FYI.
There was a substitute teacher at his kindergarten yesterday, someone who is not usually part of the staff and had not seen him wearing one of the shirts before. She noticed something about it that I hadn’t: the upper left section of the FCB symbol is a St. George’s cross. [Blog readers: as I wrote in my post about St. Jordi’s Day, St. George (Jordi in Catalan) is the patron saint of Catalonia. If you missed it, read it. It’s funny. 😉 ]
Hmm… is this a problem, you ask? Well, not exactly. It’s the same symbol that appears on the Swiss flag, and the British flag, and, you know, the Red Cross and all. Religious symbols that are used in what is very clearly a non-religious context are okay according to Jewish law. (Some may argue that sports is a religion in and of itself, but let’s not get into that!)
There are, however, those who feel that there is inherent… um… negativity in certain symbols, such as the cross, and that they have negative spiritual influence on those who wear them or come in contact with them. So this substitute teacher is apparently one of those people.
Now before I go on, full disclosure: I am also fairly uncomfortable around Christian symbols. As my activities of the past couple years and my Facebook friends list testify, I have gotten a lot more comfortable with interacting with other faiths. When we arrived at our beach rental in Florida to discover that our hosts had graciously provided for all our physical and spiritual needs:
…my reaction was of amusement more than discomfort. (I posted about this at the time on LtJ’s Facebook page.) Still, I am a Jew, and here’s a shocker: I do not believe in Jesus 😛 Moreover, the crucifix has been a symbol of persecution of my people through much of history, and its spiritual significance does not speak to me. I do believe, to some degree, in the power of symbols, much like I believe in the power of words. And much as I may respect Christians and Christianity, I am not a Christian and proper boundaries must be established. The room pictured on the right was not ours so we let our in-laws decide how to handle it, but we discreetly took down the crucifix in the kids’ room (not pictured) and put it back up when we left. We decided Mary could stay in our bedroom, ’cause, you know, whatever, it’s just a painting of a lady.
A nice Jewish lady. 😛
Anyway, the substitute teacher. So apparently she, like our hosts in Florida, felt a personal responsibility for H’s soul, and proceeded to explain to him that it is very bad for a Jew to wear that symbol, and then to tell him a story that involved a famous Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, not letting someone into his hospital room because there was a small cross shape on the tag of his shirt. That story was relayed to us later by H in the following manner: there was somebody who wanted to go into the hospital, but they wouldn’t let him, because he was wearing a symbol of the goyim (gentiles).
I sent a very stern message to the main kindergarten teacher (not yet knowing that it was the substitute who had told him this), that read: “I would have appreciated it if you would have spoken to me about H’s shirt rather than relayed the message through him. The shirt was a gift from a dear friend of mine who lives in Barcelona, and I hadn’t even noticed that there was a cross on it… We educate our children to respect every person regardless of religion, race, or gender, and that shirt is actually very important to me in the context of educating H in respect and appreciation of people who are not Jewish.”
The teacher responded with bewilderment, and after some discussion it became clear that it was the substitute who had had this conversation with him. The teacher took this very seriously, thanked me for telling her and spoke with the substitute. The latter then called me and proceeded to give me the following non-apology:
“You are absolutely right, I should have said it to you and not through him, but what can I say… it just came out… apparently from God… you see, your son is so special, he’s really a very elevated soul, I see how he speaks and his beautiful drawings, there’s really something very special about him, and my heart hurts for him and all the difficulties he has had. It’s because of his elevated soul that these difficulties are attracted to him, you know? So I saw that shirt with the symbol, and you know, it’s such a strong symbol, and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu writes about how much negative influence this symbol can have… I asked H about the shirt and he said, I don’t know, something about an uncle or something who lives in Spain…” (You’ve been upgraded to uncle! Congratulations! 😛 ) She then proceeded to explain to me about the actual version of the story she had told him. “If he were my child I would be so careful about things like this… but I know, he is your child, and maybe you don’t believe in such things. But it was like when you see a child running into the street, and even if he’s not your child, you just have to shout at him to get out of the street…”
Through gritted teeth, I thanked her for her concern and her appreciation of H, and repeated again that she should have mentioned it to me and not to him, and that she should think about the effect stories like that might have on him, since it seems to have scared and upset him a little. I explained to her as well, though I know it would probably scandalize her, about my philosophy of educating for tolerance… and about the identity of the giver of the shirt. 😉 (People who are familiar with the norms of my community don’t even know what to do with me telling them that I have a “dear friend” who is non-Jewish, male, and from Spain. Too bad she was on the phone so I couldn’t see her face. 😛 )
The permanent staff of the kindergarten responded with utmost seriousness and professionalism to the incident. The main teacher told me that the staff discussed it and is going to meet with all the teachers including the substitutes to clarify the professional boundaries of the classroom.
The funny thing is, Josep, that if it had had nothing to do with you, I probably would have just sort of rolled my eyes and beneath the exasperation and indignation that this woman had the gall to undermine the education of my child, I might have even felt a little admiration for her devotion. Part of my whole “interfaith” thing is that I have a kind of soft spot for people who are extremely devoted to their faith and who maintain a spiritual awareness at all times. But because that shirt was a gift from you, and is important to me–obviously, not just in the context of education–for that reason… boy, did she strike a nerve. When H reported the incident I got so angry, to the point that Eitan had to talk me down a little and remind me that I was speaking to my almost-six-year-old son.
Eitan blacked out the cross on the shirt with a permanent marker. I had mixed feelings about him doing anything to it, and I really hope it does not upset or offend you. You should know that I treasure all the gifts you have given us–physical and spiritual.
But it just so happens that this year (2015), it coincides with a holiday that is celebrated in a distinct way in Catalonia. Since I already described Yom Ha’Atzma’ut to you, I’m going to give Josep a good laugh, and attempt to explain about La Diada de Sant Jordi, a.k.a., St. Jordi’s Day.
So. What is St. Jordi’s Day? Well… it’s kind of the Catalan Valentine’s Day. Only with dragons. And Shakespeare.
…Stay with me here.
Let’s take it from the top: “Jordi” is the Catalan version of the name George. Ahhh, the Catholics say. Right. April 23rd is St. George’s Day. St. George is apparently a pretty popular saint, because aside from being the patron saint of England, he was also the patron saint of Aragon (and Catalonia. They were sort of the same thing at the time. Except not. Iberian history is terribly confusing). Peter I of Aragon declared him thus when he won an important battle under St. George’s patronage. I guess no one told him the Brits had dibs on ol’ George five hundred years prior. Well actually a lot of people/cities/countries apparently missed that memo, from Beirut to the Boy Scouts. Like I said. Popular.
Speaking of lack of creativity, because St. Jordi is so popular in Catalonia, approximately 99.7% of Catalan males are named Jordi. (…Okay, that assertion is patently false. Point is, it’s a very popular name, kind of equivalent to John in the USA or, I dunno, David in Israel.)
So why does the dude have so many fans? Not very clear. As a historical figure there isn’t very much known about him. The legend that is popular in Catalonia goes something like this: so there’s this dragon, right, and there’s this village, and for some reason they aren’t getting along. (Something about poisoning the air? Or getting in the way of a well? There are a few different versions…) So the villagers need to sacrifice sheep to appease said dragon, or maybe the dragon was stealing their livestock, or they have to distract him away from the well. Anyhow, when they run out of sheep they start using young maidens. (A fairly natural progression, apparently. Personally I might have tried chocolate cake first, but no one asked me.) So one day the maiden chosen is the princess, and she sets off to meet her fate, but in the nick of time–cue victorious music–along comes St. Jordi on his white horse and slays the dragon with his sword! Or was it a lance?
In any event, the dragon’s blood flows to the earth and from it, a single red rose blossoms. St. Jordi picks the rose and gives it to the princess. The princess and the town are thus converted to Christianity and everyone lives happily ever after!
Anyway, somehow the entire point of the story being about the princess and the town converting got glossed over, and the giving of the rose was sort of reinterpreted as a romantic gesture (though, one might note, St. Jordi didn’t actually marry her or anything). Thus, St. Jordi’s Day turned into “the day of lovers”, wherein men give roses–usually decorated with a sprig of wheat and/or the yellow and red stripes of the senyera, the Catalan flag–to their ladies.
(If you think that’s a stretch, you should read up on St. Valentine.)
But wait, there’s more!
April 23rd also happens to be the deathdate of two very important and famous writers: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. The first to make the connection between April 23rd and books were apparently Catalan vendors in the 1920’s, in honor of Cervantes, and because hey, all the ladies are getting roses because of St. Jordi and the dead dragon, don’t we gentlemen deserve a gift too? I like what you did there, Catalans. UNESCO apparently thought this was a pretty awesome idea too and decided to make April 23rd World Book Day in the 1990’s.
And that is how St. Jordi’s Day became Catalonia’s “love” holiday, which is celebrated by the exchange of roses and books among lovers and friends. And also by hanging Catalan flags everywhere and selling and eating food decorated with its red and yellow stripes. Because, any excuse.
(…Look, as far as sweet cultural traditions go, it sure beats caga-tió. 😛 )
(…Pun not intended. Ugh.)
Yom Atzma’ut Sameach, Feliç Diada de Sant Jordi, and Happy World Book Day!
…Just don’t start barbecuing books, or exchanging Israeli flags with your lover, or mixing up your blue-and-white/red-and-yellow icing on your cookies, or… yeah.
(If you read through this whole entry asking yourself, what the heck is this Catalan language, flag, and culture you’re talking about?! Here ya go.)