Tag Archives: interfaith

Christmas at Arm’s Length

Interfaith and InclusiveAs always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

-Susan Katz Miller
“Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community”
On Being Both

It’s Sunday morning as I write this and I’m avoiding church until January. Why? Because of Christmas.

Wait! Let me explain.

While Susan Katz Miller belongs to a community that can honor the different religious observances of its members, I’ve been attending a more traditional Baptist church. I remember hearing about how some of the church members participated in an anti-abortion rally at a new Planned Parenthood building some months back. Among the protesters were people from local Mormon and Catholic churches. My Pastor spoke of the event, but I don’t recall if it was from the pulpit or in a personal conversation with me. He said that a Catholic Priest was one of the speakers at the event and the Priest addressed the group with words something like, “We are all believers” or “We are all Christians.”

The point my Pastor had to make, representing the general perspective of our church, is that, because of the significant theological differences involved, he doesn’t consider Catholics and Mormons as “fellow believers” but rather, as those who are outside the Christian “camp.” Sure, they all came together at the event because of a common purpose, but the barriers constructed between those different faith communities, as far as he was concerned, were firm and inviolate.

I don’t say this to speak poorly about my Pastor or the church I attend. I consider him and the people I worship with to be truly devoted to God and desiring to serve Him in all that they do. However, there are distinct boundaries that contain the church and one may cross those barriers only at their own risk.

Almost a month ago, I called myself a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism. What that means in a nutshell, is that I am a non-Jewish believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that I choose to study the Bible within a framework that takes into account the Jewish environment, perspectives, customs, and culture in which the Bible was authored, using that as a lens in filtering my view of Jesus.

As you might imagine, that somewhat crosses one or more of the barriers that contains my church’s theology and doctrine. My periodic meetings and conversations with my Pastor attest to the differences between us, and we’ve been honest that we are both trying to convince the other of our individual points of view.

I must say, I’m learning a lot, not only about church history and the development of fundamentalism in Christianity, but about my own opinions and where they come from. You never learn more about what you believe and why than when you are required to defend it.

Children's Christmas PageantPastor and his wife are spending the rest of the month (or most of it) in Florida to celebrate Christmas with his family. It will certainly be warmer than the December I’ve been experiencing here in Idaho. But that leaves behind Christmas at the church and today (as I write this) there won’t even be Sunday School.

There will be the Children’s Christmas Pageant. The kids have been practicing for about a month and I’m sure they’re looking forward to their big moment.

But that was several days ago as you read this, even though as I am writing, it is still before dawn on Sunday morning.

My family and I left Christmas behind about ten years or so ago and we’ve never looked back. That’s pretty much a given for my wife and kids since they’re Jewish. My married son’s wife is very much into Christmas and while my son doesn’t resist her efforts to put up a tree, lights, and decorations, he doesn’t participate either. The rest of my family just tries to ignore the season, although one of my sister-in-laws has been sending email Christmas cards of a humorous nature to the missus.

I quoted Miller’s blog post because it is a portrait of not blending together different faith traditions into a mixing bowl, but rather, interfaith families choosing to honor each other’s traditions and celebrations without having to surrender anything about their own.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

I never said it was easy, but apparently, it’s possible. It requires a certain amount of willingness and a great deal of courage to overcome the fears and inhibitions of a lifetime. I don’t have a community like that either in my family or corporately, and even if I had access to a corporate community, attendance would conflict with my home life. I’m not even sure how my family tolerates my attending an “ordinary” church.

I’ve chosen a path that I believe is right and that I believe is right for me. In doing so, I have to walk away from all other paths. I suppose, from an outside observer’s point of view, it must look like I’m trying to walk both sides of the street, Christianity and Judaism. This actually isn’t the case. My wife and any Jewish person I’ve ever encountered, consider me a Christian, and so I am. A Christian is simply a person (typically non-Jewish) who has faith that the Jesus Christ of the Bible is the promised Savior and Messiah and the one who will return as the King of Israel and the world.

The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that my perspective of how I perceive God, Messiah, the Bible, and everything all that means, is substantially different from most of the traditional Church (big “C”). Most religious communities permit little or no permeability of their distinctive boundaries and barriers that contain who they are and keep out everyone else. The price of admission is to adopt the theologies, doctrines, and dogmas within their specific container and disavow everything else.

But my container is somewhat unique. Oh sure, a lot of other people occupy my container (more or less) but my container is virtual. It exists “in the cloud,” so to speak. The people who share a large portion of my understanding exist all over the world, but few, if any, are right here in “River City.” And as I said, even if we did get together, it would violate certain family requirements for me to participate in any significant or regular way.

Blogging is about as close as it gets and even that’s dicey sometimes.

One of the requirements contained within the church I attend is Christmas. It’s the day the vast majority of Christians choose to honor the birth of Jesus, and a great deal of custom, tradition, and fanfare surround not only that day, but the entire month in which it occurs.

But it’s not “me.” I don’t resonate with Christmas as a Christian. Watching everyone at church get really excited about Christmas (my Pastor was listening to Christmas music in his office even before Thanksgiving) just accentuates my sense of alienation, my “not-belongingness.”

Helping the HomelessI don’t disdain those who choose to celebrate Christmas. In fact, some Christians use this time of year to exceptionally demonstrate their desire to serve God by behaving more “Christ-like” in giving to charity and showing kindness to others. If Christmas is their inspiration for doing good, who am I to argue?

Unlike Miller, I’m not “both,” I’m just “me,” whatever “me” is. Actually, I’m getting a better and clearer picture of what “me” is all the time. The mist is dissipating and the sun is beginning to shine on the path I have selected from all of the paths I’ve considered.

It’s just a path that doesn’t hold very many fellow travelers. And almost none of them celebrate Christmas. I’ll see what church is like after the lights and decorations have come down next month.

Addendum: I just wanted to add that some traditional Christians also don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons, I for one am not avoiding it out of some sense of paganoia (a term coined by First Fruits of Zion teacher and author Toby Janicki) or the irrational fear that celebrating Christmas automatically makes you an idol worshiper. It’s a matter of personal conviction and taking on board a more Judaic view of the Messiah. It’s as simple as that.

Encouraging a Jewish Wife

apples-oranges-interfaithNo matter what the content, the fact that there are classes for Intermarried couples is a progress , because it is a doorway to observance and making a Jewish home, and even conversions. Sometimes it is the non-Jewish spouse who brings the Jewish partner back to Judaism so they need to be given a chance. This is different from being lenient about intermarriage. Since a lot of Jewish observance is done at home eg. Shabbat , people can be introduced to it and be encouraged because of the wonderful effect it has on family life, would be a good place to start with.

Comment found on “What to Do about Intermarriage”

A lot of Jewish articles about intermarriage are difficult for me to read because many sound like “The goyim are bad for marrying Jewish men and women and causing them to assimilate.” Harold Berman’s article was much more refreshing, but Anonymous’s comment really hit home.

Sometimes it is the non-Jewish spouse who brings the Jewish partner back to Judaism so they need to be given a chance.

My daughter just returned from Israel a few days ago after spending nearly two weeks in the Land participating in the Birthright Israel program. While she was gone, one Friday afternoon, my wife got out the Shabbos candlesticks (sans actual candles). She didn’t light the candles, but she didn’t want me to put them away after Shabbos, either. They’re still sitting on our counter waiting and have been for two Friday evenings now, after gathering dust in our bookshelf for months.

Through casual conversation, I found out that my wife took our grandson for a visit to the home of the Chabad Rabbi and Rabbitzin. It came up when we were talking about a new Lego toy my wife bought our grandson, which was the result of him playing with the Rabbi’s children (I guess they’re heavily into Legos). Yesterday afternoon, my wife wasn’t home, but since she didn’t have to watch our grandson that day, I thought she was off doing errands and visiting friends. I was right, but not in the specifics. She’s spent the afternoon helping the Chabad Rabbitzin do some cooking. There was a hint that she might be planning on helping with some of the food preparation for the High Holidays as well.

birthright_taglitI couldn’t be happier. Well, yes I could. I’m delighted that the missus is becoming more involved with the Chabad community again. Actually, for all I know, she never stopped, but she stopped talking about it. I’m glad that part of her life is becoming more overt again. I keep wondering if she’s simply wishing that I would quit church and become more interested in Judaism.

It’s not like I didn’t try. After leaving my previous congregation, I suggested and hinted and finally asked about the two of us participating together in the Jewish community. Eventually it came out that it would be too embarrassing to have her “Messianic” husband meet with her Jewish friends. I guess a Christian husband is equally humiliating for her.

Welcoming is critical. But it’s not enough. And the question “how can we be welcoming” is the wrong starting point. Instead of asking how we can welcome interfaith families, we would serve them better by asking how we can help them transform themselves through Jewish life. Welcoming, without more, is simply a technique to get people in the door. But Jewish transformation goes to the heart of our passion and purpose as a people.

Helping intermarried families feel comfortable may encourage them to enter our doors. But it won’t help them grow. And it may not even convince them to stay. To be sure, being welcoming and effecting Jewish transformation is hardly an either/or equation, and notable examples of doing both well can be found. But the communal starting point is nearly always one of welcoming, hardly ever one of transformation, and in the meantime, the majority of intermarried families are either unengaged or under-engaged in Jewish life.

I’ve met intermarried couples who joined a synagogue because they were made to feel comfortable.

But I’ve never met an intermarried couple (or in-married, for that matter) who got excited about Jewish life, who gave their kids a rich Jewish education, who chose to become a Jewish family, simply because they felt comfortable. In virtually every case, they encountered a gifted Jewish teacher, had a meaningful experience in a service, or found that Judaism spoke profoundly to their worldview.

intermarriageNotice the first paragraph I’m quoting from Mr. Berman’s article says “interfaith” families, not just “intermarried.” Intermarried simply means that one member of the couple is Jewish and the other is Gentile but not necessarily religious (particularly Christian). Interfaith implies that the Jewish member is religiously Jewish on some level and the Gentile member is affiliated with another religion (probably Christianity).

The direction in which the article travels leads to not just welcoming interfaith/intermarried couples in the synagogue, but the drive to help them transform into Jewish families.

Another person commenting on the article said:

One cannot simultaneously believe that the Messiah has come & believe Ani Ma’anim with perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach. Raising children with nothing is nothing. Make a choice, give your child roots (whatever they are) so she IY”H can have wings.

Here we start moving into potentially hazardous territory. What happens to the Christian member of the marriage if the goal of welcoming interfaith/intermarried couples into Jewish life is to create Jewish families?

I know from a Messianic Jewish point of view what the answer could be but that doesn’t play if the Jewish person in the marriage does not have faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

My wife would never ask me to abandon my faith. I’ve considered saying I could cease all outward signs of my faith if it would help her to return to the synagogue and become more involved in Jewish community (I stop short of offering to abandon all internal signs of my faith), but first of all, I know she would decline, and second of all, it’s still a dangerous step for me to take.

And we’re not raising children. My youngest is twenty-five so as adults, my children are all responsible for their relationship with God and who they are (or aren’t) as Jews. The window of opportunity my wife and I had to instill a strong Jewish identity in our children has long since slammed shut.

woman_torahI want my wife and children to become as involved with the Jewish community, with the Torah, with the mitzvot as they want to be and in fact, as involved as God wants them to be. I would be more than happy to “go along for the ride,” so to speak, though as I said before, my presence would make my wife highly uncomfortable. I always come up against the same walls when I face being intermarried and I don’t know how to get over, around, or through them. No one in my church could understand and they’d probably be offended that I’m praying for my family to be more Jewish rather than for them to convert to Christianity.

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

1 Corinthians 7:12-16 (NASB)

I wonder if there’s an adaptation of Paul’s midrash on “intermarriage” that says the Christian husband can save the Jewish wife by leading her to be more Jewish? Probably not, but it’s a nice thought.

There’s an emphasis in certain corners of Messianic Judaism in general and in the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) ministry in specific that believes strongly that we Gentile Christians exist to provoke the Jewish people to zealousness in the mitzvot and a return to the Torah. I’ve come to believe this as well.

I just need to know how…or maybe the only answer is just for me to stay out of my wife’s way and let her do what she’s going to do. Maybe it’s just a matter letting go and trusting that God knows what He’s doing.

The Worlds Within Ourselves

??????????????????????????????????That’s when I noticed the rosary beads.

The woman next to me had them on her lap, running them through her fingers. Was she a nun? I didn’t want to violate the Code, so I couldn’t just turn and look. I also didn’t want to distract myself from my davening for too long. (How long is too long? I think it’s similar to the five-second rule for eating food you dropped on the floor – a moment is okay, after that you’re asking for trouble.)

Then I noticed the plastic divider in front of me, which separated us from the driver (affording him protection from spitballs, if nothing else). It was reflective, and I could see my seatmate perfectly well in it without having to turn.

She was middle-aged, dressed conservatively, her nondescript features notable only for the intensity of her expression, her lips moving in fervent prayer. Was she a nun on holiday, and thus out of her habit and habitat, or just a holy roller on her way to work? Was she even now praying for the return of Jerusalem to the Church’s hands? Had she noticed me with my siddur and added in a few prayers for the salvation of my soul? Or maybe its damnation! After all, she’d no doubt been taught that someone in my family had killed her Lord. Even though her Lord was actually someone in my family

-Eric Brand
“Peace on Earth in 30 Min., 45 with Traffic: Rosary beads, a yarmulke, and a lot of overthinking”

Eric Brand will never know how glad I am that he wrote this missive. Lately, I’ve been going through one or two challenges as far as how Jewish people see Christians. I haven’t experienced it as very complementary, to say the least.

On top of that, I’ve been musing about how my wife and children see my Christian faith. I’ve been taking a few conversations and a few cues and clues, and winding myself up quite a bit about what they mean. Maybe I’m right, but then again, like Mr. Brand, maybe I’m overthinking things.

A chance encounter on a public bus in New Jersey results in a Jewish man and a Catholic woman sitting next to each other. Both of them are praying, him with a siddur and her with rosary beads. Their religious orientations are unmistakable. While the “code” of riding public transportation from Jersey to New York forbids each of them from talking with or even looking at each other, what could they have been praying about?

That ticked me off. Was it right to stereotype and scapegoat me? Hadn’t my people suffered enough? Did I have to be subjected to this? I was just a guy on a bus!

I tried to go back to my siddur, but I could see those hands working the rosary beads out of the corner of my eye, and I could sense those lips going a mile a minute, spewing who knows what. Well, okay, lady, I thought, maybe this is a test from God to see if I have the right reaction! How about I throw in some prayers for your soul? How about we have a nice debate and pick apart your faulty theology?

I was mulling this over, thinking about a good opening crack, when I was struck by another thought. If I can see her, she can see me. And she can see me looking at her – and not davening. Better get those lips moving, buddy, you don’t want to give this religious nut a leg up on feeling superior.

I admire Brand’s transparency in describing his thoughts and feelings. I try to show that side of myself as well. What “teachable moment” might we inspire or intersect if we just write down what we think and feel about each other and let those words be accessible via the Internet? More than that, what can the writer learn in the writing?

I was still mouthing some words from the siddur when my brain re-engaged momentarily and focused on what I was reading. “God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.”

Oh, while there were two people in that seat, there were actually three “personalities” present. God had something to say to Brand and maybe to his Catholic traveling companion as well (we’ll never know what she was thinking during all this, alas).

“God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.”

jewish-christian-intermarriageI know the assumption in the text from the siddur is that “all who call upon Him” means “all Jewish people who call upon Him,” but if God’s House is really to be a house of prayer for all people, then all people aren’t just Jewish people. It’s everyone who “calls upon Him with sincerity.” What if the Catholic woman was calling upon God sincerely? Was God as close to her as He was to Brand? Is God close to all of us when we sincerely call upon Him? Is He as close to me, a Christian, when I pray as He is to a davening Jew?

We religious people make a lot of assumptions about God and we make a lot of assumptions about each other. It would have been a complete breach of public transportation etiquette for Brand to have introduced himself to his seat-mate and struck up a conversation with her about their faiths. But if that could have been accomplished, maybe his fears would have been allayed somewhat (or maybe not). One Catholic person commented on Brand’s column and this might help figure out what the woman on the bus could have been thinking:

As a Catholic, who reads aish.com, I can almost guarantee that very few of us are condemning anyone to hell. We are all G_d’s children.

While Brand never talked with the Catholic person next to him on the bus, God managed to get his attention in the pages of his siddur.

I know I’ve wondered if my Jewish wife feels at all threatened about me going to church and what that means about my attitude towards Jews, but I wish she’d believe that we’re all God’s children.

But more than my concerns about my wife’s fears about me, Brand taught me that my own imagination could well be creating a situation that isn’t real.

But I left the bus undaunted – even after Comb-Over stepped on my foot as he rushed to get to the escalator – with a smile on my face. Jewish tradition tells us we should consider the world as though it was created for each of us. Because each of us has a unique touch of godliness that gives the universe purpose.

But there’s another way to look at it. We each create the world for ourselves. Our perceptions, our attitudes, our thoughts produce the world around us every moment of our waking days. We see, hear, experience what we want, what we will. And in doing so, we affect all the other people busily creating their worlds.

That’s a big responsibility. I’m glad I was able to figure this out before the journey ended. Fortunately, there was traffic.

The world is still a big, bad, ugly place in many ways. There’s all kinds of trouble and troublesome people around. But we also create the world we live in. We can choose to be upset, anxious, or angry because we are choosing to imagine what people think and feel about us. We can choose to communicate or choose to be silent. And even if silent, we can choose how we consider the people in our lives, for good or for ill.

I’ve heard it said that an anxiety attack is a person’s response to an emergency that does not exist. It still feels real, but the only danger is the choice we’ve somehow (it’s not volitional) made inside. Perhaps my being a Christian isn’t the danger I’ve imagined it is to my wife and children. And if some Jewish people, including my friends, believe my faith is a problem, please talk to Eric Brand. Maybe my faith isn’t automatically against you. Maybe I love you.

Intermarriage: Not Peace, But A Sword

onfire.jpgTo die while committed to a belief system that is idolatrous, false and contrary to what G-d has revealed to us AND has resulted in the persecution of the Jewish people for the last two thousand years, even if it doesn’t affect our eternity through the ever burning hell fires that Christianity reserves for those who didn’t believe in Jesus, is still not something I would desire for myself or anyone.

-from a private conversation

The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.

Proverbs 14:15

Faith and belief are both defined as accepting as true something which transcends logic and which may not be subject to proof by rational argument. Yet, belief in God is not the “blind faith” of a simpleton.

A simpleton does not think, either because he lacks the capacity or does not wish to make the effort. Therefore, he is gullible and can be easily swayed in any direction. Being credulous is not the same as having faith.

When we reflect on the concept of a Supreme Being, Who is in every way infinite, we are likely to feel bewilderment, because our finite minds cannot grasp the infinite. Since all of our experiences involve finite objects, we lack a point of reference for dealing with the infinite.

When this reflection brings us to realize that the question of the existence of an infinite Supreme Being cannot be logically resolved, we then turn to the unbroken mesorah, the teachings which have been transmitted from generation to generation, from the time when more than two million people witnessed the Revelation at Sinai. When we accept our faith on this basis, we do so as the culmination of a process of profound thought which is no way similar to the credulousness of a simpleton.

This process also helps us with other questions that we have about God. For instance, the fact that we cannot possibly logically understand God does not preclude our coming to a knowledge of His Presence.

Today I shall…

…strengthen my faith by reflecting on the unbroken chain of tradition since Sinai.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day, Elul 3”

I’d like to think I’m not a simpleton. I hope I’m thoughtfully considering my steps. I have faith. I believe. The faith and belief of the Jewish people ultimately rests at Sinai, at the giving of the Torah. It is said that each Jewish person is to consider himself or herself as having personally stood at Sinai and having received the Torah directly. This communicates a sense of direct “ownership” of the commandments of God, rather than just the tradition of having them passed down from one generation to the next.

For a Christian, faith and belief ultimately rests at the foot of the cross, in a pool of blood shed for our sins. Christians aren’t “commanded” to consider ourselves as having personally stood at the foot of the cross of Christ, watching him die for our sake and for the sake of the world. Maybe we should.

But even so, people like me have a difficult thing to face. In my case, I have a Jewish wife, two Jewish sons, and a Jewish daughter. My children don’t speak to me one way or the other about my attending church and professing my Christian faith, but occasionally my wife does. Occasionally a few (non-believing) Jewish friends do (although in strictest confidence) as well.

If I love my Jewish family and friends, how can I be a part of a faith that historically has been guilty of “the persecution of the Jewish people for the last two thousand years”? I thought I knew, but when someone you deeply care about asks that question, it’s not so easy to answer. The answer is long and involved, and when someone is responding to your Christianity on a really emotional level, they don’t always want to hear long, involved explanations that they’ll probably do their level best to shoot out of the water in any case.

I don’t really want to argue. If someone wants to hear about my faith, I’ll do my best to explain it to them. If they don’t, I’m not invested in beating people over the head with a copy of the New Testament.

intermarriageIt doesn’t help (ironically enough) that my wife used to be a believer. My limited experience with Jewish people who were once believers and then returned or adopted a more traditional Jewish practice and worship, is that they are more highly resistant to any idea that there could be validity in Christianity or Messianic Judaism. I can only imagine it’s like being a person who is an ex-smoker (I used to smoke a number of decades ago) and a smoker is trying to convince the non-smoker to light up again.

“Yuck,” is the predictable reaction, followed by a series of reasons from the non-smoker why lighting up is an incredibly bad idea, and harmful not only to the smoker, but to everyone around the smoker, particularly the smoker’s loved ones.

As a Christian among Jews, I feel like a smoker among long-term non-smokers. If I want to “light up,” I sure better take it outside, down the alley, and around back behind a shed where no one can see me or smell me. As a Christian among Jews, I feel as if they see me like this:

In 1391, the Jews of Barcelona, Spain were victims of a massacre. This was part of three months of deadly riots throughout Spain, which left the Jewish community crushed and impoverished. Incredibly, on this same date 70 years later, a bishop named Alfonso de Espina urged the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition was designed to uncover those Jews who continued to practice Judaism in secret (called Conversos or Marranos). During the years of brutal Inquisition, an estimated 32,000 Jews were burned at the stake and another 200,000 were expelled from Spain.

-from “Day in Jewish History” for Elul 4

You may consider that example a little extreme, but I’m not sure it’s that far out. I think it’s one thing to be Jewish and to be aware of Christians in your general environment, at the grocery store, at work, at the park, driving the streets of your city, and another thing entirely to be close to and even to live with a Christian. While my wife will occasionally give voice to her concerns, my children haven’t. My daughter, who is the only child left at home, has become more distant from me in recent months. She says everything’s OK, but everything else she says and does communicates otherwise. I can’t absolutely say it’s because of my continued church attendance and my reading from the Christian Bible, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch, either.

Authentic Jewish life is characterized by the study of Torah, the observance of Shabbat and Kashrut, and the thrice-daily worship of God. Not Shabbes leichter as museum pieces, but a generation of Jewish women who light their candles to usher in the holy Shabbat. Not klezmer concerts to evoke nostalgia for the shtetl, but Jewish bands playing Jewish music at Jewish weddings where Jewish communities are celebrating the beginning of a new generation of a Jewish family.

I wish my niece Jodi had had such a wedding.

-Sara Yoheved Rigler
“The Dead End of Jewish Culture”

magen-davidRigler wrote this article as a description of how Jewish people identifying themselves as Jewish entirely on the basis of Jewish culture (as opposed to Jewish faith, observance of the mitzvot, and study of Torah) are reaching a dead-end to their Jewish identity. The painful result, from Rigler’s perspective, is her Jewish niece Jodi’s (not her real name) wedding to a Catholic husband in a Catholic church.

Rigler writes:

One December afternoon, my precious four-year-old niece Jodi walked into my mother’s suburban New Jersey kitchen and asked, “Bubbie, are you Jewish?”

“Yes, I am,” my mother answered proudly.

“So am I,” Jodi confided, “but don’t tell Santa Claus.”

I laughed when my mother told me this story, and I chuckled every time I thought of it – for 22 years. Last week, Jodi got married, in a Catholic church, kneeling in front of a huge gilded cross. I stopped laughing.

Apparently, Jodi’s perception of Judaism as a liability grew with the years. At the age of four, being Jewish made her a persona non grata to Santa Claus. At the age of 16, growing up in a town whose century-old bylaws stipulated, “No Jews or Negroes,” Jewish identity must have been a social non-starter. At the age of twenty, as a sophomore at Boston University, being Jewish must have threatened her budding romance with a handsome Catholic senior.

I’m sure Jodi’s Catholic husband doesn’t imagine that he might be considered guilty of any wrongdoing to Jodi or Jodi’s Jewish family, but, based on my experience, eventually he’ll have to confront those feelings. At least I don’t have Jewish in-laws who are upset with me, just the nuclear family and a few other Jewish people.

He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.

Matthew 10:37 (NASB)

That’s a tough one to take. How am I supposed to respond to that, God? And what about this?

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

Luke 9:26 (NASB)

This next one is even worse.

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.

Hebrews 6:4-8 (NASB)

It would be worse to come to faith in Messiah and to fall away than never to have come to faith in the first place. Ouch.

So how am I supposed to choose, or if a choice is impossible, what am I supposed to do? At least in terms of marriage, Paul (and not God) had this to say:

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

1 Corinthians 7:12-16 (NASB)

separation“But God has called us to peace.” Really? Not until Messiah comes/returns (depending on who you are).

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m fighting with the missus (or anyone else) tooth and nail, and that I’m constantly engaged in some sort of “battle” of faith with the Jewish people in my life, but I can hardly ignore the steady undercurrent in these relationships as well as the occasional flare ups, either.

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.

Matthew 10:34-36 (NASB)

“Not peace, but a sword.”

Whoever has faith in individual Divine Providence knows that “Man’s steps are established by G-d,” (Tehillim 37:23) that this particular soul must purify and improve something specific in a particular place. For centuries, or even since the world’s creation, that which needs purification or improvement waits for this soul to come and purify or improve it. The soul too, has been waiting – ever since it came into being – for its time to descend, so that it can discharge the tasks of purification and improvement assigned to it.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Elul 3, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Assuming God is establishing my steps too, I have to believe that I have come to this place, this time, this circumstance, for a reason. What that reason is, I cannot say. May it be right that I am here for a good purpose, and that God intends my existence and my presence in order to correct and purify some part of the world around me. I have no desire to hurt anyone, least of all those people I love who are Jewish.

Finding My Exit

no-exitWhen you and the path you have chosen get along just great, it’s hard to know whether your motives are sincere.

But when you come across a path to do good, and this path goes against every sinew of your flesh and every cell in your brain, when you want only to flee and hide from it —do this.

Then you shall know your motives are sincere.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I hit what seemed to be a pretty significant wall this past weekend. Hopefully not too many people noticed, but I was turning myself into knots inside and very seriously doubting my current path for a day or two.

The first event that contributed to this mess was from divisiveness in the blogosphere. I should have known better, but a miscommunication between a friend and I and then another in a long series of online “nastygrams” caused me to question whether or not my friend was pulling away from me and pulling much of my current world view along with him (long story).

As personal as the first event was, the second event was far more intimate. On Sunday morning, my wife and I were having a small chat before I left for church. I happened to mention that Pastor Randy gave me a paper on the different arguments between Arminianism and Calvinism and my difficulties in they way the author of the article was expressing his viewpoint.

I didn’t think much of it, but my wife, who is Jewish, started touting how Judaism has received the Torah in an unbroken line between Sinai and the present and that in any response to changes of circumstances across time, the Rabbis always consult the core text and all applications are based on strict adherence to the Torah, thus avoiding the problems I was having with a Christian commentary.

I think it was her attempt to show me that Judaism has a better handle on the Bible and thus on God than Christianity, which I don’t mind, but in our conversation, she brought up how, if the Christian view of the Bible were true, then it totally invalidates Jews and Judaism.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that her perception of Christianity is not what I believe at all. And yet I was confronted with a dilemma. I could explain, thanks to all of the information I’ve captured within this blog, why I believe she’s wrong and why a Messianic interpretation of “Christianity” is wholly Jewish, but my being a “prophet without honor in my own land” (and needless to say, in my own family), how would she take it?

The worst that would happen if I were talking to any other Jewish person was that they’d tell me I was “full of it” and walk away (not that I desire to insult anyone). But what would be the worst that would happen if that transaction were to occur between me and my wife?

I didn’t want to find out so I let the conversation die.

But as I went to church, I was confronted with two highly significant relationships in my life being (apparently) damaged, all because of who I am and my faith in Christ.

I remembered part of a conversation I had with my Pastor. I told him I left the Hebrew Roots movement in part because I knew my participation was very embarrassing to my wife. He asked me, somewhat incredulously, if my being a Christian and going to church were any less embarrassing to a Jewish wife. I absolutely didn’t consider that before, but at that moment and again last Sunday morning, it hit me like a punch in the teeth from Mike Tyson.

I also couldn’t help but consider a few verses.

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”

Ezra 10:10-11 (NRSV)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Matthew 10:34-38 (NRSV)

leavingThe Master doesn’t address husband and wife specifically, but it wasn’t hard for me to read between the lines. And in relation to Ezra, I guess I would be the “foreign wife.”

I wasn’t afraid this would dissolve my marriage, but I could see my friendship receding into the distance and, as damage control, what would be my only option to contain this conflict? If my wife was saying that my being a Christian made me “anti-Semitic” by definition, then how could I prove otherwise except to stop going to church? But how could I stop going to church and maintain my faith in Christ?

The conflict between my faith and my marriage came abruptly into sharp focus.

So last Sunday at church was miserable, not because of church, but because of me.

It’s actually pretty painful to see all of the other couples at church because they’re couples. There’s no conflict that I can see between husband and wife because of their faith. They sit together at church, they bring their children, they go to Sunday school together, they support each other’s views.

That’s also true of most people (but not all) I know in the Messianic movement. I sometimes feel like the only oddball.

So with a nudnik (and I know something about nudniks) trying to drive a wedge between my friend and me on the one side, and my most recent “religious conversation” with my wife on the other, who I am supposed to be at Christ was stuck soundly in the middle. All I could see were “no option options.” I was in a box with no way out, a room with no exit.

So what happened?

I did what I always try to do under similar circumstances…I didn’t do anything about it. The temptation was to act impulsively to reduce the discomfort, but that’s usually the wrong thing to do.

After church, there was plenty of gardening to do and that’s relatively mindless work, so I had a lot of time to think. After that, I was given the annual task of cleaning out my book closet (if left to my own devices, I’d keep everything I’ve ever owned). My wife and daughter tackled the equally daunting job of cleaning out and arranging the food pantry.

My son Michael came over by the by and cooked dinner for us while we were working. By the by, my wife and I interacted and I noticed that she was behaving, not as if I were an anti-Semite in the camp, but like I’m her husband and we’re doing typical Sunday evening family stuff together in our home.

The bubbling pot began to cool.

I got an email later that night allaying my other concern and reminding me that just because “bad attitude” people try to interfere with friendships doesn’t mean those friendships are any less established. The message couldn’t have come at a better time.

when-the-forest-beckonsThis whole episode reminded me that I have a duty to my wife to share the Good News of Messiah with her. The problem is, she’s already heard it, accepted it within the church, re-accepted it within a Hebrew Roots context, and, when transitioning first to the Reform-Conservative synagogue in town and then the Chabad, chosen to reject the Gospel of Jesus “because that’s not what Jews believe.”

I wish I could convince her otherwise, but that “Good News” might not be easy for her to hear coming from me, especially when I’m competing with the Chabad Rabbi, a lot of anti-missionary rhetoric, and two-thousand years of post-Jesus Jewish history.

That particular “adventure” is to be continued, but I do have a message for blogging nudniks who deliberately try to mess up friendships in order to further their own agendas:

There are people who believe they are doing good by swallowing others’ egos alive. The egos of those they cannot help, and of those who cannot help them, are inedible to them—and therefore intolerable. They cannot work with others—because their egos leave no space for “others”—only for those extensions of their own inflated selves that show they need them, or for those whom they need.

You don’t love your neighbor to glorify your own ego. When you come to your sister’s or brother’s aid, leave your own self behind. Love with self-sacrifice.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Free Love”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

If you come to realize that what you do is not for the sake of Heaven but for the requirements of your own ego or emotions, then the need for you to attend to your own affairs is far, far greater than whatever temporary issues I may be experiencing.

I found the exit from my no-exit room and am continuing down the path that God has set before me.

Being Filled

jewish-temple-messiahWe celebrated Easter this year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.

Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.

After our Easter morning with Christians and Jews, I made a quick change out of my pastel dress and Easter bonnet and into a bold print Senegalese outfit, in order to join a community of Catholics and Muslims for our second Easter event of the day, a gathering of the local Catholic Senegalese association. We had the great fortune to be invited to this event by two Senegalese-American friends, one Catholic and one Muslim, who are cousins from an interfaith family, and who know that my husband and I crave Senegalese food and company ever since our years in Dakar. Intermarriage between Muslims and Catholics is not uncommon in Senegal. In fact, both of the Muslim Presidents of Senegal I interviewed as a journalist (Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade) had Catholic wives.

-Susan Katz Miller
from “My Easter with Christians, Jews and Muslims”
On Being Both

There is even a Chassidic custom, instituted by the Baal Shem Tov and further developed by the Rebbes of Chabad, to conduct a “mirror-seder” in the closing hours of the last day of Passover, complete with matzah and four cups of wine. These are hours, say the Chassidic masters, when time relinquishes its last hold upon our lives; when the future, too, can be remembered, and the Era of Moshiach tasted and digested as the Exodus is on the seder night.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Third Seder”

Ever since Easter Sunday services and particularly this morning, I’ve been feeling a profound sense of disconnection or maybe it’s just disappointment. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it.

I don’t know what I expected out of Easter or Resurrection Day, but whatever it was, I didn’t get it. Then I read Susan Katz Miller’s article, which I partially quoted from above, and I was captivated by the variety and “differentness” of her intermarriage, multicultural celebration of the resurrection. I’m sure a staunch Christian would be set back on his/her heels by even reading of, let alone participating in, such a “mash-up” of different religious practices and calling it “Easter,” but then I can see the meaning infused in this series of events, meant to speak to people from different religious backgrounds and to bring them all together in the service of the King.

I’m not setting aside the idea that God is an objective God and that His understanding of Himself is the understanding of God, but human beings are highly variable. Even within this thing we call “Christianity,” there are hundreds or perhaps even thousands of different and distinct expressions, theologies, doctrines, and dogmas. That’s why we have such a tough time getting along with each other.

meal-of-moshiachAnd yet, Katz Miller deftly merges these different traditions together within the span of a short blog post, and makes them live together, if not seamlessly, then at least in a complementary manner. I mean, how many different ways and different cultural and religious contexts can be applied to the resurrection and still have a proper celebration? Easter is a tradition, not a mitzvah (at least not one explicitly expressed in scripture), so how far can it be extended beyond Christian choirs, ham dinners, cries of “He has risen,” and still remain “kosher?”

In the seventeenth century the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov) instituted a new custom for the last day of Passover. He called it the Meal of Messiah (Seudat Mashiach,סעודת משיח ). It consisted of a special, additional meal on the afternoon of the last day of Passover, paralleling the traditional third meal of Shabbat. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized that the main component of the meal was matzah. After all, it was the last meal on the last day of Chag HaMatzot, the feast of Unleavened Bread. A few generations later, the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920) added the custom of four cups of wine, mirroring the seder of the first night. Some Chassidic Jews still celebrate this special Messiah seder on the last day of the festival. They gather together to end the festival with matzah, four cups of wine, and a special focus on the Messiah.

The entire theme of the meal focuses on the coming of Messiah and the final redemption. The meal is festive in spirit. Everyone wishes one another “L’chayim! (to life!)” while discussing their insights into Messiah and their dreams and hopes for the Messianic Era. The meal concludes with fervent singing and dancing in joyous elation over the promise of the Messianic redemption.

What is the connection between the last day of Passover and the coming of Messiah? The Tzemach Tzedek writes:

The last day of Pesach is the conclusion of that which began on the first night of Pesach. The first night of Pesach is our festival commemorating our redemption from Egypt by the Holy One, Blessed be He. It was the first redemption, carried out through Moshe Rabbeinu, who was the first redeemer; it was the beginning. The last day of Pesach is our festival commemorating the final redemption, when the Holy One, Blessed be He, will redeem us from the last exile through our righteous Moshiach, who is the final redeemer. The first day of Pesach is Moshe Rabbeinu’s festival; the last day of Pesach is Moshiach’s festival.

One is incomplete without the other: the first redemption is connected to the last. The sages say, “In Nisan they were redeemed and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come.” In fact the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the second exodus will be so great that it will overshadow the first.

-Boaz Michael
“What is the Meal of Messiah? Part 2 of 3”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

I suppose there is a limit to how much diversity we can cram into Easter, and certainly the Baal Shem Tov’s creation of this meal probably exceeds the comfort zone of even the most liberal church, but if we consider the themes being introduced and recall that the Messiah is irrefutably, irreducibly Jewish, then we must allow the celebration of the resurrection of King Messiah to also be cast in a Jewish mold and produced as a Jewish rite and tradition.

And yet, as I said above, the Messiah also transcends Judaism and extends himself to all of the people groups and nations of the world.

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Luke 24:46-47

multicultural-celebrationWhat is Easter like for the Christians in Egypt, for the Christians in China, for the Christians in Norway, for the Christians in New Zealand? How many different peoples have how many different traditions to commemorate the risen King and the resurrected Jesus? What do they look like? What foods are eaten? What prayers are said? What songs are sung?

I imagine if you could gather representatives of the faith from each nation and province from the four corners of the earth, and have them join together to celebrate Resurrection Day, you’d get a set of observances something like what we see on Susan Katz Miller’s blog. Add the Meal of the Messiah on the last day of Matzot and it would be complete.

The Messiah is the hope of the Jewish nation and the King of the House of David, but although he first and foremost came for the lost sheep of Israel, we also see that he came for humanity. God so loved the world that He gave His only and unique son so that none should be lost but all who choose to come to faith should be saved.

What am I looking for? In my small corner of the world, perhaps it cannot be found. But if I can transcend my world, what I want to discover is this:

Some Chassidic sources say that participation in the Meal of Messiah causes the person to carry the light of Messiah within him throughout the rest of the year and thus it infuses every action of his day. It foreshadows the Messianic Era when all mankind will be saturated with Godliness. Through this feast, the Chassid hopes that he has connected with the very soul of Messiah.

Boaz Michael’s words express my desire for what I think we are all looking for…hope. Hope in the future, hope that there is a future, hope that our lives have meaning beyond the day-to-day routine and rut of existence, hope that there is a God and that He loves us, hope that we are more than we think we are, and that we can do more than the world around thinks we’re capable of.

Rabbi Tauber says of Passover:

The “first days” with its seders and its reliving of history, and the “final days” with its messianic themes — days that herald the divine goodness and perfection which, the prophets promise us, is the end-goal of creation and the fulfillment of our present-day lives.

What I was looking for, and what I’m still looking for is the encounter with the infinite, and to be filled full of the promises of the prophets, and the final promise, the Messiah, the end-goal of creation.

Someday, we are told that we will sit at the banquet table of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of us from the north, south, east, and west who proclaims Messiah, and we will eat of that meal

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

John 6:35

…and be filled.