The Interfaith Potluck

Image: Girl disgusted at food. Some things were just not meant to be reduced to a puree. (koh sze kiat/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Periodically I encounter a well-meaning person who assures me that “we’re all really the same, I mean, we all believe in God, right?” It’s a feel-good, no-worries approach to interfaith issues, minimizing problems and seeking to avoid any unpleasantness.

Here’s an analogy to explain why this feel-good approach can actually cause hurt feelings:

Imagine we’re all going to a potluck supper. I bring a beautiful loaf of home baked challah.

Catholic Bridget brings a traditional Irish cottage pie, savory beef with carrots and onions and mashed potatoes piled on top, gently browned in the oven.

A Hindu acquaintance brings a vegetable curry, redolent with spice, served on a mound of brown rice. 

A Buddhist neighbor brings a crisp green salad with tomatoes fresh from his garden and a tangy dressing that his grandmother taught him to make.

A Methodist from Mississippi brings a plate of fragrant pork loin with baked apples.

A Pakistani Muslim brings a dish of creamy kheer for dessert.

All of the dishes are mouth-watering. All are rich not only in nutrition but in cultural values and tradition.

Then the host welcomes us, crams everything into a giant blender, and begins pulverizing it into a liquid. When one of us protests, she says gaily, “It’s all food!” And that’s true – but the distinctive flavors have been lost, the texture is gone, and it’s just a tasteless mush.

Do you want to eat that mush? Is it really “just the same?”

And by the way, what is the Hindu supposed to do about the beef in the pulverized goo? What am I to do with the pork chops that are in there somewhere? What is the Buddhist to do with all that meat?

For me, interfaith dialogue is a bit like that potluck. Each tradition has its own beauty, its own distinctive texture and flavor. There are things we can share but there are other things that clash and cannot be smoothed over.

For Christians, the person of Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and a personal manifestation of God. That is dramatically different from the fierce monotheism of Judaism, which insists that God is ultimately indescribable and utterly One. And both of those are completely different from the Allah of Islam, who revealed His will to humanity through the Prophet Mohammad, and to whom believers owe perfect submission.

There are elements in each that simply don’t reconcile. Either Jesus is God, or he wasn’t. (The tense difference is deliberate.) Either the Messiah has arrived, or not yet.  Either the Koran is the definitive word of God, or it isn’t. Either a particular food is forbidden, or it is permitted.

To have a true dialogue, we have to hold those differences – the different flavors, the different understandings of what is permitted. We have to hold them in our hearts and still keep our hearts open to listen to one another.

I understand why these differences can be scary and why it seems safer to insist that there is no real difference. The problem is, there ARE real differences, and all the insisting and pretending in the world won’t change that. Our task, in a pluralistic society, is to learn how to get along despite the fact that we disagree on so much. It can be done, but only if we’re willing to be honest about the differences. If we are honest in owning differences, then we can learn enough about each other to avoid injuries, and to foster mutual respect.

There are still many things upon which we can agree: our religions share moral values that sometimes need to be expressed in all our voices in the public square. We can work together for peace and justice and fairness. We don’t need to be “all the same” – in fact, our differences can translate into great strength.

May the day come when we can appreciate difference without feeling threatened by it.

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What Can We Do after the Christchurch Murders?

Image: Landscape view of Christchurch NZ. (Shutterstock/Clem Hencher-Stevens)

My heart bleeds for the Muslim community of Christchurch, NZ and for all the people of that beautiful, peaceful city. Today two mosques in the city were assaulted during the Friday Jum’ah service, and at this writing, 49 people have perished and many more are in the hospital.

I deliberately chose the photo above for this article because I want to give the perpetrators no publicity, since notoriety appears to have been at least part of their motivation. Christchurch is a beautiful city on the South Island of New Zealand. I had the good fortune to visit there a few years ago, and was impressed with the peace and friendliness of the place. I offer readers a taste of its peace in this photo, as a reproach to any who would have us remember it otherwise.

What can we do to express our horror, our grief, and our solidarity?

  • We can attend a service at our local masjid (mosque) in solidarity and friendship.
  • We can send cards and letters of support to local mosques and Islamic Cultural Centers in our area.
  • We can reach out personally to Muslim friends and acquaintences to let them know that we stand with them at this time of fear and sorrow.
  • We can observe zero tolerance for anti-Muslim sentiment in our homes and workplaces as well as in our houses of worship.
  • We can give tzedakah in memory of those who were murdered and address the notification to our local Islamic institution.

This is a time for all religious minorities to stand together in peace and friendship.

May the day come soon when no one need fear violence in their house of prayer.

The Interfaith Bible Seminar

Rachel Mankowitz is one of the most engaging Jewish bloggers on the Internet. I loved this post about an interfaith Bible Seminar and wanted to share it with you.

rachelmankowitz

Leading up to our yearly ecumenical Thanksgiving service, the local clergy decided to try out an interfaith bible seminar, including two liberal synagogues (one being mine) and a Methodist church. It’s a trial run, to see how we all do, and then maybe more churches and synagogues will be willing to join the group for next year.

I had a lot of questions. Are we all reading the same translations? No, but they are surprisingly similar. Do we read the books in the same order? Nope. The Methodists read from the Old Testament, but also from other books, and on a three year cycle that excerpts pieces out of order. Jews, in general, read the first five books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, in order, throughout each year (though we may excerpt different parts of those chapters, for speed, and then there’s the prophets and the writings, but I…

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One God, Many Relationships

Image: Digits create a visual pattern stretching out to infinity. (geralt/pixabay)

Anyone who studies Judaism for more than ten minutes will notice that Jews do not agree on much about God except that whatever God is, is One.

Some Jews think of God in very personal terms. Some Jews believe in God in only the most abstract terms. And some Jews do not believe in God at all. This puzzles outsiders, who think that we should at least agree on theology. How can Jews say we are one faith when we have multiple theologies?

The way I like to explain this is to point to one of our most important prayers. It is called the Tefilah [“the Prayer,”] or the Amidah [“Standing,” because we stand when we say it] or the Shmoneh Esray [“18” even though there are 19 parts to it.] It starts with a blessing the prayer books label Avot [“Fathers.”] Here is the egalitarian version:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah; the God, the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome, God of Gods, who bestows kindness, who creates everything, remembering the love of our fathers and mothers, and bringing redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name. Sovereign, Deliverer, Helper and Shield, Blessed are You, Eternal One, Sarah’s Helper, and Abraham’s Shield. – my translation of the Hebrew version in Mishkan Tefilah, p76.

If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a passage in there that seems awfully redundant:

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah

Centuries ago, a rabbi asked, “Why do we say the prayer that way? Why not “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”? (He was too early to be interested in an egalitarian version.) 

The answer the other rabbis gave was that each of the patriarchs (and matriarchs) had their own relationships with and perceptions about God. They did not all experience God in the same way. Abraham had regular conversations with God. Sarah only met God once, and she got in trouble for laughing. The same with the other patriarchs and matriarchs; they each encountered God in different ways and degrees.

So it is with us modern-day Jews. Belief, for us, is a bit of a side-trip anyway. The essence of Torah is doing. As Hillel said when he was asked to teach Torah standing on one foot: 

That which is hateful to you do not do to others. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Shabbat 31a 

Oh, Jerusalem!

Image: The City of Jerusalem. (walterssk/Pixabay)

There’s a faded poster in my living room. It was a campaign poster for Shinui [“Change”] a secular Israeli political party that ran in the 2002 elections. It reads, in Hebrew:

If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

It is a play on Psalm 137:5:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

Psalm 137, perhaps more than any other, expresses the Jewish longing for the much-contested real estate we call Jerusalem. I love that poster because it expresses to me the complexity of Israeli society, the layers of history and tradition and modernity.

Ever since the beginning of the Iron Age, and maybe even before that, people have been fighting over the place called Uru-shalim (the Amarna texts, 1330 BCE,) Beth-Shalem, Yerushalaim (ירושלם‎), and Ierousalēm (Ιερουσαλήμ, in the Greek New Testament.)

Genesis calls it Shalem, the city of King Melchizedek (based on Genesis 14:18) and Mt. Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son in Genesis 22. Psalm 76 refers to it as Salem, a name which the Puritans borrowed when they founded a certain infamous town in Massachusetts. Some texts refer to it as Zion, after Har Tziyyon, the hill upon which the Temple Mount stands.

The locals called it Jebus until King David captured it and made it his capital, so sometimes people refer to it even today as the City of David.

After the Romans flattened it in the 2nd century CE, they renamed it Aelia Capitolina after the family of Herod (Aelia) and they built a temple to Jupiter to replace the Jewish Temple. They were certain that would be the last anyone would hear of the Jews.

The modern Arabic name of the city is القدس al-Quds, which derives from the Semitic root Q-D-S, meaning “Holy,” because for Muslims, too, it is a holy city. Mohammed is believed to have visited in the year 610, and to have made a journey to heaven from the al-masjid-Al-Aqsa, the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, atop the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The Ottomans called the city al-Quds aš-Šarīf, and it was in their possession for centuries.

Then there are the Christians, for whom Jerusalem was the scene for the theophany of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre encompasses several of the sites in the drama. Some Christians believe that in years to come Jerusalem will be the stage for the Second Coming. Many Christians live in the city today, and like the Jews and the Muslims, there are many holy sites, many sacred markers there for them.

Make no mistake, with the exception of the Romans, who probably loathed the place and everyone in it, the city is a holy and a beloved place. It is the most-contested scrap of real estate in the world.

I lived there for a year, the best and worst year of my life.

Jerusalem wrings the heart. It tests the soul. It drives some people crazy: there is an actual diagnosis called “Jerusalem syndrome” in which perfectly sane people come to visit the city and then suffer from delusions of being a Biblical character or of having some special destiny. I know that I lived there only 12 months and I was changed forever by it. It will never release its hold on me.

So when I heard about the pronouncement by President Trump that he was going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I trembled. So many people are so invested in that place, and his pronouncement only spoke to the Israelis. It was bound to cause trouble, because for many years now, there has been an assumption that West Jerusalem will be the capital of a Jewish state (in fact, it functions as such already) and that East Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state. What Trump seems to have been saying, whether he realized it or not, is that he is giving up on the two-state solution, and that the fate of the Palestinian residents is of no concern to him.

I tell my students that anyone who talks about the Middle East and begins, “It’s very simple” should be disregarded out of hand. There is nothing simple about that place — and that goes double and triple for Jerusalem. I care very much for the Jerusalemites I know, both Israeli and Palestinian, and I hate to think of them in the midst of violence.

I worry that the President doesn’t understand that the situation is complex and delicate. I worry that he thinks he can be a broker between the two sides but only speak to one. I worry that he fails to realize that there are not just two sides, but dozens of different stakeholders in the city of Jerusalem, and that they could easily be at each others’ throats, because that holy city, that dear place, has a tendency to bring out extremes.

In the meantime, I will pray Psalm 122:

 I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet have been standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for[a] Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
There thrones for judgment were set,
    the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
    “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
    and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake
    I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

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If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

Just Say “No” to “Chris-muck-kah!”

Image: Santa, a menorah, and “Say NO to Chrismukkah” in red letters.

Once upon a time, Elijah hosted a potluck supper. He asked all the guests to bring a dish from their own tradition.

  • Sarah brought sufganiot, those fabulous jelly donuts that Israelis eat at Chanukah.
  • Mike brought Irish Soda Bread.
  • Jacob brought latkes with applesauce and sour cream.
  • Louise brought a Christmas ham.
  • Ruth brought hush puppies and fish, fried in oil.
  • Jessie brought cranberry sauce.
  • Erin brought sugar cookies with red and green icing.
  • Aaron brought green bean salad, from his mom’s recipe.

As each of them arrived, Elijah welcomed them and had them put the dishes on the dining room table. Then, when everyone was there, he uncovered a big food processor and began to dump all the food into it, whirling it together into a paste.

The guests were horrified. The delicious food they’d brought was turned into muck! What a horrible thing to do!

That’s how I feel about “Chrismukkah” – it turns delightful holidays into “muk.” Christmas is beautiful on its own. Chanukah is beautiful on its own. Mixing them together is dreadful, like blendering ham with sugar cookies and latkes.

Chanukah is about the rededication of Jews to Judaism. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus – or in “secular Christmas” about warmth and giving. They are two separate holidays that truly don’t go together.

Enjoy the lights! Enjoy each other’s holidays! But keep them separate, so we can still taste them both.

 

Yiddish Words I Don’t Use

Image: Wooden letters spelling “WORD.” Art by exopixel/shutterstock.

There are some words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I don’t use ever.

I’ve written about one of them in Who are You Calling Shiksa? – it’s a nasty, unfriendly word, and no amount of “reclaiming” will fix it.

Another such word is shaygitz. It means “varmint,” or “rascal” and it is distinctly unfriendly.

Like shiksa, shaygitz has its roots in the Hebrew word sheketz, meaning “abominable,” “filth,” or “blemish.”

My colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr pointed out to me today that the word goy needs to join the list. Its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew was innocent, meaning “nation,” or “people,” – there are places in the Torah where it actually refers to the Jews! But it has come to take on a pejorative meaning in Yiddish and even worse, it has been co-opted by white supremacists as a badge of honor for anti-semitic chants, etc. I don’t use the word, and now I will gently correct people who use it to me, even when it’s supposed to be a joke.

Some words can be salvaged. “Queer” is one such word. It had a neutral meaning until someone chose to use it hatefully to taunt LGBTQ folk. We took the word as our own, and defanged it. Shiksa and shaygitz are hateful in their core meaning; they can’t be repurposed without dragging along the stigma.

Goy is a little different. It hasn’t always been used to disparage. I look forward to a day, someday, when we can use the word as Isaiah did:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
V’lo Yil’m’du od milchamah!

Nation shall not lift up its sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore” – Isaiah 2:4

But for now, not in my vocabulary.