Category Archives: ritual

Jews and Christians as the Theological Double Helix in Time

The period of Passover to Shavuot (for Jews) and Easter to Pentecost (for Christians) exemplifies the similarities that mark our two faiths, despite the obvious differences. It ought also to evoke some daring theology that we might share together. Recounting our intertwined history is commonplace; making theological sense of it is not.

Suppose, however, that our shared history does have theological meaning; and suppose as well that we took it seriously together. How might we transform mutual animosities of the past into faithful commitment to the future?

Take these days of counting in which we now find ourselves: the sefirah, as Jews call it. Jews are now “counting” the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, the festival that marks the giving of Torah. It was on Shavuot as well – Pentecost, as Greek-speaking Jews called it – that the Christian Book of Acts identifies as the time when the disciples were visited by the Holy Spirit.

If you want revelation, expect it 50 days after Passover. Both Jews and Christians knew that.

There were differences, of course. For the Christian Fathers, these were days of supreme joy, an expectation of the second coming. For the Rabbis, they were eventually made over into a period of mourning. But in their own distinctive ways, both faiths saw these fifty days as anticipating the purpose for which they had come into being. The Jewish Exodus from Egypt was mere prologue to Sinai; the Easter miracle culminated in Pentecost’s gift of the spirit.

There are two ways to narrate the tale of this commonality of vision. The most common version sees Christianity as branching off from rabbinic Judaism. In that scenario, the author of Acts deliberately borrowed the Jewish understanding of Shavuot as backdrop for his account of the Holy Spirit. An alternative understanding, however, would see Judaism and Christianity as two parallel and alternative interpretations of Hebrew Scripture, with neither one preceding the other. Both Jews and Christians would trace their roots to the first- and second-century search for meaning in a common biblical heritage.

In the past, we have each found it convenient to emphasize the first and mistaken scenario – – the idea that Christianity broke away from rabbinic Judaism. Christians could then fault Jews for falling short of Judaism’s intended fulfillment in Christ. Jews could see Christians as going shamefully astray by misunderstanding what the Hebrew Bible is all about.

History, moreover, has not been kind to our relationship. Medieval theologies and the inequities in power have reinforced our sibling rivalries, virtually destroying the possibility of seeing ourselves as sister religions with a common past, now struggling in unison for a shared vision of a better world order.

But the Middle Ages are just part of a much larger story – not just the centuries when we were at each other’s throats, but our birth as twins in the womb of late antiquity, and our nurture through infancy on a single set of sacred tales, to the point of becoming virtual mirrors of each other: Passover is to Easter as Shavuot is to Pentecost, for example.

History is not just the facts but the story line connecting them. Instead of rivals in a zero-sum game, we might equally well devise a story that positions us together as potential allies. We are a double helix of history, constantly swirling round each other through time, never getting close enough to lose our separate identities but never flying off into totally independent orbits either. We are two religious traditions in dialogue from birth, each with our own language, lessons, and liturgy – but also, interdependent parts of a larger entity, poised to work together now in joint pursuit of a better human destiny.

The story we tell of who we are need not be dictated by the worst of what we were. These days of counting in which we both engage can be models of common hope and affirmation. Perhaps the world needs us now, locked not in mutual combat but in collaborative affirmation of divine purpose.

We are indeed the end result of scientific facts, but history is the narrative that links the facts together, and there is more than a single narrative to tell. Among them is the theological tale of being a double helix in time, with differently nuanced versions of a divine message guaranteeing human dignity and promise.

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Why High Holiday Serivces Matter More Than You Might Think

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

Parashat Vayakhel

On June 14, 1954, millions of Americans stumbled over the Pledge of Allegiance. The 1892 original said, “one nation, indivisible.” Now Congress required everyone to pause after “one nation” and insert “under God.”

Recognizing God in 1954 was not just piety; it was also a Cold War response to Godless Communism. Since the Pledge is as close to a public prayer as we are likely to get, we should wonder if prayers, too, can be politically motivated. And indeed they can.

Shabbat candle-lighting, for example, derives from Exodus 35:3: “Light no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.” Early in the rabbinic era, this verse prompted vociferous debate. The Sadducees, a party of Scriptural literalists, thought it mandated dousing all fires before Shabbat began. The Pharisees said the ban covered new fires only; fires already lit could continue burning.

The Rabbis inherited the Pharisaic mantle, and assured people that God could never have intended us to keep Shabbat in cold, dark, gloom. Shabbat demanded oneg, joy. The Rabbis, therefore, permitted Jews to light fires in their homes before nightfall on Friday; in fact, they demanded it! And ever since then, Shabbat has featured symbolic candle-lighting.

But Shabbat lights were not yet a mitzvah  — there was no blessing over them. That came only in the 9th century, when a sect called Karaites reasserted Sadducean literalism, and declared the entire rabbinic tradition misguided. In response, the rabbis upped the ante, declaring Shabbat candles a mitzvah and requiring the blessing, “Blessed is God… who commanded us to kindle Shabbat lights.”

A more recent example of politics is Chief Rabbi Herzog’s 1948 prayer for the State of Israel, which called the new state “the first flowering of our redemption.” In time, the phrase came to be seen, by some, as a mandate for the wholesale eviction of Arabs from their land. We now live in a new “post-moral” age, went the reasoning; what was unethical before “the first flowering” is ethical today.

Some new prayer books, therefore, omit the phrase or go out of their way to prevent such a radical reading of it.

What should we think about the politicization of prayer? The answer is, we should welcome it as a sign that we think religion matters. Piety not worth arguing over is not worth taking seriously. Prayer should absolutely address such matters as the nature of Shabbat (in rabbinic times) and the theological standing of Israel (in our own).

We should, therefore, not hesitate to pray for parallel matters of moment in our time. Prayer is not just praise, petition, and thanksgiving addressed to God. It is equally a message to one another, a way we get our own values straight. We pray for things, not just because God might then support them but because we are more likely to.

A couple of months back, for instance, synagogues might have prayed that Marlise Machado Muñoz — the brain-dead women forced to remain on life support against her family’s will – be given death with dignity; or we might pray, this Shabbat, for Congress to be granted the wisdom to raise, not lower, food stamp allowance. Sure, such prayers are controversial, but some things ought to matter enough to warrant praying for them, and any ensuing “debate for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) would be a welcome break from the saccharine sentiment of prayers that ask only for peace on earth, generally — ho-hum petitions that are virtually meaningless. Such generalities have their place, but some things are actually within our power to bring about, if we care enough to do so. Why not pray for them – an act that just might galvanize us to work for them?

If prayers speak only in platitudes, religion itself becomes platitudinous, a word that the dictionary defines as a polite way of saying, “trite, hackneyed, and banal,” precisely what religion should not become. People who claim to be irreligious may not be against it; they may just think it too dull to matter.

Seder Wisdom For Our Time

The Sabbath prior to Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol (“The Great Sabbath”). Its origins are clouded in mystery, even for us, who have access to historical records and a sophisticated historical understanding of how to read them. All the more so, was it a mystery to our medieval ancestors who had neither.

Not knowing how it began, some of these medieval Jews thought the original term had been Shabbat Hagadah “The Sabbath of the Haggadah,” because they spent the day reviewing the Seder service for use later in the week. So in preparation for my seder, I too am reviewing, and have gotten as far as  Dayyenu. We sing it, I think, because if we just read it, we might concentrate on its words, which are enough to stop us in our tracks.

Dayyenu means, “It would have been enough.” We say, for instance, “If God had only brought us to Mt. Sinai, but not given us the Torah: Dayyenu.” But do we honestly believe we would have been satisfied if God had said, “Look folks, I have a Torah up there, but you can’t have it; enjoy the view.”

Another example: “If God had split the sea for us but not led us through it on dry land: Dayyenu.” Really? What good would the split sea have been if we had been restrained on shore for the Egyptians to kill us? We should be saying lo dayyenu. Any single step toward freedom would not have been enough. Only the entire thing is dayyenu. Less would have been a teaser.

The usual explanation for calling each step “enough,” is that we were unworthy of anything more. The Italian commentator, Shibbolei Haleket is typical. God took us from Egypt, he says, the way a premature baby is rescued from its mother’s womb — unready for life outside, but taken out anyway and nurtured until it appreciates what it already has. So too, we were saved prematurely, experiencing God’s gracious deliverance stage by stage, and expected to demonstrate appreciation at each one before receiving more. Dayyenu.

But think of it. When is it normal to plead, “Enough”? Not when we don’t deserve something, but when we don’t really want it. It is as if, at each step, we pleaded, “Enough already! Please, God, no more.”

Dayyenu should be read alongside the well-known midrashim that emphasize how little Israel wanted the responsibility of being a chosen people. God, we are told, first offered Torah to other nations, who refused it altogether. We agreed to shoulder its burden only after God lifted Mt. Sinai over our heads and threatened us with extinction otherwise.

Looking back, we might find good reason to have been wary. Given the task of Torah and the history of being Jewish, we can well imagine our ancestors pleading, “Enough already. Who needs being chosen?” Every single redemptive step implies further obligation. Wouldn’t just a little obligation have been enough?

We know how it ends. We did not short-circuit salvation. God did it all, and so must we.

Because we were taken from Egypt, we must deliver others from servitude.

Because God brought judgment upon their idols, we must speak out against today’s forms of idolatry.

Because God fed us in the wilderness, we must feed others in the deserts of their lives.

Because God gave us Torah, we must study it, know it, live by it.

Because God brought us to our land, we must never be without it.

Because God built a Temple for atonement, we must admit our sins.

It goes on and on. Do we really need all this?

The answer, of course, is that we do; and more besides. The traditional Dayyenu ends with establishing the Temple, but Jewish history didn’t stop there.

Early Reform Jews added these lines to their Haggadah.

“If God had only sent us prophets of truth, dayyenu.

If God had only made us a holy people, dayyenu.”

Because God sent us prophets we must live a prophetic life: ethically (not gouging the poor, for instance) and spiritually (keeping faith with the promise of a better time to come). Because we are a holy people, we must emulate God: visiting the sick, showing compassion, insisting on justice.

We should add our own lines. After centuries of yearning, we have been returned to Eretz Yisra’el. At my seder, we sing, Ilu hechezireinu el artseinu, dayyenu. “If God had only returned us to our land, dayyenu.” Because we have reclaimed our Land, we must settle it, visit it, support it, and make it the sacred home that it was meant to be.

Passover lets us say dayyenu, as long as we don’t really mean it. We are in history for the long run. The Seder commits us to see it through, come what may.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.

9/11: Remembering How We Remembered

By tomorrow, the various memorials for 9/11 around the country will be matters of memory, allowing us to remember how we remembered. That exercise is worthwhile because it elucidates two different meanings of the word “remember”: the ordinary sense in which we merely bring to mind whatever it is we want to recall and the ritual usage that goes much deeper than that. We remember 9/11 — ritually; we remember how we remembered it — ordinarily.

It’s too bad we use the same word for both. Remembering 9/11 is a far cry from remembering where we put our checkbook or the way it was when we were ten. English sometimes strives to keep them different by calling the ordinary sense “remembering,” and the ritual sense “remembrance.”

We are all familiar with rituals of remembrance, an activity common to most religions but central also to secular communal consciousness. Even societies that deliberately reject religion — France during the French Revolution and the Soviet Union, for example  — practice them. If nothing else, they must remember the revolutionary moment in which they were formed, and for that, they need something sacred, if not “religious.” Central to the act is usually an attempt to relive what happened in condensed form: rereading a Declaration of Independence, perhaps, or recreating a mock battle. With 9/11, there were six moments of silence — one for each of the four hijacked planes that caused the mayhem and one more for each of the buildings that crumbled.

Television too played this ritual role by reliving the day’s fateful horrors. Witnesses remembered what it was like; young people described growing up in the shadow of the tragedy, and pundits waxed eloquent on the meaning of the occasion — not to provide information that we didn’t know already, but to ritualize the knowledge we already had, by reviewing it, rehearsing it, re-feeling it, and reliving it.

Because ritual remembrance is a category of the sacred, and because Judaism and Christianity are religions where remembering is central, we can learn a lot about even the secular act of remembrance by borrowing terms and concepts from Jewish-Christian understanding.

First, Christian. At his Last Supper, Jesus famously said, “Do this in memory of me.” Ever since, the primary liturgical act for Christians has been the Eucharist, a ritualized replication of that moment, described by the Greek term for remembrance, anamnesis. The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship calls the Greek word ”practically untranslatable in English. ‘Memorial,’  ‘commemoration,’ ‘remembrance’ all suggest a recollection of the past, whereas anamnesis means making present an object or person from the past.” What matters is this sense of “making present,” as if past and present coalesce into a single intensive experience of “now.” It is as if we are able to inhabit two separate points in time simultaneously. Time stops momentarily (and momentously), as “then” and “now” become the same.

Jews do not use the Greek, but have the same ritual consciousness in, for example, the wedding ceremony where the concluding “seven blessings” (the sheva b’rakhot) invoke the idyllic Garden of Eden on one hand, and final redemption yet to come, on the other, collapsing them both into the current blissful moment under the wedding canopy.

In lieu of the Greek anamnesis, the specifically Jewish contribution is the parallel Hebrew word for remembrance, zekher (or zikaron, a variant that means the same thing). We hear regularly of a zekher with reference to the Temple, creation, leaving Egypt, and other events and realities of another era. But the most telling use of zekher comes from the Talmud which employs the term legally by saying, “There may be no proof for such and such a proposition, but there is a zekher for it.” Zecher Can hardly mean “remembrance” here.  It is better translated as,” pointer.”

Now we understand ritual remembrance. It is a pointer that fastens our attention across time, space, and even logic. It attaches where we are to somewhere else we wish to be. It rivets our consciousness on our inherent connectivity to something that might otherwise be lost among the disparate sense perceptions that constantly assail us, as if to say that regardless of how our lives may change, this particular pathway of attentiveness must never be lost. We move on with our lives when the moment of remembrance ends, but the connecting tissue to the event being memorialized attends us wherever we go, deepening our sense of what matters and committing ourselves to the lessons that flow from it.

Why New Moons Matter

This is quite a holiday weekend. Americans everywhere look forward to July 4th, with its barbecues and fireworks, picnics and parades. Not to be outdone, our neighbors to the north celebrate Canada Day about the same time (“1867, July ONE, Canada became a do-min-ION”). And we Jews? We keep our respective national holidays (July 1 or July 4), but squeezed between the two mega- days of national consciousness for Canada and the United States is a specifically Jewish holiday as well: Rosh Chodesh: the new moon, the first day of the month — in this case, the month of Tammuz.

Americans do not celebrate new months; they dread them, as the day that rent and mortgage payments are due. Months are arbitrary, corresponding to nothing astronomical. We once had only ten of them; two more (July and August) were added by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Jews, by contrast, regard months as having significance. Our year is solar, but our months adhere to the waxing and waning of the moon. Holidays often fall on moon days: the new moon (Rosh Hashanah) or the full moon (Passover, Purim, and Sukkot).

Nowadays, the new moon is marked mostly just by relatively arcane liturgical customs that are noticed only by regular synagogue goers. But Jews in antiquity took the new moon seriously. According to the Yerushalmi, women observed it as a holiday. Ex post facto, the Rabbis judged it “acceptable” and gave it a midrashic rationale — but I doubt the women cared. The moon appealed to them as a natural symbol for their own monthly cycles. According to the Mishnah, they also danced on the full moon of Av, and “spun yarn by moonlight.” I suspect they were doing more than spinning yarn. This was probably part of a larger set of women’s rituals that the Rabbis knew about but neither investigated nor controlled. It was what women did: outside their purview.

It wasn’t just women who celebrated new moons, however. In medieval Erets Yisra’el, Jews marked them with a full Kiddush, the prayer we say to inaugurate Shabbat and holidays (like Pesach and Rosh Hashanah). The new moon Kiddush dropped out of use by the time of the Crusades, but we still have its wording, which is worth looking at for what it teaches us about Jewish values. It praises God for revealing the “secret of the moon’s renewal,” for “appointing people of wisdom who can determine the times of the new moons and holy days,” and for “calculating the tiniest divisions of time” that produce the calendar.

Astronomy was considered the queen of the sciences back then. What we have here, therefore, is a holiday thanking God for running the universe according to the natural laws of science, and then giving us scientists to figure out what those laws are.

What a spectacular idea – not at all like the usual holiday fare. Both American Independence Day and Canada Day celebrate the establishment of national entities. Each of them celebrates national freedom – secular parallels to Passover and Chanukah, or to the French Bastille Day, for that matter. Other holidays that turn up everywhere recall tragedy: Yom Hashoah for Jews, 9/11 (still in the making) for America. Sometimes we memorialize our war dead: Remembrance Day in Canada, Memorial Day in the States, Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Thanksgiving for food and well-being is common also: Sukkot and Shavuot come quickly to mind – and Thanksgiving Day itself, of course. Religions also mark our relationship to God: for Jews, the High Holidays, and the month of Elul leading up to it; for Christians, it is Lent, which culminates in Easter.

But science? What religion stops regularly to thank God for the laws of the universe? Where else do you find a religious culture dedicated to the awe one feels when contemplating the “starry sky above,” that philosopher Immanuel Kant saw as the ultimate source of spirituality? It is no accident that so many rabbis over the years have been scientists as well; or that so many Jewish scientists have found no conflict between their science and their Judaism.

I come from Canada, originally. I might phone home this year to wish my relatives a good Canada Day. I will certainly be out myself celebrating July 4. But I will not lose sight of Rosh Chodesh, squeezed innocently away between the two. Blessed is God who designed a universe replete with mathematical beauty; blessed is God who gave us minds to calculate the equations by which it works; blessed is God who revels in our mastery of scientific secrets.