Thoughts on Vayishlach
Linguistic lightbulbs


It's the first Sunday of Advent. Today my friend Peter and his congregation lit the first candle in the enormous evergreen wreath that hangs from the vaulted ceiling of their church. Next week, two candles. Then three. Then four. And on Christmas Eve near midnight, they'll light the central candle, the final light, from which flame will be brought down to light the small tapers of everyone in the room.

Leaving aside for the moment the matter of Jesus, who is naturally a problematic figure for most Jews, I love this Advent ritual. It speaks to me. November has been a dark and in many ways difficult month; in my own personal world I feel the need for light, and when I steel myself to listen to the news it's clear the larger world needs some light too. This lighting of candles to celebrate the gradual revelation of spirit is a metaphor made manifest. Last year I was at Peter's church on Christmas Eve, and the experience of watching the light come down from the rafters and fill the room, tiny flame by tiny flame, was powerful.

Of course, my people too have an incremental candle-lighting ritual at this season. Chanukah, known alternately as the festival of lights and the festival of (re)dedication, begins on the 25th of the lunar month of Kislev, which this year corresponds to the evening of December 7th. I'm working on a Chanukah post or two, which ought to be ready for posting by then. But what I'm thinking about today is, is it appropriate for me to find meaning in somebody else's candle-lighting ritual? Knowing that the Advent wreath symbolizes hope for the incarnation of God in the person of a figure I don't regard as savior, ought I to take pleasure in it?

There's always a danger of trivializing other peoples' rituals when one relates to them as an outsider. There's a danger of essentializing, of glossing over differences, which strikes me as fundamentally disrespectful. And Jewish tradition has always been mindful of the danger of avodah zarah, strange worship or idolatry. Is my appreciation of the Advent tradition an instance of these transgressions?

I would argue, no. I don't think I'm minimizing the grandeur of the Advent tradition. I don't think I'm ignoring the fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Judaism. And I don't think my appreciation of the Advent candle-lighting ritual qualifies as idolatry. My practice of Judaism is grounded in the desire to interact with other peoples and other traditions in an I-Thou way. (Maybe this is why Reb Zalman's teaching that each religion is a vital and necessary organ in the body of creation resonates with me so strongly.) I don't seek to co-opt the Advent ritual into my tradition, nor to make it something other than what it is. But when I approach it with an open mind and an open heart I see a reflection of holiness there.

I find religion endlessly fascinating. I dig rituals, allsorts. Studying this stuff in college, I grew frustrated because I wanted to knead the dough with my own hands; pure theory wasn't enough for me. But now that I can go as deep into praxis as I want to, I still retain the desire to look in on other traditions and see how they do things. And sometimes what I see strikes a chord.

Today I participated in one of my favorite post-Thanksgiving rituals: the community Messiah-sing, which happens every year on Thanksgiving Sunday. An old friend of mine conducts the volunteer orchestra, soloists, and chorus; sixty or seventy people show up to sing, many of whom have been compatriots of mine in one community chorus or another over the last decade. We run some vocal warm-ups, we practice a few passages and tricky transitions, and then we sing through Part I of Handel's piece, closing with the "Hallelujah" chorus. Then we have cider and cookies in the reception hall.

I've sung several of Handel's other works, and this one is my favorite by far. I find real pleasure in singing it, especially with a pick-up chorus that has converged purely for the joy of the music. This is what I like best about the Christmas season: people get together and sing, just for the fun of it. (The only other time when I get to do that is the annual reunion of my college madrigal ensemble.)

Jewish friends have asked me how I reconcile singing Christian sacred works (like Handel's Messiah, or Vivaldi's Gloria, or masses by Mozart, Bach, Rossini) with my ardent Jewishness. The easiest answer is that when I'm singing with a chorus I'm not a worshipper, I'm a performer. It's my responsibility (and my pleasure) to make music as well as I can. But that answer only partially satisfies. In order to sing well one needs emotional investment, which raises the question of how I invest myself emotionally in a piece of music which celebrates a theology I don't share.

In a way it's like finding emotional resonance in the Advent rituals, even though they're not my rituals, and the incarnation of God that they celebrate isn't part of my understanding of the world. That way isn't my way, but I can relate to it. And in so doing, I can find common resonance between it and my own tradition. 

I don't think of the Messiah-sing as a religious activity, except in the sense that making beautiful sounds is itself a kind of praise. But since it happened to fall on the first Sunday of Advent this year, I'm drawing a connection. The Advent season, as I understand it, is about the joyful anticipation of God entering creation. My tradition teaches that a spark of God illuminates all created things. By coming together in community and making music together during this outwardly-dismal time of year, we might become more aware of each others' holy sparks, and might learn to exalt them -- and each other -- as reflections of our Source. Regardless of what tradition each of us calls home, in respecting each others' customs we respect the common root of our yearning for holiness. To my mind, that's a way of bringing light into our world -- light which might outlast the candles our two peoples kindle at this season.