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Witnessing my first smicha

Common prayers, common ground

I have long wanted to read Harvey Cox's book Common Prayers. Cox is a Christian theologian who serves as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard. For the last fifteen-plus years he has been married to a Jewish woman, and engaged in helping to rear their Jewish son -- and he has also maintained his own identification with the Christian community, and his own Christian faith.

Common Prayers is Cox's exploration of Judaism, from his unique outsider/insider perspective. (If you want a taste, one chapter has been published online: A Christian Observes Yom Kippur.)

This review, written by Andrew Silow Carroll and published in The Forward, does an excellent job of encapsulating some of what makes the book great, and also some of what makes it controversial. Carroll writes, "Mr. Cox describes his intention in writing 'Common Prayers' as three-fold: to help Christians better understand Judaism, to explain how Judaism has strengthened his understanding of his own Christian faith and, perhaps most controversially, 'to question the idea that a Jewish-Christian marriage necessarily dilutes the substance of either or both of the spouse's faiths.' For this Jewish reader, the book fulfills a fourth if unstated goal: helping Jews better understand their own faith through the perspective of a learned outsider."

The part Carroll calls controversial -- Cox's feelings on intermarriage -- is something I'll come back to towards the end of this post. But first I'd like to explore what Cox says about Judaism, because his observations are excellent.

"The first thing a Christian spouse notices about Judaism is that it is not about creed, it is about calendar," Cox writes, explaining why he chose to structure the book according to the cycle of the liturgical year.

What binds Jews is not a confessional statement like the Apostles' Creed. It is the sounding of the shofar, the lighting of the menorah, the same four questions posed by the youngest child year after year at the seder. It is the annual return of Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, and the weekly arrival of the Sabbath.

First comes a chapter on Shabbat, the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Then Cox offers a chapter apiece on each of the holidays in the wheel of the Jewish year, from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. Smart stuff: Judaism is a religion of practice, and the way we mark and sanctify time may be the defining practice of Jewish life. (He also includes chapters on lifecycle events, about which more anon.)

Cox pays close attention to details -- for instance, the form of the standard Jewish bracha or blessing. Many of our brachot take the form of thanking God for sanctifying us with commandments. About this, Cox writes, "Christians rarely if ever thank God for commandments. We thank God for his gifts. But one does not have to look into Judaism very far to notice that for Jews the commandments are gifts."

On Torah, Cox writes, "Jews take it seriously but not literally. They illustrate how important it is, not by accepting everything unquestioningly, but by demonstrating that they find it worthy of energetic engagement." To be fair, some Jews do take Torah literally -- but for the most part I think Cox is right, and I think he's identified something vitally important about the Jewish mode of exegesis. It's precisely because Torah is so important that we mustn't read it on a purely literal level; how could we presume to chain it to only a single meaning?

Here at Velveteen Rabbi, interfaith Torah-interpretation sessions sometimes arise. Given our conversations here, I was fascinated by Cox's strong words about the Christian tendency to read the Jesus story back into the Hebrew Scriptures. Cox argues that stories from the Hebrew Scriptures are "softened, even distorted," when Christian themes are projected back into them. "I have come to believe that the 'instant christianizing' of the Old Testament accounts often evacuates their original power and depth," he writes. "It is important to listen and try to wrestle with them in their own terms instead of immediately subsuming them into Christian categories." I deeply appreciate the respect he accords the Jewish perspective. Later in the book, he writes:

[M]y own hope is that we can one day soon lay aside contests about who has "the" correct interpretation of scriptural texts altogether. We can do this by appreciating what modern literary critics now take for granted -- that texts can and should be open to multiple readings and that one reading does not invalidate another....To some this may sound too much like a "postmodern" way out. But it is actually a very old method of reading the Bible. The rabbis have operated with it for centuries, rarely settling on a single authoritative intepretation, but recording their disagreements and inviting successive generations to enter into the never-ending conversation. It is mostly Christian exegetes who have striven to discover a univocal and authoritative meaning for each text.

Of course Cox devotes a chapter to Chanukah and the so-called "December Dilemma." That confluence of holidays has been much-blogged of late, but I can't resist offering this quote: "In the minds of many skeptics, the lethal iceberg on which even the most secure Jewish-Christian marriage is fated to founder will surely loom out of the cold water sometime in early December....I understand why the warnings are posted. But I do not believe such a crash is inevitable." Huzzah: someone agrees with me that December need not be angst-laden, regardless of which side of the religious fence one calls home! Of course, the season does have some pitfalls. Cox is troubled, he says, by the "soggy blending" of "two quite discrete holidays;" though Judaism and Christianity have much in common, these two winter holidays are different in a variety of important ways.

In the Purim chapter, Cox recounts the joys of the traditionally ribald and goofy Purimspiel, but doesn't shy away from the story's difficult ending in which the Jews of Persia are given permission to slay those who would have slain them. He draws a connection between the end of the megillat Esther and the Baruch Goldstein massacre which took place on Purim some years ago, which leads him to explore the question of violence in scripture. He writes:

It seems there have always been people who were willing not only to die for their faith but to kill for it as well. This disagreeable fact presents us all with a challenge we need to work on together. As we do, it might be helpful to make a distinction between real violence and what might be called "ritual violence," as it is enacted, for example, in the Esther story. But we cannot stop there. We must also ask ourseves, What is the relationship between the two? Does symbolic violence cause real violence, or does it substitute for or displace it? This is certainly not just a Jewish issue. All religions have their "texts of terror." How can we understand them?

I don't know the answer to his question, but I'm awfully glad he posed it.

Cox describes the Passover seder -- my single favorite ritual, hands-down -- as, "like no ritual I know of in Christian tradition: part ceremony, part banquet, part television panel show, part Platonic symposium, and at least in our house, part seminar on religion, politics, history, and ethics." Sounds like a seder to me! On the eternal question of whether and how the Exodus really happened, he writes, "Trying to reduce this grand narrative to a news story from thirty-five hundred years ago is to do it a grave injustice." It's a story, he says, neither "sheer fact nor mere fiction," and its power far outpaces its historicity.

Also powerful is his description of what it feels like to help prepare for Passover. At first, he says, he did the work out of a sense of obligation to his wife; ultimately, though, he came to recognize that the process is important. He likens it to a Japanese tea ceremony: the long ritual that precedes the drinking is a vitally important part of the ceremony, and it's not just about sipping tea at the end. Just so, preparing ourselves for seder -- whether literally or metaphorically -- matters. The journey is as relevant as the destination.

Here, too, his Christian background allows him to make comparisons that might not have occurred to someone with Jewish roots. The process of cleansing the house of chametz, leavening, reminds him of a Jesuit discipline of clearing negativity from the mind. And after a digression into the Last Supper and the question of whether Christian mass is a kind of calcified seder, Cox explores the question of messiah from both Christian and Jewish points of view, and closes with some musings on the custom of opening the door during seder for a visit from the prophet Elijah:

I have come to look forward to the opening of the door for an Elijah who is always a no-show, and I have come to believe that precisely by not appearing, that great prophet is showing us something we need to know. What does it mean that there is never anyone at the door? What if, for all practical purposes, no messiah can be counted on? Would that make any significant difference in the way we engage in the present human enterprise?

That set of questions excites me enough that I think I'm adding it to this year's version of our haggadah.

In addition to what I think of as the "classic" wheel of the year, Cox devotes some attention to the two recent additions to the Jewish liturgical calendar, Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). He also writes about his first few trips to Israel, using that narrative as a jumping-off point for exploring the a range of perspectives on the place and what it means. On the Christian side of things, he delves into his own relationship with Israel, and does an excellent job of both explaining and debunking the Christian teaching of "dispensationalism;" on the Jewish side of things, he offers a range of interpretations of literal and metaphoric exile and return.

Here, too, are chapters on Jewish life-cycle events, from wedding (theirs) to baby-naming (their son's), b'nai mitzvah (their son's) to funeral and mourning (Nina's mother's). Along the way he continues to draw startling comparisons -- for instance, between his son becoming bar mitzvah, and his own baptism at age thirteen. And beyond his trenchant observations about the Jewish festival year and life cycle, Cox has smart things to say about religion in general. Like this:

Religions point to something eternal, but they are in part products of their times and places, so they point imperfectly. The mystics of all traditions do us a great service by reminding us that the divine infinitely transcends the words and symbols we use to describe it. A religious belief or doctrine or ritual is true only insofar as it points beyond itself. We need these pointers, but when we confuse them with the reality they are pointing to we fall into a kind of idolatry, confusing the finite with the infinite.

That idea resonates strongly for me. When we become overly-attached to externals, to the "right way" to pray or to celebrate or to approach the Most High, we run the risk of elevating our religious habits above the ultimate reality to which they're meant to lead us. God is absolute; our ways of reaching toward God are not.

Early in this post I quoted a line from the book which argues that intermarriage isn't necessarily a dilution of tradition(s), and I said I'd come back to it. Sure enough, Cox has more to say on that matter. He writes, of Nina and himself:

We have no way of knowing what might have happened in our separate faith journeys if we had never met or married. Still, I think I am probably a better Christian and she believes she may be a better Jew not in spite of but because of our marriage. We both recognize that making any marriage work is a difficult and demanding enterprise and that marrying a person of another faith does not make it any easier. But we have also come to believe that a mixed marriage can be a spiritual venture that sharpens and strengthens the faith of each partner.

I found that paragraph tremendously moving, and I look forward to the day when Cox's notions about intermarriage are no longer radical.

Cox knows more about Judaism than do many contemporary liberal Jews; I find his reports of his "sojourn" among Jews to be erudite, thought-provoking, and meaningful. But in that Forward review I quoted earlier, Carroll observes that Conservative and Orthodox Judaism aren't especially friendly toward intermarriage, and that it is therefore likely that Cox's book will be read by those communities as a threat. Cox, he notes, posits a place for himself in Jewish life within "the Court of the Gentiles," an image he borrows from the Second Temple. Such a court is, in Cox's words, "a wide-open space, still sacred but in a different way, in which all the children of God can enter, mix with one another, and benefit in whatever way they can from its atmosphere."

"It's a heady vision, but an appreciation for "wide-open spaces" has rarely been a defining Jewish characteristic," Carroll writes. "Building fences seems more the order of the day."

True: which is exactly why I think Common Prayers is so vital. I've argued before that Judaism's historical insularity is descriptive, not prescriptive -- it's the way we've been, for a variety of reasons, but it's not the way we have to be. Though our instinct to circle the wagons has served us well at other points in history, I believe that, as Reb Zalman teaches, in today's world holiness can arise through lessening the "surface tension" between traditions and communities -- not blurring our differences, but relating in an I-Thou way that presumes the validity of multiple paths to God. I like to imagine that Harvey Cox would agree.

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