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Review of Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year by Harvey Cox. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. $24.
Before reading Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year, I was aware that its author, Harvey Cox, was a distinguished Professor of Divinity at Harvard University and author of many important theological works. But I was not aware that for more than fifteen years, Cox has been married to a Jewish woman, Nina Tumarkin, a professor of Russian history at Wellesley College.
Common Prayers is Cox's account of his encounter with Judaism during his marriage to Tumarkin. While he has remained a devoted Christian, he and his wife have raised their son as a Jew, and Cox has participated enthusiastically in the Jewish community and in Jewish rituals in their home.
Although Common Prayers is organized around the rubric of the Jewish holidays, with additional chapters dealing with important life-cycle events, it is more than a book about Jewish holidays and traditions from the perspective of a sympathetic Christian. For in each chapter, Cox delves into significant theological and sometimes sociological matters, offering deep insights and quoting both classical and contemporary Jewish thinkers. For example, he begins his chapter on "The Meaning of the Land" with quotations from Psalms, but soon makes reference to contemporary thinkers Rabbi David Hartman and Yeshayahu Leibowitz who argue that as important as the land of Israel is for the Jews today, it has no theological significance.
While intermarried or interdating couples will find many of Cox's points especially pertinent, and his perspective on Judaism enlightening, all Jews and Christians will benefit from his analysis and interpretation of contemporary Judaism. I was particularly impressed by his discussion of troubling "texts of terror" and their relationship to the current conflict in the Middle East.
Cox masterfully weaves his personal experiences with his theological ruminations to produce a thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking book. For example, he begins the first chapter, about Shabbat, (the Jewish Sabbath) by describing a typical Friday evening Shabbat ritual in their home, but soon turns to quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook with regard to the significance of sanctifying time in Judaism. By the end of the chapter he has explained his rationale for participating fully in Shabbat with his family (Jesus and his followers observed it) and why it has become so important in his life (because it offers us "a preliminary glimpse of human life as it should be").
Cox wrote Common Prayers in order "to help my fellow Christians" better understand Judaism. He succeeds admirably, not only carefully explaining the traditions and historical background of each holiday, but also conveying the challenges of observing them in an interfaith family.
He is often matter of fact, as when he observes that Hanukkah and Christmas, though they fall in proximity to one another, celebrate different things. "When we remember that," he concludes, "everyone in the family can appreciate both, albeit in quite different ways." Cox is not interested in creating synchronistic observances that demean the rituals of each tradition. Rather, he is eager to embrace Jewish rituals that are compatible with Christianity. At the same time, he recognizes that his wife, as a practicing Jew, cannot embrace many of the Christian rituals that are part of his faith.
Cox strives to depict Judaism as Jews experience it. He challenges common misconceptions, such as the characterization of Jewish law as a burden. For Jews, he writes, "The commandments are gifts." The Torah "is a generous gift which God bestows on his people simply out of love." Cox supports this understanding both with quotes from a variety of Jewish and Christian scholars, as well as with his account of a joyous Simchat Torah celebration he participated in, joining a Cambridge Jewish community in celebrating the completion of the reading of the Torah and its immediate beginning.
Some Christian readers may be uncomfortable with Cox's forthright assessment of Christian anti-Semitism: "the truth is that anti-Judaism is not peripheral to Christianity. It is embedded in the scriptures, liturgies, and even in the art and architecture of the churches." And he expresses disappointment with the Catholic Church's statement about the Holocaust, "We Remember," arguing that "a far more forthright and penetrating statement" is still needed. Cox believes that the Church must be more honest about its role in fostering anti-Semitism and must take more steps to eliminate it from Christian liturgy.
Interfaith couples will especially appreciate Cox's observations on interfaith marriage. He argues that "a mixed marriage can be a spiritual venture that sharpens and strengthens the faith of each partner." His chapter on weddings and marriage offers a variety of insights and advice. Most importantly, he recommends that interfaith couples not avoid the tough questions such as: "What role will religion play in our home?" and "How will you raise the children?" He makes a compelling case for raising children as Jews, as he and has wife have done.
Common Prayers is a "must read" for anyone who wishes to better understand Judaism, particularly the challenges and rewards of living a Jewish life as an interfaith couple. Cox demonstrates that interfaith marriage need not dilute the substance of each spouse's faith, but can, in fact, enhance it.