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Explaining Jewish Spirituality to Christians: A Review

Review of Jewish Spirituality; A Brief Introduction for Christians. By Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001. 103 pp. $12.95

Though many of Rabbi Kushner's previous books on spirituality have attracted Christian followers, they were addressed primarily to Jewish audiences. This one, which is specifically intended for Christians--although it can certainly serve to enlighten Jews who are not familiar with Jewish texts--was inspired by Kushner's friendship with an Episcopal priest--a man Kushner credits with having taught him "what little he knows about Jesus."

In this slim volume, Kushner, in an attempt to return his friend's gift of knowledge and understanding, sets out to guide Christians through the complexities of Jewish spirituality in a comprehensible manner. It's a formidable task, but Kushner manages to pull it off with grace, style, and a good deal of "simple profundity."

Kushner discusses four aspects of Jewish spiritual tradition: "Creation," "Torah," "Commandment," and "The Holy One." He uses midrashim--stories based upon actual biblical text that have been "inventively expanded" in order to teach a lesson--and biblical references to bring his respective subjects into focus.

For example, under the heading, "Creation," in the very first chapter entitled, "Open Your Eyes," Kushner explains how Jewish spirituality encourages humans to take the time to notice the everyday miracles around them. He describes the ancient rabbinical legend about Shimon and Reuven, two men who lived at the time of the exodus from Egypt. Because they looked only at their feet when crossing the Red Sea, Shimon and Reuven never appreciated the miracle God performed on their behalf--and on behalf of the entire Jewish people--the parting of the waters that enabled them to flee slavery and live in freedom. Although Shimon and Reuven hurried along with the others who were also crossing through the sea, they noticed only the mud beneath their feet, and thus complained and whined the entire way.

Kushner details some of the primary differences between Judaism and Christianity. The author reminds readers that for Jews, God is not incarnate: "God is not born, nor does God die. God has no personal history. And God has no form whatsoever." Kushner also explains that Judaism has no dogma, that is, it has no catalogue of beliefs. "One's Judaism is not a matter of what you believe, instead it is organized around sacred deeds, mitzvot."

One of the most fascinating points Kushner makes is his comparison between the Jewish experience of teshuva and the Christian experience of Jesus. Teshuva, which is often defined as "repentance," literally means, "return" in Hebrew. Metaphorically--and metaphysically--it signifies a "return to the self one is meant to be"--or to one's Source, that is, God.

Kushner avers that what is said about teshuva could be said about the Christian experience of Jesus, including the following descriptions of "teshuva":

. The gesture of returning to God
. The letting go of arrogance
. The soul's fulfillment
. The prerequisite for the creation of the world
. The means of the world's salvation
. The possibility that even the "most degenerate sinner" can be reunited with God
. The perception of truth.

Jewish Spirituality; A Brief Introduction for Christians, is classic Kushner, and those already familiar with his previous works, notably, Honey from the Rock, and Invisible Lines of Connection, might recognize familiar motifs and stories that the author has used before. But because Kushner knows his targeted audience is different this time, his presentation is distinctive. It is a worthy read, particularly for those Christians seeking to understand the religion of their partners.

Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "return," the way of repenting for sins in Judaism. The term is most associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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