I do not think it means what you think it means

It’s very easy to bond with people over shared experiences. That’s a lot of what the personal narrative essays on this website are about. What’s more exciting is when people bond over shared differences–not in spite of having different beliefs, history or culture, but because of it.

That’s why the decision of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a “clarification” of an earlier 2002 document on Catholic-Jewish relations seems to be going over like a lead balloon in the Jewish community. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Unless “clarification” always means “complete reversal of previous position.” As J.J. Goldberg writes in an article in the Forward,
“A Counter-Revolution in Jewish-Catholic Ties”:

Most of the new clarifications, seen through Jewish eyes, look more like retractions of reforms we’d thought were long-settled church doctrine.

Among the earlier statement’s “ambiguities” are declarations that “both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God,” that both religions “have missions before God to undertake in the world” and that the Jewish mission “must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people.” In fact, as the new statement helpfully clarifies, the “fulfillment” of the Jewish covenant “is found only in Jesus Christ.” Jews have a “right to hear this Good News” in “every generation.” And it’s the job of Christians to fill them in.

Goldberg also notes, to me most significantly, that the Council of Bishops did not discuss this with Jewish dialogue partners while it was in process or even give them a warning that it was coming out. Orthodox groups that had been part of the dialogue responded in kind, shooting from the hip with an immediate response June 29, while other Jewish groups tried to engage in discussion for a month and a half before they expressed “serious concerns” about the future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Reading another piece in my local Catholic paper The Boston Pilot, “Jewish leaders say bishops’ June statement could hurt dialogue”, I had some insight into why Catholics might not understand the (to me entirely predictable!) negative Jewish reaction. Some Catholics may have had concerns that Jews were not allowed to convert to Catholicism:

By stating that the Jewish people’s “witness to the kingdom … must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity,” the document “could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews,” they added.

(emphasis mine)
There is a big difference between Judaism and Catholicism, and it is this: we do not think it’s a big favor to people to proselytize them. I’ve had people who were raised Catholic ask me if that was because Jews were snobs, which is funny if you know how negatively Jewish religion and culture both view proselytization. Some interpretations of Jewish law consider proselytizing coercive and a way to invalidate a conversion! It’s a very different view of what shows respect for another religious group, and I think we have to keep reaching out to each other to bond over that shared difference. 

An Orthodox Rabbi Who Does Not Think Intermarriage is the End of the Jewish World

Nearly three years ago I moved to St. Louis. A friend of ours insisted that we join a local synagogue with a rabbi he described as the most thoughtful and knowledgeable he had ever met. It sounded like a plan–the synagogue was a quick walk from our home. The next day was Shavuot, when we celebrate revelation, and I was eager to see why my friend was so enthusiastic. I was shocked. There were Jews from every denomination attending classes taught by rabbis and teachers from every denomination. (This is really unusual in an Orthodox synagogue.)

Over the next two years, I got to know the synagogue’s rabbi, Hyim Shafner, who insisted I call him Hyim and not rabbi, which is also unusual. I was always struck by his spirituality and how he helped everyone who walked into Bais Abe to connect with their Judaism and spirituality. He just concentrated on helping those around him and developing a community of like-minded individuals. He never judged and I rarely saw him criticize. He is also a great counselor.

Rabbi Shafner just finished writing The Everything Jewish Wedding Book . A wedding blogger who reviewed the book interviews Hyim about intermarriage in the context of being an Orthodox rabbi. When asked how he feels about interfaith weddings, Rabbi Shafner puts interfaith weddings into both a historical and spiritual context:

Half the Jews today marry someone who isn’t Jewish. Fifty years ago, people married non-Jews as a way of leaving Judaism and becoming more American. Today, it’s almost the opposite. For some people, the first time they start to think about Judaism is their wedding. For some Jews, intermarriage is a gateway into Judaism.
The goal of Judaism shouldn’t be to have Jews marry other Jews. The goal of Judaism should be to get something out of Judaism. To have a connection with God and to live a spiritual life.
An interfaith wedding can be useful, it can help people re-engage with their religion.

Rabbi Shafner is certainly not advocating interdating or intermarriage, but does not discount the impact a wedding can have on one’s spirituality and connection to their heritage.

Happy Shrove Tuesday! Happy Mardi Gras!

It’s no secret around my office that I’m in the middle of rewriting a quickie guide to Jewish food. I have to pare down an encyclopedic 3,000 word monster of an anthropological study into something people can use. We are still discussing whether anyone needs to know about calves’ NOLA image by Ben Greenbergfoot jelly.

So I took a little internet research side-trip to learn about the foods associated with today’s holiday. No, it’s not a Jewish holiday as far as I know! Today is Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. It’s a day on which Roman Catholics have traditionally eaten a lot of goodies in anticipation of a solemn season of prayer and self-deprivation before Easter. Some called it Carnival because it was the last day they ate meat before not having any for 40 days. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which starts Lent. 

One traditional food in the United States is the King Cake that people in New Orleans share as part of Mardi Gras. Back in France they make a gallete de rois that’s frangipane (almond paste) and puff pastry, but here in the US it’s more like a giant cinnamon roll with colored sugar on top. I’ve never had this cake and now I really want to make one! Like a lot of Americans, I have a place in my heart for New Orleans because it’s the cradle of jazz and because of the terrible damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. I’ve never been there, but my husband has been several times and took amazing photographs, some of which are on his Flickr page. (He took the one at right, too.) Continue reading

A Wedding on Planet Obama

Rachel Getting Married
From L-R: Anne Hathaway, Tunde Adebimpe, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mather Zickel in Rachel Getting Married.

As a ravenous consumer of film (insert shameless plug here), I make it a point to see as many of the Oscar contenders before the show as I can. Given that the Oscars are in less than three weeks–and nominations only came out a week-and-a-half ago–I’m in a bit of a film frenzy. Last night, I saw Rachel Getting Married.

Rachel Getting Married is about a recovering addict/bulimic/human grenade, Kim (Anne Hathaway), who is released from rehab for a few days to attend her sister Rachel’s (Blake DeWitt) wedding. Kim is a narcissistic mess of a human being who proves that the only person more tiresome than an addict is a recovering addict.

But this post isn’t about Kim. It’s about Rachel and her husband, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and their cross-cultural mishmash of a wedding.

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Pope Lifts Excommunication of Anti-Semitic Bishop

On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the Catholic Church would reintegrate four bishops that the church had excommunicated in 1988 because they were ordained by Archbishop Michel Lefebvre, the founder of a breakaway Traditionalist Catholic sect, Society of St. Pius X. Jewish groups around the world have protested the reinstatement of Richard Williamson, a Briton who denies the historical truth of the Holocaust. Liberal Catholics in the US are also waking up to the fact that Williamson apparently denies that terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It’s one of the many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to which Williamson subscribes. For a comprehensive run-down on Williamson’s anti-Semitism, see Professor Rebecca Lesses’ blog, which has a translation an article from the German newspaper Der Spiegel on some of the scary things that Williamson has said, including suggesting that conservative Catholics arm to fight other Catholics.

Though Williamson is the most colorfully, scarily anti-Semitic (and also anti-gay and apparently just generally prone to saying wildly offensive things) of these four bishops, it’s not surprising that followers of Archbishop Lefebvre hold extreme right-wing positions. The Catholic Church is not a monolithic body, any more than Judaism is a monolithic body. Even within a single country, leaders in the Church can take left, right or centrist positions. Lefebvre supported the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis, the right-wing neo-fascist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and right-wing dictatorships in other countries as well. His Society of St. Pius X has long been a source of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

It’s difficult for me as a Jew to figure out why this Pope, who is the first to visit a US synagogue and only the second to visit a synagogue at all, would make such a decision. One would think that he would be eager to distance himself from his past, apparently forced, membership in the Hitler Youth. My guess is that he decided that it was more important to have unity within the Church, and possibly to have support for other traditionalist positions on gender and sexuality, than it was to maintain the positive relations with the Jewish community that he and his predecessor had so carefully fostered.

One Catholic blogger points out that though the bishops’ excommunication was reversed, the Pope has not reinstated them to “exercise their ministry,” and also has not said that the original excommunication was wrong. Still, it looks to those of us outside the Church like the Pope is throwing his relationships with Jews under a bus in order to promote Church unity.

I don’t regard this position as reflecting anything about the Catholic leaders here in the United States who have reached out to the Jewish community, nor indeed does it have anything to do with centrist Catholic clergy in other countries. I’m going to continue to forge alliances and build friendships with the devout Catholics in my life who have consistently reached out to me as a Jew.

American Heaven

As a North American Jew, I’m accustomed to reading the endless kvetching of Jewish traditionalists about how American Judaism is inauthentic, assimilated or corrupted. It’s our default position as a community. We often bewail each other’s creativity and spirituality in the process. What I like is learning that all the other religions in the United States are similarly Americanized, unruly and individualistic, and similarly annoying their religious authorities. It makes me think of Whitman’s Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass.

When I read Charles M. Blow’s New York Times column, Heaven for the Godless, it lit me up inside. Here’s a good summary:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. [...] [They] complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And that’s not all. Nearly half the respondents thought atheists would go to heaven, and most thought that people with no religious faith could also go. Continue reading

Jesus and Christmas

It’s our busiest time of year again at InterfaithFamily.com. I’m writing this on December 24th at 9:00 am — and we’ve already broken the record for the highest number of monthly unique visitors to our main website, with 30,831 so far. There is something about Hanukkah and Christmas that stirs up everything about interfaith relationships — and front and center in that swirl is Jesus.

Two weeks ago, Cathy Grossman, USA Today’s terrific religion writer, called about her December holiday story for this year. She said she was writing about the “taking Christ out of Christmas” phenomenon. In addition to the usual theories that Americans are more secular and more materialistic, she wondered if increasing intermarriage was a cause. Continue reading

Very naughty

I do not know how things have come to this pass, but somehow, I have figured out an excuse two very good reasons to embed a Monty Python video on my work blog:

1. Monty Python has just announced their own Youtube channel. They are going to post all of their own material. So this is based on BREAKING NEWS, people!

2. Monty Python created one of the best-known stories about a young man growing up in an (admittedly dysfunctional) interfaith family, Life of Brian. Of course, Life of Brian is also, to many many people, one of the most offensive movies of all time. That’s why I’m going to post the embedded video under a cut. Beware of the blasphemy, bad language and blasphemous bad language. I am serious–this movie offended Christians and Jews alike.

My first-year college roommate, raised Catholic, was very upset when she saw this movie. She thought she was an ex-Catholic, but people hang on to things from their religious upbringing longer than they think. I had sent her to see it and had to apologize.

(Goodness, the Wikipedia article about the movie says that there was an oratorio based on the movie called Not the Messiah. Be still my geeky heart.)

I saw Life of Brian when it came out in Jerusalem in 1981. I was on a teen program in Israel that taught Jewish history, so I got every joke. My two geeky girlfriends from the program and I laughed louder than anyone else in the audience. I think the Israelis knew the history but couldn’t hear through the accents. Or maybe they were just offended and didn’t think it was funny. Not like my later experience of seeing Yellow Submarine in Tel Aviv in 1994, with everyone around me singing all the songs.

Anyway, this isn’t my favorite scene from the film, but the Pythons haven’t posted the most apposite one. (You know, the one with the line about being a Red Sea pedestrian? Oh well.) Here it is below the cut. Continue reading

Sometimes when something feels familiar, it’s not good

When I heard that there was a shooting at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, I thought about the shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation. I didn’t consider for a second that this was something random–I thought that the shooter must be targetting these people because of what he thinks they believe. It’s scary to think about people being unsafe practicing religion in the United States, where we take pride in our freedom to speak and to worship. My heart goes out to the survivors.  

Think We’ve Got It Bad?

In this Middle Eastern country, a woman of the majority religion married a man from another religion. Her family had no problems with it, but the couple lives in fear of being exposed to the religious authorities as an interfaith couple. Meanwhile, the majority of this state’s young people support a couple’s right to civil marriage.

Israel, right? Try its neighbor to the north, Syria.

While Israel (justly) gets flak for its antiquated, inconsistent and prejudicial approach to interfaith marriage, the Arab countries that surround it are no better–and in many cases worse. Take Syria.

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