An Interview with Father Patrick Reardon (Part III and Last)

Finishing up the series from yesterday and the day before

You mentioned earlier that you don’t understand how any Jew can become Orthodox. What would you say to a Jew who did seek to join the Church?

The only reason for anyone to go to an Orthodox Church is Jesus, and this is the same for a Jew as for anyone else.

In my book, The Jesus We Missed, I try to make very clear just how Jewish Jesus is. Another great book is that of the former Rabbi Zolli of Rome, Before the Dawn. His book is incredible. He was the rabbi in Rome all during the Nazi occupation and was working with the Vatican to save Jews. After the war, he became Catholic and took the name Eugenio to honor Pius XII.

How would you respond to the idea of a Jewish rite or a Jewish community within the Orthodox Church?

If there is a sufficiently large population of Jewish converts, I think that would be great. I have no doubt that my own archdiocese would be open to that. As a side note – several years ago a group of Amish in NW Penn expressed interest in coming over to the Orthodox Church, and we were open to that as well – in fact, I was sent out to interview them. It turned out to be a hopeless undertaking, unfortunately.

Given the Semitic routes of the Liturgy of St. James, it should be easy to restore a more Hebraic rite without any break with Orthodox worship.

Unfortunately, the Jewish converts in the Church are not really organized as a community.

If we were to write Liturgy in Hebrew tomorrow that was completely recognizable and continuous with Jewish Temple worship, not a Jew in my town would recognize it as such. Though I personally would enjoy that as an exercise.

And then there’s the tendency for Jewish converts to “disappear” through intermarriage.

Right. Intermarriage is supposed to even out the Jew and the Greek, but the practical result of this is that the Jew disappears. But I don’t know that that’s how it is always going to be. I do suspect that the Great Tribulation we will eventually face will blur all distinctions among Christians, and possibly even between Christian and Jew – though no one but God can know this. The Antichrist will somehow make all this very simple for us, I suspect.

The Orthodox Church has always been worried about Judaizing. Do you think observance of Jewish practice by Jewish Christians is Judaizing?

It depends on the extent of the practice. Once the synod of Javneh replaced the Sanhedrin, Christians and Jews have gone out of their way to distinguish among themselves. I would not be in favor of undoing some of these distinctions.

One example is changing the weekly fast days to Wednesday and Friday, instead of Monday and Thursday. If someone proposed that we go back to fasting on Monday and Thursday, I would disagree with that. Wednesday and Friday have a theological significance –Wednesday is the day on which Jesus was betrayed, and Friday the day on which the Bridegroom is taken away from us. But then again, I don’t know why anyone would want to go back to that, especially since the Jews themselves no longer keep these fasts. Another example: in the Didache, the Our Father is substituted for the 18 Benedictions used in Jewish prayer (at the same time as the Jews amended the Benedictions to include an explicit curse against the Christians). This was another distinguishing mark that separates the Christian from the Jew. To resurrect such Jewish practices, which were explicitly excluded in the early period, would be a bad idea.

On the otherhand, calling your priest rabbi is not a problem – we know from St. John of Damascus that Christians in the Middle East did that into the 8th century.

But if one were to resurrect the Paschal meal – to celebrate the Passover as Jews do – that would be a problem indeed. The problem is the sacrificial lamb, which is an important part of the ritual. We call the consecrated bread the Lamb – it’s a substitute for the original lamb. The Christian Jews seem to have done away with the Passover lamb early on.

But many Christians do celebrate the Passover.

I used to do that as Episcopalian, as did my whole parish back when it was Protestant. They were winging it, and I made them stop because they were making it up – they wanted to feel like Jews, but there was neither ethnic nor theological basis for what they were doing. I didn’t make them stop keeping Sukkoth in the fall – the weather took care of that.

On the other hand, they never celebrated Hanukkah before I got there, but now we mark it liturgically, and I always preach on Maccabees.

Why Hanukkah?

I think it’s a beautiful feast. Besides, it was never incorporated into the Christian calendar. Almost all the other Jewish feasts were. Rosh Ha-Shana became the Crown of the Year – the start of our liturgical calendar, on September 1st. Yom Kippur became the Feast of the Cross on Sep. 14th, Pascha and Pentecost were preserved. In the West, even Sukkoth was preserved – Danielou talks about that in The Bible and Liturgy. But Hanukkah didn’t make it in.

I keep close tabs on the Jewish calendar. Our Touchstone calendar includes that.

Is there a way to celebrate Passover that is proper for a Christian?

I think we are doing it right with Pascha.

What about the date?

The Council of Nicea in 325 gave a date for Pascha and explicitly excluded adherence to the Jewish calendar. At that time, the Middle Eastern churches still followed the Jewish calendar, and celebrated Pascha on any day of the week that the 14th of Nissan fell on; the Western church insisted that it be on a Sunday. Contemporary Orthodox have reintroduced the idea that we cannot celebrate Pascha until the Jews have celebrated Passover. That’s simply silly; we must either follow the Council or change its decision.

I am tempted to ask also about the day of the Sabbath…

It is clear in the first chapter of Revelation, as well as in 1 Corinthians, that the Sabbath is Sunday. Christians seem to have shifted the Sabbath observance to Sunday as early as the 1st century. But they still observing Sabbath as the day of rest. Incidentally, most members of my parish rest on both Saturday and Sunday in honor of both observances (note: the same, apparently, is done traditionally in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church).

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An Interview with Father Patrick Reardon (Part II)

Continuing the interview from Monday’s post. Last part coming Friday.

In the 20th century, the Catholic Church has given serious thought to its relationship with the Jews and attempted to make amends and articulate a philosemitic theology. What has kept the Orthodox Church from doing likewise?

The short answer is that the Orthodox Church has not yet caught up to the 20th century. Most Orthodox are associated with Russia – the nation with perhaps the most virulent modern history of anti-Semitism – and many of them still want their Czar back.

Orthodox Christians in the Middle East have been dispossessed of their homes by Israelis – this plays a huge role. A recent article of mine in Touchstone caused an Antiochian priest colleague of mine to accuse me of defending the State of Israel – despite the fact that the article did not mention Israel at all, and barely mentioned Jews.

But even for these Middle Eastern Christians, isn’t Islam their traditional enemy – indeed, can’t much of the hardship they have suffered at Israel’s hands be traced back to Muslim provocation? It seems to me that it should not be so predictable that they would pick the anti-Israeli side.

Here I agree with you; it should not be so predictable. The enemy of the Christians in the Middle East has always been the Muslims. But at the same time, the Christians had to band together with the Muslims in several ways throughout history, notably against the Turks.

Also, Christians in the Middle East have had to struggle for survival, and would align themselves with any regime that would protect them.

Not very different from the Jews…

That’s right. In Syria they universally support the Assad government – it is their protection against the Sunni majority. The Christians in Iraq supported Saddam Hussein – he was their protector as well. The same is true in Jordan. So if the Assad government is anti-Israel, which it certainly is, the Christians align themselves against Israel. They had more enlightened leadership in Egypt than in Syria – Mubarak really protected the Christians, now they are killing people and burning churches.

And we can’t forget that Israel itself is not the biggest fan of all things Christian.

Israel’s history is very complex. There are deep fissures in the body politic. The 1967 war marked a big change: from that point on, very few people in the Israeli government were willing to accommodate the Arabs. At the same time, there is no doubt that Israeli Arabs have a much higher standard of living than Arabs anywhere else in the world. It is very complex.

This strikes me as particularly ironic in light of Father James Bernstein’s argument that modern Middle Eastern Christians, particularly in Syria and Palestine, may well be physical descendants of the original Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem.

Fr. Bernstein’s book is the only one I’m familiar with on this topic. But his thesis is very plausible.

I don’t think Middle Eastern Christians are aware of this hypothesis. I suspect my own archdiocese is not that familiar with Bernstein’s thesis (note: even though Fr. Bernstein is himself part of the Antiochian jurisdiction).

Do you see a way forward for the Orthodox Church on this issue of its stance toward the Jews?

The mechanisms for it are there. But anti-Semitism is a very severe heresy. As Fr. Hopko would say, the disappearance of heresy often requires a sufficient number of funerals. I identified it as a heresy in my article on Marcion, which was published in our archdiocesan journal, Again Magazine, ten or twelve years ago. People read it, but there was not much reaction. Nobody took the trouble to disagree with me. It did not strike people at the level where recognition of the problem could take place.

I certainly don’t anticipate any steps toward a resolution or even admission of an anti-Semitic problem in the Russian Church in my lifetime. We still have a lot of work to do.

It seems to me that anti-Semitism these days often masquerades as condemnation of Israel’s policies. There is of course a legitimate place for disagreement with what Israel does as a nation, but the lines begin to blur when its very right to exist is questioned, I think.

I would agree with that.

Now I should note that, in my parish for example, there is very little awareness of this as a problem. My parishioners don’t have a trace of anti-Semitism; many of them are pro-Israel, though that’s because they are Republicans rather than because they are Orthodox Christians.

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An Interview with Father Patrick Reardon (Part I)

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of speaking with Father Patrick Reardon – an Orthodox priest and scholar, editor of Touchstone magazine, and former Trappist monk no doubt familiar to many of you. I will post the interview here in three installments, of which this is the first.

Father Patrick, you write a good amount, in Touchstone and elsewhere, about the Jews – their role in Scripture and in the Church. What is the nature of your interest in this topic?

I have, and always had, an enormous interest in everything Jewish. I subscribe to the Jewish Review of Books and several other Jewish magazines. I’m always keeping an eye on what is happening within the Jewish world.

I think this interest comes from a deep, subterranean need. I grew up during the Shoah and learned about it when I was quite young. It left a profound mark on me; I felt an enormous sorrow for the plight of the Jews in the modern world. It’s a deep emotion with me that’s hard to explain. When I was young, I taught myself Hebrew. I use it to read the Bible; for the Mishnah and Talmud, I have to rely heavily on translations.

I know there is a deeper theology of the Jewish people – Romans 11 is one of the passages that makes it clear. I know that, but I am myself unable to read the signs. Several decades ago I read a book called My People, My Land, which draws attention to the Prophets, with their emphasis on justice, and argues that the state of Israel should be the fulfillment of the prophetic word: a model for how to treat the poor and the dispossessed. He was critical of the state of Israel, where he saw oppression of parts of the population. That led me to start thinking of Israel as a state that had to prove itself as a model of justice. But by now I have lost all faith in Israel’s ability to prove itself in this way. I see events there going in a very tragic direction; it appears to me now that the state of Israel is in great danger, set up for an even worse Shoah. Sometimes the situation appears to me to be hopeless.

I have a love for the Jews in principle, and I’ve found it very easy to love the Jews I’ve gotten to know. I love the Jews particularly because of Jesus and His mother and the apostles. I know that God can raise up children for himself out of stones; in fact I am one of the stones. But if we truly believe in the incarnational principle, it appears to me that there should be a great love for the Jews within the Christian tradition. I think God is still speaking to us through the Jews – which is why I try to stay abreast of the news. But I am not sure what He is saying.

I keep coming back to the social teaching of the Prophets and the Wisdom literature. A colossal breakthrough was made in the 8th century BC: the writings of the Prophets, unlike the Torah, were directed to all people, not only to Israel. You can see that in Amos, verse 4, for example. And if this is true of the Prophets (nevi’im), isn’t it true of the Wisdom literature (ketuvim) – do we not see there a response to other schools of thought in the Middle East? The Wisdom literature is a very explicit effort to dialogue with the wisdom traditions of Egypt and Babylon; in the case of Ecclesiasticus, also with Greece.

I’ve published commentaries on Job and Ecclesiasticus, and will probably publish more if the Lord gives me a few more years to live. I believe that, seen from a Christian perspective, we have in Ecclesiasticus a real, definitive step toward the Incarnation. He is writing in the 2nd century BC, at the height of the prevalence of a politicized Greek philosophy; yet his attitude is so different from both the Maccabees and Daniel, of whom he is a contemporary. In Job, we see the writer coming to grips with various cosmologies, represented by Job’s three comforters – they are spokesmen for schools of thought in the Middle East. These writings appeal little to the Torah, and more to God’s law written on man’s heart – Amos, in particular, doesn’t cite the teachings of Torah at all when he criticizes the brutal practices of pagans. There is a universalism to the Prophets. Contemporary Jewish moralists make a great deal of this, and are right to do so.

Thus Jewish thought is addressed specifically to the Gentiles. This phenomenon has not been explored yet. I see the prophets and the wisdom literature as the link prior to Jesus between Hebraic thought and the rest of the world. Even if you take Jesus out of the equation, there would be an enormous existential link between the prophetic literature and the rest of world culture. This link started with the Septuagint. Amos would never have agreed that the Prophets were written for the Jewish people only. He had some terrible things to say about both Israel and Judah. In the very first sections, it is as if he draws an X through the four corners of the Holy Land.

I know you don’t mean to imply this conclusion, but one could see how this point may be used to support replacement theology, the claim that God has rejected the Jews.

The idea that God had rejected the Jews is heresy. They will be God’s children forever. Anyone who says God has rejected the Jews is a heretic.

What about the wording in some of our Holy Week services, regarding God’s curse of the “Hebrew race”?

I don’t particularly like the wording of these services. But in all fairness it must be pointed out that it’s not any stronger than anything in the Gospel of John and in the writings of Paul. Of course they are allowed to say anything they want, because they are Jews themselves. It’s like me telling Irish jokes. Paul says some awfully sarcastic and nasty things about Jews, but his love for them is explicitly stated and indisputable. To raise these statements to the status of metaphysical truths about the Jewish people is completely wrong.

Why, then, has the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Jews been so fraught?

The Orthodox Church is a crazy mixed-place, more crazy and mixed-up than any other place in the world. Only Rome is comparable. Everything we could have done wrong, we’ve done wrong, and nowhere more so than in our treatment of the Jews. I can’t understand how any Jew joins the Orthodox Church. It’s a marvel of God’s grace.

Why? Because of the sin in every man’s heart. Or perhaps because the Church began its life by being expelled from the synagogue. Later the early Christians wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the revolution of Bar-Kokhba – claiming not to be part of it, not to be Jews.

In the most extreme form, there was Marcion – he believed the Jews worshipped an altogether different God. That thesis was condemned. However, after the edict of Milan in the 4th century, when the Christians came into power, many of them wanted to get back at the Jews and make their lives difficult. The Church was very preoccupied with doctrinal questions at the time, and did not pay enough attention to moral issues. People like Ambrose and John Chrysostom turned a blind eye to the burning of synagogues.

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The Minority Report

Not to make too stark a transition from babies to homosexuals, but – I really liked what Eve Tushnet wrote in response to the question of why, as a Catholic faithful to Church teaching, she continues to self-identify as gay.

Replace “gay” with “Jewish” in several paragraphs, and Eve’s text may sound familiar to readers of this blog. Which is not to say that the story of every minority in the Church is the same story. But there is a shared story of simply being a minority, specifically one with a strong sense of identity – reinforced by society, or history, or family. That story is worth telling, and Eve tells it well.

For some reason I can’t figure out how to link just to the relevant post, so here goes the whole text:

I was kind of startled that the “Why do you identify as ‘gay’?” question didn’t come up in Denver. Possibly that’s just because I talked way too long, so the q&a was cut short. Anyway my impression is that lots of people, both straight and not-so-much, really want to know about this question. I don’t know if I understand the question too well since it isn’t one which has ever exercised me–but here’s where my thinking is right now, on what some people may be hearing when I say I’m gay and what I’m actually saying. (A previous post on this subject, written in a sort of galumphing-drunken-elephant style, is here.)

First, I think for some people taking on a gay identity is seen as setting up a competing community to the Church, which commands our loyalties in the way only Christ should. It’s seen as surrender to something other than Christ. I’m sympathetic to this since I do think our surrender to Christ must be total and unique, and it’s obvious that other communities and identity groups can compete with that surrender. The most obvious example for me is nationality: It’s clear that one’s self-concept as an American can compromise one’s identity as a Christian.

And yet when somebody says he’s Greek, the response of the non-Greek Christians around him isn’t immediately to respond, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek!” and to assume compromised faith on his part. There’s an understanding that national identity both must and can be taken lightly, considered as a part of one’s situation rather than a warped lens through which the Gospel is distorted. (The majority of people to whom I describe myself as “gay” view that identity the same way. They don’t actually perceive any contradiction–they might see an added and maybe weird difficulty, but not an internal contradiction–in saying that I’m gay and celibate.)

Second, “gay” describes a community (or really, a big, contradictory, feisty tussle of communities) and a relationship to that community, and if you don’t have any notable or positive relationship to that community then that is a fact about you which presumably would lead you to identify differently. My sense is that people who have had very little experience with gay communities, or whose experiences have been largely negative, are a lot more likely to identify as “same-sex attracted” and resist identifying as gay. My own relationship to queer communities has been important to me, largely positive, and characterized by belonging, and that’s what I mean when I say I’m gay.

But there really are no terms which don’t in some way mark out a community. “Same-sex attracted” is identity-jargon too, delineating a specific way of understanding one’s eros: a new way, a way which would be as difficult to explain to St. Aelred (for example) as “gay.”

I’ve written before (from a somewhat different perspective than the one I have now) about my coming-out process: that click of recognition, the key turning in the lock. I thought at the time that my alienation was explained by my sexual orientation. “Oh, so that’s all it was!” That turns out to be only partly true–my alienation stems really from the Fall, not from being queer, but queerness is one way I’ve experienced a heightened or stylized version of that universal alienation. That experience was really important to me–and, ultimately, important to my conversion to Catholicism. Explaining it without “self-identifying” as queer would feel really artificial and strained.

Similarly, look, I was a pretty self-centered kid. I don’t know how much progress I’ve made there, but I know that gay and queer communities were among the places where I learned to try to listen to other people, admit my own faults and blind spots, and generally be more giving and less awful. I’ve said before that I was a better girlfriend to girls than to guys and I expect that’s related to my self-identification as well: “Gay” names a place where I became a somewhat better person. I want to honor the people who put up with me.

My sense is that if you’re Christian and you’ve had experiences like these, you’re more likely to self-identify as gay, and if you haven’t, you’re more likely to self-identify as same-sex attracted. (Although for a contrasting perspective, see here.)

Also, notice the real but limited role played by sexual desire in this description. “Because I’m gay” I’ve been sexually drawn to women; but also, “because I’m gay” I’ve felt intense difference from those around me, felt recognition and a sort of exhilaration when I found writers and musicians and artists who described queer experience, felt a need to be of service to women, and been a part of various communities which shaped me. Collapsing all of these elements of my “gay experience” into wanting to have gay sex seems to me to be a misunderstanding of eros–and a willful erasure of every possible element of gay experience which might form part of a positive path toward Christ and conversion. It seems like a demand that the path from the gay community to Christ must be a path of rejection rather than reunderstanding.

Christianity has always confronted specific communities which were held together by elements which seemed inimical to the Gospel. One major response has been to identify the “unknown gods” in those communities, the places where their own self-understandings indicated a longing for Christ. The community could then be baptized rather than rejected or destroyed. One reason I really loved Frederick W. Roden’s Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture is that he talks about the ways in which the cultures and communities which eventually transformed into “gay culture” had intrinsic affinities for Catholic faith. It’s obvious to me how my eros could be baptized, and I’ve written about that stuff a lot here.

Third, I persist in thinking that the tangle of experiences we’ve decided to call “being gay” is interesting. I’ve said, cattily, that I oppose gay marriage because I think homosexuality is interesting rather than banal. A lot of the “don’t identify as gay” stuff seems to me to be an attempt to gloss over real differences in experience, to pretend that homosexuality makes no important difference in one’s life path as a Christian in contemporary society. That seems to me to be an effort to understand gay difference and gay experience as banal. (“I’m not married, so I have to be chaste too! Our situations are just the same. So why are you acting like you’re different and special?” No. Our situations may have important lessons for one another. Your situation may be harder than mine in various ways, e.g. I don’t sit up nights wondering why I haven’t found a nice girl to marry me. But solidarity requires acknowledgment of difference, not suppression of it.)

And finally, “gay” is a blunt term, a quick tabloid kind of term, garish and in-your-face. I like that in a girl!

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Jews, Christians, and Babies

The secular culture would like us to believe that the Christian opposition to abortion is just another one of those strange, misogynistic,  anti-scientific hang-ups of the Church. This view has always seemed to me thoroughly contrived: how can a position that denies the right of the weakest and smallest members of society to protection, making them subject to the whims of adults, be anything other than unnatural and barbaric?

But it’s worth pointing out that the secularists have a point. Opposition to abortion is, in fact, highly peculiar to Christianity. The March/April issue of Touchstone Magazine opened with an editorial by Allan Carlson exploring Christian attitudes toward fertility. Carlson writes:

While their pagan neighbors practiced contraception, abortion, and infanticide, allowed for easy divorce, and had a preponderance of males (due to female infanticide), the new Christian movement strongly opposed abortion and infanticide, discouraged birth control and divorce, and had a high proportion of members who were women in their fertile years. Religious sociologist Rodney Stark concludes that “a nontrivial portion of Christian growth was due to superior fertility.”

Routinized infanticide practices in pre-Christian Greece and Rome have been well-documented, as has child sacrifice in much of the Mediterranean. Christian opposition to the destruction of children, both born and unborn, was seen as strange and barbaric in Rome – just as it is today in supposedly enlightened Western societies.

For those of you who, like me, are willing to settle for a low bar of scholarship, this Wikipedia article provides a detailed review of the topic. Significantly, the article highlights:

Judaism prohibits infanticide, and has for some time, dating back to at least early Common Era. Roman historians wrote about the ideas and customs of other peoples, which often diverged from their own. Tacitus recorded that the Jews “regard it as a crime to kill any late-born children.”

And we don’t really need Wikipedia: All we need is the book of Genesis. When God stayed Abraham’s knife from the neck of his son Isaac, what was His message? That He is merciful to those who obey Him; that He will provide His own Lamb as sacrifice for the sins of His people. But we must also recall that the nations among whom Abraham lived sacrificed their children to their gods; thus it was probably little surprise to him when he was asked to bring Isaac to the altar. Was not what ensued the perfect way to make clear that the God of Israel, unlike the bloodthirsty idols of the pagans, did not desire the blood of children, and would not see their blood spilled?And if it is not fit to take away a child’s life for God’s sake, how can it be fit to take it away for any other reason?

The same Wikipedia article points out that the first Roman philosopher to speak out against it was Philo of Alexandria. Whether or not he was indeed first, Philo – for all his stature as a Roman philosopher – was a Jew.

Of course Jews are not just opposed to killing babies: They are famously philoprogenitive. (Isn’t that a great word? It means “loving of offspring.”) Big, warm families are a distinguishing mark of Orthodox Jewish communities.

The pro-life stance of Christians – both early and modern, both Jewish and Gentile –  may be one of the most powerful practical ways in which they have remained connected to a distinctly Jewish heritage.

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Israel Writes a Great Letter

I have been experiencing some serious writer’s-block, trying to come up with my first post after more than a month-long absence. Then the Israeli government (or was it the police department?) did something so priceless that I figured I don’t even have to write anything. Only direct your attention to this.

Whatever you think about the prudence of deporting the pro-Palestinian activists set to fly into Israel and, supposedly, engage in peaceful collaboration with Palestinian citizens and groups, you have to admit this letter is awesome:

“Dear activist,

We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns. We know there were many other worthy choices.”

A great little chapter in that never-ending series, Funny Jews Against Serious Anti-Semitism.

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The Bread of Affliction

This post is a little past its proper time, since everyone celebrated both Easter and Passover two weeks ago, and even the Orthodox finally got around to it last week on our crazy calendar. (Disclaimer: Nothing I say about the Julian-Gregorian calendar disputes should be taken as a statement of strongly held opinion or expertise. Full stop.) So it’s a little late to be reflecting on Lent. But since I spent Lent and Pascha running crazily back and forth between my office and Lenten and Paschal services, I’m only getting around to it now, and shamelessly expect your forgiveness. Here goes.

I’ve never been able to fully grasp the significance of eating matzah during the weeks of Passover. Granted, this may have a little something to do with the fact that I have celeac disease and pretty much never have any bread in the house, whether leavened or unleavened, nor can I actually eat the matzah when the time comes. But beyond that, the eating of crummy-tasting bread to remind us of the crummy-tasting bread our ancestors ate in the desert never struck me as particularly symbolically powerful – especially since the food of real import in the desert was manna, not matzah.

This year, we got together with some friends, also of partly Jewish ancestry, for a Passover seder. As we were working our way through the Haggadah (courtesy of the AHC), I found myself reflecting for the first time on the fact that matzah is referred to as “the bread of affliction” – the bread that had to be cooked quickly and any-which-way, without leavening, because the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, pushed by fear of the Pharaoh and pulled by fear of God Almighty.

The reason it drew my attention was because – with Passover falling just before the start of Holy Week this year – I was getting really, really tired of Lent. The traditional Orthodox fast has been getting harder for me the last couple of years, especially as I’ve lost weight; plus I’m one of those people who just really, really like red meat. I may not have been eating bread, but I sure felt like my daily meals were consisting largely of vegetables of affliction.

The eating of matzah and the Lenten fast have in common precisely this matter of affliction. The bread of affliction is not just a reminder of what happened in Egypt several thousand years ago, an object lesson of the kind elementary school teachers like to come up with for their charges. The two  both point to the spiritual truth that freedom – from the oppression of Egypt as well as the oppression of sin – cannot be gained without the suffering of the body.

In the celebration of Passover, the fast begins after the feast – the eating of matzah is inaugurated at the seder and continues for two weeks afterward. The feast refreshes and the fast supports the national memory. But in the Christian tradition the fast comes first, and the Feast is the fulfillment and reward of the labor of its spiritual discipline. Our diet of affliction is ended and reconciled (and just to make sure we get the point, we eat lots of meat and cheese non-stop for an entire week after Pascha). That of the Jews remains unresolved – but until when?

(On a completely unrelated note, Planet Money did a great short podcast entitled “The Matzo Economy”… check it out.)

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Christ is Risen!

Christ is risen! A most glorious Pascha to all of you!

(Particularly to those of you who are still checking this blog despite my now weeks-long failure to post anything at all… thank you for your kindness!)

I will emerge from the black hole known as Big Conference Deadline, in which I have been and continue to be held captive, barred from any activity other than eating, sleeping, and drawing Power Point Slides, at the beginning of May. The blog will then rise from the dead – maybe not quite trampling down death by death and upon those in the toms bestowing life – but certainly benefiting from said trampling and bestowing, and ready for action. It will arise and its enemies shall perish, and those who hate it (my employers) will flee from before its face.

In the meantime, please respond to my request!

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What The Other Jews Think

Without trying (as far as I know), last week the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary captured the reason for this blog’s existence. In an article arguing that Rick Santorum’s agreement to speak before a Messianic congregation will further alienate Jewish voters, Jonathan Tobin writes:

Messianics, like the better-known group that calls themselves Jews for Jesus, are ardent supporters of the Jewish state and wanted Santorum to speak at their event because of his pro-Israel views. But Christians who may be puzzled by any Jewish resentment about his appearance need to understand two things about this controversy. The first is that the only one thing upon which virtually all Jews — no matter where they stand on the religious or political spectrum — agree on is that belief in Jesus makes a person a Christian rather than a Jew.

Does belief in Jesus make a person a Christian rather than a Frenchman? Does lack of belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make a person an atheist rather than a Jew?

…almost all Jews view Messianic campaigns to target them for conversion to Christianity — which are integral to the beliefs of these groups —as insidious efforts to undermine their survival as a community.

Apparently not even Santorum’s ardent support for Israel can make up for the crime of associating with the evil Messianics whose goal of eliminating the Jewish nation are really just like Hitler’s (okay, I might be going overboard here – or am I?). But is the JewBu movement (however you spell that) seen by Jews as equally insidious? What about Jewish Communist movements, which are (and always have been) predominantly anti-religious – do they undermine Jews as a community, according toCommentary’s assumed audience?

I’m going to guess that Tobin’s answer to all of these questions will be ‘no,’ and that like many others, he would have a tough time reconciling that with his idea about what “virtually all Jews” agree on. If you push it, he might say something about Christian anti-Semitism, but he’ll have a tough time explaining why Communist anti-Semitism or far-right anti-Semitism don’t make it impossible for Jews to be either Communists or far-rightists.

But there is one way, albeit a somewhat superficial one, in which these seemingly inconsistent views do make sense. A Jewish Buddhist or a Jewish Communist may still avoid eating pork, study Hebrew, and surround himself with Jewish paraphernalia; he or she may even take the trouble to mark the Sabbath and other holidays. If the JewBu or JewComm community is big enough, chances are that person might even marry Jewish, and feel good about it. On the Christian side, on the other hand, for 2000 years the Jews have seen Jewish identity and customs disappearing almost immediately after baptism – whether because the Church actively prohibited them, or because it provided enough customs of its own that both could not be maintained, or, finally, because the very reason baptism was sought had to do with disassociating from Jewish society. This, of course, is the reason why the Jewish Christian witness is so important (and why I wish more of it came from non-Messianic groups).

It also strikes me that the Jewish reaction to Messianics is similar to the Orthodox (particularly Russian) reaction to Eastern Catholics: denial and resentment. Jews hate and fear Messianics more than they dislike Christians, and Orthodox disdain Eastern Catholics more than they disagree with Catholicism. Theological disagreements, it seems to me, cannot fully explain the depth of this resentment. Both sentiments are based on a profound conviction that the renegade group is attempting to create compromise where no compromise ought to be possible, thus putting into question the assumptions on which the entire identity of the group – Jews or Orthodox – has been based for generations.

On a final note – perhaps I’m not giving Tobin enough credit. I’m hoping that he might provide a thoughtful response to similar questions that have been raised in the article’s combox – one of them citing Michael Medved‘s thoughtful writings on this point in the same magazine.

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Anniversary!

I am very pleased to announce that today marks one year since I started writing this blog.

The idea of the blog came to me when I was visiting Israel, right at this time last year, for the occasion of my grandfather’s 90th birthday. I was experiencing the usual awkwardness of such visits – going to holy sites and trying to pray in-between family functions, while also maintaining strict secrecy about my Christian identity with my grandfather and most close relatives. I realized just how deeply the distaste of the Jews for Christianity was affecting me: it was as if a part of me hated myself on behalf of the Jews.But then I had a sudden realization: No one was more Jewish than Jesus and his disciples. In Israel, this can be felt strongly. So why was I letting secular Jews and those practicing Judaism define for me what it meant to be a Jew, such that I found myself internalizing their emotional stance regarding Christianity in a profoundly self-destructive way?

These thoughts, I am sure, are not news to anyone reading this blog, but they were fresh to me at the time, and spurred me to action. I wanted to help myself and others break out of this stifling definition and hold up a witness, however small, for the possibility of a genuinely, tangibly Jewish Christianity.

Since then, I’ve not only had a chance to develop my own thinking on the topic, but – much more importantly – get to know a number of you (in cyber-speak, that is). Thanks to everyone who has left thoughtful comments, and particularly to those who’ve reached out to communicate with me over e-mail, or responded to my e-mails. A couple of you I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting in person! All of this has been really fun for me, and I hope that we can continue getting to know each other and build our online Christian-Jewish community.

To which end, I’d like to toss a question out for everyone: What would you like to see on this blog in the coming weeks and months? What are some topics you’d like me to explore (or would like to explore yourself in a guest post)? Are there any interesting people that you’d like me to interview (and if so, can you help me get in touch with them)? Any other ideas (like a survey I could do, or a “top ten list”, or something interactive)?

Please leave comments with your ideas, or e-mail me at my personal address: loksman1 at gmail dot com.

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