Singing Songs in a Strange Land

Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at¬†Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland. ¬†I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s¬†Exodus¬†(he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town. ¬†I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way,¬†spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.

5116a2dd8cff4_71360bThe theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’‚ÄĒthose who hid Jews and¬†aided their escape from the Shoah.¬†I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but ¬†my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape. ¬†Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.

It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their¬†mitzvah project, children whose¬†life was cut short by the¬†Shoah.¬†A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we¬†still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.

After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.

Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants,¬†and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish,¬†but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews. ¬†Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler‚ÄĒa woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto‚ÄĒwas responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important. ¬†I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday¬†feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.

It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world.  If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.

X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

‚ÄúJesus replied, ‚ÄúThe one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.‚ÄĚ (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

‚ÄúMy prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.‚ÄĚ (John 17:20‚Äď21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,¬†¬†on the other hand, is the opposite: a love¬†for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs. ¬†In the Christian tradition, we call this¬†welcoming the stranger.¬†The¬†Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within¬†the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc). ¬†The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of¬†xenophilia¬†is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still¬†he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene¬†demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem.¬†These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a¬†stranger¬†in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend,¬†The friend¬†who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s¬†message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the¬†welcome of strangers¬†and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey? ¬†How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s¬†Making Room,¬†Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at¬†a¬†good news¬†moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time¬†to demonstrate the love of Christ to all¬†those not like us.¬†

An Exodus to Freedom: a book review

As I write this, we are at the beginning of Passover, a celebration of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the beginning of their long sojourn to the Promised Land. Israel’s Exodus wasn’t just its liberation of Egypt, but it encompassed the forty-year wilderness journey with forty-two different campsites and G-d’s covenant with Israel at Sinai. ¬†Both Christians and Jews read the Torah, and the Exodus story, ¬†as Scripture, looking for what deeper meaning it has for life. Christians describe Jesus as our Passover lamb and appropriate Jewish traditions of liberation and salvation. Unfortunately, we haven’t often paused to listen to how Jewish interpreters understand our shared scriptural tradition.

reimagining-exodus  Rabbi David Zaslow is no stranger to the interfaith discussion. His award-winning book, Jesus First Century Rabbi, explored the Christian gospel from a Jewish perspective (I review that book here). As the synagogue leader of Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon (not too far away from my home in Medford), workshop leader and media pundit, he has deepened the dialogue between Jews and Christians.

His newest book, Reimaging the Exodus: A Story of Freedom builds a bridge between Judaism and Christianity while respecting the unique features of both religious traditions.  Zaslow happily notes the common themes of Passover and the cross, Exodus and Easter. Yet, he also notes ways in which Christians have bowdlerized the Jewish tradition with a replacement theology that demeans the sacred history of the Hebrew Bible.

Zaslow’s book divides into five parts (so did his last book. Self-conscious¬†patterning after the Torah?). Each section is distinct in style and purpose. In part one, Zaslow describes the significance of the Exodus for the Jewish tradition‚ÄĒG-d’s liberation of Israel and their forty-year, two-hundred-mile journey, learning to walk in freedom. Part two offers a Midrashic interpretation of twenty passages from the Torah (mostly drawn from Exodus, but also Numbers and Deuteronomy). Zaslow’s commentary on the passages is scholarly and rich, but suggestive and evocative. Part three explores the common themes and key differences between a Jewish understanding of Exodus and the Christian Easter. Part four discusses in more detail the ways Christians (and Jews) have historically appropriated and misappropriated the tradition to justify various agendas (i.e. Puritans settling the New World, American Colonialism, the American Revolution against British Tyranny, Civil War Southern’s against the North, ¬†Mormons, Civil Rights advocates, etc). Part five has personal stories (and a poem) of¬†where Zaslow has seen Exodus reimagined in interfaith contexts (including an interfaith Good Friday service with a Portland synagogue, and stories from a model seder Zaslow leads in a Catholic parish).

Zaslow¬†has an irenic nature and looks for ways that Christians and Jews can connect with each other and find common spiritual ground. He is respectful of what is distinctive in Christian theology and practice, but he is not afraid to offer a sharp critique of Christian supersessionism and replacement theology. Too many Christians have treated the¬†Old Testament¬†and Jewish Tradition as a mere prequel¬†and failed to listen to the insights of Judaism. In Zaslow’s early book (Jesus First Century Rabbi) he engaged the Christian gospel traditions. This book¬†invites Christians to a similar engagement with Judaism. Beyond just mining the text for Christological insights, the Exodus has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human and to be spiritual. Rabbi Zaslow’s evocative Midrash reveals as much.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christians, Jews and those who are spiritual but don’t sit easily in either world. ¬†Zaslow invites us to a journey toward freedom, ” Just as the Exodus began with a catastrophe of enslavement but led to a great redemption, so we pray to God that the catastrophes of our own era are merely preludes to an even greater redemption and the liberation of all humanity as well as the planet” (33). ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Winner, Winner Kosher Dinner: a book review

My introduction to Lauren Winner’s writing came more than a decade ago. My wife had read and liked Girl Meets God¬†and loved it. I picked up her¬†other¬†book,¬†Mudhouse Sabbath¬†because I loved the premise. Winner’s turn toward God took her through Orthodox Judaism to Christianity (the story recounted in her first memoir).¬†Mudhouse Sabbath¬†was about the nourishing spiritual practices she found in Judaism and missed after her conversion to Christianity. She wrote appreciatively about what she found in Judaism and how these practices continued to nourish her, and weren’t incompatible with her new faith.

Paraclete Press has just released the study edition of¬†Mudhouse Sabbath.¬†This is not a rewrite. The chapters have the same format as they did when Winner first conceived the book. ¬†In Winner’s new introduction she notes a couple of places where she would now¬†write it differently, especially in her failure to explore God’s justice and her expectation of encountering Him as we work toward it (viii). ¬†For example, the practice of fasting and Sabbath have implications for justice in the Hebrew scriptures which Winner left unexplored in the earlier edition (ix-x). She also acknowledges her growing cautiousness about borrowing from Judaism as a Christian (urging humility and grace).

The difference between this edition and its earlier incarnation (other than the new introduction) is the study notes. Winner’s words remain the same but the chapters are peppered with quotations, selections from Jewish authors and Hebrew scripture and discussion questions. While Winner’s original was thoughtful and engaged Judaism, it was much more a personal reflection on how she¬†as a Christian convert¬†could still appropriate these practices as part of her own¬†spiritual life. That was the charm of the book. The study edition helps Christian readers engage these concepts and practices more thoughtfully for themselves.

Personally I like this edition a lot. It is possible to treat this book like the original, reading the main body of text as an exhortation to beef up your personal spiritual practices. But a study edition invites you into something more demanding and rewarding. The first edition was more privatized. This edition invites engagement. I gave the original four stars once upon a time, this I give five. Christian readers will find a deep well of spiritual practice. Jewish readers may find a book from a Christian borrowing from their traditions off-putting, but will be put at ease by the care and sensitivity with which Winner engages their religious tradition.  If you never read the original, skip it. This is the definitive edition.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.