Thursday, September 03, 2009


When I was in junior high, I met with a group of girls and my youth director on Wednesday nights for Bible study and some other weekday morning to go out to breakfast before school. When I needed to, my youth director helped me tell them that my dad was going to prison. She then asked if they wanted to pray for me. I have such a vivid memory of being tucked up on this old wooden chair with arms that had been repainted yellow in the basement of the chapel, feeling so vulnerable and angry and worn out from weeping. They all put a hand on me somewhere and I can still recreate the view in my mind as I looked up through all of their arms and bodies while each prayed for me.

In high school, our confirmation ceremony involved a laying-on of hands and I remember that PC, who had worked with our youth group so much but who was dying of cancer stood behind me and put her hand on my shoulder that was bared by the new sundress my mom had bought for the occasion.

Last Sunday, I had an aufruf at church and Jacob and I sponsored the regular potluck afterwards by bringing kosher meat for the grill and pareve side dishes. At the end of the ceremony, Nanette encouraged the community to surround Jacob and I and to lay their hands on us and to pray for us. I tried to focus on being in the now, but the memories of the two other important intercessory prayers kept creeping in. Despite that, I was deeply moved, maybe because I felt just as worn out and exhausted as I did that Wednesday night in the youth lounge.

I wrote out the text of my reflection and read from it, apologizing that I had not had time to familiarize myself with it in order to deliver it in a conversational way while making eye contact for emphasis. Everyone seemed cool with it. :-) This is the text I delivered with a few things changed since I've had time to think about it.

Most of you know that I am marrying a Jewish man while I am a practicing Chrisitian. Jewish tradition holds that a member of the community who is getting married during the week following a particular Sabbath is honored by being allowed to read the scriptures and to give a brief reflection. This is called an aufruf. Most Jewish faith communities have a proscribed schedule for which scripture gets read on a given week, so a person’s “Torah portion” is kind of a crap-shoot.

Because my faith community is so important, I asked my pastor, Nanette, and the worship committee if I could have my own aufruf at Wicker Park Grace. To reflect the tradition of the Torah portion, I’ve used the Revised Common Lectionary, which fulfills a similar purpose for Protestant Christian faith communities.

As luck would have it, the assigned Old Testament scripture for August 30 is an underhand pitch of a piece of scripture:

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (The Message)

The Woman

8-10 Look! Listen! There's my lover!
Do you see him coming?
Vaulting the mountains,
leaping the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle, graceful;
like a young stag, virile.
Look at him there, on tiptoe at the gate,
all ears, all eyes—ready!
My lover has arrived
and he's speaking to me!

The Man

10-14 Get up, my dear friend,
fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Look around you: Winter is over;
the winter rains are over, gone!
Spring flowers are in blossom all over.
The whole world's a choir—and singing!
Spring warblers are filling the forest
with sweet arpeggios.
Lilacs are exuberantly purple and perfumed,
and cherry trees fragrant with blossoms.
Oh, get up, dear friend,
my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Come, my shy and modest dove—
leave your seclusion, come out in the open.
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice.
For your voice is soothing
and your face is ravishing.

Perfect for a wedding, right? Listen to the barely contained excitement of the woman awaiting her man: “My lover has arrived and is speaking to me!” Who doesn’t like to be reminded of times when we’ve felt like nothing else mattered but the attention of the person we are infatuated with? Then, the passage goes on to describe the man’s attempt to persuade the woman that she should do the scary thing and leave the safety of the life she’s always known and join him “out in the open.” I have never denied that getting married again scares the hell out of me. I mean, I know more than most that there is no guarantee. You can never know someone well enough to know for certain that he will want to do the hard work of staying compatible ‘til death do you part. I have needed a little persuading, needing to be told that my voice is soothing and my face is ravishing.

So, a perfect verse for a wedding aufruf, right? I mean there’s that gag-me-flowers-puppies-and-sunshine stuff in the middle but we can all publicly laugh at that with ironic cynicism and know that it’s OK that we secretly nurse a hope that someone will think we are the Spring that banishes their Winter.

It’s a perfect verse but as I read it and re-read it, I was not quite content. It was too easy. Building community requires being open to each other and this easy verse wouldn’t allow me to do that fully. So, I read some of the other options in the Lectionary, which also provides a designated psalm, New Testament epistle and Gospel reading. As I continued reading, the Gospel lesson tugged as my heart. It is such a difficult passage for Jacob and me in our endeavor to create a life where our two different faith traditions are compatible. Because Wicker Park Grace is a place where to which people feel safe enough to bring their whole selves, I chose to speak on this passage to talk a little bit about how I resolve some of the apparent conflicts to our interfaith life.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (NIV)

Clean and Unclean
1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"
6He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'”
17After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18"Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? 19For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")
20He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' 21For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "


When I read this passage, it seems to me like Jesus is saying, “You know those things that Jews do that help them identify as a distinct community of people? You don’t really have to do them. In fact, they get in the way of doing what God wants you to do.”

Harsh. Especially for an interfaith couple that keeps kosher, the practice of eating only “clean” foods, as directed in the Torah.

Last week we studied a passage similar to this and, in fact, for the past several months we have been studying Acts, the book in the Bible that describes in painstaking detail how people who followed God by following the teachings of Jesus separated themselves from the people who followed God through Jewish practices by changing their habits, loosening lifestyle restrictions and including the Gentiles as part of the club.

Separation is hard. Remember adolescence? So many of us needed to declare that our parents’ beliefs –about our hair, about our friends, about God – were wrong in order to clear out the space that surrounded us. Once we had that space, we were free to determine for ourselves what we believed and wanted from life. Often, the process wasn’t black and white and our parents (sometimes rightly) insisted on maintaining closeness. Sometimes shouting ensued.

Jacob and I stopped coming to services at WPG recently because Acts is full of this kind of separation pain and reading about and discussing that pain makes us fight. For instance, Stephen is a real jerk about it, comparing the Jewish people who he had been trying to convert to the Jews in history who had turned away from God, like with the golden calf. Is Jesus being a similar jerk? Is he saying that if I want to follow him, I can’t keep kosher?

These kinds of passages make Jacob and I fight because they seem to be saying that we have to choose one side or another. Either you keep kosher dietary restrictions or you don’t. Either you follow Jesus or you don’t. And if you are going to be a couple traveling the same path, you both must choose the same things. But conversion for either of us means living a life trying to talk to God in a language that is not the one we were born into and neither of us could do that. And yet, we love each other. More than that, we have the ability to make each other’s lives better. It is like “The whole world's a choir—and singing!” when we live our lives together.

We have spent the last year hashing out whether or not there was a third option. Could we both continue to claim our separate faith identity while still being full partners in life, including raising children? We have decided that we can. However, this truth is still tender and vulnerable. We are still liable to lash out, or crawl inside of ourselves or get stuck in a bout of melancholy when someone challenges our resolve.

But when I look a little deeper, I don’t believe that Jesus is testing our resolve. I think that Jesus is manifesting one of the most Jewish characteristics: iconoclasm. The midrash - which is a collection of stories told by rabbis to help explain the scriptures – describes Abraham, who was considered the first Jew, smashing the stone and clay idols in his father’s shop with a hammer. This is iconoclasm: destroying idols. Worshipping god and nothing else is the first commandment handed down to the Jews by Moses at Mt. Sinai. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

And what do we like to worship most? Personally, the idol I worship most often is my own life. I love looking at my own Facebook profile and reading my own blog posts after I have posted them. When I got my yearbooks in high school, I looked up my picture first. When people intrude upon my plans and interrupt my routines, I get upset and whine: “Is she going to be there?” “Do we have to leave so early?” I gather possessions around me and tell myself I’m special because I’ve made just the right choice, finding the perfect item for $1.50 at the thrift store or priding myself on going without things that others believe are necessary.

These habits and choices are no different than the hand-washing rituals that Jesus condemns. Again and again, the scriptures tell us that the way to worship God is to serve others: to welcome the stranger and to care for the weak. The people Jesus was speaking to in this passage loved their carefully-chosen practices more than they loved making people feel affirmed and welcome. Instead of saying, “Hey, we’re glad you’re eating,” they said, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”

Many spiritual practices and regular everyday practices serve to bring us closer to God and to create a more strongly-knit community. For instance, prayer brings us closer to God and tooth-brushing allows us to draw close to each other. But Jesus says that we must never fall so far in love with these practices that we forget about the feelings of others. For “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” are, at their core, things that hurt the feelings of others. Literally, they make other people feel bad. It is the opposite of caring for others. If the necessity to pray in a certain way or time spent on Facebook cause us to neglect our duty to serve God through serving others, than it is itself an idol or “unclean” and must be smashed.

Jacob and I believe in this kind of iconoclasm. We believe that together, we can mend the world a little bit. By destroying the “traditions of men” that state that two people must stay within the well-defined boundaries of different religions, we think we are following God more closely than we would if we quietly, safely, peacefully accepted their restrictions. Those traditions have become idols that get in the way of serving God. And so, when Jacob says with his life, “Oh, get up, dear friend, my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!” I do.


Anonymous said...

Oh wow. This was beautiful. It is truly amazing how much thought you have both put into your relationship, and this is, in a way, the blessing of interfaith couples--nothing is taken for granted with us; everything is thought through. Anyway, seriously, beautiful.

Coincidentally, the sermon the rabbi "gave" (at our shul it's more of a discussion) on the Shabbat of our aufruf was about the whole concept of "beyond the law" in Jewish law and ethics. Similar point re: the dismissal of an ethics or practise that follows the letter of the law rigidly or without thought. There is a strong tradition of iconoclasm in both Judaism and Christianity, I think, and of challenging ourselves to go beyond empty practise. I love how you are thinking through all of this.

Helen said...

Thanks for sharing this, Rebecca.

After I became a Christian I was drawn to Jews who believed in Jesus, maybe because I'm Jewish by descent. There seemed to be something special about them, for me at least.

I was surprised when I first learned that some Jews who believe in Jesus keep the Law. But now I understand - the Jewish observances can be beautiful, helping you bring God into every detail of your day. They don't necessarily detract from a relationship with God. The context of Jesus' complaint is people whose hearts are far from God, who think the law will absolve them. When people joyfully engage in observances because they draw their hearts closer to God, what could be wrong with that?

There is so much anti-Jewish teaching in the church; it was helpful to be with Jews who believe in Jesus in order to sift through some of that. I know that the very concept tends to offend Jewish people but it helped me understand and appreciate my Jewish heritage, notwithstanding that Jesus was not overtly part of it.

I don't see any reason why you and Jacob won't be able to work out your shared life. Yes it may be challenging, but marriage always is, isn't it? If not for one reason, for another :)

Al said...


cory said...

this is SO beautiful! As was your wedding! Jake, Jess, Rachel & I were trying to identify our favorite parts on the way home, but of course we couldn't because it was all so wonderful.

thank you for letting us see a very beautiful thing: God with the two of you.