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The Interfaith Bible Seminar

 

Leading up to our yearly ecumenical Thanksgiving service, the local clergy decided to try out an interfaith bible seminar, including two liberal synagogues (one being mine) and a Methodist church. It’s a trial run, to see how we all do, and then maybe more churches and synagogues will be willing to join the group for next year.

I had a lot of questions. Are we all reading the same translations? No, but they are surprisingly similar. Do we read the books in the same order? Nope. The Methodists read from the Old Testament, but also from other books, and on a three year cycle that excerpts pieces out of order. Jews, in general, read the first five books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, in order, throughout each year (though we may excerpt different parts of those chapters, for speed, and then there’s the prophets and the writings, but I won’t overwhelm you with that here.). Do we get the same messages from these stories? No, but no one does. We all see the words through our own kaleidoscope of different life experiences, as it should be.

I was excited to see how the whole trial run would go, because my rabbi has an unorthodox style of Bible study to begin with, pulling in references from Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform Bible commentators, and Christian Bible scholars as well. But there’s plenty he doesn’t know about Christian philosophy and how different denominations respond to the Bible (clearly five years of rabbinical school was not enough).

I don’t know if Methodists in general are as laid back as this particular Methodist pastor, but ours was very friendly, and interested in all of our similarities and differences, especially because our congregations are, in terms of American politics in particular, very similar in our beliefs. He liked to connect the bible stories we were reading with current events, though we were all careful to keep the word “Trump” unspoken in our sacred spaces.

The books chosen for study were: Daniel, Esther, Ruth, and Ezra, though I’m not sure why. They do offer a lot of meaty discussion topics, though, including a lot of strangers-in-a-strange-land references, and conversion, and monotheism versus polytheism. In Daniel, there was a lot of My-God-is-Stronger-than-Your-God stuff, but luckily that’s not a bone of contention between Jews and Christians, since we’re talking about the same God, for the most part.

I tend not to read the Bible as a how-to book on life, more like a learn-from-our-mistakes sort of book. But, the books are written in a very understated style, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, so that what I see as a mistake never to be repeated, someone else may see as a model for how to live a righteous life.

I feel like I could read through these books another hundred times and still find new things, which, as a reader, I love. And I like the feeling of being taken back in time, as if I am living in the desert with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It’s a form of time travel, and visiting my ancestors, that allows me to take a few deep breaths outside of my daily life.

We didn’t read through each book line by line in this seminar, the way we usually do, because we only had an hour and a half per book, so we just touched down in the text every once in a while, ready to hop away from any topic that seemed too heated, if necessary. I’m sure we would have been getting into a lot more tricky conversations if we’d been trying to read from the New Testament, though a lot of my fellow congregants would have enjoyed that, especially because they could bring up the Jesus-was-a-nice-Jewish-boy line of argument. We did hear a little bit about which readings from the Gospels were paired with the readings from the Old Testament, which was interesting, but not especially controversial.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this interfaith adventure so far, except that I want it to continue. Whether we study in Hebrew, or Latin, or English, and read the New Testament or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita, we are all searching for the same things – each other, and how to be the best versions of ourselves.

The fourth and final session of the Bible seminar was snowed out this past Thursday, so instead of reading Ezra, I was outside in the snow with Cricket and Ellie. And it was perfect, because I realized that snow is, just like the Bible, one more thing we see differently depending on who we are and how we feel at that moment. Cricket was in heaven, catching snowballs and digging tunnels and racing around, and Ellie was more circumspect, especially when she realized that her paws were cold, and getting colder. She ended up waiting on the porch for us, where it was dry and warm(er). Some people hear the word snow and feel oppressed by the amount of snow they will have to shovel, or the slippery commute home, and the layers of clothing they will have to pile on. Others think of hot cocoa and cozy family time indoors, and snowsuits and sleds. And everyone is right.

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Cricket, wondering where Ellie went.

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Ellie, hiding from the snow.

Except, Cricket is more right, because I agree with her. Snowball fight!

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The Book of Job

 

I’ve been missing the bible study class at my synagogue for the past two months, because it’s on one of my internship days. When I come home from work, I can barely move, let alone get back in the car after dinner and make sense of the Book of Job. My brain is like a block of ice by the end of the day, and it takes hours and hours for any melting to take place in order to allow room for new information to come in.

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“You want me to go out, again?”

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Cricket refuses to go.

I like bible study at my synagogue. It’s nothing like the way we read the books of the bible in my schools growing up. In elementary school (liberal) we read each book like a story, straight through, looking for plot twists and heroes and villains. In Junior high and high school (orthodox) we read everything line by line, or word by word, with three sets of commentators arguing about the deeper meaning of each spelling oddity.

My current rabbi likes to take a literary/historical approach, giving us a sense of when each book was written, and what lessons the stories were meant to convey, and who decided to include them in the canon.

I was in class for a few of the early chapters of the book of Job, where Job is pissed off at God, and wishing for an early death, and his “friends” are self-righteously correcting his thinking and telling him to trust in God and he’ll be fine.

Bullshit. That’s what I was thinking as I sat there reading those annoying passages about how a good person would think and act and speak, accepting fate and God’s judgement and blah blah blah. I came very close to screaming at my poor rabbi for making us read this crap. Can’t they see that this man is in pain?! What kind of friends would have such a lack of compassion?!

            Okay, so I actually said this out loud. But my synagogue is full of social workers and teachers and social activists, so I was not alone in my plaint.

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“We’re with you, Mommy!”

The rabbi rolled his eyes at me (he does this a lot) and said, they’re not really his friends. It’s a literary device (with a look at me, like I should have recognized this). Job gets to criticize God and cry out and get his words published for the world to see, as long as these straw men can put up their empty counter arguments too. Why else would the rabbis have chosen to include the Book of Job, about a non-Jewish man, in the Jewish Canon, if not to offer room for anger at God? They know their people. The Jews need to complain and rail at God, and this was a way for the rabbis to give them permission.

            You have no idea how disappointing this was for me. All this time I thought that my railing against God and orthodoxy and, you know, the weather, was unique to me and a sign of my special insight and intelligence and bravery. But, no. Everyone feels this way, or at least a lot of us, and the rabbis wanted to give us a safe container to express those feelings, without getting excommunicated.

I know that the trend is to do gratitude journals and focus on the positive and say all of the “right” things. But, in my experience, we all have things to complain about and if we can get those complaints out, and find validation with our friends, we’ll have a chance to survive the stress. Whenever people complain to me about something, and then apologize for complaining, I automatically tell them there’s no reason to apologize. Complaining is one of our best tools for maintaining good mental health. Make two complaints and call me in the morning. If we just pretend that everything is okay, and swallow the pain, and spout self-righteous messages on how to be perfect, our heads will explode. Poof! Poof! Poof! Brains exploding all around me.

It’s possible that I learned this lesson about complaining from Cricket, who never lets a complaint go unbarked. Or from Butterfly, who sits down when I try to pull her leash and just waits for me to get the message, I know what I need, Mommy, now f*** off. Though I don’t think Butterfly would ever use that kind of language. I would. But she’s a much better person than I am.

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Cricket is contemplating all of her complaints, and trying to choose the one to bark next.

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Butterfly demonstrating her sit-in techniques.

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And now they are exhausted.

Talking in Circles

 

As a child, I was taught in my Jewish school that we are not allowed to write the name of God (G-d) full out, or else we are taking God’s name in vain. You can’t even spell the Hebrew version of Yahweh out loud; you have to replace some of the letters with safer letters. Often, orthodox Jews will replace any name of God with “Hashem,” which means “The Name.” It’s similar to the He-who-must-not-be-named business in the Harry Potter books, except that we were avoiding saying the name of the ultimate good rather than the ultimate evil. Part of it is an attempt to retain the power, the specialness, of the name of God. Just like in Harry Potter, the fear is that if you say the name of He-who-must-not-be-named (Voldemort, ahem) too frequently, you’ll forget to be afraid of him.

All of this makes me think about how hard it is for humans to say what we mean. In our intention to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or to avoid criticism, we often end up being polite, or vague, and therefore, being misunderstood. I love that dogs are direct. I may not always like what they have to say (or when they choose to say it), but at least I know what’s going on with them. Cricket is very clear when she is angry at me for withholding the extra treats she demands. Butterfly is also very direct, and never uses big words. If she barks, it either means she wants to eat what you are eating (and is convinced that Cricket, because she can jump up onto the couch, will have first dibs), or she needs to go outside. If she flattens herself on the ground, she wants to be picked up. If she smiles, it’s because she is actually happy (most likely because food is anticipated). If she licks your hand, she wants to be scratched. If she’s wary, she backs away. If she’s really scared, she shivers (at the vet’s office or during a storm, usually). She’s not vague, or blurry, or sly. And because she’s so clear, her needs are easy to meet.

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Butterfly wants scratchies!

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Cricket is grumpy.

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Those are my shoes Butterfly is sitting on. I can’t imagine what she’s trying to say.

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“Feed me!”

A lot of the time, though, people are vague because they really don’t know what they are feeling, or how to express it clearly. I find myself asking question after question of people who think they’ve been clear and clearly were not. I’m often in the position of wanting to scream, “What the @#$% are you trying to say?!” But I rein myself in. Mostly. I will try to ask a question or two, or ten, to help them get to their point. Sometimes they do not realize that they are wandering, or being unclear. Sometimes they are as frustrated as I am, and believe that I should just understand them without their help. Sometimes they know exactly what they mean, but English is their second language, behind the jargon of their profession, and we both remain un-elucidated.

My rabbi, at times, throws in a word that he assumes everyone knows, like Hapax legamenon – which means, a word that appears only once in a text, like the Bible. He momentarily forgets that we were not all in rabbinical school with him, where that word came up all the time and was so useful! I have an automatic allergy to words like that, because I hated sitting at the dinner table as a kid and being the only one who didn’t understand what was being said, especially after my brother started to study vocabulary words for the SATs. But my rabbi thinks each one of these words is like a jewel, a gift! And he tosses them into conversation with glee. I am considering preparing a glossary for new members of the synagogue with words he uses often, like: prolegomenon, apotropaic, apocopation, merism, inclusio, and, of course, hapax legamenon. He is, in most ways, exceedingly down to earth, but those particular words of his profession just make him delusionally happy.

But, some people use jargon intentionally to keep others out of the club. In certain professions (academics, medicine, and law come to mind), you spend a great deal of your time learning the language of the profession before you can ever be trusted to think your own thoughts. This bothers me. I mean, sure, it’s good to be precise, and when you go into more depth on a particular subject it helps to have vocabulary with you to light up the dark, but does it have to be so alienating to outsiders? To what end?

Cricket understands every word I say, or do not say. She has especially become a master of the ellipsis, so that I can’t even leave the important words unsaid, because she knows I was going to say them anyway. I wonder what she would do with the rabbi’s rabbinical school jargon. She probably wouldn’t let him off the hook, the way the humans do. She would have at least a few more questions for him. He says that dogs can’t come to Bible Study because some congregants may have allergies, or deep-seated fears of canines, but I wonder. Maybe he’s just afraid that Cricket will stand on the table, barking insistently, “but why?!” And he won’t have a handy dandy hapax legamenon with which to answer her.

 

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“But why?”