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The Last Interfaith Bible Seminar, for the year

 

We finally had our last session of the Interfaith Bible Seminar, so of course it started to snow for the first time since our last attempted meeting, but only a little bit, as a token, to let me know that God has a sense of humor. A dark one. For this session we met at the Methodist church, which shares a building with a Korean Presbyterian congregation, and a Hispanic Evangelical congregation, just to keep things interesting. There were drawings of dreidels and menorahs on the walls, next to the Santas and Christmas trees, which made sense, eventually, when the pastor explained that the church’s nursery school is non-sectarian, and filled with Jewish kids, and a lot of Mandarin speaking families as well, because, Long Island.

The final seminar was led by the Methodist pastor and the cantor from my synagogue, both of whom had the mistaken impression that we prepare for these seminars by reading ahead. I didn’t even know that what was billed as the book of Ezra also included the book of Nehemiah, let alone what was included in these books. It turns out that Ezra is set at the end of the Babylonian exile, as the Jews were returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Ezra is trying to teach the returning Jews how to be Jewish again, because they are clueless after generations of exile, and the non-Jewish ruler of the area is actually encouraging the Jews to rebuild the Temple, so there’s no anti-Semitism to fight against, which makes the Jews feel weird. We are a people who do better with antagonism, it seems. Acceptance makes us nervous.

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“I like acceptance, Mommy.”

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“I don’t particularly care for it myself.”

The fact is, throughout history walls were built around the Jewish community, by others, to keep us from mingling with the regular people, but that isolation served to keep the Jewish community together. Despite the rise in anti-Semitism over the past two years, we still live in a society that is overwhelmingly accepting of Jews and Judaism, which brings on the fear that assimilation and comfort will lead to the dissipation and disappearance of the Jewish people.

Ezra, who is trying to regenerate Jewish peoplehood after the Babylonian exile, thinks that the big danger is intermarriage. He tells the Jewish men that they have to send away their foreign wives, and the children born of them, in order to purify the Jewish community and return to God. This made my skin crawl. Later, the message is somewhat softened to say, just don’t marry outside of the community in the future, but I had to remind myself all over again that the bible is not a how-to manual, but a how-they-did-it story, and we can learn from them about what not to do.

Of course, behind this fear of intermarriage there is, always, the fear of women. Because women are temptresses who lead good men astray. The pastor said that Christians have long believed that Women are the root of all evil too. Ah, harmony.

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“Wait. What?”

So, anyway, if our goal is Jewish continuity, do we try to prevent intermarriage at all costs, or do we welcome fellow travelers into the community? And if we can’t prevent intermarriage, because we live in such a welcoming society, where Jews are not treated as pariahs as they were in generations past, how do we deal with that acceptance?

Growing up in the conservative and orthodox movements, intermarriage was seen as an obviously bad thing. A Shandeh. A shame. But the Reconstructionist and Reform movements were quicker to adapt, and tried to accommodate mixed religion families, since the other option was to lose those Jews altogether. At our Synagogue school we have lots of kids who celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, and the idea is to give them the education, and the sense of community, and let them decide how to shape their religious lives going forward; whether they choose to be Jewish or Christian, or some mix, is up them. As a result, we have a lot of active families and kids who think being Jewish is sort of cool. Who knew?

My dogs still weren’t invited to the Interfaith Bible Seminar, but I keep trying to raise them with Jewish identities, in my own way. I tried to interest them in the lighting of the Chanukah candles this year, but they are really not fans of fire. And prayer isn’t really their thing either. But family, and community, and ritual, those are big things in their lives. Just ask Ellie how she’d feel if I forgot to give her the traditional chicken treat after her morning walk. A Shandeh!

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“A treat? For me?”

I want to wish everyone who celebrates Christmas a Merry Christmas, and for everyone else, a happy Chinese-food-and-empty-movie-theaters day! If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl.

YG with Cricket

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

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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