Strange dance

It’s a strange dance Christians and Jews do around one another. When I first started attending church, I was surprised at how often Christians casually mentioned Jews during their services. Looking back, I don’t know why I should have been surprised or how it could be avoided, as most readings from the Old Testament mention Jews directly or indirectly. I suppose I still had Martin Luther in the forefront of my thinking. Earlier in his life, he treated the Jews kindly in his writings, expressing hope that they would soon come to embrace Jesus as the human incarnation of God, their long-awaited messiah. I don’t know why he thought Jews would choose to accept Jesus during his lifetime but when they didn’t he grew disillusioned and angry toward them. In 1543 he wrote a booklet called “On the Jews and Their Lies,” detailing all the reasons he believed Jews deserved to be despised. The fact that this hateful propaganda circulated in the region that is modern-day Germany is not lost on most historians, and some suggest it fueled contempt that simmered for 400 years and came to a head with the Holocaust.

Most of today’s Christians have distanced themselves from this hatred; they are more attuned to the debt Christianity owes Judaism. Jesus himself was a Jew and some of Christianity’s most vital tenets—the belief in “one God” and the idea that each person is valued deeply by a creator—are clearly bred by Jewish thought.

Still, some awkward tension remains. During my months of church-going, I was cautious enough not to mention being married to a Jew, even one as lackadaisical as Phil, until the morning I felt compelled to, and quickly regretted the decision. I was at a Presbyterian church. After the service, during the coffee and cookies part, a group of women gathered around me—the first recognized me as a visitor and approached to make conversation; others joined until we formed a substantial circle in the middle of the room. Several of the women were wearing name tags, and one in particular caught my eye. On this piece of plastic affixed to the lady’s chest was a decidedly Jewish surname. Years of Jewish classmates have made me aware of names common among Jews—like Cohen or Bernstein—and on this morning, in front of my very eyes, was one of these names—as strange and exotic, given the setting, as, say, “Sally Goldberg.”

“Are you Jewish?” I asked her. I couldn’t help it, I was curious. Obviously she wasn’t a practicing Jew, but I wanted to know what twists and turns of history might have led her here.

“No!” she practically shouted.

Our coffee klatch was silent, the air gone out faster than a whoopee cushion stomped with both feet. It occurred to me that perhaps my tone had sounded accusatory.

“My husband is Jewish,” I said. It was as lame as if I had followed a racial slur with “some of my best friends are black.” Apparently, it only made matters worse. The whoopee cushion might as well have been the real thing. Suddenly everyone had very important matters to attend. I was left wondering which had been the bigger faux pas: the question or the revelation? Of all the ladies, Sally herself seemed the least fazed. Before leaving, she returned to me and gave my arm a tender squeeze, “I hope we see each other again,” she whispered.

33 thoughts on “Strange dance

  1. I’ve been reading your posts for over a year, and I can identify. Not being Jewish but being African-
    American and the whole “I have black friends or the opposite that I have white friends or Indian or Asian. It shouldn’t matter. The same with religion. Crazy!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Even if your tone had been perceived as accusatory, Ms. Goldberg could have simply answered, “No, but what makes you ask?” and started a conversation. There is quite a dance, as you say. Some people in my circles seem to express an emotion lying between disappointment and sympathy when they learn that we do not celebrate Christmas, but Chanukah… not Easter, but Passover… I am almost always nearly compelled to say, “It’s okay, we’re alright…” 🙂

  3. HI Corinna,

    I am laughing out loud about this. Being visibly Jewish, Kippa, beard etc. I have seen it all. I am always fascinated by people. Some react strangely, not out of hatred, but it is strange and this ignorance throws people off. People are creatures of habit. They are more at ease with what they understand. Discomfort is not necessarily bigotry. They don’t how to deal with anything that isn’t status quo. Some react out of ugly feelings, but as a whole, most Americans desire to be operating on a higher plane, and even if disturbing sentiments are in whispering in their inner voice. I think that most westerners make a conscious effort to overcome these feelings.

    Much has to do with how a person is raised, regardless of their cultural background. Parents who genuinely respect others tend to have children who see the world similarly. Parents who color their thinking with bigotry, however subtle, will largely deliver conflicted children into this complex world of ours. Provincialism is a more refined issue, it can be a stealth form of a superiority complex and that essentially means that some are more equal than others.

    Please note that this perspective can apply to any religion. Religion, Secularism, and all respective methods of establishing our place in the cosmos, can deeply enrich life or can be used as a Trojan horse to cause pain and suffering..

    I recently visited mainland China. My son and I were treated with great respect and genuine interest. Many Chinese families asked to take pictures with us. Never felt a moment of ill will. Was a fascinating experience.

    Yes there is a strange dance when both participants dance to the beat of a different drummer, but if they are both at peace with themselves, then the dance can be uplifting.

  4. Some of my favorite church activities have been interfaith — like a taught Passover Seder for Christians held by a local temple. Besides, the more I’ve learned about Jesus and his historical era, as well as church history, the more I’ve begun to question just how and why Christianity diverged from Judaism in the first place.

  5. Sandra, If you are a reader you would enjoy the current bestseller, “Zealot”, it does a good job of showing, in easy to read language, how this split came about particularly in regard to the many “messiahs” that were showing up in and around Jerusalem around the same time as the stories of Jesus prevailed.
    You’re right about interfaith activities being the best. Our Center for Spiritual Living had a huge interfaith concert this past Thursday. We invited any churches that wanted to participate to send their soloists or musicians for an evening of music. Fourteen churches sent someone and of course many of their members showed up as well. It was truly beautiful. So many talented people. The finale brought the house down. A fifteen year old boy from India stood by himself on the stage and did a perfect flute rendition of Ave Maria.
    Yes, inclusiveness is what is needed instead of separation. There is, after all, only One Power.

    • Cheri, I presume you were intending to say “the best post….” Correct me if I am wrong, please. But if I am correct, I am so wondering what motivated you to say this. You have been sharing ideas for a long time, but I don’t have much sense of you as a person behind those words. I know where I connected with his post…..I am a white woman with a Native American son. Believe me, I have received all kinds of questions and comments, and we have been on the receiving end of myriad of stares and quizzical looks. We were obviously an odd pairing in people’s eyes. But that is my story. If you feel comfortable, would you elaborate on your connection?

  6. Good evening. Boy, talk about bad timing! There is a question that has been at the back of my mind for a long time and it’s just never been the right time to ask it. Somehow, your post today makes it possible to ask the question and Rabbi Aaron is here to ask as well. The problem is that i am heading to the airport tomorrow for a week with a friend, and I won’t have a lot of time to interact in any interesting discussion. I will try to check in soon and see.

    The question is a simple one but I run the risk of sounding like a bigot when I ask it. And that is NOT on my mind. I am simply curious and would like a Jewish perspective on the subject. Since I don’t know any more than the average Christian about Judaism, I am going to gather my courage in my hands and ask the Rabbi: What is the standard reason given in Judaism for not accepting Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah> Obviously some did, or there would not have been the discussion in the very earliest Christian church about those who observed and required Jewish custom and those who didn’t. And there would not be Messianic Jews now. But I am interested in knowing what is taught theologically about the claims of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. There is no sense of ‘contention’ here, I am just truly curious.

    Meantime, I am off to see a beloved friend of 40 years standing and I await with interest whatever comes in the form of answers. Oh…and Bill’s mother June is improving…thanks for all thoughts and prayers.
    Yours in Christ,

    • Hi Patti,

      I wholeheartedly accept that is a question of understanding, not to be taken as a challenge. I am answering in the same spirit, but you should be aware that there are more lettered Rabbis who could do a better on this particular question.

      Here’s how I understand the picture. The simplest answer from the Jewish prospective is that Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies that makes one the Messiah.

      Additionally there are two streams of thinking that run contradictory to Torah thinking. One is the replacement theory, ie that The New Testament and its adherents are the recipients of a new covenant and that Gd broke his covenant to the Jews (for whatever reason). That is even more problematic for Jewish theologians to somehow reconcile that with the fact that Christianity was born out of Judaism, and hence the logic would have to work something like this…The Torah was once the word of Gd, but the Jews were misbehaving and Gd said goodbye and disavowed his own word or you would have to say that Gd was unfaithful to his flock.

      The second is that there is additive theory, the covenant was not broken for the Jews, but there was a new branch on the tree, and this branch is based on the New Testament. The Jewish theological problem again reverts back to the most fundamental standard that Jesus never met the requirements of a Torah based Messiah.

      Its is an extraordinary challenge to view the world through the eyes of another’s religion, I give you credit for your desire to do so!

      Safe Journeys.

  7. Hi Folks—

    As a spouse in a bi-racial (or bi-ethnic, depending on your definition), I tend to agree with Russell, It’s hard to learn the right steps in the racial sensitivity dance. What may be a perfectly innocent question can be perceived the wrong way; in our hyper-sensitive times, it’s not too hard to find some way of offending someone about almost anything. The only one that’s ever really bothered me was when someone asks “What do you consider your son?”, as in do I think he’s Anglo, or Latino, or Mexican-American or whatever. My answer is usually, “Male”.

    I was thinking back on Brian’s posts in the “Snapshot” post, about how easily we make assumptions when someone says he’s Catholic, or Baptist, or Jewish, etc. Although we can draw some general conclusions, I try not to apply generalizations to the individual. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but the only thing I’m really sensitive about is when I say I’m Episcopalian, and someone who isn’t starts telling me what I have to believe, either as an Anglican or a Christian. None of us express our beliefs in precisely the same way regardless of our denomination, and I think that’s the way God intends it. I’m still looking for that Bible passage that says we all have to be mindless automata, but darned if I can find it!

    Patti, I admire your courage and forthrightness in asking your question, and Rabbi Aaron, thank you for your gracious and informative reply. Again, I’m thinking back to an earlier post, with an exchange between Carmen and Pastor Jason, where he said only one of them could be right. I have to ask myself, instead, what if both of them are “right”? 2 + 2 equals four, but so does 1 + 1 + 1 +1 and 3 + 1. The results are just as accurate and just as true; the only difference is in the method.

    • Hi Tim
      I enjoy your reading your comments, and I like your attitude. As I have stated before, I don’t subscribe to disputations.

      The proverbial baby gets tossed out with the bath water when someone has to be right. Who cares, either you believe in your faith or not.

      I once held an elected office and one old guy was belligerently educating me about his point of view and how wrong I was. He would not let it go nor could he fathom that others felt different than him. After one more of his diatribes, I told him that I know a place where everyone agrees with him. I told him to go visit the cemetery and he would find good company because everyone there is dead right!

      I do believe in mutual respect and looking for common ground.

      Perhaps we can consider some new math. When decent people with sincere faith work respectably together, it is better than 1 +1 equals 2… I would suggest that 1+1 could equal 3, because the two distinct singularities now comprise a working duality, which is a third dynamic. Simply stated,when people of good faith work together they create more than what they have by themselves

      This dynamic is the hidden strength of America, (no matter how badly she is presently creaking and moaning.) We have learned to set aside our differences to reach a common good when are values and freedoms are at risk.

      • I see your point, Rabbi. Often, synergy kicks in and the sum is greater than the parts, especially when you add the Sacred to the mix!

      • I especially appreciated your comment, Aaron: ..”.when people of good faith work together, they create more than what they have by themselves.”

        One of the things that this blog has made realize is the dearth of language to use when talking about people like me who have self-identified as an atheist……but one who is still spiritual. I don’t think that I am at all alone in this spot, either. I am not religious, but I understand the concept of the person of good faith ……I believe that I fall in with these folks, but the language isn’t exactly right. The common good and the synergy that Tim talks about, however, are why people like me create “church” or “worship” communities….so we can celebrate life together and can help make our world—up close and far away—a better place. And we are even stronger when we can all put aside our differences……which seems to be a difficult activity for some political and religious groups in my community, at least. They seem to have forgotten what is important in the bigger picture. My read on it.

        The common ground we can reach has to do with the over-arching principles that are shared by all religions, by cultures, by caring and conscientious individuals. By focusing on the bigger ideas instead of the specific practices and traditions, we can draw together, where we are so much more empowered to seek what is right and good, not just for ourselves, but for that Greater Good which benefits us all.

        Perhaps I am just idealistic, but I have hope that one day this will be more the norm than the fighting and bickering we have right now.

        • Hi Merrill,

          Ahhh! An unintended double entendre….I meant it to be a statement of character, not necessarily to preclude or include a testament of religious observance. The sentiments you expressed resonate with me. I don’t know if this statement would be consistent with your feelings, but I do believe our human condition desires to find a way to characterize the people we encounter, to somehow further our understanding. This is a trap when we loose perspective and overly generalize. We are better served seeking each other’s merits and qualities; and with that we can enrich our own lives.

          Sweet Dreams!

          • Aaron, it is that language thing again for me…..I presume you are speaking to my questioning of the words “good faith.” Overall that phrase just says “religion” to me, and it is commonly used in that context. But once again. I dug into my dictionary, and I do see that it has a more secular meaning, also. In short, it also means allegiance to a people or a duty. I like your read on it better than the little knee-jerk reaction I had when I saw the words “good faith” in your writing. It is all about character and a recognition and celebration of our merits and qualities. And I do agree that it is easy to lose perspective even when we seek to understand. I much appreciate your ideas and comments!

        • Merrill siad:
          “The common good and the synergy that Tim talks about, however, are why people like me create “church” or “worship” communities….so we can celebrate life together and can help make our world—up close and far away—a better place. And we are even stronger when we can all put aside our differences”

          You raise an interesting point, Merrill.. Until recently, I—and I believe most people–assumed the term “atheist” implied someone who stands alone spiritually. A “community” of atheists seemed to be an oxymoron. Through yours and others’ comments, I’m seeing the positive, affirmative and communal side of atheism. Not that I assumed atheists were anti-social; in fact, I think atheists can be more active in social justice issues because they’re unfettered by the arbitrary limits religious denominations place on us. Atheism isn’t just the lack of belief in God—it can definitely be a wholly different take on the spiritual.

  8. Thank you, Rabbi. I think I will spend some more time researching this, and the first place I will start is with what Christians say Jesus fulfilled and then try to understand what Torah said. I somehow don’t think I am going to be able to figure any of this out (waaaaayyy too complicated, I’m thinking,) but it will be very interesting just trying. Thank you for your answer. And for letting me ask the question.

    Hi Tim….I love it….MALE. It’s like what the answer should be to someone’s question “Which race are you?” should be – HUMAN. 🙂

    I’m off to the airport. Much affection to you all.
    Yours in Christ

    • I suspect some folks will get tired of my continued recommendation of the book, “Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan. It is so well researched and I think answers Patti’s question as he relates the Jewish history at the time of Jesus, the coming forth of several “messiah’s”. Reza also documents those places where the Torah and old testament prophecies did not get fulfilled by Jesus and ends his book with a fascinating study of the differences of opinion documented in the New Testament itself between James the brother of Jesus and the apostle Paul and the differing opinions between the Greek speaking Jewish converts and those in Jerusalem where James and Peter and John had settled. I think it’s a fascinating work that brings me face to face with the revelations of recorded history about Jesus and the things written about him versus the kind of mythical traditional way most of us were taught. Reza has no ax to grind he simply presents, in very clear and easy to follow language, what current historical research has laid before us. Of course it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, nevertheless it is well worth the read.

  9. Your comment about the historical fact of Luther’s book and 400 years, and the Holocaust…. makes so much since. A new understanding for me. Events happen not in a vacuum….

    Simple questions can take us many places, as all ladies scattered, but one……….

    Thanks for your insights and reflections…..Colleen in Austin….

  10. I happened to read this today: I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Jews are still being hounded to “be saved” by fundagelicostals, but it still shocks me when I read stories like the one where the blogger is in great pain and that insensitive woman tries to shove Jesus down her throat. Her comment at the end about Auschwitz really made me blink. I can’t blame her for being a bit paranoid about Christians trying to “annihilate” Jews. I’m with the man who commented, “thank God, ‘We’re not all like that’, And apologies for your experience at the hands of my ‘well meaning’ Christian brothers and sisters.”

    • Wow–just wow. All sorts of words come to mind…arrogance…presumption…blind faith..insenstivity. You know..all those things Jesus preached AGAINST! Has it ever occured to these folks that if God wanted us all to be Christians, we all would be? I’ll leave the judging to Him. BTW, I love the word “fundagelicostals”!

  11. Yeah, ‘fundagelicostals’ is indeed quite a word. Gotta keep that one in mind. Thanks, Shelley!

    Corinna, your “dance” account reminds me of our trip to Yad Vashem–the holocaust museum in Israel. What a thrilling and sobering and sad journey through that great monument! I was struck–shocked at first–by the number of displays which recount the evil treatment of Jews by “Christians”. I’ve been aware of Luther’s anti-semitism for quite some time. It reminds one that, no matter how much of a debt the Christian world might owe that man, he was not right about so many things. He stressed God’s grace to sinners, and I’m guessing that he came to understand the meaning of grace once he entered into God’s presence and heard his Abba talk to him about his people, Israel. Grace is something I always need!

      • Grace is something I could’ve explained to you from some Christian doctrinal perspective, Frank, for a lotta years, but I’ve really only begun to understand it over the past week of years. When we became Christians, I bought into a very legalistic version of evangelical Christianity–but I was already a legalist long before….I was so performance minded that I spent a good deal of time trying to make sure I was accepted by God and everyone else. I was nice on the outside, but judgmental on the inside.
        But thanks, Frank. The understanding of it is sweet indeed, no matter how long it has taken!

        • There is just something about the word “grace” that engenders a good feeling in me. I do have a basic understanding of the religious use of this word, but it seems to go beyond that for me. I would say that you “walk in grace”, also, Walt. It is not about your being nice, although you are a very kind person. It is just my sense of who you are and how you conduct your life. This is not rational as far as I am concerned…. it is my intuition that speaks to this. I know it….I just can’t explain it! MET

    • Walt, I think grace is an action as well as a state of being. When you have it, you naturally share it with others, as you do. As Jesus said, “my peace I give to you..” . Not to get too metaphysical, but I think grace is one of those nebulous things we can’t quite precisely define, but it flows through those who have it and touches others. I bet we’ve all met people who just seem to be at peace (regardless of religious belief) and it somehow rubs off on us. That’s part of the synergy several of us have discussed before.

  12. Corinna, I am curious if that Presbyterian Church is The Church to be associated with in your town? And the fact that you don’t live in the most liberal and enlightened area might also have brought the response you got…..but golly, gee-whiz Ms. Molly… would think that Ms. Goldberg would have gotten that inquiry before and would have had a gracious response for you….even though this question might have been viewed as intrusive and personal in some communities. What century are we in again? Change comes so slowly, doesn’t it……especially when people hold on so tightly to the status quo….and that which they know….and that which helps them retain their social and political power.

    • Hey Merrill, I don’t know if there is a particular church around here that is “the one.” We have so many (and not a single synagogue…so that says something). I’ve thought a lot about Ms. Goldberg and that uncomfortable moment I created for her and me and all the other women standing there. I finally decided I didn’t regret what I said because I’d rather be the fool that speaks up than the wise one who says nothing.

      • I suppose it’s not such a peculiar incident. My name Maitoza elicits several different responses. People often ask me if I’m Mexican, confusing it with Mendoza. I say, “No” but I always follow it up with, “It’s a Portuguese name.” On the East coast, quite often, people ask me if I’m Italian. I make the same mistake thinking I recognize someone with a Portuguese surname. Not long ago I worked with a nurse whose last name was, “Portugal”. I asked, “Oh…are you Portuguese?” “No”, she said, ” I’m Filipino.” Most of the Filipino folks I’ve met have Spanish surnames since Spain conquered the islands and everyone became Catholic. The Emperor of Japan called them shameful for giving up their Asian ancestry. But, as they say, “What’s in a name?” Probably a lot more than we suspect.

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