midnight mass

Early yesterday morning I went to midnight mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. On Monday, I noticed it right across the street from where I’m staying while I’m in New York this week (for Mechon Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive). I’ve never been to a Catholic midnight mass, though I think I’ve gone to an Episcopalian one before, and I was curious.

Right before I arrived, I posted on Facebook that I was going to the service. I was a little nervous in doing so. I was comfortable in my decision: I think it’s perfectly fine for me to attend another religion’s services (as long as they also think it is), and my hope is to do interfaith work, which I can’t do unless I’m willing to “border cross” (a term I borrow from the lovely UU folks). But I did wonder how it would look, and, truth be told, that factor is made more complicated by the fact of my conversion. I don’t want my decision to be mistaken for nostalgia (which it couldn’t be, because Catholicism was not my tradition, and indeed was as foreign to me as Judaism when I first came to it) or ambivalence about Judaism (which it absolutely isn’t). Simply put, this was cultural tourism — which I hope I pulled off with sensitivity.

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The service turned out to be a really powerful experience, and in sharing it with a few of my fellow seminar participants, I realized I wanted to write about it here.

It turns out that I was in no way the only Jew who went to midnight mass on Erev Christmas. A group from my seminar went to St. John the Divine for its late service. And a rabbi who was a mentor to me when I lived in D.C. commented that my post made her miss “her” church, the one she used to go to on Christmas Eve when she lived in New York. As it turns out, in an amazing coincidence, this church *is* her church. And the church itself recognized that outsiders might be in attendance: When he offered the invocation, the pastor welcomed the parishioners, as well as “our friends of other religions who have joined us tonight.”

The service was in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, reflecting the diversity of the parish. Indeed, there was a striking variety of race and socio-economic status among the attendees. And the three languages were well-integrated; none was token. Many readings and hymns were only offered in one language, with translations printed in the other two languages. The main reading, the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, was read verse-by-verse in the three languages. It seemed like two of the associate friars were native Spanish and Creole speakers, respectively.

The service was really moving. (My friends said the same thing about the service at St. John the Divine.) The building’s Gothic Revival architecture is strikingly dramatic, and it was decorated with lots of lights and greenery. The music was beautiful, and at the end of the service the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” (The one odd moment was seeing one of the friars carrying an old plastic doll supposed to represent the baby Jesus during the procession.)

I found myself watching the service through a lens informed by the seminar that I’m participating in this week. The annual program at this egalitarian yeshiva is focusing on the High Holidays; we’re studying Torah related to music and the days’ liturgies, melodies, and nusach. Christmas and Easter, I imagine, are the church’s High Holidays. These are the two times a year when it has an opportunity to reach parishioners who don’t come the rest of year. As with synagogues, there is probably enormous pressure to make the service accessible and engaging.

I especially saw this in the pastor’s homily. He talked about the angels’ injunction to the shepherds, upon announcing the birth of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” He addressed some of the most vulnerable members of the congregation, including queer folks and undocumented immigrants, reassuring them of G-d’s love and message to them not to be fearful.

Everyone exited the church joyfully, wishing those around them a merry Christmas. I was very happy I went. (So was my mom, who I views any way that I am Jesus-adjacent as a positive.)

the bully of britain

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England. It was briefly deleted from this site under threat of a lawsuit and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it, as well as to remove a comparison that upon further reflection was just distracting. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

The shit hit the fan last night, as it had to at some point in the formation of a new group.

Tim Winter, also known as Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, spoke with us as part of my program’s “Saloon Conversations” — envisioned as informal sessions with speakers in the large room here at the castle that is known as “the Saloon.” At the beginning of the program last week, we were told that all of the speakers — and the formal lecturers as well — had been invited because of their peacemaking work and would be talking about that work in their religious contexts.

We sat down in the Saloon, the room’s comfy chairs and sofa arranged in several semicircles around the fireplace. The director of the program introduced Winter and later moderated the Q&A session.

A convert to Islam, Winter started by speaking about his work with the college that provides a one-year program for imams to give them the education, in his words, from which their religious institutions have shielded them. For instance, they learn pastoral skills and about other religions. Every year he takes the students to the Vatican, where they meet with Catholic priests, with whom they have very little in common and who are often quite frank about their hostility to Islam. It was in this context that Winter told the heartwarming story of an experience that served to bind them together: One night, they were all kept awake by Rome’s Gay Pride activities, the “sounds of secular hedonism” bothering everyone.

That was the first red flag. (Well, perhaps the second: I was struck immediately when I walked into the room by how sour and uninterested Winter seemed, which was off-putting. I think this part of his demeanor becomes important below.) I had a hard time listening after this snide and unnecessary comment. I did manage to tune back in for one of his final stories, about a young, non-Muslim woman in one of his classes (Winter teaches Islamic Studies at Cambridge University). “Immodestly dressed” (Winter indicated a sleeveless and perhaps midriff shirt), she was very moved by the Qur’an and wanted to talk with him about that experience. Expressing bewilderment, Winter said, “I wanted to help her. I figured she might have been having a problem with her boyfriend or something.”

At that point I nearly fell out of my chair, and the only reason I stayed in the room was to be able to find my friends afterwards to process what had happened so far. And then it got worse.

One of my fellow participants, a man who is married to a man, the same one who was asked about his wife at Shabbat dinner, and who had been wanting to talk more openly about his life, took the opportunity in the Q&A session to ask about Winter’s characterization of gay people in Rome. He opened by describing himself “as someone who will soon be part of the group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy,” essentially — and bravely! — coming out to the group, and then asked about intersectionality. Winter first responded by stating that there was no place for gay people in the Muslim community. The different denominations of Islam, he said, agree on very little, but they are monolithic in condemning homosexuality. My classmate pushed back, and Winter conceded that he knew of one same-sex couple who were practicing celibacy, and this model was acceptable.

In response to another question, Winter went on to call a more progressive Muslim “naive” before taking and answering questions in Arabic from the native speakers. He only translated bits of those exchanges; I was later told that several questions were critical of Scriptural Reasoning (the program’s signature tool, involving close readings of sacred texts from the three traditions). The exclusion of non-Arabic speakers felt deliberate.

As the program mercifully came to an end, my friends and I began to gather and move to another room for processing, and one of the Muslim men on the text study team (academics experienced in the method) approached my classmate who had asked about queer folks and said he wanted to offer some insight into Winter’s answer. So a few us first went to talk with him.

He first explained that Tim Winter is a controversial figure. Mere months ago, there was a student-led campaign at Cambridge calling for his ouster when a 15-plus-year-old video was posted on YouTube of Winter calling homosexuality an “inherent aberration” and “inherently ugly,” among other things. Winter apologized, claiming that the video represented views he no longer held, and he kept his job. It was also shared that Winter is not an academic in the way that word is usually used — he does not have a Ph.D. — and the man providing this context also characterized Winter as more of a politician, or a community leader. (In 2010, Winter was named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as Britain’s most influential Muslim.) Though he considered Winter empirically correct in saying that the vast majority of Muslim leaders do consider homosexuality a sin, he felt that Winter’s answer didn’t express the nuances of the issue that is very present in many Muslim communities. Which is to say that there are of course queer Muslims, and many are accepted — if perhaps not fully — in their communities.

I have many issues with all that transpired. To start, this is now the third time during the first week of this program that I have heard homosexuality condemned: A previous “Saloon Conversation” speaker said so in passing, and then the priest at the Catholic church I visited used the week’s text (Luke 12:49-53) to inveigh against same-sex marriage. While this program certainly cannot control what is said in an independent institution, it is responsible for who it invites. And in this it must be held accountable.

During and after Winter’s presentation, I was trying to figure out who Winter was speaking to: His English was much too quick and sophisticated to reach most of the native-Arabic speakers. But he wasn’t talking to the native English speakers either: The homophobia and sexism were sure to turn off a group of Christians and Jews from more liberal traditions. So he either didn’t know who he was speaking to, which is not the case, as he’s been involved with the program for many years, or he didn’t care who he was speaking to, in which case his behavior was quite outrageous. Going back to the issue of his demeanor, I wonder whether he even wanted to be in the room.

There is of course a way to be faithful to your religious convictions and not marginalize queer folks or demean women. (He has a history of the latter as well, as the premise of his conversion story recalls the chauvinistic doctrine of original sin.) And if you can’t do that, then you ought not to be afforded a place in an interfaith setting in which we are invited into respectful dialogue with each other. One of the goals of our text study is to create a safe space for discussing differences and to learn how to disagree better — and neither of those ends are achieved by dismissiveness. And if the goal of this particular part of the program was to spark conversations about homosexuality in our traditions, which I agree need to happen, there are actually effective and non-traumatic ways of facilitating those. It shouldn’t happen at the expense of those for whom the conversations are not abstract: The other man who is married to a man (who happens to work for Berlin Pride) left the program early in disgust.

More, Winter’s views were given legitimacy by the fawning praise with which the director of the program introduced him, as well as the context into which he was invited to share them. The authority afforded a speaker in a “Saloon Conversation” results in a power imbalance in any ensuing “discussion.”

Finally, I question the choice of a white man to speak about peacemaking in the Muslim community. Putting aside the obvious reality that peacemaking is not Winter’s project, he is not representative of the British Muslim community, which is overwhelming not white. There are of course many non-white Muslim researchers and community leaders and professors who could have spoken to what Winter was brought in to share.

What happens next is not clear. I plan to share these thoughts with the program administrators and to continue having conversations with the people with whom I know it is safe to do so. I don’t know how much of my classmate’s coming out was understood by some of the native-Arabic speakers, so the fallout from that is hard to predict. Last night many expressed, simultaneously with horror at the incident, gratitude for the ensuing conversations. I’m not sure I agree; the price seems quite high for many in the room.

off to the mosque

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. On Friday we went to a mosque; on Saturday, a synagogue; and on Sunday, a church. (Since we’re a large group, we split up, and there were choices for each.) The rest of the visit was punctuated by talks and presentations by various people doing interfaith or faith-based work in Birmingham. The city is a majority-minority area, with Muslims, mostly from Southeast Asia, the fastest growing demographic. In stark contrast, there are less than 2,000 Jews in a total population of over a million.

Our first stop was Christ Church Centre in the neighborhood of Sparkbrook, a working class area whose population is 75% non-white. We first met Rev. Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest involved in the area’s interfaith work (he would be with us the rest of the weekend) and then heard from Mohammed Ali (yes), a local muralist doing art in an interfaith context in Sparkbrook and around the world. Later that afternoon, we were able to see some of his work in the neighborhood.

mohammed ali's "a leap of faith" mural"; photo by salem pearce

mohammed ali’s “a leap of faith” mural”; photo by salem pearce

After the largest lunch you can imagine (the table couldn’t hold the platters of kebabs, pasta, pecoras, dal, salad, and bread that just kept coming) at a restaurant called La Favorita, next up was a mosque visit: I chose Mehfil e Abbas, a Shia mosque, just because it’s a smaller sect of Islam. The women and men split up immediately (hooray for gender binaries! /sarcasm) to go in via separate entrances to separate rooms. The women’s section included, of course, the kitchen and children’s rooms, but also, conveniently, the bathrooms. We took off our shoes at the door. The prayer space was just a simple carpeted room, divided by a curtain from the men’s room adjacent to it and with a TV screen that aired the sermon that was given after prayers.

To be frank, the experience was hard for me: There’s a reason I don’t pray in minyans with separate seating, and it didn’t feel any better when it wasn’t my religion and I wasn’t praying. Similar to what happens in the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue, there were old women chatting throughout the whole service, a few kids running around, and a couple of teenagers on cell phones. (Okay, maybe that last is different from shul.) My suspicion is that the separation is cultural/traditional and not scriptural, as it is in Judaism, and I find that these kinds of arrangements, which privilege men’s prayer over women’s, to be quite painful. And at first I became even angrier because I wasn’t getting to see a mosque, but instead a rec room — but when the service was over, and the curtain was opened, I saw that the main room was also pretty much a rec room with a few ritual objects. And I had to laugh at myself at how quickly my anger on that point dissipated in light of the modest setting of the men’s prayer room. I pretty much did see the mosque even in the ladies’ section.

That evening, my fellow Jews and I held a Kabbalat Shabbat service at our hotel for the rest of group, which people seemed to enjoy. Afterwards, another rabbinical student and I answered questions from the non-Jews while the others quickly davenned Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i'm not covering my head because i'm a jerk like that)

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i’m not covering my head because i’m a jerk like that)

The problem with even two Jews answering questions about Jewish prayer and about G-d (and really, about anything in Judaism) is that we’re not likely to agree. The old saying is: Two Jews, three opinions. At some point, one of the men from Oman asked whether there were prayers in our liturgy that called for the destruction of other people or religions. While I answered, “Absolutely not,” my co-religionist said, “Wait. What about Aleinu?” By this time the others had rejoined the conversation, and another rabbinical student jumped in with his understanding of the prayer, which is that it expresses the Jewish people’s unique relationship with G-d. I was sort of horrified that anyone would answer other than the way I did — especially since I perceived the question as coming from a place of fear and perhaps prejudice — but my classmate felt a real duty to nuance, which I am afraid gets lost in non-native language.

This is a bigger issue than can be covered here, but we Jews are indeed uncomfortable with parts of our liturgy: Modern prayer books do omit a sentence from the original Aleinu prayer, referring to non-Jews, “They worship vanity and emptiness, and they pray to a god that doesn’t save.” This moment again illustrates the issue that I talked about briefly in my last post about this program: namely, that we Jews don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish in a way that seems different from at least the Muslims on this trip.

Shabbat dinner was a bit of a letdown, as I sat largely with Omanis playing on their electronic devices. One could probably write a dissertation on cultural norms around cell phones, but in my Shabbat community, people don’t use their phones on Friday night (at least not during services and dinner). There is a real sense of being present with each other, of enjoying what Heschel has called a “sanctuary in time.” I understand that I can’t expect that outside of my community, but it did make the evening less Shabbat-like for me, which was hard. We are still trying to get to know each other, though, and so we did have some conversation. Unfortunately, part of that conversation involved one of the Omani men asking one of the Jewish men, who is married to another man and as such wears a wedding ring, where his wife was. He quickly mumbled, “In America,” before changing the subject.

I don’t know the views of many of the individuals in this program about homosexuality, but there are at least three gay men in the group, and each has chosen not to disclose his sexuality to the Muslims (and to disclose only to two of the Christians). Oman does criminalize same-sex behavior (as do 75 other countries in the world); all of the contingent work for the government. And after earlier in the week we were bombarded with stories from a speaker who does mediation work with Muslim parents who have threatened to kill their gay children, I think caution is not unwise in this situation. A part of me is hoping that this topic will come up, because it makes me sad for members of the group not to be able to bring their whole selves to our conversations about religion; at the same time, I want my friends to be safe.

To end on an up note, I made kiddush on Friday night for the first time. (Yes, I’d been avoiding it for most of my Jewish life.) But I’ve been practicing this summer with a recording that a classmate made for me (my issue is the singing), and I think I did alright. Either way, the vast majority of the people in the room didn’t know the difference!

Next up . . . we go to shul!

reading texts together

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

asking g-d

In my Talmud class we’re reading a section from Baba Metzia called the “gold chapter”; it deals first with honesty in business exchanges and then moves on to honesty in personal interactions, or ona’at devarim, “oppression with words.” As is typical of gemara, the rabbis discuss the nature of the issue at hand and use Biblical passages and stories to back up their arguments. In an extreme moment, one of the rabbis notes that if someone embarrasses a friend, it is as if that person has spilled blood. They are especially concerned with ona’at devarim because, they say, the gates of prayer are always open to tears; that is, G-d always hears the petitions of those who have been oppressed by words.

rabban gamliel's alleged grave in yavneh

rabban gamliel’s alleged grave in yavneh (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

They tell the story of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the yeshiva, who was excommunicated for his unpopular opinions. When Rabbi Akiva tells Eliezer of the decision, his anguish causes everything he looks upon to be burned up. It happens that at that time Rabban Gamliel, who took over the yeshiva, is on a ship, and the sea begins storm. Gamliel knows immediately that his safety is threatened because of Eliezer. It also turns out that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife is Gamliel’s sister, and she is worried for Gamliel’s life. In perhaps not the most effective method, she begins to watch Eliezer constantly to keep him from praying tachanun, a supplicatory prayer. (Elsewhere in the Talmud, tachanun is called “a time of divine goodwill,” during which supplication is more likely to be received.) On Rosh Hodesh (the first day of a Jewish month, determined by a new moon), tachanun is not recited. One day Eliezer’s wife gets confused, erroneously thinks it’s Rosh Hodesh, and abandons her vigilant watch over Eliezer. In her absence, he prays tachanun, and Rabban Gamliel dies.

It’s a bizarre story, but certainly one that gives some insight into how powerful the rabbis consider both words to others and words to G-d.

More than a month ago in my tefila group, we were looking at the amidah, often just referred to as “the prayer.” It consists of 18 (well, really 19, but I don’t need to get into that here) blessings, several of which are called bakashot, or prayers of asking. The person who led davennen that morning first asked us to think about why we struggle with petitionary prayer. Not if — but why. The assumption was that we all did, and indeed, we all did. Among those in my group, someone cited a lack of a conception of a personal g-d; another, the association with the common Christian practice of ad hoc prayer; a third, a doubt that G-d does (or even should) intervene in our lives. Added someone else, “G-d wouldn’t bother with me. My needs are too small. I am too small.” Our prayer leader said, and I can still hear her saying it, so powerful was it,

“Where did the idea of G-d as a scant resource come from?”

Yes: Any divine being I want to believe in would be able to handle everything, the small stuff as well as the big stuff. Why not ask?

At the Rabbis Without Borders retreat that I attended a few weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to share a time when “prayer worked for us,” as a way of opening a conversation about how to make prayer services work for our congregants. Many shared stories of times of distress, of getting on their knees and begging for intervention or answers from G-d.

I haven’t had that experience. So I thought about the efficacy of prayer a little differently. My beloved cousin, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, is expecting a child in the fall, a child she has been wanting for a very long time. When she called to tell me her good news, I immediately thought, I want to pray for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy child. And I then almost immediately thought, That’s ridiculous. Pregnancy is a scientific process of cell growth, not subject to divine intervention: If I pray and something goes wrong, would that mean my prayer was somehow deficient? If I pray and everything goes well, would that mean that I had reached G-d? What would that mean for other folks whose pregnancies or children had not fared well?

hannah victors

hannah giving her son samuel to the priest, by jan victors (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

I have a hard time with petitionary prayer for all the reasons above — and because I have a hard time asking for help, admitting that I need something, acknowledging that I want what is out of my control. And there’s certainly a perceived resistance to the prayer of asking in Judaism: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we don’t petition G-d. The implication is then that asking is somehow not holy. But the rabbis also saw the value in petitionary prayer: On Rosh Hashanah, another holy day, we read the story of Hannah. Bitter and distraught at her childlessness, she goes up to the temple and prays — her lips moving but with no sounds — and weeps, and promises any child she will have to the service of G-d. Hannah is the first to call G-d “the Lord of Hosts” (יהוה צבאות), and the rabbis say that Hannah’s silent prayer should be a model for for our own. (It should be noted that Hannah’s request proves highly effective, as a short time later she has Samuel.)

One of the wisest things I ever read about prayer was in the book The Unlikely Disciple. Nonbeliever Kevin Roose enrolls at Liberty University, the erstwhile institution of Dr. Jerry Fallwell, and goes about doing all that is required of him, including prayer. He notes that in spite of his lack of belief, his daily prayer becomes meaningful. It changes him. As I noted in my post about the book, “[H]e begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection.” A friend from Hebrew College writes something similar in this thoughtful piece about praying as an atheist.

So I decided to pray for my cousin’s child. And to me, that means prayer has “worked.”

the unlikely disciple

In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)

Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.

I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.

I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).

I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.

As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.

liberty university, lynchburg, va.

There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.

Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.

And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.

As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”

first seder

louisville's historic palace theatre on 4th Street; photo by eric hart

Last week my husband and I went to Louisville, Ky., where his parents live, for Passover. We had four days of absolutely gorgeous weather: sunny, blue skies, and cool. I’ve only visited my in-laws once before, so I still know very little about the city, but what I saw was quite lovely. Plus, my husband’s mother and step-father are really happy there: They never miss an opportunity to vaunt its advantages. After living their entire lives in New York, they’ve certainly found a new home. The pleasantness mirrored the overall visit.

But I was nervous beforehand, because my parents flew in from Houston to join us — and they’ve never celebrated Passover before. I didn’t know what they would think and whether they would have a good time, particularly my father, whose brand of evangelical Christianity makes it difficult for him, to say the least, to appreciate other religions.

Indeed, when I first converted to Judaism, he told me I was going to hell. He was very sad about it but nevertheless convinced of it. Of course, this meant that my mother-in-law’s declaration this weekend that she just couldn’t stand the belief of some Christians that non-Christians were going to hell created a bit of an awkward moment. (Weirdly, she has an employee who holds this very belief.) But I don’t think my dad was around at the time.

All of this is to say that I was pleasantly surprised that my dad agreed to come to seder. (My mom was very enthusiastic, having wanted to attend for a long time.) I’m not sure whether this indicates an a change or evolution in my father’s belief system. He and I don’t have direct conversations about my religion or my planned career in the rabbinate. It’s been painful for me to talk with him about it in the past, so as part of my self-care I’ve stopped trying. It’s now his issue to come to terms with. Plus, as my therapist has said, going back to that well is only trying to convince him of something — which is what I resent that he’s doing to me. So, as I’ve said before, we stick to safe topics. As for example, the fact that former Astro and Philly Brad Lidge now pitches for the Nationals, a fact I mentioned during the first night seder.

I had a great time at both seders. The first night were in attendance former neighbors of my in-laws, an older couple from the Ukraine; he was in a helicopter above Chernobyl when the explosion occurred and is one of the only survivors. My father-in-law’s cousin, his wife, and her son; my husband’s brother and his fiancée, as well as two friends of hers; and my father-in-law’s niece and her step-brother were there both nights. My father-in-law leads a pretty brisk and interactive seder — and is an expert afikomen hider, to boot — and my mother-in-law is a great cook. Add to that a fair amount of wine and great company, and there’s not much that could go wrong.

traditional seder plate with a few non-traditional items

In her typical unfiltered way, my mom pronounced the seders “more fun that I thought they’d be,” which I both laughed at and took as a compliment. As usual, it was hard to read my dad. But he dutifully read his parts of the haggadah and seemed to enjoy talking baseball and other topics with my father-in-law, whose worldview he shares. And in my family, uneventfulness at a gathering can often be considered enormous success. And on Sunday, he who has never met a burger joint he didn’t like got to try a new one, Smashburger, which he corralled all of the men to while the women were at the bridesmaid’s brunch of my husband’s soon-to-be sister-in-law. (By the way, there should be a better term for that relationship.) Obviously, not everyone in my husband’s family eschews chametz during Pesach.

Apparently my father-in-law never does the second half of the seder after the meal, which includes the second two cups of wine and the arrival of Elijah, so on the first night I got to lead it — which means I also got to insist that we sing Eliyahu HaNavi. I’m not a big proponent of the messianic era, but I do love the song. And in case you’re interested, we also sang Dayenu and Chad Gadya. And I got to explain the orange on the seder plate, which my mother-in-law included for me.

It was a lovely, restful weekend — and best of all, I didn’t have to do a thing but enjoy myself (read: did not have to cook). Thank you, Louisville!

god vs. gay?

I was fortunate enough to be able to hear Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality, speak at the Washington DCJCC in October, as part of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. At the end of his excellent talk, a man in the audience stood up, ostensibly to ask a question. He announced, “Well, I wasn’t going to come to this event, but then I saw a picture of you.” We all laughed. A shallow disclosure perhaps, but Michaelson is indeed good-looking — and I think anything that gets people in the room is good. As many as possible need to hear what he what he has to say.

First and foremost, Michaelson is a scholar. He has a J.D., an M.F.A., an M.A., and he’s working on his Ph.D. — and all of these degrees are from Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Yale, and Hebrew University. He’s also what I would probably call a Conservadox Jew. He makes learned, articulate, and persuasive arguments. This last fact is fortunate, because he covers in this book one of the more contentious issues of our time: what the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament say about homosexuality. And Michaelson doesn’t think those texts even come close to what every day we’re told they say.

Note: I am using the word “homosexuality” because it’s the word that Michaelson uses, and because many of the arguments that have been made against equality are based on verses that are concerned with “homosexuality” in the strictest sense (that is, same-sex sexual behavior), the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures having nothing to say about the social or cultural concepts of “being gay” or the same-sex relationships we’ve come to know in modern society. I do acknowledge, though, that the word can be clinical, distancing, and archaic.

Michaelson begins with the premise that while for him — and many others — the secular, constitutional argument for equality is sufficient, many religious people feel conflicted (at best) by the understood condemnation of homosexuality in scripture. He wants to meet these people where they are and address their concerns. “I sincerely believe that our shared religious values call upon us to support the equality, dignity, and full inclusion of sexual and gender minorities — that is, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” It is said that only Nixon can go to China; similarly, only someone truly committed to the importance of religion could convincingly make this argument. And one of the things I like about this book is Michaelson’s willingness to take seriously the concerns of self-identified religious people. I don’t know that those of us who are absolutely committed to civil and legal equality for LGBT folks get anywhere by telling people their religious teachings don’t matter (and indeed, I would say we haven’t gotten anywhere).

I can see how some might feel that this endeavor is either a fool’s errand or completely irrelevant to the current debates about how our governments should treat LGBT folks. It might be both. Michaelson was preaching to the choir with this reader, so it’s hard for me to say objectively how convincing his arguments are, especially in the face of the constant drumbeat from places of worship of “Man shall not lie with another man as with a woman; it is an abomination!” As for relevancy: like it or not, religious beliefs inform opinions about secular issues; I think anything that addresses the motivations of prejudice is a good thing.

Michaelson divides the book into three parts: why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities; what the “bad verses” really say about homosexuality; and why inclusion of sexual minorities is good, not bad, for religious values. I found the first two more compelling than the third, and the second most of all. I am a fan of close textual readings, and it always amazes me when really important issues (like how we treat our fellow human beings) are decided on the basis of modern and often agenda-driven English translations of ancient texts. As Michaelson points out, only seven verses, out of more than 31,000 in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, make reference to same-sex sexuality activity. So we don’t have much to go on — and we’d better make sure to get right the limited text that we do have. Indeed, the first part of Michaelson’s book is concerned with the values that should and must drive our understanding of LGBT folks in that absence. For instance, Jesus never made one recorded statement about homosexuality. Christians, then, are left with his teachings about love, compassion, mercy, tolerance, and justice for guidance about this issue.

I did have a few quibbles with Michaelson: More than once he mentions Eddie Long, who has been accusing of sexually abusing teenage boys, in the same sentence as other clergy condemning homosexuality found to be engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. But the problem with Eddie Long is that not that is he a closeted gay man or a hypocrite, as the others — it’s that he’s a perpetrator of child sexual abuse! Michaelson also uses the judgment-laden word “promiscuity” and similarly makes negative judgments about prostitution.

Overall, though, this book was excellent: persuasive and well researched. I picked it up because as a religious person, it’s important to me to know what my tradition says about homosexuality. I had assumed that mainstream interpretations were more or less accurate; I’d just dismissed them as archaic, as much use to me as the prohibition on wearing clothes made of linen and wool. Sadly, I’m not sure of the book’s chances of gaining a wider audience. But I can’t think of a book that our country needs more.

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