A Christian's Primer: A Harvard Professor Delves into the Beauty That Is Judaism
By Robert Leiter
Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Exponent. Visit www.jewishexponent.com.
In the early 1980s, well-known Protestant theologian and longtime Harvard professor Harvey Cox, having recently suffered through the collapse of his first marriage, was introduced to Nina Tumarkin, a professor of Russian history at Wellesley College. She, too, was working through the aftereffects of a failed marriage. Cox had three grown children; Tumarkin had none. Mutual friends had thought them well-suited to one another, and it turned out they were.
The only sticking point was that Tumarkin is Jewish, and as committed to her religion as Cox is to his. What transpired, says Cox, were a number of spirited discussions, during which they decided that neither of them wanted to convert to the other's faith or to arrive at something in-between. They became determined instead to learn as much as they could about the other's religion, to honor it and participate in it as much as is permissible.
One of the outgrowths of this second marriage, along with a son, Nicholas, now 15 and who is being raised Jewish, is Cox's newest book, Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian's Journey through the Jewish Year (Houghton Mifflin). The work is exactly what it advertises itself to be: a look at the Jewish year via its major holidays, as seen through the eyes of an outsider who, as he notes, happens to have some insider privileges.
The book begins with a discussion of the Sabbath--Judaism's most frequent holiday--and then moves from one Rosh Hashanah to the next, with stops along the way to discuss a trip to Israel, sitting shiva (seven-day period of mourning), a Jewish wedding, and Nicholas' Bar Mitzvah.
Cox states in his introduction that he has at least four reasons for writing Common Prayers. The first is that he wishes to help fellow Christians who might be curious about Judaism learn something more about the religion. He would hope, he says, that such readers would turn first to the work of Jewish scholars, but after that point, the reflections in Common Prayers might act as a "helpful supplement."
His second reason is more personal. He wants to demonstrate how he has come to a better understanding of his Christian faith through his marriage to a Jewish woman and his participation in Jewish communal life.
He writes: "Christians sometimes say that we need to understand Judaism because, after all, our religion is 'rooted in the faith of ancient Israel.' This is true as far as it goes. But what it overlooks is that there have been nearly 2,000 years of Jewish history since Christianity came to birth. Little by little, I have become quite uneasy with the 'roots' metaphor. Thinking of Judaism in this way consigns it to the past. It makes living Judaism invisible... The roots analogy may even inadvertently contribute to the mistaken idea that Christianity has somehow superseded Judaism, a notion I completely reject. I want to understand Judaism, not just because of what it was, but because of what it is. Judaism is the tradition that sustains 14 million human beings (many of them, it would seem, my relatives). And it is also a luxuriant repository of a spiritual wisdom available to anyone."
His third reason is the wish to question the notion that a Jewish-Christian marriage dilutes the substance of either or both spouses' faiths. Cox and Tumarkin feel it is the exact opposite. Though they cannot be certain where their separate faith journeys might have taken them, together they have been strengthened in their respective religions. Cox hopes his book will offer hints to other such couples on how to arrive at a similar destination.
His last hope is that Common Prayers will be of interest and of some worth to Jewish readers, who may benefit from seeing themselves as others see them.
Never a dull read
For at least one Jewish reader, the overall effect is mixed, but never without interest. At one point in the text, Cox quotes from the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and says that he disagrees with him as often as he agrees with him. I found myself feeling the same way about Cox, which is another way of saying that Common Prayers is never dull.
What I mean is best summed up by considering the chapters on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot and Simchat Torah. In Cox's opinion, there's always been something wrong with the way the secular New Year is celebrated. Despite all the cheering and toasting, the carousing actually seemed to him rather tepid. There should, in fact, be another dimension to the coming of a new year, something that was being "overlooked or even avoided." What he would expect at such a time is a sense of apprehension, even trepidation, "that gnaws at each of us with the realization that our time is limited." And this is what he found in the celebration of the New Year in Judaism.
He writes: "An outsider participating in Jewish religious life soon learns that the way Jews affirm life is not by denying death but by facing it down. The Rosh Hashanah ritual takes the form of a dramatic confrontation with death and mortality. This happens in part through a carefully staged courtroom drama in which God is the judge, and everyone who comes before his presence is being tried for his or her life. In fact, to my astonishment, according to one Jewish prayer book, even the 'hosts of heaven' are called to account at this time. Nobody, human or angel, escapes this sweeping indictment. In the end, life and mercy win out over death and judgment, but the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is designed to elicit the same cold dread anyone would feel in a human courtroom under such formidable circumstances."
The drama continues, of course, on Yom Kippur. Cox's discussion of the Jonah story and the differences between Christian and Jewish concepts of sin rate as some of the best in the book, along with his discussion of the Abraham and Isaac story, and his realizations about Christianity and its effect on the Holocaust during a Passover that happened to coincide with Easter.
As for Cox's discussion of Sukkot, I found it less successful. His emphasis almost solely on the agricultural aspects of the holiday lead him to a discussion of our current environmental problems. It's a limited and rather politically correct reading of the festival.
It's also something of a downer. His discussion of the dangers posed to the environment are right on target, but his emphasis leaves out too much of the joy that is Sukkot--from building and decorating the sukkah (temporary wooden hut) to dwelling in it. Then there's the celebration during the synagogue service with the etrog and lulav, which Cox does not discuss and which is such a needed release after the fast on Yom Kippur. The discussion of the differing concepts Judaism and Christianity have about the messiah is fascinating, but somewhat beside the point when it comes to Sukkot.
Cox gets back to unmitigated joy, appropriately enough, when he turns to Simchat Torah.
"Simchat Torah is one of the Jewish holidays I relish the most," writes the author, "and not just because I enjoy street parties and klezmer music. It is a holiday in which I catch a glimpse of something utterly fundamental to Judaism and realize how many of my stereotypes about 'legalistic' Judaism have to be discarded... It takes a while to dawn on Christians that for Jews the Law is not a burden, a hindrance or an obstacle to living a fully human and vitally spiritual life. The Law (Torah) is a condition of being human. It is a generous gift which God bestows on his people simply out of love."
Robert Leiter is Literary editor of The Jewish Exponent.