To learn about oneself, it is often helpful to turn outward and pay attention to the way you are perceived by others. Being open to this kind of assessment, while sometimes challenging, is potentially a source of real insight into how we behave and even what we believe. I’ve had this type of experience over the past year while studying with a Catholic Brother and Sister from the Community of Saint John, a religious order based in France that sends missionaries to Catholic churches throughout the world. Brother Charles Joseph and Sister Frances Mary belong to this order (they are both from France, but members of the Community of Saint John come from countries around the world), and they contacted me a year ago with a request that I help them to learn about Judaism. Since then, we have met about once a week in my office where I teach them about Judaism. Our discussions range from theology to Jewish law to Talmud to Jewish holidays to the weekly Torah portion, and are always interesting. We have developed a friendship based on the work we do as clergy. Brother Charles and Sister Frances attended Yom Kippur services here at Oheb Shalom last fall, and attended the Bar Mitzvah service of my son Aaron a month later.
Recently, Charles and Frances expressed interest in visiting the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, an outstanding museum whose core exhibit is a “living memorial to the Holocaust.” I arranged a visit to the museum this past Sunday for Charles and Frances, along with nine other brothers and sisters from the two local parishes they serve. Accompanying me on the visit in the role of guides were Cantor Lippitz, Mark Gordon, Alan Winkler and Jeremy Garber. Visiting the museum is, in and of itself, an important experience from both an intellectual perspective and an emotional one as well. Visiting with 11 Catholic clergy members transforms the visit substantially, as reactions to the Holocaust in all of the ways that it is important to the Jewish people are shared openly. Imagine walking through the museum describing not only the historical facts, but also how you, as a Jew, feel about the Holocaust. Imagine how you might answer the question of “How do Jews live with the notion of victimhood?” or “Does it trouble you that the United States government didn’t do more to help your people?” Such questions call for an answer, and spark personal reflection as well.
Upon our return from the museum, our group shared a meal in the synagogue and had an opportunity for dialogue about matters of religion. Our conversation was wide ranging, but the most intriguing aspect to me was the comment made by a nun from the Philippines, who spoke of her envy of the Jewish people. “You are God’s people,” she said. “You have the Torah, and a special purpose given to you by God. The world is looking to you to lead the way.” Her comments were sincere and enthusiastic; she genuinely believes that Jewish people are on a special mission inspired by God to change the world for the better. She assumed that most Jews have visited Israel and come back to their homes imbued with a great fervor and spiritual excitement about being Jewish (I hardly wanted to tell her that the majority of American Jews have never been to Israel, for I’m sure she would not understand why that is so).
The study sessions I’ve shared with Brother Charles and Sister Frances have also necessitated that I rearticulate what I personally believe. Often, we live the cycle of the Jewish year paying attention to ritual practice and holiday observance. We do not spend enough time reflecting on what we believe and contemplating what Judaism means to us. I’ve encountered the way some Catholic clergy members view Jewish people and I’ve wondered if I truly see myself in the same way. The dialogue has been an important one for my colleagues, I hope. And it has been important for me as well, for it has urged me to pause and reflect on why we do what we do as Jews.
Such reflection is a good thing for all of us. Don’t be reluctant to enter into dialogue about your religious beliefs with others, especially those who don’t know a lot about Judaism and who may make assumptions about what you believe and how and why you practice Judaism. I know that such conversations aren’t casual and may not happen spontaneously- perhaps Oheb Shalom could launch a series some Shabbat morning entitled “And This I Believe” which would serve as a forum for articulating our beliefs.
I hope you will comment on this post by sharing what you believe about Judaism, about God, Israel, Torah, and the purpose of the Jewish people in this world.