I remember sitting one day with my three-year-old daughter. She had a book in her and was turning the pages and telling the story. This was her regular habit. She could not yet read the words, but she could tell the story based on the pictures.
I had one ear listening to her voice and the other, I am sorry to say, thinking about the coming week’s sermon. Suddenly I stopped thinking about the sermon. I turned my head toward her. Something was different.
I looked down at the book. I realized she was not telling the story in her own words. She was reading the words on the page.
I couldn’t believe it. Time stood still for a second. Then I looked at her, laughed, smiled and started to sing. I didn’t sing any particular song. It was just words of joy and happiness, and we both started dancing around the room. That was a transformative moment. It was a time on my journey when the waters parted and I glimpsed God working in the world.
How Surprises Touch Your Soul
What made it special? Not the reading. That would happen one day. It was the surprise. It was the sheer delight in seeing expectations shattered.
We all have these experiences. Perhaps it is the twinge inside when you fall in love. Perhaps it is swelling up of pride when your child does the right thing when they don’t know you are watching. Those moments make all the difference. Life is richer when we let it surprise us.
Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel made this point when he said he remained young by constantly being surprised? How do we heed Heschel’s advice?
1. Keep an open mind: I known that sounds like a cliche, but think about it. How often do we look at the future as a series of milestones to achieve? Next year we’ll get the promotion. In a few hours we’ll look at a different house. We’ll start that book when our first kid goes off to college. We often look at life as a puzzle to solve rather than a mystery to embrace. But when it’s a mystery, surprises abound.
2. Moderate expectations: Many psychologists point out that expectations are the enemy of happiness. They set us up for failure because we look for what doesn’t fit. Picture a man or woman looking for the perfect spouse. They have a checklist: right income, right family, right hair color. Where is the mystery? Where is the space for surprise? It’s hard to be surprised when you know exactly what’s going to happen.
3. Shift your perspective: Albert Einstein said many wise things. Most of them have nothing to do with science. Amongst my favorites is his observation that “There are only two ways to look at the world. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Albert Einstein said many wise things. Most of them have nothing to do with science. Amongst my favorites is his observation that “There are only two ways to look at the world. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” To that we can only say “Amen.”
In the 1970s Alex Haley wrote the best-seller Roots. He sought to find the roots of his life as an African-American. Where did he come from? What experiences shaped who he was?
We all ask these questions. We seek not only geographic roots and ethnic roots. We look for spiritual roots. Where do we come from? Why do we believe what we believe?
For Christians much of the answer lies in Judaism. Pope Francis recently put it bluntly when he said, “I believe that inter-religious dialogue must investigate the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Christian flowering of Judaism… Inside every Christian is a Jew.”
The Past is Never Past
The Pope acknowledged this statement will upset many people. Some Jews will feel the statement does not acknowledge the tragic history of anti-semitism in the Church. Some might also say in referring to the Christian “flowering” of Judaism, his statement minimizes the legitimacy of Judaism on its own.
The Pope is not denigrating any of us. His statement is an invitation to dig deeper into who we are. Finding our roots does not delegitimize who we have become. It helps us understand ourselves better. We all know this in our personal lives.
As an example, I live in Chicago. I love this city to the depths of my soul. Yet, I also grew up in Houston, Texas. I love visiting there and and am grateful for the slight southern twang it gave me. I also attended high school in Milwaukee, and living there can me an appreciation for the lakefront.
We Don’t Have to Agree in order to Learn
Appreciating the beauties of Houston and Milwaukee does not diminish my love for Chicago. Similarly, knowing more about Judaism need not diminish a Christian’s love and appreciation of Christianity. As a rabbi, I have seen the sparks ignited when some of the treasures of Judaism are opened up to people who have never experienced them.
Yes, we will disagree on practices and interpretations. Yet, disagreement does not imply illegitimacy. To live in a time when Christians can find meaning in Jewish practices, and Jews can work and learn with Christians as partners is a blessing we should celebrate.
How We Grow Through Each Other
This lesson really hit home when I dialogued on Lent and Passover with my friend Reverend Lillian Daniel. We were moved by the questions members of our congregations asked us and one another. Jews can learn more about major aspects of Christianity like the Resurrection, and Christians can learn more about Jewish texts like the Talmud.
All of us discovered a new religious truth for the 21st century: Learning about and exploring other faiths does threaten our uniqueness. It brings us closer to the God who created us all.
Last year I attended the Irish Fest in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The music and ambience make it one of most unforgettable days of the year.
Listening to a concert, I struck up a conversation with someone standing next to me. I told him I was a rabbi, and once we got past the usual incredulity and discussion of why I don’t have a beard, he turned serious.
“I’m Irish,” he said, “And I love Irish music. I’m here celebrating being Irish. But I don’t plan to move to Ireland. I don’t talk about it all the time. Why do Jews care so much about Israel? It’s all I hear—Israel, Israel, Israel.”
This post was written with my friend and colleague, Reverend Lillian Daniel.
The late great Abraham Joshua Heschel was once asked why he devoted so much time to interfaith dialogue. He answering by recounting part of his family history. “When the Nazis came for my parents,” he wrote, “they had no one to call. They did not know the local minister. They could not call the mayor. They could not call the local parish. Now,” he said, “if something happened, I could pick up the phone and talk to half a dozen Christian leaders in 15 minutes.”
As American clergy of a younger generation, a rabbi and a pastor in the suburbs of Chicago, we didn’t imbue our own dialogue with any kind of lifesaving importance. We knew it would be interesting, fun even, to talk about Maundy Thursday and Passover, and then share it with our congregations in the context of worship.
But we found ourselves confronting a sometimes tragic history between our faiths. We asked some piercing questions. We found ourselves learning from one another.
We probably began with the lofty goal of modeling meaningful religious conversations for our congregations. But after trying it out, we both realized we were learning and changing.
Because whether you are clergy in the pulpit or members in the pews, we all wince at the excesses – the pistol packing pastor who wants to burn the Koran, the irresponsible leaders who believe every inch of the holy land belongs to them, the violent zealots who think killing the innocent is an acceptable price to pay for making a religious point.
We soon realized that as clergy, we would not be “models of dialogue” in the worship services, but fellow travellers, just learning how to live. And nothing made that clearer than returning to our respective homes that Sunday to hear the horrifying news of shootings at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas.
So, having worshipped with one another’s congregations on the Sabbath before Passover and on Palm Sunday: What did we learn?
1. If you can’t say it in front of the rabbi/or the pastor, don’t say it all. We don’t need to water down our unique beliefs. We need to affirm them with openness and dignity. But having a clergy guest makes us look at what we are saying, and not saying, with more clarity. We need to talk about what is difficult as we search for what we share.
2. There is still much work to be done: Much of the interfaith dialogue over the last half century has been at the organizational level. Numerous leaders of big groups have spoken with one another. The benefits have been tangible. Yet, much of the deeper understanding and knowledge of one another’s faith has not spread to the pews. We were moved by the questions members of our congregations asked us and one another. Jews can learn more about major aspects of Christianity like the Resurrection, and Christians can learn more about Jewish texts like the Talmud. This knowledge need not threaten our uniqueness, but bring us closer to the God who created us all.
3. Ask the awkward questions: We each tried to surprise each other with a difficult question. Evan asked Lillian about Satan. Lillian asked Evan if he believed the Ten Plagues really happened. Our answers may surprise you, and we have several more in the works.
4. It’s not theoretical, it’s the world we live in.
Denominational pronouncements are not where the rubber hits the roads. We have to take this to the thoughtful and curious people in our congregations. The members of our congregations are not engaged in interfaith dialogue. They live, as we do, in a multi-faith world. It’s not about talking, it’s about living.
And in the wake of the recent tragedy in Kansas, two clergy and two congregations realized that Heschel’s remarks do speak to us today. This work is more lifesaving than we thought.