2017-07-12
After converting to Christianity, Lauren F. Winner found she could no more discard her Jewish upbringing than divorced couples can ignore their children or shared histories. Winner's new book, "Girl Meets God," tells the story of her struggle to wed her old traditions to her new faith. In this excerpt, reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books, she has traveled to Memphis during Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, for an academic conference and ends up accompanying her Christian ex-boyfriend to a Messianic Jewish temple-where the congregation claims both a Jewish heritage and belief in Jesus.

Brit Hadasha is off of I-240, and the building is non-descript. If you didn't know the name means "New Covenant" you might easily mistake it for a Reform synagogue. Steven and I sit in his green two-door for a few minutes, watching the parking lot fill up with the usual assortment of minivans and SUVs, battered Hondas and old Volvos. I watch carfuls of smiling women and children parade into the sanctuary and wonder what I'm doing here. Couldn't I have done this anonymously in New York? Did I really think it was a great idea to spend Saturday at a house of worship with my ex-boyfriend? My hands shake, and I'm contemplating staying in the car and reading a novel for two hours while he goes and prays.

Steven interrupts my reverie. "I like it here because these people are pariahs," he says. "They don't fit in anywhere-not with Jews, not with Christians. Being a Christian means being a pariah, Lauren, it means not fitting in anywhere in this world. Your Episcopalians are no pariahs."

A man clad in a tallis, a prayer shawl, stands at a podium in the front of the room, and a small choir clusters to his right, leading the congregation through songs that are printed on a transparency and displayed on a large screen. In the corner of the room, a circle of women are dancing, some variation on the hora. I am prepared for that. I've read a recent ethnography of a Messianic Jewish congregation, and the author explains that dancing is an important element of Messianic worship services. I feel an unexpected pull to join them. I have not yet found a group of Anglicans who love Jewish folk dancing.

The service consists mostly of songs, with a little spontaneous prayer thrown in. No one mentions Sukkot. The fact that it is Sukkot doesn't seem part of the service at all. Why bother playing at Judaism, I wonder, annoyed, if you don't move by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar? I have been trying, since I got baptized, to learn to live according to the seasons of Advent and Lent, but so far my body still thinks in terms of the Jewish holidays.

The absence of Sukkot is just one of many things that irritates me about the service. The pink satin yarmulkes, straight out of a Reform synagogue in the 1980s, irritate me. The gold-and-magenta banners proclaiming YESHUA irritate me. And the music irritates me. Rather than sing the haunting melodies available to anyone who is casually acquainted with the centuries-old Jewish cantorial tradition, the folks at Brit Hadasha seem content with songs that sound as though they had been lifted from the praise music guide at any nondenominational evangelical church, only Brit Hadasha's songs have a little Hebrew thrown in.

This is how I feel all morning: that Brit Hadasha's Judaism is just raisins added to cake-you notice them, but they don't really change the cake. The structure of the service bears no relation to the Jewish liturgy, and I can't tell if my fellow worshippers think that being Jewish leads them to understand Jesus any differently from Presbyterians down the street. Add Hebrew and Stir. I am bored and show off, screwing my eyes shut when I sing the Hebrew songs so that Steven, and everyone else, will know I don't need to read the transliterations flashed up on the screen in front of us.

Occasionally I offer up a silent prayer that the Holy Spirit will work overtime on my heart and help me stop being judgmental long enough to recognize that these people are worshipping the Risen Lord, but I don't really want God to answer this prayer.

Sukkot comes at the end of the season of repentance, two weeks after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As part of the work of repentance, Jews say special penitentiary prayers, called slichot. The slichot start at midnight on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, because the rabbis knew that the heavens are most open to prayers at midnight.

Among the slichot prayers is one you will say again on Rosh Hashanah, and on all the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and again on Yom Kippur, when God is making His final judgments about who will live and who will die,whom He will forgive and whom He will punish: Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v'chanun, erech apayim, vrav chesed v'emet, notzer chesed lalafim, nosey avon vafesha v'chatahah v'nakeh. "The Lord, the Lord, of compassion, Who offers grace and is slow to anger, Who is full of loving kindness and trustworthiness, Who assures love for a thousand generations, Who forgives iniquity, transgression, and misdeed, and Who grants pardon." It is a list, culled from the thirty-fourth chapter of Exodus, of God's thirteen merciful attributes, attributes that, according to the rabbis, shine mostly brightly during the season of repentance.

The prayer, a reminder to God not of our merit but of his capacity to overlook our sin, is sung to a particularly haunting melody, my favorite from the entire cantorial literature. It is minor, and repetitive, and dirge-like, and some people say that Jews wailed its tune as they walked to the gas chambers in Treblinka and Sobibor.

At Brit Hadasha, we sing a mostly-English-but-laced-with-Hebrew song also based on that slichot prayer, but this tune is zippy, full of rhyme and vim and pep. In the middle of the song, I slip out of the sanctuary and make my way, through the circle of dancing women, to the ladies' room, where I stare in the mirror and think. I wish for this service to be organic and seamless, but the seams show everywhere. Whatever part of me had come to Brit Hadasha hoping to find the key to marrying Judaism with the cross is disappointed. I am not going to find any answers in a church that thinks clapping and tambourining its way through Adonai, el rachum v'chanun is a good idea. "This must be why I hate them," I say out loud to the mirror. "I must hate them because I want them to give me a formula for how to be a Christian Jew and I know their formula will never be my formula."

After I've spent more time than is respectable in the bathroom, I return to my seat next to Steven, settling in for more praise music, a Torah reading and the homily. Across the aisle, a redheaded little girl in a white straw hat smiles at me and dances a little dance.

The rabbi is in the middle of a sermon series on the Book of Joshua. "Well, that's refreshing," I whisper. "A whole sermon series on something from the Old Testament. You would never hear that in a regular church." Steven shushes me before I can climb onto one of my favorite soapboxes, the Christians-think-the-Bible-starts-with-Matthew soapbox.

This week's sermon is on chapter 7. In chapter 7, Achan, from the tribe of Judah, steals some silver and gold and a beautiful robe; Joshua takes Achan to a valley and he is stoned to death. Ever after, the Book of Joshua tell us, that valley is known as the Valley of Achor, which means "trouble."

The rabbi proceeds to read this chapter just like rabbis read in the Talmud, the fifth-century compilation of Jewish oral tradition. "Where else is the Valley of Achor mentioned in the Bible?" he asks. This was a favorite rabbinic strategy-if a word appears only two or three times in the Bible, then God is telling us that when we come across one mention, we should think of the other passages that use the same word. This, for example, is how the rabbis figured out what activities were forbidden on the Sabbath. There are two words in Hebrew for "work," avodah and malacha. In the Torah, we find avodah a lot, but God used melacha only twice-in the list of 39 activities that went into building the tabernacle, and in the verses, like Exodus 31:15, that forbid working on the Sabbath: "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord." The rabbis reasoned that He used melacha in those two places so that we would make a connection: the tabernacle activities must be the activities that are forbidden on the Shabbat.

Achor shows up in Joshua, and then again in Hosea 2:15, where God promises to turn the Valley of Achor into a door of hope. "And what does God mean," the rabbi at Brit Hadasha now asks, when He speaks of transforming this valley of Achor, the Valley of Trouble, into a door of hope? He tells us in John 10:9, when Jesus declares, 'I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be saved.' The door promised in Hosea, a promise that in turn looked back to Joshua, was Jesus, the only door that could undo the trouble of Achor."

His reading is dazzling. I am dazzled. I have not heard anyone read Scripture in this particular rabbinic way since I became a Christian. The rabbi has done just what the rabbis of the Talmud did when they squeezed out the Sabbath prohibitions from the word melacha. There is something Jewish about this place, I think, the most important Jewish thing of all. They read like Jews.

The rabbi's marriage of Old Testament with the New is so striking that I hardly notice what comes next-an altar call. "If anyone here does not know the Lord," the rabbi says, "I invite you to come forward. I invite you to come up here and pray with me to ask our Savior into your life." We might be at a Billy Graham crusade. During the altar call Steven weeps, hunched over in his chair, crying like he's just been told the saddest news in the world-when, in fact, he's been told something very wonderful, which is that Jesus died to purge his sins. He weeps, and I sit next to him with my hand on the small of his back and my cheek pressed into his shoulder blade; I am both praying for the Spirit to set up shop in his heart, and wondering at all the work the Spirit has already done.

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