Years ago, a Jewish woman, a 15-year survivor of cancer, came to me with a confession.
“Rabbi,” she said, “When I was getting chemo, the woman next to me said to bury a picture of Saint Jude (the saint of desperate situations) for good luck, so I did it. I was so scared. I bought a picture of St. Jude and buried it in my backyard.”
“Huh.” That’s official rabbi speak for “This topic does not appear in the Talmud.”
“So, there’s more, Rabbi.”
There is always more.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I told a different Catholic friend about burring St. Jude in the backyard, and she asked me, ‘did you bury him face-up or face-down?’ I told her ‘face- up.’ She told me that it has to be face-down. So what was I to do rabbi? My first friend insisted that St. Jude be face-up and the second one said face-down. So 15 years later, guess how many saints are buried in my backyard?”
You guessed it. There is at least one nice Jewish woman with two St. Jude’s buried in her back yard – And given the alternative she was worried about, thank God!
I shared this story this past Shabbat in a Torah Study group. I asked for help exploring the boundaries of sanctioned Israelite religion. Why on Yom Kippur would Aaron, the High Priest, offer one goat to God and another to Azazel (Lev 16)? Whether “Azazel” is a “desolate place,” or the name of a “goat demon of the wilderness” – What does this non-normative practice tell me about the boundaries of my religion’s, Judaism’s, practice today?
I went on to share the odd story of the serpents God sent down to bite the Israelites that were wrongfully complaining. When they admitted guilt God told Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole, anyone who is bitten can look upon it and be healed.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When any bitten person looked upon it, he lived.” (Numbers 21:4-8).
The Ten Commandments are pretty clear, and they make the above two stories, and a handfull of others patently problematic:
- You shall not have any gods before Me.
- You Shall not make any graven images – not of the things of the heavens, not of things of the earth or the waters below.
My question is not a history question of the actual belief of ancient Israelites. I am not presently interested in the rich rabbinic commentary that explains these difficulties away. I am familiar with them – I love them, but my interest today is this:
Is there a thread that ties together these breaks in ‘normative’ practice?
There is: Illness.
My read on these texts, and my pastoral practice in desperate health issues is “Anything Goes.”
If you are in a dire situation – do you care to which god people who care about you pray to on your behalf? I say keep ALL the prayers coming. Bring in Mary if she’ll help. Send in Mohamed, Azazel, St. Jude, a picture of a snake etched in copper. Send in all the light. If “it” works, wouldn’t you do it to save a life or to remove a serious illness?
We are taught that one should accept death rather than these 3 things: Idolatry, sexual crimes, or murder. There is president to fudge on the first, and I’m fine with that.
To those of us open to a reality that is beyond rational explanation, don’t we also have admit some naiveté’ about how that mysterious reality is really accessed?
I’m aware of the slippery slope just before me. I’m not ready to put up a cross in the synagogue or replace the seats with prayer mats (still, yoga mats are finding their way into synagogues). but I’ll defend a Jewish woman keeping two St. Judes buried in the backyard.
One person at the table asked, “How about the healing waters of Lourdes?”
“Funny you should mention that.” It was one of my dear friends, who has recently lost his vision. “Some Catholic friends of ours sent me some water from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes,” he said. “I put on a few drops on my eyelids each night. After a few nights, I could actually make out the numbers on our bedside alarm clock. It was the first time in I don’t know how long since I could do that.”
For sure there are boundaries in Judaism. I’m not advocating any changes – but when illness faces us with the existential realities of life and death those same boundaries often become permeable and we would be foolish not to notice.