The Western Wall beckoned at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Kislev, 5760.
I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva for a month and residing at the Ratisbonne, a French Catholic monastery in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. My neighbor for the month was a sixty year old nun from South Africa named Trudy.
Although I had lived in Israel and visited there many times, I had never ventured into the Holy Sepulchre where the Tomb of Jesus resided. Trudy, who had been in Israel nine months, had never experienced the Western Wall, known in Israel as the Kotel. We made a deal on that rainy early morning in December that we would share each other’s holy places.
Trudy and I awoke before dawn and started the 30-minute walk to the Old City. We wanted to be present for the Rosh Chodesh morning prayers that are being sustained by the Women of the Wall, an organization of religiously and socially diverse women who come together once a month on the New Moon at the Western Wall. We reached the Kotel and immediately gazed at the gathering of women on the separated women’s section of the Western Wall. In lullaby hush tones we heard the singing and chanting of some sixty women. We drew closer to this monthly prayer circle. We lingered with them in a bittersweet prayer cocoon for twenty minutes. Like pregnant women getting ready to give birth, they packed their prayer books and the Sefer Torah (the Scroll that held the Five Books of Moses) in anticipation of their journey towards motherhood.
Since the religious municipality that governs the Wall prohibits women from chanting directly from the Sefer Torah’s scroll, the women journey half a mile to a more secluded and less public space known as Robinson’s arch.
The ancient space offered a stone carved table for our precious Sefer Torah. Several women unwrapped the scroll from a large blue duffel bag, and like a newborn baby, they placed her gently and lovingly on this changing table.
The rain turned sun reigned on us; the chatter turned silence shone inside. Trudy and I watched and waited for the next prayer chapter.
As the women prepared the sacred scroll for the reading, they asked if anyone would like to come up and receive an aliya, an honor.
I scanned the women’s faces, absorbed the question and hesitated before I answered. “Yes, I would like an aliya.”
The woman standing next to me was wearing a special “Women of the Wall” tallit embroidered with the names of the four matriarchs on each corner.
“May I borrow your tallit for my aliya?” I asked this stranger pleading as I spoke.
“Yes, but of course,” came her quick unequivocal reply.
The tallit made my aliya complete. This slow holy motion moment remains in my memory.
I returned to my place next to Trudy and removed the tallit from my shoulders. I thanked this beautiful lady for her generosity.
“What a wonderful way to inaugurate my new tallit with your blessings. This is my first time wearing it. Thank you.”
“You are the blessing,” I said.
Sometimes what we need someone else has to give.
A few years back, the son of friends wore a green shirt to school on St. Patrick’s Day that said “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” The response from his teachers, “You’re not Irish, you’re Jewish.”
To many people it might seem odd to think of Jews celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. But for Rabbi Sara O’Donnell Adler and many other Irish Jews or Jews of Irish decent, nothing seems more natural. Rabbi O’Donell Adler goes out of her way each year on St. Patrick’s Day to dress in green and wish everyone a happy holiday. Not a big fan of pubs or of corned beef (she is a vegetarian) she makes sure to call family members, send cards and share the luck of the Irish on this special day. O’Donell Adler was raised Jewish but her father was Irish Catholic. While she did not adopt his religion she is proud of her ethnic heritage. When she married Jeremy Adler, she could have dropped the O’Donnell and all the questions that come with it, but chose not too. On the contrary, she fought long and hard to make sure that the entire name was displayed prominently on her ID badge at the University of Michigan Hospitals where she is a chaplain. Does it cause confusion or negative comments? “No,” laughs O’Donnell Adler, on the contrary it is frequent positive conversation starter.
The Irish American longing for Ireland, is something that resonates strongly with Michal Morris Camille of Marin CA. Morris Camille was born in Israel but her father was born in Belfast. As a diplomat representing the government of Israel, the family lived all over the world but always saw Israel as home. Even as a representative of the Israeli government he was still seen as Irish and called on to sit in the grandstand at St. Patrick’s Day parades or judge Irish beauty contests.
In many ways, the American celebration of St. Patrick’s Day fits easily with Jewish life. Though it’s origins are clearly religious, St. Patrick’s Day as it is celebrated in the United States is a largely ethnic diasporic holiday, which helps those living at a distance affirm a commitment to homeland, that may exist only in realm of longing not in the realm of experience. The ability to gather and celebrate a common heritage, to recall the place from which one originates, is common to both Jews and Irish living outside their homelands. The broadening out of this particularistic ethnic celebration into the mainstream of American life provides a model for Jews as we continue to integrate into American life. So whether or not your roots lie in the Emerald Isle or elsewhere, happy St. Patrick’s Day.
The seminary: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, affiliated with the Reform movement. The class: “The New Testament,” taught by Rabbi Michael Cook. A classmate’s copy of the Oxford Study Bible falls to the floor. The student asks, “Do I kiss it?” To which another quips, without missing a beat: “Depends…what side did it land on?”
I thought about that moment on Friday when I read the New York Times “Beliefs” column, which included a nice review of a new commentary on the Christian Bible (or “New Testament,” in Christian parlance). What makes this commentary very interesting is that is was written entirely by Jews — chiefly, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. I’ve gotten my copy, and I’ve spent some time leafing through it. It appears to be an invaluable resource for rabbis and scholars, which is no surprise, given the lineup of writers who contributed (a lineup which includes my teacher, Michael Cook). But I’ll go further and say that the New Testament — this New Testament, in particular — is a book that belongs in every Jewish home.
I’m joking, right? Just how “without borders,” are these rabbis, recommending that Jews buy copies of “that” book? So let me clarify by saying that I don’t believe Jews ought to read this book for devotional purposes. To give it “a place in the canon,” to treat it as “Torah,” would be to step over a border that I’m not the least bit interested in questioning or crossing. No, I recommend the Jewish Annotated New Testament because I believe that an appreciation of this book can enhance the Jewishness — the authentic Jewishness — of Jewish homes.
I believe this is so, in the first instance, because so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the very idea of the Christian Bible. We come by those feelings honestly (two millennia of Church-sponsored antisemitism leaves a mark), but fear of a book is unbecoming “the people of the book.” Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, and willful ignorance even less so. Thus, the simple act of bringing this book into our homes may be a step away from a fear-driven relationship to Christianity.
Furthermore, the vast majority of American Jews (at least outside of the most traditionally observant circles) have friends and even extended family who are Christians. I believe it to be a sign of respect when we show some interest in the book that inspires them. Jews are respected by our neighbors for (among other things) our intellectual acumen, and our curiosity. How strange it must seem to them when we demonstrate no knowledge or curiosity at all about their sacred book. I know how strange it sounds to put it this way, but I believe it is a kiddush hashem — a positive and public Jewish act — for Jews to have this book on their shelves where their Christian neighbors, friends, and family can see it.
Finally, let it not be said that the Jewish Annotated New Testament is only about the optics. Were that the case, we could just put those words on the spine of a book, and conceal some other book inside (the Torah perhaps, or maybe Mad Magazine). No, this is a book whose spine is very much worth cracking. Though I’ve only begun to do so myself, I feel confident in saying that to delve into the essays, and the textual notes, and yes, even the stories themselves, is to gain a deeper understanding not only of Christianity (which is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor) but also of Judaism (which ought to be a worthwhile spiritual endeavor). Co-editor Amy-Jill Levine, in the previously linked-up NYT piece, says that her deepened understanding of Christianity has made her a better Jew. I believe her, and I look forward to engaging more deeply with her work in this field.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament may not be “Torah” for us Jews, and it might not get a kiss after an inadvertent fall. But it ought to take its place in our libraries as an indispensable window into the sacred texts of our neighbors, and its presence on our personal bookshelves may also tell us something important about ourselves.