Last week, I was privileged to be the invited guest at First United Methodist Church in the very small town of Amite, Louisiana, to participate in a question and answer session on Judaism.
Amite is an hour away from New Orleans, where I live, so I was given the choice of just being available for a phone interview instead of driving, but chose to go to the church instead. Being keenly aware that we are all responsible for each other was my motive for the drive. There’s no substitute for being there in person. Body language, tone, eye contact and just the opportunity for Christians to meet a Jewish person, possibly for the first time, and be able to feel a human kinship is more important than answering any single question.
If a group simply wants information, all of it can be found online. The interaction is the most important part of interfaith learning. When one of us connects in a positive way with 15 Christians, we can help positively shape their perception of Jews for the rest of their lives! And the next time one of them hears a Jewish slur, they are much more likely to react with disapproval, thereby changing the opinions of others, as well.
So how did it go in Amite? Well, the questions about basic Judaism were ones I have answered hundreds of times. However, once we got comfortable with each other, the church members bravely asked the more personal and sometimes difficult cultural questions that too often don’t get asked.
Some of the more difficult questions:
- “Is a Jew ‘Jewish’ because of religion, or because of their culture or lineage?”
- “Why do some Jews keep kosher and others don’t? If one deviates from Biblical teachings, how are they still Jewish?”
- “Why are Jews associated with bargaining, unfair money lending and the slur Jewing someone down?”
The truth is that I think the biggest question modern Jews wrestle with among ourselves is what makes someone Jewish? There is no one single answer… and if we, the Jews, are conflicted – then is it any wonder that non-Jews are a bit confused as well?
So we discussed the differences between the denominations: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Ultra Orthodox Judaism, and how no one anymore lives exactly according to Biblical law. We disagree on many things as being central to being Jewish, but we all use the Torah – whether we believe it was written by God or inspired by God or a historical document – as a base. Another thing most Jews have in common is that we believe in the central concept that God is one. We also talked about how the technical definition of “who is a Jew” also varies along with each movement – those who believe only in matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion, or at the other end of the spectrum someone with just one Jewish parent who identifies as Jewish, or anyone who converts to Judaism.There are Jews who go to synagogue every week, or from time to time, or who only celebrate Passover or the high holy days – and in modern Judaism, any set “line” is left purposely not drawn. Exclusion and judgments are unproductive; rather outreach and inclusion are central to our faith.
To address the hard question about the Jewish stereotypes related to greed and money, we had to talk about a long history. I explained that in medieval Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land, therefore, they were not farmers and ranchers and their income options were limited. Most were merchants and peddlers, buying and selling things. When a person is successful as a peddler, their main goal, like any modern retailer, is to buy low and sell high. Whether it was clothing, jewelry, food or household goods, these peddlers were as vital to the economy as the current retailers are today – but that meant they too could be blamed for high prices. Another way Jews earned money without owning land was to become money-lenders. A Christian was not allowed to earn interest on a loan to another Christian, and Jewish money wasn’t tied up in land, and so they loaned money to Christians to build their churches and homes and keep their farms going. It was a great business deal for everyone. However, trouble would come when, for instance, a church defaulted on a loan. Then the Jew was put in the impossible position of foreclosure. No one looks upon the banker fondly when they are foreclosing on a home or church, even if it is justified! And if someone was looking for a reason to act with hate towards Jews, this was a ready-made excuse.
These conversations can be hard, but are so rewarding. And as usual, we learn as we teach! The session opened with a prayer, which I expected, but what I have never heard was the content of this prayer. This opening prayer was asking God for forgiveness as Christians for the history of maltreatment of Jews during the last 2,000 years. Pope John II made great strides in reconnecting Jews and Christians, and the facilitator made reference to the prayers of this Pope as the start of the healing process between us.
I hope I continue to be invited throughout my life and I encourage all Jewish people to do the same. I hope the next time you are asked to answer questions, your answer will be YES!
Have you ever been a participant in a program like this? What did you think?
(Image in this post from jerusalemprayerteam.org)
This blog originally appeared on Lutheran Confessions, and is re-posted here with permission from the author, Pastor Clint Schnekloth.
Although I in no way mean to imply that Lutherans and the Jewish community in Northwest Arkansas are identical, it is true some of us wear similar t-shirts (I have a t-shirt that reads “The Lord be with y’all”).
It was our honor and privilege to attend Hanukkah celebrations at Temple Shalom in Fayetteville this evening. The evening began with a blessing over the separation (Havdallah, the candle lighting to end Sabbath).
This included a nice hymn, “A good week. A week of peace/May gladness reign and joy increase.” Also the Kiddush, and blessings over the spices and the candles. We sang these standing in a large circle, then danced to the song even most non-Jewish communities know well, the Hava Nagila (let us rejoice).
Two enthusiastic Fellows from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life taught many of the traditions. The Institute sends out nine Fellows each year. They spend their year conducting Sunday school type programs in the synagogues they serve.
I love Temple Shalom’s mission statement, “Temple Shalom is located in the city of Fayetteville, nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. We are a small, tight-knit, welcoming congregation representing a diversity of practices, and dedicated to serving as the focal point for Jewish life in our small corner of the world.”
Although past years have seen 50-60 participants in programs like the Hanukkah party, this year over 150 people were in attendance, almost all (with the exception of our Lutheran household and a few other visitors) were Jewish. Although I do not know all of the reasons for this growth, my guess is that a) it is an attractive community engaging in effective forms of outreach, and b) more Jewish families and individuals are moving to NWA.
After prayer, we lit the Hannukah candles, and we ate. I think my favorite were the latkes. I’m a huge fan of potato pancakes soaked with sour cream or apple sauce. “Latkes (Yiddish: לאַטקע) are traditionally eaten by Jews during the Hanukkah festival. The oil for cooking the latkes is symbolic of the oil from the Hanukkah story that kept the Second Temple of ancient Israel lit with a long-lasting flame that is celebrated as a miracle.”
Then there was the potluck. Lots of great hot dishes and more latkes of various shapes and flavors. We focused some of our attention on the sweets. I have this evening eaten a chocolate version of the Decalogue. Certainly evocative of Psalm 19: “The law of the Lord is perfect, sweeter than honey.”
But the best part of the party was the fellowship. Although we had to leave early for family bedtimes, we had the opportunity to spend an evening with neighbors and friends we love and deeply cherish.
We share this common story, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Lutherans and Jews also share a common immigrant story to Arkansas. Here’s to lighting candles together, lights that fend off the darkness and give indication of our joy.