Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I am the rabbi in a small town on the coast of Georgia. I like to say I am the “Chief Rabbi of Glynn County,” because I am the only rabbi in Glynn County. The closest Jewish communities are an hour north and south, in Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. As a result, I field all the requests for all things Jewish around here. Some questions I get are oddball or silly. Some are full of longing and quests for understanding. Some have been highly enlightening, even surprising, about how some with the Christian faith view Jews and Judaism. This is one such story.
One of the local Lutheran ministers approached me recently and asked me to speak at her church during Advent. I agreed. One of my main tasks here is to be a public face for Judaism, and I welcome opportunities to speak to groups, especially other-faith groups, sharing a universal message within a Jewish framework that opens up space for dialogue, connection and understanding. I asked about specifics for the talk, and she replied:
Mary was a young Jewish woman. We are wondering what it is like for a young Jewish woman to wait for the Messiah. We don’t know what that is like… We are hoping that you will share what it is like for a young Jewish woman to wait for the Messiah.
So the goal here is to share my experience as a “Jewish woman waiting for the Messiah” in order to shed some light on what it was like for Mary, a Jewish woman, waiting for the birth of Jesus.
But here’s the thing… first of all, I am not certain I can translate my experiences into Mary’s milieu. And second of all, I am not really waiting for the Messiah — certainly, not in the same way that she was.
What I find to be most interesting about this request, however, is that buried within it, there are assumptions that I often encounter. The assumption that Jews and Judaism have a relationship with Jesus; that I understand who Mary was, or that I am waiting for the Messiah, or that my frame of reference is centered on the Messiah like it is for my Christian friends. I once heard the following story from Vanderbilt professor of New Testament studies, Amy-Jill Levine, who is Jewish, and was asked, “What do Jews think of Jesus?” Her response was, “We don’t.”
We don’t. We don’t think about Jesus, or Joseph or Mary. They are not our people.
There is some scholarship that suggests there may be some reference to Jesus in the Talmud, a 5-6th-century legal code which would likely contain stories about Jesus if he had captured the rabbinic imagination or rabbinic attention. But the dating of these texts is problematic so it is unclear if they are really about Jesus of Nazareth or about a different Jesus altogether.
While Mary, Joseph and Jesus are not my people, the Lutheran minister, and her flock… are.
So I am taking the assignment and here is what I am thinking. Advent is a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming” It is a happy and joyous time marked by themes of hopefulness for a better future. Jewishly, this echoes the themes of light in the darkness we focus on at Hanukkah.
As for waiting for the Messiah, that’s a little complicated. We don’t think about the Messiah in the same way Christians do. heir holiday calendar centers around the life of Jesus who they believe to have been the Messiah. While we certainly have messianic leanings within some of our holidays and our liturgy, we have no singular holiday dedicated to the Messiah. Christmas, Easter, Advent and Lent are all about the coming of the Messiah. My rabbi growing up, Lawrence Kushner, used to say that all religions work with the same deck of cards, but it is how we shuffle them that makes us different. Whereas for Christians, the “Messiah” card is toward the top of the deck, for Jews, it is further down.
Jewishly, we pray for the coming of the Messiah. For some, that is a person, an idea or an era in time. There is a belief in our Jewish toolkit which says we are to work to bring about the messianic era and then the Messiah will come. I like this idea. I find it inspiring and it moves me to keep pushing forward and working hard to bring about the better world I believe to be possible. It reminds me that a better world is achievable, and making it happen is my responsibility as well as everyone else’s. What I especially appreciate is that this is an active way to wait.
And this brings me to Mary. What I find magical about Mary is that she was an expectant mother waiting for the birth of her son. For my Christian friends, looking at this moment, they are waiting for the birth of the man they believe to be the Messiah. But for Mary, she is waiting for her child to emerge into this world. Even if you have never had a child, we all can sense what this is like. You’ve worked hard to create something new and unique in the world and now you’re waiting to see what will be, what will become of this thing you are birthing. What is absolutely humbling to me is we truly never know what will happen. What a great leveler- we all know what it is like to wait and see, to be fully expectant, fully present, fully hopeful and fully powerless all at the same time.
This sense of expectation is what I am thinking about Mary — a Jewish woman waiting for the Messiah — but not the person growing inside of her, rather the person growing and evolving inside of herself. In this season of darkness, longing for the light, seeking hope in the most ordinary of things, I think we all feel the birth pangs of the Messiah, waiting, hoping and working for something better…perhaps just around the corner.