Friday, October 28, 2011

Why People Become Orthodox

About three years ago the Orthodox blog Hirhurim -- Torah Musings ran a symposium on why people who were not raised Orthodox choose to join the Orthodox community. Here is my contribution to that symposium. See if it rings true.

Like most sociological phenomena, the phenomenon of Jews not raised Orthodox turning to Orthodoxy is a broad spectrum. There is little in common between the product of a Solomon Schechter school, USY and Camp Ramah who now belongs to a Modern Orthodox congregation, on the one hand, and the former beer-guzzling “frat boy” who now has multiple children and lives in B'nai B'rak. Lest one think I am conjuring up stereotypes, I am personally familiar with both of these individuals.

Almost twenty years ago, I was working as a Hillel director in Washington, DC. Since the Hillel I directed only rarely had services on Shabbat morning, I generally attended a large Conservative synagogue. This synagogue hosted a number of different types of services under its roof, and soon after I started to attend there, together with a number of other people in their twenties and thirties, I helped to found a service which we called the “Traditional-Egalitarian minyan.” This was a service which was liturgically Orthodox (including reading the complete Parasha rather than the more-common “triennial cycle” used by most Conservative shuls) but featured equal participation by men and women. At the time, I believe there was only one couple in our minyan that had children -- a boy and a girl, both in elementary school, who attended a Solomon Schechter school as had both their parents.

At some point, over Shabbat lunch, this family told me that they were looking for a house in the suburbs so that they could join a Modern Orthodox synagogue whose rabbi they admired. While ideologically they still considered themselves Conservative, they felt that for the sake of their kids they were better off in an Orthodox shul. Why? Because there were no other shomer Shabbat kids in the neighborhood. Shabbat was a lonely experience for the kids and the dissonance between their lifestyle and those of most of the other families in the congregation was increasingly untenable.

This phenomenon is a fairly common one. A young man or woman attends a Schechter school and learns about Shabbat and kashrut and tefillin and so on. At Camp Ramah, they live halachic Judaism (by Conservative standards if not Orthodox ones) 24/7. They may attend a college with a strong Conservative minyan at Hillel and many other Conservative Jews who participate in the kosher meal plan. Then they go out into the world and want to be a part of a community where this level of observance is maintained. If they happen to live in New York or Washington or Boston or LA -- and perhaps a handful of other places -- they can find either an independent non-Orthodox minyan or a “Library Minyan” within a larger Conservative shul where this level of observance is, if not the norm, at least not considered outlandish. If they are not so fortunate -- or if they are single and looking to find a spouse with the same observance level and want to broaden their dating pool -- they may well gravitate towards the Modern Orthodox community.

This is a sort of “Orthodoxy by osmosis” and it is not even clear to me that most of the people who go through this transition would necessarily even describe themselves as Orthodox. For sure, they do not subscribe to the formal delegitimation of Conservative Judaism which is the theoretical normative Orthodox position. They will still eat in their parents' home, attend their parent's Conservative synagogue when visiting, accepting an aliyah, davening for the amud, perhaps allowing themselves to be counted as the tenth in a minyan which counts women. They may even send their kids to Camp Ramah in the summer. But in their home communities, they function as part of the Orthodox community.

Other people make a more radical break with their past. Sometimes they manage to live bifurcated lives, earning a living as physicians or lawyers or accountants or in other professions, but practicing a type of Judaism that at best teaches isolation from, and at worst contempt for, the non-Jewish and non-Orthodox worlds.

One of the most puzzling conversations I ever had was with an attorney of my acquaintance. He had been a law student nearly twenty years ago at the university where I was the Hillel director, and at the time had just returned to the States after a year studying at a ba'al teshuvah yeshivah in Israel. Subsequently we both lived in Baltimore and I happened to mention to him that my office was on the same street as the house where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived. He said to me “I got a lot of spiritual benefit reading him when I was in college. But I don't want my kids to read him.”

Since it was a pleasant Shabbat afternoon and I was a guest in his home, I didn't press the point - in retrospect I wish I had. But I recall another conversation I had with an emergency room physician who embraced Orthodoxy while doing his residency in Washington DC. He told me “I saw so much horror day after day; I needed to be a part of something unchanging, something which would give me an anchor and prevent me from going crazy.”

For the second group, then, turning to Orthodoxy provides certainty and stability in a world of rapid change and multiple sources of meaning. For the first group, a turn to Orthodoxy provides communal support for an observant lifestyle - a support which, to my chagrin and that of most Conservative rabbis, is sadly lacking in our own congregations.

There is another group who also adopt Orthodoxy for communal reasons, but they differ significantly from the Schechter/Ramah group. These are people who for various reasons have had difficulty fitting in elsewhere in the Jewish community and in society as a whole. Through the work of kiruv groups, particularly but not exclusively Chabad, they have found affirmation of their worth and a place to belong.

As a pluralist, I believe that most (not all!) of the different varieties of Judaism have something to offer to the well-being of the k'lal. We are fortunate that the American Jewish community is so diverse. As a Conservative rabbi, I am generally happy when someone chooses to increase their observance and if an assimilated Jew chooses to become Orthodox, he or she no doubt benefits as does the Jewish community as a whole. It is a path I myself have not chosen because I find some of the “truth claims” Orthodoxy makes to be manifestly lacking in credibility. I wish that we Conservatives were more successful in creating observant communities so that we did not “lose” so many of our best and brightest to Orthodoxy - but that is a problem we will have to tackle on our own.

Two-minute Torah: Comparative and Absolute Righteousness

Not everything I wrote is as lengthy as what I have posted so far. Every week -- well, almost every week -- I send out a "Two-minute Torah" commentary. Here is today's, on Noah.

The Torah reading this week is Parashat Noach which begins with the story of Noah. The very first sentence of the parasha tells us that Noah was upright “in his generation.” Anyone familiar with rabbinic interpretation will immediately be drawn to that phrase, because it seems superfluous. Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us Noah was upright? What does “in his generation” add to our learning?

Rashi tells us that there are two possible interpretations, without himself choosing which one is correct. One possibility is that “in his generations” is a form of damning by faint praise. It is only “in his generation” that he is considered righteous -- in other words, comparatively but not absolutely. He was the least evil person in a very evil generation and thus by comparison could be considered righteous; but had he lived in a different generation he would not have been particularly noteworthy.

The other possibility is that Noah’s righteousness is all the more noteworthy given that he lived among evildoers. By this understanding, it is easy to be righteous when everyone around you is also righteous -- just as it is easier to keep kosher in Jerusalem than in Norwich. But it is harder to be righteous when all around you, social pressure is pushing you in the direction of evil.

Which is true? One thing for certain that we learn from this debate is that all living is contextual. Our surroundings do influence us. It is harder to hold to our principles when all around us we see others violating them; but perhaps on the other side, we deserve all the more credit for doing so. I suspect that in the end, both possibilities that Rashi offers can be true simultaneously.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity

I presented this lecture almost seven years ago at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. The "Driscoll Lecture" is a very distinguished annual lecture series on Catholic - Jewish Relations and I was honored to present this talk. It is scheduled to be published as a chapter in a new book on Catholic - Jewish Relations by the Paulist Press but the publication has been delayed for some time. So meanwhile, you can read it here!

Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity
The Sixth Annual Driscoll Lecture in Jewish-Catholic Studies
Iona College, New Rochelle, NY
February 2, 2005

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

The desire to have Christians and Jews (and indeed, those of other religions as well) pray together is a distinctly modern phenomenon. For most of Western history, a person’s religious community was his or her community. True, Jews and Christians might trade and do business with each other. But friendships between those of different religions were rare if not impossible, and interreligious prayer was not high on anyone’s agenda. As Lawrence Hoffman writes: “historically speaking, worship has precisely not been in common with anyone but one’s own people.”# “One’s own people,” of course, were those who shared one’s religion.

But the American and French revolutions, and the subsequent spread of democracy, meant that people of any religion were now citizens and part of the larger community. Since the social and political order now embraced those of many religions, might there not be occasions when joint prayer was in order? Indeed, there are records of interfaith services held by Reform Jewish temples and liberal Protestant churches going back to at least the 1880’s, if not earlier.

Despite the fact that interfaith prayer has been going on in this country and elsewhere for some time, it remains an area of some controversy. There are traditionalists in both Christianity and Judaism who will not participate in interfaith prayer. Others participate, but wonder how appropriate and meaningful such activity really is. Can Christians and Jews pray together in a meaningful way? Can they do so with theological integrity?
At the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, our exploration of this question two years ago was prodded by the controversy within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod over one of its Regional Presidents’ participation in an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some of you may be familiar with this case, where a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor was suspended by his denomination for participating in an interfaith gathering together with Jews, Muslims, non-LCMS Christians and other “pagans” – even though, at this interfaith gathering, he offered an explicitly Christian prayer in Jesus’ name.
But our concern was much deeper than a mere response to a controversy in the news. One of the core principles of our work is respect for the integrity and legitimacy of both Christianity and Judaism. Because we are aware of the many issues surrounding interfaith prayer, participants at ICJS events often talk and study about prayer but our events do not, as a rule, include having the participants pray together. Our educational events do not start with an invocation, our meal events do not begin with grace, and our overnight programs for clergy and educators do not begin the day with morning services. This policy has been the occasion for comment and sometimes even consternation over the years.

I want to limit my exploration tonight to the specific question of Christian – Jewish interfaith prayer. There are a number of reasons why this is a unique issue. First, the majority of Christians and Jews believe that both religious communities worship the same God. Second, they have certain sacred texts in common – what Jews refer to as the Tanach and what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. For reasons, which will (hopefully) become apparent, interfaith worship that includes religious groups that are not explicitly monotheistic – such as Buddhists, Hindus, or Wiccans – introduces certain complications. It is for this reason that personally, as a rabbi, I have participated in Christian – Jewish and Christian – Jewish –Muslim services but not services that include leadership from other faiths that are not explicitly monotheistic or Abrahamic.

Why do we have communal prayer? Communal prayer is an expression of a group’s innermost longings. In prayer, a community dialogues with its God. The community expresses its needs, its desires, its hopes and dreams. It’s no wonder that the folk aphorism has it that “the family that prays together, stays together.”

But prayer is not only the expression of a group. Prayer often creates and defines a group. Groups by their nature are exclusionary; by defining who is in, they also define who is out. Whoever is called upon to craft a service, which expresses the identity and desire of the community, is forced to define the community’s boundaries. This is why participation in interfaith or even ecumenical services is such a “hot button” issue for more conservative religious groups and for those defined by their adherence to certain doctrinal interpretations. Interfaith services create broader boundaries of inclusion than these groups are generally comfortable with.

A number of years ago my friend Rabbi James Diamond, the (now retired) campus rabbi at Princeton University, wrote an article for the interfaith journal Cross Currents called “Liturgical Chastity.” He wrote that one should “understand the act of worship in terms phenomenonologically similar to those in which we understand the act of sex . . . both are private. They flow from the deepest regions of the self. They are connected to how we live out and express as individuals our most fundamental identities.”#

If this is so, Diamond writes, then interfaith worship has the character of group sex. Though at first it may seem “innovative and even exciting,” at the end of the day it is “trivial and inauthentic.”

Diamond’s comparison of prayer to sex may at first seem shocking. But prayer is indeed an intimate act, one that makes us vulnerable. Attending services of a group different than one’s own can make one feel very much an outsider or even a voyeur. Conversely, when a congregation is overwhelmed by a large number of visitors who are not familiar with the service and do not participate actively (either visitors of another religion, or guests at a life-cycle event), regular worshippers will often note that the quality of their own prayer experience suffers.

While I’m not certain that I agree with Diamond’s description of interfaith worship as “trivial and inauthentic” it is not without its problems. Services that bring together Christians and Jews have been taking place in America for well over one hundred years. Throughout most of that time, the ground rules have called for a “neutral” service. The content of the prayers was meant to be something that everyone present could affirm. This meant that Christians were expected to omit any Christological or Trinitarian references. Jews were often, though not always, expected to omit Hebrew (not because there is any theological objection to Christians worshipping in Hebrew, but because it was considered exclusionary and inaccessible.) On a theological level, Jews were also expected to omit the many references in Jewish liturgy to Israel’s chosenness and the Jewish sense of a unique mission and destiny.

These neutral services may not offend, but what do they accomplish? Rabbi Donald Berlin, rabbi emeritus of Reform Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, notes, “I am invited (to participate in these types of services) because I am a rabbi but then I am told to say something which has nothing to do with the fact that I am a rabbi.” Participants may leave the room feeling that they have done something positive in demonstrating good will towards people of other faiths. But is that what prayer is for? Is that even authentic prayer?

In other words, a neutral service requires Jews and Christians to check their distinctive identities, and their distinctive ways of praying, at the door to the sanctuary. Christians and Jews, under this set of ground rules, can pray together only by temporarily suppressing the fact that they are Christians or that they are Jews. We have said we want to have Jews and Christians pray together, but in order to do so, Jews cannot pray as Jews and Christians cannot pray as Christians.

Or can they? What, in fact, makes a Christian prayer authentically Christian, or a Jewish prayer authentically Jewish? A couple of years ago, while spending a year studying the issue of interfaith prayer in depth, our Institute brought together a group of rabbis and Christian clergy of various denominations to help us examine some of these issues. At a Clergy Colloquium, the Christian participants identified the following characteristics of Christian prayer:

  • The prayer is offered in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Trinity. (This qualification is not mandatory, since the Lord's Prayer has neither a Christological nor a Trinitarian focus.)
  • The prayer is informed by Christian theology and/or by the Christian story.
  • If the person praying the prayer is a Christian, then the prayer is a Christian prayer.

The rabbis who participated identified the following characteristics of Jewish prayer:
  • Prayer is communal (a minyan is required).
  • Prayer is commanded, and it is a response to the covenant relationship.
  • Prayer is time-bound rather than space-bound: It is commanded at certain times of the day and on particular occasions.
  • Prayer involves the establishment of a dialogue: Prayer speaks to God and bounces back to the community.
  • The formulation of the prayer makes it Jewish; it begins and ends with certain words. There is a set liturgy that involves actions as well as words.
  • There is a "uniform" for prayer: tallit and tefillin.
  • Prayer is not mediated.
  • Hebrew and Aramaic are used in prayer.

These lists, of course, are neither exclusive nor exhaustive, but they do give some indication that Jews and Christians may well mean different things when they use the word “prayer.”
Moreover, it becomes clear that if certain of the characteristics are considered absolutely necessary for Christians or Jews to participate, then Christian-Jewish interfaith prayer becomes impossible. Jews, of course, will not participate in prayers that invoke Jesus or are Trinitarian. Most Christians are not conversant or comfortable with prayers in Hebrew.# Moreover, I suspect a lot of Christians might be surprised and not a little bit hurt to discover that they are not included in the “we” or the “us” that most Jewish prayers contain: “Blessed are You O Lord our God, who has chosen us from among the nations and commanded us . . .
So we are faced with something of a conundrum. We want to pray together, but we want to pray as Jews and Christians, not as generic human beings. There is something deeply unsatisfactory about the expectation that in order to pray together, we suspend our religious particularity and identity. If we believe that, as the September 2000 “Jewish Statement on Christianity” Dabru Emet states, “Jews and Christians worship the same God” and that “through Christianity hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel”, why shouldn’t Jews and Christians be able to worship that same God together?
The question, it seems to me, is not merely about the identity of the God to Whom the prayers are addressed. Rather, it is also about membership in the community that is uttering the prayers. Members of a religious community are not merely a random group of people who happen to be, each as an individual, covenanted to the same deity. Rather, they are covenanted to each other as well. This is why Jewish communal worship requires a minyan, a quorum of ten adult Jews, and why many (though not all) Christian denominations have rules about who may participate in Communion.

Many Jews and Christians believe that their covenant does not merely require them to worship God; it requires them to worship God in a specific way at a specific time. Prayer that does not conform to these requirements will, indeed, seem inauthentic to such people, even if it is done with the best of intentions and with utmost care.

These types of issues don’t only arise, of course, when discussing questions of joint prayer for Christians and Jews. They occur even between Christians of various communities. About fifteen years ago I was the only campus rabbi in the entire state of Virginia, and I was helping to plan an interfaith student weekend conference. The question of our plans for Sunday morning arose, and the Protestants on the committee wanted something that would include all of the Christian and Jewish participants ---Muslims and others were not on anyone’s radar screens at the time. They asked me if there were any Sunday morning required Jewish rituals and I replied “bagels and the Sunday Times.” But the plan for joint worship Sunday morning ultimately foundered because of the Roman Catholic obligation to attend Mass. While the Catholic campus ministers had no theoretical objection to an ecumenical Christian or even Christian – Jewish service, that would neither fulfill nor override the obligation to attend a Roman Catholic Mass celebrated by a duly-ordained Roman Catholic priest, and in the end there was no way that our packed schedule could accommodate both a Catholic mass and an ecumenical or interfaith service in addition. So the Catholics went to Mass, the Protestants had Sunday morning prayer, and the Jews either slept in or had a very leisurely breakfast.

“Who is my partner in the covenant?” is an unresolved issue between Jews and Christians. Those Christians who believe that Judaism is also a legitimate religion tend to use Paul’s metaphors of “grafting” and “adoption” and believe that Jews and Christians are two parts of the same overall covenant. Judaism has generally held to a two-covenant model: the Covenant of Noah, which potentially embraces all humanity, and the specific covenant between God and the Jewish people which is known as the Covenant of Abraham. The idea that Christians might also be heirs to the Covenant of Abraham, though in a different way than Jews, is a difficult one for many Jews to accept. Even Dabru Emet, which is the first Jewish statement about another religion to move away from Noahide language, doesn’t specifically address the question of covenant. But if I am correct, that the issue of prayer involves not only the identity of the Deity but also membership in the covenant community, this may give us a clue as to why Christians often seem more eager than Jews to engage in interfaith prayer. It may also give us a clue as to why so many Christians seem so eager to adopt and adapt all sorts of Jewish rituals, from the seemingly ubiquitous church seders to the use of ram’s horns and tallitot in Christian worship. At any rate, the tendency of Jews to see Christianity as merely one among many non-Jewish religions while Christians usually see Judaism as somehow more intrinsically related to their own faith is an often-present but unarticulated source of some of the tensions and misunderstandings which arise.

A relatively new innovation for interfaith services is the model which Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, calls the “Service of Mutual Affirmation.” While this type of service contains some “neutral” prayers, it also makes space for specifically Jewish and specifically Christian prayers, which are meant to be said only by members of that particular community. During those faith-specific prayers, the participants are not praying together, but they are coming together to pray, or praying their own particular prayers in the presence of the other community. I see this as having a distinct advantage over the older model of the neutral service. It does not require Christians to suppress their Christianity or Jews to suppress their Judaism. It allows members of each community to pray for at least part of the service in their own idiom and their own style. It can, admittedly, sometimes be uncomfortable for Jews who object even to hearing Christological or Trinitarian language, but in my opinion this discomfort is inappropriate. We should have no objection when Christians pray as Christians; our objection should be only to the assumption that everyone in our society is or ought to be Christian, or to having prayers lead presumably on our behalf to which we cannot in good conscience say “Amen.”

For now, Christians and Jews who want to be involved in interfaith prayer have two choices: they can opt for “neutral” prayer which fully expresses neither community’s identity, or they can adopt Hoffman’s “Mutual Affirmation” model, conscience of its limitations. Liturgy that allows Jews and Christians to worship together as Jews and Christians does not yet, at least to my knowledge, exist.
Although such a liturgy has not yet been written, perhaps the upcoming 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate provides the opportunity for Jews and Roman Catholics, in particular, to begin thinking about creating one. In order to do so, we need to take our theoretical cue from Dabru Emet and from Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s new book “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity.” For Greenberg, Christianity is at least partial fulfillment of God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to all of humanity. Judaism, as an intensely particularistic tradition that is tied very strongly to a particular ethnic identity and a particular land, could never become and was not intended to be, a universal religion. It was Christianity that brought the worship of the God of Israel, creator of heaven and earth and giver of the Torah, to millions and billions of people. Thus, Jews and Christians are related to each other in a special way, and it should be possible for us, acknowledging that we worship the same God, to pray together in some sort of meaningful way.
Nevertheless, though we do indeed worship the same God and are close to each other, we remain different and distinct religions. Recognition of this fact will help us to construct appropriate worship services and avoid some of the misunderstandings that have sometimes marked discussions about interfaith worship.
Because Jews and Christians remain distinct religions, it is only possible, in my opinion, for joint services to be supplemental and held on special occasions such as Thanksgiving or a commemoration of some historic event. My participation in a joint service does not and is not intended to fulfill my obligation for statutory prayer. A Catholic’s participation in a joint service does not fulfill her obligation to attend Mass. It would be inappropriate for a church to have a joint service instead of Sunday Mass or for a synagogue to have a joint service instead of its regular Friday night or Saturday morning Shabbat service – though it would be proper to have what Hoffman calls an “indigenous worship service with guests” on such occasions. When I was a pulpit rabbi, we would on occasion have a service where we had guests from a local church and their minister might even speak, or I and some congregants would go as guests to a church service and I might speak, but the services remained essentially what they would have been anyway, except perhaps with some more explanations and page announcements. But this is not what we mean when we talk of interfaith worship, and we should not try to turn a church or synagogue’s own indigenous service into something it was not meant to be.

So a truly interfaith, Christian – Jewish liturgy should be explicitly supplemental and not an attempt at fulfilling either community’s obligations to statutory prayer. Such a liturgy would have to follow several guidelines to have theological integrity. It should:

  1. Acknowledge that Jews and Christians worship the same God, but they do so in different ways.
  2. Acknowledge the legitimacy of each faith.
  3. Acknowledge and celebrate not only the similarities between the two faiths, but also their differences.
  4. Acknowledge, as Dabru Emet states, that “the humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.” It should also leave open the possibility that these differences are not meant to be settled at all and will persist even then.

Isaiah has taught us that in the end of days, God’s house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples. As Christians and Jews, we are called to work, individually and together, to bring that day to fruition. We do that, of course, through our own efforts, but we are also cautioned to remember that ultimate redemption belongs not to us but to God. Our desire to pray together is a sign of that future redemption; our difficulties in doing so, remind us that that day is not yet here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Merton and Me

It’s not unusual for me to be asked why I became a rabbi, though it seems to me that as I get older (I’ve now been an ordained rabbi almost half my life) I’m asked that question less frequently. There is no one easy answer -- most decisions we make are a product of a confluence of factors.

In the fall of my senior year at Georgetown I had to fulfill an English distribution requirement and signed up for a course on contemporary American short stories. I’m not sure why I chose that course but it probably was because it fit my schedule. Among the stories we read for the course were two by J.D. Salinger: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Salinger, particularly in these two stories, used a lot of ideas and allusions from Eastern religions, especially Zen and Taoism. Our professor thought that we would get more out of reading these stories if we also had some background on Eastern thought.

And so we found ourselves reading The Way of Chuang Tzu and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Both of these books were written by Thomas Merton, an author of whom I had previously heard but about whom I knew little.

I became thoroughly captivated by Merton and his writing style, and sought to read more of his works. I think it was not until that point that I realized that this great writer about Eastern religions was actually a Catholic and a Trappist monk to boot!

The next Merton book I read was his Secular Journal, so-called because it was written before he joined the monastery and indeed while he was trying to figure out what to do with his life. It is interesting to me that I came across Merton just as I was graduating college and figuring out what to do with my life. Should I apply to law school, look for a job as a newspaper reporter, take the Foreign Service exam? Or maybe there was something else.

It would surely be an exaggeration to say that I became a rabbi due to reading Thomas Merton, in the same way that Merton writes of another monk who said that Merton became a monk because of reading James Joyce. But Joyce did have a role in Merton’s awakening to the role of spirituality in his own life, and Merton played a similar role for me.

Merton died in 1968 under circumstances that to this day have never been fully explained. As a cloistered monk, he almost never left the monastery, but he had been invited to lecture at a conference of Catholic and Buddhist monks in Bangkok and had been given permission by his abbot to do so. Shortly after his lecture he went to take a nap and was found dead some hours later in his room, with an electric fan that had a short-circuit lying across his body. Because Merton had written some controversial things on peace and on racism, because he was friendly with Dan and Phillip Berrigan, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and the then-recently murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, there was speculation that he had been murdered. But there is no proof.

Though Merton died in 1968 books by him continue to be published. He left behind volumes and volumes of his journals, thousands of letters, unpublished articles and lectures. (For many years his job at the monastery was teaching monks-in-training and there are tapes of his classes as well as his class notes.) And so over the years I continued to accumulate books by and about Merton.

In 1996 I was living in California and decided I needed some time off from the active rabbinate. Since I was single at the time, I wound up spending almost a year as Scholar-in-Residence (a position that they created for me) at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. New Claurvaix had been founded as a daughter house of Merton’s abbey, Gethsemani in Kentucky, and some of the monks I met at New Clairvaux had known Merton in the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the things I admire about Merton is his openness to various forms of religious life. Merton was born in France to an American mother and a New Zealand father, both of them artists. He split his childhood between England and Queens, New York, and after a year at Cambridge got his bachelor’s and then master’s degrees at Columbia. He always had a lot of Jewish friends and in later years was regularly visited at Gethsemani by prominent rabbis. (Cloistered monks almost never travel -- though this rule is enforced less strictly now than it was in the past -- and anyone needing to meet with Merton had to go to Kentucky to see him.) Merton, through his friendship with Rabbi Heschel, played an important role in the development of Vatican II and the Catholic Church’s new positive attitude towards Jews and Judaism.

In December of 2003 I was invited to give two lectures on Judaism to the monks of Gethsemani. We traveled there from Louisville, about an hour away, where we were visiting Keleigh’s relatives, and we stayed in what is known as the “family guest house.” The regular guest house is where people stay when they are making a retreat; the “family guest house” is for those who are friends or relatives of the monks. The accommodations were fairly spartan but it was awe-inspiring to stay where Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Berrigan brothers and Martin Luther King had all stayed on their visits to Merton at Gethsemani. The morning after my second lecture we were taken by jeep to Merton’s hermitage, which is not accessible by road and is normally off-limits to all but the monks. We noted that there was a little plaque by the front door which said “Shalom.”

Merton has been my constant companion in my spiritual journey, and I want to close by sharing a prayer he wrote in his book Thoughts in Silence:

"MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Perils of Interfaith Dialogue

In 1996 and 1997 I spent about ten months at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, a Trappist monastery in Northern California. The monastery provided me with a small cabin, meals in the guesthouse refectory, and access to the monastery library. The few other expenses I had were covered by serving every other weekend as visiting rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in Reno, Nevada, about three hours away.

In return for my room and board, I gave lectures to the monastic community every couple of weeks. I also studied one on one with a couple of the monks, and for a few weeks taught a course to the scholastics.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Trappists, they are what is known as a cloistered order. This means that they are generally expected to remain within the walls of the monastery unless they have a very important reason not to. So of course they go into town to see the doctor; one of the monks is sent into town on a regular basis to buy supplies the monastery needs; and they travel on business for the monastery or the larger Trappist Order. But under ordinary circumstances they would not, for example, leave the monastery to hear a lecture or see an exhibition. To provide intellectual stimulation, then, monasteries are always bringing in guest lecturers on all types of subjects -- if the monks can't go to the lecturers, the lecturers come to the monks. That's why the Abbey was willing to host me for the ten months.

The "scholastics" are monks who are studying to be ordained as priests. Most monks these days in the Trappist order are priests, though some are not and remain as Brothers rather than Fathers. Scholastics have already been through several years of monastic training and have taken vows; they are full-fledged monks but not yet priests. Because the Trappists are cloistered, they don't send their priests-in-training to a seminary. Instead, they have seminary classes right there in the monastery. Since Trappist monasteries these days tend to be pretty small, it is not unusual for scholastics from one monastery to temporarily be transferred to another in order to get their seminary classes.

Father Thomas, the Abbott, thought it would be a good idea for his scholastics to get a couple of months of Jewish studies, since I was available and anxious to teach. And so twice a week I spent two hours with the scholastics giving them the equivalent of an introductory college-level course in Jewish Studies -- very similar to courses I had already taught at American University and at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. We also took a "field trip" one Friday night to the synagogue in Chico, about twenty miles away. The scholastics loved the service and especially the Oneg Shabbat (cookies, cake and coffee or soda) afterwards.

The scholastics were on the whole excellent students, eager to do the readings and able to grasp the material pretty quickly. The one thing that was really different, though, was their unwillingness to ask questions. Some of this may be cultural; Jews may simply be more garrulous on the whole than Catholics. But some of it is due to the particularities of Trappist life -- their practice of silence (though they are allowed to speak in classes and lectures) and their obedience to authority.

At any rate, one morning my lecture was called "Judaism and the Problem of Modernity." I described the challenges Judaism faced starting about 250 years ago with the breakdown of traditional societies, the rise of democracy and the nation-state, and so on. This is familiar material to anyone who has studied Jewish history beyond elementary school.

But two of the monks clearly had trouble following some of what I was saying. However, as was their wont they did not interrupt to ask for clarification. Only after the lecture did it become clear what was troubling them.

Brother Gaetan, a French Canadian who was not quite fluent in English, came up to me and said "that was all very interesting, but I still don't see what it had to do with the problem of maternity."

He was followed by Brother Alberic, from the Phillipines, who said "I had some trouble understanding the significance of the Dry Fish Trial."

(The Dreyfus Trial was one of the catalysts to the founding of the Zionist movement. Dry fish, apparently, is a staple dish in Brother Alberic's part of the Phillipines.)