Shalom Near and Far

The first time I stepped into a sukkah hut, I was a new student enrolled at an ecumenical divinity school across the street from a Jewish theological seminary where we could cross-register for classes. Although my school was avowedly Christian, it prided itself on graduating students who were Jewishly literate, and our neighbors across the street were often enlisted to assist us in this endeavor. They had generously served as consultants on this particular sukkah I beheld with outsized admiration. Here was a lovely little hut where we Gentiles could join in celebrating Sukkot, the Jewish festival of thanksgiving.

Inside the sukkah I found sanctified space, enchanted and hushed, like nothing I’d encountered before. Under the cover of evening, the sukkah stood sloping in the central courtyard, at once dimly lit and lumninous. Along its flimsy walls, seminarians had taken great care to post typed signs explaining the symbolism of the foliage adorning the interior and how this seemingly haphazard hut conformed to age-old Jewish rites. In no other subsequent interfaith experience of mine would everything be spelled out so clearly.

Sometimes I recall the naivety of that early Sukkot when I am celebrating one of the Jewish holidays with my husband. Our marriage has taught me that interfaith encounters can be every bit as fraught as intrafaith ones. Curiously, there seems to be at least as much room for misundersanding people in our own traditions as in others’. When the two of us were planning our wedding, I was taken aback by the regrets sent from one of my dearest aunts. Because I disliked the prospect of her absence, I plied her to reconsider. She elaborated by saying that she could not attend the marriage ceremony “in good conscience”, a phrase which very nearly infuriated me. I had never pegged my aunt for an anti-Semite.

That was actually a good thing, because as it turned out, my aunt was not an anti-Semite after all. She explained that she was not in the least disappointed by my choice of husband – she had liked my fiance almost immediately and she surely would never quarrel with his having been born Jewish – but she was disappointed in me. She frankly could not bring herself to celebrate my getting married outside the Roman Catholic Church. Hadn’t I been both baptized and confirmed in the faith? Maybe I had more recently been ordained a minister, but she taught catechism, and it was obvious to her what trumped what.

If people want to draw lines in the sand, as a rule, I do not ask them to cross those. But my aunt’s refusal of our wedding was wounding nevertheless. Eventually, I came to realize that I was as sorely disappointed in my aunt as she had been in me. Funny how these things tend to even themselves out.

Not too long ago, my husband and I stopped in at a Kosher deli in a neighborhood. The clerk there was especially rude to us. Conspicuously rude: it registered off the New York scale of discourtesy. Then I began to consider that her hostile attitude could be attributed to my husband having a shiksa wife. That really got my Irish up. Since it was not my deli or my faith tradition, though, I seethed in silence until both of us were outside on the sidewalk.

“Why did she act like that?” I demanded. “Was it because of me?”

“No, because of me,” my husband replied. “I’m probably not a good enough Jew for her.”

There are many orthodox Jews as well as some Hasidim in our neighborhood, and they frequent the Kosher establishments much more regularly than we do. Although my husband does not wear a yamulke or carry a prayer shawl, he is a wonderful man and a fine Jew. What do I know about such matters? Enough to harbor some strong opinions.

As a Universalist, I have a longstanding fondness for a wide array of religious observance. I don’t particularly care which religion it is, as long as it practiced with all due sincerity and faithfulness. I have been wantonly attending worship services for years. Dance along with the Torah scroll, arrange flowers and fruit for puja, recite the Rosary, drizzle honey on a verse of the Qu’ran, or complete the 108 prostrations in temple. Do what moves you in your soul and you will hold me in thrall.

The year after we were married, my husband and I went to our local synagogue to observe the start of the Jewish High Holy Days. The rabbi’s sermon resonated powerfully with me; that woman could preach. She spoke on the beauty of Hebrew and the value of honoring religious language, even when it communicates in an idiom that we ourselves cannot readily understand. I was humming along with her throughout the service.

Afterwards, my husband, already habituated to a full range of worships styles across various church traditions, told me, “You know you were the Amen corner tonight, right?”

“No,” I responded. “But you say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It’s a synagogue,” he said. “There’s not supposed to be an Amen corner in shul!”

Duly noted.

Obviously, some degree of caution needs to be exercised when mixing and matching varieties of religious expression. Certain spiritual insights are always in danger of getting lost in translation. But when I stepped into that illuminated and illuminating sukkah more than a decade ago, I felt myself ushered into a kind of hospitality that I recognized as altogether holy. I have never forgotten the warm welcome that modest hut extended to me and everyone else in the community.

Among the prayers offered in the Rosh Hashanah service at start of the High Holy Days are these short and simple verses: “Shalom – shalom to those who are far off, shalom to those who are near, says ADONAI.” Sometimes it proves harder for us to be at peace with those nearest us than it is to be at peace with those farther off. Christians condemn Christians, Jews judge Jews, and the results — I’ve noticed — are pretty sorry for us all.

Each one of us is only passing through this muddy world, and every last structure which we inhabit is ultimately temporary. What right do people really have to claim absolute stakes on anything? Enlarge your territory and rest assured that it will later dwindle. Whatever earthly dwelling place we build for ourselves cannot hold others at bay indefinitely. The festival of Sukkot is also known to Jews as “The Time of Our Joy.” Quite tellingly, that joy appears to expand whenever it is most liberally shared.

The peace which our faith traditions encourage us to seek resides in the human heart kept wide open. Am I my brothers’ keeper? Who is my neighbor? These questions posed in scripture are hardly rhetorical; rather, they demand we live our responses in real time, and further, in relation to one another, as frustrating and outrageous a proposition as that seems. Sheer force of habit leads us to persist in disappointing one another so religiously.

We can hang up sign after sign trying to demarcate the limits of our own sacred ground, but we ought to understand that eventually those signs will have to come down. Someday — someday near or someday far — they will come down. We can all thank God for that.

© 2011

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One response to “Shalom Near and Far

  1. Some may say that you are a dreamer, but you are not the only one, I hope someday they’ll join us and the world…

    As a seminary student, I was introduced to Sukkot by Dr. Cooper. Yes, it was hard not to be a bit taken by his touch of celebrity as he was one of the original members of the nationally-acclaimed rock and roll group Sha-Na-Na, and performed at the historic Woodstock Festival of 1969. But his powerful presence went beyond the stage, it was his daily devotion to us as students of a Christian seminary that made us fans. A professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Cooper crossed the religious divide everyday to not only teach us the history and traditions within the Hebrew Bible common to our faiths, but he constructed a sukka in the school courtyard each year – allowing us to share in the thanksgiving. Through his actions, he charged us all to answer the higher call of not only creating safe spaces for worship, but to BE safe spaces—for religious intolerance must not be tolerated in such turbulent times—this is free-love for the faithful.

    ¡Let love rule! Thank you for this.

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