Monday, May 14, 2007

Order, Disorder, and a Brief Encounter with a Messianic Jew

"It takes a lot more awareness to be a Jewish Catholic than to be an Irish Catholic," the guy with the Jewish mom and the Catholic dad told me earnestly last night at Mary Help of Christians Church, which is closing its doors permanently this coming weekend. (Well, actually, it's going to become a "Church of Convenience," under the auspices of the surviving neighboring parish, but none of the locals seemed to know what that meant. Nor did they much care for the idea.)

The thing was, I kind of got what he was saying.

I can listen to anybody. I ask the right questions, and when I concentrate, I can put myself in anybody's shoes. I am Little Miss Pluralism. When bright-eyed youngsters tell me that the practicing Catholic ("Jewish Catholic") guy is Jewish and I'm not (because his mom was born Jewish and mine wasn't) I can nod thoughtfully and smile. I can nod thoughtfully and smile at anybody.

Except... except the Messianic Jew who I also met last night at Mary Help of Christians, who'd been worshiping with his Catholic fiancee at this East Village church since their college graduation. "Finding Jesus just enhanced my Jewishness," he told me thoughtfully, widening his big, earnest blue eyes for emphasis. "I'd been a Jew all my life, but I always felt like I was never good enough. And now I do."

As I must have mentioned, I'm a little bit of a junkie for uncomfortable religious situations. Every time I go into into a house of worship - whether of my own religion or of someone else's - I get this little tingly feeling of "I really don't belong here. God lives here. Wait, what is God? This is creepy." It took a long time for me to figure out why I'm attracted to this feeling, but I think I finally get it - I''m trying to really get in touch with my own prejudice. Because I was so gently reared. After eight years of Quaker school, six years of politically correct prep school, four years at a global university with students of all different backgrounds, and two years of working at an organization promoting religious pluralism, I really shouldn't have any prejudice left.

But oh, I promise you, I've still got plenty. And a lot of it came to the surface last night talking to the Messianic Jew. The Evil Demon of Prejudging Somebody For Their Religion leapt onto my shoulder, and I froze, and I couldn't think of any more thoughtful questions to ask him, any way to find out more about his religious journey without showing him my profound dismay.

I was raised to despise and fear Messianic Jews. I'm sorry, but I just was. My hometown rabbi was perfectly respectful of Christians, but he always sort of feared that when he sent his young flock off to college, Jesus might get them, and particularly Jesus might get them through the sophisticated wiles of the Jews for Jesus, with whom we could dance a hearty hora and then - lulled by this familiarity - with whom we might show a monumental lapse of good judgment and accept the Lamb of God into our hearts.

Jewish leadership talks about pluralism and openness and cultural exchange constantly - but when they think nobody's looking, they're still counting heads. Who married out? Who married in? How many kids are they having? How many are we gaining? How many are we losing? Why is it taking her so long to finish her Ph. D.? Doesn't she know how fast her eggs go stale after the age of 30?

The Jews for Jesus (they are just one particular organization of Messianic Jews, with a strong brand identity) freak us out because they think they're in - but really, they believe in Jesus, which pretty much makes them Christians.

Oddly, the Jewish community as a whole is far more tolerant of the Chabad-Lubavich, who maintain that the rabbi came and his name was Menachem Mendel Schneerson and he died in the early 90s but maybe he didn't really die and maybe he's actually coming back. According to the Companionable Atheist, whose dictum is that the absurdity of a religion is directly proportional to how recently it claims to have witnessed miraculous acts, this makes the Chabad-Lubavich even crazier than the Scientologists (and way crazier than Christians as a whole). But mainstream Jews tolerate the Jews-Who-Think-Schneerson-Is-Christ in our midst; allow them to hang out at our schools and give us super-kosher matzahs and harass us about performing mitzvot that most of us never even heard of, whereas we really, really, really don't care for the Jews-Who-Think-Jesus-Is-Christ.

I was once taught that Jewish cosmogony and Jewish practice identified the holy as that which is divided from the ordinary, or even the dividing force itself. God divided day from night, men from women, the sabbath from the week day. In our religious practice (which most of us don't practice), we are told to divide milk from meat, menstrual days from child-conceiving days, wool thread from linen thread, men from women. The OCD part of my brain finds these divisions very appealing. Each thing in its place. The world and the calendar take shape, fighting chaos. The mixing of Jewish stuff and Christian stuff? To a, like, profound religious thinker, this creates a truly profound chaos.

Although really, to most people, it's like, what's the big God damn deal if you want to have a Christmas tree. And, of course, I see that point of view too.

If pluralism only flourishes in public spaces - if you can attend Catholic Mass with a messianic Jew and be welcomed with open arms and discover you share many of the same values and you're really just all humans striving to do the best - but if all of this Sharing really just fills you with the uncontrollable urge to run home and share the experience with all the people who are most like you and laugh and tear your hair and laugh some more - does this kind of pluralism really count?

Let me be a poser annoying academic here and answer No and Yes.

No, it doesn't count, because in my heart of hearts, I'm not that comfortable with people who are different than me.


Yes, it does count, because we're not chasing each other with swords, and while pluralism may give you a headache, a guy with a sword would certainly give you a worse one.

44 comments:

ArielBeery said...

Brilliant post--and an issue that I think deserves much much more discussion. If I may, I'd like to offer an answer to your question concerning the Chabad/Christian schism: It's all about the polity.

The Jews weren't always against Jesus and his followers; it has been argued that some of the great rabbis-- specifically Eleazar-- harbored respect for Jesus's midrash. These Jewish followers of the School of Jesus were called Minim.

The split occurred when the Minim started preaching that the polity they belonged to -- the collective agent that mattered to them in this world -- was larger than the Jewish People. At that point, Minim found more in common with the Notzrim -- or the non-Jewish followers of Jesus. The more the Notzrim grew, and the more the School of Jesus moved away from a grounding on Jewish collectivity, the further away this community strayed from the Jewish polity. This occurred for one simple reason: when one values a set of a ideals (religious or not) over the set of human beings bound to them by collective responsibility (family, tribe, nation) then one is willing to act against the self-determined interests of that collective in the sake of the ideal-determined prescribed action.

As such, the prayer "Al'Ha'Malshinim" was added to the eighteen benedictions of the Amidah--and the break between the two communities continued ever since.

Chabad, as much as elements within them believe in the Rebbe, have never taken themselves outside of the Jewish People. In fact, other than a Messianic belief in a human being (which is entirely rabbinic -- the messiah in rabbinic mythology is a man, son of David), Chabad does not--at this point--believe that its political interests are different than the interests of the general Jewish community. Sure, they might disagree--but the bottom line is that their fundamental loyalty is to the Jewish people. Not so with Messianic Jews or Minim, whose fundamental loyalty is to a system of ideals that is larger than one People, a system of ideals that preaches as Jesus did: "Who are my Brothers? You are all my brothers"--that is, a Universalism that denies the importance of bounded, particular collectives.

Where does this put the Satmar? Those who actively aid the enemies of the Jewish People are, as far as I'm concerned, outside of the Jewish People. Where does that put those not born Jewish who live as Jews? Within the Jewish polity: "your people are my people," and only later, "your God is my God."

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Companionable Atheist said...

Yeah, this is the best yet. Really, really great. Although, having an inside track, I must request further commentary on one Joseph Smith, whose biography you read recently! More toad-men!

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