Tag Archives: Rabbi Howard Berman

Adventures on the Island of Misfit Toys

A couple of years ago, PW and a local rabbi presided over the wedding of a Romanian Orthodox Christian woman and a Russian Orthodox Jewish man. The wedding ceremony included a chuppa, a three crowns ceremony, and a eucharist, with challah made by the groom’s grandmother who lives in Israel and wine made by the bride’s father. I’m not sure what the grandmother thought happened at communion, because the challah loaf was approximately the size of a miniature pony.

At the wedding, some of the groom’s family surprised PW by lining up to receive communion, along with the bride’s family. In a scene that has long since taken on a life of its own, PW quickly changed the words of distribution to “Bread for the Journey” when she put bread in the hands of the Jewish family members (instead of “the body of Christ.”) She hadn’t had time to suggest alternate words to the chalice bearer, so she heard him repeat as he followed along behind her, “Blood for the Journey” (instead of “the blood of Christ.”)

Can I just say that, to me, never is Christian liturgy more like a Monty Python sketch than during communion? Of course I can, this is my website! The scene above is reason #814 why I wish Christianity would move past this yucky body and blood of Christ business. The first 813 reasons are that it’s just gross. This is the 21st century, folks. Must we STILL be littering our liturgies with the language of cannibalism and vampirism? But I digress.

This same couple brought their new baby to church last Sunday for the Jewish ceremony for naming a daughter, and a baptism. The church bulletin included the Jewish prayers in both English and Hebrew, along with the usual Episcopal baptism liturgy. In addition, we had the Boston Children’s Chorus as guest musicians, so we had a house full of company, so to speak. I’m sure most of us have never been involved in a service like this until Sunday.

Here's part of the worship bulletin for last Sunday

Male members of the groom’s/father’s family all wore matching bright pink kippot, perhaps in celebration of the new baby daughter? No idea what the color signified, if anything, but it was stunning. After brief remarks by PW and the rabbi, the families were invited up to the front for the Jewish ceremony, which included a Chair of Elijah and ceremonial sips of sweet wine from a kiddush cup. Immediately following, everyone moved down to the baptismal font for the baptism.

In PW’s comments prior to the two ceremonies, she noted that the baby girl (whose name combines the Greek word for “wisdom” with the Hebrew word for “life”) would have full dual citizenship as a Jew and a Christian. This will likely be a stumbling block for many on both sides of her citizenship aisle, since we humans are notoriously exclusively-minded. I can hear it now:

“What religion are you?”
“I’m Jewish and Christian.”
“What? You can’t be both?”
“Yes I can!”
“No you can’t!”
“I already am!”
“No you aren’t!”
“Oh yes I AM!”

This imagined conversation reminds me of the time I picked up GForce at preschool one day and overheard a boy asking where her dad was and why he didn’t ever pick her up.

“Who is your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad. I have three moms.”
“You can’t have three moms!”
“Well, I do!”
“But where’s your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“WHAT? Why do you have three moms and no DAD!”
“Because THAT’S how I wanted it!”

The next time I saw that kid’s mom, she told me that her son went home that night wondering why he only had one mom. She and I had a good laugh about that.

For the life of me, I cannot fathom how Christian and Jewish communities can justify any kind of exclusiveness – particularly when it comes to hosting ceremonies that mark rites of passage: weddings, baptisms, naming ceremonies, funerals, etc. If anything, these are the occasions when faith communities should be throwing open their doors.

Believe it or not, even opening communion to anyone who wants to participate is STILL a radical thing to do in the Christian tradition. Crazy, right? Thankfully, PW’s eucharistic theology is basically this: if you put your hands out, she will put bread in them. She’s not going to bother interviewing you about whether you’ve been baptized or attended membership classes or whether you’ve repented for anything. She doesn’t even care if you are Christian, Jewish, Atheist, whatever. If you want bread, you get bread. She’s a rebel like that.

I won’t even bother getting into the handwringing hoohaw that various strains of both Christians and Jews go through over whether queer people can/should be ordained, and if so, to what level. Really? Both the Christian and Jewish faith traditions are rooted in generations of people being exiled, outcast, persecuted, and annihilated. So what do we do? Well, we exile, outcast, persecute, and annihilate. Or, we study things to death in hopes that the people who want to join our ranks (as well as the issues they bring with them) will give up and/or go away — which is just a more passive form of exiling, casting out, persecuting, and annihilating.

Emmanuel Church has a reputation for having no residency or belief requirements for membership, weddings, baptisms, communion, you name it. As a result, we end up hosting ceremonies and casts of characters that force us to re-examine what it means to be inclusive, and occasionally struggle with how inclusive we really want to be. It’s good, stretchy work. Like any stretch, sometimes it leaves us feeling uncomfortable. And sometimes, what feels perfect to one group of people feels jarring and disturbing to another group. Still, I’d rather be stretched than frozen any day, even if it means occasionally feeling like we’re a kind of Island of Misfit Toys.

I’m pretty sure that the combination Jewish/Christian ceremonies we had this past Sunday would not have happened without our ongoing and deepening relationship with Boston Jewish Spirit and their Rabbi Howard Berman. PW refers to the relationship as “an interfaith family,” which testifies both to our deep commitment and struggles to understand and work with each other, set in an environment of mutual affection, admiration, and respect. It can be hard work, swimming against the tide of centuries of mutual suspicion and distrust, as well as the overt anti-Semitism that is threaded through much of the Christian Testament. But swim we do, and our two congregations have formed a kind of buddy system in the ways we look out for and help each other.

As a capper to Sunday’s extraordinary liturgy, we had a stunning moment during the Bach cantata. At the beginning of the instrumental prelude for the tenor aria in BWV 96 – “Herr Christ, der einige Gottes sohn,” I noticed that the tenor credited in the bulletin was not moving toward the front for his solo. I looked down at my bulletin to make sure I was looking for the right tenor.

By the time I looked back up, the conductor (who used to be a tenor in the chorus before he was selected to be the new music director) had turned to face the congregation, holding the big, clothbound conductor’s score in his hands. The orchestra continued playing without a conductor and Ryan sang the aria beautifully.

At coffee hour after church, I learned that Ryan found out only that morning that the regularly scheduled tenor was having throat problems and wouldn’t be able to sing the aria. None of the other tenors in the chorus had ever sung that particular aria before, so not even an hour before the service started, Ryan decided to sing it himself.

Several people told me after the service that the expression on my face was priceless when I looked up to see Ryan readying himself to sing. Apparently, a look of rapturous amazement remained on my face throughout, and Ryan told me later that looking at my face helped him get through the aria. I had absolutely no idea that I was providing any assistance whatsoever. I was just sitting there, awestruck by the whole morning.

It’s cool and curious how the simple act of showing up and staying open to the crazy possibilities of life can sustain the people around us. And, most of the time, you’re lucky if you find out that you’ve provided this support. Moments earlier, I myself had drawn similar inspiration and sustenance from the brilliant pink kippot bobbing around the empty chair for Elijah and then the baptismal font.

The other day I read an interview with Tom Waits in the New York Times. In the interview, he shared what he tells the sidemen who play in his band or on his records: “I want you to play like you’re 7 years old at a recital. I want you to play like your mom’s in the room. I want you to play like you’re miles from home, and your legs are dangling from a boxcar. Or play like your hair’s on fire. Play like you have no pants on.”

If you substitute the word “worship” for the word “play” in the above quotation, that’s what church was like for me on Sunday. Full of surprise, sweetness, boldness, jarring moments, and tiny shards of time that took my breath away – like watching the Jewish and Christian parents of a newly welcomed baby walk up to the communion rail together for a blessing, or like watching the orchestra play without their conductor, because he has turned to face the congregation and is singing like an angel. It turns out, sometimes you figure out how to do things you’ve never done before by just, well, doing them.

A song didn’t come to mind for me today, so I’m sharing this fabulous clip from the movie “Three Kings.” It was playing in my head the whole time I was writing.

Behold that Star – of David!

A week ago, after the wedding I wrote about briefly in this post, PW and I were walking from the Lindsey Chapel to the vesting room so she could hang up her vestments before heading over to the wedding reception a few blocks away. The Emmanuel Church complex is huge, and the Chapel and the vesting room are separated by Emmanuel’s enormous sanctuary. In other words, they’re almost as far apart as you can get and still be in the building.

The sanctuary of Emmanuel Church (lights on)

Leaving the small, brightly lit chapel for the darkness of the cavernous sanctuary on our way to the vesting room was like entering a cave without a head lamp. The first thing my eyes found as a reference point was one of the two shiny gold Stars of David on the Boston Jewish Spirit’s Ark. When BJS isn’t using the Ark for their services, it sits in the front left corner of the Emmanuel Church sanctuary. Since I have very little impulse control when it comes to the game of “Hey, that reminds me of a song!” I blurted out some alterations to the beginning lines of Thomas Talley’s Christmas carol “Behold That Star”: “Behold that Sta-arrrr! Behold that Star of David! Behold that Sta-arrr! It is the Ark of BJS!”

The Ark on the Bimah at a BJS service in Lindsey Chapel

When I finished laughing at myself, I was immediately struck by the profundity of the scene: two Church Ladies navigating their way through a pitch-black sanctuary by moving toward the glimmering stars on the front of the Ark of the resident synogogue.

The next morning, BJS’s Rabbi Howard Berman preached at Emmanuel’s service, as he does once a month. He gave a thoughtful reflection on Thanksgiving, and there were two tiny words he said that I will never forget, especially on the heels of having used the Stars of David as navigational reference points just the night before. At some point in his sermon, Rabbi Berman began a sentence with the words, “Our God…”

As soon as Rabbi Berman said these words, my eyes flashed over to the Ark in the corner, and I felt like I was witnessing a peeling back of thousands of years of Christian arrogance and exclusivity. A Jewish rabbi saying the words “Our God,” from the pulpit of a Christian church, preaching to a mostly Christian congregation, against the backdrop of a sculpture of Jesus and his friends at table for what Christians call The Last Supper.

When Rabbi Berman said “Our God,” I heard a reference to the God we share. I didn’t hear him contrasting a Jewish God to a Christian God. I thought of how often I’ve heard sickening references comparing “the Old Testament God of Vengeance” to “the New Testament God of Love.” If you’ve spent any time in Christian churches, or Bible Studies, I bet you’ve heard it, too. Shoot, if you’re a Christian, maybe the OT God of Vengeance vs. the NT God of Love is one of the lenses through which you read or hear scripture, maybe without even realizing it. Given my own experience in churches and Bible studies, I can assure you that you’re not alone. I wish there were some way to destroy this construct, since in my experience it doesn’t do anyone any favors.

PW told me once that someone asked Rabbi Berman how he feels about preaching, either to BJS or to Emmanuel, while standing in front of images of Jesus and the disciples at table. She reports that he says, “I look up there and I see a bunch of people doing what good Jews do: eating together.” When asked how he feels about standing in front of images of Mary, he says, “I look up there and I see a good Jewish mother.”

As I’ve reflected this year on my improbable, and occasionally hilarious, journey into Church Lady-hood, I’m persuaded that there’s no coincidence to the fact that I never imagined myself ever saying the words “I’m an Episcopalian” until I found myself at a church that has a Rabbi-in-residence, and shares its communal space with a synagogue. If being a Christian and an Episcopalian looks like THIS, count me in!

I felt compelled to write about all this after I read my friend Heather’s essay Friday morning on the Free Range blog that she and her husband Martin started last year. My comment on her website was that I wanted to make everyone I know read her essay. Now, I know I can’t make you read it. But I’m telling you that you’ll be richer beyond measure if you do. Just to give you a hint of what you’ll miss if you DON’T read it, Heather compares practicing a religion with wrestling with a new language:

Having become reasonably fluent in Christianity, I’m trying to learn at least something about the other languages around me. As I learn more about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, I don’t become less fluent in my own language; rather, I understand it more profoundly. I understand its distinctiveness and thus its limitations. I understand something of its fraught interactions with other religions and have learned the uneasy need for…humility. I try not to speak slowly and loudly in my own language when speaking to non-native speakers and hope they will do the same for me. In my limited experience, I’ve found hospitality, not hostility, whenever we try, in our different tongues, to speak with each other.

I finished all of the above on Friday night, just after sundown, which is the beginning of the Jewish sabbath. It was one of those clear, crisp, perfect New England fall evenings. The moon was almost full, Jupiter was doing its autumnal bragging, and there were quite a few stars visible as my dog and I made our way around the neighborhood for her evening walk.

As I surveyed the sky, and thought about the two gold stars on the BJS Ark, it occurred to me the stars are always in the sky, it’s just that during the day they are eclipsed by the closest star to us, “our local hero” as The Weepies’s song calls the Sun in the video posted below. That same eclipsing effect can happen with religion, or any guiding ideology.

When we Christians become too focused on what we think of as our own story, we can lose sight of other stars that help us understand ourselves better, that are always there to help us find our way to being instruments of justice, peace, and love in the world. I count my lucky stars that I belong to a church that has an Ark in it. As I learned last week, when the lights are out in the sanctuary, the most visible objects are the gold stars on the BJS Ark. I find my way by following them.

On reflection, It Gets Unbelievably Great

I wrote Sunday’s “It Gets Better” post during a 36-hour period that was a microcosm of how life Gets Unbelievably Great when you believe impossible things. Maybe you’re thinking, “Believe impossible things? Now that’s just crazy talk, Joy!” And I wouldn’t argue with you. See, given the choice, I’ll go with the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” who impresses upon Alice the importance of believing impossible things:

Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said `one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’

`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

So here’s a roundup of my practice at believing impossible things over the past weekend.

Impossible thing #1: I began the 36-hour period in question eating breakfast in silence at the convent of the Sisters of Saint Margaret in Roxbury, MA. I was there to attend an Episcopal Church Women (ECW) retreat called “Women of the Torah,” led by a long-time friend of mine and colleague of PW’s. For someone who grew up with a tradition where mealtime=story time, eating a meal in silence seemed not only impossible but absurd. To my surprise, I found it strangely relaxing and invigorating at the same time.

Impossible thing #2: I was attending this retreat because I recently joined the local diocesan board of the ECW. There is no way for me to exaggerate the incongruity, no, the sheer absurdity of this. All I can say is that the older I get, the more I seem to say “Yes” to things BECAUSE they seem absurd on the surface. To reinforce how impossible this particular item is, when I walked into the convent and saw my friend, the queer woman priest who led our retreat, she burst out laughing and shook her head in disbelief.

Impossible thing #3: Queer Woman Priests! Since many organizations across a variety of faith traditions, not just Christian, can’t figure out how to ordain women, much less Queer women, I count Queer Woman Priests as an impossible thing, and as another sign that It Gets Unbelievably Great (not just better)!

Impossible thing #4: I left the retreat and headed over to Emmanuel, to the second of two weddings of gay male couples that PW presided over that day. These particular two men were from the Deep South. They’ve visited Emmanuel a couple of times since emailing PW to ask if she would bless their marriage. Their marriage won’t be legally valid in the state where they live. This was also true of the marriage of the two men in the first wedding PW presided over that day. Those men flew in from the West Coast, where Proposition 8 has temporarily destroyed marriage equality. It Gets Unbelievably Great because marriage equality has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen in my lifetime.

GForce walked into the chapel toward the end of the ceremony and sneaked in next to me in the back row. After giving me a quick hug, she looked up, saw the two grooms, and said, “Hey, is this a gay wedding?” I nodded and she said, “Cool!” and balled up her hand so we could bump fists. When I was 14, I never dreamed that two gay men could be out in public together without getting beat up, much less have a wedding in a church. It Gets Unbelievably Great because GForce is growing up in a world where what was impossible even 10 years ago is becoming commonplace.

Impossible things #5 and #6: The preacher at this wedding between two men from the Deep South was a Southern Baptist, who delivered a beautiful, loving sermon that was only 10 minutes long. These two impossibilities were so, well, impossible, that I nearly demanded to see the preacher’s credentials.

Impossible thing #7: During our Sunday morning worship service, Emmanuel’s Rabbi-in-Residence Howard Berman preached about the 200th anniversary of the founding of Reform Judaism, in the small town of Seesen, Germany. I’m going to be a broken record on this. If more Christian churches and Jewish synagogues would carve out partnerships like the one that continues to evolve between Emmanuel and Boston Jewish Spirit, it would hugely improve the Christian side of the equation. I can’t speak for what this relationship does for our Jewish counterparts, but I notice that having a Rabbi-in-Residence who preaches regularly during our worship services gives us the opportunity to question our assumptions, and to notice anti-Jewish bias in readings and hymns. There are probably many more benefits, but those are the two biggies that I can think of right off the bat.

Psalms of Praise poster

Impossible thing #8: This amazing 36-hour stretch ended early Sunday evening at Emmanuel Church, where three local choral groups — Zamir Chorale, The Orpheus Singers, and The Spectrum Singers — presented a program on Psalms of Praise, sponsored by the Emmanuel Center. The Emmanuel Center is an interfaith partnership between Boston Jewish Spirit and Emmanuel Churchthat was created in 2007 to promote and explore the intersection of spiritual ideals, artistic creativity, education and community service. The Psalms program was dreamed up by the Emmanuel Center board of directors, who thought that since there are 150 Psalms, what better way to celebrate Emmanuel Church’s 150th anniversary.

The concert started out with all three choruses (about 120 singers in total) processing down the center aisle of the sanctuary and then encircling the pews while singing Psalm 100 from the Ainsworth Psalter (Showt to the Lord all the Earth), arranged by the Zamir Chorale’s conductor Joshua Jacobson. Each group performed several sets of Psalms individually, and then concluded by joining together for Psalm 133 from Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (“Hine mah tov uma nayim shevet achim gam yachad,” or as it is commonly translated in English, “How good it is and how lovely for people to dwell together.”)  The concert provoked layer upon layer of goosebumps from start to finish.

At the reception after the concert, I spoke with a number of singers from each of the groups who marveled at the opportunity to 1) sing with other chorale groups and 2) sit and listen to other chorale groups perform. Apparently, these groups are so busy with their own performance schedules that they rarely get the opportunity to sit and listen to each other, much less to perform together.

This collaboration across the three groups, coupled with the audience participation in Barak Amrani’s setting of Psalm 150, seemed to be the very embodiment of what the Emmanuel Center collaboration is all about. The Psalms concert — with these ancient texts sung in Hebrew, German, French, and English — was a way of singing impossibilities into being, something we humans have been doing for thousands of years.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same relatively edgy 150-year-old Episcopal congregation that recently called a Queer Woman Priest as its 12th Rector:

  • started out by building on swampland that once encircled the city of Boston,
  • selected as its first rector a man who wasn’t yet an ordained Episcopal priest,
  • later begat the Emmanuel Movement, which was the forerunner of Alcoholics Anonymous,
  • has been performing Bach cantatas in the context of the worship service since 1970,
  • has been blessing same-sex unions since the 1980s,
  • is fully engaged in a partnership exploring spirituality and the arts with
  • its resident Jewish congregation that recently celebrated its 6th anniversary.

It’s all of a piece to me, evidence that It Gets Unbelievably Great when people join together to believe impossible things.

All this is my long-winded way of saying: Don’t just settle for Better when you can have Unbelievably Great. We “daft and dewy-eyed dopes [who] keep building up impossible hopes” might just be onto something. Impossible? So what?!