Thursday, March 20, 2008

That Blend That Is My Life

I had kind of a wonderful thing happen tonight.

A former student of mine called, a young lady who must now be in the 11th grade in the Orthodox Jewish school in which I taught. I haven't seen her in months. Her question: She had agreed to babysit for a Christian family on Easter Sunday and to help prepare their Easter dinner, and then had begun to wonder whether her participation in a Christian meal could be construed as supporting or promoting the Christian faith and, therefore, a violation of halacha (Jewish law). She had already consulted a rabbi, who had told her to find out whether Easter dinner constitutes a religious celebration.

We talked for quite awhile. I explained that for most people, an Easter dinner is merely a family-and-friends event, with no religious overtones and certainly no ritualistic aspects. On the other hand, if the family were religious, there might be a prayer, and the prayer would likely be an expression of gratitude for the risen Christ, and that would likely be a problem for her. I suggested that she ask them about their practice.

Then, as we continued to discuss various scenarios, I began to reformulate the problem. "You know," I said to her, "this is THE celebration of the Christian year. This is what it's all about for us, and this is also the day on which the distinction between Christianity and Judaism is grounded. This is the day most like Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur in its centrality to our religion, and this is the day on which we claim the belief with which you completely disagree."

"So," I continued, "even if the family in question is not what you would term 'observant'; even if there is no ritual, no prayer, and no other acknowledgment of the religious significance of the day; even if it appears on the surface to be an entirely secular occasion ~ the belief underlying it constitutes the foundation of the Christian faith. The question then becomes whether, recognizing the significance of the day, even if the family does not, is it acceptable for you to participate in any way? That's what you need to ask Rabbi B."

"I feel so bad," she said. Hmm, backing out of a holiday babysitting job with only four days notice is not good. That's what I thought, as a once-mother of small children who knows how hard it is to come by a reliable babysitter. "I think you need to honor your religion," is what I said out loud.

I was honored to be brought into the discussion, and I asked her to call and let me know how she and the rabbi resolve it. I have to say: it's pretty cool to be trusted by a Jewish teenager to provide the discussion and straight answers (and more questions) that she needs to resolve a religious dilemma that is no doubt difficult for her to pose.

Not a bad prelude to the holiest days of our year.

17 comments:

Lisa :-] said...

An interesting situation.

And yet, as an agnostic, I feel that "honoring (her) religion" by bowing out of a possible opportunity to observe a faith or rituals different from her own will ultimately not serve this girl well. I almost feel like you encouraged her to do exactly the opposite of what you would have done...

Or maybe I'm full of crap. :P

Stratoz said...

Gannet Gal and Lisa-- life is complicated, this morning I will meet with an Episcopal priest to do Catholic spiritulaity, and then I am going to make a couple things for a seder meal. And where is this seder-- my Episcopal church. Raised Lutheran, I wonder what Martin thinks about all this.

GG-- I think you did well. giving advice to one who wants to honor their religion does not mean responding as you would have responded, or how someone else thinks you would have responded.

peace

Gannet Girl said...

Lisa, it's true that I would have done the opposite. But to be a good friend to someone, I think, you need to encourage her to be who SHE is, not who you are.

For myself, the choice would almost always be engagement with others. But part of the challenge associated with that is recognizing that others have different priorities, some of which may be diametrially opposed to yours.

I think it's a real gift when someone trusts you enough to ask for clarification of who YOU are so that she can respond out of whom SHE is.

more cows than people said...

i was thinking, when i first read her question, that it was a cool opportunity for her. (i was equating it to the opportunities we take to participate in seders, etc.) but then when i read your response, i was thinking what a faithful friend you were. the comments just confirm that.

what an interesting situation. and the blend that is your life is so fabulous.

Carol said...

Your entire post, and the situation that precipitated it, are further testament to the fact that you have found the right calling and that you will excel in this field after your ordination. You already do as a student AND teacher! I agree, as a Reform Jew, that I would have liked to see engagement and participation in this event. However, you answered as you know HER belief system dictates.

Quotidian Grace said...

I tend to agree with Lisa. It seems legalistic to say that her helping this family as a babysitter on Easter means she somehow is betraying her own faith. I've attended a number of seders and bar and bas-mitzvahs and never thought in doing so I was denying Christ.

But I think you did right to refer her back to her rabbi and I hope he tells her to go.

I don't see the difference between her accepting the babysitting job and the many Jews who routinely volunteer to take Easter and Christmas Day shifts for their friends in jobs that require it such as hospitals, police, fire depts. etc. They see this as a good deed, not a denial of their faith.

Gannet Girl said...

QG: Working a Christian holiday shift in a hospital, etc. is a mitzvah, an act of kindness, toward a person who has religious obligations of her own, and would not be construed as an act in support of Christianity. (I was always grateful for the Jewish colleagues who subbed for me during Christmas week!)

We operate out of a different religious imagination than Orthodox Jews do. For us it is an act of celebration -- and possibly a mitzvah on our part! -- to share in the celebrations of others, even when we do not share the religious faith underlying them. For someone who adheres rigorously to the law of Torah as God's great gift and revelation, violation of that law is a serious violation of the relationship. And participating in Christian religious ritual or symbolism has been interpreted as violating the law. (I think it was preparing the dinner, not the babysitting, that presented the challenge.)

What seems legalistic and frustrating to us can be from another POV an act of fidelity and praise.

Paul said...

I agree with Lisa, too (surprise, surprise), but being less polite than Lisa, I'll add that this is a perfect example of how religion gets in the way of honest human understanding.

Sorry. I know you felt good about this.

Gannet Girl said...

I am delighted by the discussion so - I feel fine.

Quotidian Grace said...

That's a very interesting point, you made GG. I had not understood this in that way before.

Purechristianithink said...

Hmm. For a number of years our church and the local synagogue had a "swap" going whereby we provided nursery care at their place during their high holy days so they could all worship together and they came here and babysat during our Christmas Eve services. Of course, we're talking about a Reform Synagogue, so maybe their interpretation of what constitues support for Christianity is different.

BTW the whole exchange fell apart once both congregations decided all their nursery workers needed to have criminal record screening, etc. etc. which did not work in the whole volunteer spirit of the arrangement.

Lisa :-] said...

Interesting exchange...!

Again, I speak as an agnostic--one who does not distinguish between nor necessarily honor specific religious traditions...

I see that you have responded to this girl's inquiry with a sensitivity to her religious tradition. My point is that any/all religions need to understand that it is only through dialogue, sharing and understanding--of religious and any other cultural differences-- that this small world has any chance of survival. If Orthodox Judaism hasn't figured this out, it is high time it did.

And...I think they probably lean more in that direction than you give them credit for. After all, they did hire you to teach at their school...

Mary Beth said...

This is fascinating. I think you did great, and I agree it's a huge honor that she called you to consult on this dilemma.

I, also, hope she will go, but I think the good information to take back to her rabbi will be best.

(I initially typed "rabbit" in the previous sentence...!)

Anonymous said...

this is what i HATE HATE HATE ...ok...can't stand ... about religion. a person well-grounded in their faith of a god (their god, if you will) should not have to worry about a rule that disallows you to help out a family of another faith. rules rules rules. god and faith should be organic and one of accepting what you believe and letting others go their own path. our world is in horrible shape because at the foundation of most religions is the concept that 'our way is right and - as much as i respect you - your way isn't.' wrap it up in beautiful temples and churches and song but it all boils down to the same bottom line. organized religion is all about power and money and - until recently - men. bah humbug. i defy most people to just start being good and decent people. start there. work your way up from there.

bean

Gannet Girl said...

I was hoping you'd weigh in, Bean!

Kathryn J said...

My take on it is that they were probably having her babysit while they prepared for the Easter celebration - therefore not a problem. I'm not sure how it got tangled up with enabling their religious celebration but hopefully a dialogue ensued which enlightened both of them.

Bean's point about the rules is valid. They are stupid. I make a distinction between what I perceive to be man-made (emphasis on the "man") rules and those that I think are god-made rules. My view is different than most.

Carol said...

As a Reform Jew, bound firmly in that tradition, I have to agree with those who have said that they see this as an opportunity for understanding. It would certainly be my goal. Unfortunately, Orthodox Judaism doesn't see things that way. They are so stuck in the "my way is right" mode that they refuse to worship in a Reform or Conservative synagogue because "their" rules aren't followed in those synagogues. While I teach tolerance to my children and those around me, it is very difficult to be tolerant of those who are so close-minded. I don't blame Bean for being turned off by religion when she hears of situations such as this one.