I Found Judaism in a Church Pew

Emily Goldberg, Muhlenberg College

I didn’t feel Jewish before the day I walked into a church.

My first visit to a church was an accident. My father and I stumbled into a midnight mass service on one cold Christmas Eve after our annual Chinese Food Ritual. We walked into the incense-filled building and sat in the back wooden pew. I gaped. The familiar scent of old prayer books juxtaposed oddly with the foreign music and movements. I watched as the congregation, surrounding and focused on the colossal cross and the bloody body it supported, whipped themselves into a sacred frenzy. The foreign fervor infected me.

It took one spontaneous trip into a Roman Catholic cathedral in New York City to feel what years of Jewish day school, summer camp, and youth groups did not inspire. Sure–I knew I was Jewish but I didn’t feel that I was Jewish. Not until that serendipitous trip into a cathedral. It offered an example of what I wasn’t and thereby secured powerfully within me a sense of what I am.

In a world dominated by identity politics our sense of estrangement from others has escalated. For Jews, Christians are the iconic Other. We perpetuate an unnuanced caricature of this otherness. I’d like to break that trend – I’d like to understand that world in relation to my own.

Dr. Mary C. Boys of Union Theological Seminary categorizes the evolving Judeo- Christian relationship into three phases of encounter: They begin as “siblings,” then phase to what she calls “polemic”, and then finally, to “necessary Other”. History’s vicissitudes pushed Jews and Christians apart through each of these phases – and that push out and away from one another characterizes the Jewish-Christian relationship in today’s most modern, egalitarian religious communities.  

Why haven’t the progressive elements of these two faith communities reverted to the “sibling” phase? After all, both align themselves with progressive openness. Why haven’t the allied together according to like principles? Why hasn’t a companionship, cognizant and respectful of theological differences emerged?

Why isn’t interest in otherness cultivated? My Jewish community both calls itself progressive and recoils from interfaith explorations. Is that not hypocritical? Doesn’t that attitude block our approach to being the community we’d like to be?

Even progressive Judaism is rich with taboos and boundaries. Even as an eight year old, the otherness I felt in that church was visceral – this nation destroyed the temple. That cross inspired the crusades. Those core-deep responses to organ music and crucifixions pulled me deeply into my Judaism and away from the world into which I’d stumbled that night. Sure, I can express solidarity with the Christian community on a broad level – after all, we are both dedicated to the same God. Judaism allows for such comradery – but no further. More pointed expressions of interest are frowned upon and cut down.

 

Assimilation rates are daunting: this attitude makes sense. But is it right?

I didn’t know Christians at all before coming to college. Now I’m friends with them. I hadn’t opened up a Bible until I came to college either. There, as the semester progressed, I was exposed to unfamiliar ideas, texts, churches and even perspectives of Jesus all of which were deeply enriching. Christianity is filled with various communities, disagreements, customs and ruptures much like Judaism. And it’s filled with a familiar beauty as well. We should be educating our children about this distinct but rich beauty. We should be secure enough in our own wealth to appreciate their riches.

 

In an age when faith is so rare, these communities ought be banding together rather than shutting one another out.  Christian diversity, as Diana Butler Bass writes, “is the active construction of a boundary-crossing community, a family bound not by blood but by love…” Let’s cross boundaries. Let’s break down the walls. Let’s stop being afraid of other faiths and instead trust that they will reinforce our own. It worked for me – remember: I stumbled across my Jewish identity in a church pew.