Wednesday, February 16, 2011

יישר כוח

Tonight I went to Cambridge's "ulpan" (Hebrew learning) evening for the first time this term.  It was in the shul (pronounced shool) instead of the Jewish student room and so I was able to experience some of what happens there during the week.  There were only two Hebrew learners tonight, so while Simon - Sarah's husband and the Jewish chaplain - worked with the beginning student, I read through "מעשה בלפת ענקית" (ma'ase b'lephet anakit or "Tale of the Enormous Turnip"). While I was learning words like "to debate with oneself," "to draw out," "varied," "craftsman," "your Excellency" and "to plot," I was also mindful enough of my surroundings to feel that unbidden sense of longing that tugs at times like these: my own form of holy envy.  The term was first coined by Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran theologian and Harvard School of Divinity professor who developed an interest in Jewish Studies and began participating in Jewish-Christian dialogue because of his interest in the Jewish context of the New Testament.  In 1985, when he was the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, Stendahl gave a presentation to a press conference in response to Swedish protests against the building of a Stockholm temple by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It was called "The Three Rules of Religious Understanding." His three rules were:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don't compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for "holy envy."
 There are aspects of Judaism that I admire and, in a way, long for in my own tradition.  Tonight I was "envying" the Jewish sense of community as I have many times the past few months.  I sat there in the synagogue, reading my children's book in Hebrew, listening to two men conversing about piel verbs and smichut next to me.  Behind a drawn back divider curtain, two other men were loudly studying Torah together, singing out the Hebrew and spinning the liturgical language so quickly that the syllables started running into each other. They worked their way through relevant midrashim, shouting out the opinions of Rashi and then Rambam, this rabbi and that rabbi.  I could turn my head their direction and see another man in front of the bimah (raised reader's platform), rocking gently, praying softly to himself.  To my left in the kitchen were the sounds of a young woman cleaning up after her dinner.  The Hebrew student next to me was eating the remains of her creation and I could smell how delicious the kosher pie must have been.  This Jewish confidence in peoplehood was manifest in the cacophony of sounds I heard tonight, in their common language, their ritual garments and modest dress, their cheerful dietary discernment, in the Torah Ark in the corner of the room and the religious texts laying well-worn on all of the tables and desks.  This building was a well-loved place of study and worship, not just for the individual, but for the students to lift and learn together.  Though I have great faith and find great joy in my own religious tradition, I find myself yearning not only to borrow a chair for an evening, but to belong to that building and her people.

3 comments:

ladyfair said...

וגם אני

Anonymous said...

Amy,I am ever impressed with your ability to capture life in the written word. Whose child are you? (Anonymous's because I can't figure out how to get my identity on this blog :) ). I would expand Stendahl's list in one way: Adapt as you can that which you love into your own religion. I felt some of what you experienced in the shul today in my scripture class. There was a beautiful sharing of very real and heartfelt thought and emotion about the topic of motherhood. With that sharing came, for me, such a feeling of love and bonding with my classmates. I find I have to put myself out to really feel the power of the Gospel in my relationships--but the effort is so worth it! Work at helping the Cambridge Ward to feel just like that shul did for you. You have a gift to be able to do that :). Love you, dear.

Jon said...

This was read out at Cambridge Jewish Society last night!

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