As I think I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading a lot of books about religion, Judaism in particular, to try and get a handle on all this stuff I’ve been wondering about. Since there are many and they sort of relate, I’ll be reviewing some of them together, beginning with What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About Judaism by Robert Schoen and Jewish Ritual: A Brief Introduction for Christians by Rabbis Kerry M. Olitzky and Daniel Judson.
I read Schoen’s book first. It’s a very friendly and conversational book, talking a lot in terms of what Schoen himself has observed among different divisions of Judaism and when interacting with Christians socially or at services. He spends a lot of time working towards understanding between the two faiths, so he’s spent a fair amount of time in churches, especially compared to most practicing Jews, I imagine.
I learned that many prayers that Christians, including Lutherans, use regularly come from Jewish prayers that are also still used. Most notable to me is what Lutherans often use as their sending, which Schoen says in the Aaronic Blessing, from Numbers:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord look upon you with favour, and give you peace.
The words of course vary; those are the ones I’ve heard most recently. From that point, he writes about the different mainline forms of Judaism (would they use “denomination” like Christians do? I admit I still don’t know)- Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. He then talks about different parts of life in the synaogue, including rules and practices; Holidays, festivals, and life cycles events; and then social issues of Judaism in the world, like stereotypes, Israel, art and music, and being the Chosen people. While I had read on the internet about various parts of this, what was most interesting was that when he brings up many of these things, Schoen is able to compare it to modern life and more specifically modern Christianity, helping someone with my background to understand it better. And while not a rabbi himself, he often shows his own attachment to Judaism, like when describing Hanukkah food:
“According to the customs of various Jewish communities, we eat potato latkes, fried in oil or doughnuts…Recipes for latkes abound. My mother’s are the best.”
If you, like me, come from a mostly Christian or agnostic background and just want to get a better idea of the parts of Judaism you might want to know, or understand the basics that you don’t know about, I recommend this one. And with chapter titles like “”Is a Kosher Hot Dog Really Kosher?” and “Let’s go to a circumcision!” how can you go wrong?
Next, I read Jewish Ritual. While also pretty conversational, this book was perhaps not so light. There is more in-depth talk about things like Torah study and the whens and wheres of routine worship, and more than in the previous book about the different roles of men and women. There is also more talk about philosophy and Jewish thought, along with several quotes from Jewish writers, my favourite being from Chatam Sofer, leader of the Orthodox Jewry in Hungary in the 19th century. Here he talks about the desire to see God, and why it’s not possible, as seen in the story of Exodus 33(“You will see my back; but my face must not be seen):
We are only able to comprehend God’s ways and recognize how God works in the world in retrospect. Only then is it possible to fathom even a little of what God does. But at the time the event itself is happening, our understanding is unable to grasp God’s doing…And this is the real meaning of ‘You will see my back.’
What I find interesting about this is that I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone in church really talk about seeing God and why you can or can’t, at least not that I can remember. One thing about this book that I found less easy to relate to was that it feels a little more aimed at someone intermarrying with a Jewish person, or who is part of an intermarried family, than someone who just wants to know. However, like the first book I read, it’s not necessarily aimed at someone seriously considering Judaism for themselves. I do think it’s a helpful piece to read to get a deeper understanding from a Christian perspective, though, and I felt it went together well with the first book I read.
As for my own self-taught Judaism study, though, there’s still much more to go.