Should people incorporate elements of other religious traditions into their own beliefs and practices?
I’ve actually encountered this issue a few times in the blogosphere. First, there was a post by my Hebrew Union College colleague, Angela Roskop Erisman, at Imaginary Grace. Her post was entitled “Interfaith Dialogue,” and she discussed a Christian pastor who considered herself both a Christian and a Muslim. She also raised the issue of Messianic Judaism, which blends Judaism and Christianity.
Then, on September 21, Kevin Wilson posted an entry called “Humanism’s Ransacking of Religion.” He criticized a humanist Harvard chaplain who feels free to take part in religious festivals and use them for humanist purposes. Like Angie, Wilson brings up the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. He states:
“What he is advocating would be something akin to me holding a Seder, even though I am not Jewish. I will happily attend a Seder when invited by Jewish friends, but for me to hold my own would be improper. I am not Jewish. My faith is part of the same family tree as Judaism, but that tree branched 2000 years ago. And a Seder is so much a part of Jewish identity that it is wrong for Christians to cannibalize it. I would not want a synagogue to hold a Eucharistic service, since doing so would take the Lord’s Supper and strip it of its central meaning.”
Lest Wilson think that everyone at Harvard feels like that chaplain, I’d like to refer him to an article by Jon Levenson that expresses the same concern that Wilson does. It is called “The Problem with Salad Bowl Religion.” I heard it in a lecture he gave entitled “The Jew and the Christmas Tree.” His lecture had more jokes that made fun of Unitarian-Universalism (with UUs in the audience), but, alas, the article was all I could track down on the Internet.
Here are my perambulations. I partly disagree with Wilson, and I partly see his point.
Here is where I disagree: What exactly is wrong with Christians holding a seder, or incorporating elements of Judaism into their faith life? The Exodus is part of the Christian tradition as much as it is part of Judaism. And, sure, there are things that the Exodus means to Christians that it does not mean to Jews, such as the Passover lamb pointing to Christ’s sacrifice. But why can’t a Christian celebrate God’s activity in history on behalf of his people Israel? And why can’t a Christian do so while acknowledging that the Exodus story has specific significance for him, a Christian?
As far as the humanist chaplain goes, I’m not entirely sure why he would celebrate a seder. Maybe he wants to highlight the theme of liberation, even though he may not believe in the liberator of the story, namely, God. And, I’ll admit, he probably leaves out other important details that the Jewish tradition has about the Passover. In Judaism, the Passover is more than about liberation. It is about the Jewish people becoming servants of God (through Torah) rather than slaves of Pharaoh.
Jon Levenson has downplayed that the Exodus story is really even about liberation. For Levenson, God in the Exodus story heard the cries of the Israelites because they were his chosen people and he had made a promise to them, not because they were oppressed slaves. Levenson raises an important point, but I think that the Exodus teaches humanitarian values. How often does God in the Torah tell the Israelites to treat others with compassion remembering that they themselves were slaves in the land of Egypt? And, if a humanist wants to point to the Exodus as a story teaching justice, what is wrong with that, as long as he remembers that Judaism sees the Exodus as more than that?
Here is where I agree with Wilson: I do not consider myself a salad bar practitioner of religion. I do not take elements of Buddhism and elements of Judaism and elements of Christianity to create some New Age sort of faith. I believe that Christ died for my sins and rose again. I place myself specifically in the Christian tradition.
But I believe that other religions have things that can teach me, a Christian. Yesterday, I said that I fast on Yom Kippur. Now, I do not observe the day the same way that many Jews would. I do not believe that I gain atonement on that day, since Christ is my atonement. Unlike some orthodox Jews, I also do not maintain that swinging a chicken over my head brings me forgiveness. But I think that Yom Kippur helps me appreciate things that are also in my Christianity, such as humility, repentance, and reconciliation. And Yom Kippur is part of my tradition too, since it is in my Bible. Can I appreciate certain aspects of Jewish traditions that enhance my faith life, as long as I recognize that I do not do them entirely for the same reasons that a Jew does?