Religion & Beliefs

What I Learned About Judaism from Christian Evangelicals

I originally logged on to Campus Life’s (an evangelical Christian organization) "Ignite Your Faith" webzine to make fun of the people who write and read Campus Life’s "Ignite Your Faith" webzine (I gigglingly googled "devotionals for teens" after my friend … Read More

By / December 1, 2008

I originally logged on to Campus Life’s (an evangelical Christian organization) "Ignite Your Faith" webzine to make fun of the people who write and read Campus Life’s "Ignite Your Faith" webzine (I gigglingly googled "devotionals for teens" after my friend put this up as her status message). Imagine my nearly humbling discovery that I kind of liked it.

Consider this article: "Give It a Rest." Written by a youth pastor from Essex, Massachusetts, the article gives a description of the Sabbath that would be equally at home on a Jewish Renewal message board:

"Whenever the word holy appears in the Bible, it means set apart just for God. In other words, totally devoted to God. A holy Sabbath, then, isn’t just any old time of rest, and it’s not just rest for our physical bodies. God didn’t give us the fourth commandment as encouragement to zone out while watching TV or spend an entire weekend playing Rock Band. Doing those things might help us recharge our batteries physically, but a Sabbath is more than a time of physical rest. It’s also a time of spiritual rest—rest devoted totally to God."

The pastor encourages teens to take the time to do something special to bring themselves closer to God: write in a journal, take a walk, pray alone or with others. Find something holy to you as an individual. That is the essence of Sabbath rest.

It’s such a simple, unfettered message. Whatever you think about Christianity, there is a simplicity to it that’s sort of refreshing. Do something special. Refrain from doing something mundane. (Sorry about the heresy inherent in this paragraph.)

In Judaism, we’re told we can’t do 39 specific types of work: trapping, tearing, whitening, etc. All of which have been interpreted to mean a million different things—i.e. you should probably pre-tear your toilet paper. Then there are the many required things you must do on Shabbat: prescribed prayer times and prayers, candles to light, Kiddush to say, meals to be eaten in precise amounts at precise times. It’s pretty complicated, especially for a newbie who hasn’t done it a million times before.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a really good, thorough Shabbat with all the requisite parts. I sincerely enjoy turning off my cell phone, having fresh challah on the table, searching for three stars after the sun goes down on Saturday night. I don’t always do it, but I like it when I do.

The trouble is that sometimes the essence gets lost in the trappings. It’s a problem with a lot of Jewish traditions, I think.

For example, I recently took up praying every night before bed. At first, it was a meaningful opportunity to take a moment, be grateful for my blessings, ask for certain things, align my chakras, etc. But lately I’ve been getting home late, and I’m really tired when I get into bed, and I just race through: thank-you-for-my-family-and-friends-and-please-keep-them-safe-and-well-and-everyone-else-too-you-know-who-i-mean.

I feel like one of those Orthodox guys who prays like he brushes his teeth.

So a little essentializing might not be so bad. Some Jews—like my mother, a Renewal rabbi—have interpreted the commandment to guard (shomer) and to remember (zocher) Shabbat like our pastor does—as a commandment to both do something special, and refrain from something mundane. Be aware of what day of the week it is, and make a couple of individualized choices.

Simple. Kind of Shabbos-y, really.

Of course, this list of Christian things to do over the summer is pretty hilarious. ("Over a period of 10 days, pray daily for two or three non-Christian friends, asking God to show you how you can reach out to them in the coming school year." Yikes.)