Thursday, September 24, 2009

Book - Mudhouse Sabbath

Title: Mudhouse Sabbath
Author: Lauren Winner
Published: MA: Paraclete Press, 2003

Lauren Winner is one of my favourite professors at Regent-College. Even though she teaches only one class that Summer in 2007, it was a memorable one. Not because I got a good grade for my paper, but more for the insightful and frank manner she communicates the art of writing.

This delightful little book comprises a series of 11 short essays on the rituals surrounding the traditional Jewish rituals. Winner, a Jew who embraced Christianity, yet misses her Jewish rituals. Even though the title of the book is not entirely about Sabbath, the use of the word 'Sabbath' is in effect a recognition that it is still the Sabbath that is still most central in Judaism, or at least in her Jewish upbringing. This book is a result of her efforts to connect her Jewish background with her understanding of Christianity. It is about her personal journey of integrating Sabbath with Christianity. In her own words, she writes:
"This is a book about those things I miss. It is about Sabbaths and weddings and burials and prayers, rituals Jews and Christians both observe, but also rituals we observe quite differently. It is about paths to the God of Israel that both Jews and Christians travel.  It is, to be blunt, about spiritual practices that Jews do better. It is, to be blunter, about Christian practices that would be enriched, that would be thicker and more vibrant, if we took a few lessons from Judaism. It is ultimately about places where Christians have some things to learn." (Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, viii-ix)
Hopefully, more Christians will learn to incorporate meaningful practices into the faith so much so that it is not the practices that make one Christians, but remind them what it MEANS to 'live as Christians.'

What I Like About This Book
 Firstly, it is a frank assessment that the Christian Church cannot invent its own rituals without help. Christianity has little to lose and a lot to gain by learning from the good practices of Judaism.

Secondly, I appreciate the way Winner connects the 'boring' rituals with the idea of it being a journey to the mountaintop.The following is a necessary corrective to our culture of impatience.
"'Spiritual Practice' is a phrase that means what it says. Madeline L'Engle once likened spiritual practice to piano etudes: You do not necessarily enjoy the etudes - you want to skip right ahead to the sonatas and concertos - but if you don't work through the etudes you will arrive at the sonatas and not know what to do. So, too, with the spiritual life. It's not about the mountaintops. Mostly, it's about training so that you'll know the mountaintop for what it is when you get there." (xi)
 Thirdly, it teaches us to respect Judaism for what it is, and not to downplay their earnest practices. We need not completely adopt their manner of worship. That does not mean we totally discard them. We learn from them keeping in mind that our Lord Jesus Christ himself was incarnated as a Jew.

Brief Notes on the Chapters
A) shabbat | SABBATH
This chapter is my favourite of all. Many of us see Sabbath living as trying to keep up with a list of Do's and Do-not's. In fact, the most profound reason why we practice the Sabbath is one of non-interference.  Winner quotes from Lis Harris's Holy Days.

"What happens when we stop working and controlling nature? Moishe Konigsberg responds. When we don't operate machines, or pick flowers, or pluck fish from the sea? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God's world." (6-7)
How's that for putting into practice our words that say: "God is in control?" Perhaps, the practice of Sabbath is a working out of this statement of faith.Unfortunately, no thanks to the Protestant hard-working ethic, many Christians see good works as trying to 'help' God stay in control. For some Christians, Sabbath may mean good works, or more of them. For Jews, it is strictly no work. For Winner at least, she compromises by doing a bit of rest and a wee bit of work on the Sabbath.

B) kashrut | FITTING FOOD

I learned a few things from this chapter as well. I enjoy the idea of seasonal shopping, which doubles up as being environmental friendly and neighbourly as well. For instance, if it is strawberry season, buy strawberries and buy local as much as possible. If it is not strawberry season, why encourage importers to fly the fruit half-way around the world, adding more carbon to the environment and charge exorbitant prices for the measly berry? (Note: Shipping food is culprit #2 in terms of oil consumption)

Another thing I like is the way we learn to enjoy cooking and cutting vegetables. Forming a 'relationship' with food is like appreciating the rings of the onions, the textures, and the care God put into the growth of the onion. Learning to be attentive to food helps us to be attentive to God. Wow. What a whole new meaning to saying grace at the table, when our act of worship begins right from the shopping, the cutting, the cooking, the serving and finally to the thanking: "Thank you Lord for the food."

C) avelut | MOURNING
While Churches do well in preaching and doing funerals, they lack the proper grieving process. Judaism has a structure for helping mourners grieve together in the community. In individualistic Western culture, many people grieve alone. In fact, the Jews have an elaborate grieving calendar to help people mourn purposefully. Jewish communities comes together in support out of obligation and love, not convenience.
This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way that mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast-food society can easily accommodate. Long after your friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, you are still in a piece of ebbing sadness. Mourning plateaus gradually, and the diminishing of intensity is both recognized and nurtured by the different spaces the Jewish mourning ritials create ... " (33-34)
Indeed, Christians generally do not know how to grieve well. Worse, many do it alone.

D) hachnassat orchim | HOSPITALITY
Hospitality is not simply asking people into our houses. It is welcoming people into our hearts as well. Some of us feel only comfortable in inviting people when our houses are absolutely clean and tidy. Trouble is, sometimes we are too busy or we tend to procrastinate in cleaning up. Maybe, the barrier behind our ability to be hospitable lies in our inability to keep our inner hearts in peace. In Judaism, sometimes hospitality is even more important than praying. Some suggest that the reason why Jews practice hospitality so well is because they themselves have been exiles for so long and appreciate receiving much of them from others. For the Jews, hospitality and openly caring for the needy resemble one act.

E) tefillah | PRAYER
Prayer are not simply words but are words that form hearts. Jews recognize that rituals, liturgy and repetitive prayers are not mere words, but is essential in the formation of the heart. {I am reminded of Jesus's warnings about repetitive praying. As I contemplate, perhaps, Jesus is not against repetitive prayer per se, but repetitive praying with a WRONG attitude.}

F) guf | BODY
With care. This is how we are to treat our own bodies. For the Jews, when young babies are circumcised, it is a symbolic way in saying that the religion is not just heart, mind and soul but the body as well. Physical acts are connected with spiritual practices. {This reminds me of the Hebrew mindset which sees the human person as holistic, unlike some modern religions that separate the physical from the spiritual. In other words, whether eating, dressing or exercising, Jews connect every physical act back to God. }

G) tzum | FASTING
In Judaism, fasting is expected. Compulsory. In Christianity, it is mostly optional. {With the Early Church being a fasting Church, need we wonder any further why our modern church is not as vibrant as the early Church? Perhaps, our community that constantly seeks to eat more, buy more, take more only goes to promote a selfish sense of independence. Perhaps, fasting is a reminder that we depend on God and in showing our dependence, we look out toward the needs of others more. I wonder who is more generous? One who is fasting and refusing to consume or one who is filling up his warehouse  all ready to consume?}
"When I am sated, it is easy to feel independent. When I am hungry, it is possible to remember where my dependence lies."(91)
H) hiddur p'nai zaken | AGING
Indeed, in a society where beauty and looks are practically worshiped, Aging concerns is at the bottom, way down the pecking order. The midrash, a Jewish commentary frequently exhorts the people not to dismiss or ignore the aging, but to HONOR them. {In our culture of the fast and the young, the hip and the quick, respect for elders is exchanged for equal rights for all.} Jewish communities honor the elderly as a community, to remind one another of their identity.

I) hadlakat nerot | CANDLE-LIGHTING
Candles are essential in many Jewish rituals. Like lighting a candle to denote the beginning of a Sabbath. There was a remarkable story that is in some ways a rebuke to people who tend to be individualistic. A blind man was once asked why he carries a torch light with him in the dark. He simply said that even though he cannot see, others can. {How many of us do things so that others can benefit?}

J) kiddushin | WEDDINGS
Jewish rituals do not lack any realism about life.  They know the fragility of marriage. Not only do they take the marriage vows, read the ketubah, a kind of marriage contract, they also break glass.The broken pieces reminds them that care is especially needed for marriage can be easily broken. The broken glasses remind them of the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem. Some even say that it scares off demons or foreshadows the consummation of the marriage. While Westerners see marriage as private union between two persons, Jewish marriages is filled with community participation to remind the couple that they need to be faithful, to love and to care for one another.

The major difference between Jewish and Christian views on marriages is huge. Marriage is never a private matter. Jewish couples marry not only each other but into their communities. In fact, the priest at a wedding will say not to the couple alone but to the whole congregation:
Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?" and the community will answer, "We will." (130)

K) mezuzot | DOORPOSTS
Taken largely from the Deuteronomy imperative in Deut 6:5, 9, putting the commandment of God in the doorposts reminds the Jew that because they belong to God, they need to behave as one who belongs to God.
"It is just the doorway, but this is the beginning of making Christian space out of an ordinary apartment." (142)
I enjoyed this little book so much that I have read at least thrice. Simple but also profound.


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