Staying in the Room

Silver Interfaith NecklaceRecently, a new artisan storefront opened near my Main Street home. As I like to support local artisans, I wandered in for a look. “Our name is Just Jewellery,” said the salesperson. “We specialize in silver and semiprecious stones, featuring the work of several local artists…”

But I could not focus on her words. Instead, images of divinity overwhelmed me. I saw Ganesh, Hindu god of wisdom, carved in jade; Buddha, sculpted in a granite-like paste; a Kabbalistic network of triangles drawn with sparkles; a Cross embellished with garnet; a bold Eagle, etched in silver.

This store was a festival, but I was not sure what kind. A deeply multi-faith festival, celebrating devotional artistic intent? Or a superficial spiritual-not-religious marketplace, baiting buyers with aesthetic beauty?

“Please, take a closer look at something,” the seller begged, “Even if you don’t want to buy today!”

Focusing, I asked to see four pendants: a doubled magen david (Star of David), a flowing Sanskrit Om, St. Christopher carrying a child, and a tree with roots in earth and heaven. The heavy garnet cross intrigued me, too; but I did not ask to see it. I could not imagine touching it.

Was this Christian symbol too sacred for me, or too terrifying?

Every Thursday, I attend community worship services at Vancouver School of Theology, the Christian seminary where I work. And every Thursday, I ask myself a similar question.

I love our community worship. No two weeks are quite the same. Faculty sparkle; students experiment; everyone sings, whether they know the tune or not. We learn from one another about denominational worship styles, creative preaching, presence in leadership and more. Sometimes I participate, chanting Hebrew scripture or offering a Jewish prayer. No one minds that I never take communion and rarely say “Amen!”

“Amen” should be simple, but for me it is not. Every time I hear the name of Jesus or his spiritual title Christ used in worship, I startle.

This agitation does not come over me in class, or in meetings, conversations, or lectures — only at worship.

My reaction surprises and worries me. Perhaps it should not. Pastor Don MacKenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Imam Jamal Rahman — the team-teaching and co-writing “Interfaith Amigos” — list five stages of deepening interfaith dialogue. The fifth and most challenging stage is “exploring spiritual practices from other traditions.”

But should I not have reached that stage? For forty years, I have gathered multi-faith knowledge, and pursued a spiritual formation beyond borders. Avoiding the superficial, I have earned degrees, diplomas and certificates from credible academic and professional programs. Western philosophy, Ayurvedic yoga, Kabbalistic Judaism, Christian spiritual direction, and Jungian depth psychology. My studies have led me to an inclusive theology.

God is, as Matthew Fox might say, the “one river” of spirit, bubbling up in “many wells” of tradition.

God is, in Kabbalistic Hebrew, Eyn Sof, Infinity. All human expressions of spirituality circle within the Infinite God. Every religious word, concept, sound, or ritual may turn us towards God, but cannot fully encompass the divine.

God is, as depth psychologists say, “psyche” — a totality of all possible experiences and influences. Psyche surrounds us, appearing to us as consciousness, while also directing us beyond consciousness.

God is, as I learned in yoga, Brahman, infinite energy, mirrored in atman, the individual soul.

Yet, when I startle at Jesus’ name, my seamlessly inclusive theology begins to crack.

As it should! Because, as it admits, even it is a partial representation. Unchallenged, it could harden into a kind of armour. Wearing it, I could fend off all new ideas. At best, new ideas would be pale reflections of what I already know. At worst, they would be childish and concrete compared with my grand vision. And this posture, says Native American writer Vine DeLoria, is theology’s contribution to North America’s dismissal of Indigenous people.

When I attend community worship at VST, I try not to wear my deep ecumenism as armour.

cathedral_interior-wallpaper-800x600Taking off the armour, though, leaves me vulnerable. And a memory of an early encounter with Christianity bubbles up. A troubling encounter set against a previously positive backdrop of our neighbours’ Christmas candies, gifts, and smiles.

My friend Mary and I are five or six years old. Our athletic mothers, off doing their sports, have left us to play at the community centre. We are each allowed one chocolate drink, so we are standing by the cooler, choosing.

Suddenly Mary says, “The Jews killed Jesus Christ, you know!”

“That’s impossible!” I retort without a second’s pause. “I don’t even know who he is!”

Yes, please do laugh at Mary’s childish audacity, and my childish egocentrism. Surely our mothers would have laughed, too, amid their mutual embarrassment and apologies.

And please do cry at the cruel power of memory. Because every Thursday at VST, I expect some monstrous grownup form of Mary to leap up and accuse me. And sometimes — even amid my euphoric enjoyment — I want to run from the room.

Of course, at thoughtful, engaged, and generous VST, no one accuses me. And I do not run from the room. Instead, I assume the posture of a good participant observer. I practice what Paul Ricouer would call a “hermeneutic of recollection” — an expectation that I will collect meaning. I listen to the words, feel the energy in the room, look others in the eye as we pass the peace, and feel my students’ nervousness as they learn to lead. I wait, hoping to learn what “Jesus” and “Christ” mean to them. Not the conceptual understanding expressed in class discussion and writing, but the energy that stirs their hearts to risk-taking, tears, euphoria, and a sense of peace.

What I learn overflows even my inclusive theology. Particularity is important, too. Sure, some students experience Christ as a reminder of cosmic consciousness, beyond the physical form of any dogma. Others experience Jesus as an exemplary crusader for justice. Or a paradoxical teacher, stimulating radical insight. Someone willing to humble himself for the good of others. An exemplar, showing how every human being can embody God’s presence. A unique historical person, whose life story made new religious insight possible. Jesus Christ the symbol overflows categorization, appealing to abstract and concrete thinkers alike.

These data are a beginning, anyway. The insights do not erase my discomfort, but they do help me live into it and learn from it.

Perhaps the artisan’s garnet-studded cross was too terrifying for me to touch. The cross brought little Mary’s faux pas to mind. It reminded me that outside VST and a small circle of fellow travellers, the inter-religious world is still deeply troubled. To some, my Jewish existence is a threat; others feel threatened by Christians, Muslims, or Hindus.

Or perhaps the garnet cross evoked so much meaning, it was too sacred to touch casually. The cross is not, and never will be, my own religious symbol. But I can no longer approach it as a tourist. The cross is a portal to a complex network of spiritual understanding, new, exciting, educational.

The artisan store, I think, was both superficially beautiful and deeply multi-faith. It all depends on how you shop.

Originally published in Vancouver School of Theology (VST) Perspectives Magazine, Spring 2015.


  1. To say the Jews killed Jesus is as wrong as to say people in Seattle are all like Ted Bundy …serial killers. Some people that were Jewish colluded to kill Jesus, but then equally some people that were Jewish also argued against the injustice. If we accept as words attributed to God, ‘the soul that sins, that soul shall die’ directly substantiates that everyone is responsible ultimately for their own part, there is no collective guilt for the guiltless. As to being terrified of touching a cross, why would it not be so? Was it not written, ‘you shall not make any graven image’? This was an emphatic statement not a temporal suggestion for past times. When one eternal command is disregarded one sin pulls another in. Then we have centuries of hatred and violence all in the name of a person that never harmed anyone, and against the very people he himself stated that he loved. Religions often define the other as wrong using absolute judgments that seem ill thought out.

  2. I have similar childhood memories, some even more disturbing. I heard, “You killed Jesus!” more than once.

    While the adult Leora can put on a face of the inclusiveness I value, the truth is that I still have the little girll’s knee jerk defensive reaction to Christianity. I’ve pondered this repeatedly and think that I wear armor in reaction to a sense of needing to protect Judaism in the predominantly Catholic neighbourhood of my youth.

    The Montreal of my childhood did not have a public school system. The publicly funded education was either Catholic or Protestant. My parents chose Jewish day school instead. I grew up with a sense of mystery and fear of what transpired inside the walls of the schools which my neighbourhood playmates attended.

    Laura, you are wading through very deep waters. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.

  3. thank you, laura – andrew and i just arrived in tel aviv yesterday – via el al flight from toronto – swirling sense of my multiple identities and especially my multiple jewish identities as i walked from zoe’s apt to our funky airbnb in the sultry evening air – really welcomed your writing this morning. read it aloud to andrew and we enjoyed it/appreciated it together. wendy

  4. A bold and honest article. I suspect that the “Jews killed Jesus” doctrine was a lynchpin of Christian teaching when I was a child. I too had a schoolmate tell me this one recess. As the daughter of two atheists with a Jewish aunt and uncle, I could not understand what I heard. I could not picture my Uncle Harvey and Aunt Eileen trying to kill anyone, let alone Jesus. I concluded that I had misheard and my schoolmate must have said “juice killed Jesus”.
    Ironically, I would later be led to Judaism via the teachings of Jesus. The theological and doctrinal trappings of Christianity have never appealed to me, but the message of Jesus has always attracted me as inspiring and revolutionary. It took some years but I now look at my years as a Christian as years where I was Introduced to Jewish ethics by a profound Jewish thinker and teacher. Discovering this and reconnecting with Judaism has made the circle whole for me.

  5. I’m reading this from a cafe in Morocco, where, as a Jew I am not even allowed to enter a mosque. Yet I learn that this restriction on my learning/sharing was introduced under the French colonial administration by a (Christian) governor seeking to avoid strife. Is it significant that a Chistian chose to perceive and reinforce sectarian differences? Is it significant that the subsequent independent Moroccan Muslim kingdom chose to continue the practice?

    And my mind goes to Jerusalem, not only to the restrictions to access or prayer on the Haram Sharif (Temple Mount) but also the historic openness and division (among Christians themselves) at the Church of the Nativity.

    Those of us fortunate enough, or God-infused enough, to live with a heart willing to learn and in a society permissive of the heart can only weep for those trapped by their histories into repeating lies about the Other. And we cannot shake the impact those lies have had upon our own personal histories.

    I remember attending an “interfaith dialogue” with a Christian teacher and led by Rabbi David Zaslow in Ashland. He commented that, these days, the Jews he knew were all prepared to sit down with Muslims with an open mind. But put those same Jews in a room with a Christian and they will all be formulating “yes, but…” replies in their minds even as the teachings are coming.

    True for me. Would probably be true in the store of spiritual jewellry. But I’m in a cafe in Morocco.


  6. Thank you Rabbi Laura for a very insightful analysis of how difficult it is to be truly ecumenical and yet those bumps and thorns on that Path teach us so very much! I come from a Catholic family and have tasted many religions; the one I have most trouble with is fundamentalist Christian. People who say the Jews killed Jesus are mistakenly thinking that Jesus and his apostles were Christians; they were not, they were deeply observant Jews. The Jewish religion and people are precious. I am looking forward to “Getting It Together” in West Chester, this summer.

  7. I was usually the only Jew in my class and there were few in the public schools where I grew up, son of a Naval Officer. No one ever told me the Jews killed Jesus, but I knew I was different during all the Christian singing at school aorund Christmas. I’m an interfaith guy for sure, but I still leave Jesus downstairs; too many Jews were persecuted by Christian zealots. His teachings are just fine and a few Negro spirituals are okay too. But after that I leave Jesus in the drawer– without apology. Prahaladan (Phil Mandelkorn)

  8. Wow! The depths you write of! I cannot approach any attempt at this depth of spiritual understanding, but I appreciate the spiritual insight and discernment that you share

  9. (Hi Reb Laura, we know each other from past Kallot. Hope all’s well.)
    This blog post brought many thoughts. First, a recent acquisition: “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths” bu HH The Dalai Lama (2010). Second, years ago, the church where P’nai Or of Portland meets has prayer books on the bench that need to be removed when we daven there. The pastor insisted that it was perfectly okay to put them on the floor under the pews. Well, we went great reluctance in doing this sort of thing! Reminded me of the Buddhist teacher who threw the statue of the Buddha out the window and then challenged the devout Jew to do the same with “his Torah.” Finally, at the same Presbyterian church mentioned above, we found ourselves with a scheduling conflict on Good Friday. We were just completing a series of classes led by Rabbi David Zaslow on his book then called “Roots and Branches” now called “Jesus: First Century Rabbi.” After a short conversation, the pastor rewrote the Passion Play to fit in with the new information she had gathered from the class and not only invited us to share Good Friday with her congregation, but had Reb David “play” Jesus by doing the prayers over the bread and wine (read body and blood). Times have changed since I use to cross the street rather than walk in from of a Catholic church.

  10. The simle visual of this piece itself makes me cautious……. It appears as if the other spirtual paths all “hang” from the cross.

  11. Are your feelings evidence for a “collective unconscious” ?

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned that possibility.

    . Charles

    PS — You are in good company with “Jesus is a special case”. R. Hannah Dresner’s “Can I Pray in the Name of Jesus?” poses similar questions. It’s easier for us to accept the truly foreign, than the oh-so-familiar that we have long rejected.

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