Servetus’ syncretic solstice [second year, eighth candle]

Richard Armitage as John Thornton with eight candles. Almost a Chanukkiah. Source: Phyllys Faves


1. This is the last night of Chanukkah, so the last night I’m going to be appealing for contributions to Armitage’s endorsed charities — potentially until his next birthday, depending of course on world events. (You’ll hear from me again if there’s another seismic event in Christchurch.) If you haven’t, and you’ve got some money left in your holiday purses, etc., etc., please consider it.

2. The post below is also pretty personal and pretty religious, concerning the Servetus family Christmas and its connection to Chanukkah. There is a definite Armitagemania connection, so I am not calling this OT, but I am also not tweeting it. If you’re sick of my religious ponderings this would be a good one to miss! I’m labeling it “eighth candle” because I’m done lighting the menorah tonight, but I realize Chanukkah wasn’t much fun on this blog. That’s just wrong. I had presents for Armitage and everything. If my mood is right tomorrow night I’ll do a Chanukkah roundup post. Apologies. My mood and events caught up with me. And then it took me five painful days to write this. Comments are absolutely not necessary. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it’s wise to publish this, but working it out took me so long that I’m going to anyway.


I was trying to write about just this theme on the third night a year ago, and then stopped because I learned my doctoral adviser had died. The underlying questions have not gone away; a lot of things that have happened during this year make it far clearer. I reference in this discussion James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (1981), but you don’t have to have read Fowler (or even agree with him — you will find his discussion more persuasive if you’re sympathetic to Freud as interpreted by Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society [1950]) to see what’s at stake in this discussion. Something that I disagree with strongly — the idea that these types are necessarily successive stages. I think that one’s own relationship with faith is largely a result of the atmosphere in which one grew up and then finds oneself as an adult, and I don’t see any of these stages as a necessary goal, although my own development seems to proceeding in consonance with them.]


[Example of a merchandiser trying too hard. Santa hats are cooler and at least have a shot at being ironic.]

People always want an explanation of Chanukkah. An assumption prevails that it must be important — it’s the Jewish solstice holiday. Or something. That Chanukkah is a big deal in the U.S. is primarily a response to the juggernaut that Christmas has become (which it wasn’t always, either: s.v. “Puritans“). Where I lived in Germany, Chanukkah was primarily a chance to represent by putting up a menorah in public and saying “we are still here,” a much nicer one than the other opportunities, which are mainly genocide remembrance occasions. Most Jews I know in the U.S. don’t celebrate Chanukkah with anything like the furious intensity with which Christians celebrate Christmas. Gifts — yes — for children. Eight nights of them? Not in most families, and even then, mostly for very small children. A nice, greasy meal or two, amusing games with the dreidl (people now compete to see who can make it spin the longest, which was not the original point of the game), little netting bags of chocolate Chanukkah gelt, the pretty menorah, the songs. I think most of the people I know who grew up Jewish in the U.S. know the story of the dreidl, how to play the game, and can sing the Chanukkah candle blessings and Ma’oz Tzur, but then if you do actually light all eight nights you get a lot of practice. It’s nice. All those lights, lightening up the darkness, important at this time of year, as Phylly reminded us.

When you get to the holiday itself, light spots are harder to find. A basic narrative is here. We find ourselves in the Hellenistic period of Greek history — the phase after the death of Alexander the Great, when his empire broke up into fiefdoms controlled by generals. Alexander and co. took the culture of Athens (not theirs, except by association — they were Macedonians) with them wherever they went and, as imperializers do, they wrote it over local culture as best they could. This process played out frequently in religious venues. The first naturalistic depictions of Buddha mimic Apollo; this process also explains why we have the Septuagint, as Hellenized Jews had lost command of Hebrew to the point that many did not understand their own scriptures. So yes: write this general point on to Judaea, where the Jews also assimilated under the Seleucids, adapting themselves to Greek culture and customs. But not everyone was hep to this trend, especially the sons of the Israelite priest, Mattathias. The story behind the holiday: after his sons, who led a resistance group calling themselves the Maccabees, took back the Temple from their Seleucid Greek overlords, who had contaminated it with the introduction of religious prostitutes and the worship of foreign gods, enough oil to light the Temple lights as specified by the Talmud was lacking. Miraculously, the available oil burned long enough — eight days — until more could be obtained. Chanukkah thus actually means “dedication,” not “festival of lights.” As I noted earlier, the Maccabeats sing about the “miracle,” a much more pleasing reading of what was happening in the story, and one that offers nice ties to other religions. The theme of miracles explains how Oprah, that great popularizer of being your best self as religious commitment, managed to work Judaism into her wildly syncretic December issue last year. Eighteen centuries or so later, G.F. Händel wrote a great oratorio about it, beloved of Jews and Christians, which takes liberation as its theme. In the twentieth century, Jews in the Diaspora named their sports teams after the Maccabees to symbolize strength, and the story of the successful revolt played an important role in the development of an Israeli national identity. The Maccabees fought on the Sabbath; the Israelis fought on Yom Kippur. Supposedly Mel Gibson wants to play Judah in a Warner Bros. film: hoping to apologize, no doubt. (Gibson’s obviously a troubled man, so no opprobrium here. His words don’t hurt me. I mention this only because if you google an image of JM, MG is the photo you’re most likely to see.)

[Left: Judah Maccabee cuddly toys]

Judah Maccabee as Jewish Braveheart. What’s not to like? The thing is, the vast majority of Jews today are assimilated in precisely the ways JM et al. opposed. Athletics is a key point, and it’s a supreme irony that Jews have named their athletic teams after him. In Hellenized culture, athletes competed naked, and in order to fit in, Jewish men who were educated in gymnasiums and assimilated into Greek life wore fake foreskins or attempted painful procedures of foreskin re-extrusion to make themselves “look Greek” and avoid ridicule. Thus, when the Maccabees took over a city, they forbade games and athletic competitions. Sound like anyone else we’ve heard of recently? The point of rededicating the Temple was re-establishing ritual purity; the point of the origin of the holiday was an act taken to solidify the boundaries of Jewish life and identity against the forces of assimilation and syncretism. The first book of Maccabees even records that the Maccabees carried out forced circumcisions on all the uncircumcised Jewish boys they found. Circumcision is still a mainstream practice in Judaism (when I converted, I signed an agreement to “initiate my male children into the covenant of Abraham”), but a significant and growing minority of Jews oppose it and haven’t circumcised their sons. It’s all very well to light those beautiful candles and even to make fun of the frenzied celebration of Christmas in contrast (which is getting easier by the year, unfortunately), but most people doing that would be horrified if they ever actually had to live in the kind of society the Maccabees favored. (To Israeli readers: I can imagine that the issues around this in Israel are quite likely different, so I apologize in advance for my ignorance of them.)

You can see where I’m going with this: it’s fine to point to all of the solstice traditions of the different world religions, and even to say, “isn’t it nice that we can all fit together in this way?” but this one doesn’t fit into that especially well, if you think at all about where the holiday comes from. One reason I don’t post more popular music Chanukkah vids is because they almost all insult Greek culture in some way, and given my education it’s hard for me to get on board with that. It’s probably risky to raise the bizarre “War on Christmas” problem here, most of which seems to have been whipped up by the media, but many people I know, at least, really do want to say “Happy Holidays!” when they are uncertain as to the reception of their greeting. They want to say something nice and they want not to offend. Let’s all get along. “Peace, love, and joy, whatever you’re celebrating,” as one of my facebook friends wrote on the 23rd in a status update.

Servetus naturally also supports the dissemination of peace, love, and joy — in their most meaningful guises, not as empty wishes — in the form of tikkun olam. And yet, she wonders whether all traditions are created equal, and how this question could be decided.

She particularly wonders whenever she spends a religious holiday with her family.


I was raised as a neo-pietist. I’ll always carry that with me. It’s not really possible for me to think of the world without first considering a frame of reference that involves the action of the divine and the eternal. If only it were just that; I could imagine a friendly, syncretist neo-pietism.

But historically Lutheranism was never like that — it started off as a protest movement — and my parents are non-assimilationist, non-syncretist. In the mid-1970s, a period of relative toleration between the different Lutheran churches in the U.S. was ending. Boundary walls were under construction again. Lutherans who remember this period think of institutions like Seminex, events like the hymnal wars, and the end of altar and pulpit fellowship between different synods. Some individual churches ignored the rules, but when I was about ten I saw an excommunication pronounced in a church service. For a while we couldn’t go to the Eucharist with our (Lutheran) paternal grandparents because of controversies about entirely different matters, and theology was discussed regularly at the dinner table. Sometimes sociologists of religion call the church I grew up “fundamentalist,” but to me that misses the point. Apart from the theological issues, there’s a behavioral question. My parents are not the highly mediatized, super-self-aware-fundamentalists of today. They don’t want to get in a fight about anything. They know they’re right and everyone else is wrong, and since the discussion is being conducted about the only thing that matters, there’s (usually) no point in getting angry about it. I was raised to believe not only in right vs. wrong, but also that the determination of these in our lifetimes was a central activity in which all should engage. But really only within limits. Despite a few pesky divergences from the beliefs enumerated in the Small Catechism, my parents are firmly rooted in Fowler’s Stage 3. It was not permissible to determine that right stood somewhere outside what we believed. When we argued about theology, it was to prove that others were wrong, not to examine our own beliefs.

When people ask me why I converted to Judaism, I often joke that it was the only way to become more Lutheran. I’m only partially jesting. When I left for college, convinced by events that what I had learned about G-d as a child was simply wrong, I planned to become an agnostic or maybe, if I could work up the gumption, even an atheist. I ran across Judaism accidentally. My academic adviser was worried about my shaky transition to college life and invited me to celebrate the Sabbath with his family so I would not feel so dislocated. I can’t say that I made a study of all of the religions before choosing this one. I converted to Judaism not for the reason that most people in the U.S. do — to marry — nor because of love at first sight (although my twisty road through different Judaisms eventually provoked strong positive emotion), but essentially for two reasons (speaking in retrospect): a feeling of family that was lacking in my own faith; and the rational conviction that Judaism was “right.” I encountered Judaism just at the point at which significant figures in my life cared to develop my rational capacities (this is an introverted function for my personality type, and no one had paid much to it before college — teachers were more focused on my musical abilities), and Judaism seemed objectively correct to me. In other words, this conversion — unlike the religious conversions of many late adolescents — was not a relativizing step for me. I wasn’t picking a more useful (comfortable for me) religion. In my mind, I simply replaced the “wrong” worldview I had grown up with the “correct” one. This attitude separates me both from most Jews (who would say “Judaism is full of good ideas for humanity, but as a religious practice, it’s really meant for Jews,” and thus embrace a limited relativist position from the start — Judaism is for Jews, Christianity for Christians, Islam for Muslims, etc.) and from most converts in the U.S. A lot of people who experience late adolescent conversions are moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4: by choosing a new faith, they are expressing awareness of the relativity of faith as such. Not me.

What ended that phase for me was not so much a cognitive development as the constant jarring of identity that comes with frequent moving. I definitely grew up in a context where the self took on form in terms of one’s significance to others, and I think that tendency may be stronger for the average woman in the rural U.S., anyway, although the changes were predictable, as I always met the same people. But after college, I moved constantly, and I was constantly being forced to be something different for someone else. Once I started teaching, well. When teaching, you turn yourself into the person who can most effectively convey the information to the particular audience. Or you try, anyway. And, then, graduate school was a period of cultivation of severe rationality, and uncompromising rationality would have forced the admission that Judaism is not absolutely correct. But in any case, even though I think I made it to a self-reflective faith by the time I was 30 or so, I’m still — and will always be — plagued by the belief about absolutes instilled in me as a child.

I became a historian and learned that nothing or almost nothing in human nature or values was permanent, and studying history gave me a definite relative perspective on human values: the moral absolutes humans have believed in have been decisively conditioned by time and place. The Bible was once interpreted as supporting slavery; now, it’s usually interpreted as not supporting it. These are choices humans make based on their historical contexts; what we decide is essential in the inherited moral codices of our religions (vs. what is historical / cultural) changes even as our historical context changes. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that “better” and “worse” are real categories, particularly in terms of arguments for or against anything, even if we’re only talking about “better” or “worse” for certain outcomes or certain groups. I believe in actual values and actual moral goods and I tell people about them. Students who come to college with the sophomoric confidence that everything is relative or persist in saying that option A is as good as B as a historical explanation get poor marks from me. I grew up in a faith practically without adiaphora, and it took me a long time to abandon the stance that there is an absolute moral answer to every question, but even so, not everything is relative.

I’m pretty sure of that, anyway.

[That’s a joke. Get it? I’m pretty sure that we can be absolutely sure about some things? … Never mind.]


So. Christmas 2011. A repeat, in many of its essential features, of Christmas 2009, an episode that required two very expensive hours of therapy to process at the time, and makes up part of the story on the path toward Armitagemania.

I was home, seeking respite from the poisonous atmosphere around the Armitagemania trigger event. On Christmas Eve we drove out to the farm to go to church with my brother’s family. This church — though it’s not the one I grew up in — is practically a Servetus family endowment. The kind of place where my mother was baptized, where my father was confirmed, where one grandfather designed and built the parsonage and the other supplied the Christmas tree every year, where one grandmother ran the Ladies’ Aid and the other one had sewn all the paraments.

Walking into it makes my stomach twist, it’s so familiar and so foreign, all at once. The decor from the turn of the twentieth century, actual candles all over the place, a partially painted limewood altarpiece, felt banners, worn pews, poinsettias and fir everywhere, red ribbon, an advent wreath, communion cards that state the requirements to commune with the congregation, the “red” hymnal. The table in the narthex with a paper bag of goodies (a handful of peanuts, an apple, an orange, and a pencil) for every child present. Every little boy in knit pants, a sweater, a white shirt, and a tie. Every little girl with a new Christmas dress and a bow in her hair — except that one, on the end, well, you know, her mother’s an alcoholic and just drops her off here, they’re not really members. One of the Sunday school teachers — three decades ago it would have been my mom — has found an appropriate cardigan to drape over her rude cartoon character t-shirt and put a bit of glittery ribbon in her hair, too, so she looks at least a little like the other girls despite the jeans. The servicemen, home on leave, who usher the service and get handshakes from the old Vietnam vets — but not the servicewomen, who wear dresses. The volunteer firemen with their pagers — two years ago some poor drunken soul fell through the lake on Christmas Eve and ten men, my brother among them, rose silently and simultaneously during “Silent Night” with all the candles burning and left the congregation to sing on without them. The way they all kissed their wives on the cheek that night and told them they’d catch up with the family at home. The mixture of annoyance and anxiety on the wives’ faces. The kids who lead the service on Christmas Eve: the ones who can’t remember their verses, or say them too fast; the smart girl who’s been given Luke 2:2 because she can be trusted not to stumble over Cyrenius / Quirinius; the fourth grade boy who they gave Luke 2:9 to, because of the wide-eyed way he says “terrified”; the sweet kindergartners singing “Little Children Can You Tell?” — a song that, if you know it, practically guarantees you went to Sunday School in this denomination; the eighth graders who are way too cool for all of this now but have been badgered into holding it together for two hours.

My heart aches to belong here. I used to reject all of this explicitly, but I still find meaning in a lot of it — and I’m wondering if this means I’m coming to the end of Stage 4; it’s just that the tradition that’s breaking in on the neatness of my relationship with Judaism is the one I grew up with. A description of Stage 5 says: “symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past. There must be an opening to the voices of one’s ‘deeper self.’ Importantly, this involves a critical recognition of one’s social unconscious-the myths, ideal images and prejudices built deeply into the self-system by virtue of one’s nurture within a particular social class, religious tradition, ethnic group or the like. Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts.”

Oh, yeah. I’ve been defeated in all of my most significant beliefs in the last five years, and I’ve done plenty of irrevocable things. I can’t ever be the person I was when I was thirteen again. I know I can’t go back home, and realistically, I don’t want to go back home. This is not a past I can ever reclaim, except in sorrow or, if I get up the gumption, anger.

Because being here is one huge masquerade. Because I want to cry for joy and end up sobbing in pain. Because my nieces know nothing about my religious life. Because my hands are necessary to finish the Christmas baking and run the Christmas errands but I light my menorah late at night, in secret, like a marrano. Because in order to fulfill my role here, I have to sing along with everyone else, and though I know all the words to these songs, and all the rules about singing them — the congregation rises for any verse of a hymn that mentions the Trinity, for example, and this pastor seems to have a particular fear of Trinitarian heretics like me, because every other hymn on Christmas Eve ends with “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” — they stick in my throat. My brother’s confident, steady bass next to me warms me up a bit, but it’s not enough to make me belong.

Because as soon as I look under these symbols, I start to feel dirty, anxious, inadequate. Because the pastor won’t even shake my hand when I leave church with my family. Because as much as these symbols may mean to me emotionally, they are never going to open up to me as a practice of faith. I’m baptized and I’ve been instructed, but I am seriously, perennially, undeniably “in doubt.” In a level of doubt that no conversation with a pastor who thinks I’m so theologically dirty he won’t even shake my hand or have the guts to look me in the face when he spurns it will ever clarify. Because my mother is still praying for my conversion back and I know this because she tells me before every church service we attend together. Because my father agrees with my mother; it’s just that she’s the press secretary for their relationship. Because this is the atmosphere in which my nieces are being raised and when they find out the truth about me, I’m going to be one of those Pharisees the Gospels are talking about. I’ll be someone obsessed with the law and ignorant of love, not a person who finally became reasonably confident about divine love once I embraced “legalism.” Because they’re both really smart and they’re being set up for exactly the intellectual turmoil that I experienced should they ever leave here and no one should have to go through that.

Well, maybe their catechesis will “stick” better than mine did. Though I can still recite most of the catechism. I do this occasionally, when I lecture on specific points related to this topic. Impresses the hell out of all the students, who don’t know this whole convoluted story.


A Servetus religious experience FAQ:

Q: Why do you put up with this from your family?

A: They are my family. I want to love my parents and I want them to approve of me, but even when they don’t, I bear them certain obligations. Yes, I have good friends, and yes, I try to act toward them as if they’re the family I chose for myself, but family of origin is important in our social structure — blood ties often bind us strongly to people whom we wouldn’t tolerate otherwise. It’s striking that even children who’ve been badly abused and separated from their parents want first and foremost to return to their families of origin. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

Q: I want to defend you against your mother.

A: Try looking it at from their perspective. Parts of my family have belonged to this particular local church since the mid-nineteenth century. Inter alia, faith is the thing that held my parents’ marriage together for over fifty years. My parents believe that they will see her family again in heaven — except not me, because I won’t be going. Against the weight of all that, my theological, emotional, and rational objections are largely quibbles. Imagine how you might feel, if your own eldest child — after you’d been told you wouldn’t have children, and who was born eight years into your marriage — threw your most deeply held convictions back in your face. Imagine if you thought your child would die and suffer eternally in hell. My parents are not blogging to tell their side of things. Maybe they need to be defended against me. I’m the disturber of the peace, not them.

Q: So why do you bother with religion at all? Why not abandon it as a bad job?

A: I think that the one thing that religion gave me from a young age was flow experience. Probably the most valuable thing my mother ever taught me was the necessity of prayer and how to pray. I experience flow more consistently while praying than while accomplishing any other activity. Plus, as I stated above, I was raised a neo-pietist. I don’t know how to think about the world without G-d in the framework of religious piety.

Q: This pastor is a jerk.

A: The pastor is a jerk, but he’s doing one of his jobs. This denomination only prays with others in which they are in 100 percent agreement; it almost schismed over the question of whether its pastors could pray for peace with Muslims in a post 9/11 ecumenical prayer service. As the Bible notes, Christ came not for the righteous, but to call the sinners to repentance.

Q: This denomination does not embody the spirit of “true” Christianity. Why didn’t you / don’t you look for a “truer” Christianity?

A: I don’t know how I’d determine what the “true” Christianity is. Most of the Christian churches claim that they are the true or only Christianity. The ones that don’t run afoul of my questions about moral absolutes. At least with Judaism, you have an enumeration of the law that everyone is in dialogue with, even those who disagree with particular interpretations. I don’t see how I can subscribe to a Christianity that says essentially whatever you believe about G-d is okay. “True for me” as different from “true for you” is a proposition that makes no logical sense to me. If something is true, it is always true. But all the other ones, the ones with definite lists of beliefs, seem to espouse things that are demonstrably false or at least rationally problematic. If I start looking for the “true” Christianity, I’m abandoning the reflective level I finally achieved (Stage 4). And: if the essence of Christianity is behavioral (“love the Lord your G-d / love thy neighbor”), Judaism has all that already, without the tricky neo-Platonist Christology, which is an essential article of Christianity but which most Christians don’t even fully understand.

Q: I grew up without all this religious baggage. I don’t let anyone dictate to me what I believe; I figured it out on my own, and / or I pretty much believe that whatever anyone believes about G-d is fine. Why don’t you stop worrying about these theological systems and just go over to accepting that?

A: Aside from the moral absolutes problem (some other people believe things about G-d that I find pretty disturbing, so although I am broadminded, I can’t really subscribe without reservations to the notion that whatever anyone believes about religion is fine — and I bet you don’t, either, if you think about it for a second), I don’t think that that stance really gets you around another question that’s essential to religious practice, which is the problem of how we act in community with others. Individual virtue is wonderful, but we can only really accomplish tikkun (“the repair of the world”) if we subscribe to a shared definition of virtue and work in community with other people. Certain values are simply not compatible: we cannot say that it is the right of the powerful to grab everything they can get their hands on, for instance, while claiming simultaneously that we must watch out to guard the rights of the weakest members of our society. Saying religion is a private thing is essential for political life in the U.S., but claiming that ethics are private is not a useful way of thinking about either religious life or ethical virtue. (For further discussion of this conundrum, see Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life [1986].) I don’t look down on people who are not religious, but I don’t think that eschewing religion gets anyone out of dealing with certain pressing human problems. If we don’t use religion to think about how we will act together with others in ethical ways, we have to find another way of doing so or else abandon the question. If I have to give up a convincing notion of an absolute G-d, then I at least want a system of how we can work together to make the world better and serve our neighbors — otherwise life seems to be like a pretty depressing experience.


So I suppose, in a way, that Chanukkah embodies some of my most deeply held religious conflicts. On the one hand, there’s the social impulse to make it a solstice holiday like Christmas or Kwanzaa or Yule or Soyal or anything else that occurs about this time of year, if only to be able to wish one’s neighbors well in our pluralistic society. On the other, there’s the problem that Chanukkah, like Christmas, doesn’t fit well into this pattern unless it’s overcommercialized and basically denuded of its original meaning. Capitalist consumption is not my idea of how to share peace, love, and joy. Using the language of Chanukkah, I want a religious identity that doesn’t require either an internal or an external Judah Maccabee for me to hold it up, but using the language of my childhood faith, I don’t know how to create a religious identity without building up walls and embracing at least some moral absolutes. On the one hand, I want a religion that accommodates all the things I am and know to be true; on the other, the things that I am and know to be true are partially contradictory, and I am suspicious of religions that claim to function without moral absolutes at all. I want to be radically inclusive, radically loving, radically forgiving — I want to be that way no matter what happens when I walk into that tiny church in central Wisconsin, which I want it to be a vessel of the divine in just the way it appears to be — but the very notion of symbol as truth in any religion has been so undermined that it’s hard for me not to be ironic.

And yet: I believe. The thing I got from my childhood. As much as it hurts to be at home sometimes, there is a core of me, tiny and sad, that believes nonetheless. I have to find a way to let that little piece grow, without being overwhelmed by sadness, anger, and irony, so that it can speak lovingly about the past and optimistically about the future. I have to find a way to go home, if only by moving on.

Time to light the last candles for the last time till next year.

~ by Servetus on December 28, 2011.

21 Responses to “Servetus’ syncretic solstice [second year, eighth candle]”

  1. I understand you only too well.
    Yes,I want it too, just to be “radically inclusive,radically loving,radically forgiving”. I think I can be and I will be”extra good,extra peacefull,extra forgiving”. It is “extra good” religion,don’t you think?


    • One of the things I appreciated about Judaism is the attempt to distill everything down to a behavioral standard (albeit a complex one) that enables one to be “extra good, etc.” I was really glad that he said that; it makes me like him even more — or at least sense a kindred spirit there.

      All we can do is try 🙂


  2. That sounds hard. It sounds lonely and frustrating and distressing. No-one should have to do religion in secret – and the irony of this happening in the US is not lost on me.

    It’s easier to navigate deep, fundamental stuff when it doesn’t involve the family. Families are like crucibles, aren’t they?

    It also sounds like your Judaism nourishes your being, for which I am glad. I hope you’ll continue to be nourished and upheld, so that, however (if ever) the situation is resolved in your family, you will be OK. And there’s a great many people who care for your well-being – some of whom have never met you. We can’t fix things; we can direct a steady stream of goodwill your way, and hope that it also nourishes you.


    • The US: yeah, I regularly teach courses on Church & State in the West that perforce end in the US (since that’s where I teach them), and the pile of ironies around religious freedom in the US never fails to amaze me (although the students don’t usually notice my sarcastic remarks). I started off teaching that course very suspicious of state churches / religions because of the effect that they tend to have on piety; but where the state is “officially” a secular entity (and given the way this worked out here, see Phil Hamburger’s recent book on this) religious freedom inevitably leads to religious conflict. Not that I think we’ll see a replay of the English Civil War here any time soon.

      Without my family I wouldn’t recognize myself. This is just another one of the gifts they gave me.

      I really appreciate your thoughts and care. I really do feel them — or I wouldn’t continue to write about this here — and it does nourish me.


  3. There’s a long rant? diatribe? trying to get out which wouldn’t be helpful anyway.

    I hope some day you will come to a resolution about what is more important: familial/church duty/acceptance or spiritual survival. As Karen says, we are here to send goodwill and emotional nourishment your way.


    • I’m trying to have both and maybe it’s not possible. Probably I read too much Thomas Aquinas as a college student.

      I think it wouldn’t have been this bad had I been able to acclimate gradually, as I had planned, but the fact that I was away again for five months meant that this was a big shock.


  4. Servetus, your article overwhelmed me. It is such a wonderful search for the true meaning of religion. I cannot say that I had exactly your way, but in some points my search was similar. The good thing for me always was, that my parents supported me in my free search of meaning and even followed me part of the way. When church rules were strict or not understandable or church members acted in a hateful manner, my father always quoted “Pharisäer und Schriftgelehrte” and we always knew what he meant. Jesus did not make a distinction between the really learned and the non-believers (and I am sure he did not mean you, because you believe). They both were on the wrong way, hating people and not searching to help them. In the end, a “Samariter” (not a church member!) did help the wounded, none of the holy men did. That is what true religion and believe is for me. The way is the goal, the search for the good and the way to G*d is the true religion. Whoever is willing to search, is on the right way. Who thinks he is right and everybody else is wrong, enforcing rules which have no real purpose or value in themselves without the true meaning, the helping of others, is wrong already. Religions for me all have one thing in common, they try to help one to find the way, but they have no power to ensure that one really finds it with them. They are just suggestions and accumulations of empty rules, which try to help one to find the way, but they are not the way itself. I very much admire your way and your bravery with which you go it, Servetus!


    • Thanks, CDoart 🙂 I appreciate that you made your way through 5,000 words of this.

      If I may say: although I understand what your father meant and am in sympathy with it, the issue is that the Pharisees themselves are depicted in unbelievably prejudicial terms in the NT. The story of the Good Samaritan (my second favorite parable as a child, after the five loaves and two fishes) is intended as a persiflage of ritual cleanliness behavior on the part of priests / Levites. But it’s tremendously unkind to those concerns, which after all, have to do with G-d and G-d’s service, too. You could say that the priest and the Levite in that story have a Stage 3 faith, but the authors of that account seem to be in the same situation I was as a 19 year old: insisting on a correct worldview that is simply not the one held by the Pharisees.


      • You interpreted the good Samaritan as a critique of the cleanliness rules? We did another interpretation at school, but I must add, we had a very (!) good and open minded teacher in my last year at school. (He even let me do a presentation of the frm’s (You know what I mean and shortened? .:. ) He put it in a context with current developments in Palestine and Jerusalem of that time.
        He interpreted the story in a way that the Samaritan is a person coming from Samaria, which was a town not believing in the Jewish G*d. So the helper is someone, not believing in G*d, but doing the right thing, whereas the priests believing in G*d did the wrong thing while thinking they obeyed his rules to the letter and admiring themselves in their right doing for their true virtue. They tried to be admired by others for showing their religious obedience of every single rule, not living their religious believes.
        Part of the problem with prejudices in the NT (not only in regard of the Pharisees, but also against women ;o) is, that it was written and selected by men, who had their own established world view. Historically understandable, but heavy to bear ;o)
        G*d fortunately is bigger than my mind and every rule we are trying to bind him in.


        • As far as Pharisee’s go, I’ve never been of the understanding that all of them exhibited bad characteristics, many that were mentioned did but some are spoken well of. Don’t bad eggs exist everywhere (religion, business, politics)? Personally, that pastor sounds like a bad egg (as if Jesus would ever recommend ignoring people as a way to “save” them), so are all Lutheran pastors bad eggs?
          Granted, this type of reasoning probably wouldn’t go over well as I’m sure the family holds a different opinion.


          • The portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels tends toward a criticism of the program of rabbinic Judaism as such. This is a bit the point I’m trying to make about the pastor in my brother’s church. He’s following a program in which he believes deeply, as did the Pharisees of the NT. The Pharisaic agenda was one heavily criticized by the authors of the Gospels (which is not surprising — most were written after the rest of the NT, after the controversy over whether Christians would be required to subject themselves to the ritual law of Judaism had been decided) — those accounts seem to be saying specifically that the Pharisees misunderstand the law, just as we might say that my brother’s pastor misunderstands the message of Xty.

            From that pastor’s perspective, I am not someone whom he’s trying to win over to the Church by kindness. I already know the truth and have rejected it. There’s a particular dynamic within conservative Lutheranism that supports this kind of behavior, a sort of cultural separatist stance, *but* he truly believes that by treating me this way he is fulfilling his obligations as a Christian. He believes, in short, that he is acting in love.


        • Just thought about a possible mis-interpretation of what I wrote earlier and wanted to clarify that I did not mean it in a way to critizise your hiding the lighting of the candles. This is not what I meant with “not living their religious believes”. I think you are doing it in an admirable way by thinking of the sensibilities of your parents first before thinking about your own needs.


          • no, of course not.

            In the end, I’m the one who’s being called to attempt to be loving in this situation, I believe, or I wouldn’t do what I have.


        • Hmm. Well, Samarians would have said they believe in the same G-d as Jews, although Jews would say they wouldn’t; the identification of the town Samaria distracts a bit from the point that a Samaritan is a member of a sect that may or may not be a Jewish sect, depending on your perspective. At the time, there was a lot of hostility between Samaritans and (rabbinic) Jews, and a great deal of disdain for Samaritans among Jews because inter alia they did not accept the program of rabbinic Judaism. Because rabbinic Judaism “wins” in the end, we tend to read histories of this period from its perspective, which is not entirely fair, especially as these “other” Judaisms persisted / persist in various forms (Samaritanism isnt’ the only one, there are also the Karaites).

          The point from the perspective of rabbinic Judaism — extrapolating what the author of the account thought might have been going on in the minds of the priest & levite, and which would be fairly obvious to an observant Jew reading this account — is ritual cleanliness for temple service. Priests can *never* touch a dead body and are not allowed to enter cemeteries, even to visit their own relatives’ graves; neither priests nor levites could have exposed themselves to blood without necessitating a lengthy purification process that would have barred them from fulfilling their legal obligations in the Temple, which are also part of Jewish ritual law. Of course, even rabbinic Judaism specified that the law was to be held in abeyance if necessary in order to save a life, but the oral Torah can be interpreted either way, to say that the priest & levite should have helped the man, or justify them not having done so. The author of the account seems to be saying: here are two people who claim to be righteous because they observe the Law to the letter, but in fact they are cruel to the wounded victim of a crime; whereas a member of a group that specifically rejects the legal tradition of rabbinic Judaism fulfills the real Law, which acc to the Gospels is to love thy neighbor as thyself, by coming to the aid of the traveler. The account picks up on a lot of the discourse of the later prophets of the OT, which concerned the question of whether G-d preferred the perfect execution of a ritual, or rather a particular kind of behavior that reflected a charitable, inner state of mind. (Isaiah 57 comes to mind.)

          From my perspective (and given my concerns about being seen as a Pharisee), the interpretive issue depends a bit on what we interpret the author of the parable to mean. Traditionally many of the parables are interpreted to mean: Pharisees and others who follow the law mistaking the true spirit of the law for its letter (“the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”). This is not so much a command to turn toward a reflective or relativizing faith as it is a statement that “you’re doing it wrong.; think about it this way rather than that way.”


  5. I recognize the irony in celebrating a holiday that remembers the restoration of worship in an environment where you are forced to hide it. I’m glad you addressed this as I’ve been worried about you when you said you couldn’t let your nieces see the lighting of the candles or talk about it but now have a better understanding of the environment. You can be a good daughter and take care of your parents while believing differently than they do. I hope this does not become a circumstance where you “cannot eat your cake and have it too.” In the mean time, I’m glad you have your blog and can share your thoughts/feelings. It can be a help to write things out. 🙂


    • Thanks for bringing it down to a point so succinctly. I still believe I can be a good daughter without believing everything my parents do — even if they won’t accept that. I just occasionally need some support! Which is why writing about this helps SO much.


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