Friday, May 18, 2007

Sour milk

I recently spoke with a Christian chaplain about what it might be like for a Jewish person (like myself) to work (and study) at his hospital. He kept saying things like “it’s absolutely no problem” or “we really value diversity here” or “we’ll respect any religious need you have.”

I don’t in any way mean to devalue this chaplain or to deny his sincerity and earnestness. But, basically, he just wasn’t getting it.

I take a lot of the blame for our failure to more fully communicate here. I have trouble explaining the incredible complexity of the interfaith issues a Jewish chaplain can face. Step one in making it possible for a Jewish chaplain to function in a predominantly Christian environment is the kind of simple respect this chaplain was showing to me. But, it is only the first step. The next step is learning to confront the complexity of it –- and to admit that no one will ever be able to completely accommodate my needs (and still be themselves).

Anyway, here’s my attempt to try and explain some of the complexity of this – the metaphor I use is that of “sour milk.”

Imagine you’re incredibly thirsty. And that you’re a lover of cold, fresh milk. You come across a glass, and amid your thirst you start gulping it down. It is only when it is already halfway down your throat that you start to taste it, and then you begin to realize that it’s turned disgustingly sour. You try to cough it up, but you can’t get rid of all of it, or its horrible taste.

This is the way I felt once when I was I’m listening to a prayer offered by a Christian at the beginning of what was labeled as an interfaith social justice event. I listened to what he was asking God for. And I agreed strongly with every bit of it. And I kept saying “amen to each part in my heart. I kept drinking it down.

And then he ended the prayer in the name of Jesus.

I was sick. I had been halfway to saying “amen” before I even realized what he had said. I wanted to cough up every bit of this prayer, but I couldn’t. I had said all those amens, and I couldn’t take them back.

This is not to say that I think any Christian should in any way be ashamed of their love of and faith in Jesus. This is not even to say that I don’t think that a Christian could talk about that faith –- and how it has played a role in inspiring them to become involved in fighting for social justice. But when you offer a prayer that asks everyone in the room to join you in agreeing with its sentiments, you must show great care about not including theological elements in it that will be unacceptable to some people in the room.
And there are few things more theologically unacceptable to a serious Jew than the claim that Jesus was divine. For countless generations, it has been refusal to accept Jesus as divine that has most distinctly separated Jews from Christians. It is a line we do not cross. Countless Jewish lives have been lost over this. To not uphold this distinction would be to spit on their graves. . . . . And when I drank this “sour milk” offered by this Christian, I felt as if I was spitting on their graves. Desecrating them.
If all that were involved here were asking people not to end their prayers in the name of Jesus in an interfaith setting, then the “sour milk” problem would not be so complex. But, in fact, “sour milk” issues come up almost constantly in this kind of setting.

An example: One very important thing my (Christian) supervisor has passed onto me is the idea that we (as chaplains) can only lead through service. That is, all the authority that we may have in the hospital comes from the fact that we think of ourselves as being servants to those we seek to lead. Nurses, for example, accept our efforts to inspire them to provide compassionate and spiritual care to their patients because we have showed them compassionate and spiritual care when they asked it of us. I have drunk the “milk” of this idea from my supervisor quite deeply. I have been convinced of its wisdom and truth for some time now.

But, it was only incidentally that I recently found out where in his Holy texts that my supervisor finds the teaching for this. It is in a book whose authority I most certainly do not accept. The book of Mathew in the New Testament.

There, Jesus instructs his disciples that they should lead in a way different than the kings of Rome. The rulers of Rome rule by lording it over their people/servants. But . . .
It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
and whoever would be first among you must be your slave;
even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life. --Mat 20:26-28

And, so, what do I do now as a Jewish person? Am I forced to reject my supervisor’s teaching (since I know I must reject the text he uses to underpin it)? Do I simply accept the teaching and say I have no need for a Scriptural basis for it? Do I look within my own Holy texts for a text that teaches the same thing?

These are complex questions. And they are questions that I face all the time. Right now I am reading an excellent book on theological reflection (The Art of Theological Reflection by Killen and De Beer; I hope to write more about it soon). I am inspired very much by what I’m reading. But it is also very much a book by Christians for Christians. It, for example, often talks about the need of a person to have ways of understanding their proper path as a Christian.

You might say that the solution for me here is easy, that I merely need to replace in my mind every occurrence of the word “Christian” with “Jewish” and every occurrence of “Christianity” with “Judaism.”
Oh, only if it were so simple. For, laced in with the universal things that the authors have written are countless occurrences of things that are specifically Christian. They’re ubiquitous and hard to see. And, so, to retain my authenticity as a Jew – and to avoid drinking any “sour milk” – I must constantly evaluate everything I have read and try and discern what of it is “fresh” and what of it is “sour”. This is hard work. Hard work that a Christian does not have to do. Hard work whose existence the chaplain I spoke to was not able to see (or that I was not able to adequately explain to him).

In any CPE program led by a Christian (as nearly all are) I would constantly have to engage in the same task – constantly examining everything I was taught and asking myself what of it arises distinctly out of that person’s Christian tradition (and would thus be unacceptable to me) and what arises from something more universal – something that is part of the universal and essential part of CPE. I need anyone I am working with to acknowledge that this hard work is a part of what I need to be able do to work with them.

And it's not just me. I have a Christian colleague from Asia who is wrestling with his own version of this -- trying to filter out what part of CPE is universal and what is irreconcilably in conflict with his non-Western culture. He, like me, is constantly searching for, and evaluating, the hard-to-see assumptions in so much of what he is being taught.

I am mightily inspired by his effort and have learned so much from watching him engage in it. This is the reason it is worth all the hard work of dealing with diversity in CPE, as uncomfortable as it can be. It teaches us so much about ourselves and about others -- and gives us invaluable insights into understanding the experiences of our patients and of our students.

It is so, so worth it.
Shabbat Shalom.

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