Felice comes in twice a year. Nothing serious, just a small medical procedure that needs regular repeating. So I was surprised when this time she said, “I can’t wait for the day when there will be no more sickness.”
“Sorry,” I asked, “is something else wrong with you?”
“Not with me,” she said. “I meant no more sickness. You believe in the Bible, don’t you?”
“Sure,” I said, not expecting a theological quiz just then. “So you mean no sickness for anyone.”
“Yes,” said Felice.
“Do you study the Bible regularly?” I asked her.
“Every week,” she said. Felice obviously wanted to talk about this. “One night I do self-study,” she said, “and the other two nights with groups that meet at Kingdom Hall.”
Ah, I thought, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Earnest people who bring concern, or terror, to hospital staff. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions. Rak chazak l’vilti achol hadam, make sure not to eat blood, for blood is life. Eating, infusing, whatever. It’s right there in the Bible.
When I first married, I welcomed Jehovah’s Witness emissaries in when they came to our apartment door, bearing smiles and copies of “The Watchtower.” People of unclouded faith have always interested me. I want to figure out how they manage it. Also, there is an air of sport about meeting such visitors. They simply know their faith will change mine, but seem to have little interest in what I, their religious prey, believe and why. Fine, let ‘em try.
Eventually my wife ordered me not to let them in any more. My original namesake, Abraham, had to listen to his wife too. Genesis says so.
“What do you study in the Bible?” I asked Felice.
“There are study guides,” said Felice. “For instance, one week we might study dress and adornment.”
“And the guide suggests texts from different sections of the Bible that cover the topic?”
“That’s right. Do you study the Bible?” she asked.
“I know a lot of it by heart,” I replied. That got Felice’s attention. “In Jewish synagogues,” I went on, “we read a section of Bible every week, in Hebrew.”
Felice’s eyes shone. She had found a fellow reader of the Bible, in the original, no less.
“We use a special tune,” I said. “The purpose is not to memorize the words, but if you sing them long enough, some of that happens.”
“You read Hebrew?” she asked.
“Can you tell me the Hebrew words for ‘brother’ and ‘sister’?” she asked.
I told her.
Felice was clearly delighted. She felt she had stumbled on another person with something profound in common with her. In fact, culturally, religiously — and of course tribally — we have almost nothing in common. But superficial similarities are tempting to over-interpret. Sometimes the Bible isn’t the Bible, at least not in the same way.
My tradition reads the Bible through the lens of Torah Sheb’al Peh, the Oral Law. Felice doesn’t know about any Oral Law, and I suspect she wouldn’t think much of it if she did. For her, the Bible says what it says, unmediated (or at least with no mediation she notices).
Other examples of apparent similarities come to mind. I have Jewish friends who study Psalms as scholars. They write articles and books about biblical poetry. Others study Tehillim as a religious obligation, using traditional and modern commentators who mine the text for linguistic insights and literary motifs. Still others take part in the burgeoning Tehillim groups, women who meet regularly to read through all 150 chapters in order to promote good luck and good health.
All three groups are Jewish, and all read Tehillim. But deep down, where they live religiously, what do they really have in common?
Five years ago I studied for rabbinic ordination through an online Israeli yeshiva. Because this effort flowed from complex personal reasons that I hadn’t (and haven’t) fully explored myself, I didn’t talk about it much. But word got out, and the occasional patient or acquaintance would ask me whether I was indeed studying for ordination. When I said I was, they often smiled with admiration. “That’s wonderful,” they said, and they meant it. But what did they mean? And what did they think I meant?
Not surprisingly, none of them asked me what exactly I was studying. Had they done so, I would have said, “The laws of salting kosher meat, the laws of meat and milk, and those of permissible and forbidden mixtures.” That would no doubt have brought a blank stare and a stifled exclamation, “That’s what Rabbis study? What about God? What about spirituality?”
What indeed? I could have answered these questions, of course. But how much history and culture would I have needed to cover? How much deeply unfamiliar religious and intellectual tradition would I have had to explain? And how far would I have gotten before my listeners stopped smiling and started searching in panic for the exits? Really getting under the skin of other people takes more background and interest than most care to expend.
I completed Felice’s procedure. “See you in six months,” I said, “unless of course all illness disappears.” She flashed a merry smile. Not all religious people are as grim as their theological stance would suggest.
“Kingdom may come,” said Felice.
“And if it does,” I said, “please feel free to cancel your appointment.”
Now we both laughed.
She’ll be back. But you never know. After all it’s right there, chapter and verse: V’hesir Hashem mimha kol holi, “And the Lord will keep you free from every disease” (Deuteronomy 7, 15). I could be out of a job.