Adam J. Raskin

3 Pastors and the Rabbi’s Son

A Catholic priest, an Episcopal rector, and a Presbyterian minister walk into a rabbi’s house for Shabbat dinner…  Although this sounds like the beginning of a joke, it actually happened not long ago, in my home.  I had become friendly with these Christian clergymen who pastor churches not far from my synagogue.  The Catholic priest provided me with certified kosher pastries when I visited the rectory to express solidarity after his church had been attacked by vandals.  My Episcopal neighbor and I have partnered on numerous initiatives, including interfaith Thanksgiving services, and co-sponsoring a relocated Afghan family.  My Presbyterian colleague just moved to the area, and congregants from each of our communities suggested to us both that we meet.

Two of my kids are away at college, and I have one 16-year-old son who is still at home.  My wife and I attempted to prepare him for having three clerics (four actually, as the Episcopalian is married to an ordained Lutheran pastor) around our Shabbes table.  I could tell he wasn’t entirely comfortable with this arrangement, as he had almost no direct experience with other faith traditions.  He only begrudgingly set foot inside a church when we were on a trip abroad after I convinced him that the artwork was worth checking out.  While he was impressed by the structure, he also confessed that the crucifixes and statues felt “creepy.” I could only imagine what he would think about a man in a Roman collar coming through the door of our house!

When Friday night rolled around, I reminded my son that I genuinely respect these people, and that I hoped he would join me in welcoming them into our home. Before long we were all standing around the table, and each guest was given a benscher containing the words and translations of Shalom Aleichem and Kiddush.  They studied the pages as my wife, my son, and I sang these hallowed words to welcome Shabbat.  They watched as we placed our hands on our son’s head and gave him the traditional Sabbath blessing, sealed with a kiss. After I described that washing hands was a rabbinic practice derived from priestly rituals of the Temple, I expected our non-Jewish guests to wait patiently while the three of us got up to wash and return to the table.  Instead, they all joined us, extending their hands beneath the washing cup as my wife splashed water onto their hands, and explained the blessing we recite for this ritual.  My wife’s warm, homemade challah was a huge hit, as was the soup, the kugel, the chicken, the mandelbrot

I had briefed my son that he could ask them anything he wanted to know, provided he did so politely. After a while, as he grew more comfortable with these kind, affable, unpretentious clerics, he blurted out: “Do any of you watch ‘Lucifer?’” The Netflix series he referred to is about none other than the Devil himself, who appears in human form as a dashingly handsome Los Angeles nightclub owner with an irresistible British accent.  Lucifer Morningstar, utterly hedonistic, nevertheless develops a budding sense of empathy, justice, even love, and he much prefers life in this world to that of the Underworld.  My visceral reaction to his question was, Oy vey!  I can’t believe he asked them if they watch a show about the Prince of Darkness!  His innocent question led to a fascinating discussion of Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant views of Satan.  To my surprise, the Presbyterian minister had not only watched the show, he loved it!  As the night went on, we swapped stories about clergy-family life, talked about the different places we’ve lived and served, and shared plenty of laughs as well.

As soon as everyone had left and the door closed, our son said, unprompted: “Wow! That was really cool!  So much holiness in one room.” And then, to my utter amazement he said, “And that’s why I do not say ‘She’hem mishtachavim le’hevel va’rik.” This discomfiting line in the Aleinu prayer declares that while we Jews bow before the one true God and Sovereign of the Universe, “they bow to mere vanity and emptiness.”  This line was particularly emphasized during eras of extreme persecution of Jews, and it has been noted that the gematria—numerical value—of the work va’rik (‘and emptiness’) is the same as the word Yeshu (the Hebrew name of Jesus).  If Jews couldn’t physically defend themselves from violent attacks, they could at least resort to rhetorical combat against their persecutors.  Many siddurim long ago deleted that line, but there are still a few that preserve it.

When my son first encountered that controversial phrase in the course of his Jewish day school education, he was surprised, but not necessarily scandalized.  After getting to know these clergymen, he became defiant.  He instinctively understood that God could not be so circumscribed that only Jews could enjoy an authentic connection with the Divine, to the exclusion of everyone else.  He understood that we could be proud of our Jewishness, even share the beauty of  Shabbat with Christian ministers, without delegitimizing them or their faith. He said, “Just as we would like to be treated with respect when we davven to Hashem, we need to return that treatment and have respect for other religions as well.”  As we finished cleaning up that night I threw my arms around the broad shoulders of my teenage son, who now stands several inches taller than me, and told him that I was so very proud.  When we take the time to truly get to know people beyond our suspicions, suppositions, and stereotypes, only then can we begin to see the image of God in every human being.

About the Author
Rabbi Adam Raskin is spiritual leader of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, MD. He earned his BA in Jewish Studies at The Ohio State University, and received the prestigious Wexner Graduate Fellowship for his studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Jerusalem. Some of his greatest loves include teaching and inculcating Jewish joy in children’s lives, teaching and relating Judaism’s deep wisdom in classes and on the bimah, and participating in people’s most sacred life experiences. He possesses truly boundless love for the Jewish people.
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