Growing up in a traditional but not halachically (Jewish law) observant American Jewish home, in a town with few Jews, and attending Orthodox Jewish schools, left me with a conflicted relationship toward Christianity. It wasn’t just going over to my neigbhors’ house on Christmas morning to check out the previous night’s toy haul and vicariously celebrating something that I knew wasn’t mine but sensed was probably really worthwhile. It wasn’t just playing on my town’s soccer team and having practice scheduled around my Catholic friends’ CCD classes or my evangelical friend’s commitment to resting on the Sabbath, which he celebrated on Sunday, thus requiring our little league games to be played on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
More ominous was the feeling that Christianity posed a threat to me, and not just by the bullies who fought me on the soccer field or the hockey rink. I grew up with implicit and explicit messages that Christianity’s intent was to replace and convert Jews. While America had, from the time of George Washington, and up till then, shown a historically unprecedented tolerance to Jews, the lesson I took home was that at any time, this forbearance could be withdrawn and Jews returned to the same unemancipated, rightless status they held for centuries in Europe. In addition, the attractiveness of being a Christian in a Christian society was viewed as a tremendous threat to Jewish continuity that needed to be countered. My Jewish school sent letters home before Halloween and Valentine’s Day noting that these holidays were of Christian origin and were often celebrated with Antisemitic violence. The fun of Trick-or-Treating was mixed with the feeling that I somehow was dancing on the graves of ancestors killed in pogroms. When I went to church to celebrate my friends’ confirmations, I knew that I was violating a Jewish precept. As I grew older, I learned about the ruling of Rabbi Soloveitchik, modern Orthodoxy’s premier thinker, supporting cooperation with representatives of other religions on economic, social, scientific and ethical issues but prohibiting any kind of interfaith theological dialog.
Despite the strong messaging, I sensed, from a young age, that this ban was excessive. While it was clarified to me that the Christian belief in the Trinity was a form of idolatry (violating among other things the primary message of our most important prayer, the Shema—that God is one), I still intuited that however we defined it, Jews and Christians (and Muslims) were praying to the same God. Despite what I knew, I loved the Gregorian Chants, Bach Cantatas, and Protestant hymns that I heard sung in Church, and I regretted not being able to participate. I knew that, as Jews, we didn’t accept Jesus as our Messiah, but why did we have to answer that question now? If Jesus were to come back from the dead, and declare he had risen, I figured I would owe it to myself to give him a serious hearing. In the meantime, however, I wondered why it was so terrible to be attracted to the music, mystery, comradery, and easy societal acceptability of Christianity, which was tempting despite, and also because, it was forbidden.
With maturity, I better appreciated the Rabbis’ assimilation fear for Jews living in non-Jewish countries, and how this underlies the requirement for religious separation. I also was gaining an understanding that Halacha (Jewish law) is something you can’t accept in a piecemeal fashion and you need to practice even the things you don’t understand. However, I thought that because I was aware of the dangers of assimilation, these separation requirements didn’t have to apply to me.
Empirically, this was a poor assumption on my part and was tested in many ways. One way involved my singing in Yale’s Russian Chorus, an a cappella group focusing on the liturgical and secular music of the former Soviet Union. I found the music exquisite and moving and while it troubled me to sing the rare song which explicitly praised Jesus Christ, most of the liturgical pieces referred to a more generalized God whom I felt very comfortable extolling through song. I took the lead from a Jewish elder-classman, who may have been the only other Jewish member of the Chorus at the time, and adopted his practice of performing the Russian Orthodox liturgical music in concert settings but refraining from singing it when the Chorus participated in Church religious services. I realized that this heuristic was not in keeping with halacha, but I felt like I could live with it. In practice, it didn’t keep me out of trouble either.
On my last tour with the Chorus, we were scheduled to sing at a Sunday morning service in a Los Angeles Russian Orthodox Church. My friend and I told the conductor of our religious issue that would prevent us from participating, but we planned on rejoining the Chorus for an evening concert performance. Unfortunately, several members of the group, including a sizeable Neo-Czarist faction (I didn’t realize that in the early 1990’s Neo-Czarism was a thing at Yale, but evidently, it was a thing) instigated against us, and in the evening they said and did some very Antisemitic things, leading me to quit.
Skip forward several decades, and the gracious project coordinator of the Yale Russian Chorus Alumni Association reached out to former choir members to participate in the virtual recordings of some of the most beautiful songs in our catalog. The first song was Georgian liturgical hymn that didn’t explicitly mention God and the second was a neo-nationalist hymn praising the Russian heartland (that I discussed here). The first real challenge to my religious sensibilities was our recording of Отче наш/Otche Nash “Our Father” which is the Russian Orthodox version of the Lord’s Prayer. This song does not mention Jesus’ name and while there are there may be small theological points in it where Judaism and Christianity diverge, I think that if the prayer was translated into Hebrew, most Orthodox Jews would feel comfortable with it.
I’m still cognizant of the halachic rulings and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s injunctions, but feel that especially today, when Jews in Israel and around the world are being attacked, it should be ok to lift up our voices in song, together with our friends of every monotheistic religion, and sing praise to the one God who is the Father in heaven of all of us. The music, written by Nikolay Kedrov in 1922, succeeds in my view, of conveying the serenity and ecstasy of worshipping our Creator. I hope you agree. You can listen to Отче наш/Otche Nash here.