If you’re familiar with my backstory, you’ve probably heard me say more than once that the Jewish way of studying the Bible is what ended up saving my faith – that is to say, asking hard questions of the text, wrestling with it, and being comfortable with degrees of uncertainty. The Talmud, a compilation of commentary on the Torah, is literally just that: debates, arguments, musings, and conjectures about what a passage might mean, what God did or did not intend, and how to apply (or not apply) certain laws.
Many Christians have issues with this approach. They want the black and white; they don’t like uncertainty. If the text says something happened, it happened, exactly as it is written. Everything is literal, and if you doubt any of it, you have to throw your entire faith away.
Baby SB, circa 1990
I’ve written before about how my curly hair is an outward marker of my Jewish identity (ethnically speaking). I want to revisit that subject today, because it took me over 25 years to find the right haircut. 25+ years of having stylists consult other stylists in front of me because they had no idea how to cut my hair. 25+ years of being told, “Wow, you have a lot of hair,” as if I never actually noticed before. 25+ years of dealing with backhanded compliments like, “You would look really cute if you straightened it.”
For me, curly hair and being Jewish were always conflated. While I know that Judaism is a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures, the fact is, stereotypes about Jewish appearance exist for a reason. And growing up, my hair and my last name outed me before I had the chance to say, “Actually, I celebrate Hanukkah” every December.
Truthfully, I didn’t know anyone with curly hair who wasn’t Jewish. Silky straight hair equaled “gentile” in my mind. I already lacked the religious beliefs and holiday traditions to completely fit in with my peers; hair was one more strike against me.
One week before my father died of cancer, I received an email from a family friend— we’ll call her G—wanting to know if he had been “saved” yet; the implication being there wasn’t much time left before it would be too late. By that point, Dad had succumbed to a comatose-like state, with occasional hallucinations and unintelligible ramblings. In other words, though technically still alive, he had already left us—and if this “friend” knew him at all, she’d have known he was never comfortable talking about religion.
That email sent me down a rabbit hole of anxiety, which I’m still wandering through, years later. Having been involved in evangelical church groups for years, I knew G probably had good intentions. In her view, the most loving thing a Christian could do was warn nonbelievers about their eternal fate, but her timing could not have been worse. As far as I know, my father died as the agnostic I always knew him to be.
While Judaism made me aware that everyone suffers, and Christianity taught me how to persevere through suffering, most of the time I really don’t suffer—I’m just uncomfortable. And the things that cause this discomfort are really kind of silly.
When my stomach starts growling only an hour after breakfast, for example, both faiths remind me to be grateful that at least I know when my next meal is coming. I appreciate that both religions share a tenet of gratefulness and appreciation for what we have over longing for what we don’t have.
My first book, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, describes much of my frustration with feeling like a “bad” Jew because I didn’t keep kosher, or the Sabbath, or fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It wasn’t just that I tried to do those things, and failed — I didn’t really want to. I thought they were dumb and pointless.
What’s worse than thinking the ancient traditions of your people are tedious and boring? Doing them strictly out of obligation. Or so I thought.
When I was in seminary (a rather impulsive decision after college, thinking God was calling me to faith-based counseling), I joined an on-campus Bible study. I remember sitting on the floor of my friend Isabel’s living room, munching on frosted cookies and sipping lemonade, thinking that the dainty yellow plates and flowered napkins were an odd juxtaposition against the heavy subject matter: Isabel’s beloved grandfather had just passed away.
The sad news created a thick atmosphere in the room; no one knew what to say. No one ever knows what to say when there’s a death. Then Isabel gave a sigh of relief and explained that, despite the awful disease he’d suffered, at least he was now in heaven. In fact, he had accepted Jesus as his savior just a few years back, before dementia set in. The mood of our meeting completely changed as the women rejoiced and praised God: at least he got saved before it was too late.
Welcome to Part II of my Bible comparison series! In Part I, I examined a common evangelical approach to reading Scripture. Today, I tackle Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So, which represents a progressive-leaning – and dare I say Jewish – approach to reading, and interpreting, the Bible.
As previously mentioned, Enns is not Jewish, but he writes about Jewish studying techniques in a way that I find beneficial and, above all, respectful of Judaism as a whole. Unlike other Christian authors, who treat Judaism as an outdated launching pad for Christianity that no longer serves a purpose, Enns writes honestly about what Christians can learn from the Jews about the Bible – and how their faith will be better for it.
For the last few weeks, I embarked on a personal project that compares two books, each one representing two strands of Christianity and their approach to reading and interpreting Scripture. The first book is Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin, representing the mainstream, evangelical view. The second is The Bible Tells Me So (my second time reading it) by Peter Enns, representing a more progressive (some might say “liberal”) view.
If you’re familiar with my work, you might assume that I align more with Enns’ view of the Bible – and you would be correct. Wilkin’s book was recommended by a conservative Christian blogger I follow on Instagram. I’ll be honest: I ordered it used from Amazon fully expecting to hate it. I thought it would proclaim innerancy as the only way to read Scripture, refusing to thoughtfully consider the more disturbing parts that involve rape, slavery, and genocide.
While I have my disagreements with Wilkin, I was surprised by how much I didn’t hate her book – in fact, I strongly agreed with her in parts. But obviously not everything, or else this post would not have been written.
I often joke that it was a bad idea to publish a memoir at the age of 22 because the shiny, child-like faith I had back then is now frozen in time. I’ve evolved quite a bit since, but only those who know me personally are aware of that. My readers are not.
If I were to read Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter today, after having deconstructed my faith several times over the last few years, I would be very disappointed by the ending. It’s not neatly wrapped in a bow or anything, but it oozes a great deal of “With God, all things are possible!” platitudes.
It doesn’t convey the ongoing difficulties of living life as a Jew-ish Episcopalian – nor does it even go into how I discovered the Episcopal church, which is a very critical part of the journey.
I was talking to my brother on the phone the other day: “You know, lately I’ve been thinking about the anxiety Mom had when we were growing up, about Nazis coming to America. And we all thought she was crazy.”
“She wasn’t crazy,” he said. “That’s just a story we like to tell.”
“Okay,” I responded. “I thought she was crazy.”
That was her anxiety talking, I realize now – something that runs in my family. Both my maternal and paternal ancestors fled to America from Poland and Russia during the pogrom era, before the Holocaust started. But that doesn’t make the anxiety any less real. Holocaust Panic is just a side effect of being Jewish, in this day and age.