Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tradition - healing or not? : Passover on the one hand, and the Pope on the other

This is cross-posted in part from my column on
I confess. I love meaningful ritual. I look forward to Passover seder with the same core group of people every year, reading the same liturgy, eating the same food. I don't regard this as spiritually stultifying, I see it as connecting me with eons of people and families around the world who recognize these nights as special and sacred. The Passover ritual, like all rituals, grew from a story -- in this case the story of the Israelites slavery and exodus and eventual entry into the Promised Land. It is not only the history of a people, but it is a moving tale with every emotion wrapped up in it -- from exultation to sorrow to determination, fear and triumph. It also asks questions every year -- asking the community to define itself over and over again. And it asks the community of believers to not forget who they are or where they came from.`

The world moves so quickly -- with so many changes -- that I find rituals, as such as the seder, to be a real linchpin in my year. I love innovation, and treasure creativity, but also feel very comforted by the familiar elements of ritual. I like to know, for example, that if I was not to attend seder for a few years that when I came back I would recognize it.

I do not attend seders our of obligation. I attend them because I love them and they make me happy.

There is almost an anti-tradition mindset that appears among some of us who are left or far left. We have seen the damage that unquestioned tradition can produce. The sturm und drang of unquestioned patterns can evolve into habits that are prejudicial and damaging. And, heaven knows, oreganized religion has done more than its share of harm and committed more than its share of atrocities. But it is important to save what is good and healing and whole and of value.

Which brings me to the Pope. Benedict the 16th visited New York while I was there. The Pope accepted an invitation to visit a synagogue which makes him the first Pope to visit an American synagogue. He was given a silver seder plate. In return he gave them a replica of a manuscript page in Hebrew that is in the Vatican library. (Why a replica? I found that troubling. Is that just me? The Vatican library could not give up one page of original Hebrew manuscript?)

I want religious persons to converse, to dialogue, to understand each other. But for Pope Benedict (known as an arch-conservative cleric) to visit a synagogue has left the media to proclaim that this symbolizes some sort of deep rapprochement between Judaism and Catholicism.

Here is his entire address (per The Catholic Register)

Dear Friends,

Shalom! It is with joy that I come here, just a few hours before the celebration of your Pesah, to express my respect and esteem for the Jewish community in New York City. The proximity of this place of worship to my residence gives me the opportunity to greet some of you today. I find it moving to recall that Jesus, as a young boy, heard the words of Scripture and prayed in a place such as this. I thank Rabbi Schneier for his words of welcome and I particularly appreciate your kind gift, the spring flowers and the lovely song that the children sang for me. I know that the Jewish community make a valuable contribution to the life of the city, and I encourage all of you to continue building bridges of friendship with all the many different ethnic and religious groups present in your neighborhood. I assure you most especially of my closeness at this time, as you prepare to celebrate the great deeds of the Almighty, and to sing the praises of Him who has worked such wonders for his people. I would ask those of you who are present to pass on my greetings and good wishes to all the members of the Jewish community. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

That night I watched a nationally syndicated Catholic TV show on cable that commented upon the visit and ended with prayers that this visit and glimpse of Benedict XVI would inspire Jews to convert. So much for rapprochement.

The New York Times stated:

Some Jewish leaders have expressed hope that the pope might use either of these occasions to announce a change to the prayer for the conversion of the Jews, which many Jews find objectionable, that is part of the Good Friday liturgy in Latin. Father Massa said that is unlikely. He said an “interpretation” of that prayer could be issued before or after the Pope’s trip, but there are no assurances.

So on the one hand I have Passover seder, a ritual of deep value that many people my age and/or my politics have glossed over or left behind -- and on the other hand I have what looks like an innovation, but is just a hollow replica -- right down to the gift -- that is getting media praise.

Sometimes I think the world is upside down.

How do we "keep the good stuff" and keep perspective on the right meaning of innovations? What do you think about religious rituals? Do you find any meaning there? Do you think there is any notable improvement in relations across religions in any way?

I see improvements in spiritual/religious people becoming better able to love each other -- but institutions seem so hidebound, so self-preserving. Yet without them, would the repository of collective spiritual memory not fade?


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