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A Baptist Among the Jews
By Mary Blye Howe
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
Mary Blye Howe
All right reserved.
Hanging with the Jews
Each Wednesday night, I stand on the front porch of a Hasidic
rabbi's home, waiting for him to open the door for me.
Usually I'm the first to arrive-his most eager student. "Hello,
Mary. Welcome!" he says, inviting me inside and ushering me to
the dining-room table where we study.
If Rabbi G. hasn't yet recited his evening prayers, he slips off
his jacket and dons a long black coat, placing a black fedora on his
head. Then he begins pacing throughout his house, quietly reciting
While the rabbi prays, I browse through his massive collection
of books, almost all of which are in Hebrew; the rabbi is fluent in
Hebrew, Russian, and English. I try, out of courtesy, not to watch
him, but it isn't easy. Rabbi G. is about six feet, four inches tall, with
huge brown eyes that seem to penetrate right to your soul. The fervor
with which he prays, typical of the Hasidic branch of Judaism,
fascinates me. Dressed to greet God, the rabbi invites admiring
Soon others begin arriving, and we sit around the table, talking.
When Rabbi G. joins us, we begin our study, first delving into
the intricate, detailed observance of theOrthodox and Hasidim
(plural of Hasid). Then about 9 P.M., moving into something else,
perhaps a mystical interpretation of the current parsha (Torah portion)
of the week, maybe a study of the writings of the last,
deceased, Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom Rabbi G. follows, or possibly
something from the Tanya-one of the mystical kabbalistic texts
favored by the Lubavitchers.
Most evenings, the group consists of Orthodox and Hasidic
males-and me, a female Baptist. Yet they joke and talk with me as
if I were one of them. They're respectful and complimentary of my
input and questions. My guess concerning their acceptance of me
is that they know I'm sincere. I'm not here to try and convert
them to Christianity. I'm here to learn. I'm here because I've
grown to deeply love Judaism and the Jews. It hasn't always been
that way with me, but it is now. The rabbi opens his Hebrew text.
I scoot to the edge of my seat.
* * *
My love of Judaism began about five years ago. I had returned to
school to study philosophy and anthropology and ran across a newspaper
article about a Jewish group that studied Jewish philosophy
on a monthly basis. I thought it would be a great enhancement to
my academic studies. I had never been around observant Jews,
didn't know any personally, and so I called the group's leader, Reid
Heller, and asked whether it was OK if a non-Jew attended the
studies. He responded warmly and enthusiastically.
As it turned out, the group studied more than Jewish philosophy.
They studied different classical Jewish texts and, occasionally,
a book of the Bible. The group of about fifteen men and
women were from all branches of Judaism. Some wore yarmulkes
(kippot, in Hebrew); some didn't. (At the time, I referred to them
as "little hats" because I had no idea what they were called.) Some
were highly observant, meticulously following Jewish law; others
observed Jewish law less stringently. A woman who acknowledged
God's presence in every aspect of life sat next to another woman
who was an avowed atheist. It was an eclectic group.
As for me, I felt like I was being transported back in time to
the world of the Bible. I had read all my life of ancient Jewish rituals
and lifestyles, but now I began to realize how uninformed most
Christians are of Jewish ritual and tradition. I had always held
vague images in my mind of Jews praying and teaching in synagogues,
but it suddenly occurred to me that I had no real idea what
went (or goes) on there, either in ancient or in modern times.
Each month, I sat surrounded by men and women bent over
Tanakhs (the Hebrew Bible), various commentaries, and other
ancient texts. No longer was I experiencing the world of scripture
secondhand. I was involved with the people who encompassed that
world, whose traditions and rituals pulsate through each of its
pages. Rituals that had been practiced for thousands of years were,
in some form, still being practiced today by a group of people I had
never even bothered to get to know.
My favorite evenings with Reid's group were the ones in which
we studied the Bible. Once we spent an entire hour discussing
Bathsheba's seductive bath. One of the women in our group suggested
that Bathsheba may have actually been engaged in a Jewish
ritual, immersing herself in a mikvah, when King David spotted her.
This launched numerous opinions from the group, each of which
Reid led us to carefully consider. When one was exceptionally
thought provoking, he'd stop and say, "Let's go with that."
We tackled the passage, as we always did, from every conceivable
angle but never in a merely intellectual manner. We'd look
at its history, its philosophical significance, and its cultural relevance-for
starters. Numerous interpretations might be offered,
and all were respected, chewed on, dissected, and tossed about.
Dozens of ancient and modern rabbis' writings would be recalled.
Someone would bring up a mystical approach; others would point
out the play on a Hebrew word or the modern implications of the
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner perhaps says it best: In the Jewish
community, he explained, "the Torah or Scripture is expounded,
interpreted, plumbed, allegorized, manipulated, massaged, psychoanalyzed,
inverted, sliced, and diced. There is no one correct
interpretation. Judaism may begin with a book, but it ends in the
Because Reid let us know ahead of time what we'd be studying
the following week, several group members came prepared
with piles of texts that shone light on any troublesome spots. I loved
watching them lean over a text, fingers humming along the
Hebrew lines as they read one of the three or four languages some
of them were fluent in.
In Jewish hands, scripture vibrated and pulsed into life. I felt
the passion of the Hebrew God in a fresh way, heard the cry of the
prophets' voices with a new force. The world of the Greek
Testament-Jesus himself-began to wiggle out of the Christianized
world the Western church has created and emerged in Judaic
Although I knew that these Jews were modern and that they
acquired their information the same way I did-by reading about
the ancient world-they, unlike me, still lived aspects of the religious
life described in scripture. They still practiced rituals that my
own religion had discarded in its belief that such "graceless" activities
were no longer necessary.
This group-then my only representation of Judaism-was
connected to the Bible, which was written to and by and for the
Jews, in a way I would never be. Regardless of how much we've
Westernized scripture, I was smacked with the reality that my
Bible was Jewish from start to finish.
* * *
Today, with a number of years and hundreds of experiences later,
I'm amazed at the way the Jews have transformed me. At the time
I began studying with Reid's group, I was in my mid-thirties and
had only been out of a strict evangelical church for two years. My
husband, Mike, and I had been devoted Christians since we'd married
a few months out of my teens; we were attracted to the more
conservative edge of evangelical Christianity because of our past
drug and alcohol abuse.
During those years, I was so legalistic that I had once canceled
my subscription to a magazine because it condoned women working
outside the home. Another time, taking communion at a
friend's church, Mike and I panicked when we realized they used
real wine. In the backseat of our 1968 Camaro, I carried a small box
of evangelistic tracts, handing them out to every person with whom
I came into contact.
Growing up, I had a vague notion from my church and the
Greek Testament (the only source of information I had about Jews
or Judaism) that Jews loved rules and had little heart or passion for
God. Although I would much later hear that some Christians
believed the Jews were "Christ killers," I never heard this personally;
the churches I attended believed that Jesus gave his life freely.
Although I hadn't personally encountered any hostility
toward the Jews, there was an almost complete lack of knowledge
within the churches I attended. In our eyes, Jews followed rules
while Christians were passionate about God. God had done everything
he could to get them to wake up, to love him, to acquire an
understanding of what he wanted, but their hearts were too hard
to hear the good news.
What an awakening I was in for. As I began studying and
worshiping with the Jews, they would begin to influence every
aspect of my spiritual life. The box I had kept God in for so many
years would burst open. My experience of prayer would be profoundly
deepened. My life would be imbued with a passion for and
understanding of ritual and the Bible raised to new heights of symbolism
The Jews have taught me that life on earth, not just heaven,
matters immensely. They've restored my belief in miracles and
helped me to see that God is in everything and everyone.
Worshiping with the Jews has plunged me into an intimacy with
God that continues to astound me, deepening my love and passion
for this Being in a way I never imagined.
* * *
Although I studied regularly with Reid's group in the library of the
Jewish Community Center, I had not yet ventured into a synagogue.
This first adventure in Jewish worship and prayer, in contrast
to study, came when my church was invited to participate in
an interfaith service at one of the largest Reform temples in the
On that Friday evening, the synagogue was packed. Our
Baptist choir sang a hymn from the synagogue's balcony, followed
by a psalm in Hebrew from the Temple Emanu-El choir. My pastor,
George Mason, gave the benediction for the service.
The following morning, George led the study that preceded
Temple Emanu-El's prayer service. Jews and Christians mingled at
the tables, and I was thrilled when I noticed two friends from
Reid's study group. Soon the rabbi moved to the microphone, trying
unsuccessfully to get the crowd to quiet down. "They don't listen
to me," Rabbi Zimmerman sighed, "but when Mason gets up
here, they'll hush."
Before George got up to speak, Rabbi Zimmerman spent a
few minutes "consoling" his congregation about our presence.
Because some Christians have spent so many years trying to convert
Jews-violently, subtly, deceptively, boldly, by whatever means
available-it's difficult for many Jews to feel comfortable with us.
Rabbi Zimmerman assured his congregation that he understood
how hard it would be for them to even hear Jesus' name mentioned
in the synagogue, as Jesus had been pushed on them in so
many ways for so many centuries. Yet in order for healing to take
place, the rabbi continued, we must listen to one another, respecting
each other's faiths and beliefs, realizing that not all Christians,
not even all Baptists, target Jews for conversion. When you hear
George talk about Jesus, Rabbi Zimmerman said, please understand
he isn't proselytizing; he is explaining the Christian faith.
George's text was the Exodus chapter that preceded the giving
of the Ten Commandments-a passage on the calling of the
Jews. As George plunged into the text, everyone grew quiet, listening
attentively. Occasionally, Rabbi Zimmerman would leap
from his chair and comment on something George said. The two
men would joke and banter, gripping hands, then engage in side-locked
embraces as they discussed their views. Their friendship was
obviously close and sincere.
For me, the service evoked an even deeper fascination with
Judaism. Although the Saturday morning study was enlightening,
my mind was still on the evening before. I had never been inside a
synagogue, never seen the beautiful ceremony of the opening of the
ark where the large, ornate Torah scrolls are kept, never heard the
rhythmic chanting of Hebrew by hundreds of Jews deeply in love
with God. Again, everything reverberated with a biblical intimacy
that I knew belonged uniquely to the Jews.
* * *
Not long after this weekend, I woke up wondering how the
Orthodox worshiped. Although a Jewish friend had advised me to
take someone along who knew the order of the service, I preferred
to attend alone. I wanted to feel my own way along, to absorb the
atmosphere of the service without distraction. And I wanted to
reflect on it on the way home by myself. I explained this to my cautious
friend. "Go for it," he said to me.
I chose a "Traditional synagogue," which differed slightly
from an Orthodox one in that, while it provided separate seating
for men and women, there's no separation with a mechitza, or curtain.
In addition, space is provided for men and women to sit
together if that's what they prefer. In a true Orthodox setting, sitting
together isn't an option.
I slipped in early and sat in the back, as I had absolutely no
idea what to expect. In the foyer, the men removed their black
fedoras and donned kippot (plural of kippah), the small head covering
traditionally worn by Jewish men; in more liberal synagogues,
women sometimes wear them.
The service began with everyone opening prayer books. A
congregant stood next to a large flip chart in the front of the sanctuary,
so when the rabbi skipped from one section to another in
the prayer book, worshipers would know what page they were
supposed to be on. I silently read the English translation provided
alongside the Hebrew.
As people wandered in, one by one, and took their seats, the
men began to chant and pray, rocking back and forth in fast, jerky
motions-a movement that is supposed to increase concentration.
During the prayer service, the rabbi, assisted by two other men,
carefully removed the deep-blue, velvet-covered Torah scroll from
As the rabbi moved down the aisles with the Torah, the men
and women crowded to the edges of the pews. Several rushed to
the front of the synagogue, so eager were they to touch and kiss the
Torah. The men reverently grazed the Torah with their prayer tassels,
then brought the tassels to their lips. Some of the women
lightly brushed the Torah with their fingertips or prayer books,
then raised them to their lips. Others bent to kiss the Torah itself.
I remembered a woman from Reid's group who had once said, "We
love the Torah! We kiss the Torah!" Now I understood what she
Despite the different ideologies of Jews regarding the Torah,
it is love of these books of Moses-the first five books of our shared
Testament-that most closely unites the Jewish people. Everywhere
in the world, in every synagogue, each Saturday morning, the same
Torah portion is read.
Excerpted from A Baptist Among the Jews
by Mary Blye Howe
Copyright © 2003 by Mary Blye Howe .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Hanging with the Jews 1
Chapter 2 Arguing with God 23
Chapter 3 Dancing with the Torah 39
Chapter 4 Discovering the Passionate Hebrew God 67
Chapter 5 Women in Yarmulkes 89
Chapter 6 Men in Black Hats 107
Chapter 7 Hungering for My Roots 133
Chapter 8 A Spiritual Journey 153
Judaism 101 173
Recommended Reading 193
The Author 203