Passage to Shabbat

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I am not Jewish and am not planning to convert to Judaism. Nevertheless, as a Christian with ancestral roots in Eastern Europe, it’s increasingly difficult for me to ignore the links between my own identity and practice and that of the people of Israel.

While always mindful to try as best as I am able not to participate in the age-old anti-semitism that is endemic to Christianity, I have been seeking ways to animate Jewish practice in my own life and community, not to appropriate for a Christian cause but to celebrate as inherently valuable in its own right.

As a result, I’ve become a big fan of Shabbat.

Of course, I love that it’s essentially an excuse for a dinner party, one where the rabbis encourage us to drink plenty of wine and delight in tasty food.

But more than the roast chicken or freshly baked challah I appreciate the anticipation of Shabbat. Come Friday afternoon I start tying up loose ends, clearing the decks, winding down the week, and preparing to be free to enjoy what is, without concern for creating something else.

Several Friday afternoons ago, I had not made explicit plans for Shabbat or even a general Friday night out, but my slate was clean and I was feeling festive so I made my way to the lounge at the local Indian restaurant, which you might think of as a neighborhood watercooler or even our very own Miriam’s Well.

Sidled up to the bar, gin and tonic in hand, I greeted friends old and not-yet-met in what felt the most natural and appropriate way: “Shabbat Shalom.”

Being newly adjacent to the Hebrew people, I’m not always aware of how or even necessarily what I’m signalling, but now I do know wishing a largish group of strangers a good shabbos is a sure way to out the b’nai mitzvah and forge bonds of belonging.

As we talked about the very different ways we’d each come to Judaism and experienced it over the years, I was reminded of this delightful film of elderly Jews who celebrate Shabbat at Wendy’s.

And then, I thought, what if we did Shabbat here, at Passage to India?

The Jews of India have a long and fascinating story.

Naan is a perfect stand-in for hamotzi and and there’s plenty of wine to order.

I’d been using resources from One Table to teach myself the blessings, and felt reasonably comfortable in being able to keep us on track.

So we cleared our plan with the staff and wrote it in the books. Two weeks hence our rag-tag band of wandering souls would gather again at Passage for Shabbat.

Over those next two weeks I was mostly looking forward to what we’d dreamed up, until that morning when I read in the local newspaper of an act of anti-semitism in the next town over. It was nothing overtly violent, “just” slurs hurled at Jews doing nothing more than walking down the street being visibly Jewish, but it did rattle me.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how freedom of religion in the United States is different from freedom from religion (laicite) in France or especially and most complicatedly different from the kind of established or preferred religious expression as found in England, the Islamic State, or the imagination of many conservative American evangelicals.

And, I’ve certainly participated in my share of public religious expression, most of which I now mostly view as attempts to taunt officials and intimidate non-Christians (I’m thinking especially of events like “See You at the Pole.”

But this time the stakes were much simpler and starker.

We’d be publicly practicing a minority religion with an established history of being violently oppressed. We were well within our rights both constitutionally and institutionally, but was it unnecessarily risky? We weren’t exactly just going to quietly bow our heads and appear pious to the knowing for a few moments.

But we did it! And it was glorious, and we’re going to do it again. . . And I’d encourage you too to find yourselves some Jews and build together a sanctuary of time.

[A note to Christians, though: please don’t do this by yourselves, and definitely don’t do it with messianic intent.]

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