Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year

  1. Review

    Fifteen years ago Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity at Harvard University and Nina Tumarkin, Professor of Russian History at Wellesley College were married. Nicholas, now fourteen years of age, was born of this union of a Christian man and a Jewish woman and is being nurtured in the faith tradition of Judaism. This book is the story of the author’s journey with his family through the Jewish year, from one Rosh ha-Shanah – New Year’s Day – to the next. He writes, "This book is a kind of distillation of what I have learned, during fifteen years of marriage, about Judaism, about my own faith, and about myself." He shares his journey in order to help Christians better understand Judaism and to explain how, through this venture, he has come to appreciate more fully, his own Christian faith. It is also his hope that Jewish readers will benefit from reading about a Christian’s experience of their religion and that his reflections will contribute to the question of whether a Jewish-Christian marriage "necessarily dilutes the substance of either or both spouses’ faiths." He writes, "I think I am probably a better Christian and she believes she may be a better Jew not in spite of but because of our marriage"

    The title of the book, Common Prayers, points to the faith tradition, shared by Judaism and Christianity, which makes the journey possible. The author rejects as "historically and theologically insupportable" the common "platitude that the Jewish God is one of legalism and vengeance while the Christian one is a God of grace and love." Jews and Christians worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. Worshipping the same God, they share "common prayers" whether addressed directly to God or through Jesus who is called the Christ.

    The author’s journey into Judaism, with family and friends, is by participation in the festivals of the Jewish year, which follows the lunar rather than the solar cycles. He points out that in contrast to Christianity, which is defined by beliefs expressed in creeds, the nature of Judaism is manifested in a calendar of major festivals such as Yom Kipper, Rosh Hashanah and Passover and including less well known observances such as Sukko and Simchat Torah. He devotes an illuminating and personally reflective chapter to each of these seasons or days of the Jewish year as well as "an occasional exception – for funerals, a bar mitzvah, and trips to Israel, all hugely important to Jews." He writes, "I have now imbibed fifteen years of Jewish holidays, Sabbaths, rituals, Torah studies, klezmer music, prayers, family gatherings, jokes, gossip and geflite fish."

    In each chapter of the book, Cox discusses not only the meaning and significance of the Jewish beliefs reflected in the holy days and seasons, but highlights the similarities and differences between the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. He believes that his position as a Christian theologian "who has taken an active part in Jewish life for a decade and a half enables me to draw some comparisons and contrasts most rabbis, priests and ministers would not be able to make." I found his reflections on the similarities illuminating and often startling and his explanation of the differences, which are often distorted or exaggerated in common discourse, very helpful. In honoring the Jewish and Christian traditions fully and equally, Cox finds that in their similarities and differences they are complimentary like the relationship a husband and wife experience in the companionship of marriage.

    In an Afterword to his journey, the author states that "After two thousand years of history and fifteen years of marriage, I am still in the Court of the Gentiles. I still like it there." He uses this metaphor to symbolize his wish that every religion possessed a sense of particularity without exclusivity. In so presenting itself, each religion would use a model comprised of three components. First, every religion would have a central sanctuary, which pointed to the particularity of its vision and rites, and would "make real sense only to those who shared in its history." Second, the religion would have a ‘Court of the Gentiles’ symbolizing inclusivity, "which all the children of God can enter, mix with one another, and benefit in whatever way they can from its atmosphere." And third, the gates of the ‘Court’ would be wide open to the "whole outside world." He is convinced that this model, derived from Judaism, is especially needed in our world of religion pluralism.

    Cox shares that he and his wife Nina discussed all of the questions he writes about in this book. Their story illustrates that interfaith conversation is the beginning of understanding, appreciation, and mutual honor.

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