Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Boxes and Mirrors:
The Refraction of Difference Through the Lens of Similarity

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that when you're moving, all of life becomes a search for boxes. See a store: hey, got any boxes? See a friend: hey, how are you for boxes?

A box was found far away the other day. A box was found, and a moving story revealed, and the earth underneath our theological feet quivers, even if it does not shake.

The box was found in Israel, and it was a tomb. On the tomb were the astonishing words: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

Now, who is James, and why is this important?

The inscription of a sibling on a tombstone is not unheard of -- if the sibling was sufficiently prominent. James, of course, was recorded in other places as the brother of Jesus. The question is: what does "brother" mean? The issue here relates to a debate between Protestants and Catholics regarding Mary, and her ongoing -- how shall I put this -- "status." Protestants solved the issue by viewing James as simply the younger brother. Catholic tradition had taught that Joseph and Mary continued to have (again, how to phrase this?) a somewhat unusual marital arrangement. And therefore Catholic tradition has read "brother" as "close relative," perhaps "cousin."

Well, this is obviously an internal Christian debate. So they found a coffin of Jesus' kin. What does this have to teach us about ourselves? In other words, as we perennially seem to be asking ourselves: is it good for the Jews?

Let us imagine, for a moment, that you are a high school English teacher at the very beginning of a school year. You want to get to know your students as quickly as you can. The curriculum calls for a book report as an early assignment. You have two options. You can send everyone to the library, and ask them to pick out their own books. Or you could assign everyone the same thing, and then read the reports.

Which one lets you learn about your students more quickly? Some would say it is by letting the students pick their own books, that in freedom their choices will reveal their interests, and their passions. But then what do you do with the different results? You can learn about their choices, but cannot be sure if their comments are reflections of themselves, or something in the book they chose. No, ironically, I think it is through the template of similarity that differences are more rapidly revealed. In reacting to the same thing, different results are real reflections of differences in the students themselves.

So, to, in the study of religion. We often learn more about ourselves through an encounter with similarity, then we do when we start from wildly different situations.

This year, in December, three great traditions celebrate three very different holidays. The end of Ramadan coincides with the beginning of Chanukah. And Christmas comes at the end of month (a pointed reminder to retailers who insist that it begins the day after Halloween). For now, though, it is the three traditions that I want to focus on, not the holidays themselves.

"James, brother of Jesus." This reminds me of something I noticed a long time ago.

Each one of the three great monotheistic traditions of the West began with a founding figure. In Judaism, although the first Jew was Abraham, the founding figure is really Moses. In Christianity a similar role was played by Jesus, and Islam, of course, was founded by Muhammed.

With the "death" (the quotation marks are in deference to the Christian theological tradition at the moment) of the founding figure, all three religions faced the same question: who will lead us now? And all three traditions had the same internal dynamic. Does the mantle stay "in the family," or does it pass to a "spiritual" disciple? In all three religions, we have an echo to this day of that initial question of succession.

In Judaism, the echo is felt in the remnant of the role of the Cohanim, the priests, in traditional circles. Political leadership passed from Moses to his disciple Joshua, it is true. But a large role was left for the priests, descendants of Aaron... brother of Moses.

In Islam, following the death of the Prophet, one group followed the leadership of the consensus choice for the Caliphate, the unrelated (although in Islam every Muslim is considered "related") spiritual heirs of Muhammed. This group is called the Sunnis. And another group followed the leadership of Ali, nephew of Muhammed. This group is called the Shi'ites.

(A similar dynamic played itself out in later Jewish history. A story is told regarding the death-bed remarks of the founder of Chasidism, the great Israrel Baal Shem Tov. He pulled his son, Abraham, known as Abraham the Angel, close to him, and said: "My son, you will be revered throughout your life. But you will not lead." The leadership of the Chasidic movement passed not from father to son, but to a disciple, the Dubner, the Maggid of Mezerich.)

What can we learn, from the confluence of such a tension, from the presence, in each of these traditions, of this "competition" between family and follower? Think, for a moment, of the divisions of our lives. Of the impact we have in our work, and the impact we have at home. Are the legacies distinct? Or are they intertwined. For those of us whose work is home, is there a feeling of integration, of meaning, in the lives we lead, the lessons we teach. For those whose time is split between different places: are the values we live at work, and the lessons we teach at home, compatible?

And one more thing. From the echoes of the past, from the idealized camaraderie of all Muslims, from the use of family titles for Catholic clergy, from the fact that the words recited by the Kohanim (the priests) over the congregation are the same one as those recited by parents for their children at dinner on Friday nights ("Yiverechecha Adonai v'yishmerecha; May God bless you and keep you..."): perhaps the intertwining of our family and our teachers gives us one more lesson as well. That the goal of a spiritual community is to learn of love in the midst of our family. And then, gradually, gingerly, graciously... to extend that love: from kin, to clan, from parents to pedagogs, and beyond... eventually, to all the family of humankind. We begin with blood. But in the end we learn: our fate and our faith are bound up together with that... of every human being.

At this season of the spirit, my best wishes to you... and to us all.