I was in heaven on Rosh Hashanah. My heaven consists of sitting with my entire nuclear family (my Episcopalian husband and both our teenage children), surrounded by interfaith families, listening to our beloved Rabbi lead us through evening and morning services featuring ancient, traditional chants, sixties folk songs and a pinch of Catholicism.
Okay, so it took me a few minutes to adjust to the fact that the first-ever Rosh Hashanah services created by our Interfaith Families Project took place in the sanctuary of a local church, with a huge wooden cross looming behind our little Torah in its home-made traveling ark.
As we walked in and looked up, my teenage daughter was a little bit freaked out. I had not warned her. Waiting for services to begin, we talked about what it would have looked like if they had draped cloth over the cross (disrespectful, and perhaps calling even more attention to the hidden object). We talked about our Rabbi’s defense of the crucifix hanging in Georgetown classrooms, and his understanding of the cross as a universal symbol of suffering. We talked about the particular and very warm relationship between our interfaith community and this very progressive church. And we talked about the fact that many Christian congregations in America share their sanctuaries with young Jewish communities, communities that cannot afford synagogues yet. Someday, we hope the Interfaith Families Project will have its own spiritual space, with neutral or balanced symbology. In the meantime, I am glad we could borrow this soaring sanctuary: as a spiritual space, it had a lot of advantages over the high school auditoriums rented by many Jewish communities for High Holy Day services.
Eventually, we all settled into the pew, and our focus shifted to the primal call of the shofar, the familiar chanting of Avinu Malkeinu, the singing of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Morning Has Broken.” My 13-year-old son whispered to me, “Did Cat Stevens write that before or after he became a Muslim?” After the service, we shared honeycake with hundreds of people from interfaith families from across the Washington area. I had a chance to remind my son that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is taken directly from Ecclesiastes (my daughter knows this fact). And that Cat Stevens adapted “Morning Has Broken” from a Christian hymn, before he became a Muslim. And we talked about why including a version of the peace prayer by Saint Francis in the service seemed daring but also strangely appropriate in the midst of the peace-filled liturgy for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah.
Later, I thought again of my own reaction to the cross as a backdrop for the Torah reading, the blowing of the shofar. I do not usually like to use the world “tolerance” when writing about interfaith relations and interfaith families. Tolerance seems to imply something difficult, irritating, costly. I prefer to stress appreciation, cross-pollination, embrace.
But in this case, tolerance felt like the right word. I would not have chosen to have it there, but that cross symbolized, for me, my own ability to tolerate, and even support, all the members of an extended interfaith family, an interfaith community, an interfaith world. If we are to live together in peace, we must tolerate each other’s symbols, even when they make us uncomfortable: the cross on the wall, the star in the window, the crescent moon in the heart of the city.