occasional essays on copyright, patent, and anything else that might catch my fancy
by Timothy R. Phillips
"The joy of the holy king...." Review of Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren F. Winner. Published by Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts, 2003
This is a book about what Christians can learn from traditional Jewish practices. It is, author Lauren Winner writes, "to be blunt, about spiritual practices that Jews do better [than American Protestant Christians]".
Christianity, as we know it, itself derives from a form of Judaism taught by Jews to "Greeks and barbarians" (St. Paul's letter to the Romans, 1.14), though some Christians and Jews, maybe, would rather forget that fact. It is not inherently implausible that the Greeks and barbarians might still have more to learn. But the author herself, a recent convert to Christianity, even as she teaches other Christians is at the same time still learning the traditions of her new philosophy. So this book is not just a book of suggestions for other Christians. It is also a verbal snapshot of a recent state of Winner's own ongoing learning.
Mudhouse Sabbath is a book about "being present" or "paying attention" to the circumstances of one's everyday life. Winner does not use these phrases in every chapter, but the concept should probably be taken as a thoroughgoing motif nevertheless. "The ancient disciplines", she writes in her introduction, "form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith." The book is divided into eleven chapters, each of which has a Hebrew and English title. These are "Shabbat" (for she uses the modern Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew, not the pronunciation of Tiberias) which means "Sabbath", "kashrut / fitting food", "avelut / mourning", "hachnassat orchim / hospitality", "tefillah / prayer", "guf / body", "tzum / fasting", "hiddur p'nai zaken / aging", "hadlakat-nerot / candle-lighting", "kiddushin / weddings", and "mezuzot / doorposts". This review will concentrate on the chapters on Sabbath, hospitality, and candle-lighting.
The location of the chapter on Sabbath observance at the book's beginning corresponds to the Sabbath's importance in Orthodox Jewish practice. Winner believes that Christianity would be enriched by reviving some of the respect shown by some 19th-century American Protestants for their "Sabbath" by which they meant Sunday. This is the content of her argument, though she doesn't explicitly mention 19th-century American Protestantism.
The difficulty with this substitution of the Christian Sunday for the
Jewish Sabbath--a position known as Sabbatarianism--is that, on the level
of theory, it is wrong. Sunday is not the "Sabbath".
The Sabbath, for Christians as well as Jews, is Saturday, the seventh day
of the week. Early Christian writers were clear on this point:
The Sabbath is the end of the creation, the completion of the world, the inquiry after laws, and the grateful praise to God for the blessings he has bestowed upon mankind. All which the Lord's day excels, and shows the mediator himself, the provider, the lawgiver, the cause of the resurrection, the first-born of the whole creation. (Apostolic Constitutions 7.36)
Sunday is the Lord's day: the eighth-and-first day, the day of resurrection, the day of the kingdom of God. By assembling on this day, Christians perform a sacrament of time. The seventh day's holiness, given to that day by God at the beginning, has not been transferred to the first day; it remains part of the seventh day. Rather, the Christian sacrament of time, with its use of the eighth-and-first day, reveals the inner meaning of the seventh day's holiness, the inner meaning of the holy rest on that day that was God's gift and commandment to Israel, and the inherent holiness and inner meaning of all time: that Jesus has filled all time with himself, and that mankind, through the Christian sacrament of time, can now offer that Christ-filled time back to God as they become, through the Christians' sacrament of bread and wine, participants in Jesus's own offering of himself to his Father. This Christ-filled time, given and received by God and Mankind to and from each other, becomes a means of mankind's enjoyment of God and one another in the kingdom in which Jesus reigns. In this theory, it is not necessary for Sunday to be a day of rest from work. And indeed, for the first Jewish Christians, Sunday was probably a working day. This did not in any way detract from its status as the Lord's day.
Such is the theory. On the level of practice, Lauren Winner's proposed means of making Sunday a festive and holy day are perfectly reasonable and worthy of consideration. After all, Sunday according to American custom is a non-working day for many people, and this can be a great convenience and opportunity for Christians. And so, in addition to attending church on Sunday, Winner is experimenting with refraining from shopping on that day, meeting with other to study the Scriptures, and sometimes visiting shut-in fellow Episcopalians with a friend from her parish.
In the fourth chapter, "Hospitality", Winner rightly notes that hospitality has long been a Jewish and Christian ideal. It is interesting that she does not refer to St. Paul's exhortation to the Roman Christians to "practice hospitality". (Letter to the Romans, 12.13). She does, however, cite the First Letter to Timothy (3.2), which is traditionally attributed to Paul; the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews (13.2), and the Didache, thought to be a compilation of the early 2nd century A.D., which advises Christians, "Everyone who comes in the name of the Lord is to be made welcome, though later on you must test him and find out about him." (Didache 12). Winner reflects on how, in her college days, she received generous hospitality from her her fellow Orthodox Jews in Manhattan, and how she receives it now from her fellow Episcopalians in Charlottesville, Virginia. Despite what she states in her introduction--that her book is about what Orthodox Jews do better than Christians--the hospitality Winner has received from Episcopalians seems as ample as what she earlier received from Orthodox Jews. The important comparison in this chapter is not between the ways of Episcopalians and Orthodox Jews, but between what Winner herself has received and what she sees as her own feeble efforts at extending hospitality to others.
Winner notes that for Jews and Christians, hospitality is a way of imitating God who, according to some Christian and Jewish teachers, made the heavens and the earth as a house in which he could receive mankind. Winner goes on insightfully to note that receiving visitors into one's house is closely linked to receiving fellow human beings into one's life. She notes that both can be hard, because people's lives can be as cluttered as their houses.
Winner has less to say about the risks that those who practice hospitality
undertake. The Didache, in the quotation given earlier,
noted that fellow Christians were to be welcomed initially, but "later
on you must test him and find out about him." Guests, like anyone
else, can be dangerous. Inviting others into our lives can be dangerous,
too. According to Christian teaching Jesus, who brought his
heavenly Father's invitation to mankind to participate in the divine life,
was brutally killed for it. Winner is not unaware of these
risks, however. She concludes her chapter by narrating an incident
in which one of her students, a younger woman, openly showed affection
for Winner's boyfriend at a New Year's party. The student, perhaps
fearing retaliation from her teacher, later asked Winner whether she
had been bothered by the incident. Winner
wanted to ... laugh and say "No, not at all..." But some instinct told me to risk transparency...that if I couldn't tell here the faintly lame and faintly embarrassing truth about my silly, sad emotions, how was I ever going to be able to tell the truth about something big.
So Winner told her student about her mixed feelings. This seems to have had a good outcome for both Winner and the younger woman. But it might not have. Someone to whom one opens one's house might do harm, or take unfair advantage. Someone to whom one is honest about one's thoughts and feelings might exploit that knowledge in ways harmful to the one who took the risk of honesty. And there is also simply the awkwardness revealing the inside of one's house, or the inside of one's life. But Winner concludes the chapter with a confession of faith: "Like my apartment, my interior life is never going to be wholly respectable...But that is where I live. In the certitude of God, I ought to be able to risk issuing the occasional invitation."
In her ninth chapter, "Candle-lighting", Winner reveals how her concentration on 19th-to-21st century American Protestantism has distorted her view of the history of Christian candle-lighting customs. "Christian homes", she writes sweepingly, "are not typically as candle-filled as Jewish homes. We Christians do not traditionally light candles to usher in the Sabbath or memorialize the dead." Winner does not seem to realize that the Jewish custom of the yahrzeit candle may be of Christian, possibly Roman Catholic, origin. Also her experience of "Christian homes" is quite different from mine, for I remember my mother filling our house with candles at Christmastime. Winner also notes the custom of the Advent wreath, and writes confidently that the Advent wreath is, "historically, a church ritual, but more and more people are making advent wreath for their homes, too." My own earliest memories of the Advent wreath (from the middle 1960s) are of the wreath on the dinner-table in my childhood home. I don't remember our church-house having an Advent wreath at the same time. This might be a trick of my memory. But it is at least possible that the use of the Advent wreath in Episcopal churches was an importation into corporate worship of a domestic custom.
This process of importation of private or domestic ritual into
the Church's public worship might also be the origin of the hymn Phos
hilaron, long used in the rites of eastern Christians and increasingly
used by some western Christians since the 19th century. St.
Basil of Caesarea, apparently referring to this hymn, noted that
It seemed fitting to our fathers not to receive the gift of the light at eventide in silence, but, on its appearance, immediately to give thanks. Who was the author of these words of thanksgiving at the lighting of the lamps, we are not able to say. (On the Holy Spirit, 73)
Similar devotional customs are recorded in western Christianity as monastic customs or folk-customs. An anonymous writer of the low middle ages describes how he thought monks should conduct themselves at their evening meal
Sedentes autem in sedilia sua faciunt similiter sicut et in prandio in die. Et si contigerit ut nox perveniet cenantibus et lumen necesse sit accendere, ille autem frater qui lumen adportat statim cum ingreditur in domo prope seniores dicit tali voce ut omnes audiant "lumen Christi", et dicunt omnes "Deo gratias"... (St. Gall MS Stiftsbibliothek 349)
(When they sit down in their seats [at the evening meal] they will do as they do during the daytime meal. And if night should fall while they are eating, and it becomes necessary to kindle a light, then the brother who brings the light, when he comes in [and is] in the house near the elders, says, in such voice that all may hear, "The light of Christ"; and all answer, "Thanks be to God.")
Some English Christians practiced a similar custom in the 17th century, according to George Herbert (1593-1633)
Another old Custome there is of saying, when light is brought in, "God send us the light of heaven"; And the Parson likes this very well; neither is he affraid of praising, or praying to God at all times, but is rather glad of catching opportunities to do them. Light is a great Blessing, and as great as food, for which we give thanks. (The Countrey Parson 35)
So candle-customs practiced in parts of Christendom have sometimes resembled the candle-customs of Rabbinic Judaism. If one must contrast these Christian customs to the Jewish practice of kindling Sabbath and festival lights and giving thanks for their light, one might conclude that Orthodox Jewish tradition has been more successful than western Christianity in maintaining the use of this thanksgiving for light as a widely-followed cultural norm. As far as we can tell from the passage quoted earlier, the monastic custom, if it was used at all, was used only by monks. The folk-custom noted by George Herbert, was, as Herbert himself noted, an "old custome" of the countryside. The 35th chapter of The Countrey Parson makes it clear that the custom was dying out at the time Herbert wrote. Winner's statement that Christian homes are less "typically" candle-filled is probably best interpreted as a statement on this difference in cultural norms between Orthodox (not necessarily Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist) Judaism and western Protestant (including Anglican) Christianity. Part of this difference in norms might be attributed to the Christian insistence on freedom from rulesrulesrules. Paraphrasing Saint Paul we might say "Let not him who lights a candle pass judgment on him who does not light; let not him who does not light pass judgment on him who lights." For many Christians, such practices must remain a matter of independent conscience. Still, light, as George Herbert wrote, is a great blessing. Some of the candle-lighting practices Winner is experimenting with might help others, as they help her, to pay attention to God's gifts of eyesight and light.
This raises the question of why this book is not somewhat longer than
it is. Winner might easily find in Orthodox Jewish tradition still
other suggestions of ways in which she and her fellow believers might "rejoice
always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances." (St. Paul's
first Letter to the Thessalonians, 5.16-18). One centuries-old Orthodox
Jewish custom which, like the candle-lighting customs mentioned earlier,
had a counterpart in Christian folk-customs, is the birkath ha-levawnaw
or blessing of the new moon (Talmud Sanhedrin 42a). This benediction
is recited in the open air when a waxing moon is visible in the sky.
A similar custom was used by Scots Highlanders in the 17th century
When they first see the moon new, they turn themselves about thrice, and take up grasses etc. [,] cast towards it, and bless God for it. (Bodleian MS Carte 269)
Of course, Mudhouse Sabbath is a book about what Lauren Winner misses from her Orthodox Jewish life. Possibly the birkath ha-levawnaw was not used in Manhattan, or perhaps Winner never cared for the custom. Still, moonlight, like all light, is a great blessing. The same logic that recommends that Christians consider giving thanks for the light of a candle might also recommend that they consider giving thanks for the light of the waxing moon.
Another Orthodox Jewish custom that Winner does not mention is the birkath
ha-mawzôn, or grace after meals. This Jewish
custom is of considerable historical importance to Christianity.
An early form of the blessing after meals is the original source of the
Christian eucharistic prayer. (Note the words "after supper"
in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 11.25). Furthermore,
the custom of saying grace after meals has been widely used by Christians
in the past. Christine de Pizan mentions the custom in the
early 15th century (Treasure of the City of Ladies 11). In
the 19th century, this after-meal grace was used at Trinity Hall
at Cambridge University in England:
V. Benedicamus Domino ("Let us bless the Lord")
R. Deo gratias ("Thanks be to God")
Agimus tibi gratias, omnipotens sempiterne Deus, pro omnibus tuis beneficiis; qui vivis et regnas Deus per omnia in saecula saeculorum. Amen. ("We give you thanks, almighty everlasting God, for all your gifts to us; who livest and reignest, God throughout all ages, into the ages of ages.") (Notes and Queries, 8th Ser. 5.455)
As recently as the mid-20th century, the Anglican devotional manual called Saint Augustine's Prayer Book (15th edition 1964) included a brief thanksgiving after meals. A modified form of it is in the Episcopal Church's present Book of Common Prayer, where it is the fourth-listed grace "at" meals.
But despite the importance of the grace after meals in Jewish Practice and in the development of Christian liturgy, and despite the persistence of similar customs for many centuries in western Christianity, Winner makes no mention of the birkath ha-mawzôn. Perhaps the birkath ha-mawzôn is little used among the Orthodox Jews of Manhattan, so that Winner would not miss it in the same way as she would miss the weekly Sabbath rest. Or perhaps it is used by them, but Winner did not care for it. Or perhaps she knows how slight is the chance of its revival under the conditions of modern American Christian life; or thinks that it is not needed since American Christianity has managed to retain the ancient custom, also of Jewish origin (see the Acts of the Apostles, 27.35), of grace before meals.
So Mudhouse Sabbath leaves out much that some might hope to see in a book of this kind. It is only a preliminary meditation on what the Greeks and barbarians may still be able to learn from Jewish tradition. But Lauren Winner, like Saint Paul, is strong when she is weak. She doesn't know everything there is to know on this subject, nor does she claim to. Lauren Winner is trying to work out how to live as a Christian. She is not ashamed to let us see her own puzzlement at how she will integrate into a coherent life all the gifts she has received. And it is partly this transparent honesty and uncertainty that makes this book so appealing and so useful.
These essays copyright (c) 2004 by Timothy R. Phillips.
They may be reprinted freely as long as the text is unchanged and this
notice is included.
|This picture, from an English medieval illuminated manuscript, was reproduced in Alexander Speltz's Styles of Ornament, Tranlated from the Second German Edition by David O'Conor, E. Weyhe, New York, 1910, Plate 55, #19, whence it is reproduced here. This image is in the public domain in the U.S.A. and should be copied and reproduced with gleeful abandon.|