Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 5 & 6

Check out Days 1 and 2, Day 3, and Day 4 here!

I was asked recently by a Catholic friend why I'm giving up something for Lent. As I explained on my Days 1 & 2 rundown, I feel that as a resident of the United States, I am constantly surrounded by Christian culture, politics, morality, and other guiding principles: Streets are named after saints and other Christian heroes, the federal government celebrates Christmas, and even our currency has references to Christian monotheism. Here in Louisiana, our counties are called parishes, and the main annual tourist attraction is Mardi Gras, a precursor to the Lenten commemoration of Jesus' meditative fasting in the desert.

Indeed we are saturated by Christianity, and no amount of lip-service to the "separation of church and state" undoes such a reality. [For an even sassier perspective, here's a recent NYTimes article characterizing the Catholic Church as a "global business" and "service industry."]

As a Jew, I experience this saturation somewhat indifferently. My literacy - meaning my ability to survive and thrive - in mainstream American culture is greatly assisted by the fact that Judaism is, after all, integral to Christianity. That is, when I see "In G-d We Trust" printed on a dollar bill, I understand it. While I'm not quite certain why religious faith is relevant to our system of monetary exchange, I get that they're talking about monotheism, and Jews are down with monotheism (even though we don't like seeing the name of G-d spelled out on destructible or erasable media - that's why I substitute the "-" symbol).
Just like Moses ate

We are also down with getting paid days off for Christmas (or overtime pay if we "do a favor" for a Christian colleague). We like parades, so St. Patrick's Day is fine; we like retail sales, so let's hear it again for Christmas. And I didn't even get to Peeps, "Home Alone," or the floral hat processionals outside Baptist churches on Sundays. Thanks for all the bounty, Christians!

There's so much to enjoy about being forced to observe someone else's religion, but I'd be lying if I said things didn't ever get itchy. For example, I could tell you a lot about Easter, a holy event of the Christian calendar, but how many Christians know the significance of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day to Jewish people?

Also, when we testify in court, we are supposed to swear to G-d on top of a bible that contains both the Old and New Testaments. Jews are not permitted by religious law to swear to each other or G-d, so in court we "affirm" on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament - the only one we believe in). While some view this alternative as a thoughtful accomodation, it actually detracts from our participation in mainstream culture. Who, after all, would not look suspiciously upon a witness who refuses to "swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d"?

In so many ways, we non-Christians have to fit into the Christian mold in order to operate successfully in this country. Our traditions and holidays are, when acknowledged, treated as equivalents of Christian ones; our differences are oftentimes met with skepticism and interrogation:

Coworker: "Why don't you eat on Yom Kippur?"
Me: "Because we're so concerned about praying and repenting, we can't make time for food."
Coworker: "But why?"
Me: "It's kind of like Lent when you don't eat meat."
Coworker. "Oh."

To participate in such a social system, we have to have a deep understanding of Christianity both in theory and practice. I don't have any problem with Christianity as a religion or Christians as people (some of my best friends are Christians!), just the established cultural hierarchy that pervades my present experience as a Jew in this country.

It's for that reason that I feel totally comfortable "observing" Lent as a non-Christian.

If Christians are fasting and otherwise doing acts of penitence to enhance their spiritual development, I see no conflict with my own simultaneous pursuit of self-edification. Lent happens to be a great excuse for checking in with neglected New Year's resolutions. And because it is so mainstream, it also offers a convenient explanation for otherwise abnormal behavior (especially in New Orleans), such as abstinence from drinking, smoking, or eating out in restaurants. People seem to accept voluntary sobriety when they think you're doing it just for Lent, despite your actual level of long-term ambition.

All in all, my Lenten Challenge is the product of my adjustment as a non-Christian in a Christian context: I'm not repenting for my sins, but I am trying to lead a more focused and intentional life.  I'm counting and sharing my blessings. I'm taking care to ensure that my choices do not hurt others. I think Jesus would be down with that, and if not, I affirm that I'll continue to try.

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