Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review: All Who Go Do Not Return

You might be wondering why is an Eastern Orthodox priest is reviewing a memoir about a former Hasidic Jew? Well for starters I grew up in a very Jewish world in New Jersey. Many of my school age friends were Jews, my mom's boss was an Orthodox Jew, I worked part time in high school for a brother and sister who survived concentration camps in Germany, and for a time I wish that I was Jewish too, especially around Chanukah. I was super jealous when us Christians only had one day of gift giving at Christmas where my neighbor friends had eight days! Since we had so many Jewish believers in our community my local school always had off on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. So it made perfect sense that I would read and devour Shulem Deen's new memoir (Graywolf Press, 2015)

Deen was a former member of the Skver Hasidic group based in Monsey New York, which is around thirty miles or so north of New York City up in Rockland County. There are many branches of the Hasidic community each involving various small cultural and theological nuances which usually include following their beloved Rabbi or Rebbe as they call him. The Rabbi is not just the main spiritual leader but the one who leads prayers, teaches, and upholds Jewish law. The Skver Hasidic dynasty originated with the teachings of Rebbe Yitzhok Twerski who lived in the Ukraine. Upon coming to the United States the Skver Hasids established New Square, New York as their home base, not too far from other Hasidic Jewish groups.

Anyone familiar with Hasidic Judaism knows that they generally live in tight closed knit communities where they live, eat, study, and pray together. Many own stores and shops in the community and in some ways their life is not too different than the Amish who live in Lancaster Pennsylvania  and who have very little contact with the world around them: i.e no televisions, radios, computers, movies, secular books, or newspapers. Their life revolves around prayer, study, marriage, and family. Like the Amish, many of the Hasidic Jews do not receive public education and therefore many do not have basic life skills such as reading and writing in English as well as little advanced math comprehension.

Deen's memoir is a heart wrenching story of a young married Hasidic man with children who after a long period of soul searching and discernment decided to leave New Square. Leaving any community is not easy, but leaving the Hasidic community seems nearly impossible. Deen was considered an "aprikoros" or heretic by the local Jewish leaders. He was banned, sent away as someone who would contaminate the rest of the community. This story is heart felt because as we know that life is never cut and dry, one has many connections, friendships, and networks within a community and to leave family, friends, and faith is horrific especially when someone is raised in that particular faith tradition. To leave what you know, what is familiar to you, all of the customs both big and small is not so easy as it seems.

There are many memoirs where the writing is thin and the story bland. Not this one. Deen's writing is like reading a piece of artwork. He provides the reader with the many sides of Hasidism, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He shows the warts and wrinkles the joys and the pains as well. For example of all the people mentioned in the book, it seems like his siblings still continue to love and care for him even though he left. As I was reading it dawned on me how painful it must have been for them as well. I also thought about his friends who stayed at New Square. How do they feel about his leaving? Are they jealous? Do they feel, like Deen, caught between staying and leaving?

As someone such as myself who is steeped in a robust liturgical and ancient faith tradition as the Eastern Orthodox Church I felt much sympathy and affinity with Deen's faith struggle. We too can often be very sectarian, afraid of secular books and culture, afraid of asking questions, afraid of challenging the saints and the Fathers of the Church (ancient sermons and theological writings of monks, bishops, and priests), but accept everything without questioning. More often than not what is left is a very thin faith and one that is one of fear of power and authority and not based on love. Many clergy, like the Rebbe's mentioned in the book fall into the trap of dominating power and authority in the parishes. Once I was asked by a parishioner to actually name her child. It is one thing to bless a child on the eighth day which is our custom, but she wanted me to provide the actual name, as if she was giving over all power to me. I firmly suggested that this was a decision that needs to be made between herself and her husband. She pushed the issue and I remained firm. I was not assuming that responsibility for her. Long story short it is not uncommon for believers to project things onto me as their spiritual leader and guide which is not really my responsibility. Things are similar in Hasidic Judaism where followers will hang on every word and teaching of their Rebbe, so much so as to push and shove one another as he enters a room so that they can touch him or receive a blessing.

I had difficulty reading this memoir, not because of the narrative or the quality of the writing, but because I saw in it the destructive power of religion. I wondered what if Deen was raised in a different type of Hasidic group, one that allowed for discussions, for questions, for a slightly different lifestyle? How different this life might have been! There is much in Judaism that is beautiful. I often listen to Jewish hymns on the internet and read selections from some of the great Hasidic spiritual writers such as the Baal Shem Tov as well as the more contemporary Abraham Joshua Heschel whose writing and life I admire very much.

Religion can easily turn into sectarianism and fundamentalism. Those who challenge or call to question are shoved to the margins and are either pushed out or are asked to leave. How sad. Judaism has a rich and lively heritage which in some ways parallels Christianity with its various rites, rituals, hymns, prayers, and food. Yet sometimes we can easily be imprisoned in these rites and rituals, very often not knowing why we do them, but wondering can they be done in a slightly different manner which is more appropriate for our time and place.

I could go on and on about Deen's memoir but I won't. I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to take and read. I commend Shulem Deen for his courage and humility to write this book. It must have been a labor of love. I know he touched my heart.

For more information about Shulem Deen and his memoir click here 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Book Review: Wearing God

There is a common saying that goes, "You shouldn't judge a book by it's cover." I admit if I saw this book on a store shelf I would most likely not pick it up. I'm not quite sure I understand the connection between the flying birds and the woman in the middle. However, that being said, I was intrigued by the title: Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (Harper One, 2015) 

I was first introduced to Laura Winner's writing when she published When Girl Meets God. I've read a few of her other books and was interested in what she has to say about vocation, God, the Church, and our life in Christ. She is a professor at Duke Divinity School and has published many books on the spiritual life.

The Bible is full of metaphors. When we read the gospels for example we read that Jesus refers to himself as a vine, as a shepherd taking care of his sheep, as the bread of life. These metaphors are so common sometimes we tend to glance over them and don't realize their power. We don't spend time with each metaphor and say to ourselves, "Gee how is Jesus like a shepherd for me?" or "How is Jesus like a vine and I'm one of the branches." Metaphors are powerful for they put the indescribable into something tangible and real for us. They make what is ethereal and put them into a concrete image so that we can better understand the meaning of the text.

 Winner's aim in this book is to unpack some of the major metaphors in the Bible that speak of Jesus and God. She delineates her topics into a few sections:



Bread and Vine 

Laboring Women 



Of course there are additional metaphors that she could have included but the book would have been over five hundred pages! The Bible is full of wonderful metaphors but one cannot write about all of them in a book like this.

Winner is a fine writer. She writes as if she is sitting with you over a cup of coffee or tea, explaining the meaning of these metaphors to us. She has a casual tone, a result of many years preaching and teaching seminary students. Throughout the book she includes several quotations from major writers, both modern and ancient, as well as prayers and hymns from the liturgical year. A few of these would have been fine, however I did get distracted with the over abundance of them. Sometimes less is more. Yet throughout the book I did pause and read the quotations allowing them to speak to me as well.

Two of them caught my eye:

"In every culture, clothing not only is utilitarian but also symbolizes a person's or group's identity." Sarah A Chase

"The Lord Jesus Christ himself…is said to be the clothing of the saints." Origen

I never thought about clothing as identity. One day I may wear blue jeans and another day I may wear my khaki pants and polo shirt. Yet how many people wear uniforms to work, police officers, fire men, postal workers, janitors. When I see a UPS man in his brown shirt and pants I know immediately that he is a UPS man without having to see the sign on the truck.

If anything, Wearing God will help the reader return back to the Bible again and take a slow read, allowing the metaphors unpack their meaning. I found that all too often I read the Bible too quickly and miss some of the major points!

If you are interested in reading more about some of the metaphors that speak about our life in Christ than Wearing God is a book for you.

For more information about Wearing God click here 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Book Review: Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann

I came across the writings of Walter Brueggemann several years ago and I'm so happy that I did! Brueggemann is a committed Christian, pastor, and for many years served as the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. I enjoy his writings because they have both depth and breadth and while he has a scholar eyes and mind he also has a pastors' heart. I rank Brueggemann up there with Eugene Peterson, Fred Craddock, Thomas Long, among others.

When I saw his second volume of collected sermons I knew that I had to review it. A few years ago I read and reviewed the first volume of sermons and the second volume, very much like the first, doesn't disappoint.

As a longtime pastor I have found that I need to fill up my wells so that I can continue in my preaching and teaching ministry. It's certainly challenging to preach sermons week after week, month after month, season after season for many years. It can be downright tiring. However, I need to continually read, study, and pray the Scriptures as well as read books like this collection of sermons. It is food for the journey. If you're a pastor or a teacher in the Church I encourage you to read this collection too, you won't be disappointed.

The sermon collection is arranged according to the Church Year:

Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany 

Lent and Easter 

Pentecost and Ordinary Time 

What I like about Brueggemann is that since he knows the cultural and religious world view of the Old Testament he brings that to light in his preaching. His sermons weave both the Scriptural as well as personal as he finds no problem mentioning a book, movie, or personal anecdote as we would a story about King David or Abraham. The Old Testament comes to life in his sermons and while reading one could just imagine Adam or Eve just walking into the room. I don't get a chance to hear many preachers because I have a parish myself, however I hear from some folks that too many sermons are like dry bones, dusty and old, stories told and re-told without much imagination from the preacher. However, Brueggemann is far from dry, these dry dusty bones come to life as he refashions them into the life-giving story of God's salvation for us in Jesus.

If you want a book that will feed heart, mind, and spirit then look no further than Walter Brueggemann's Second Volume of Sermons, you'll be happy that you did!

Since reading this book I have read several other of his books too, his books on the prophets for example is excellent. I hope you will find Brueggemann as inspiring as I have!

For more information about the sermon collection click here 

For Walter Brueggemann's Website click here