Theologian married to Jew ponders High Holy Days

Saturday, September 7, 2002

It's natural for a teacher to think that September, and not Jan. 1, is the right time to mark the start of the year. So Harvey Cox, author and Harvard Divinity School professor, finds it fitting that this is the season when Jews begin their New Year (Rosh Hashana).

But he has more profound observations about the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and the succeeding Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), in "Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year" (Houghton Mifflin). The book treats Jewish festivals from the distinctive standpoint of a liberal Protestant who frequently attends synagogue.

The reason for that: His wife Nina was raised as a largely secular Jew but has been reclaiming her heritage, and the couple agreed to raise son Nicholas, now 15, as Jewish.

Pondering Rosh Hashana, Cox thinks frivolously clinking glasses or watching the Times Square ball descend misses the powerful feelings that a new year evokes, while the sober Jewish new year ritual "strikes exactly the right note."

A synagogue visitor quickly learns, he says, that Jews affirm life "not by denying death but by facing it down." Rosh Hashana is essentially "a dramatic confrontation with death and mortality" through what amounts to a courtroom drama with God as the judge.

At the end, "life and mercy win out over death and judgment," but the liturgies along the way are designed to elicit "cold dread." Rosh Hashana flows into the days of repentance, underscored at the succeeding Sabbath ("Shabbat Shuvah").

The culmination is the self-scrutiny of Yom Kippur. In the Bible, God commands that observing self-denial and the atonement ritual "shall be to you a law for all time" (Leviticus 16:29-34).

Cox calls Yom Kippur a spiritual "marathon" in which Jews fast from food and drink and "replicate death in order to merge to a new life at sundown."

He confesses initial puzzlement at the Jewish concept of confession. Jews ask God's forgiveness for sins they have committed unknowingly. He wonders, "Why should I be held accountable for things I have done unintentionally and without even knowing it?"

Also, the recited list of sins includes things he hasn't done lately, if ever: "spurning parents," "bribery," "demanding usurious interest." Jews confess they have "scoffed, revolted or rebelled."

Cox was bothered by being expected to confess long lists of "things I had never done" and "sins that I had never even thought of committing. It seemed unreasonable."

Then a rabbi pointed out that Jews do not just repent for their own sins but the sins of all the people. The notion of collective repentance, Cox observes, is quite foreign to fellow Protestants, who emphasize individual responsibility.

Upon reflection, he sees this as an element of Judaism that most enriched his own faith. Confessing sins we don't know about is appropriate because we do often harm people without intending or knowing it, he decides.

Cox concludes that while most Christians repent of individual sins, usually at every Sunday service if not in private, they "have a weak sense of corporate responsibility" and can learn this from Jews.

Whatever the differences, he says, Judaism and Christianity share common ground in opposing the moral determinism so prevalent in American culture: People are created with the freedom to examine our lives and, with the help of God and fellow humans, to change.

"We are not totally determined by our genes or our early toilet training, though both of these and many more factors, supply the material we must work with."

His own liberal Christian idea of sin and redemption closely fits Jewish concepts. And he insists that appreciating Judaism, not just historically but as a living modern religion that Christianity has not supplanted, is essential for Christians to fully understand their own creed.

Cox thinks he's probably a better Christian, and his wife a better Jew, "not in spite of but because of our marriage."

That's a hopeful message at a time when a slight majority of Jews in the United States marry outside their faith, though some Jewish commentators would say it's not the typical outcome.

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