A Jew at Maundy Thursday

At the boundaries of what defines being a Jew there are gates that don’t swing outward easily. One of these is marked with the Cross.

When I was a kid, my older brother told me about the Catholics that chased and beat up the Jewish kids for no apparent reason. I didn’t know what that was about, but I knew people hated Jews and did stuff like that. It scared me. When I was interviewing spiritual teachers for Crossing the Boundary, several spoke of being beat up by kids who had just come from Sunday school on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. The kids had just heard for the first time (or the umpteenth time) that “the Jews” killed Jesus and the guilt was upon all Jews for all time. That meant us; we were the “them” in their “us vs. them” world, and they were “them” in ours.

Those days seem to be over in America. There’s been a lot of inter-faith dialogue; Jews have been accepted and assimilated into mainstream culture. The Churches have mellowed their position on the Jews, and Jews have gotten tougher (more are working out at gyms instead of yeshivas). But, in church they still tell the story about “the Jews” who begged for Jesus to be crucified. It’s part of the New Testament and that would have to be rewritten or omitted for it to change. Similarly, the obscene parts of the Torah (e.g.: where “G-d” tells the Israelites to kill every man, woman and child in Canaan) will still be recited by religious Jews every year when that part of the scroll comes around.

So Jesus and the Cross are still viscerally difficult for many Jews. Of course, it goes back much further and the wounds are much deeper than the statements in churches or the individual beatings in America; confiscations of property, pogroms, required conversions or death, expulsions from countries that were home for generations, all leading up to the Holocaust, were a large part of life in Christian Europe for close to two thousand years.

So, while it can be a stretch for a Jew to freely choose a religious path other than Judaism, for that to be a Christian one is especially challenging. Even if the individual has shed their personal and inherited collective fears of Christianity, their family tends to have a much harder time than if their child had become a Buddhist, a Sufi or Hindu (though this is not always a cakewalk either). In Crossing the Boundary you can read the story of Father Paul Mayer whose Jewish parents required him to see a psychiatrist in order to persuade or coerce him not to convert. He tells the story of his evolution towards becoming a radical activist Catholic Priest.

 Nettie Spiwack, the interfaith minister I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary, experienced a profound spiritual revelation in her youth when she went with her Jewish family to tour Israel. “There, overlooking Jerusalem, with monks chanting nearby in the room reputed to be the site of the Last Supper, she quietly experiences a spontaneous spiritual revelation: ‘It all really happened. Jesus lived; His story is real and it is important to my life.’ She feels an overwhelming, awe-inspiring experience of the presence of God.”[1] Nettie went on to become deeply involved in the “Jesus movement” at college, which led to her parents requiring her to get psychiatric help and cut off contacts with her Christian circle. As the depth of her religious study continued, she never abandoned her connection with Jesus, but expanded to include other masters from the spectrum of world religions.

 Jonathan Goldman, a leader in the Church of Santo Daime, tells a powerful story of his own healing and resolving of the Jewish/Christian conflict within himself. As he became more deeply involved in this syncretic religion (which brings together Catholicism and the use of the shamanic plant medicine, Ayahuasca), he had to face the destructive personal and collective forces between these two streams of religious transmission and identification. I have participated in many Santo Daime ceremonies and gradually learned to recite and deeply embrace the “Hail Mary” and Lord’s prayers, the making of the sign of the crucifix, and opening more deeply to the transmission of the prophet, Jesus, and Mother Mary.

I first opened my mind to Jesus and his teachings in the heyday of hippie life in Haight-Ashbury, reading the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, a purportedly channeled Gospel that told the life of Jesus during his absent years, attending esoteric mystery schools in North Africa and then returning to teach a path of enlightenment. As I began to study meditation and spiritual practices, Christ consciousness became another term for enlightenment and Jesus one of the great Masters who embodied the divine and taught the way of the Love that is the essence of God.

So this Easter/Passover season, I attended Maundy Thursday at the little Episcopal church down the road. My wife, Ginny, often plays cello and guitar there (as well as at her pagan women’s moon circle), and we have come to deeply appreciate the wonderful open-minded minister, Father Dearman, and the very friendly community of people who gather there for Sundays and holidays. I had only heard about this strange ritual of Maundy Thursday days before. The name comes from when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told them to do the same for others. Maundy comes from the Latin word for “commandment,” as Jesus is reputed to have said “I give you a new commandment.” (John 13:34)

At a certain point in the Thursday evening church service, those who choose to participate take off their shoes and socks and walk over to the minister who, on his knees, pours warm water over each one’s feet and washes them. As Ginny’s cello is playing the hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say,” I bare my feet and sit to be blessed by the gentle minister’s honoring of the “new commandment.” He then explains that this commandment is simply, “love one another.”

I think back to the time of this teaching when a Jewish prophet and his twelve Jewish students added number eleven to Moses’s ten, and I think about how it happened that love became hate. Wash each other’s hands at the Passover seder, wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday, “LOVE ONE ANOTHER”; how hard is that to understand?

– Alan Levin








[1] From Crossing the Boundary, chapter 13.