Sunday, March 15, 2009

Holy Envy, Part 1

The late Krister Stendahl, (Lutheran) Bishop of Stockholm, died almost a year ago. In 1985, he articulated Stendahl's three rules of religious understanding. They are as follows:
(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
(2) Don't compare your best to their worst.
(3) Leave room for "holy envy."

Holy Envy. Those two words sum up my experience of many years. Holy Envy involves recognizing elements in others' religious traditions that one wishes were part of one's own religious tradition. It requires a great deal of humility to be able to say, "my tradition is deficient in this area, and his is superior. I wish I had that."

Until my teacher mentioned Stendahl this semester, I didn't know that this attitude had a name. But I guess holy envy has always been a part of my approach to religious understanding.

I have long admired Judaism. I began studying it in middle school, when a close friend, who was Jewish, piqued my interest. Of all the religions I now envy, Judaism was my first, and I think it will always be nearest to my heart. In the past few years, Judaism has been joined by Islam and various Christian denominations in my Hall of Envy.

In this and later essays, I'll discuss some of the things I envy about various religions. I invite you to consider my sampling and to create your own. Find things about the practices of those of other faiths that you can appreciate--things you find beautiful and meaningful. It is possible to do so without embracing doctrinal relativism or syncretic universalism. I invite you to experience the faith of others in a manner that will increase your own faith.

It is appropriate, I think, to begin this series with an explanation of my love affair with Judaism.

Since the world's three great Abrahamic religions spring from Judaism, it deserves a great deal of credit for being the bastion of monotheism and the faith from which the religions of most of the world's inhabitants derive. True, Judaism has done its share of change over its life, but it has also done a good job of remaining true to tradition. And it is that rootedness in tradition that I most love. As a member of a denomination with a very short history, I can appreciate the appeal of a faith held by one's ancestors for the past three thousand years. With that length of time to percolate, the Jewish culture has become so rich and vibrant, and I love the richness of this culture.

I love the reverence and love the Jewish people have for the Torah. Never have I seen a people so devoted to the word of God. In a synagogue, Torah scrolls, handwritten by a special scribe, are kept in an ornate cabinet and covered with velvet and precious metal. Congregants kiss the covering of the scroll as it is carried through the synagogue prior to reading. The entire service is structured around the reading of the Torah. There are prayers to be said before and after the reading, and libraries full of commentaries on its words. Boys become men in a bar mitzvah ceremony that involves reading from the Torah. Orthodox Jews maintain that every word of the Torah has a purpose--that not even a single letter is extraneous--that it all has great meaning. What a wonderful closeness we would have with God if we made scripture study such a central focus of our lives and our worship, if we had the same love for God's law that the Jews do.

I love Jewish blessings. In the Jewish faith, there is a blessing for everything--praising God upon eating bread, drinking wine, lighting candles, seeing a rainbow, or hearing good news. There are blessings to be said before reading scripture and after eating meals. As an observant Jew, one's whole life is infused with ritual prayer and praise of God for His goodness. In a tradition where prayer language often seems trite and meaningless, filled with vain repetitions like "than no harm or accidentmay befall us" and "bless the food that it may nourish and strengthen our bodies, and bless the hands which prepared it," where public prayer sometimes takes the form of a divine order form, I find the words of Jewish blessings refreshing and sincere, "Baruch atah Adonai Elohaynu melech ha-olam," "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe."

I love the joy with which Jewish practice brings holiness to everyday occurrences, the way it sanctifies the mundane. I love the mezzuzah, the tzitzit, the laws of kashrut. I love the concept that God cares what His people wear and what they eat. I love the simplicity embodied in the Shema, the declaration of faith that states, simply, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

I love the dedication of Jews to their faith. Despite millenia of persecution, captivity, and massacres, the Jewish people remain rooted in and convinced of their Jewishness. Even when it has seemed that God has forgotten them, they have not forsaken their God. The Jewish people deserve--and receive--my utmost respect for their constancy and dedication.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my struggles to find my place in the world and in the plan of my Heavenly Father. As I was wrestling with these issues, I was also researching my latest topic of fascination--Judaism. I will always be indebted to the writings of one Orthodox Jewish woman, who struggled with many of the same issues in her own tradition's patriarchal culture. Instead of becoming bitter or giving up her faith, she found beauty between the lines, and carved out a place of joy for herself as a woman and as a Jew. She gave me some of the answers I sought, and the peace she exuded gave me hope that the rest of the answers existed. It was largely due to her understanding of her place in her own faith that I began to gain a sense of my place in my own.

I love the Jewish dedication to philanthropy. The world would be a wonderful place if we all paid as much attention to community-building as they do, if we made it a point to leave lasting legacies, if we gave back to our societies in gratitude.

How about you? What can you see in the faith of others that you envy and wish you had?

Picture from


  1. A few Sundays ago I joined some friends for an evening visit to the Hare Krishna temple. As we watched the devotees sing and dance, I was moved with admiration. These people truly have the spirit of joy in worship; they show an exuberance that, far from offending reverence, strengthens it.

    Besides which, their food, which is vegetarian, is positively delicious. :)

  2. St. John of the Cross mentions holy envy in Chapter 7 of his book "Dark Night of the Soul". St. John of the Cross was was a Spanish Christian mystic who lived in either the 1500s or 1600s, and who had visions of Christ's suffering and death.

    St. John of the Cross describes holy envy as being "a sadness in ourselves at not possessing within ourselves the Godliness and virtues that others possess".