Laura Kaplan

Staying in the Room

The following article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of VST’s biannual magazine, Perspectives.


Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan reflects on her experience of living into her Jewish identity as a faculty member of an ecumenical Christian graduate school…

Recently, a new artisan storefront opened near my Main Street home. As I like to support local artisans, I wandered in for a look. “Our name is Just Jewellery,” said the salesperson. “We specialize in silver and semiprecious stones, featuring the work of several local artists…”

But I could not focus on her words. Instead, images of divinity overwhelmed me. I saw Ganesh, Hindu god of wisdom, carved in jade; Buddha, sculpted in a granite-like paste; a Kabbalistic network of triangles drawn with sparkles; a Cross embellished with garnet; a bold Eagle, etched in silver.

This store was a festival, but I was not sure what kind. A deeply multi-faith festival, celebrating devotional artistic intent? Or a superficial spiritual-not-religious marketplace, baiting buyers with aesthetic beauty?

“Please, take a closer look at something,” the seller begged, “Even if you don’t want to buy today!”

Focusing, I asked to see four pendants: a doubled magen david (Star of David), a flowing Sanskrit Om, St. Christopher carrying a child, and a tree with roots in earth and heaven. The heavy garnet cross intrigued me, too; but I did not ask to see it. I could not imagine touching it.

Was this Christian symbol too sacred for me, or too terrifying?

Every Thursday at VST Community Worship, I ask myself a similar question.

I love our community worship. No two weeks are quite the same. Faculty sparkle; students experiment; everyone sings, whether they know the tune or not. We learn from one another about denominational worship styles, creative preaching, presence in leadership and more. Sometimes I participate, chanting Hebrew scripture or offering a Jewish prayer. No one minds that I never take communion and rarely say “Amen!”

“Amen” should be simple, but for me it is not. Every time I hear the name of Jesus or his spiritual title “Christ” used in worship,
I startle.

This agitation does not come over me in class, or in meetings, conversations, or lectures—only at worship.

My reaction surprises and worries me. Perhaps it should not. Pastor Don MacKenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Imam Jamal Rahman—the team-teaching and co-writing “Interfaith Amigos” —list five stages of deepening interfaith dialogue. The fifth and most challenging stage is “exploring spiritual practices from
other traditions.”

But should I not have reached that stage? For forty years, I have gathered multi-faith knowledge, and pursued a spiritual formation beyond borders. Avoiding the superficial, I have earned degrees, diplomas and certificates from credible academic and professional programs. Western philosophy, Ayurvedic yoga, Kabbalistic Judaism, Christian spiritual direction, and Jungian depth psychology. My studies have led me to an inclusive theology.

God is, as Matthew Fox might say, the “one river” of spirit, bubbling up in “many wells” of tradition.

God is, in Kabbalistic Hebrew, Eyn Sof, Infinity. All human expressions of spirituality circle within the Infinite God. Every religious word, concept, sound, or ritual may turn us towards God, but cannot fully encompass the divine.

God is, as depth psychologists say, “psyche”—a totality of all possible experiences and influences. Psyche surrounds us, appearing to us as consciousness, while also directing us beyond consciousness.

God is, as I learned in yoga, Brahman, infinite energy, mirrored in atman, the individual soul.

Yet, when I startle at Jesus’ name, my seamlessly inclusive theology begins to crack.

As it should! Because, as it admits, even it is a partial representation. Unchallenged, it could harden into a kind of armour. Wearing it, I could fend off all new ideas. At best, new ideas would be pale reflections of what I already know.
At worst, they would be childish and concrete compared with my grand vision. And this posture, says Vine DeLoria, is theology’s contribution to North America’s dismissal of Indigenous people.

When I attend community worship at VST, I try not to wear my deep ecumenism as armour.

Taking off the armour, though, leaves me vulnerable. And a memory of an early encounter with Christianity bubbles up. A troubling encounter set against a previously positive backdrop of our neighbours’ Christmas candies, gifts, and smiles.

My friend Mary and I are five or six years old. Our athletic mothers, off doing their sports, have left us to play at the community centre. We are each allowed one chocolate drink, so we are standing by the cooler, choosing.

Suddenly Mary says, “The Jews killed Jesus Christ, you know!”

“That’s impossible!” I retort without a second’s pause. “I don’t even know who he is!”

Yes, please do laugh at Mary’s childish audacity, and my childish egocentrism. Surely our mothers would have laughed, too, amid their mutual embarrassment and apologies.

And please do cry at the cruel power of memory. Because every Thursday at VST, I expect some monstrous grownup form of Mary to leap up and accuse me. And sometimes—even amid my euphoric enjoyment—I want to run from the room.

Of course, at thoughtful, engaged, and generous VST, no one accuses me. And I do not run from the room. Instead, I assume the posture of a good participant observer. I practice what Paul Ricouer would call a “hermeneutic of recollection”—an expectation that I will collect meaning. I listen to the words, feel the energy in the room, look others in the eye as we pass the peace, and feel my students’ nervousness as they learn to lead.
I wait, hoping to learn what “Jesus” and “Christ” mean to them. Not the conceptual understanding expressed in class discussion and writing, but the energy that stirs their hearts to risk-taking, tears, euphoria, and a sense of peace.

What I learn overflows even my inclusive theology. Particularity is important, too. Sure, some students experience Christ as a reminder of cosmic consciousness, beyond the physical form of any dogma. Others experience Jesus as an exemplary crusader for justice. Or a paradoxical teacher, stimulating radical insight. Someone willing to humble himself for the good of others. An exemplar, showing how every human being can embody God’s presence. A unique historical person, whose life story made new religious insight possible. Jesus Christ the symbol overflows categorization, appealing to abstract and concrete thinkers alike.

These data are a beginning, anyway. The insights do not erase my discomfort, but they do help me live into it and learn from it.

Perhaps the artisan’s garnet-studded cross was too terrifying for me to touch. The cross brought little Mary’s faux pas to mind. It reminded me that outside VST and a small circle of fellow travellers, the inter-religious world is still deeply troubled. To some, my Jewish existence is a threat; others feel threatened by Christians, Muslims, or Hindus.

Or perhaps the garnet cross evoked so much meaning, it was too sacred to touch casually. The cross is not, and never will be, my own religious symbol. But I can no longer approach it as a tourist. The cross is a portal to a complex network of spiritual understanding, new, exciting, educational.

The artisan store, I think, was both superficially beautiful and deeply multi-faith. It all depends on how you shop.