Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker


Number 358
December 6, 1999



What's the Difference?



The young Reform Rabbi, after explaining the rudiments of Judaism and elements of the worship service in which we all had participated, asked the question, "What is the main difference between Christian and Jewish worship?" The blank faces before him caused the question to be asked a second time and, then, a third time. With a touch of exasperation, he than said, "We Jews don't have an altar in our synagogue." I had a couple of responses in my mind but that particular one came as a complete surprise. I quietly said to him as we were leaving, out of hearing of the confirmands, "We don't have an altar in our church." He frowned with exasperation and then quickly walked away, perhaps to attend to other duties.

What brought this experience to mind was an older Orthodox Rabbi expressing his unhappiness with Jews who have added to their Hanukkah celebration by importing a pine tree into their homes. The Rabbi, in stating how inappropriate that was, mentioned several Christian traditions related to the tree, including the ornaments which represented "drops of blood" (of Jesus' death on the cross). I was dumbfounded. Never, not once, had I ever heard of a connection between Christmas tree ornaments and drops of Jesus' blood.

I have always been aware of my limited and skewed knowledge of others and of their religious beliefs and practices. Far too often I have made sweeping statements of certitude only to find I was absolutely mistaken. Strangely, I have been surprised to find a similar gigantic gap in others' knowledge about my own tradition, especially that of well-educated rabbis.

This has led me to question the common assumption that the real basis for humans to get along is to stress our common humanity. It is a premise that works well for ordinary contacts but falters whenever we move below surface relationships and begin to take each other seriously. A common-humanity assumption is not wrong, only insufficient. Courtship and marriage well illustrate the shift from the delightful, but superficial, "We have so much in common," to the deeper relationship of "How could you think that?" Religiously, we may see the surface similarity of others' worship of "the same God," but when we seriously explore the beliefs, habits and actions of others, we often find large, sometimes insurmountable, differences which erode the pleasant feeling of unity.

I have found myself more significantly understanding others when I begin with the premise that we are different. Instead of shoehorning the other into my preconceived common-humanity box, I try to understand the other from within her or his own experience and mind set. Then, quite often, such engagement leads to its own delight. Such a concentrated focus on others falters when I am inattentive, I lack the necessary time or I simply am tired of listening, really listening.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict once wrote, "The tough-minded respect difference. Their goal is a world made safe for differences." I believe that. Now, if I could only consistently match action with insight.



--Robert H. Tucker
6 December 1999


© Robert H. Tucker, 1999.


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