What Judaism can teach Christians

An observant friend once told me that sex on the Sabbath (within the confines of marriage) is a mitzvah. I always knew Judaism was a great religion.

Cheeky? Perhaps. But there is truth in my statement. I am grateful to be born into a religion that celebrates the pleasures of the body, that is somehow modern and forward thinking in its ancient wisdom. Even if I am not particularly observant.

I felt the same way reading “Mudhouse Sabbath” by Lauren F. Winner, an Episcopalian convert who was born an Orthodox Jew. “Mudhouse Sabbath” unwraps the mysteries of 11 spiritual practices valued by both Jews and Christians, but that, in her opinion, Jews “do better.”

This book, she writes, is “to be blunt, about spiritual practices that Jews do better. It is, to be blunter, about Christian practices that would be enriched, that would be thicker and more vibrant, if we took a few lessons from Judaism. It is ultimately about places where Christians have some things to learn.”

Just where do Jews succeed where others fail? According to Winner, it’s in the “doing” vs. the “believing.” Judaism is a religion of action. “Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver,” she explains.

And so, Jews do things because they are commanded, and through their action their spiritual connection is built. In Judaism it is enough to do, it is not enough just to feel. And in the doing they are tied to God.

Backed by this premise of action, Winner muses on the concepts of Shabbat, kashrut (fitting food), avelut (mourning), hachnasat orchim (hospitality), tefillah (prayer), guf (body), tzum (fasting), hiddur p’nai zaken (aging), hadlakat (candle-lighting), kiddushin (weddings) and mezuzot (doorposts).

Each chapter explains core Jewish practices and how they animated Winner’s Jewish life. She introduces the reader to the wisdom and beauty in the ways of Judaism. Kashrut transforms eating into a holy act. Shabbat sets aside a day to connect with community and God. Laws instruct the community how to support both newlyweds and those mourning the death of their loved ones.

She then turns her attention to the Christian equivalent, and finally how she is borrowing from Judaism to create meaningful Christian ritual in her life.

Consider the Sabbath. Winner writes that Shabbat is the component of Judaism she misses most and also the aspect that should be the easiest to incorporate into her present life, as the instruction to honor the Sabbath — put forth in the Ten Commandments — is binding on Christians as well as Jews.

As a Christian, Winner refrains from working on the Sabbath. She does,

however, spend money and

hang out at coffee shops — activities forbidden in her Orthodox Jewish life. In fact, it is at her favorite coffee shop, the Mudhouse, on a Sunday morning after church, where she came upon the idea for, and the title of, this work.

To miss Shabbat less and to give credence to her past, Winner is bridging the Jewish-Christian chasm by working to make the Christian Sabbath holy. She has ceased shopping and is instead spending Sundays at church, Bible study and visiting with friends and church shut-ins.

Similarly, she puts a Christian spin on kashrut by eating seasonal, locally grown foods to bring attention and devotion to food and eating. She fasts on Fridays during Lent as a way of remembering her hunger for God. She lights candles but recites different words, “The Light of Christ.” A found object, a homemade sign reading “keep home safe thank God” hangs in the doorway replacing a mezuzah.

Part diary, part history class, part religious school lesson. These elements seamlessly weave the tapestry of the text, giving the reader an understanding of the struggle to make sense of Jewish roots in a Christian world. But “Mudhouse Sabbath” is also an invitation to embrace all that is right and holy about being Jewish, challenging the Jewish reader to be a better Jew.

Disclaimer: At times I find myself wondering why this Christian is rooting so hard for the home team. If Judaism is so great, why didn’t Winner herself remain a Jew, instead of choosing the lengthy and challenging path of conversion? She simply explains that Jesus chose her.

No matter, this niggling question does not deflect from the essentials of this book, a testament to the active spiritual practice of Judaism.

“Mudhouse Sabbath” by Lauren F. Winner. (128 pages, Paraclete Press, $17.95.)