I had to go out and find what Judaism could offer me outside the institutional settings of my childhood.
My first step in that direction was an encounter with an Orthodox rebbetzin from a black hat yeshiva community near where I grew up. Home from college, I sat next to her on a bus one day and she invited me for Shabbat. I loved it and went back many times. Nobody cared what you had or what your outfit cost. Strangers were invited and fed. Shabbat was joyful, song-filled; there was no television or other distractions. Yes, it was the 1980s, and communities were less rigid. I was even allowed to visit a few homes while wearing pants. All summer, I studied with that rebbetzin. She encouraged me to ask her all kinds of hard and even disrespectful questions, and she answered them. Sometimes her husband, a rosh yeshiva, or leader of a talmudic academy, from a famous rabbinical dynasty, joined our discussions. I think he found my pushback entertaining.
No, I didn’t become ultra-Orthodox. Anyone who cares about women’s participation is not going to disappear into such a community — but there is still plenty to be learned from one. Nobody drops off the kids at synagogue and speeds off to go shopping, or teaches them about laws and traditions that are never used at home. Any Jew is welcome to walk into services, including on High Holidays. Nobody goes without a place for Shabbat. And kids aren’t studying or praying to reach a finish line, let alone a party with a buffet, a DJ and a bag filled with personal checks.
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Victorinus was a Roman rhetor during St. Augustine’s time. His government position required him to make speeches honoring the gods of the empire. But he was interested in Christianity and read Scripture. One of St. Augustine’s friends, Simplicianus, often visited Victorinus. They would talk about spiritual matters. In private, the famous orator would confide, “I am already a Christian, you know.” Simplicianus, however, recognized that Christianity is a public identity, and he would reply, “I will not believe that, nor count you among Christians, until I see you in Christ’s Church.” Victorinus seems to have found this emphasis on outward expression of Christian faith superficial. Augustine reports that he said, “It’s the walls that make Christians, then?” To put it in contemporary terms, he needled Simplicianus, saying that this requirement of church attendance made him a “Doctor of the Law.”
Eventually, Victorinus realized that walls do make Christians. We are not with Christ in private. Our Lord has a body: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” And so Victorinus enrolled as a catechumen, was baptized, and professed the Church’s creed before a packed crowd in one of Rome’s churches.
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“It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community. I think that we Protestants cannot too often reflect on that fact. He committed the entire work of salvation to that community. It was not that a community gathered around an idea, so that the idea was primary and the community secondary. It was that a community called together by the deliberate choice of the Lord Himself, and re-created in Him, gradually sought–and is seeking–to make explicit who He is and what He has done. The actual community is primary: the understanding of what it is comes second. The Church does not depend for its existence upon our understanding of it or faith in it. It first of all exists as a visible fact called into being by the Lord Himself, and our understanding of that fact is subsequent and secondary.”
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The reason I have so much trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that Christian families really do choose Sunday sports over church is that it is so blisteringly obvious that this is spiritually suicidal, in the sense that kids catechized by the popular culture in this way will not practice the faith as adults. The faith will likely die in their generation. Their parents and their community will have taught them by example that God is less important than sports. Or, to put it another way, that sports is the true God.
You can carry around in your head the idea of God, and that you affirm your religion, but that’s vaporous if you don’t put it into practice in this ordinary way. I bring up in speeches a lot the challenge I received from a Christian undergraduate at a talk earlier this year: “Why do you say practices are so important? Why isn’t it enough to love Jesus with all our hearts, as we were taught growing up?” This Sunday sports thing is one reason why. Not a single Christian parent who chooses sports over church believes that he or she is denying the faith. After all, they still believe, in the sense of affirming certain propositions, right? But unless the faith is manifested and embedded in practices — communal practices — it is not going to last.
(Rod Dreher, Chariots of Fire vs. Minivans of Apathy)