When I stumbled upon Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, it was the answer to a prayer I didn’t even know I’d made.
You see, I’ve read quite a few books on Judaism, enough that I feel fairly culturally literate with the religion (if still very, very far from being able to parse Hebrew). And I’ve talked to plenty of folks who are Jewish, interfaith, or converted, often finding their perspectives illuminating. But what I hadn’t realized I needed was a narrative—the story of someone else confronting this beautiful, maddening, awe-inspiring religion from roughly the same background I was, and trying to find points of departure as well as similarities.
Cox structures Common Prayers, as the title says, as a stroll through the Jewish holiday calendar as well as other lifecycle events (death, marriage, birth, and coming of age). Along the way he throws in Kierkegaard, Melville, Pope John Paul II, and a host of other philosophers, religious scholars, clerics, and cultural touchstones as ways of building connections between the two religions. For the most part he stays in plain-English territory, but every now and then (such as when the Passover section veers off into an extended meditation on Jesus) I kind of nodded off at the academicism.
However, there were lots of moments where I silently rejoiced that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: puzzlement at scheduling the Rosh Hashanah new year celebration before the Yom Kippur day of reckoning, appreciation for the grace of death and funeral rituals, simultaneous confusion and fascination toward the way the Shabbat service is structured. Reading the book in many ways talking with an older cousin who had been down the same rarely trod path I find myself exploring, and getting a healthy dose of whys and wherefores to ease my passage. For instance, having not yet been to Israel myself, I found Cox’s explanation of the complicated nature of Jerusalem really intriguing, answering many of the questions I’ve always had about why that sacred ground is so fiercely claimed by different faiths.
Of course, the chapter on marriage was familiar territory, and I sympathized with the struggles that Baptist-raised Cox and his Jewish wife had in building a solid union. (Not to mention a wedding.) I would love to hear more from him, or Nina, on that topic.
I can honestly say that I learned something valuable every time I pulled out this book during a workday lunch. Not only that, I looked forward to the experience, born of insight and delightful writing. I would definitely recommend Common Prayers to anyone who is new to Judaism and trying to figure out how best to relate to it.