One of the most striking attributes of Harvard Divinity School professor and theologian Harvey Cox has been timeliness.
His first book, The Secular City, published in 1965, proclaimed the collapse of traditional religion to be a main hallmark of our era. It generated controversy, sold nearly a million copies and launched Cox upon his career as arguably the foremost Protestant theologian in the United States. He then proved uncommonly skillful at surfing successive theological waves, beginning with the turn to the East in the 70’s and continuing with liberation theology, world religions and Pentecostalism.
In Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year, Cox has done it again. The soaring rate of intermarriage in the U.S. Jewish community means that the interface of Christianity and Judaism has become a personal matter for vast numbers of Americans (accepting that the entry of a single member into a family touches all the members of that family).
But this socio-religious feature of contemporary America is not simply an intellectual issue for Cox. In 1985 he married Nina Tumarkin, head of Russian studies at Wellesley College, and their interfaith marriage has produced a son, Nicholas, whose bar mitzvah was celebrated in 1999. Neither Cox nor Tumarkin wished to convert: what they chose instead was to learn about the other’s religion, to honor it and participate in it as far as our convictions would permit.
Common Prayers is the record of this personal lived experience of a hands-on, week-by-week and year-by-year Judaism of songs and scents and ups and downs, with both its comeliness and its homeliness clearly on display.
Cox is at pains to make clear that he is neither a complete outsider nor a full insider. His perspective is from his position standing in a kind of metaphorical Court of the Gentilesreferring to the ancient Temple, where one section was reserved for the many gentiles who worshiped with Jews without ever converting to Judaism.
Why and for whom has he written this book? First, he says, for puzzled Christians who may find clarity about Judaism in a kind of modern Guide for the Perplexed. Second, to recount how his personal journey has enhanced his understanding of his own Christian faith. Third, to dissipate the idea that a Jewish-Christian marriage necessarily dilutes the substance of either or both spouses’ faiths. And finally, to allow Jewish readers a glimpse of their religion through the eyes of a Christian, which will perhaps shed new light for them as well.
It is an ambitious undertakingbut one in which he amply succeeds. Cox says he writes from the privileged position of a participant who is also in some measure an observer; an observer who is also a participant. But he is no ordinary participant or observer. Cox is a scholar, a teacher, a theologian and a keen observer of the contemporary scene. This intimate autobiography is lavishly interwoven with informative and fascinating gleanings from history, religious traditions, theology and the front pages of today’s newspapers.
His pilgrimage takes the form of a journey through the Jewish year, beginning on Rosh ha-Shanah, New Year’s Day. Why so? Because, he rightly says, Judaism is not about creed, it is about calendar. Each chapter covers one holiday or life event: Yom Kippur, Purim, Passover, Sabbath, Wedding and Marriage and so on. He imbues these with personal, historical and spiritual significance, but his wide-ranging intellect also ensures that each develops an unusual viewpoint. Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, for example, produces both an ecological sermon and a prophetic digression about the nature of messiah and messiahship. The chapter on Tisha B’Av, the Day of Lamentations, a holiday little known even among Jews, culminates in a historical and theological analysis of awful recent events between Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem.
So Cox is timely. He is also enlightening, provocative and stimulating. He never shies from controversial social and political issues, but wades right in, armed with sincerity and scholarship. One may not always agree with him, but the journey is invariably exciting. Above all, his curiosity and openness underlie his special approach to the encounter between Judaism and Christianity.
When I was a campus minister at Fordham University at Lincoln Center, I had the privilege of working with an African-American Jesuit, James L. Pierce, S.J. In a homily I’ve never forgotten (it concerned encounters between blacks and whites but applies to any encounter with the Other), Father Pierce made the point that tolerance and acceptance are good things, but limited. Until, he said, one person is willing to accept the other’s experience not just as O.K., but as normative, nothing much can happen.
This is ultimately the greatest virtue of Harvey Cox’s Common Prayers. He has lived 16 years of interfaith marriage in a willingness to experience Judaism as well as Christianity to be normative. As a result, much has happened to him. Common Prayers distills the fruits of that double perspective so that both Christian and Jewish readers will enjoy and benefit from its hard-won wisdom.