On a recent rainy Spring Sunday, I heard that a little Welsh church on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border was doing a Cymanfa Ganu (sing-a-long) service featuring a group of opera singers called the Three Welsh Tenors. I love opera, and I'm always up for an adventure in foreign parts, so off I went, driving for an hour and a half from my home in Harrisburg. And it was a glorious afternoon, filled with sublime music and the true joy of singing together with hundreds of other people.
While I've been in church only a few times in my life, I love it. This might seem bizarre coming from someone whose whole personal and professional life revolves around being Jewish, and who serves as a Jewish role model to college students on campus. I have no desire whatsoever to convert to Christianity; the communion ritual makes me especially uncomfortable. But I enjoy congregational singing, especially to the rousing, imperious sound of the organ.
Judaism and Christianity may be, to a large extent, religiously at odds with one another. But they are culturally compatible, as so many blended Jewish-Christian families have discovered. Why is it fine for us Jews to traipse through cathedrals in Europe but not to have Christmas trees in our own homes?
(Having a Christmas tree is, in fact, a kind of litmus test for Jewish professionals; woe betide the Jewish communal leader who is discovered to have one in his or her living room.) Why is it acceptable to listen to Christmas carols on the radio but not to go around singing them? Why, indeed, does enjoying aspects of Christian culture necessarily mean subscribing to the tenets of Christian faith?
The phenomenal rise in Jewish-Christian intermarriage, as documented in the recent Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, means that an ever-increasing number of children are being raised with aspects of both Judaism and Christianity. Religion scholars are fond of talking about the overarching "American Civil Religion" (the term invented in the 1960s by sociologist Robert Bellah) that all Americans subscribe to, and that is based on "belief" in the Fourth of July, Statue of Liberty, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and so on. Perhaps it is time that Christmas and Hanukkah both be included in that religion. (Christmas, arguably, already is.) And Easter. And Passover. And the Muslim holidays of Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Why don't we celebrate all the holidays that we want to?
Many Jews will no doubt object that a Jew cannot sing about Jesus and still be Jewish. But I'm not so sure. Do the words actually matter that much, or is it purely the fact that we're singing in unison, bonding with one another? Most Jews don't understand the Hebrew that they are saying (or chanting) in synagogue and most probably prefer not to know, because then they might be obliged to wonder if they truly believed in them. The experience of being in church or synagogue, for most people, is not primarily about making a connection to God, which is an amorphous concept. It's principally about making a connection to other people, participating in a group ritual.
I know that many Orthodox Jews refuse to go into churches altogether, even to see the beautiful architecture and art; Jewish sages have viewed visiting a church as akin to idol worship. But I don't sacrifice my Jewish identity when I walk into a church. Instead, I strengthen it, not because of feeling different from all those around me, but because whatever brings out the impulses in me towards generosity, love and fellow feeling conduces to the fullest expression of what being Jewish means.