A Brief Review of
Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar?:
Jewish Roots of Christian Worship.
by Meredith Gould.
Paperback: Seabury Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Baya Clare, CSJ.
This review originally appeared on Baya’s blog: http://bayathread.blogspot.com/
It is reprinted here with the reviewer’s permission.
Meredith Gould is one of those people whose calling it is to occupy the space between two societal entities. It’s an uncomfortable place to live life, especially for someone who’s also committed to making the world a better place. From a between-place it’s possible to see things that can’t be seen from inside the fences, and those things include the misconceptions each side has about the other. Christians and Jews have a lot of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misapprehensions about one another. Some of them are harmless, some are hurtful, some have been deadly for Jews. Truth-telling, which is what those in-between dwellers like Meredith Gould do, is about healing those ancient wounds which, though familiar, are nevertheless signs of dis-ease, not only in our relationships with one another, but also in our relationship with God. If we are to be about God’s work in the world, then we must attend to them.
Gould’s newest book, Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar? is a good place to start. Aimed primarily at Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans, it is a very readable and even occasionally humorous guide to the Jewish antecedents of many customs and practices in liturgical churches. The author, who considers herself “a Jew in identity, a Christian in faith, and a Catholic in religious practice,” did a considerable amount of research into similarities and differences with regard to scripture, historical events, and worship, and this comprises the first half of the book. In the second half of the book she looks at the sacraments of baptism, holy communion, and confirmation to find the echos of Judaism therein.
Anyone who has been to seminary or studied theology in any depth will probably (I hope!) find much here that is familiar, though there will assuredly be surprises as well. Gould approaches the words and actions of Christian worship from a vantage point unfamiliar to the vast majority of Christians, and allows us to see them with fresh eyes. This book would be a great addition to a study group, confirmation curriculum or Sunday school class, and is presented in a format that facilitates such uses. There are special explanatory paragraphs set apart in borders throughout, and discussion questions at the end of each chapter.
Several chapters have timelines at the end, which are helpful for keeping it all in historical context. There is also a glossary of Hebrew terms and Jewish concepts, an appendix of selected letters and statements on Jewish-Christian relations, a list of resources, and a timeline of Christianity’s emergence from Judaism at the end of the book.
My only quibble with this work is a small one which I hope can be corrected in reprints: the timeline at the end of the chapter on Holy Communion would be more useful if it consistently noted which denomination produced which decree. Only people who have studied Reformation history and documents in depth will be on familiar ground here; the rest of us could use a few more notes.
Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar? is highly recommended for Christians of any denomination, and anyone interested in interfaith understanding.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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