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Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Lamed-Vov

I was preparing to start a Saturday morning Adult Education Discussion Group. We were going to be talking about families, having just seen, “Mi Familia (My Family), the first of our film series, “Families on Film.”

I quickly scooted down the hallway to tend to a last minute errand and passed a young mom and her adorable daughter, whom I guessed to be about five or six years old. I suspected them to be new to Congregation Beth Hatikvah, the Reconstructionist Jewish Congregation that shares our sanctuary and office space.

The little girl held tightly to her mother’s hand, and seemed to cower away from me. I smiled warmly at her and then, looking at her mother smiled and said, “Good morning. Do you need help finding your way anywhere?”

“This is the way to the Nursery, right?” she asked.

“Yup,” I said, “take a right and it’s about ¾ of the way down the hall on your left.”

Just then, someone who was obviously an acquaintance of them both appeared from around the corner, and a lively conversation ensued. I left them and continued my way down the hall.

On my way back, I passed them again. The two adult women were deeply engaged in conversation while the little girl clung to her mother’s side. I smiled again at her. Her eyes met mine in what was an undoubtedly anxious look.

She was, however, bold enough to look me dead in the eye and ask, “Are you Jewish?”

Startled by her question, I said, “Why no, I’m not.”

It was her mother’s response, however, that caught me completely off guard.

“Oh, honey, it’s okay. She’s a good person.”

In equal measure to my startled confusion, the little girl seemed relieved by this. I returned the mother’s kind smile with an authentically bewildered look, but decided it was better not to engage in conversation and walked back to the conference room.

I’ve been haunted by this unexpected exchange all day. I can only imagine what has been this little girl’s experience of being among some who call themselves Christians. You know the kind of Christian I’m talking about. Fundamentalist. Also known as “orthodox evangelicals” – meaning, they have it “right.”

More to the point, the rest of us have it all wrong. Especially the Jews, who “need” to be evangelized so they might “know Jesus as Messiah, the savior and Lord” because, otherwise, they will never get to heaven.

These are the kind of Christians who read the Gospel of John and believe that Jesus is THE ONLY Way, THE ONLY Truth, THE ONLY Life. They see the Jews as the people of “The Old Covenant,” not the “New” and so they are not “saved.”

As if God breaks covenants just because they are “old.”

While, on one level, I admire their enthusiastic embrace and promulgation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, these evangelical folks are sadly misinformed. God never EVER breaks a promise. Not no how. Not no where. Not no way. Yes, not even with the Hebrew Nation.

What God promised to the Jews remains a promise. What God promised to us through our baptism in Christ remains a promise. I think what we need to be more concerned about is keeping the promises we make to God in our baptism. You know. Like the one that says we will “respect the dignity of every human being.”

Oh, right. That one.

I can only imagine what that little Jewish girl has already experienced at the hands of good Christian folk that caused her to ask me, “Are you Jewish?” And, her mother to respond, “Oh, honey, it’s okay. She’s a good person.”

As someone who has been told by some “orthodox Evangelicals” that my faith is “counterfeit,” and that the Gospel I read is a poor imitation of the “authentic” one, I don’t have to struggle to put my imagination to the test.

As I made my way through the rest of the day, I was thinking about the Gospel appointed for tomorrow, Sunday, October 22nd, Pentecost XX, in which James and John argue for a seat of distinction near Jesus “in your glory.” And, Jesus says to them, “You do not know what you ask,” adding, “It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:35-45)

I remembered a story told by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, in her book MY GRANDFATHER’S BLESSING. It’s the story of the Lamed-Vov. She writes:

As a child I had loved the story of Noah and the Ark the best of all my grandfather’s stories. He had given me a coloring book that had pictures of all the animals, two by two, and Noah and his wife, looking much like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus but dressed in different way.

We spent hours coloring in this book together which is how, at almost four, I had learned the names of many animals. We had also discussed the story at length, and wondered about the surprising possibility that even God sometimes makes mistakes and has to send a flood to start over again.

The last picture in the book was a beautiful rainbow. “This represents a promise between God and man, Neshume-le,” my grandfather told me. After the flood, God promises Noah and all of us that it will never happen again.”

But I was not so easily fooled. This whole thing had started because people had been wicked. “Even if we are very naughty, Grandpa?” I asked. My grandfather had laughed then. “That is what it says here in this story.” He looked thoughtful. “But there are other stories,” he told me. Delighted, I asked him to tell me another one.

The story he told me is very old and dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. It is the legend of the Lamed-Vov. In this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is a part of the human condition. These thirty-six are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people, the world will come to an end.

“Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?” I asked certain that he would say, “Yes.” But he shook his head. “No, Neshume-le,” he told me, “Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.”

It turned out that Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty six for whom God preserves the world,” my grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if it might be so.”

I sat and thought about this story for a long time. It was a different story than the story of Noah’s Ark. The rainbow meant that there would be a happily-ever-after, just as in the stories my father read to me at bedtime. But Grandpa’s story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, I realized that I had no idea what it was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? “How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?” I asked, suddenly anxious. “What do they have to do?”

My grandfather smiled at me very tenderly. “Ah, Neshume-le,” he told me. “They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

It is compassion, not “orthodox belief” that blesses and sustains the world.

I can’t be sure, but do believe I met a Lamed-Vovnik today. Anyone who can teach her daughter compassion in the face of the threat of orthodox evangelism is surely a blessing in the sight of God – the One God, the God of Abraham and Sara, who blesses us that we may be a blessing and promises never again to destroy the world.

And God never breaks a promise. Thanks be to God!


Suzer said...

From 800 miles away, you minister to me, perhaps without any intention or realization that you are doing so. What a beautiful and timely story. Thank you!

Ann said...

Yes I believe Paul in Romans 9ff had a lot to say about God not breaking the promise to Jewish people. The lamed-vov sound a lot like boddhisatvas.

dana said...

Elizabeth - I was so interested that you automatically assumed that this child and/or her mother had been treated badly by "orthodox evangelicals." Did you ask this mother why she chose to answer her daughter in this way? Perhaps she had been spoken to in a judgemental fashion by a Mormon - or a Unitarian - or a Jehovah's Witness - or an atheist. Or perhaps the child was just taught to gaurd herself around strangers. Were you a stranger?

This all sounds like a "vast-orthodox-evangelical-conspiracy-to-scare-small-children."

Surely that is not what you intended.....

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Near as I can tell, Mormons are a rare bird in North Jersey, and there isn't a Kingdom Hall for miles around Chatham.

I'd love you to show me one Unitarian who thinks Jews will burn in hell. It's just not going to happen. You have obviously not flipped through the UUA hymnal or attended a Unitarian service.

On the other hand, if I walked over to the Evangelical congregation in Chatham, it wouldn't take me 5 minutes to find someone who would tell me, in all sincerity, that Jews will not be allowed into heaven, nor will anyone who has not proclaimed Jesus as THE way, THE truth and THE life.

No, I do not believe there is a "vast orthodox evangelical conspiracy to scare small children."

I just think they do - well, little Jewish children, anyway.

They don't scare me.

But they, and their spiritual arrogance, just annoy the bejesus out of me.

dana said...


I just wanted to let you know that I was watching CSpan a few minutes ago and there was a report of a group of unruly "orthodox evangelicals" headed towards Chatham, NJ. Please, warn the Jewish children!!

Dana's husband, (who happens to be laughing uncontrollably)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sweet Suffering Jesus!

Somebody blow the shofar!

Make sure all the kids take off their yamulke's, hide all the bagels and kosher pickles and make sure the cheesecake is locked away in the back of the refridgerator.

No one is safe!

Thanks for the warning!

(Says she, who is not without an appreciation of humor, but not budging and inch about the real damage done by so called "orthodox Evangelicals - to Jewish kids as well as any Christian who is not "orthodox Evangelical.")

Grace said...

Mother Kaeton,

I'm so sorry that you're feeling in this way. I'm an orthodox, evangelical Christian, and I certainly would not want to cause damage to anyone, especially someone who is my sister in Christ.

You know, Mother Kaeton, I work with children, and sometimes they can really just have seemingly irrational fear of anything that is unfamiliar to them, or strange. Just last weekend I took a bunch of my little girls out to a farm to work on a community service project. To my amazement, one of my children was totally terrified of the kittens, and small dogs. She even felt uncomfortable with the rabbits!! Perhaps this little girl feels uncomfortable around all people that are not Jewish or who seem different to her.

I know that I have had Jewish friends who aren't afraid of me. :)

Mother Kaeton, my belief is that Yeshua gave his life for the whole world. I think the gospel was really given first of all to the Jewish people. Paul talks about the great concern he has for the Jewish people to know the Messiah.

I feel that as a Gentile believer, I need to in a loving and sensitive way be sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone.

This is no easy task as the church does not have a very good track record with the Jewish community. And, I also think that many Jewish people see any form of evangelical outreach as an attack on their culture. We certainly need God's wisdom in this, and buckets of love and sensitivity.

But, I really do believe that ultimately all "salvation" is in and through the cross of Jesus Christ.

God bless you, Mother Kaeton.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Grace,

If more people who understood themselves to be orthodox Evangelical Christians had your gentleness and generosity of spirit, the world would surely be blessed and sustained.

DaveGolub said...

As an "orthdox Evangelical Christian," I have never threatened Jewish children (or adults for that matter) with hellfire and so the picture you paint of what we believe and how we live out that faith is unrecognizable. But your blogging inspires a multititude of questions, the answers to which might go a ways in helping me understand what you teach. How do you understand and interpret John 3:16, the Great Commission, Jesus direction to "follow me," and the emphasis on the need for baptism? How would you tell an "orthodox Evangelical Chrstian to apply those teaching (and the many others of like import)in and to his/her life?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Never - not once - did I ever say that ALL Orthodox Evangelicals tormet Jews or those Christiants like me who do not believe the way YOU believe.

But, you need only see the video "Choose the Day" to know EXACTLY what I mean about the spiritual arrogance it takes to tell another Christian that his/her faith is "counterfeit."

I know from personal experience, having had many Jews as friends and, for the past 4.5 years, having had the rare priviledge of sharing our office space and sanctuary with a community of Jews, that many Jews have been harrassed by orthodox Evangelical Christians because "they will burn in hell" if they don't "accept Jesus as Savior and Lord."

Their stories are harrowing and horrifying.

Little children of all ages are terrorized by this. Have you seen the documentary CAMP JESUS?

Sweet suffering Jesus!

It's not only terrifying, but deeply, deeply embarassing for Christians - especially those of us who are Anglican.

As for your invitation to engage scripture with you, well, Dave, you know me better than that.

I don't expect an orthodox Evangelical Christian to listen to what I have to say about scripture any more than I expect to listen to what you have to say about your interpretation of scripture.

We agree to disagree. This is the Anglican way. It has been the Anglican way since the Anglican way began.

The Anglican way has only recently been challenged when SOME - not ALL - SOME Orthodox Evangelicals have tried to interpret scripture for EVERYONE.

I'm still on the Anglican way. Not either/or, but both/and.

I hope someday you will join me there.

You know, I've not allowed approximately six of the comments from "orthodox Evangelicals" on this blog because they say the same thing:

"We don't tormet little Jewish Children."

This, when the anecdodatal evidence from Jewish children and adults - as well as Christian adults and childrey - clearly does not support this claim.

Me thinks y'all protest too much.

Grace said...

Mother Kaeton,

I'm not really Anglican. I'm an orthodox, evangelical from a Lutheran background. But, I feel so strongly that our unity together is in Christ.

I feel that we need to be open to each other, and fully and prayfully engage one another in all these issues and concerns.

How else are we able to grow together as the body of Christ?

muerk said...

It's not your critique of a certain kind of Christian that bothers me but the assumption about the little girl.

It's as though (and obviously I can't truely know your thought process here) you see the girl be afraid, assume it is your Christianity she fears, assume a specific form of Christian thinking is what disturbs her and then use that to justify the girl's reaction to you which in turn helps to justify your dislike of said Evangelicals.

Now you may be right about your criticisms of Evangelical theology but you do not know what spooked the girl. And it would not be fair to add this to your reasons for disliking Evangelical theology because you don't know if it had anything to do with it.

DaveGolub said...

I didn't ask the question to debate it with you, Elizabeth and it is possible to listen without agreeing. I once attended a workshop you gave in the Diocese. I listened to what you said about why it is impossible to "love the sinner and hate the sin." I understood what you meant. I did not and do not agree with you but I did listen in order to understand what you (and others) mean but neither you nor I are obliged to reply to someone's inquiry -- but I might have learned something from your answer.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


"Listening" to someone in person, I have come to understand, is very different than "listening" in cyberspace.

To wit: this essay.

Is there a blog where y'all tip each other off about essays like mine? I've been getting TONS of replies to this - most of which say the same thing, over and over and over again.

To which I'm going to say again:

I think y'all doth protest too much.

Grace said...

Well, Mother Kaeton, at least you are getting alot of notice, and conversation. That can't be all bad!! :)

I actually found out about your blog through discussion in the past over at Fr. Jake's place, if I remember correctly anyway.

Take care, and God bless!!

Weiwen Ng said...

I like the story of the Lamed-Vovniks a lot better than Noah's Ark. thank you for that!