U.N. World Interfaith Harmony Week: Gracespotting

By Cathleen Falsani 2-05-2012
Rabbi Allen Secher at his synagogue in Whitefish, Montana. Image via www.thenakedrabbi.com.

Editor's Note: At the beginning of February, the United Nation celebrates World Interfaith Harmony Week. To mark the occasion the Tony Blair Faith Foundation asked people to share their stories of finding friendship and connection with someone of a different faith tradition. This is my story.

A wise (and holy) man once told me that I would learn the most about myself from the people I think are the most unlike me.

That is how, a few years ago while working on the manuscript for a book about grace, I came to spend Easter, and all of Passover, traveling around Montana in an SUV with the state’s only resident rabbi, his wife, and their Schnauzer.

For five years, Allen Secher was the only rabbi living in Montana, a state with a population of 900,000 and a tiny Jewish community of about 1,100. Allen and his wife, Ina, reside in Whitefish in the northwest corner of the state, but for their first few years in Big Sky Country they would spend two weeks every month on the road as itinerant clergy, serving a congregation in Bozeman four hours south and traveling wherever else they were beckoned to preside at weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, baby-naming ceremonies, funerals, etc.

I long had heard of Allen in Chicago, where we both lived for many years and where I was the religion writer for one of the city’s newspapers. He was something of a legend for being the only rabbi (at least for many years) who would officiate at interfaith weddings, a practice that is still very much taboo in most Jewish circles. His best friend is my favorite Catholic priest, and he is also a dear friend of Reverend Stan, my favorite clergyperson in the world. So when I was thinking about how I might look at grace from perspectives I hadn’t seen it from yet and taking my very wise friend’s advice about encountering my “opposite” as a spiritual exercise, I got a wild hair one day and phoned the Sechers to see if I might spend Passover and Easter with them in Montana, where they had moved from Chicago when Allen retired.

The trip was a leap of faith for all of us, since we’d never met and would be traveling together and living in close quarters for more than a week. Happily, the Sechers — who are in their seventies and way hipper than I could ever hope to be — and I quickly learned that we are kindred spirits, always game for a new adventure.

Allen was one of the original Freedom Riders — civil rights activists, summoned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, who rode buses into the segregated South and marched in the streets as a means of protesting racist bus policies — and spent more than a few days in jail for his efforts. Both Allen and Ina were in one of the earliest graduating classes of Brandeis University (the only Jewish-founded secular university in the United States) and long have been pioneers of one kind or another.

After finishing his rabbinical studies at a Reform seminary, Allen (who had been strictly Orthodox at Brandeis) served congregations in Mexico City and California before growing disillusioned with the rabbinate itself. He left and for 20 years dabbled in radio and acting — documentary film and television (where he eventually earned seven Emmy awards) — before a group of like-minded friends in Chicago more or less drafted him back into the ministry in the early 1990s.

With Allen in the bimah, they founded an esoteric Jewish congregation there called Makom Shalom, where congregants worshiped in the round and meditated, and where everyone was included, regardless of gender, age, and even religion. “Sech,” as I came to call him, is a true vanguard, a rebel soul searching for what is real. He’s the kind of person I am ever drawn to — as the great poet Seamus Heaney puts it — “like well water far down.”

Even as we found common ground apart, that is, from our shared natural inclination toward general insubordination, during those first few hours in the car — Allen and I both love Sinatra (for a number of years he hosted a weekly Old-Blue-Eyes-only show every Sunday night on a Montana radio station), Ina and I have frighteningly similar taste in books, and Farfel (the Schnauzer) could be the twin of the German terrier I had as a child — I wondered whether we might overcome theological differences (even with our open minds) when it came to grace.

As I understood it, there is a concept of grace in the Jewish tradition, but it differs from the theology of grace that is central to Christianity. Before I hit the road with the Sechers, I asked a couple of Jewish theologians how the Chris tian and Jewish ideas of grace were similar and where they diverged. Grace, they told me, only applies to sins and transgressions that are committed between God and us. When it comes to trespasses against other people, you must first gain the forgiveness of those you wronged before you may seek God’s forgiveness.

There is, however, a caveat, one rabbi told me. If you ask someone’s forgiveness three times, and they don’t forgive you, then God will forgive you anyway, and the onus transfers to the person who wouldn’t forgive you.

I have a dear friend in Chicago who works for the Jewish Federation. Often, when I’d write about grace in my newspaper column, she would call or write to talk about it. Invariably she stumbled over the same theological speed bump. She could grasp the kind of grace I talk about until she gets to, as she says, “the Susan Smith problem.” Smith is the California woman who, in October 1991, murdered her three-year-old and 14-month-old sons by driving her car into a lake with the boys strapped in their car seats.

“Nope,” my friend says. “That’s where grace doesn’t work for me. I can’t believe that you just get to say ‘I’m sorry’ and God says, ‘OK, you’re forgiven.’ I don’t think grace covers that kind of sin.”

As the Sechers and I drove through the middle of Montana on a brilliantly sunny spring afternoon, passing swollen streams where the sunlight danced on undulating water like a billion diamonds — like God making “jazz hands” at us, we decided — it became clear that, while we may not have the same technical understanding of grace in relation to sin, we certainly understood in the same way the grace inherent in nature.

After a few days on the road, the rabbi took to pointing out circling hawks, rainbows over mountain meadows, or especially beautiful vistas and saying, “Look! Grace!” For the rest of the trip we referred to that particular spiritual practice (and car game) as “gracespotting.”

Eventually, the gracespotting extended past natural wonders to the seeming mundanity of everyday living.

Finding a tub of their favorite hummus on sale at Costco?


Talking their way onto the ski lift at Whitefish Basin for a spectacular ride up the side of the mountain on Easter morning without having to pay?


Getting the very last reservation at the best steak joint in town after a long day on the road?


Watching the final season premiere of The Sopranos, bundled together in our jammies on their living room couch?


Farfel sneaking her way into the guest room to sleep with me the night I was feeling particularly homesick?


Together, we spotted grace all over the place, a joyful exercise that really brought us together. After a few days we weren’t strangers anymore; we were family.

And that, too, was grace.

Walking into the Emerson Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Bozeman for the first of three Seders that Allen would lead and we’d attend during the eight days of Passover, the first person to greet us was a Kinky Friedman look-alike wearing a black Stetson and holding a magnum of Australian merlot. He gamely showed us to our table while Allen did a mic check, and Ina quickly put me to work distributing the haggadot — liturgical booklets everyone would follow along with during the meal.

Passover is about storytelling. Specifically, it’s about retelling the story of how God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and, eventually, into the Promised Land. The Passover haggadah takes Seder-goers through the story of the exodus, step-by-step, with accompanying prayers, songs, food — dishes that each have spiritual significance — and drink. Each table has a Seder plate that contains (traditionally) six items: maror (usually horseradish), symbolizing the bitterness of slavery; charoset (a sweet mixture, typically, of apples, honey, and nuts), meant to represent the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build storehouses for their Egyptian masters; karpas (bitter herbs such as parsley) that are dipped in

salt water to symbolize tears shed; z’roa (traditionally it’s a roasted lamb shank bone) representing the Passover (Pesach) sacrifice; and the beitzah (a roasted, not boiled, egg) that also symbolizes sacrifice as well as mourning for the destruction of the temple. An egg is typically the first thing served to mourners after a funeral.

None of this was new to me. As a religion journalist I’d attended a few Seders over the years. But through my adventure with the roving rabbi wandering the wilderness of western Montana, I came to understand Passover and the exodus in a life-changing kind of way.

During that first Seder in Bozeman, the Lone Rabbi, if you will, in his rainbow-patterned yarmulke, began by explaining the basic story of the exodus, with an added twist I’d never before heard. In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is mitzrayim, which means “the narrow place.” Just as God delivered the Jews out of their “narrow place,” God is waiting to lead each of us out of our narrow places, with mercy and grace.

“Where are the narrow places in your life that you need to pass out of, that you need to be delivered from?” Allen asked.

I became lost in thought sitting there at the rabbi’s table in the middle of a couple hundred Jewish strangers. What had me backed into a corner? Where did I feel trapped, enslaved? Was it, despite priding myself on having an open mind, a narrow mind that was keeping me from walking into freedom?

Do my expectations of others and myself keep me stuck in a narrow, confined place? Or is it my pathological need to control things — even transcendent experiences, how I perceive the movement of the Holy, of the Spirit — that keeps me shackled in the chains of my own fear and self-consciousness?

I needed to be delivered from myself. That realization was my Passover miracle.

I didn’t need God to part the Red Sea; I just needed my narrow mind to be opened a crack. What more appropriate place to pass out of my narrow place than in Montana, a true “wider place”?

As I followed along in the haggadah, we came to the part where those gathered remember God’s graciousness in specific blessing in a litany called the “Dayeinu”:

Had God brought us out of Egypt and not divided the sea for us . . .Dayeinu!

Had God divided the sea and not permitted us to cross to dry land . . .Dayeinu!

Had God permitted us to cross the sea on dry land and not sustained us for forty years in the desert . . .Dayeinu!

Had God sustained us for forty years in the desert and not fed us with manna . . .Dayeinu!

Had God fed us with manna and not given us the Sabbath . . .Dayeinu!

Had God led us into the land of Israel and not built for us the temple . . . Dayeinu!

Had God built for us the temple and not sent us prophets of truth . . .Dayeinu!

Had God sent us prophets of truth and not made us a holy people . . .Dayeinu!

“Dayeinu,” Allen explained, means “it’s enough.” In other words, if God had done just one of those things, it would be enough. For me, the crack in my consciousness was enough. … Dayeinu, indeed!

Several days after that first Seder in Bozeman, I attended a Friday night Shabbat ser vice at the Sechers’synagogue.

It was, for me, Good Friday, which is usually the most maudlin, contemplative day of my year. On the Christian calendar it’s the day when we recall the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And it’s usually the day

I spend dwelling on my badness, recalling what a crappy Christian I am and how I don’t deserve (by any stretch of the imagination) having an incarnate God sacrifice himself on the cross in my stead.

What I usually have a hard time remembering on Good Friday is the grace portion of the event. That Jesus died willingly as a grace for me and the rest of the world. That even if I were as perfect as a human being can be — in heart, mind, and body — still I wouldn’t be able to merit such a sacrifice.

And that’s the point. That’s grace.

When it came time to read from the Torah — handwritten scrolls containing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures that are kept in a special ark in every synagogue — something happened I’d never seen or experienced before. The Torah scrolls, which are kept in a blue velvet cover with gold embroidery, were taken down and passed to the congregation. I’d seen men in synagogue hold the scrolls, but I’d never seen them passed this way, from person to person, like the collection basket or the little trays of wine or bread in some of the churches I’d attended over the years.

I’m not Jewish, and in that little gathering of a dozen or so people, I think everyone there knew it. Still, when the scrolls got to me, the woman next to me, without a moment’s hesitation, placed them gently in my arms, like a newborn baby.

I’ve yet to conjure up the words to describe how that moment of inclusion felt. Sacred, yes. Grace-filled, absolutely. But also ancient — tying me to a whole history of a people whom I’d never before thought of as “mine.”

But they are. The Sechers are. The other people at the Bozeman synagogue were. The strangers at the supermarket where we bought matzo and wine were. The people who are reading these words are.

I’ve never felt so alive, before or since. But I’m hopeful that I’ll get there again — a bit closer, perhaps, even now in the retelling of this story.

The Torah portion that Friday night was from Exodus 34, which tells the story of Moses going up the mountain to receive the tablets of the Law — the Ten Commandments — from God. This was the second set, mind you. In a fit of anger brought on by the idolatry and general naughty behavior of the Israelites after God had given him the first set, Moses smashed them. But God beckoned him back to Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses a second set, which seemed to take.

“We’re all great creatures of second chances,” Sech told the congregation. We expend too much energy beating ourselves up for our mistakes, screw-ups, and shortcomings. Fixating on them can lead to “internalized oppression,” he said. “Let it go!”

Deliver yourself from your narrow, sorrowful place, the rabbi urged us, explaining that the word for “sorrow” in Hebrew also means “narrow” and that, seeing as how it was Passover, we might want to think of our spiritual self-imprisonment as something we need to “pass through.”

“Bust out into freedom,” Sech said. “You wanna be free? Work on it!”

Five years later, each time I eat sushi and get a little too much wasabi on my piece of maki — eyes tearing as a fiery heat rushes through my sinuses — I’m reminded of that first taste of maror at the Seder table in Montana. And my eyes brim with water for an entirely different reason, remembering my Passover miracle, passing over, passing through the narrow places and emerging, a free woman in Big Sky.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of four nonfiction books, including the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, where a version of this story first appeared. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl — and follow Rabbi Allen Secher on Twitter @TheNakedRabbi.

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