When my daughter was younger I bought her hundreds of books. The vast majority were forgettable tripe tied in to product lines like “Thomas the Tank Engine”, “Dora the Explorer” and “Caillou”. Almost all of those early books are long gone, having been donated or discarded without a second thought. But a precious few were treasures which have remained and now share shelf space with the likes of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. One of my favorites with its combination of beautiful art, mature themes and winsome story-telling is Sheldon Oberman’s The Always Prayer Shawl.
What most intrigues me about The Always Prayer Shawl is its sophisticated treatment of what constitutes a living, breathing religious tradition. As a body of faith is passed on, whether that faith is Judaism, Christianity, or contemporary naturalism, it changes in terms of doctrine and practice. The prayer shawl that is passed on changes as well. Indeed, like the planks of Theseus’ Ship, eventually every thread changes. And yet somehow it remains the same shawl. What is it that makes the shawl the same? And what is it that unifies Judaism (or Christianity) across the centuries? What has Moses to do with Maimonides (or Jonathan Sacks)? What has Jesus to do with John Calvin (or Peter Akinola, or Mother Teresa, or Alice Cooper)?
The question of essentialism — what is it that essentially constitutes something — is difficult enough when you are talking about a relatively simple natural kind like “human” or “mammal”. So how complex things can get when we’re talking about a living tradition hundreds or thousands of years old.
For this reason I end my Church History classes at seminary with a discussion of The Always Prayer Shawl for each of us must address anew what it means to appropriate and then pass on our tradition going into the future. The Always Prayer Shawl doesn’t answer with the analytic precision of a philosopher, theologian or historiographer, but with unforgettable watercolors and lilting, sentimental but yet profound prose. I’ve included the entire text below. To get the beautiful images which accompany the text you’ll have to track down your own copy of the book which is now out of print as ever more bookstore shelf space is claimed by the various Nickelodeon product lines:
Adam was a Jewish boy in Russia many years ago. When Adam went for eggs, he did not get them from a store. He got them from a chicken.
When Adam felt cold, he did not turn a dial for heat. He chopped wood for a fire. When Adam went to town, he did not ride in a car. He rode in a wagon pulled by a horse.
Adam did not go to a big school. He went to his grandfather’s house. There is grandfather taught all the children the stories of their people and how to read and write in Hebrew. All this was special to Adam, but most special of all was Adam’s name.
One day Adam asked his grandfather, “Why is my name Adam?” His grandfather rubbed his beard and smiled. He took Adam to the synagogue, and they sat by the window. Adam shut his eyes and felt the warm sun shining on his face. Then his grandfather answered, “You are named after my grandfather whose name was Adam. He was named after his grandfather’s grandfather whose name was Adam. That way there will always be an Adam.”
Adam laughed and whispered into his grandfather’s ear. “I am always Adam. That won’t change!” “Aha!” said his grandfather. “Some things change. And some things don’t.”
Then many things began to change. There was trouble in Russia. There was not enough food. People were hungry. Soldiers were fighting everywhere. Everyone was afraid.
Adam’s parents said, “We must leave our home and go to a better place. It is so far away that we can never come back.” Adam’s grandfather said, “You must go without me. I am too old to change anymore.” Adam cried, I don’t want to leave you, Grandfather!” I will never see you again!”
Adam’s grandfather kissed him for the last time. He held out his prayer shawl and he said, “My grandfather gave me this prayer shawl. Now I am giving it to you.” Adam held it tightly against his chest. He could hardly speak for his tears, so he whispered, “I am always Adam and this is my always prayer shawl. That won’t change.”
Off they went. Adam and his family traveled for weeks. They came to a town by the sea and boarded a ship and sailed for weeks.
They came to a new country where everyone spoke a different language and wore different clothes. Things changed even more. They moved into a small apartment in a big city. Adam’s parents went to work in a factory. Adam went to school and learned English, science, and history. Everything felt different except for the prayer shawl. Every Saturday Adam put on the prayer shawl and he said, “I am always Adam and this is my Always Prayer Shawl. That won’t change.”
Other things kept changing. Adam grew up and he married. He worked in a store from morning until night. Still, every Saturday Adam put on his prayer shawl. Finally, the fringes wore out. So he tied on new ones.
Then Adam had children. He moved to a house at the edge of the city. He drove back each day to work in an office. Still, every Saturday Adam put on his prayer shawl. Finally, the collar wore out. So he sewed on a new one.
Then Adam’s children grew up. They moved out. They married and had children of their own. Adam and his wife grew very old, and they went to live in a home with other old people. Still, every Saturday Adam put on his prayer shawl. Finally, the cloth wore out. So he sewed on a new one.
One day Adam’s grandson came to visit. “Grandfather,” the grandson asked, “Were you ever a kid like me?” Adam rubbed his beard and smiled. He said, “I was like you and I was not like you. I got eggs from a chicken, not from a store. I chopped wood for heat, I did not turn a dial. I rode in a wagon pulled by a horse, and not in a car. And I didn’t go to a big school. I went to a little house where my grandfather taught me many things.”
The grandson asked, “What did he teach you?” Adam took out his prayer shawl. He said, “Put this on. Maybe I can teach you something that he taught me.” Adam’s grandson put on the prayer shawl.
They went to the synagogue, and they sat by the window. They shut their eyes and felt the warm sun shining on their faces.
Adam said, “This prayer shawl belonged to my grandfather. Before that, it belonged to his grandfather whose name was also Adam. Now it is mine. And someday I will give it to you. It has changed many times. The fringes changed. The collar changed. The cloth changed. Everything about it has changed. But it is still my Always Prayer Shawl. It is just like me. I have changed and changed and changed and changed. But I am still Adam.”
Adam’s grandson whispered into his ear. “I am going to be just like you. I will have a grandson whose name will be Adam. And someday I will give him this Always Prayer Shawl.” “Aha!” said Adam. “Now I can teach you something that my grandfather taught me. He taught me that some things change and some things don’t.”