My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Catholics hear a lot about how the Jewish people are their “elder brothers in the faith.” Other than reading the Old Testament aloud every Sunday, however, you aren’t given a lot of backup for this statement. Some similarities in worship are obvious but a lot of the Jewish faith remains a mystery.
That’s why I was so interested in Stephen Binz’s book The Feasts of Judaism. I trust Binz because of his excellent Catholic Bible studies (Advent, Easter, Lectio Divina) and felt I could trust him to help me make a connection between my faith and that of my “elder brothers and sisters.” That trust was well placed. This is a terrific book.
It covers familiar feasts and some that I’d never heard of:
• Rosh Hashanah
• Yom Kippur
• the Ninth of Ov
• the Sabbath
• Jubilee Year
There are six lessons for each feast, which contain scripture, commentary/explanation, questions for reflection, and prayers. It is designed for either group or solo use. I really loved the way that Binz orients readers with the scriptural basis (and includes the scriptural text in each lesson), shows how the feast came to the ancient Jews, how it is celebrated by modern Jews, and how it relates to our Christian faith.
For example, here is a brief look at how the feast of Booths, Sukkot, would have been experienced by Jesus.
In the days of Jesus, Sukkot remained a joyful pilgrimage festival. Pilgrims came from throughout the land and from every Jewish community in the world. They came in colorful caravans–traveling by chariot, donkey, camel, and on foot–up to Jerusalem. Once in the city, festive with garlands of olive, palm, and willow branches, and fragrant with flowers, they participated in the colorful religious processions, waving the lulav, singing Hoshanah to God and feasting in the booths erected in every part of the city. Jesus traveled privately to the feast of Booths because of the confusion and division created by his preaching.
Binz goes on to explain that Sukkot rituals of light and water symbolized not only Israel’s past but the future days of the Messiah. He finishes drawing the picture by connecting the dots so that Christians understand how this Jewish festival had meaning not only for Christ as an observant Jew, but for God’s plan and for Christians.
On the final day of the feast, Jesus declared that he is the font of living water, the source of water for all people who thirst for God’s Spirit (8:37-390. He also announced, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12). Within the context of the autumn feast in which the temple became the light of Jerusalem, Jesus declared himself as the fire lighting the way for all people. With these words of Jesus, John’s gospel proclaims that he is the fulfillment of the hopes expressed in the rituals of this great feast. Jesus is God’s new temple, brightening the whole world with its light, from which flows the water of life for all thirsty pilgrims.
I especially loved the way that, although the book is written for Christians, Binz keeps the Jewish people’s faith first and foremost. These are lessons that not only define them as a people, but help all of us in reading Scripture and understanding our faith better. Here’s a bit from the Passover lessons:
For the Jewish people and all who share in their heritage, Egypt is not a place that was left only once; it is a place to be left continually. Egypt represents not only physical or political bondage, but personal and spiritual imprisonment as well. To celebrate Passover is to be freed from internal confinement, narrow mindedness, and apathetic hopelessness. it is a liberation that has not fully happened yet, but that is always happening whenever people enter into the event.
Perhaps most telling in how Binz communicates the Jewish faith and culture as it relates to these feasts, is his defense of Hanukkah. This is long, but worth every syllable.
It is ironic that the feast that celebrates Judaism’s religious freedom and unique identity is the one that has been most absorbed into the dominant culture of the majority. As a minor feast in Judaism’s annual cycle of holidays, Hanukkah can’t hold a candle to Christmas. So as not to let their children feel deprived, many Jews have introduced gift-giving and other Christmas customs into their celebration of Hanukkah. But those Jewish parents who are most perceptive gather their children around the radiant Hanukkah and tell them their courageous history, about a rich tradition that could have flickered and gone out centuries ago but still continues to burn. While the mass marketers expand the purchasing month of December and try to inflate Hanukkah as the Jewish alternative to Christmas, the wise parents tell their children, “We’re Jewish–we have Hanukkah, Passover, Shauvuot, Sukkot, Simchat torah, Purim, and more importantly, Shabbat every week.” Children who have experienced the building of a sukkah will not feel disadvantaged when they don’t decorate a Christmas tree. Those who have shared a Passover Seder will not feel deprived of a Christmas dinner. When children have given and received gifts on Purim, paraded with the holy scrolls on Simchat Torah, brought first fruits at Shavuot, and welcomed the Sabbath each week with candles and good food, they will know that to be Jewish means having a calendar full of joyful celebrations. Those same children will soon understand that if their ancestors had not stood firm and Antiochus IV had succeeded in obliterating Judaism, there would be no Christmas at all. Without the victory of Hanukkah, Christians would not be able to sing, “born is the king of Israel.”
This book is not just for Catholics and, if I may go out on a limb here, not just for Christians. Yes the Christian element is there, with Catholic emphasis, but it is minor compared to the focus on Judaism. It is for anyone who is interested in better understanding Judaism through the feasts that are such a rich and vital part of the faith and culture.