I was delighted when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122, NKJV)
And so I was. Last week, I was in New York City enjoying a mini-reunion with a couple of people who had attended Rice University the same time as I. My hostess, a Jewish woman, and hearing that I was visiting varied worship services, said, “Do you want to go to shul with me tonight?”
I immediately accepted, so at a few minutes before 6 pm that night, found myself hearing “Shabbat shalom (peaceful Sabbath)” multiple times at the Rodelph Sholom Temple, a Reform congregation on the upper west side of Manhattan.
After a quick check of my bag by security guards, I introduced myself to a greeter and indicated I would be writing about the service. Her face lit up and she told me how much she liked being a part of this congregation, finding people warm, friendly and welcoming.
I noted a large sign indicating that tickets could be picked up. These are necessary only for the two very large services that take place this time of the year. The first is Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year (Sept 24-26 of this year). The second is Yom Kippur (Oct 3-4 this year), ten days later, also known as the Day of Atonement. On those high attendance nights, only members of the Temple could be admitted, and only if they had pre-purchased tickets. Temple membership does include a yearly fee per family, but those fees are subsidized if necessary.
We were attending the first Sabbath service of this Jewish New Year, after the initial celebration two days before. The main theme of this time revolves around the return to God. All of us tend to wander and all need to return to the center in the heart of God. Because of that, the message for the night would be delivered by two members of the congregation and their own stories of return.
But before the message came a wonderful mixture of music, Scripture and prayer. This time is led entirely by the Cantors, in this case, two women with superb voices.
We had been handed a hard-bound prayer book/hymnal as we entered, and my friend reminded me that the book would be read as one does Hebrew, right to left. So, what is the back page to most is the first page here. Because I had studied Hebrew extensively a number of years ago, all this made sense. As we worked through the service, the Rabbi called out for us the page numbers so we could follow the Cantors and sing along.
The service began with the lighting of the candles, after which this blessing is sung.
Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.
I participated, also reading the translations of prayers and songs full of gratefulness to God and for the privilege of the Sabbath. The joyful music filled the sanctuary, with seating capacity for about 800 and perhaps 250 in worship that night.
Four Rabbis comprise the clergy staff, two women and two men. An associate Rabbi introduced the first speaker who told us the moving story of her conversion to Judaism. She had been raised Roman Catholic, married a Jewish man and reared her children in Judaism. Now, fifteen years later and after much study, prayer and soul-wrestling, she heard God calling her to return on this New Years Celebration.
The senior Rabbi introduced the next speaker who held us entranced as he movingly recounted his entrance just over a year ago into the world of the very ill with an aggressive form of leukemia, and his return to health by the power of faith, excellent medicine and a loving and supportive family.
These speakers and their families gathered on the bimeh (raised platform similar to a chancel) to celebrate and for the moment when the Ark is opened and the Torah scrolls revealed. All stand in honor of God’s holy word.
The final portion of the service is the Mourner’s Kaddish, before which a long list of names is read of those who were a part of this congregation and have now died. That prayer reads:
Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.
Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.
Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing,
praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,
to which we say Amen.
May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.
To which we say Amen.
A final “Shabbat Shalom.” The congregation, full of joy and celebration, were dismissed to the “nosh,” or small snack to fuel the Sabbath evening conversation.
[Note: this article ran in the Oct. 3 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]
I walk away from this service with two main thoughts. One, how much we have lost in our disregard of the Sabbath. Two, how similar Reform Judaism is to Progressive Christianity.
On our disregard of the Sabbath: During this service, essentially a celebration of this day of rest both enjoyed by God and given to humanity to be enjoyed, I became aware that Jesus himself would have been doing something along this line every Friday evening. He would have gathered with his family and friends and have sung and prayed and heard the Scriptures read and welcomed with joy the day of rest. It’s a glue for the community; for the family. It’s a recognition that the people of God are indeed set apart to live in awed awareness of the Holy One who calls us into times of renewing the covenant.
We have thoroughly lost it. Christianity in general lost it by disregarding (unhealthily I believe) its Jewish roots and identity. And modern Christianity in particular has lost it by a continued move toward convenience in worship and in consumer-oriented church-growth techniques. Sabbath observance is anything but convenient. It is a profound expression of love and covenantal promises.
But the second factor, the similarity of Reform Judaism is to progressive Christianity, stood out even clearer. Here’s a statement from Rodelph Shomom’s website about the congregation:
Rodeph Sholom is a wonderful congregation, embodying a strong commitment to purposeful Jewish living and the pursuit of human dignity. Our congregation is a true community, excelling in meaningful worship, educational opportunities for all ages, social and tzedakah programs. We strive to be an extended family of people who care about each other and our community.
And here’s a statement about Reform Judaism in general: The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.
And there we have it. Within Reform Judaism, women and men have equal roles, the GLBTQI community is fully accepted, and they seek to work for a more just society. Again, from their website: To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam; to strive to improve the world in which we live; to be God’s partners in standing up for the voiceless and fixing what is broken in our society.
“Tikkun olam,” which translates essentially as “repairing the world,” is a beautiful phrase that also characterizes much of Progressive Christianity, and certainly has characterized the social justice message that has always informed the Wesleyan movement.
If you want to know more about the Jewish understanding of this phrase, this link is useful. Be sure and read all three responses, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. If you do, you will also hear echos of the Christian conservative-progressive tension.
What we are experiencing in The United Methodist Church has been also experienced for centuries in the Jewish world. They have re-organized themselves into three main bodies. We, as Christians, have split into hundreds, if not thousands. And if the UMC does indeed split over our current tensions, we will not end up with two different Methodist traditions, but will probably end up shattering into nothingness. That’s what human nature, so sure of its own righteousness and general unwillingness to acknowledge the equal surety of another’s righteousness, does.
I am in the middle of reading “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt. I’m finding this a compelling read as he skillfully explains how we develop our internal moral codes and why essentially good people do end up on the opposite side of key issues. It is a book that really ought to be required reading for every person preparing to attend the 2016 General Conference of the UMC, and anyone else who is engaged in deep conflict with others over issues of morality and justice. Both “sides” are right. Even so, we can go into the future looking at the higher calling of unity, found in our corporate need for grace.
May the peace of the Sabbath be with us all.