Saturday, June 06, 2009

Shabbat Shalom! A First Experience with Judaism

Several years ago, A. and I completed a four-year program administered by the University of the South at Sewanee (Tennessee) entitled Education for Ministry (EFM). This program - which has been in existence for a number of years, since I can recall my father taking the course when I was a child - is designed to give members of the Episcopal Church a stronger knowledge of church history and theology, and to give them the tools to become more effective lay leaders within their congregations.

As important as it is to know about the development of one's own denomination and the history of their faith traditions, I think it's equally important to learn as much as you can about the development of other faiths - of Judaism and Islam and Buddhism, among many others. Just as learning what the other side of the political spectrum believes in order to make yourself better informed on the issues, I think that you make yourself a stronger and more effective Christian and citizen when you take the time to learn and experience what others believe. So for my own personal enrichment and for the benefit of my family, that's what I've decided to do.

Last night, A. and I attended our very first service with a Jewish congregation (MB was originally going to go with us, but at the last minute decided that it was more important for her to spend time with her grandparents than with us), and it was a magnificent event. I had emailed the rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom here in Northern Virginia to inquire whether they would allow us to visit (I'm the sort of person who believes that you don't just show up somewhere without first asking if it's acceptable, particularly when visiting a different faith tradition; I like to be respectful of their practices and not just be the one "crashing the party"). Not only did we receive a positive response, but within a very few minutes of her return note I had gotten an email from a member of the congregation who graciously offered to meet us, give us a tour, and sit with and guide us through the service.

Our visit was in some ways a bookend of having watched Elie Wiesel's remarks at Buchenwald, moving from the solemnity of his visit to the joy of the family Shabbat service (which our host referred to as the "Shabbat Rocks" service, because of the upbeat music and band there, and the dancing which the kids and some adults did during the service). Before the service, we were given the privilege of looking at one of the congregation's Torah scrolls which is actually going to be used for the bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremony this weekend for some of the young people in the congregation. The scroll had been copied by hand from a previous scroll (something which I had read once is a way of passing the Torah from one generation to the next), and in fact there are certain instances when each member of the congregation is given the opportunity to contribute one letter to a new scroll as it is being copied. I can't really explain the emotion I felt as A. and I helped him remove the crowns and the covering from the scroll before he unrolled it; while I know the Bible is representative of my tradition as a Christian, I often make the mistake of viewing it in the context of its form as a book - with the Torah scroll, I felt as if what I was watching was in fact our host unrolling and opening the centuries of Jewish history before us.

Before sitting to chat for a few minutes, we were invited to go with him as he placed the Torah back into the ark of the covenant in the sanctuary, which is illuminated by a light which is never turned off - representative of the oil lamp in the original Temple in Jerusalem which was never extinguished. We then had an opportunity to talk for a bit before the service began - about some of what we would see in the service, a bit of the history of the congregation, and about the children who were about to be recognized and accepted as adults in their faith after their mitzvahs. He had mentioned that the recitation from the Torah was a very big event for these young men and women and that there are generally a lot of nerves - with them, hoping they do a good job, and for their parents, who view this as a tremendous source of pride for them.

As he was talking, I thought about my confirmation when I was 13 - a very different event, but really the only comparison that I could think of from my Episcopal background. I then began to wonder if these children felt any sort of pressure for what was about to happen in their lives. Let me explain - when I was confirmed, I knew it was a big deal, but I viewed really as a rite of passage where we were finally considered members of the congregation; nothing else really came to mind - no thought of the history of the church or anything along those lines. With bar- and bat-mitzvahs, however, these 13-year-old boys and girls are not only becoming adults, but they are inheriting the entire history of their people and will begin to shoulder the burden of that history, both the good and the tragedy. I asked if the kids understood the enormity of what they were about to take upon themselves, aside from being viewed as adults, and he replied simply, "Oh, yes."

The service was very good and alternated between joyous and solemn. Officially, it is know as the Kabbalat Shabbat, the service which is the time of welcoming the Sabbath. There was magnificent music, a great deal of participation from the congregation, and a point where every child in the room - and some of the adults - joined hands and danced their way among the aisles and past the ark (which A. and I thought MB would have absolutely loved had she been there). There was a pretty even mix between sung and spoken prayers, and thankfully - in addition to translations of each in English - there were spelled out pronunciations of the Hebrew so that we could try (as best we could) to sing and speak along with them.

Two of my favorites were one of the opening songs and the one sung at the end of the service, the words of which (in order) were:

Hallelu...Kok han'shama, t'haleil yah, halelu, haleluya! (Loosely translated, this means, "The breath of every living thing praises God," and comes from Psalm 150.)

Mi shebeirach imoteinu, m'kor hab'racha l'avoteinu. Bless those in need of healing with r'fua sh'leima, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit and let us say: Amen.

One of the latter parts of the service was the very moving saying of the Kaddish in memory of all those who have died, whether it be in recent weeks or within the past year. The rabbi asks that everyone sit silently as the names of those individuals are read out loud, and as each name is read the family members of those men and women stand in silence. Others in the congregation are then given the opportunity to stand and offer the names of loved ones who have died. At the end, the entire congregation joins in a show of support for all of these family members by saying the prayer (the text of which I don't have in front of me, but an example of which can be heard here). I've often read of people saying the Kaddish for their loved ones, but it's very powerful to actually hear it being done.

The service ended and we were invited to join them at their reception before heading home. We didn't stay long, just enough time to thank the rabbi once again for allowing us to attend and to talk to our host a bit more (who was very kind and said we were welcome to visit at any time). I had hoped to have an opportunity to talk with one gentleman in particular, the Temple's founding rabbi and a survivor of Auschwitz, but it never worked out (I certainly hope to have a chance to do so in the future).

Much is made of the fact that the world's three great religions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - are all descended from Abraham. To truly understand the root of your faith, no matter which denomination or religion it may be, it would be well worth your time to try and make a visit similar to that A. and I made to Temple Rodef Shalom; you'll be moved, you'll be inspired, and you'll get a glimpse of what lies at the very heart of where we are today.


julieunplugged said...

What a detailed account! Sounds wonderful. I've been to many services, but never in a reformed temple. I love the "Shabbat Rocks." Cracked me up. Like Vineyard or something.

This prayer moved me: Mi shebeirach imoteinu, m'kor hab'racha l'avoteinu. Bless those in need of healing with r'fua sh'leima, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit and let us say: Amen.

And I love the reflections you had on the scroll. It changes the "OT" to the Hebrew Bible for me. I think we forget that we are borrowing their Scriptures into our tradition.

Very cool Matt.

Nancy said...

I loved reading this, Matt. Thanks for sharing your Shabbat experience.

A Methodist in my family of origin, I "joined church" at the age of confirmation and had absolutely no real understanding of having become an adult member of the congregation. I like to think my kids, as Lutherans who went through two years of confirmation class and then went on to accept some responsibilities in the church, had a better understanding.

I really liked your post. And I gotta tell you that I ALWAYS turn off your music. As nice as it is, I can't read your blog and listen to it at the same time!

NoVA Dad said...

Julie: I think a lot of people forget that the Old Testament is in fact a collection of Jewish writings; in fact, I think folks sometimes forget that Jesus was Jewish. The whole service was remarkable; I'd like to go back when they're doing a more traditional form of worship, and perhaps even explore the difference between the reform, orthodox, conservative, and reconstructionist styles of Judaism.

Nancy: I had the same thought with regard to my own confirmation. I hope my two daughters, when they become of age, will by then have been given a better understanding of what it means to be a confirmed member of the church (and have a good grasp of where the Anglican church comes from). And I, too, had gotten tired of the music; I liked it but got tired of muting it every time I went to the blog. For the time being, I've copied the code and saved it in a Word document - perhaps one day I'll pull it back out:-)

julieunplugged said...

Hey me too on the music. Not a fan of music on blogs. :)

Kansas Bob said...

Very nice retelling Matt.. loved the details.. and "Shabbat Rocks".. that was very revealing.. never think of a Jewish congregation rocking it out :)

Like you I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church (All Saints in NYC) and, looking back, wish that I had a better appreciation of the Episcopal/Anglican heritage. In NYC I always felt like I belonged to a lesser form of Catholicism.

Again, great and informative Matt.. well done!

rdl said...

very nice account. watching my son learn his torah portion and listenting to him recite it as well as his speech was a very moving moment in time for me.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

I came here via Cheek of God. Great post. I am a firm believer in learning about the faith of others--you've got to give respect to earn it in return. Glad to see another NoVa blogger, btw. Your handle is what attracted my attention. I'll def be back for more.