Entering the Gate ~ Finding a Common Beauty in the Temple
I can’t honestly say what I expected to find when I drove to the Temple B’nai Tivah building. From past books that I have read, it seemed I understood Jewish synagogues to be rather stark and bare when it came to artistic expression, as it was an effort of their community to not have any “graven image” be upon their walls. That said, what I found in the temple was a rich environment of artistic work and cultural expression!
Moving my way through the hallways I found beautiful paintings and artwork on the walls depicting different storylines from the Torah. One particular painting grabbed my attention with what looked like a tree that was on fire and a man standing next to it. My mind instantly gravitated to the story of Moses and the burning bush while reminding me of the words. “You are standing on Holy Ground!”
There was a smaller kind of foyer room to which I entered that had cheese and wine for those coming to the Friday evening Shabbat. Jenny was quite hospitable and offered to get some wine for my wife and I. We politely declined and moved towards the synagogue itself.
After Jenny gave us a liturgy book and traditional yamakas to place upon our heads in respect, we entered the synagogue. To the far north end was a giant cloth curtain that had patches sown into it depicting a Israeli or middle eastern town of the early centuries. On the south wall, to which the door was, there were rows and rows of liturgy books and Torah’s. The back west wall was a number of plaques and engraved names. It was later when Jenny would explain; family would place the names of loved ones who have since past away on the wall and on the anniversary of there passing, they would have a small light that would come on by their names. On the front eastern wall was a beautifully textured and artistically colored brick wall, meant to be reflective to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Set in the middle of this prayerful wall was what Jenny called “the ark”; a wooden cabinet like structure that had frosted glass doors on it and the Hebrew engravings of the Ten Commandments. I was puzzled why it wouldn’t be the Shema and later questioned the Rabbi about it. There was also an alter set in front of it.
Overhead was a number of giant tent like structures with pictures of the Davidic Star and half moons. Jenny explained they were not so much umbrellas as they were giant yamakas. It was a beautiful setting to worship in!
Shabbat Shirah and the Celebration of the Fruits of the Vine
Much of the liturgy that the evening Shabbat worshiped in was sung as apposed to just recited. It was absolutely enchanting to listen to the Hebrew chorus as I followed along in the liturgy. They would have the Hebrew written on each page, starting from the back cover and moving towards the front. Beside the Hebrew though, would be the pronunciation of the Hebrew as well as the English translation. It reminded me much of my Anglican upbringing.
At the end of the evening service, they passed around a number of cups with grape juice in them (I suppose the wine from earlier ran out! – Where is Jesus when you need him?! ;) ). They gave a blessing and we all drank them. Jenny would explain that the significance was in the gratitude of the good fruits we receive from the vine. They closed the service in a communal blessing as everyone joined hands and we recited the Hebrew chorus.
As I had learned earlier in the week, I was eager to return in the Saturday morning so as to hear the Torah reading with the Rabbi’s “Interpretation” of the text. The Shabbat was much the same but, as they brought the Torah out, I was amazed how they paraded it around the synagogue and after everyone (including me as the old man carrying it instructed) had touched the “dressings” of the scroll and kissed their hands, they returned it to the front where they ceremonially undressed the scroll and placed it on the alter.
This Shabbat’s reading came from Exodus 15 and focused on the Israelites complaining in the dessert for the lack of water. Following in the Torah that was given to me (written in Hebrew with the pronunciation and English on the sides of the page), they would afterwards all sit and to my excitement, the Rabbi lead a time of discussion around the text.
With questions of redemption, the forgetfulness of God’s past miracles, and human self-responsibility, it was extremely difficult to keep myself composed and not interject. Out of respect, I chose to remain silent. Reflecting back, I think of the silence Jesus gave before his accusers. Still, I was enthralled as this was reflective to the same experiences I practiced in leading our House Church through scriptural discipleship!
Similar to the Friday evening Shabbat, the service would close with a loaf of bread being passed around and torn from. A blessing for the fruits of the vine was given and we took part in eating the bread.
Conversations with the Rabbi and a Divine Appointment with the Torah Essays
The conversations my wife and I had with the congregation on the Friday evening was very hospitable. Jenny and others were more then helpful, friendly, and open to questioning. I knew how nervous my wife Bonnie was however, and so I chose not to prod too much.
Following the morning Shabbat, I decided to be a little more inquisitive in my conversations. I learned a great deal from Jenny and the others, including the reasons for remembering the dead, the beliefs around “no resurrection” and after life (I’m imagining a remaining mark from the Pharisees), and a little around Jewish hermeneutics even! I didn’t get completely bold until I spoke with the Rabbi.
Meeting the Rabbi, I think it is important to point out that the Rabbi was a woman. As Reformed Jews, she explained some of the history to the first female Bar mitzvah in the 1940’s to the recent acceptance of woman as Rabbi’s in the Reformed temples. Still, there is few of them.
There is many other points I could discuss in our conversation however, I think I’d like to just point out the dialogue we had on Jesus. By this point I figured the worst that would happen is they would throw me out so, I asked the Rabbi, with the morning’s conversation centering on the miracles God performed in the Exodus, how do they recognize the identity of Jesus considering the miracles he had done? (Now you know why my wife elbows me in the side when I start getting anxious in such gatherings and says to me “Shut Up!!” ;) ) Her reply was I quote, “Ah yes, Jesus the good little Jewish boy.” I think she said it that way to see if she could get a reaction out of me because she paused for a moment afterwards and just looked at me.
After a moment she openly discussed the viewpoint that Christianity was a religion that was created by people who wanted to follow a Messiah of their own beliefs and they used Jesus for this but, Jesus himself never wanted to create a religion. She also pointed out that it has only been in recent years that this question would even be discussed and in the older congregants of the temple, this would not even be open for discussion. I respectfully thanked her and left the temple.
I would be remised not to mention something I see as a divine appointment that occurred in the Saturday morning Shabbat. Arriving early, I decided to look through the Torah while sitting in the synagogue. Flipping it open I found a number of “essays” that were interspaced into the text. They were somewhat of a commentary to the writings. Anyways, it was only in a few page uncalculated page flips that I landed on an essay titled ‘The Muslim Traditions’. While the title being in the Jewish Torah was enough to grab my attention, it was the beginning of the essay that truly intrigued me. It started by giving a commentary to the life of Paul and how out of a disillusion with the Jews being able to fulfill the law, he created Christianity out of a Jewish interpretation of grace!
It would go on to discuss Mohammad and the rise of Islam but this belief in Paul starting Christianity completely perplexed me. I did ask the Rabbi about it in the form of “Why not Matthew, John, or even Peter?”; and she squeamishly admitted she did not know about this essay and avoided the conversation. Still, I am amazed by God’s leading to this understanding of the Reformed Jews and perplexed at the same time by the justification of such an interpretation.
Conclusion ~ Revelations to All Authority and Power Given Unto the Messiah
This was truly an amazing experience and a beautiful weekend of worship to our awesome and powerful… Adonai!! With a rich and articulate culture, I recognize a deeply spiritual people in the Reformed Judeo community of the Temple B’nai Tikvah.
At the same time, I cannot help but see and recognize the deeply imprinted markers of Jesus being the Messiah to which they seek. From the liturgy singing of redemptions work and the crying of Isaiah in the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, and the captives being set free; truly the Messiah has come!! In the conversations of the Torah in seeking “living water” and the miracles of past that point to a trusted future founded in the resurrection of Christ!! And perhaps in the greatest of emphasis, the communal blessings of the provided good fruits of the vine, I see the body broken before me and the blood poured out for the many… in the forgiveness of sin!! Praise Adonai!!
Jesus stood, resurrected from the dead, tall before his disciples and said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Matt. 28:18) Truly I witnessed this in the community of Temple B’nai Tikvah! May they be blessed by the revelation of his authority as Adonai brings them sight. May they be blessed by the present touch and holy kiss of the Word made flesh as Adonai brings them its hearing. And may they eternally experience the goodness of the fruits of the Spirit as Adonai dwells amidst them.