From time to time, our synagogue hosts visiting church groups who want to learn about Judaism. Sometimes they come during the week and take a tour of the shul and look at items in our Judaica museum. Often we take out the Torah so that they can see the form of the scroll. We tell them about the services and the way a scroll is written, and about how we chant the weekly or special portions.
Sometimes they come on Shabbat, wanting to experience the actual worship service. Since our service is in Hebrew, we have devised a way they can participate in part of the morning service, including the Torah reading, and then go with a congregant to get further explanation and ask questions. Then they join the congregation for the rabbi’s teaching before the kiddush, which they are invited to share with us.
Recently, a Danish Lutheran church group arranged for a Shabbat visit. They came wanting answers to three questions. The questions were well chosen. They caused us to consider our own beliefs and practices in light of how we explain them to non-Jews who are deeply committed to their own faith.
The questions they wanted discussed were: how does Judaism affect daily life; how do we celebrate Shabbat; and what makes something holy (or not)?
The group attended our Shabbat morning service, coincidentally on the Shabbat of Chanukah. Thus they got a forceful impression of the service,≠one that included Hallel, which, although in Hebrew, they did enjoy – of course the liberal use of the word “hallelujah” gave them some idea of what was going on. They remained in the service for part of the Torah reading, which continued the Joseph saga – a familiar story to all – and then adjourned for a discussion of the issues that their questions had raised.
Shabbat rules are simple to explain in theory – the minutiae were left as an exercise, as we used to say, to the reader. It seemed more important to stress Shabbat as a time for reflection, for concentration on study and prayer.
But how does Judaism affect daily life? Where to begin? We gave them examples taken from a variety of commandments – after explaining that a “mitzvah” is not merely a good deed done when the spirit moves, but something incumbent on us whether it’s convenient or not.
We stressed that in Judaism there is no firm boundary between the daily and the sacred. For example, one should not open a business close to a similar one if it will detract from the original business. One must give charity, the highest standard being the act of freeing the recipient from the need to accept charity. In other words, don’t hand out fish – teach the person how to catch a fish.
We talked about speech, and the critical importance attached to words and how they can destroy or create. They learned the form of a brachah whereby we imply that God is present in the act we are about to perform.
But the hardest part was defining what, in Judaism, is, or makes, something holy. Christianity has sacraments that invest human acts with sanctity – marriage, baptism, communion. We have no such sacramental tradition. So how to explain our approach to the transcendent?
Martin Buber taught that in Judaism the division is between the holy and the not-yet-holy. Everything can be holy if its potential for holiness is realized. Our role is to bring God into the world, to make the ordinary become holy through our actions.
Thus it is not through a particular sacrament that holiness enters the world, but through the actions of humankind. And, unfortunately, what mankind defiles through action or through word takes holiness out of the world.
For centuries, Christianity saw Judaism as a barren, rule-bound, law-encumbered religion inferior to the New Covenant of love. It is my hope that this brief encounter with us as a living people taught the visiting church group that Judaism is a vital religion of word and deed, and that both Jew and Christian have beliefs that, translated into action, can repair the broken world we live in, and make the not-yet-holy a place of sanctity for all.