Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Worshippers Part 4: Visit to Richmond Synagogue

In early September I sent an email to the secretary of Richmond Synagogue requesting permission to attend one of their services.   In response, I was asked a number of questions – where I lived, with whom and for how long as well the reason for my request – for security reasons.   Shortly after sending my answers, the secretary invited me to that Saturday’s Shabbat.   I was told to dress modestly but that a hat wasn’t mandatory.  I was welcomed at the gate, escorted into the synagogue, introduced to Rabbi Cotton and shown to my seat with one of the women leaders.  She helped me follow readings in the Torah and service book (which I believe is called the machzor).  There were around six men and four women in attendance early on in the service.

As Christians, we obviously already know a great deal about Judaism from the Old Testament.  Nevertheless, a Jewish service is something very different from ours: the language, the traditional vestments and the layout of the temple.  It felt as though I was not just in the church of another faith, but in a totally different culture.  Around half-way through the service, the rabbi and elders went to the tabernacle, collected the enormous Torah scrolls and brought them round to the lectern which was located in the centre of the room surrounded by a wooden balustrade.

For next hour or so there was a recitation of scripture – a sort of chanting that was something between singing and speaking.  As the priest read, an elder chimed in on occasion; I was told that the young priest was actually being corrected for his pronunciation, as reciting the vowel-less Hebrew is apparently quite difficult.

During the reading of the Torah, several more women joined our section of the congregation; some accompanying small children and most wearing hats.  They were clearly all friends and settled into the proceedings quickly.  I did notice, to my slight surprise, that during what I assumed to be the holiest part of the ceremony, the ladies were having a bit of a natter.  Not about scripture or exegesis, but it sounded a little bit like gossip.  I found this wonderfully human and unexpected.  And they weren’t shushed or told off.

There is so much that we Christians share with our Jewish cousins, and I found much to admire about their religious devotion, commitment to family & tradition, as well as their cultural courage and fortitude.  I love the bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah milestone – we don’t have anything really like this in either in the Christian faith or British culture.  When a Jewish teenager becomes an adult, it’s much more than a symbolic exercise; it’s the teen telling the world that they are now responsible for their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.  Before that point, it’s the family that's held accountable for the actions and attitudes of the young person.  The Gospel Coalition's Jeremy Pierre put this idea well in a recent blog:

Our early relational experiences - particularly with those entrusted with our care - are incredibly shaping.  That's not a bad thing.  In fact, it's part of God's design for human development.  Through fathers and mothers, children receive a framework for understanding the world and everything in it, from important things like morality to relatively trivial things like clothing styles.  Why else would God be so adamant that parents teach their children the knowledge of him in the context of the everyday activities of life (Deut 6:7, 11:19)?  And alongside the words they speak, parents model the character of God in their affection for, generosity to, and patience with their children (Psalm 103:13).

Adulthood in Judaism is more than financial, work and academic obligations; it’s taking responsibility for the way one lives one’s life.

After the sermon, there was a time for communal prayer which included those for the Israeli Defence Forces and the Royal Family.  I thought it particularly ironic that I was visiting just after the photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas were posted on the internet.  It’s one thing to have the tabloids and public sniggering; quite another to know that thousands of your countrymen and women are actually praying for your well-being. 

There’s so much more I’d like to understand about the Jewish faith, like British Jewish views about Jesus, the various Christian denominations and the situation in the Middle East.  I’d like to know more about the Shekinah and its importance in the word and faith of Jewish believers.  I’d also like to do further research into the history of the Kabbalah movement, what its great appeal is to people who aren’t heirs to the Jewish faith by birth and whether there are any meditative or contemplative practices associated with Jewish spirituality.  I’d welcome any thoughts or experiences from readers on these subjects.

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