Just a couple weeks ago, on the evening of Yom Kippur, I took my usual seat at the Synagogue.

I haven’t missed the Kol Nidre service in eighteen years. I’m expected there, as the pastor of Old First Church—not least to maintain the special bond between our two congregations—and I wear my collar. Of course, Congregation Beth Elohim, with over a thousand families, is many times larger than my church, and yet we are treated as equals and esteemed as more than friends. We have deep spiritual community.

I come by my love of Judaism naturally. I learned it in my family. The first time I was ever in a synagogue, fifty-five years ago, my dad was up front, speaking, because he had brought his church members there to join the Jews of Rochelle Park in their Friday evening service. It was a big deal at the time.

My mother’s cousin, in the Netherlands, was recognized by Israel as a “Righteous Gentile” for hiding Jews in church buildings during the War. Plus, my mother’s father had emigrated from a heavily Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam. I can remember him taking us to the wagon-market down in Brownsville when he lived with us in Brooklyn. We’re Dutch Calvinists: we’re supposed to love the Jews.

Kol Nidre

The Kol Nidre service is regarded as the holiest of all the year, the evening of the Day of the Atonement. All of Israel confess their sins, beating their breasts, and follow that with fasting.

Kol Nidre means “all vows,” and the service opens, at least in this Reform synagogue, with Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre performed by solo cello, followed by the Cantor singing it, a capella, followed by him singing it again with choral responses and the congregation joining in. This cantor has a magnificent voice, and when he sings it solo it is sacramental. It’s the emotional high point of the liturgy, even so early in the service.

A Christian can pray every prayer in the Jewish liturgy without any hesitation. (And I do.) That’s not true for Jews at a Christian service. The phrases “in Jesus’s name” and “for Jesus’s sake” and “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are stumbling-blocks for them. (Remarkably, there is nothing in the Lord’s Prayer to stop a Jew from saying it, apart from its association with Jesus, and the same is true of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. And a Jew could sing the Sanctus and Benedictus without hesitation.) But there is not one word of the Kol Nidre liturgy that I need skip around. I’ve learned the music over eighteen years, and I sing along and really do pray along. I’m not just a visitor. I’m a fellow worshipper.

I’m not a stranger here. I’m expected. It takes me a while to get to my seat, I have so many people to greet, with lots of hugs and kisses. The Rabbi comes up to embrace me, as do the Cantor and the Rabbi Emeritus.

I sit down front in the reserve section, always next to Lyn, a former synagogue president. I am greeted by all the former presidents seated around me, and by Senator Schumer, who sits two rows in front of me. (He’s a devout worshipper, and he knows the liturgy and prays it with conviction.)

The place is packed, maybe 1400 people. Folding chairs are set up, even though you have to have a ticket to get in and pay to be a member. I joke that the best part of being a Christian is a free seat on High Holy Days.

The sanctuary is noisier than a traditional Christian church, both before the service and during it. People converse with each other during the liturgy, and not in whispers. (My grandmother called it a “joodse kerk” whenever people were noisy in church.) People move about the sanctuary more freely than Calvinists do. The liturgy begins without announcement within the clamor of conversations, as people gradually notice that the cantor has begun the first congregational song. Eventually we’re all in.

Jews pray more in worship than most Christians do. The service is mostly prayer, except for the rabbi’s sermon and the president’s annual appeal and his thank-you’s at the end (always including his welcoming me personally from the pulpit).

Still, the shape of their liturgy remains opaque to me. Even after eighteen years it feels like one-thing-after-another, like a bald Protestant service. Classic Christian liturgy of Word and Sacrament has a dramatic shape that tells The Story. Yet it is a wonderful to sing as prayers those quotations from the Torah that we treat as proof-texts: the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 and God’s proclamation of God’s Name to Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 34—a particularly holy and very moving moment in the service. I also love the alphabetical confession of sins, in both Hebrew and English. And I can sing with gusto the Avinu Malcheinu and the Yigdal. But I can’t keep up with the high speed recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, except to slide in on the Oseh Shalom.

Reformed among the Reform

I recognize that the worship of a Reform congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn is hardly representative of world Jewry. The influence of Christianity is apparent in even their use of the word “liturgy.” Fifty years ago the rabbi wore a pulpit robe, their bar mitzvah class was called “confirmation,” and the music was that of nineteenth century Germany.

More recently the Reform movement has shown a reclamation of Jewish tradition. Many men now wear prayer shawls and the clergy wear white—for mourning, with non-leather shoes. Many younger people bow and bounce when they pray the Amidah. Yet all the Hebrew is transliterated and translated, and much is said in English. I’m sure I’d feel less like a full participant in an Orthodox service.

I came late to the Reform tradition. Till I came back to Brooklyn, my experience of Judaism had always been in the Conservative Movement, and only in Conservative synagogues had I ever attended service. I used to look down on Reform as overly liberal. Indeed, many Reform Jews are disparaged in Israel as no Jews at all. But at Congregation Beth Elohim I have experienced a sincere hospitality that comes from deep conviction along with an intellectual strength that is tempered by humility. These folks are Jews for the world, not against it. They really do see themselves in mission, and they act that out. They have developed a generous kind of Judaism, and they express it in their services.

And yet I confess that my love of Judaism, even of Reform, is at least slightly dishonest. I admit that I love the religion as it is in Exile. I am emotionally unsympathetic to Zionism, I hate what’s being done to Palestine, and it offends me that any American Jew has more civil rights in Israel than any Arab born there. Yet I recognize that the return to the Promised Land is the whole eschatology of Judaism, and so for me to take that out of the religion is to be unfair to it. What right do I have to trim down another religion to make it better suit me who does not belong to it?

Up on the bima of Beth Elohim are two flags: of the USA and of Israel. At Jewish summer camps the children are taught to sing songs about loving Israel, like we were taught to sing of our love for Jesus. The nation-state of Israel is a collective Incarnation, a communal Messiah, where God meets humanity in flesh and blood. I who believe in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ can hardly blame them for believing in the Incarnation of Ha’aretz Israel. But I can’t go there with them. But at the Kol Nidre service there is little of such emphasis, not even in the sermon for the last two years. It’s been more about being Jews in this moment in America.

Muslims too

It was the Rabbi Emeritus who introduced me to Islam. Back in 2002 we were planning our joint Memorial Service for 9/11, and he mentioned (characteristically) that it was a shame that we had no Muslims in the plans. He said that for next year we should, and considering the political situation at the time, it would be easier for me to make the connections. He charged me to do so. I did.

At civic interfaith events I began going up to Imams and asking them to invite me to eat with them. Every one of them was eager to. I’d get invited to whatever ethnic restaurant they frequented. I got invited to their mosques. I prayed in five different mosques.

Muslims don’t have congregations like we do. Every mosque is a public place for anyone to pray in. Once you’re in the mosque, all ethnic and racial distinctions are null and void. (Not gender ones, though.) I learned the magnificent Muslim vision of a single humanity in theological (and theocratic) unity.

The Muslim prayers and creed I cannot say, so I pray there as a Christian. That seems fine to them. Muslim hospitality, at least in my experience, goes beyond anything Jewish or Christian. They have my profound respect. But the Jews have my affection.

Worshipping with Jesus and Paul

No, I don’t feel like I should try to convert my Jewish friends. I used to be a “supersessionist,” believing that the Christian Church has totally superseded Israel in God’s economy. And I admit that I am still not convinced by the new interpretations of Romans 9 (cf. Krister Stendahl). I have now come to the messy conviction, from the influence of the Dutch theologian K. H. Miskotte and the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, that by the mysterious providence of God, we Jews and Christians are stuck with each other, and we even need each other, until the Lord Jesus comes again. Then the mystery of Israel shall be clarified, and God shall be All in All.

So I pray at the Synagogue, and I delight in Jews for being Jews. Yes, I know that the liturgy of the synagogue is a far cry from what the Lord Jesus and Saint Paul will have experienced in their own day. The Jews have their own New Testament in the Talmud, and it affects their use of the Old Testament no less than our Gospel and Epistles affect our own.

Yet, when I am praying and singing at Congregation Beth Elohim, I figure that the Lord Jesus would be more at home here than at “Old First,” the Reformed Dutch Church of Breukelen. And Saint Paul would be beating his breast at our Confession of Sins and looking sideways at me, this blond barbarian invader trying to read his Hebrew letters. But then, being Saint Paul, remembering to be gracious.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.

17 Comments

  • mstair says:

    Thank you, Really enjoyed this article. Especially this quote:

    “ … we Jews and Christians are stuck with each other, and we even need each other, until the Lord Jesus comes again. Then the mystery of Israel shall be clarified, and God shall be All in All.”

  • Daniel,

    Once again you have outdone yourself. Thank you for this wonderful perspective. It gives me great food for thought, and prayer.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    O Dan,
    SO interesting to read of your long relationship with Reform Jews.
    Thanks. I resonate with many of your insights and observations. About the Israeli State, for example, the Jewish God-in-the-flesh.
    Sad, but we have done the same (in many cases) with God-and-Country, here in the US, haven’t we?
    So glad to learn of your long association. . . . and now with Muslims too. Looking for the day when God will be All in All. Yes. . . .J

  • Fred Mueller says:

    You r inclusion in the synagogue resonates happily with me, Dan. Done it often myself. Just a brief footnote. In his excellent book on the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, David Gushee notes sadly that was no real correlation between someone being a Christian and being a righteous Gentiles. With a few exceptions. One of those is the well known small Roman Catholic communities that risked their lives.; Another was Dutch reformed church people. Because of Calvin’s stance and our teaching, many in the Netherlands regarded the Jews as “God’s people” and hence risked their lives hiding them. I am so proud to be part of this tradition.

  • Jim Payton says:

    Thank you for these reflections on your multi-year experience with this Jewish community, Dan. Marvelous — and I admit to being a little envious of that rich experience you so appreciatively describe. Thanks for much to ponder from your article!

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Dan
    I felt at home reading your article. Thanks. In my 38 years of ministry, I always have had good relationships with all the Jewish congregations in Wayne, North Syracuse and now in Ridgewood.

  • James Schaap says:

    Wonderfully warm. A blessing. Thanks!

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Beautiful article, Daniel, and much for most Protestants to learn from you. Thanks for writing it.

  • Joy De Boer Anema says:

    This was surely a blessing to read. Thank you, Dan, for this article. It’s a special joy to read the reflections of a former junior high school student. You challenged me then as well.

  • RLG says:

    I’m wondering, Daniel, what it is that can bring Christians, Jews, and Muslims together in some kind of close bond? You certainly seem to have achieved this. And several of those making comments approved your relationship to the Jewish community. I doubt that it is our different theologies that bind us together. At the deeper level of salvation and acceptance by God we are very different.

    So is it at a subjective level that we feel some closeness? Is it at a “feel good” level of love for our fellow human kind that we feel a sense of love? But then such love should flow out to all people as fellow human beings. Could it be our common belief in some God, whether it be the same God or not? After all, it is only Christians who believe in a Trinitarian God, not Jews or Muslims. Could what pulls you to these Jewish worshipers be a common history, as expressed in the Jewish and Muslim scriptures? Or maybe it is the common call, from our diverse scriptures, to love God and neighbor? Now that’s a good thought.

    It’s interesting with how much we have in common with these (and likely other) religions, and yet we differ so radically on the essentials of our theology and gospel. For Christians Jesus Christ is the heart and core of religious belief, a Jesus who is the incarnation of God and very God himself. The Jews, who shared a history with Jesus, see him only as a false Messiah, doing more harm to the Jewish religion than anyone else in history. To the Muslims, Jesus was one of their greatest prophets, though a human prophet. So the denial of Jesus as divine is one of their fundamental tenets. All, so different on the issue of who Jesus “was” for Jews and Muslims and “is” for Christians. It’s hard to fathom how such differing religions can come together in worship. It seems as though our religions do more to divide people than to bind them together. I think its our common mandate to love God and neighbor that can pull people together. But to pull us toward a common worship, I don’t know. It seems as though religion has done more to divide people and nations than nearly anything else. Humans, perhaps, would be better to forsake all religions, and worship the God of creation where he reveals himself, a common belief. Thanks, Daniel, for your article and your example.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Greatly appreciated, Dan! Gives me a feeling of a kind of holy envy.

  • […] First published on Reformed Journal: The Twelve. […]

  • Yehuda Eliezri says:

    dear Daniel,
    read your heartfelt article with great interest and warm friendship.
    wondered if you’d elaborate in specifics as to the difference in citizen’s rights of Moslems vs other citizens of Israel today.
    to my knowledge there are none, except that Arabs are not required to serve in the military.
    in every other part of society, they receive all rights to privacy, private property, and freedom from discrimination;
    public education at federal expense, national healthcare, college and graduate education,
    and licensure rights in all professions. there are a multitude of lawyers, doctors, professors, inventors, Supreme Court justices, members of parliament, and have equal rights to call others and even the government bodies to task in legal claims. in deed it was an arab member of the Israeli Supreme Court that participated in the trial and sentencing of a prime minister to jail! they are counted among the highest members of research institutions. an Arab woman was honored as the ‘chef of the year’ recently.
    all this despite the historic enmity of the community to the establishment of the state of Israel, and the current public display of virulence and support of terrorism aimed at its destruction even by members of the Knesset.
    I was warmed by the rest of your article of community and brotherhood.
    with respect, I look forward to your reply.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      A Jew born and raised in Brooklyn can move to Israel and be a full citizen. The American-born children of Muslims who have emigrated from Israel to America cannot, for example.

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