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.
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.
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.