On Saturday I had an opportunity to visit an orthodox Jewish synagogue. One of the members of my congregation is taking a world religions class and this was one of his assignments. He invited me and a few others (including some of our seminary students) to join him. I’m glad that I went — it was a fascinating, educational experience. I’ll just mention a few noteworthy observations.
Before we came into the service, one of the older rabbis sat down with us and gave us a little talk about Judaism. Among other things, he mentioned that orthodox Jews do have a messianic expectation. They are expecting Messiah to come (for the first time) and re-establish the temple in Jerusalem — this will lead to a great influx of Gentiles into the Judaic faith. This particular rabbi mentioned that the development of media technology would now make it possible for the Messiah to address the whole world at the same time. He seemed to think that Messiah’s coming was imminent. He also emphasized that Judaism is not a missionary religion. He had no intent on converting us to his faith, nor did he regard us as lost. He accepted that Christians are monotheists, though he stated that he did not agree with our understanding of trinitarian monotheism. I have to say that everyone at the synagogue was friendly and hospitable — they were very gracious to have us and also answer our many questions.
In the service itself, there was much beautiful singing and chanting — all unaccompanied and all in Hebrew. The Psalms featured prominently and the singing of Psalm 145 was particularly compelling.
The Bible reading featured several chapters of Genesis and a reading from 1 Kings. This too, like just about everything else, was all in Hebrew. It appeared to me that orthodox Jews only read from Genesis to Deuteronomy (the Torah), plus a few other selected readings from the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. I could be wrong, but it did not appear to me that Isaiah 53 would ever be read in an orthodox synagogue. The readings were carried out by various male members of the synagogue and were done in a sort of chanting style with a Sephardic accent. Even though I’ve studied Hebrew for six years and regularly read it, it was sometimes challenging to follow along.
You have probably heard it said (and I’ve said it too) that Judaism has no concept of God as Father. Surveying the synagogue prayer book, I realized that this is not true. While Christians place more emphasis on the Fatherhood of God, especially in a personal sense, the concept is not entirely absent from orthodox Judaism. There were a number of prayers that addressed God as “Our Father,” or “Father of compassion” or something along those lines. Given that this is found in what we call the Old Testament, this should not be a surprise.
Finally, there was a “sermon” and it was in English. However, the sermon was not really text-based, but more topical. The topic was remembrance: remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cristalnacht and the sacrifices made by Canadian soldiers. Remembrance is a key feature of Jewish identity and so this was unfolded. The sermon was about 15 minutes and only in the last five or so did the rabbi come to deal with a text. He spoke a few words on Lot and Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19). Lot and Abraham were contrasted. Abraham begged for the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he had no clue how many righteous were there, nor was he willing to live there. Lot, by contrast, begged that Zoar would be spared and he was willing to live there. As I understood it, the take-home was: be like Lot. I wasn’t expecting anything more than that either. However, the thought did enter my mind that I have heard sermons in Reformed churches that did not go much further, especially in dealing with Old Testament narratives.
Reflecting on it while I was there and afterward, I could only keep thinking of what Paul says in Romans 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” We saw much zeal, but all of it was lost and misdirected. What we saw on Saturday would have broken Paul’s heart. It should break our hearts. Why are we not doing more to reach out to the Jewish people? This is an article I wrote on this topic a few years ago — some of it needs to be revised, but I think the general gist might still be helpful.