Of Synagogue and Sacrament Meeting

Last Friday I tagged along with Julia and her boyfriend Jesse when they went to the Shabbat service at Congregation B’nai B’rith Santa Barbara.  I’d never been to a Jewish synagogue (and I couldn’t spend my Friday night watching TV like I usually do), so I jumped at the chance to expand my body of religious knowledge.  Jesse is Jewish, and Julia’s been attending Shabbat services with him for the past few months, so I felt comfortable going along as their guest.

Unfortunately we somehow missed the memo that the service started 45 minutes before we showed up, and Jesse gave me a hard time for forgetting to take off the cross necklace I wear habitually (he was joking… mostly), but for the most part I really enjoyed myself.  The prayers sung by the congregation were beautiful interpretations of Torah passages, and the sermon was delivered by a spunky young woman rabbi.  Plus, I enjoyed covertly trying to figure out if a certain women across the aisle from us was my 11th grade history teacher (she’s Jewish and I heard she moved to Santa Barbara… I’m pretty sure it was her!).  I’m planning on going back another Friday night.

But I’ve been wondering just how comfortable I should have been, how much I should have enjoyed myself, especially when I compare my synagogue experience to my interactions with Mormons.  At the LDS chapel I very intentionally chose not to partake of the “sacrament,” but at the synagogue I didn’t think twice about drinking the wine and eating the challah used in a communion-like ceremony after the service was over.  At Institute I’m extremely cautious about the hymns I choose to sing and the prayers I choose to join, but at the synagogue I participated in every (English) prayer I could.

See, one of my interfaith dialogue pet peeves is when Mormons assume that they believe everything I do with a few additions, that I’m “on the right track” on my “faith journey”… with the implication that I just haven’t arrived yet, that maybe one day I’ll be more completely evolved.  I believe in the authority of the Bible–which is great!–but it’s too bad I don’t have the more complete understand of this ambiguous book provided by modern-day revelation.

This kind of thinking is annoying, because: (1) it’s frustratingly condescending, (2) I think it misrepresents most Mormon teachings on mainline Christianity (we did add things like creeds that Mormonism teaches corrupted pure, New Testament Christianity), and (3) it reduces millenia of diverse Christian thought and practice to one neat package of doctrine that just serves as a precursor to the “Restoration.”  It tries to tell me what I and my community believe, and leaves no room for me to bring something new and challenging to the conversation.  This attitude is so prevalent at Institute that it’s refreshing when a teacher or student says something directly against Christianity.

So I want to avoid doing the same thing to my Jewish friends.  I think most Christians view Judaism the same way many Mormons view Christianity: as a quaint, less evolved version of “real” religion.  We host our own Passover sedars, read historical fiction about the Holocaust, and some dispensationalists even turn to Christian Zionism to protect the Jews… but only as a means to ushering in Christ’s return.  Is our popular fascination with Judaism, our willingness to sentimentalize Jews as more honorable people than, say, Muslims, condescending?  Do we assume we know everything there is to know about this ancient and complex religion just because we’ve read the Old Testament?  Are we silencing Jews by insisting on narrating their stories, neatly summarizing their theologies?

I’m quick to dismiss Mormon interpretations of the Bible that don’t align with the theological training I’ve received, but I’m sure most Jews would do the same with the way Christians apply messianic prophecies to Jesus (or disagree that certain prophetic writings are even messianic!).  My Christian understanding, of, say, the “other sheep” Jesus mentions in John means I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon’s stories about Jews in the Americas are true, but, positively, it could also teach my Mormon friends about my own views on what it means for gentiles to be included as part of the people of God.  Likewise, we Christians could learn from Jewish interpretations of books like Isaiah not just that Jews don’t believe Jesus is the messiah, but what past or future events they ascribe to those particular prophecies.

Again, I’m not a relativist.  I believe the Christian story best describes God and His interactions with humanity, and part of that story involves Christianity’s own theological understandings of the role of the Jewish nation.  We’ve somehow been grafted onto the olive tree that is Israel (not the modern nation-state), and that means we need to think and speak about that relationship.  But let’s also allow our Jewish friends to speak for themselves.  We don’t have to pretend to agree about everything pre-Jesus; respectful disagreement and mutual education is far more appropriate.  Maybe we need to consciously allow for some degree of tension when we enter into Jewish spaces like the synagogue I visited–not to create animosity between two religious groups, but to wrestle both individually and collectively through the implications of our respective beliefs and practices.

So the question I’m still asking is: to what degree should I participate in Shabbat services if I end up going back?


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