I tuned in to a Facebook Live Yom Kippur service at a local synagogue Tuesday night, thankful for the pandemic that made such online opportunities possible for a non-Jew like me. As a Christian, the service brought many questions to mind, along with reminding me of our common roots.
Language and Prayer Books
Much of the service was in Hebrew, along with English translations. People had prayer books, so it was easy for them to follow, as the rabbi spoke out the page numbers. I thought of our Latin mass days, when a prayer book was our guide through the mass, and we could see the English version of the prayers. Of course, Hebrew is now a living language, spoken in Israel, while Latin is essentially only a written language of the past. Continuing to have our liturgy in Latin does create a link to the past, as did these Hebrew prayers. Even I could pray “Baruch atah, Adonai” with understanding and a thrill at speaking these ancient words; but at many points in the service, the Hebrew simply excluded me, a Gentile.
I don’t mean this as a critique; it’s not my place to judge the effectiveness of a service designed for Jewish people as a powerful sign of God’s presence with them from early times. This is a celebration of them as God’s people, and not a time of evangelization for outsiders. But if you wanted Judaism to be a missionary faith, language might be an issue.
Catholics potentially have the same issue: to keep Latin alive in the liturgy for future generations, or use English to make it more real to today’s worshippers and to those to whom we reach out? It’s not an easy choice, with value in both sides. I will say that the Hebrew words Alleluia and Amen were ones I could relate to.
Unity in Diversity
In his homily, the rabbi said that Jews seldom agree, despite their common tradition. But, it is this common handing down, with its Latin tradere the source of our word tradition, that forms one of the main sources of Jewish lasting power over the ages. Handed down are the Torah, and the other books of the Hebrew Bible, along with the laws of the scholars. The Temple may be no more, but where Jews gather, there will be a Torah.
Last night a lector came forward, wearing prayer shawl and yarmulke, to read from the unfurled scroll, using the yad pointer to follow the lines of script from right to left. The Torah—three in this synagogue—are kept reverently behind a curtain, and only brought out for the sacred reading.
A second source of unity is the sense of being a family. Families have their differences, rabbi reminded us, but in the end they are still a family. So are the Jews. He hastened to add that all Jews, even though separated for one reason or another from the flock, are still welcome, as are others who wish to be part of this family.
Catholic Sources of Unity
Seldom do priests make a point of the differences among today’s Catholics, but it was reassuring to me to know that other faiths face this problem and take it in their stride. I wondered what we might refer to as our source of unity in spite of differences.
Most of us would say the Eucharist, I think. Behind the Eucharist, though, --the reason for the Eucharist—is Jesus Christ present among us. Jesus Christ present is like God’s presence with the Jews: manifest in the Eucharist, but also in God’s Word. Like the Torah for Jews, the Word of God proclaimed ties us to God in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is like our Torah, but we also listen to the Torah in our first reading at mass. What a powerful source of our unity!
We have our teachings as well, our tradition handed down from the Apostles. We have our unbroken line of ordination going back to them as well. We have practices and devotions that draw us together.
But we are a family in a very true sense, with Jesus Christ as our brother and Lord, tying us to our roots, which comingle with those of the Jewish people. Children by adoption, beholden to the People of God who lived in a covenant relationship with God, protecting this treasured relationship until the time when Jesus could allow that sacred seedpod to burst open to spread that covenant throughout the world.
A friend reported from her Yom Kippur experience this week being very moved when the person chanting the Torah said she could only see the hills and valleys of Israel as she sang the sacred words.
This one last source of unity for the Jewish people—a Promised Land, Israel—is a powerful element. Is it our lack of such a common homeland that we Christians feel less united? What is our shared homeland? I wondered. Could still be Israel, but not in the sense that our genes would take us back there. Rome? Or is heaven our home? This, it struck me, is it. Not only do we long for our heavenly home, but we have a name for that reality even in the present: The Communion of Saints. Every time we gather at mass, we call on the members of this great communion to worship with us, as we join them in a little bit of heaven. At those moments we have a glimpse of our true homeland waiting just beyond our sight.