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Spirit of the Age: Embracing the Jewish tradition

1998 September 26
by Paul Vallely

Monday was the earth’s birthday. It was Rosh ha-Shanah, the feast in which Jews celebrate the beginning of a new year. By the traditional rabbinic calculation, it is 5,759 years since the creation of the world. Geologists and astronomers may tell us differently, but let us not make the mistake of confusing the truths of science with those of poetry. “This is the birthday of the world, and one by one all creatures are questioned, either as children or as servants,” began the Jewish prayer-book, with a heady beauty.

“Judeo-Christian heritage” is one of those phrases which trips nimbly from the lips without a tremendous amount of thought. Whenever I use it, I feel a fleeting embarrassment that I don’t actually know enough about Judaism to judge whether the concept has any real meaning. (There are those who insist that the values and theology of the two faiths are so divergent that the idea of a common inheritance is a sloppy secularism.)

So when Edward Kessler, the director of the new Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, which opens in Cambridge next week, invited me to the Rosh ha-Shanah service at the Reform synagogue in Cambridge, I accepted with alacrity.

Orthodox Jews in Cambridge have their own synagogue, but the Reform tradition hold their weekly services in a local community centre. When, as on high holy days like this one, the worshippers’ numbers swell from scores to hundreds, they become the guests of Wesley House Methodist Theological College which, as it was to turn out, was oddly apt.

In the old library, at one corner of the lawned quadrangle, a children’s service was beginning, when I arrived with Ed and his three offspring. It seemed a good place for a beginner like me to start, too. It being Cambridge, the sabbath school teacher was a professor of philosophy, Peter Lipton, who was asking the cross-legged children why they used Hebrew in the services.

Their answers reminded me what was said about Latin during my own pre- Vatican II Catholic upbringing. It was not the language of everyday, so it was sacred and special, said one boy. It was the language that God spoke, said a young girl. But it was also, I thought, a foreign language which spoke of divided loyalties and partly accounted for the suspicion and antipathy which Jews have encountered throughout European history, much as did Papists in post-Reformation England, and Muslims do today.

The session lasted an hour, and if the professor’s teaching on The Three Ts – tzedakah, teshuvah and tefillah (charity, repentance and prayer) – was a little dry, he ended, in approved Jewish fashion, with a story. The tale was of a boy called Eliahu, who in his dreams is visited by souls of the dead, who each tell him: “Only you can save us, Eliahu.” The children were enrapt.

If there is one thing more important than story in Judaism, it is ritual. The laws on diet and on sabbath observance, set out in its late-medieval code of ritual, the Halakah, are well-known, but there is much else. The children’s service ended with a practice for the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which was later sounded dozens of times in the three-hour adult service, to awaken the faithful from their slumbers. At Rosh ha- Shanah, the wicked are inscribed in the Book of Death, and the completely virtuous in the Book of Life. For the slumbering in-betweens, judgement is suspended for the 10 days of penitence leading up to the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

There was, for me, an odd dissonance about the adult service. There was a strangeness in the tasselled prayer-shawls and skullcaps which were worn by men and women alike. There was an unexpected chill about standing in the midst of a people who could begin a prayer with the words “We who lived in concentration camps. . .” And, in the primitive, almost comic, squeak of the ram’s horn, I could not hear the shattering of illusions behind which “a still small voice is heard”.

But there was also an odd sense of familiarity, too. Not just in hearing the Jewish prayers which Christians have appropriated, as with the Aaronic benediction, which I had always assumed to be Celtic in its rhythms: “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the face of the Lord enlighten you and be gracious to you; may the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.”

It was also there in words which have become part of the warp and weft of modern English allusion. “Man comes from the dust, and ends in dust. He spends his life earning his living, but he is fragile, like a cup so easily broken, like grass that withers, like flowers that fade, like passing shadows, and dissolving clouds, a fleeting breeze and dust that scatters, like a dream that fades away.” All in all, I felt so enfolded in a part of my past that, when I felt a tap on my shoulder halfway through the service, and turned to discover an old friend from two decades back, it seemed an appropriate surprise.

The heart of Judaism, of course, is not in the synagogue, but in the home. It is the place of halakhic practice but, more than that, of the celebrated warmth and cohesiveness of the Jewish family. It is often mocked as claustrophobic, but there was nothing of that in the Kessler household. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Ed’s wife Tricia – a convert from Catholicism – the house was, after the service, for the entire day open to a continual stream of visitors to share tea, coffee, wine, lunch and the apples-with- honey which are traditionally offered along with good wishes for a sweet year ahead.

If there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian inheritance, I decided, it is time that we created one.

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