Sunday, March 09, 2008
The Radical Orthodox Rabbi
I was asked to go to a local facility - one of those "one-stop-shopping" Residential/ Skilled Nursing /Rehabilitative / Alzheimer / Hospice facilities that are flourishing here in the Northeast corridor - to do the baptism of a 75 year old woman who is a resident there, who had recently been transferred to the Hospice Unit.
Her deceased husband had been Roman Catholic and had insisted on proper instruction and baptism for their two children - one now a Presbyterian and the other an Episcopalian.
She had always refused Communion because she had never been baptized. As she has been preparing for her eventual death, she asked that she be baptized because, she says, she is now ready. At the age of 75.
"I'm doing it for me, not for anyone else," she said. "I'm doing it because I want to, because I want to see Jesus when I get to heaven."
I've visited with her a few times to make certain she understood what was being offered. I didn't want her to think this was some kind of "Magical Mystery Tour" but to be fully cognizant of the Sacrament of Baptism and Eucharist, and the grace being offered to her through them.
We decided to do the Baptism this morning, when her daughter and son and grandchildren could be present. It was a joy and an honor and a privilege to baptize her and then preside at her first reception of Holy Eucharist. Some readers of this Blog will be relieved to know that at no time were any rubrics or canons injured, violated or compromised. All the 't's' were crossed and all the 'i's' were dotted.
As I was leaving her room, I came upon a most amazing site. An orthodox Rabbi was heading into the Dining Room - his seven children and wife in tow - immediately recognizable as orthodox by his beard, fedora, tzitzit or prayer tassels, tallit or prayer shawl and teffilin or phylactery (I think I spelled everything correctly. If not, you should excuse me. I am 'goyim' - non-Jew - after all.)
Curious, I followed him in and saw the dining room filled almost to capacity, with others lining up to enter. As I looked around the room, I recognized many there who were not Jewish. The Rabbi saw me standing at the door and said, "Come in, come in. Welcome!"
"Good morning, Rabbi," I said as I smiled.
"We're about to start the Shabbat," he said, "Come!"
He noted the look of hesitancy and surprise that crossed my face as he glanced at my clerical collar and the cross on my neck. "It's okay," he said. "Do you know someone here? Would you like to sit next to them?"
"No," I responded, more curious now than either hesitant or surprised.
"Still, come in. It won't take long before everyone knows everyone."
His wife came to my side, their seven small children came too, like baby ducks following their Mama. "There's plenty to eat. Come," she said with a beautiful smile.
"Let me guess." said her husband, "You're Rabbi is the one from Nazareth. Jesus, right?"
"Right." I said. "Ah, and a good, orthodox Jew he was. He knew Torah and the Shema. But, you know that, right? You have studied his teaching?"
"Yes," I said, surprised if not taken aback.
"Then," he said, "only one question remains: Are you hungry?"
"A little," I offered sheepishly, "Yes, I suppose I am."
"Ah, good! Wonderful! Come, come! Ruth! Ruth! Make a place for our guest. There, can she sit next to you? There you go," he said as he seated me next to Ruth, adding to the rest of the table, "Isn't this wonderful? The whole family is gathering from near and far and we are going to share a most wonderful meal in the name of our most abundant God."
Then, he leaned and whispered into my ear, "You know, like your Rabbi, I have a little bit of the radical in me, too. In Rabbinical School, they tried to teach it out of me, but as you can tell, it didn't work." He laughed and then he and his wife made themselves busy seating the rest of their guests and finishing the preparations for the service.
Before we began, the Rabbi stood at the table and formerly welcomed us to the Shabbat service by first apologizing for conducting the service in Hebrew - "It's the only way I know how to say it," he said while some giggled and others murmured assuringly, "It's okay, Rabbi. You just do your best."
Ruth touched my arm and whispered, "Did your parents teach you Hebrew?"
"No," I said, "I'm sorry."
"Ach!" she said, "Such a shame! I don't know what's wrong with parents today! Tsk! Tsk!"
The Rabbi explained that what we were about to do three things: First and foremost, we were to remember the gift of our freedom, our liberation from bondage, gained for us by the Great Prophet Moses in ancient Egypt. "Such a gift," said the Rabbi, "should always be remembered, always celebrated."
Second, said the Rabbi, we were to remember the gift of the Sabbath, a time of resting from our labors to remember and give praise to the God who created us, who also rested from his labors. "Work, work, work!" said the Rabbi, "Sheesh! We could work ourselves to death and never enjoy the fruits of our labor! That's not what God wants, does he?" The congregation shook their heads collectively as negative responses filled the air.
Finally, the Rabbi told us that we will have a taste of the Messianic times, when God will send "An Anointed One" to bring true shalom - true, lasting peace, without poverty or war, disease or famine - to the whole earth. That will be a most wonderful time, won't it?" "Yes!" shouted one of the Rabbi's children joyfully as everyone chuckled.
He said some silent prayers, as his wife lit the candles and then he said the kiddush over the wine and the prayers over the bread. I got "Barukh ata Adonia, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam . . ." (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe . . .).
And you know, nothing else really mattered.
I found myself weeping (I know. I can be such a girly-girl). Never had I experienced such radical hospitality in any religious service. My gender, my sexual orientation, my clerical collar, not even the small cross which hung from my neck had kept me from fully participating in that service.
I felt my heart pounding wildly in my chest and a surge of joy that must have been like that felt by the tax collectors and women caught in adultery, the widows and orphans, and all the other sinners when invited to Table with that thoroughly orthodox rabbi who didn't have his radical nature "taught" out of him.
I also understood at a deep level in my soul why that ancient "woman of ill repute" anointed the head of her Rabbi with expensive perfume, and wept at his feet and wiped them with her hair.
I didn't have much time to think on these things at the moment because, almost immediately the Oneg Shabbat Service began, which followed by a wonderful Shabbat luncheon of fish and salad and challah bread and the wine which had been blessed, all lovingly prepared by the Rabbi's wife.
Then, we sang songs."Take Me Out To the Ball Game." "My Wild Irish Rose." And, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Oh, and someone insisted on singing "The Dreidel Song." We all joined in the singing and laughed and laughed and laughed.
Someone else did a solo of "Sunrise, sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof, accompanied by someone who played the sadly out of tune piano in the corner. When the man who sang it, a big, strapping Irishman whose red hair had turned to silver, finished, he apologized because, he said, it was the only Jewish song he knew. It brought both the Rabbi and his wife to tears as they thanked him.
We talked with each other and some of us danced with the children, and an absolutely marvelous time was had by all. As we left the dining room, I heard the Rabbi and his wife and some of his children say to everyone, "Thank you for coming. We'll see you next month. You'll come? Good! Stay well."
You know, something happened to me in that service. It was transformational. I do believe Jesus was there and fully approved. I saw his joy reflected in the eyes of that orthodox, slightly radical Rabbi.
I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room where we did, in fact, experience a foretaste of the Messianic Banquet, where true Shalom, was present.
This morning, none of us was poor. None of us was hungry. None of us was sick. We ate and drank until we were full. When we danced, we forgot our aches and pains, our age and even our diagnosis or that of our neighbor. We were one. We were reconciled with ourselves, our God and each other. We were at peace.
That's what is supposed to happen at our Eucharist. Be honest. Beyond the personal, individual sense of spiritual satisfaction at the altar rail, when is the last time you felt like that in community?
Okay, we've got our rubrics and our canons. I get that. But, surely, as followers of the orthodox, radical Rabbi Jesus, the Christ, we can do better than rubrics and canons. Surely, our Eucharists, when we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and He is truly and fully present, can be a place were, in His Most Precious and Blessed Name, all are welcome, all can sit at table, all can hear the ancient words of prayer and not understand with our heads, but know them deep in our hearts and souls.
What evangelism! What a way to transform the world!
Then again, isn't that more nearly the orthodox, radical Way of Jesus?
I came home and, as I went about my weekend tasks, I found myself weeping again. I wept for the woman I baptized this morning - for the years she was kept from the fullness of community and family because of rubrics and canons.
I wept that some of my 'radical' nature has apparently been 'taught out of me'.
I wept because when Jesus, The Messiah, The Anointed One, comes again to bring true Shalom to all the world, I will have some explaining to do.
I wept with deep joy and gratitude for the simple question, "Are you hungry?" followed by the simple invitation to "Come."
I wept because I'm ashamed to admit it: I didn't know just how hungry I've been.
I wept remembering these words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Cowardice asks the question: Is it safe?
Expediency asks the question: Is it politic?
Vanity asks the question: Is it popular?
But conscience asks the question: Is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right."
Shalom, chaverim. Shalom, my friends.