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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.

38 comments:

Jim said...

I read this over on the elite list and was going to ask you to post it here: thank you for this story.
I think the gate-keeping we have come to insist on is an affront to the Lord of Sabbath. Jesus managed to feed 5000, and had not even examined them to assure they were orthodox.

I understand the canons, and I am not about to suggest we break them. I do think we need to think about them.

FWIW
jimB

David Austin Allen said...

¡Un momento muy precioso amiga Reverenda! Gracias para compartirlo.

I guess I am a girly-man, because just reading it brought tears to me as well.

Lindy said...

May you carry Shabbos in your heart all week long!

DaYouthGuy said...

Wow.

and

Amen.

I can't think of anything else to add.

Peace

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

it sounds like a profound experience, but i would point out that something is missing here:

of course, there is no restriction in Judaism against including non-Jews in Sabbath celebrations and meals. so the apparent similarity, between the hospitality you experienced, and the implied criticism of the sacramental discipline of the church, isn't really that similar.

the question would be what if this were one of those occasions where non-Jews are not allowed to celebrate together, for such meals there are as well?

of course, this Rabbi was a good man and knew his manners. he wouldn't set that up in the hospital cafeteria that way. he wouldn't do one of those meals, and then tell you you couldn't come. he would presumably say that some things are for Jews only, and you, being a good woman who knows your manners, would not be offended at all, and would rejoice for the occasions you did share.

and there's the real point, i think. we can easily find a way to preserve the integrity of our own tradition and show gestures of tremendous hospitality, with this Rabbi as a model. for he is not engaged in violating his tradition (however much he is proud for being "radical"), he is indeed doing exactly what that tradition calls for.

We would do well to emulate this, and to rediscover parts of our liturgical heritage which have exactly the room that the Sabbath meal does. but as long as we are one-trick-ponies, who know how to do Eucharist and nothing else, we are stuck.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

With all due respect, my brother, we are only stuck if we think we are stuck.

I have come to believe that the real problem with TEC and the WWAC is nothing less than lack of religious imagination which severely limits, for starters, what radical hospitality might look like.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Beautiful, Elizabeth---just beautiful. Thanks for sharing this...and may God bless that wonderful Rabbi and his family for living out their love for Him into the world.

susankay said...

Thank you

Jim said...

With your permission(?) I should like to post a link to this post to my blog. That wont increase your readership much, but it will alert a few friends and occasional readers who might should see it will.

Thanks!

FWIW
jimB

FranIAm said...

What a moving and extraordinary way to start my day. I did not sleep well last night for a number of reasons, and this was exactly the balm needed to soothe my soul.

I am Catholic but my father was raised Jewish - so this landscape speaks to me deeply. While I got married in a church, my cousins (one Reform, one Conservative) who are rabbis did the berekah or blessing, at the reception.

Jesus was a Jew and to forget that in the context of our faith is many things - and you have not forgotten that at all.

Thank you for sharing your own transformational experiences with us all in such a beautiful way.

Shalom to you and to all.

suzanne said...

Such a beautiful vision, beautifully described. Thank you.

Ellie Finlay said...

Oh my goodness, Elizabeth. I don't cry easily but this very nearly moved me to tears. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Truly this is a foretaste of the Peaceable Kingdom.

more cows than people said...

I hope you don't mind that I linked too. This is fabulous and needs a wide reading. Thank you.

whiteycat4104 said...

WOW! What a great story. It made my day!

Muthah+ said...

Once more, Lisbeth you have hit the nail on the head. We spend more time telling people why we can't be friends than showing one another why we can.

Bravo, for the Rabbi. May we have the same grace and same ability to welcome others to our tables.

Let's get back to being radical!

Tandaina- said...

I linked as well, too good a story to not spread far and wide. Thank you for starting my day with a smile, a tear, and much blessing.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, I didn't cry girly-girl tears, but I did feel the presence of the Spirit as I read. It's a lovely story about the woman who wanted Baptism at the age of 75 for herself, not because of anyone else's wishes.

And then, what a marvelous encounter with the rabbi and the Rabbi at the feast. Thanks for telling these stories, and for telling them so beautifully.

Suzer said...

I had a similar encounter at a synagogue in Buffalo, as I was doing some spiritual searching. I visited the synagogue for Sabbath prayers. Perhaps due to the confused looks on my face, I was recognized as a non-Jew. Several people immediately came to me with the "prayer book" (if that's what it's called -- this was a long time ago) open to the right page, and prodded me to turn the page when necessary (as it was in Hebrew). Occasionally, someone would whisper to me what was happening in the service. All the while, wonderful food smells arose from the back of the hall, and I was not just encouraged, but nearly carried into the hall to join them for a meal. Everyone welcomed me so warmly, in just the way you experienced.

In my experience, most (though not all) Episcopal churches are lacking in that gracious kind of welcoming. We would do well to learn from stories such as the one you shared.

If it were up to me, I'd do away with doctrine altogether -- much to the horror and dismay of many, I'm sure. JimB hit the nail on the head -- Jesus did not inquire of the 5000 if they were baptized, believers, or indoctrinated into any particular religion. He fed them, simple as that.

barbarab said...

Elizabeth,
Thank you! This was the best meditation my morning could have had. I read it again this afternoon and cried again. It reminded me of a sermon by a radical Lutheran pastot who took me in when I was a refuge Catholic in college.

The storey he told went something like this:

An angel showed me a vison of hell. Everyone was sitting around an enormous banquet table with every food and drink imaginable. But the people were angry and cursed each other because their elbows couldn't bend and so they couldn't enjoy the food before them.

Next, the angel showed me a vison of heaven. It looked just like hell, except the people were feeding each other and having a wonderful party.

Shalom, indeed!

Auntie Knickers said...

Beautiful story and I cried too. By the way, I could be wrong, but I did go to a Jewish University as a non-Jew and was never excluded from anything, meal or otherwise.

Chunklets said...

That is a truly lovely story, and reminds me of a long-ago Passover seder attended by myself (nominally Anglican), two Jewish women, and a Kurdish Muslim. A truly great time was had by all!

Diane said...

Love love this. came over from Paul's place. I used to have sabbath at a friend's house when I was growing up. They were not orthodox, but very welcoming to me.

Rev SS said...

"More Cows" link brought me here. This is so AWESOME! Wish I could have been there with you. Thank you so much for sharing this.

susankay said...

Re What Diane said: As a kid I used to baby-sit for a Jewish neighbor on Friday nights -- and many times I came early for the Sabbath meal. It was wonderful, and I still remember some responses.

Suzer said...

Prayers headed your way for your mother. I've seen your comments elsewhere, and this post seemed the most appropriate to offer a prayer. May God's grace, strength and mercy be with you, your mom, and your family at this time.

Susan H.

Hiram Mc Carroll said...

My roommate at college was Jewish. I visited his home one weekend, and I was invited to participate in the Sabbath meal -- I was even given a yarmulke to wear. But such participation is part of Jewish tradition. If I were to go to Brooklyn on a Friday, I might well meet someone who would invite me to Shabbos.

Jesus said, "This do in remembrance of me," and it is clear in the context that he is speaking not only of his presence and teachings, but also of his atoning death. Those who do not affirm his atoning death are treading on shaky ground if they participate in Holy Communion.

You are (I think) a universalist, so the idea of spiritual danger through Communion is not one you accept. But if the idea of universalism is not true -- then it is possible to participate in Communion and to do so to one's harm.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Hiram, how could you read any of the stuff on my blog, including this essay, and say that you think I'm a 'universalist'? I am solidly Trinitarian with a deep love for Jesus.

That's not the point of this story. And, BTW, I have been in the company - many times - of orthodox rabbi who will not let women TOUCH them, much less invite one to share a Shabbat.

The point is that I think we might be able to learn something about 'radical hospitality' from this radical orthodox Rabbi as well as the one we all claim to follow, Jesus, our Annointed Messiah.

Hiram Mc Carroll said...

I am not talking about Unitarian-Universalists. There are those who are trinitarian and who say that no one will be condemned in the end. The "Universalists" part of the U-U's was originally a Trinitarian body, and only joined with the Unitarians during the 20th century.

My memory may be failing me, or I could be confusing something that Susan Russell said -- but I have been under the impression that you are a "small u" universalist.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I understand, Hiram, but you are mistaken. I know Susan Russell, known her for years, and I can tell you that she ain't no universalist - Capitol or Lower-case "u". She loves Jesus as much as I do - maybe even more, given the work she has committed herself to do - and we both live by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Progressive does not equal "universalist." Maybe you misunderstood our deep commitment to diversity and multiculturalism.

Hiram Mc Carroll said...

I stand corrected. Small "u" universalism is endemic amongst progressives; I have often heard, "There is no hell, or, if there is, it will be empty."

Not that I am hoping that there will be people in hell -- but the nature of sin is that, unless one is forgiven and born anew through the Holy Spirit, one could not bear to be in heaven. And while I would like universal repentance and faith to be true, there is no indication in Scripture that that will be so.

Suzer said...

Hi Hiram! Your comment at 5:37 caused me to wonder -- Is God bound by Scripture? Or is God bigger than Scripture? I understand God is revealed to us through Scripture, but is it possible that the same Scripture that leads us toward God is simply too limited to encompass all that is God?

Just some questions I'm pondering based on your comments, and I thought I'd share. It's perhaps a bit off topic, so I thank Rev. Kaeton for allowing me this room to ponder. :)

Brian R said...

Oh Hiram, you remind me of the fundies that run my poor diocese. I once complained that the only service of holy communion at the church nearest my 90 yr old mother on Christmas day was too early to get her there and the later ones were something that did not resemble Anglicanism but closer to a Billy Graham crusade (we were asked to raise our hands if we were saved at which stage I walked out). The minister (they never use the word priest) told me that too many non-believers attend on Christmas day and might take communion unworthily. I was speechless. Do you really think that God condemns a person who takes communion without full understanding? Might not He just use the sacrament to bring that person closer to Him?

steve said...

It is a dark day, indeed, if ever we let these human creations we call "doctrine" interfere with our more fundamental call to love, to show hospitality, to be generous.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

Hiram Mc Carroll said...

Suzer, thanks for a good question. I would say that God is certainly bigger than Scripture. He is inherently bigger than any of us can comprehend. The Creator must be greater than his creation.

As for being "bound by Scripture" -- the answer to that will depend on what one believes Scripture to be. It is my conviction that God is bound by Scripture because Scripture is his Word. He is not bound in the sense that he is constrained against his will, but he is bound because he has revealed himself truly, and therefore Scripture reveals his nature. God cannot oppose Scripture or act outside of it because then he would be acting against his own nature.

Jesus said in Mt. 5:17, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them." Jesus took Scriptures as God's Word -- and God's words -- to humanity. So did the early Christians, and those who led the Church of England as it became an independent body in the 1500's; see Articles VI, VII, and XX of the XXXIX Articles. (I could quote some statements from Cranmer and Hooker, but they would take up quite a bit of space.)

If, on the other hand, Scripture is not "theopneustos" ("God-breathed", 1 Tim. 3:16), but is more the product of human reflection upon experiences of and with the divine, then one might say that either God is forced to submit to flawed or inadequate human thought, or that God is free to ignore the statements of Scripture, because they are not his Word, but human words, however noble they may be in general.

Suzer said...

Thanks for responding to my questions, Hiram. I think I understand what you are saying, but at the same time it seems illogical to me. If God is revealed truly through Scripture (and I can agree with that proposition) and is bound (in a sense) by that Scripture, does that leave room for God to reveal Himself in other ways? I mean, we take as true that God is bigger than Scripture -- that He has to be as the Creator, and yet if we say he is bound by Scripture that seems, in a way, to be limiting God. Which of course, we can't do.

I could go 'round and 'round on this subject, so I'll likely leave it here. But I guess if I consider God as both fully revealed in Scripture, yet bigger than scripture (as I agree He is inherently bigger than we can comprehend), it seems to me that God's very nature provides the ability to embrace new things. You may see that as dangerously universalist, yet I see it as an integral and, in fact, imperative aspect of the nature of God (as far as I in my human weakness can perceive God).

Oy. See -- I do go round and round! Thanks for addressing my question, though -- it has helped me think a bit more deeply about this.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

The Mitvah continues: I am so pleased at the tone and content of this discussion. I don't think I've seen such differing perspectives presented with such respect. The Radical Orthodox Rabbi would be so pleased. As would Jesus. Thank you.

Singing Owl said...

Oh my! This was my first visit to your blog, and this was the most wonderful post I have read in a long time! WOW! Thank you for sharing such a personal experience with us.

klady said...

Thanks for this Elizabeth. Sorry I came so late to it, although I have seen it cited in several places. I'm glad I finally found the time to read it slowly.

It brings me near to tears both for its deeper truth and for the memories of my dear Jewish friends, who pretty much saved me, gave me a job and a second family for myself and my children, during the darkest days of my divorce. I'll never forget Passover seder with them, which involved much warmth and love but also the sudden shock of recognition that our Communion began as a Passover meal. I knew that intellectually before, but seeing the linens and the water, much the same as our priests use, hit it home.

Why we cannot talk of these things openly and make the connections without being accused of "universalism" (as if, in any event, were the worst crime imaginable) and the dangers of "improper" Communion is -- well, beyond my comprehension, as many things are. I'd mention the good things Jack Spong wrote on Judaism but... well, I don't want to bring the Spong brigade on you unawares! Shalom.