Circles of Faith

Several weeks ago, I went to synagogue to honor my father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death on the Jewish calendar.  As I was there to honor his yahrzeit, the gabbai, or helper/assistant, initially offered me an aliyah, an honor in which someone goes up to the bima and says the blessing before the Torah reading. However, he came back later and told me that he wouldn’t be able to offer me the aliyah, as the rabbi knows me, and knows that I am on a path to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Although I consider myself to be Jewish alongside my Unitarian Universalist faith, and have never been baptized, this was enough to prevent me from the honor. As a guest in this synagogue, I was gracious (I hope) about the rescinded invitation, I stayed for the whole service, and for the kiddish and Oneg Shabbat following, and I talked to several people, all of whom were friendly to me. Nevertheless, I certainly felt excluded.

It was a feeling of exclusion that first pushed me out of the synagogue.  When I became bat mitzvah in my conservative synagogue, I was not allowed to read from Torah, nor was I allowed to have my ceremony on a Saturday morning. I was only allowed to read from haftorah (my portion was from Third Isaiah – which I am currently translating). My lessons consisted of a tape for me to memorize. I was not asked to reflect on the text at all. It was like a plug-and-play. As I moved into Hebrew high school, I began to realize that I was being treated as a second-class member. I didn’t think that was how God intended me to be treated, and I didn’t like it. Eventually, I just left. I couldn’t reconcile my Judaism with feminism.

I became disillusioned with religion in general. In college I started to think that Marx was right, that religion was the opiate of the masses. Well, it certainly can be used that way, but that’s not the fault of religion (I realized when I got older). It wasn’t until I found the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church that I began to rediscover everything that I loved about Judaism and more. But that’s also where I discovered the New Testament, which also spoke to me, and that toothpaste just won’t go back in the tube.

No matter, the fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  I was encouraged to find what spoke true to me and to be authentic in that faith. For me, this means being both Jewish and UU. Some call me a UU Christian. I say that I’m a Jewish process theologian following Jesus. My Judaism certainly informs my Christianity (however that is expressed), but my Christianity is separate from my Judaism.

Here’s a thing about my Judaism informing my Christianity – one of the most important elements of worship for me is communion. This is because the kiddish is a communion. It is the sharing of a holy meal. The bread and wine are blessed, usually in the service, or immediately after, and then at the Oneg Shabbat the congregation shares in the feast. And I believe that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he was recreating the covenant meal on Mt. Sinai found in Exodus 24.

I go to Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist seminary in Washington, DC. The Methodists have an open table policy for communion. This means that all – ALL – are welcome at the Lord’s Table for the Lord’s Supper. No need to be baptized, no need to be a Methodist. This is the Lord’s Table, and all are welcome. The Lord turns away no one. After all, even Judas Iscariot was included at the institution (during the last supper).

This is not the case in every church. In the Roman Catholic church, you have to be a practicing baptized Catholic. Now, anyone is welcome to go up to the priest during communion and ask for a blessing, and I have, but that’s not the same as being included in the feast.

I believe in open table communion. I believe in including people at every opportunity.

So, I asked a rabbinical student friend of mine about the aliyah thing. She gave it careful consideration (for which I am grateful), and answered that she thought it would depend on perceptions. She wouldn’t want to give me an aliiyah in a congregation that knew me and knew that I was studying for the ministry, but she wouldn’t automatically exclude me. I get that. Judaism is a covenantal rather than a creedal faith, and following the commandments is very much how Jews live into covenant. But it is exclusionary.

Understand that I am not slamming Judaism here. This faith is deeply embedded in my soul. I am saying, however, that it is exclusive, and at the end of the day, that remains a problem for me.

My faith is my faith, and my relationship with God is strong. That’s a personal matter. In a corporate sense, I believe that religion should be as open as possible. I believe that God is always open to us, therefore we need to be open to each other.

This means extending aliyot to anyone who loves Torah and wishes to be a full and authentic participant in worship. This means welcoming every person who wishes to commune with God and the gathered fellowship to the communion table.

Recently in a covenant group, we were reflecting on how church is like a circle. It’s made up of individual points on the circle – the people, and it forms a unit around the center. The beauty of a circle is that it can expand by the size of each new point, each new member, and remain as a circle. It just grows bigger.

I’ve been excluded from many circles in my life. From the bima in synagogue. From communion tables. From kickball games that were Irish vs. Italian – no Jews allowed. Seriously. That was in recess in elementary school.

My circle is wider than that. My circle welcomes all those who have excluded me. I can’t control what anyone else does, I can only control myself. I choose to draw a circle that includes. We can always make it bigger.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

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