On Friday night, I got the chance to attend a local synagogue for Shabbat services. To give you some background on my visit, the youth from the synagogue visited our ward en masse for Sacrament meeting and stayed for a Q&A session with our youth. Adults who were not directly responsible for the YM/YW programs were not allowed to be in the room, but from the reports I have heard, things went very well. The youth leaders decided that they wanted to reciprocate that interest and thus our visit from last week came about.
I don't want to give a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened, so I'll only mention a couple of the more interesting moments. If you are really interested in witnessing a Jewish worship service, just visit your local synagogue (and if possible, arrange for reciprocal visits for your youth). I found that the rabbi was extremely kind and open to our attendance (he even announced it to the whole congregation), and furthermore stayed after the Shabbat service ended to answer our questions and allowed us a close-up look at the Torah scroll which he removed from the ark again just for our benefit. From my interaction with him, it seems that the rabbi thought that this kind of interfaith dialogue and experience was a vital part of his youth's education in their own faith and key to their correct education. But more on that below...
First, a couple of my own observations about the Shabbat services...
1. When Mormons think about bringing investigators to church, one of the things we naturally worry about is how people will handle our unique Mormon vocabulary (and how it might differ from how the same terms are used in mainstream Christianity). That obstacle is greatly enhanced in the synagogue since nearly the entire service (except for some brief reader responses and the sermon) is conducted in Hebrew. All of the songs and chants are done in Hebrew AND the books you are provided to follow the service have NO MUSICAL NOTES. I assume that the Jews know them by heart, but the rest of us just have to muddle through and follow the tone as best as possible. Imagine our hymn book with no notes and a first-time investigator trying to sing "Come, Come Ye Saints" just following the rest of us.
2. One of more interesting moments in the service was that the rabbi mentioned politics (and the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries) in his announcements and sermon. Now, I am personally in favor of having a wider latitude to speak about political issues (on both sides and from a Gospel-centered perspective) as an official matter in our Church meetings (I think that often the perceived space to speak about such things is smaller than it actually is). Nevertheless, when individual members attempt it, it usually goes poorly, in my opinion, so perhaps the "don't discuss it" rule is best. So when the rabbi immediately mentioned the primaries, the Mormon part of me had a cringe moment. Nevertheless, he was only bringing it up in order to remind those present that they should take a rest from the constant flow of news and rumor on Shabbat to preserve the day of rest as holy. As a news and politics junkie myself, it took a rabbi to remind me how wrapped up I can get in these things, as opposed to some of the other important aspects of my life and spirituality that I routinely ignore. Perhaps more interestingly is that even though the rabbi limited his comments on this occasion, he did not seem to feel utterly constrained to prohibit all talk of politics in his congregation. Furthermore, his sermon was a semi-serious look at a recent humorous book entitled "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible". The rabbi spoke light-heartedly about the book's premise, but avoided irreverence, and managed to make important points about the value (and limitations) of ancient scripture and the meaning of following commandments in the modern world. Typically, when members of our own church stray afield of the Standard Works or GC talks (and sometimes even when they don't), the result is sometimes painful and most often not good. I am actually all in favor of allowing a range of materials into our lessons and talks (as opposed to the limitations currently placed on those activities by the correlated manuals themselves) but seeing that we do it so poorly, perhaps it is for the best. I am sure that the rabbi has trained to do what he does and I do not advocate a professional clergy on the local level within our church- on the contrary, the lay nature of our local leadership is one of the things I love about the Church. But a little basic education on how to give a Church talk and how sources (both Church-approved and not) can be used to elucidate Gospel truths is certainly in order.
3. In another part of the service, the rabbi announced birthdays and anniversaries of those in attendance. When I attended the Methodist Church, we had a similar practice in those worship services called "joys and concerns." Any member of the congregation could stand up and mention to the pastor and the rest of the congregation something noteworthy and good that happened to them or a friend or family member, and likewise could notify us of anyone who might benefit from our prayers or some Christian service for some reason. That is a particular element of those worship services that I wish we could incorporate into our own Sacrament meeting. I feel like it would greatly increase my sense of community and family with other members of the ward, and I think it could do the same for all of us.
4. At this same point in the service, the rabbi recognized a young woman who was about to have her Bat Mitzvah (the female equivalent of our Bar Mitzvah). She was asked to take part in the ceremony and her parents were allowed to read a prepared prayer that both commended her to God and told the congregation a great deal about the girl, her parents, and the hopes that her parents have for her future. It made me wonder how much we do to recognize the good things that our own youth, and particularly the YW, are doing. In most cases I have seen, major milestones in a youth's life are marked by nothing more than a cursory recognition of that achievement by the bishop, without any comment by the parent or the youth who just received the recognition as to how this achievement has impacted their lives and/or their testimony of the Gospel. It extends beyond the youth as well. For example, immediately after I left on my mission, the Church imposed stricter guidelines on how missionary farewells could be conducted (and for good reason, in my mind). Girls both did and do have equal access to take advantage of missionary opportunities, but far fewer girls take advantage of it than boys. I realize that this opens up larger questions about the treatment of YW in the Church, but I do not want to get into that here. My only question here is whether we could do better in appreciating and recognizing our youth and their achievements and provide them with further opportunities to grow and be recognized by the wider ward family. This recognition for the Jewish girl in my story was obviously a momentous occasion for her and she would be further recognized in a smaller Bat Mitzvah ceremony the next day. My fear is that in our services, the recognition of a YM or YW's achievement seems to be nothing more than another item on the agenda.
And now for the grand finale...
When I learned that the leaders of the synagogue had approached a member of our stake and wanted to arrange a visit to our meetings for their youth, it was immediately clear to me that the polite and enlightened thing to do would be to offer to visit their services. Too often, members of the Church are all-too-eager to share our knowledge of the Gospel with others, and too reticent to accept the light and truth that others might have to share with us. I think that too many believe that those of other faiths, and in particular non-Christian faiths, have little or nothing to offer us. When I brought the idea of another visit up with the ward leadership, they were initially hesitant, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. But other youth leaders seemed to have had a similar idea, and made sure it was carried out.
I suppose that you could cynically look at this as just another missionary opportunity (or as preparation for our young men who will serve missions), but since the conversion of the rabbi or any of the Jewish youth seems highly unlikely at this point, I think we can look for deeper indications of the value of this kind of interfaith practice. Even with the revealed knowledge we have of the Gospel, it is very important for us to understand and appreciate the beautiful and more ancient rituals of religions like Judaism. I grew up in a small town in the South with no Jews, Catholics, or Muslims, and I feel that my upbringing was diminished because of it. I did not get the opportunity to know any such persons until I went to college. Because of these kinds of interfaith activities, I hope that this generation of youth in the Church will be better able to forge strong bonds of friendship with those of other faiths, not only in my own stake, but throughout the Church. So for those of you who lead auxiliaries, and in particular the YM/YW program, my hope is that you will look for and take advantage of similar opportunities, even if you are the ones that initially have to show interest in visiting the services of another faith tradition.