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: Friday 30th of January My Understanding of Judaism
One of the first things you come to appreciate about religion is the devotion that it inspires. Judaism is a religion inspired not only by the word of Yahweh but also the faith of its devotees. It has a rich history punctuated by the schisms that so often mark historical religions. Today those schisms are represented in terms of the Orthodox Jew and the Non-Orthodox Jew. Temple Israel of Greater Miami situated in the heart of Miami subscribes to the non-orthodox tradition of Judaism. On
Friday the 30th of January I had the pleasure of attending my first Jewish service at Temple Israel of Greater Miami. I was very excited to study this particular faith within the synagogue. Submitting to stereotypes of Judaism and the Jewish race I had previously failed to learn that this great faith has a rich history, symbolism and tradition. There is a word called Judaism that is not limited to religion. More than half of the Jewish people living in Israel say that they are secular and an equal proportion living in the United States do not attend Jewish religious
services. To begin, Judaism must also then be used to refer to a certain race of people with a common history. In 1980 the United States Supreme Court recognized this and declared “Jewish” to be a race. The Jewish collective is now recognized throughout the world as an ethno race. 41 percent of that world population of Jews now lives in the state of Israel. The remaining Jews living outside of the land of Israel are said to be the Jewish Diaspora. All of this said, it would surprise many to know that Jew is actually not a race. Common ancestry is not required to be a Jew. Instead, a Jew can be Sammy Davis Jr., a convert, or hail from Ethiopian origins. Thus we learn the words Jew and Jewish can be misnomers. This paper will limit the discussion of “Judaism” to the study of its religious context and by default that which implicitly refers to the study of the Torah, the Jewish holy text. The word for the Hebrew Bible, “Torah,” means learning or instruction in Hebrew. The authorship of this holy text is said to be from Moses and serves as the basis of Jewish law and tradition. This Jewish Bible is noteworthy in that it serves also as the precursor to the Christian Bible. However, throughout the history of Judaism cultural practices and knowledge of Judaism have not been limited to the holiest of Jewish texts, the Torah. There also exists the Talmud for the purpose of discussing Jewish ethics, traditions law and history. Instructional texts such as “Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays” found at Temple Israel of Greater Miami further guide traditional religious ceremonies within a synagogue.
In order to fully understand Judaism it becomes necessary to define its traditional words, namely those that I came into contact with. A synagogue is a Jewish house of prayer. Nevertheless, Jewish worship may be carried out wherever ten or more Jews assemble. A kippah is a skullcap worn by observant Jewish males. Yet, it may also be worn by women within some branches of Judaism against popular stereotype. Hebrew is referred to as the holy language of Jews and is used for prayer and study by Jewish communities across the globe. Israel is referenced as the “land of milk and honey” in the Torah. This land is both sacred and central to the Jewish faith. A menorah is a candelabrum that in the words of the Torah symbolizes "a
light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6) to be lit during religious observances. A menorah was the first Jewish symbol that I noticed upon entering Temple Israel of Greater Miami. All seven candles flickered in the dimly lit synagogue located in downtown Miami. On Friday the 30th of January service began at 7:30
p.m. and continued for almost an hour and half. Warmly welcomed by two hosts the service began in earnest with prayer accompanied by soft piano music. I quickly noted that the service was highly structured and followed a detailed program set out in “Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays, Shabbat Evening Service II.” The first prayer signaled the lighting of two Shabbat candles followed by an up-tempo hymn whereby the congregation clapped in rhythm. To my surprise I noticed that the general layout of the temple resembled that of a Christian church save a few exceptions. The altar of the synagogue was centered on the “ark.” No choir was present nor
was there any indication that a choir existed. The Star of David could be found embossed throughout the temple on the pews, light fixtures and numerous commemorative plaques throughout. The altar was bordered on both corners with an American flag and on the other side an Israeli flag. The role of community was made apparent by the announcement section of the service. During this segment the membership and outreach coordinator announced yoga classes, networking meetings and upcoming wedding celebrations. Linda Levin reminded all in attendance to pray for the ill and those not able to attend Shabbat. I was able to gain some insight into the role of the ark in the synagogue when she remarked that it had been “kept” by Sandra and Julian Goldstein. Later I would learn that the ark candles were maintained lit by a rotating group of volunteers Upon observation I was surprised to see that not all men wore the ritual Jewish cap. The evening service was dominated by the elderly in attendance. I was particularly surprised to see a rainbow of races practicing the Jewish faith especially other blacks like myself. The attire of the congregation tended to be of black and white colors. Many members wore shawls of specific colors. Further, the church was decorated with many stained glass windows depicting scenes from the torah and commemorations. The religious instructional text that guided the service was very particular in emphasizing the roles of the congregation, attendants and the
use of English and Hebrew. The presiding rabbi read certain lines of texts and the congregation others. Hebrew was often cited and read instructing members to rise and be seated at given moments. Upon further investigation of “Gates of Prayer” I noticed that the texts called for three separate but individual evening services for the weekday and also included a section for afternoon service instruction. The historical aspect of the service greatly focused on the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. Reference to this exodus and the “awe” of God was made often. However, my most profound and startling impression of the entire service experience centered on the message delivered at the end of the service by Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz. He began by asking the congregation to raise their hand if they read certain newspapers and their political preferences. The sermon was objective. Rabbi Chefitz read articles by a famous Israeli author concerning the long history of conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. I cannot begin to express the deep admiration and respect I came away with. The message at once acknowledged the biases of one’s interpretation of news and the need for objectivity. He noted that Israel had created grave mistakes in dealings with its Middle East neighbors and called for a clear middle of the road reasoning in addressing the conflict in the Middle East. The most pertinent message of the sermon was that in order to gain peace with others we must strive towards cooperative understanding which can only be found in the middle and not at the extremes of perspective.
Astonished at the message of Rabbi Chefitz I came to realize that Judaism is not so rooted in tradition as to not be contemporary and relevant. Historically, the moment that God spoke to Moses is the most significant Jewish reference. Moses received Gods word in the oral form of the Torah. He led the Jewish people out of Israel and later the oral torah was committed to writing for the sake of preserving God’s will. The Jewish God, Yahweh, was a jealous god. According to the Torah there were to be no other gods. Thus, Judaism is acknowledged by many scholars to be the first monotheistic religion. It was during the reign of King David that Jewish symbolism acquired the Star of David. The Star of David is found throughout the Temple Israel of Greater Miami. This five pointed star was used by Nazis to identify Jewish people for persecution during a dark chapter in their history: the holocaust. My supplementary research following Shabbat service was aimed at learning new terminology and reshaping my view of the Jewish faith. The first word I researched was “Shabbat.” Shabbat is a short reference to the “Covenant of Shabbat” given by God. God instructs: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work... For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. I was impressed to learn that the word Sabbath is a derivation of Shabbat.
The second word I researched was “rabbi.” This word bears no resemblance to the definition of the word priest in Christianity. Rabbis are not endowed with the right, privilege or authority to perform rituals more than any other adult Jew. Instead, a rabbi is a teacher sufficiently educated in Jewish law and ritual to aid in instruction of such. Having defined “rabbi” It became apparent to me that the female chosen to lead the service at the Temple Israel of Greater Miami served in a defined capacity. Her role was that of “chazan.” Chazans are persons of good moral character and possessing musical ability who lead recitation of prayer and song. My lasting impression of Judaism is of profound respect and appreciation. I was very apprehensive attending a Jewish service. I believed this great missionary religion to not be inclusive and found my belief to be lacking. A rainbow of skin colors I saw inside of Temple Israel of Greater Miami. However, if the words of the Torah are eternal then the message from Rabbi Chefitz was indelible. I know now that in order to achieve his theme of cooperative understanding we all must venture beyond our preferred newspapers and read a page from one another whether or not one is Jewish.
2. http://www.jewfaq.org/toc.htm 3. Livingston, James C. Anatomy of the Sacred. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2009 4. Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.