Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar?: Jewish Roots of Christian Worshipby Meredith Gould
Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar? seeks to meet these demands by providing information and insight about Judaism’s legacy as it is/em>
A desire and demand to know more about the Jewish legacy of Christian identity is growing among laity. A similar desire to foster interfaith understanding and dialogue is growing among leaders of local churches.
Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar? seeks to meet these demands by providing information and insight about Judaism’s legacy as it is revealed in Christian rites, rituals, and traditions.
Drawing upon scripture and historical sources, this book explains how Judaism has influenced the structure of liturgical worship; the design and décor of church sanctuaries; and how Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation find their roots in Judaism.
This book invites readers to develop a deeper understanding of Judaism, one that will enrich their Christianity and appreciation for their enduring Jewish heritage. Includes: questions for reflection; activities for individuals or groups; and easy-to-follow timelines.
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Why is there a MENORAH ON THE ALTAR?
Jewish Roots of Christian Worship
By MEREDITH GOULD
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2009 Meredith Gould
All rights reserved.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
If you've picked up this book, it's probably because the title has piqued your curiosity about the "Judeo" part of your Judeo-Christian heritage and you want to learn more about it. To gear up for this adventure, you'll need to hunker down and read quite a bit of scripture. Promise: this will enhance your appreciation of ... everything! Here, I'll not only suggest what to read but how to read it. Your response to my counsel will undoubtedly be shaped by the Christian tradition in which you've been raised.
If you're a Roman Catholic, an invitation to read scripture on your own might make you feel a bit nervous at first. Although generations of Catholics read missals while the Mass was being celebrated, only relatively recently have in-the-pew Catholics become as engaged in scripture study as their Protestant sisters and brothers. I can think of a number of esoteric and practical reasons why.
Back in the thirteenth century, laity were flat-out forbidden to read scripture. Proclaiming the word of God and the privilege of interpreting text became the exclusive right of clergy. In part this had to do with literacy levels within the general population; in part it had to do with the clericalism Protestant reformers railed against. While scripture had long been translated from Hebrew into Greek and then into Latin, it wasn't available in the vernacular to literate laity until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—for Protestants.
Celebrating the Mass in local languages after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) made scripture much more accessible. By the end of the twentieth century, Catholic laity had become more engaged not only with liturgical activities, but also with running parish ministries. This served to generate an increased demand for Bible study. In addition, converts from traditions anchored in scripture study were unwilling to relinquish that upon becoming Catholic. Today, many more regular in-and-out-of-the-pew Catholics read and study Christian scripture on their own or within parish-based groups. But for cradle Catholics of a certain generation, the suggestion that anyone might independently study, interpret, and understand scripture may be off-putting.
If you're a Protestant, an invitation to pay close attention to scripture may seem like no big deal because you've been doing it forever. You, however, might start feeling nervous when you encounter my suggestions about how to read scripture, especially if you were raised to view scripture as literal, rather than metaphorical.
So which books of the Bible will help you better understand the subject matter of this book?
Which Scripture to Read
I'm exceedingly fond of saying that no Christian can possibly understand how radical Jesus was without reading the Pentateuch—the Five Books of Moses.
As Christians, we believe that God became man and that man was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was born a Jew in a particular time and place. He spoke in terms of, and with reference to, the Torah. Like other teachers influenced by the Pharisees, Jesus posed questions, told stories, engaged in lively conversation, and at times became exasperated with his students. While gospel stories reveal how his disciples were generally slow to grasp what he was saying, that didn't stop Jesus from using Hebrew scripture as the context and content of his lessons. You'll need to read at least some of this material. And unless you learned Hebrew during Sunday school at Holy Redeemer of Gentiles Church, you'll read scripture in translation. I'll get to translation issues further on in this chapter.
Within the Pentateuch, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are especially important because they spell out the Law of Moses presented in Exodus. There's a lot more to Jewish law than the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), and these books reveal the other 603. That's right, there are 613 mitzvot (commandments) that shape the eternal and internal rhythms of Jewish spiritual life. If you can read only one of these three books, I recommend beginning with Deuteronomy because it recapitulates much of what's in Leviticus and Numbers. But please make time to read Leviticus and Numbers, they're fascinating. These books will help you understand the origins of Christian rituals having to do with purification and initiation discussed in Chapter 3 (Worship) and Chapter 4 (Baptism).
Plan to read Genesis and Exodus sooner rather than later. In fact, start there! Whenever anyone asks me where to begin reading the Bible, I always answer the same way: "With Genesis." This always produces a smile and sometimes gets a laugh—but I don't make this recommendation to be clever or artful with scripture. I recommend beginning at the beginning with Genesis for a slew of reasons, including the fact that every possible instance of human bad behavior can be found in this first book of holy scripture. In addition to mapping out the story of creation and the earliest history of the ancient Israelites, Genesis is so filled with crime, passion, sex, intrigue, betrayal, incest, murder, mayhem, gore, vengeance, and violence that most of it is suitable reading for adults only. Reading Genesis should also help you appreciate the derivative nature of soap operas.
Exodus reveals the significance of what biblical scholars and theologians term the "Sinai Event"—when God chose the Israelites "by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power" (Deuteronomy 4:34) and gave the Jews an identity and commandments for living. Exodus is a book about God's personal, intimate, and durable relationship with his chosen people.
Reading Exodus should help you understand why contemporary Jews who engage in Christian-Jewish dialogue emphatically reject any theology that suggests Almighty God would ever replace, supersede, nullify, or otherwise break this covenant: "... you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5–6). Exodus will also help you appreciate how being Jewish is a complex amalgam of identities. Is it a national identity or a religion? Social scientists include common ancestry and shared culture in their definitions of ethnicity, so is being Jewish an ethnicity? Most Jews would agree that being Jewish is all these things—and then have lots to say about those Jews who might view it differently. Exodus (and certainly parts of Genesis) also illuminates why bread, water, and blood are such a big sacred deal for Jews and Christians alike, something discussed further in Chapter 5 (Holy Communion).
What's that? Have I read the Pentateuch? Yes, but don't ask me to recite chapter and verse. I can, however, usually reel off most of the plagues foisted upon the Egyptians in Exodus, but not necessarily in order and only within the context of a Passover Seder (Exodus 7–11).
Within Christian scripture, please read Luke's gospel as well as Acts of the Apostles, the history of Christianity emerging and separating from Judaism. Both were written after key events changed the religious landscape for Jewish followers of Jesus, events discussed in more detail within the next chapter. Here I'll simply point out that by the time these books were completed, Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus were increasingly viewing themselves as a separate sect. Reading both books will help you understand why some Jews started following Jesus of Nazareth and came to accept him as the Christ. Acts of the Apostles will help you understand why the Pharisee who became known as Paul the Apostle focused on Gentiles as he preached Jesus as Christ. Paul's letter to the community in Galatia illuminates key disputes between him and the apostle Peter.
You should probably also read the letter to the Hebrews, even though biblical scholars have identified a number of ways it's problematic: no clear authorship; disputes about when it was written; and whether it's a sermon, a letter, an exhortation to take action, or midrash (i.e., a type of homiletic literature and biblical exegesis or interpretation). Biblical scholars are also divided over whether Hebrews was written to Jewish followers of Jesus, Gentile followers of Jesus, or both.
The issue about who actually wrote what you're reading is also something to remember whenever you read Paul's letters. Biblical scholars agree that while Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon, the rest of his letters were probably written by others. Biblical scholars are debating among themselves when each contribution to Christian scripture was probably written, yet another factor to consider as you read, thus begging the question about how to read these materials most effectively.
How to Read Scripture
I'm making several assumptions as I write, and my basic one is that you're someone who likes to read about faith and religion. Your education includes all, some, or none of the following: 1) Scripture study that includes either or both Hebrew and Christian scripture; 2) religious formation (i.e., catechesis) that's either current, vaguely remembered, or long forgotten, possibly rigorous but probably not; and 3) undergraduate work that includes basic courses in the humanities (e.g. the arts, history, languages, literature, philosophy) and social sciences (e.g., anthropology, economics, sociology, political science). Perhaps you have graduate work to your credit, but hopefully not so much that you believe only academicians are capable of interpreting and forming opinions about what they read. No matter what your background, you have an opinion about the meaning and use of scripture shaped by all the above. You do not have to be a biblical scholar, theologian, or cleric to read and interpret scripture, any more than you need to be all or any of these to be a person of faith or to claim religious affiliation. You do, however, take on certain obligations and responsibilities whenever you read scripture.
How should you read scripture? In a word, critically.
As a practical matter, this means constantly and consciously asking analytical questions such as, "What's going on?" and then following up with, "Says who?" and "Why?" You do not—should not—forfeit faith by asking these questions. Understanding that scripture has shape-shifted as it has been written, translated, rewritten, and retranslated over the centuries should not undermine your belief that it's the inspired word of God. Understanding that the canon (i.e., the officially recognized set of sacred books) emerged as a result of political wrangling among the men who structured and restructured the church should not undermine your belief that the ruach hakodesh (Holy Spirit of God) is ever-present.
I recommend reading scripture with a sense of discovery and curiosity, especially if you come from a religious tradition that discourages challenges from regular folk. You need to know that Judaism has always encouraged critical inquiry. The enduring glory of Judaism is that any Jew may challenge, question, argue, dispute, and refute if verbal jousting leads to more clarity about the Law and tzedakah (right relationship with God, all things, and all people).
During the first century, Bet Hillel (House of Hillel) and Bet Shammai (House of Shammai), schools of Torah interpretation, were so antagonistic that, depending on which authority you read, at least three and as many as five of their disputes are mentioned in the Talmud (Torah commentaries, first oral and later codified in writing). The incidence of dispute between Hillel's and Shammai's disciples was such that this saying emerged: 'The one Law has become two laws." Consider the possibility that at least some percentage of the gospel stories featuring Jesus being challenged were not about the Pharisees trapping and tricking Jesus but instead testing his mettle as a teacher and interpreter of the Law. Read those stories more closely and notice how Jesus, good Jew that he is, tests and challenges their interpretations of the Law.
In addition to written Law (Torah), Judaism is shaped by the Mishnah (a compendium of legal materials dating ca. 200 C.E.) and the oral tradition of midrash (interpretations). For Jews, there's always more to be revealed through study, prayer, and critical inquiry. Hebrew scripture is filled with stories about the Israelites arguing with one another and with God. God commiserates with Moses, calling the Israelites a "stiff-necked people" (Exodus 32:9; 33:5). Moses complains about the complaining, has a temper tantrum, and forfeits his right to enter the land that was promised (Numbers 20:2–13; Deuteronomy 32:48–52). During the first century, Stephen capped his survey of this lively history by characterizing priests of the Sanhedrin as "stiff-necked people ... just like your fathers" (Acts 7:1–53). He could have used the term "feisty" had the word existed.
Although Christian history is filled with examples of people burned at the stake or otherwise tortured for such temerity, consider taking comfort in knowing that asking tough questions about righteous living is not a sure sign of disobedience. Although it might not seem too attractive considering the consequences of doing so throughout history, you might embrace your Jewish heritage by asking challenging questions while reading scripture. Stephen, in fact, is claimed by the church as its first martyr for being a feisty Jewish follower of Jesus as the Christ (Acts 7:57–59; 8:1).
You can and may read scripture in a variety of ways (e.g., allegorically, historically, as poetry, literary narrative, or mystical code). All these approaches or methods have validity; you simply need to acknowledge if and when you're reading scripture as if it's metaphor, a factual account of events, or a collection of stories and poetry. Notice if and how your understanding and appreciation of scripture changes as you shift reading styles. Being open to reading scripture in a variety of ways will put you right in the mainstream of current efforts to bridge what is increasingly being viewed as a false division between theology and exegesis. During his talk at the 2008 Synod of Catholic Bishops, Anglican bishop and Christian scripture scholar N. T. Wright noted that reading scripture should involve "the heart (lectio divina, liturgical reading); the mind (historical/critical study); the soul (church life, tradition, teaching); and strength (mission, kingdom of God)."
It's also important to know what the author of any particular text believes about the acceptable meaning and use of scripture. This is true for authors in antiquity as well as those currently writing about scripture and religion. The problem is we don't always know what those writing scripture were thinking or what they hoped their work would accomplish. Opinions are not facts, interpretations are not facts, and the fact of the matter is that we have precious little factual material about much that's recorded in scripture, but we do have some information thanks to manuscripts that have been unearthed. For example, most scholars have come to believe that the Red Sea mentioned in Exodus was really a marshy body of water more accurately called the Sea of Reeds.
Biblical scholars and theologians tend to agree that biblical writers wrote to record, revise, or interpret history; to inspire faith and righteousness; to persuade. How you understand their efforts will depend on what you choose to focus on whenever you read scripture.
If, as you read scripture, you focus on the impact of ancient civilizations and their languages, then you're within the domain of historical-critical analysis. If you're more interested in the impact of cultural artifacts (e.g., values, beliefs, ideas) and social variables (e.g., sex, gender, race, ethnicity, economic and educational status), then you've entered the world of social scientific analysis. If you focus on how language, structure, and tone are used in scripture stories, poetry, aphorisms, and letters, then you're in alignment with scholars who use techniques of literary criticism to understand and explain what they're reading. Whether you take any one or a combination of all these approaches, whatever you're able to glean will also depend on whose translation of scripture you read.
Excerpted from Why is there a MENORAH ON THE ALTAR? by MEREDITH GOULD. Copyright © 2009 Meredith Gould. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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