Whatever expertise I have on Jewish culture is probably the result of watching Mel Brooks and Marx Brothers movies. But while I am no specialist when it comes to the study of Judaism, I am an expert on my own opinion and my own feelings, which, this past weekend, were fine-tuned for me thanks to attending one of my best friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah.
It certainly may sound counterintuitive that a professed Catholic/Christian could glean spiritual inspiration that feeds a hopefully Christ-centered soul by attending a Jewish rite of passage, but, as they say, God does work in mysterious ways sometimes.
And when I say mysterious I do not mean confusing, but in the classical Catholic sense of a mystery that, although it may not be within my abilities to comprehend, is a truth that is as bold and sure as the laws that bind the planets.
Like changes in the disciplines and practices within the Church over the past two millenniums, the concept of a Bar Mitzvah likewise has morphed based on what region a particular group of Jews lived and local customs dictated. In short, when a boy becomes a man, he must stand on his own two feet and declare himself for God. The ritual may differ from one Jewish community to the next, the common trait remains — when a boy reaches the age of 13, its time for him to take his faith seriously and learn to read Sacred Scripture in Hebrew.
My first thought was that Jesus was 12 when Mary and Joseph double-backed to Jerusalem to find him in the Temple reading Scripture and, of course, asking questions. Jesus was going through his own Jewish rite of passage.
Now, with one of the major teachings of the Second Vatican Council being the celebration of the truth we find in “other” religions, I was beginning to be filled with that sense of spiritual nourishment as the Bar Mitzvah continued on. I’ve attended my share of Protestant weddings and funerals, and I could appreciate our shared beliefs in a Triune God and the necessity for the death and resurrection for our salvation.
But being inside a synagogue, even a very modern and probably considered “Jewish-lite” congregation by the more Orthodox, was different in a way beyond anything I have ever experienced in any ecumenical context. Let’s face it: If the truth of Judaism isn’t poured on concrete footings via the First Covenant, then Jesus and the Second Covenant are suspect.
My friend’s son, Jack, was outstanding and you could tell he was not just going through the paces waiting for the party to start. He had put in a lot of effort, thought and prayer into this most holy ritual. Added to this, it is a ritual carried out in public with him standing alone reading before friends and family. And when it came time for the Torah to come out, that’s when my Catholic soul stirred.
Where do they keep the Torah? In a place of honor called a tabernacle. When they reverenced this sacred repository and opened its large ornate doors with bowed humility, I could only think of the beginning of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John, 1:1)
How blessed and connected I felt toward my own faith and its pedigree. Thanks to Jesus and his sacrifice, we Catholic/Christians maintain a priestly order and instead of one Temple in Jerusalem, every single Catholic Church or chapel with a tabernacle is a temple where the word made flesh resides.
Not to throw stones, but I have heard Protestant friends scoff at the “Jewish” belief that within the Holy of Holies behind that curtain in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, God resided in a unique and physical way. Yet, as I saw the rabbi and the newly Bar Mitzvahed Jack solemnly return the majestically decorated Torah to its place of repose in the synagogue’s tabernacle, I couldn’t help but think of all those tabernacles in all those churches where Christ resides, waiting for the next person to bow their head and partake in the food that relieves all hunger.
So congratulations to my friend, Todd, and his beautiful wife, Nancy, and to their remarkable son, Jack. And thanks to them for allowing me to briefly touch 5,000 years of tradition that, for me, carried through to Good Friday, Easter Sunday and beyond.