What I learned from a Sabbath synagogue service

A couple weeks ago I went to a Sabbath service at a Messianic Jewish synagogue. This was my first time in a synagogue, and I expected to feel out of place. When I stepped out of my car I heard many voices of excited people greeting each other. The people were of all ages, from small children to the grandparents who surely spoiled them and every age between. As I walked into the synagogue, I noticed that what most people wore was similar to what I have seen at most church services, except that about one-third of the people in the main gathering room wore some form of Jewish clothing. Some kept a prayer shawl draped over their shoulders, lifting it over their heads as they prayed and removing it afterward. Others had tassels, or tzitzit, hanging from four corners around their waistlines, with all white cords except one, which was blue. Some of the men wore kippa, or a small round cap. Yet most of the men were outfitted in button-up shirts and dress pants while the majority of the women wore dresses.

The service began with a time of praising God with singing and music from a band, just as I have seen in most church services. As the music began, though, I noticed some people gather in a corner of the room near the stage. The corner was bare: no chairs filled the space. After fifteen or so people had gathered in this corner, they began dancing. Not a random party dance like I am used to seeing, having been immersed in a culture of college parties for the past four years; their movements were obviously choreographed and practiced. In spite of this, the dancing people seemed to show authentic joy at the words they sang and the music to which they danced.

Most of the people did not dance, though they still participated in praising God with their movements as well as their words. The majority of the people raised their hands above their heads as they sang. Many of these people swayed back and forth or nodded their heads to the beat. Some people bobbed up and down on their toes while others twisted their torsos back and forth with raised hands. Only a few people stood rather still with their hands by their sides.

This was a vibrant room full of enthusiasm for praising the Lord God.

The time of music lasted at least twenty minutes, longer than most musical portions I am used to in church services. At that point a man came up and spoke about a portion of the book of Leviticus concerning “a swelling or an eruption or a spot,” and how this is a mundane topic, yet that we can still learn from what the Bible has to say about it. His speech lasted only ten minutes, and after this he stepped off the stage and into the crowd, and the music began once more. This section of the service lasted about half an hour and seemed rather unstructured, with the only goal being to sing praises to the Father, Son and Spirit.

After the music slowly came to a close, another man came up to the front of the room. He introduced himself as a rabbi and began to speak on another topic. While I cannot remember what that topic was, I can remember that he pulled from many places in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, and provided context to the Scriptures that I had not heard before. He was also passionate as he spoke. The message, while I don’t remember the topic, left me thinking about how passionate I am about knowing the content of the Bible. Not simply knowing vague ideas, but knowing exactly what the Bible says. I had to admit that I do not know much of the precise content of the Bible, nor do I have an insatiable hunger to know it as well as I can. Yet I do have a small desire to know it, and I recalled that the Bible says God is faithful and does not give up on people who seek him.

The service ended with one more long period of music and singing. The people, even though they had at this point been in that room for about two hours, still sang enthusiastically. The music then faded out and people began to move about the room, some remaining inside and some exiting the building. Energy pulsed through the room: I could feel it all around me and inside me. I left the building after a few minutes and stood on the concrete path that led to the parking lot, thinking about what I had just witnessed.

After having pondered this Sabbath service for two weeks, two things made deep impressions on me: the people’s passion to know the content of the Bible (which I often call the Text) and the unity in the room.

Throughout the service the people recited portions of the Scriptures. Some portions I recognized from hearing them in various contexts and some I did not. Also, at one point the rabbi took a giant scroll (I’m guessing it represented Torah, the first five books of the Bible) out of a cabinet on the stage (called a Torah closet) and carried it slowly around the perimeter of the room. Many of the people in the room took their copy of the Bible and touched it to the scroll then to their lips. A man had informed me about this practice before the service began, saying this is the traditional way of following the biblical command to keep the words of the Lord on one’s lips (I think it is from Joshua 1:8). I could tell that these people care about the Text.

As I looked around the room, I could see that the people were diverse. The clothing people wore showed this clearly. So did their motions (or lack of motion) as the music played. Then the people’s interactions or silence during the rabbi’s teaching also showed a difference of personalities in the crowd. As the service progressed, I could tell that the people in the room were all very different. And I could also tell that most people embraced and enjoyed this variety.

I am not Jewish, nor do I plan to become a regular member of the community of a synagogue. However, I am convinced that the hunger for the Text and the acceptance of diversity and differences in the room is something that American churches can learn from. We are the family of God, so we should know and love our Father and love each other. That is, after all, what our Lord Jesus said is the greatest commandment. Let us lean into it.

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