Festivals

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Simchat Torah – an affair of the heart

Why Simchat Torah is an affair of the heart

By Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

This blog has been taken from an article written in 2012, published by The Jewish Chronicle. Simchat Torah is the Jewish holiday that celebrates and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Its Hebrew name translates as “rejoicing with/of the Torah”

At Simchat Torah, death and life are linked by just two beats of the heart. Our Torah reading cycle reaches its final episode, the death of Moses. A single heartbeat later, we are once again “In the beginning”, as we restart the cycle, affirming life through Bereshit, the Creation of the world.

This beating of the heart is the seam that welds together the end and the beginning: our tradition points out that the final letter of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is lamed and the first letter of Bereshit (Genesis) is bet, which in Hebrew together spell lev, meaning heart.

We celebrate the Torah cycle by re-enacting circles in our customary rituals. We carry the Torah, dancing and singing, circling our synagogues seven times in hakafot, processions .[1] Our circling is reminiscent of the seven circles at a wedding, the joining together of a couple which continues the work of Creation, completed in seven days.

The symbols of Simchat Torah are direct and free of distraction. We cast aside the intense inward focus of the High Holy Days. Our focus is joy, fasting rescinding into the past. We also leave behind the trappings of Succot that were our companions for a week — no lulav, no fragrant etrog.[2]

We suspend the yearning for Zion and lavish no attention on the Land of Israel. Our focus is unashamedly narrow: only one subject, only one symbol — arteries scribed in black ink on parchment, forming our Torah.

The emphatic change of mood contrasts sharply with the intensity of the Days of Repentance and with the sense of vulnerability engendered by sitting in makeshift shacks during Succot. It is a moment of release: we face the magnificence of taking all the Torah scrolls out of the ark at the same time, the parading of the Torah scrolls to sing and dance with them.

Simchat Torah affirms that our introspection surrounding the Days of Repentance leads us to joy rather than to melancholy. Sometimes we may need to draw on hidden resources of strength to be so upbeat and to dance and sing but this is the command: to be joyous.

We parade our Torah scrolls, which are our real riches, and proudly place them on show. It is the Torah that is honoured, that is kissed, turned to, passed lovingly round. The rabbis and synagogue dignitaries mostly play second or third fiddle.

The interwoven moment of endings and beginnings, the heartbeat between death and life ends this period of the year and shoves us forward: we may have looked inwards, repented, made our peace with ourselves and with our own understanding of our Creator, but that is not enough.

Moses’s journey may have ended just short of entering the Promised Land but the shove towards creation and re-creation (not recreation) means that we cannot rest. We have prayed, fasted, sung, but that isn’t it. We aren’t let off the hook. Let us celebrate: our circle is still turning.

Until this month, Laura Janner-Klausner was the Senior Rabbi for Reform Judaism

[1] A ritual in which people walk or dance around a specific object, generally in a religious setting. The word literally translates as “to circle” or “going around”.

[2] The Lulav and Etrog are the four species of plants which are held together and waved in ritual of Sukkot.

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A Lent Reflection – Jewish-Christian Relations during Holy Week

Guest Blog by Dr Clare Amos, Taken from the April Newsletter of the Council of Christians and Jews
A Lent Reflection – Jewish-Christian Relations during Holy Week

In 2020 both the Christian Holy Week/Easter and the Jewish festival of Passover fall very close in time together.  It has, at least in past centuries, been a season marked by hostility, and sometimes violence on the part of Christians towards their Jewish neighbours. This was partly generated by the reading of the Passion narrative – the version in Matthew’s Gospel, which is this year’s lectionary Gospel, is especially difficult because of its suggestion that the crowd present at Jesus’ trial had willingly accepted blood guilt for Jesus’ death (Matthew 27.25). Notably that reference is not in any of the other three Gospels, and its inclusion in Matthew may owe more to Jewish-Christian tensions at the time Matthew’s Gospel was written than to historicity. The highly charged atmosphere of Holy Week led also to several instances of the ‘blood libel’ – the accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in the making of the matzot (unleaven bread) for Passover. Ridiculous as this libel may now seem, in the Middle Ages it led to several instances of deadly attacks against Jewish communities.

Of course things have now changed. At least we hope so, although recent attacks on Jewish groups have made it clear that violence is never far beneath the surface. But with such a fraught history of relationships Christians need to be very aware of Jewish sensitivities, and acknowledge that the passion provoked by the Passion can be very dangerous.  Most churches have revised the traditional prayers used especially on Good Friday – so that (thankfully) we are no longer asked to pray for ‘perfidious Jews’. One of the most important steps Christianity has taken in the last 75 years is an institutional willingness to be self-critical, a step which is a prerequisite if a religion is not going to allow itself to be used as a tool in religiously motivated violence.

Nevertheless there is still ‘room for improvement’. The vexed question of Christianity’s theological relationship to Judaism rears its head during Holy Week. It is expressed most visibly in the increasingly popular practice in some Christian circles of holding what might be called a ‘Christian Seder’. This is a celebration on Maundy Thursday, or a day very close to it, normally by a church, of elements of the Jewish Passover Seder, but with Christian additions drawing on the account of Jesus’ Last Supper. Whether intentionally or not such celebrations often end up conveying to the participants a sense that Christianity has ‘superseded’ and replaced Judaism. For Jews, very conscious of being a small minority, the practice has elements of what some call ‘theological genocide’ about it, a sharp term, but one which reflects the fear among the Jewish community of the damage that well-meaning but clumsy Christians can inflict.

Dr Clare Amos
Until her recent retirement Dr Clare Amos was head of the interreligious office at the World Council of Churches, Geneva, and currently Hon Director of Lay Discipleship of the Church of England Diocese in Europe

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Spring Festivals

By Sr Isabel Smyth

A global virus has done what we human beings have been incapable of doing – reducing carbon emissions. For the first time in a long time Beijing is without pollution and citizens can see blue sky, the canals of Venice are clear and fish and dolphins are returning. Is coronavirus the cosmos reaching out for equilibrium and will we humans learn from it?  So much of ordinary life has changed but nature goes on and there are signs of spring everywhere. Even religious services have been cancelled but there’s still much to celebrate in religion. Recently there’s been a rash of religious festivals, all around the 21st March.

On 21st March the Baha’i community ended their nineteen day fast with the festival of Naw Ruz, which is also the Iranian and Zoroastrian New Year. Taking place, as it does, at the spring equinox it symbolises the new life of spring and is associated with the Most Great Name of God. Sending greetings to the Baha’i community, Bishop Brian McGee, chair of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue commented that there is a lesson for all of us in this, especially those of us who are believers: “For those of us who are believers the sovereignty of God is a counterpoint to the material and consumerist culture of our times.  Coronavirus, climate change and its consequences, conflicts between and within nations are indicative of a world in which humanity has forgotten that life is a gift, that we are all brothers and sisters sharing a common home with a responsibility of caring for creation and one another for the sake of future generations.”  Shall we be more aware of this when the present crisis is over?

Another spring festival which lasts over two days is the Hindu festival of Holi. Like all Hindu festivals there are stories attached to them – one is of a demon Holika who was burned on a pyre in place of Prahlahda who insisted on worshipping the God Vishnu. Another is of the Lord Krishna who being worried that Radha would not accept his blue skin was encouraged by his mother to rub any colour he wished on Radha’s face. So the carnival atmosphere during Holi involves the lighting of bonfires to symbolise the overcoming of evil and throw coloured paint and powder over one another. I was in India once during Holi. We danced round the bonfire but I retired well before the others who danced and sang all through the night. The next day we were bombarded with coloured water bombs that seemed to come out of nowhere. This year Holi was celebrated at the beginning of March, before the virus kept people off the streets.

At the same time as the Hindu community were celebrating Holi, the Jewish community were  celebrating the carnival festival of Purim.  Purim recalls how Queen Esther saved the Jewish community when the wicked Haman had convinced King Ahaseurus of Persia to issue a decree ordering their extermination. The story is told at Purim when the Book of Esther is read through twice in the synagogue. Every time the name Haman is mentioned it’s drowned out with rattles and hooters and boos from the congregation. Children also wear fancy dress and there’s a sense of hope and celebration, a bond of unity within the community and a belief in survival in the face of what in the story seemed a hopeless situation.  I’m sure this festival has taken on added significance since the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. It’s a lesson for all of us that life can come out of death, that hope can overcome despair, that communities that stand together can and do survive.

Last year these three festivals fell on the same day. This year Purim and Holi were held earlier in March while Naw Ruz was celebrated on 20th. They’ve a certain amount in common, being Spring festivals. Purim and Holi have a carnival atmosphere and all of them a sense of new beginnings, a sense that light can follow darkness. As the world faces these dark days of isolation and quarantine their message can give us hope and confidence that this too will pass, that a new life is possible, that we will one day be able to celebrate once again with family and friends.

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Washing of Feet

From the blog of Sister Isabel Smyth
www.interfaithjourneys.net

Easter weekend and, in the interfaith world, the two great religions of Judaism and Christianity have been celebrating their foundational festivals. Both festivals tell stories of liberation and remember the values and beliefs on which their religion is founded. For Judaism the celebrations take place at home and are focussed on the ritual meal eaten on the first of the eight days of Pesach. The story is about how God intervened in their history to free them from slavery and set them on the way to becoming a people. The refrain throughout the story is “on this night…..” because the memory of this saving act is an eternally present reality.

The Christian celebration of Easter takes place in community – in Churches – and over three days enacts the last days in the life of Jesus, from his last supper with his disciples, to his death as  a common criminal and his resurrection on the third day. It too is a festival of remembrance which makes ever present the possibility of liberation from the slavery of selfishness to a life of love and service.

Because Christianity grew out of Judaism it recalls the liberation of the People of Israel and celebrates God’s presence both in creation and in history.  It goes just that little bit further in that it also celebrates God’s presence in our very humanity and in our very human struggle to live a good and wholesome life. Like Pesach it is a festival of movement and journey from despair to hope, death to life, selfishness to love.  For Christians the story of Jesus’ passage through death to resurrection contains the truth of the continuing power and presence of Jesus and the possibility of new life that’s always a possibility.

Easter isn’t a story about the past but an insight into a truth about the present. Who can doubt that we live in a world that’s in need of redemption?  Surely it’s obvious from the mess we’re making of the environment, from the violence that so characterises our race, from the growth of isolationist politics, from our growing xenophobia etc. etc. The bombings in Sri Lanka, coming at this particular time, bear witness to that fact. But the Easter story tells us that death and destruction don’t have the last word, that things can change, that peace is possible, that new life can come out of old if we pray for it, are open to it, welcome it and work for it. Northern Ireland is an example of that and there are examples in other parts of the world and in our own individual lives if we look for them. This can give us hope.

One of the most moving moments during the Christian celebrations of the last days of Jesus is the washing of the feet. On Holy Thursday the priest presiding at the service washes the feet of 12 members of the congregation to re-enact the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus as they took their last supper together. It was an unusual gesture. Feet were washed on entering a house but never during a meal nor carried out by the master of the household. Peter protested and was told by Jesus that he could have no part with him unless he had his feet washed. It was for Jesus a sign of friendship. Then Jesus said ‘If I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example,  that you should do as I have done to you”.  In this action Jesus changes the order of things – the master has become the servant. There’s a way through the desire to dominate or the fear of being dominated, a way through competition for resources that leaves some overly wealthy and others impoverished, a way through the xenophobia that divides the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’. And that way is service.

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Naw Ruz

The Baha’i faith will celebrate “Naw-Ruz” or New Year, on March 20th through the evening of March 21st.

The Baha’i faith is a growing faith in Scotland. Scotland’s Baha’i history began around 1905. This was around the time when European visitors, met Abdu’l-Baha, who was the leader of the Baha’i religion at the time. The Baha’i religion has grown in Scotland in the last twenty years and now there are over 7,000 Baha’i’s across the entire United Kingdom, with a large percentage living in Scotland. The Baha’i faith was founded in 19th century Iran by Baha’u’llah, whose title means the Glory of God. The Baha’i religion is centered around the teachings of Baha’u’llah. In a quote by Baha’u’llah, he says, “The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” The Baha’i faith teaches the fundamental worth of all religions. At the same time, the Baha’i faith also teaches about the harmony and equality of all people.

The Baha’i new year, or Naw-Ruz is a special time of year for the Baha’i faith. While for Baha’is this holiday is part of their religion, in other countries it is considered a secular holiday. It is traditionally and currently celebrated as an Iranian new year holiday, however, many other countries across the Middle East and Central Asia have also adopted Naw-Ruz including, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Pakistan, Syria, and Tajikistan Kurdistan.

The words “Naw-Ruz” stand for “new day”, and it is a new year festival which falls at the spring equinox. It is a day which also symbolizes the new life of spring. The festival is usually observed with prayer and celebration. “The celebration is often combined with a feast, as the sunset before Naw-Ruz signals the end of the 19 day fast.”. The 19 day fast represents a spiritual preparation for Naw-Ruz, Music and dancing can also take place during the celebration of Naw-Ruz along with visiting friends and family and exchanging gifts.

We wish all our Baha’i friends a happy Naw-Ruz! You can read Archbishop Conti’s letter of warm wishes and greetings to the Baha’i community of Scotland on our website.

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A Hannukah and Advent Party

Adapted from the blog of Sister Isabel Smyth.

www.interfaithjourneys.net

Before Christmas the Council of Christians and Jews organised a Hannukah and Advent party. These are festivals of light and have a focus on candles which links the two festivals.

The hanukkiah, the candelabra used at Hanukkah, has 9 candles.  On each of the eight evenings of the festival a candle is lit from the ninth one which is called a helper or shamash so that by the eighth day of the festival all nine are burning. The tradition is to display these candles at a window to illustrate that the Jewish community can now enjoy religious freedom. Today large hanukkiahs are lit in major cities and public places such as the Scottish Parliament and the White House as an expression of religious freedom and tolerance.

The lighting of the candles commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of a Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes who, in the second century BCE, desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbade Jews to practice their faith. Defeating Antiochus, the Maccabees purified the Temple but found they hadn’t enough oil to light the everlasting lamp. Miraculously the little oil they did have lasted for eight days until replenishments could come. This is the miracle celebrated at Hanukkah with prayers, gifts, family fun and games. It’s a family, happy time to cheer us up on dark winter days – at least in this part of the world.

Advent is also a time for the lighting of candles but it looks forward rather than back. It begins the Christian year and is a time of preparation for Christmas. Some people use the time to do some kind of penance in the sense of a discipline to free them from a habit or even an obsession like giving up social media for four weeks. And there are candles. In some homes but in many churches there will be an Advent wreath – a circle of everlasting greenery to symbolise the infinity of God, purple ribbons as a sign of anticipation and waiting and four candles for each of the four Sundays of Advent. Three of them are purple and one pink for Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in which the opening prayer in worship is Rejoice. It’s now become common for a white candle to be put in the middle of the wreath to symbolise the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

What made our party this week so enjoyable was the presence of children. We held the event at the Synagogue just as the pupils from the local Jewish primary school were leaving, having visited the Synagogue to light the Hanukkah candles. Their school is rather a special one as it shares a campus with a local Catholic school. We think it’s the only shared Catholic – Jewish campus in the world and we’re very proud of it. Each school promotes the ethos of their particular faith but the pupils share the playground and are getting to know one another. The Jewish children, though, who told us the story of Hanukkah were not at the school but were two of the home-schooled children of the Rabbi. With great confidence they told us about the Maccabees, the lighting of candles, the gift giving, the eating of doughnuts but what got us all laughing and participating was a game that had us passing little parcels left and right as the words were mentioned in their story – parcels that contained a reward for all of us. And of course we lit four candles for the fourth day of Hanukkah accompanied by the Rabbi’s blessing.

It was the head girl and head boy from the Catholic primary who told us about Advent. Telling us that the Advent Wreath helped Christians take time to think about the real meaning of Christmas and reflect on how they could bring God’s light, joy, peace and love into the world today they explained the four candles – the first one representing hope. which is like a light shining in a dark place: the second candle representing peace and reminding us to try to be peacemakers in our schools and homes; the third representing the joy we feel celebrating the birth of Jesus and the fourth one representing the love we share in Jesus and how we try to show this love in the way we treat those around us, not just friends and families but also those less fortunate than ourselves.

As you can imagine the children were very well received. I found it very moving to see the children from both faiths participate in our celebration. What a contrast to the enmity that existed between our communities for centuries but has thankfully given way to a new reality. The shared campus offers such hope for the future. Already the children from both   schools have collaborated on helping the homeless, enjoyed a ceilidh together and are now beginning to learn a little about one another’s faith. As one of the children said “we really do enjoy one another’s company and love finding about one another’s faith. In St Clare’s we are always saying we are making memories to last a lifetime but we also think we are making lifelong friends.”  We cannot ask much more than that.

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