Judaism

Rosh Hashanah

Guest Blog from Esther Sills, Programme Manager for The Council of Christians and Jews

At the beginning of October the Jewish community are celebrating the High Holy Days.  These are “ten days of repentance” which include Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days in between, during which time Jews should meditate on the subject of the holidays and ask for forgiveness from anyone they have wronged.

This Sunday evening marks the start of the two day Jewish New Year festival Rosh Hashanah. The Hebrew word Rosh Hashanah translates as “the head of the year” and commemorates the anniversary of the world’s creation and the beginning of humanity[1]. The essence of Rosh Hashanah can be understood as both that of rejoice and introspection[2]. A time where Gd’s conception of society is celebrated but equally where the actions of humankind within that society are recalled and reviewed with sacred judgement. It is at this time of sacred judgement that deliberation upon the inauguration of humanity’s role is encouraged and both the manner in which one’s life has manifested in the year passed and the form in which it can manifest in the year to come is also reflected upon[3]. Many observe this time of divine appraisal with customs of prayer and symbolic practice. Special synagogue services are run by some throughout the day in which prayers for peace, blessing and of repentance take place. It is during these prayer services that many will sound the loud blasts of the shofar[4] (ram horn), a ritual which (amongst other purposes) serves as a wake-up call to one’s moral and spiritual conscious[5]. Throughout the festival many will also consume sweet foods, such as apples in honey, to symbolise the sweet New Year that one hopes to have.

This notion of internal contemplation and reflection, embedded within the theme of Rosh Hashanah, resonates with much contemporary salience. This is because as the shofar horn is sounded, and its loud blasts ricochet, an alarm is raised[6]. An alarm with a purpose which transcends that of mere auditory arousal. An alarm which serves to stimulate the confrontation of one’s own moral and spiritual doings: “awakening the slumbering souls that have grown complacent”[7]. This urgency of the shofar to address the values of passivity and complacency is very much applicable to today’s social context[8]. We live in a time of global moral crisis. Egotistical cultures of selfishness and ignorance plague society, and the neoliberalisation of human suffering is firmly placing blame and responsibility at the feet of the individuals in need. Humanity is bleeding. Yet we have manufactured this phantomic narrative which is systematically undermining the notion of universal moral duty and is, in turn, legitimising and perpetuating an ethos of moral complacency.

We must challenge this harmful social fiction that is extracting unity and proactive collective duty from the framework of societal healing. We must apply the message of Rosh Hashanah and awaken our spiritual and moral consciousness. We must, as the shofar does, “sound an alarm” [9] by proactively speaking out against the evils that are injustice and suffering. As it is only through such active nurturing of the collective good of humanity that one is able to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice”[10] and sub-sequentially construct a society which “acts justly and loves kindness”[11].

Wishing those celebrating a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and a year ahead that is filled with healing, blessings and peace for all.

Esther Sills

CCJ Programme Manager

Holidays

By Sr Isabel Smyth

The holiday period has come to Scotland and with it some sunshine which is a welcome change.  Everything and everyone looks so much brighter, happier and friendlier.  Holidays are important in our lives.  Originally they would have been associated with holy days –  festivals which would have given a break from work to allow families and communities to come together to celebrate and remember significant moments in their community’s life.  This was a way of reconnecting, of enjoying a change of routine and often diet, of taking time for fun and laughter away from the drudgery of normal living.

Today holidays are often an opportunity to visit new places and meet new friends.  But they have not lost their sacred significance as moments to renew and refresh our spirit as well as our bodies.  Today life is so hectic that people find it difficult to switch off even on holiday or their holidays themselves become a frantic pursuit of new experiences and new challenges. The Jewish community can teach us something  about switching off.  Every week Jews observe the Sabbath, a day on which they rest from normal work to spend time with their family and, for those who are religious,  to give time to prayer and study of the scriptures.  They do this in imitation of God who, according to the scriptures, rested on the seventh day of creation and commanded His people to do likewise.

Resting for the Jewish community, and for all those who follow the Judaeo-Christian tradition,  is a divine act, an act of worship, an act of renewal and celebration.  This celebration of Sabbath tells me that often there is a deeply human truth hidden in what seems to be a religious belief or ritual. We all need Sabbath times, holidays and holy days to renew and refresh our spirit, to savour and enjoy life. Without these our work will be ineffective and we will be in danger of suffering burn-out or some other illness.  But we also need Sabbath moments—moments when we can be quiet, still the mind and return to the space within us to restore our spirit and get in touch with our inner wisdom. And Buddhism offers a practice for doing just this. Mindfulness, focusing on the present moment is now used by the NHS to help people who are depressed or have a mental illness.

It is something we could all do with practising.

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.

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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