The two boys could not be more different. Yet they are alike. One tall, energetic like a clumsy puppy on spindly legs. That’s Matt. The other is average height for a young man of twenty, not heavy in weight but soft in the way you can tell immediately he doesn’t work out. His name is Dovid – not a misspelling.
Dovid is smart. He is in his second year at the Yeshiva (college of Jewish studies) where he learns Torah ( Hebrew Bible) from early morning until late at night. It’s a grueling schedule. He and the other boys are required to be in the Beit Midrash (chapel) for Shacharit (morning prayers) by 6:30 am. They daven (pray) together for thirty minutes and learn after for thirty minutes more until breakfast, where they say the bracha (blessing) before they eat.
There are rules to be followed as to the exact wording of the blessing depending on the food groups served on any particular morning. It takes pause and thought to pray properly before Dovid eats even one morsel of food.
The kitchen staff too has spent careful time in the proper selection of the food and it’s preparation according to specific guidelines to ensure Dovid’s meal is strictly kosher.
The life of an Orthodox Jew is about following the rules.
And so it is with Matt, who is also a student. He attends the local Christian college. While Matt’s routine is less rigid in practice his commitment to an orthodox belief system is equal to Dovid’s.
I met Dovid at a friend’s house where we were both guests for dinner on a very cold December night. Dovid was one of three Yeshiva boys at the Rosenblatt’s dining table that night. I was there with my wife Janet.
Janet and I are Reform Jews, not Orthodox. That means we are on the progressive end of the Jewish spectrum where Dovid is on the most traditional end. The Rosenblatts are right of us and left of Dovid. Does that make sense? To explain it another way, if Dovid were a Christian he would choose an Evangelical church, The Rosenblatts might be at a Catholic church, and I would be sitting in a pew at a UCC church.
Back to that Friday night at the Rosenblatts.
It was Hanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrating the miracle of a small portion of oil that burned in the temple for eight nights instead of one. Hanukah also celebrates the Maccabees, Jewish war heroes who defied all odds, defeated the Assyrians and restored law and order to the Jewish community threatened by assimilation.
Hanukah is technically a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar made major by its seasonal status as a Jewish companion to Christmas. No relation whatsoever, but try telling that to a child whose school holiday program includes Hanukah and Christmas songs.
I am the Hanukah Scrooge. I say “bah humbug!” to excessive celebration of Hanukah. As a Reform Jew assimilated into American life, I can’t help but think how I would feel if my Orthodox Jewish brethren attacked me by claiming I was not following my religion properly.
This was the argument I presented at the dinner table that night. Dovid was shocked. He said, “You’re kidding, right?”
No, I’m not kidding.
“I never met a Reform Jew before.”
He had questions about that before we even tackled the Hanukah story.
“How did you know the brachah?”
Reform Jews say blessings before the meal. We have the same prayers as you.
“But you don’t follow God’s laws.”
And then I gave a 5 minute explanation of what a Reform Jew believes and Dovid learned something new.
I met Matt a couple of weeks after that. I was jaywalking across a street right before the light would turn green. Matt was following behind me and he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll cross safely, I’ve got the angels and Jesus by my side.”
When reached the sidewalk, my new friend said, “Do you believe that? Do you have Jesus by your side?”
I have the angels and God for sure. Not so sure about Jesus.
“Do you believe Jesus is our Savior and died for our sins?”
I tried to lighten it up by telling a joke I keep handy for occasions like this. But first I introduced myself.
“Nice to meet you Ted, I’m Matt. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus?”
I’m Jewish. Do you know what a Jew says when he meets the Messiah? ‘Nu, (so) have you been here before?’
“I don’t get it.”
Jews believe in angels and we believe in God and we believe in the Messiah ushering in a Messianic Age, a utopia where the world is at peace and its people in harmony. The punchline to the joke speaks to the Jew who wants to be absolutely sure he didn’t mess up by taking a pass on the Jesus story by asking the Messiah if this is the first or second Earthly visit.
“I never met a Jew before.”
I gave a 5 minute explanation of what Jews believe and Matt learned something new.
It’s a blessing to meet young people early in their spiritual development, so sure of themselves yet unprepared for an articulate conversation from a different viewpoint.
As I tell this story I am grateful for my own curiosity that led me down this path. Every day I thank God for my mind which has the capacity to learn and teach. What a time and place to be a free thinker! How glorious to discuss religion without worry about being persecuted for my beliefs.
May the day come soon when all men and women are free to worship the living God in peace and love, with understanding and tolerance for one another.