I recently had the opportunity to visit the B’nai Temple, which is a Jewish Reform temple in Hattiesburg for a Friday evening Sabbath service for my Psychology of Religion Class. My assignment was to determine what psychological needs might be met by this religious tradition. As I thought about this after observing the service and nature of the environment, I decided the need for social community, a strong cultural identity, and a high level of structure were very strong in this religious tradition. I also saw a strong commitment to religious traditions, in spite of some obvious changes in cultural traditions.
As I entered the front room, I noted a sign on the table that said something to the effect of “Thou shalt turn off thy cell phones and thy pagers on the Sabbath day,” which gave my heart a chuckle. The building was not an extravagant one, but rather plain and simple with a few prominent pieces of art work displayed on its walls and a collection of important relics from the past displayed in cases. Old prayer books, a ram’s horn, and a handmade clay figurine of Noah’s Ark were of particular note. The building itself was old, but well maintained, having an attitude of reverence and pride about it.
Upon entering the sanctuary, the people were very friendly and welcoming, which reflected the sign above the front doors that stated “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” As my partner and I arrived a few minutes early, we had the opportunity to speak with the Rabbi briefly, who greeted the students from William Carey with enthusiasm and explained a little bit about what we were going to see. The rabbi briefly explained to me, the difference between the orthodox and the reform Jews is much like the difference between Methodist and Baptist in the Christian tradition. He said it’s mostly about the style of worship along with some differences in piety. In the introduction to their prayer book, it states, “There are differences among us, some are matters of principle and others relate to style.” It goes on to say that the reform community has “many view points with many paths to heavens gates, that this prayer and that one, this service and that one, may both have the power to lead us to the living God.”
I also noted in the introduction to the prayer book that the Reform Jews, of which this congregation was, believe in the equality of the sexes, which I found refreshing, as I fully expected the service to be very masculine in nature. But the language and terminology of the prayer book was purposefully androgynous when referring to the human race, which I appreciated very much. The prayer book confessed that “we have been keenly aware of the changing status of women in our society. Our commitment in the reform movement to the equality of the sexes is of long standing.”
Once the service was under way, I found myself going back in time almost, as the service was steeped in tradition and rich in the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. As I glanced around the room, I saw two tall candlesticks with seven lights (which represent the seven spirits of God according to the Revelation in the Christian tradition) displayed on either side of the pulpit along with two smaller candles that stood on a small table nearby. They were lit with great ceremony, along with singing and speaking in both the Hebrew language and in English. On the right side of the pulpit was another small table which held a golden colored chalice and a loaf of bread. Blessings were said over both the wine and the bread. Behind the pulpit was a beautiful two paneled stained glass, with a star of David on both sides of it. It was actually a hidden enclosure that held the Torah, which was read later in the service. According to the prayer book I was reading, this compartment was called the Ark. Above the Ark was a likeness of the Ten Commandments written in the Hebrew. More in step with our times were the display of the American flag on one side of the sanctuary and the Blue and White Jewish Flag on the other side.
The service was very structured with the Rabbi reading one line and the congregation reading back to him the next line in the prayer book. Intermittent between the readings were songs sung in the Hebrew, which were very rhythmic and beautiful to hear. It was fascinating to actually hear this ancient language spoken so fluently by the Rabbi, who is actually from Israel. When it came time to read the Torah, the stained glass doors to the Ark were opened up to display a beautiful blue velvet and ornately decorated covered scroll. I came to learn after the service that the scrolls of the Torah were still hand written by scribes today and never printed by mechanical means. They are also never to be touched by human hands, because the oil from the fingers would ruin the parchment they are made from. The Rabbi walked through the congregation holding the scroll, as each member touched it with their prayer book and then kissed their book. The reading of the Torah was from Leviticus 9 and dealt with the sacrificial system of the covenant people.
After the reading was a brief essay by one of the other leaders relating the sacrifices to the vertical relation of God to mankind and the horizontal relationship of man to man. He noted that the sin offering was made first to atone for the sin against God in the worship of the golden calf, and the other sacrifice was for the sin against man in the selling of Joseph by his brothers. I thought how interesting it was for him to make this connection, and how that the horizontal and vertical allusion perfectly reflected the cross of Christ in my own faith. Christ as a human being atoned for both the sins of mankind against God and sins of mankind against mankind. I found the service to make the Old Testament passages that I as a Christian am very familiar with, come alive for me like never before. It was almost like being in a Jewish synagogue of Biblical days. I truly hope this time of reflection will enrich my understanding of Old Testament passages and of Biblical traditions, as I have come to know that Jewish tradition and history is my own heritage as a Christian.
After the service, we were invited for refreshments in the room across the hall from the sanctuary. There was a nice display of cookies, bread, fruit, and candies, along with coffee and cokes for refreshment. I asked if any were of the traditional Jewish foods, but only the bread was. I had hoped to taste something of their tradition, and I guess in a way I did just that by attending their wonderful service. Everyone was so kind and attentive to all us strangers, which was a true reflection of the attitude of the scriptures that were read in the service, “Be kind to strangers and accept them, as you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”