Sunday, May 02, 2010

Confirmation day and my niece's bat mitzvah

Today was confirmation day at our church. We had a good sized confirmation class this year. They seemed bright. They could articulate their faith.

But it's only been a few months since my niece's bat mitzvah. And again, much like the year of my nephew's bar mitzvah, I couldn't help but notice a few differences in the way the two congregations approach a youth's coming of age. For my niece and nephew, it was the day they first wore the tallit, the prayer shawl -- and all that comes with that. But just a quick note on the shawl before the more important part about what comes with it.

Every time I look at a Jewish prayer shawl, I can see an inheritance of our Christian faith from its Jewish roots -- because I see a prayer shawl every week in Christian worship. Most Christians would also think a prayer shawl looked familiar -- any Christian who has ever been to worship in a church that is rooted in the ancient traditions: the priest or pastor or minister still wears one. Though we call it by a different name, the pastor's stole is still recognizably based on the Jewish tallit. It even still has the trailing tassels inherited from Judaism: "Throughout the generations to come, you are to make tassels on the corners of one's garments ..." (Numbers 15:38) Apparently it passed into Christian practice back in the days of the apostles when the leaders of all the earliest Christian churches were Jewish.

But more important than the prayer shawl was what came with it. In the synagogue, it wasn't just the rabbi who wore the prayer shawl. Being a conservative synagogue, everyone both male and female past the age of bar mitzah/bat mitzvah wore the shawl. You may think, "Well, it's just not a sign of leadership, then." Actually, it is. On the day my niece took up her shawl for the first time, she led the services. She led the prayers. She read the readings. She led the songs. She gave the sermon. Now don't get me wrong -- Billy Graham's reputation as an articulate speaker was not in any danger from her, or from my nephew before her. But when she came of age, it came with leadership responsibility. Every adult member of that congregation not only can lead services if needed, but in fact has already done so at least once. (Well, twice if you count the Friday evening and Saturday morning services separately.) It's part of being an adult member of the congregation. That level of leadership, at a minimum, is expected of everyone. So it's not that you look out on a congregation full of shawls and think, "Well, it means nothing; everybody is wearing them." Instead, it means, "Every last one of them is capable of leading, in a pinch." That's something to be proud of.

People generally rise to our expectations of them. In our churches, we do the youth no favors by setting low expectations.

As for our confirmands of 2010: Other than the confirmation itself when they were received as adult members, their participation in the service was limited. They did not lead the services. They did not lead the prayers. They did not lead the songs. They did not read any of the Scripture readings. They did not give a sermon. And they joined a congregation in which leadership is not expected of its people.

There are many things we have known and claimed of our Jewish heritage. I believe that here is another inheritance for us to claim: training all of our members to lead.


Buzzblog said...

Thanks so much for posting your observations here. I had pretty similar thoughts a couple of weeks ago when my church held a confirmation for some of the youth. As someone who had a Bat Mitzvah and taught Bar Mitzvah lessons for many years, the contrast was clear, but I haven't mentioned it to other Christians for fear that it would sound too ethnocentric on the one hand, and too cynical on the other. Yes, Jewish children, in my experience, receive a much more rigorous religious education than many if not most of their Christian contemporaries. I went to Hebrew school three days/week after regular school plus Sunday school and weekend retreats. On the more cynical side, the attrition rate of synagogue attendance following Bar/Bat Mitzvah is very high, and many Jewish kids receive no further education and/or become lax in participation in the Jewish community until they have children of their own. This is, no doubt, the case on the Christian side as well. Needless to say, the Jewish community views my years of Jewish education as a lost cause. But I appreciate my Jewish heritage all the more in light of my understanding of Jesus as Messiah. Sometimes, though, the cultural cognitive dissonance I feel in church is hard to ignore, and your piece made me wonder if the church is prepared to take on the responsibility of embracing various facets of its Jewish heritage, not only for my benefit, but for the reconciliation it might bring to its own members as well.

Weekend Fisher said...

I sure hope so. I wouldn't worry about sounding too ethno-centric; with a little thought into how to put it forward, it will just come across as going back to our roots and heritage.

Take care & God bless