Sunday, October 26, 2008

Church in Hebrew

A long time ago Paola invited us to join her at church, and we finally decided to take her up on the offer. Together with Corinna, a William and Mary graduate who is getting her masters at Rothberg, we went to a church service held in the former Italian embassy. From the street, you wouldn't be able to tell that a religious service was going on there at all - it is a peaceful, quiet looking building, a whitewashed, two-story establishment set back from the street with a stone driveway in front, and protected by a decorative iron gate. Inside, the room where services were held was very modest - white walls, rows of chairs, a small wooden cross hanging on the far wall. The priests walked in, clothed in white robes, and filed into rows and bowed together gracefully, like a dance. Then, the service began. It sounded uncannily like a Jewish service - because it was in Hebrew. Some of it was entirely the same as a Jewish service, except with different tunes - the psalms, the parsha. And some of it (the New Testament in Hebrew) for instance, was not. It was strange to hear liturgical Hebrew and to realize that it wasn't Jewish. I think it forced me to think about what makes a service Jewish to me. Is Hebrew really necessary to make the service Jewish? It is, after all, just a language and can be used for secular purposes (as in Modern Israel) and even for Christian liturgical purposes (as in the services we attended this evening), so why do Jews pray in Hebrew? It also highlited how similar Catholicism and Judaism really are to each other, at least in a practical if not in a theological way. The service felt very much like a Jewish one - the formality of it, the treating of holy objects like royalty, the singing, and, of course, the Hebrew. At the same time, it also pointed out that some differences between Catholicism and Judaism are so huge that even translating the Catholic ceremony into the Jewish language could not make it seem Jewish - for instance transubstantiation, which I find to be absolutely beautiful and powerful, did not feel any more Jewish for its being in Hebrew. Though I do have to say that something about the transformative power of the prayers, and the participatory way that congregants held up their hands, reminded me a little of Havdalah. We witnessed a pre-baptism ceremony, and I found myself strangely uncomfortable during it. The woman in the process of conversion seemed to be a Jewish Israeli, and there was something symbolically powerful to me to see a Jew in Israel converting to Catholicism - after hundreds of years of Jews converting in order to save their own lives, it seemed shocking and disappointing to see someone do it by choice - I can't explain why I felt that way and I know that it was wrong to feel that way, rather than to be joyful for someone who has discovered the life path that suits them, but honestly I did feel strange about the whole thing. And I felt a little stranger when I saw the tears in Paola's eyes, and knew that she found the woman's conversion to be such a cause for joy. Irrationally and uncontrollably, I felt a sense of loss. I didn't feel any more comfortable when a woman who I was talking to afterward said to me, "wouldn't it be funny if you came to Jerusalem, and converted to Catholicism after all" - no, I don't think it would be funny. I think Catholicism is rich and beautiful and I have so much respect for it, but for me, personally, it would be tragic to convert.
After services we went out to a terrific dinner and had a fun and cheerful conversation. It was good to see Paola after what feels like an eternity, and I am getting increasingly excited about going back to class. Paola taught me the Italian word for 'nerd' - "seciona," and she called me a "seciona" for my excitement about classes, but in reality I know that she shares the feeling. Just one more week!

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