I posted this reflection for last year’s Yom Kippur (2008). I think it is one of my best stories.
I have been on the path of Judaism for about seven years. Before that, I was learning about Judaism, but from a different paradigm. I used to see Judaism as “them” and Christianity as “us.” Judaism was the other. My interest in Judaism was in order to be a better Christian. And that is still somewhat true, by the way. The great paradox of Messianic Judaism is finding harmony in two faith traditions many people consider antithetical.
Yet, I experienced a change about seven years ago. It was not a sudden watershed moment, a complete turn-about on a dime. It was more gradual. But it began with the realization that the rabbis are a whole lot smarter than I used to give them credit for. Once I began to accept tradition as a legitimate, though not infallible, teacher, my approach to Judaism began to change.
In my recent book by LifeWay (a Christian publisher — see? paradox), I wrote a description of a noob experience I had with Yom Kippur (not that I am up to date with modern terminology, but noob means a newbie, someone who is getting into an interest they know little about). I’d like to quote this excerpt from Feast and reflect on it . . . (see my book Feast here).
I was out of my comfort zone to be sure, but I asked for it. I wanted to experience a traditional Yom Kippur prayer service, and in those days, the Messianic Jewish congregations I knew about were not very traditional. To really experience the solemnity of the day, I felt I needed to be with Orthodox Jews.
Back then, I had to borrow a tallis—a prayer shawl—as I wasn’t traditional enough to even own one. I entered the room that contained only praying men. The women were in another section, separated by a dividing wall. I could hardly see them, but some of the men were on their knees, their heads touching the floor. Others were sitting and praying with their noses buried in the holiday prayer book. Many were ritually beating their chest.
There is no temple to go to any more, and so there is no Holy of Holies. That means there’s no chance for the high priest to enter beyond the veil and sprinkle blood on the cover of the ark. Yom Kippur now is not what Yom Kippur used to be. Yet I felt as if I was in the holiest place left on earth, the place of prayer for atonement.
This experience occurred in the old days, in the pre-Judaism days of Derek. I entered the experience expecting a certain result: I expected to go into the synagogue, see how confused and sadly lost these Jewish people were, and exit more resolved than ever to convert all Jewish people to Jesus.
I was nervous to be sure. I was like an intruder, entering the synagogue and hoping to be thought Jewish and that no one would ask a question. Fortunately for me, it being Yom Kippur and all, people were too busy praying to socialize or ask who I was. They had no idea I came to pray that they would all come out of the darkness and enter into the light of Messiah.
I had heard in a sermon by a Jewish evangelist that Yom Kippur was a time when he was very sad for his people, ritually beating their chest as if their ritualistic pleas of mercy would turn the heart of God toward them. I thought, how sad that people would beat their chest. What a pathetic and wasted display of ritual and emotion when simple faith in Jesus would do!
Yet as I watched, my mind was changed. I started praying for them to be “saved,” but the spirit of repentance was contagious. Didn’t I have enough failures that I should also beat my chest before the Living God? Or should I expect that grace makes all such displays of contrition irrelevant?
I don’t believe I thought of it then, but only later. Yeshua himself commended the practice of beating the chest. He told a story of a tax collector and a Pharisee. The tax collector beat his chest and said:
God, be merciful to me a sinner!
And Yeshua said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
But what attitude had I brought in here with me? I had brought in the attitude of the Pharisee. In a paradoxical reversal, I was now the Pharisee and these modern day Pharisees were the tax collectors (in my confused thinking, I mean — I don’t mean that Orthodox Jews are brigands). I was thinking to myself, “God, I thank you that I am not like these Orthodox Jews but that I know my sins are already forgiven.”
There is a Grace Myth to the effect that we are automatically alright with God because of the cross and that we are in need of very little repentance.
The great men of God in the Bible repented greatly.
Yeshua did not take away repentance in his teaching, but said that we would be forgiven IF we forgave others. He condemned an attitude of smug superiority in the religious people of his day. He would never condone the attitude of some Christians and Messianic Jews (thankfully, not all) who shrug off their own sin while seeing all too clearly the sins of others.
Yeshua taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This is hardly the prayer of someone whose sins magically disappear after they are committed.
No, as a noob in an Orthodox Yom Kippur service, I was on my way to freedom. I was about to be set free from the manic depression of guilt, doubt, and complacency. I was about to find a needed correction to my theology. I was about to find that Yom Kippur is something we all need, and more than once a year. The way of the righteous is repentance until the perfect comes.