Growing up in a very Reform Jewish household, I was never completely comfortable at the prospect of being called to the pulpit for an honor at synagogue.
Until I attended Mass. Most every Sunday, for more than a year.
The reason wasn’t religious, but journalistic; as part of the Boston Herald’s “God Squad” a dozen years ago, covering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. I was initially hesitant, not wanting to encroach on the sacred space of the then-archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, regardless of his misdeeds. But I soon became familiar with the liturgy, including parts that might yield news — such as when he failed to annunciate “the victims of clergy sexual abuse” among those for whom he offered intentions.
I established my own rhythm for the flow of the service, determining when appropriate to sit or stand (but never kneeling.) One instance was comical: Law had just said something interesting before the Eucharistic Prayer, and I hurriedly completed my notes while sitting, then jumped up. The press gallery, by that point used to following my lead, all rose with me.
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And then there was the time when a TV reporter who shares my given name took the pew next to me. We were two Robins watching a cardinal.
Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a passage very familiar to Jews: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.
Huh? I thought — that’s straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.
Abuse victims who regularly protested outside the cathedral heard word of it, too, some immediately getting in line to be served the Eucharist by Law. “Pray for me,” he said as he recognized each.
It was a moving moment — though fleeting, and not enough to undo the years of pain and trauma nor keep them from continuing in the church today.
If Law had gone rogue religiously, it wasn’t the only time the service went off-script. I noticed minor differences on occasion, including once when chimes didn’t sound as the wafer was broken.
“Does that mean transubstantiation didn’t occur?” I asked a priest friend afterward, not at all in jest or meant to insult.
“It’s just for show,” he said with a wink — referring to the chimes, I assume, not the transformation.
In that spirit I began to notice mistakes in synagogues, too. Despite being in one of the colder places on Earth, my current place of worship, Temple Israel in Duluth, Minnesota, is the warmest I’ve ever been a part of, and its small congregation is quite willing to inform the rabbi — lovingly so — if he’s on the wrong page.
So it’s easy to stand on the pulpit now, knowing any worship is anything but perfect. What matters is not how beautifully you say words or prayers, but how real you make them in the rest of your life; through actions to repair the world, for love and peace, justice and hope.
My honor this year is calling the names for each blow of the ram’s horn, or shofar, and I'll be thinking of those aspirations as I say the Hebrew words tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah, even if there are other, more accurate interpretations.
I'll try to pronounce them right. But if not, it’s no cardinal sin.
Robin Washington, of Duluth, Minn., is a research fellow for the San Francisco-based think tank, Be'chol Lashon. He is a former editor of the Duluth News Tribune and co-founder of the Alliance of Black Jews.
©2014 Robin Washington
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