You say 'Shabbat', I say 'Sabbath'? Do Jews and Christians share a belief in the goodness of Sabbath rest? What better way to find out than invite over 40 clergy to immerse themselves in the Jewish Shabbat for a weekend. During this time, many observant Jews spend a full 25 hours from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, removing themselves from the demands of modern day life, for some rest, but also for some serious and intense study of God's Word and God's commandments. I had the pleasure of offering this very experience, invited by the Anglican diocese of Winchester to lead their residential training weekend at the Park Place Centre near Fareham for curates, i.e. clergy who have been ordained but who are still in training. We had two rabbis to teach us - Rabbi Natan Levy (Orthodox) from the Board of Deputies, and Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers from the Movement for Reform Judaism. Both brought their young families along to add that delightful note of authenticity. The InSight Programme forms part of the Council of Christians and Jews growing educational work which I manage, greatly aided by Rabbi Levy.
It's often been said that the Sabbath has kept the Jews more than Jews have kept the Sabbath. By contrast it is hard, and getting harder, to have any sense of Sunday as a day of rest in residually Christian Britain. I will admit I found myself, against my nobler instincts perhaps, doing a quick shop on returning home, on Sunday evening. The rabbis did an excellent job in setting out the riches and depths of Shabbat. It is the principal feast of Judaism - like Christmas Day once a week, only without the presents. But it is also a time of abstinence: you refrain from any creative work, you turn off your computers and mobile phones, above all, you deny yourself the illusion that you and your deliberations are running the world, or even your little patch of it. For these and other reasons, Jews believe that Shabbat offers unique opportunities for intimacy with God.
The Torah portion was studied over two sessions. It was Behar (Leviticus 251-26.2), which is largely concerned with Shmitta or the seven-yearly Sabbath rest for the Land, giving us another insight into rest and responsibility, namely the ecological angle.
I stayed on until Sunday, gave a teaching session, and had the honour of preaching at the closing eucharist. For me, the whole time was enjoyable, intense and rewarding. There's so much to convey and just one Shabbat is not long enough. Somewhat sadly, there is also still the need to teach that 'the God of the Old Testament' is one and the same as the Father of Jesus Christ, and not 'a vengeful God', and that Jesus himself is not only called 'rabbi' but uses teaching styles like those of the later rabbis. It also felt important to explain that even though the clergy were so willing to immerse themselves in the experience and turn their mobile phones off, in fact in Jewish law a gentile is forbidden from keeping Shabbat in totality. This led to a fascinating discussion about what happens when we dig deeper into the things we may seem to have in common, to only find other things which still separate us. The separation can be raw and painful, but also a matter of conflicting principles - it cannot simply be wished (or even prayed) away. Can an observant Jew enter a church? If so, how would they react to the New Testament reading they might hear?
The purpose of the weekend was not to solve the problems of Jewish-Christian relations, and thank God for that! As an immersive experience, it was no less intense for the rabbis than the clergy. But intensity does not mean solemnity. There was laughter, there was chat, and most certainly there was song, including Rabbi Nachman of Breslov's popular chorus: 'The whole world entire is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is: have no fear at all!'