Have you ever wondered why Christians do not at least constructively celebrate or even pay serious attention to Jewish holy days and seasons? It makes no sense to me. Judaism is our root and was the religion of Jesus, a rabbi in his time. Most Christians I know (me included in the past) refer and think of Jewish holy days as "Jewish holidays."
Many Christians also consider their own holy days and seasons, such as Christmas, Lent,and Easter, from a holiday perspective. Instead, we should all consider digging deeply into their observance and meaning to reflect on and periodically enhance our faith journeys. We can learn and experience even more by paying some attention to and learning something about the holiest days of other faith traditions.
I respect and understand that full observance, utilization and immersion into Jewish holy seasons is for Jewish people. I also ask that if you are a Jewish reader of this column, please forgive my elementary knowledge and understanding of (but deep respect for) your high holy days and season, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
My basic understanding is that what I will call the "season" incorporating the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement involves numerous days of intense focus, reflection, meditative introspection, and repentance related to the prior year toward God's forgiveness, as well as forgiveness of others and ourselves. Intertwined with this experience is a freeing up into the year ahead with the potential for a morally and religiously transformed life through better choices and habits. The Day of Atonement is rooted in part in two passages from the Book of Leviticus: 16:29-34 and 23:26-32. It is an especially holy Sabbath of self-denial involving prayer, fasting and abstaining from work and certain pleasures.
What a wonderful annual practice and discipline, with a dynamic personal and community experience of God's forgiveness for wrongdoing and, importantly, a prospective focus on and toward a truly changed life.
In my Christian tradition, I see a parallel to an authentic, faith-based experience of self examination during the annual season of Lent leading up to Easter. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are the culmination, emphasizing God's forgiveness, being dead to the past, and prospectively alive to a new path: endeavoring as a new person to follow the life model and teachings of Jesus.
As a practical matter, each seasonal Jewish and Christian tradition encourages an annual religious and moral life audit of sorts with the objective to emerge with better habits and renewed priorities in our lives.
In Harold Kushner's latest book, “Images of Sinai,” which is a collection of Rabbi Kushner's favorite sermons, he talks about Yom Kippur and actual life change. In his chapter and sermon titled "The Future Can Change the Past," he talks about the central concept of teshuvah. Rabbi Kushner then describes the possibility of a strikingly effective change into a new person. He contrasts the meaning of teshuvah with "repentance" (how teshuvah is sometimes interpreted) and understands teshuvah as a richer concept of change. Similarly, Jewish scholar and historian Henry Abramson describes the Yom Kippur experience as a joyful time with an emphasis on "returning" to core principles of Jewish holiness.
For me, Kushner's and Abramson's descriptions of truly dramatic and ethically based change in life coincide with my Christian perspective of what Jesus and John the Baptist before him meant by repentance. Jesus and John implored their listeners to fundamentally change and live in daily response action to God's love for us because the kingdom of God was and is here. Ushering God's kingdom in depends on how we all react to God's love, or if one prefers, simply to the profound gift of life.
Historically, the New Testament Gospels (e.g., Luke 2:41-42; John 7:10) indicate that Rabbi Jesus, his parents, and his initial followers (all Jewish) observed and participated in certain Jewish festivals and traditions during his lifetime.
Whatever our terminology, our respective traditions emphasize the need for periodic self-examination followed by ethically based recommitment and authentic change in how we live. Finding common ground in our traditions, especially Christians learning more about the most significant of our Jewish root traditions, can be a vehicle to enhance actual positive changes in how we live. The same holds true of looking for common themes and practices with other faith traditions beyond our own instead of emphasizing our differences.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads small discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin and sometimes speaks to groups about faith, life, and ethical issues.