When home life was very different
Jewish life through the ages has been bittersweet. The bitterness has been from without, the sweetness from within. Their communities have always lived in a precarious state, never accepted by the Christian world that surrounded them. Yet once the outside world had been shut out, life for ordinary Jews within their own communities had been a million times more meaningful, wholesome and joyful than that of their Christian neighbours. How ironic was that?
Let's first look at the dry facts. Christian Europe, for the few hundred years since Constantine declared Christianity as the official state religion, was such a disgrace that we label this period the Dark Ages. It was a time of continuous fighting, of superstition, of illiteracy, of poor health and general grief and sorrow. Yet this was meant to be the dawn of Christian civilisation, a secularised kingdom of priests but, when Rome fell, everything went to pot.
Although there were numerous historical processes at play, much of the blame for this can be placed on our usual suspect, Plato. Augustine wrote a book, the City of God, which, in the true spirit of Platonism, virtually wrote off life on Earth as unimportant. For him, life in an earthly city should never be a main concern for Christians, instead we should all aspire to the heavenly city, the City of God. Although he stated that our society should be based upon Christian principles, this never came to pass and the inequalities, injustices and deprivations of Christian Europe were excused as unimportant because it will all be alright when we go to heaven.
So while the Christian was living in poverty, ignorance and subservience, kept in place by the promises of the "next world", what of his Jewish neighbour?
Let us consider the home. The Jewish home was always intended as a holy place. The Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem in Biblical times were holy places. They were known as a miqdash, meaning "sanctuary", a place set apart for worship of God. When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the rabbis declared that every Jewish home should become a holy place, referring to them as a miqdash me'at, a "small sanctuary". The home was to be a place for worshipping God, a holy place. Tradition tells us that, when the Temple was destroyed, the shekinah, God's Glory, didn't settle in the synagogues, where you would have expected it to, but made its home in every Jewish home. God was truly identifying with the people where they lived. Isn't this a profound yet wonderful thought? While the Christians at that time trapped God in cold, busy, glitzy cathedrals and churches, as the exclusive property of the clergy, with visiting rights granted to the hoi polloi every Sunday, in Jewish tradition God was present in the place where they slept, ate and gathered together as families.
Whereas in Christian tradition, the focus for activities is the Church building, for the Jew it is the family home. Our home is to be a "house of prayer" for the worship of God. It is to be a "house of study", for the learning of God's word. It is also to be a "house of assembly", a place where people are welcomed. Added to that it is also to be a "house of eating and drinking", a "house of sleeping", a "house of making love" and so on. Try doing that lot in Church, see how far that gets you!
Most Christians travel to Church every Sunday and watch as the priest / minister / pastor / vicar conducts various spiritual rituals on their behalf, from administering Holy Communion to the hymn/prayer sandwich, to the thirty minute sermon. Religious Jews, by contrast, are told to "know God in all your ways", which involves every aspect of their lives. Think about religious occasions. Where do Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter? They go to Church, at least for the "religious" aspects, the rituals and the liturgy. Where do Jews typically celebrate their religious occasions? In their home. For example, for Jews since Biblical times, Passover is a tightly structured occasion that is firmly anchored in the home environment, from the hunt for chametz (leavened bread), which requires a complete cleaning of the home prior to the festival, to the welcoming of strangers to partake of the meal with the family. In the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot, temporary shelters are built adjoining the home, where at least one meal is eaten and some (in hotter climes than ours) even attempt to sleep in them.
Even the everyday act of eating is celebrated with spiritual connotations. The dinner table corresponds to the altar of the Temple. Does that mean we worship food, an accusation often directed at Jewish people? No, because even eating is a sacred act and the dinner table will also function as a place where words of Godly wisdom are exchanged in the conversations that accompany the eating, where Hebrew prayers resound and songs are sung in praise of their God.
Steve Maltz October 2012
(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again available through the Premier shop.)
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