Martha and the Vandellas & the Regulative Principle: My Annual Misery on the Jewish Night of Joy

Rev. Steve Schlissel - September 27, 2013

I went to Shul tonight. I’m happy I did. Since I’m a Calvinist, I suppose it’s incumbent upon me to deliver three reasons for that happiness. OK.

On second thought, let me give three reasons for the joy while taking a stab at explaining how so much misery made its way into the mix. It’s still three, and three is just right for a Wilhelmina Mint.

First: I was happy for seeing the oh-so-appropriate and effusive joy of the ancient covenanted people as they were infected with the spirit which had animated David Hamelech to dance on even in the face of a jeering cohort—make that jeering consort. For this evening, you see, was Simchas Torah in the Jewish Calendar—”Rejoicing in the Law”—which marks the last day of the final and greatest of the three Pilgrim Feasts which God commanded Israel to keep as a record and witness of His great deeds on behalf of His beloved people. I must defer to already recorded material if you wish to know more about this Feast, or about Israel’s calendar in general (contact, tell him what you’d like to learn, and tell him where the green is). Though Christians are too often quick to condemn Israel for ignorance of the true meaning of the Feasts, how many Christians (beside G.I. Williamson) could tell you that Succoth (the third of the major Feasts) has yet to find historical fulfillment. Passover? You know. Pentecost? You know. Tabernacles? You don’t know. That is a pretty pregnant fact for a Bible-believer, especially one who reads Paul’s breathless anticipation of that fulfillment to come in the 11th of Romans. But greater pathos came for recognizing that, say what you will about my people’s Divinely-placed blinders which prevent their seeing the One about Whom all the Feasts speak, at least they know how to respond to a complete disclosure from God instructing post-fall humans in how they ought to live. They BOOGIED, baby, and so rightly so! But my other people, the newcomers, get the heebie jeebies at just the mention of law—even though it is God’s Law for us. Behold those whose zeal is unaccompanied by real knowledge! Go figure. I’ve been ciphering that insanity for 37 years and it still won’t add up.

Second, how many Regulativists have I heard reduced to spurting out inanities like, “Well, without a Regulative Principle of Worship, how can you prevent dance from being introduced in the worship service?” But why would I want to? Tonight, as each Torah scroll was lovingly and carefully removed from the Ark, then held up for all to behold what love God had shown to Israel through an invitation-only Self-disclosure, then, as each scroll was paraded around the synagogue, flaunting the great Distinction the Lord had given to a people, every person present was permitted to make appropriate and reverent gestures of devotion to the Words of God, and as any sensitive soul would anticipate, the dancing began. In many synagogues, the dancing spills out into the streets with exuberant revelers following the Leader (the Torah).

Dance: the God-placed impulse for expressing total emotion bodily (the only way humans can express anything at all, by the way). Dance: the one “area” which those who talk about the redemption of every area—the one area these dudes silently hope will never be mentioned. For then we’d be talking about BODIES. OOOH! Well, if you want to see what bodies may lawfully do in public service to God—beside sit and stand (and davan)—go to a Simchas Torah service. The rising, the movement, the excitement, the joy, the SINGING, the dancing continued—in the parade around the synagogue. It became increasingly fervent, electric, but always genuine, not to mention dignified. The synagogue, of course, was partitioned, so there is no “do-si-do and swing your partner” jazz. Egalitarians have somewhere else to go—and it can’t be soon enough.

I LOVE Simchas Torah. Talk about covenant renewal worship? The worship in synagogues on this evening is like an annual, worldwide covenant reproof, a testimony to the Gentile church (no offense) that too much of her Chalcedonian treasures remain stuck in the bottle in which she stores them. Yet they were not delivered to be penuriously shelved, but applied, spilled out on a parched earth for its only hope of renewal. Failure to apply them—in the real world for real life—has left said church in an overall clueless condition: instead of cultivating transcendent norms, rising above petty border wars, and spreading answers—particularly concerning worship and liturgical matters—the Gentile church struggles to discover just which questions stand in need of an answer.

We should add, the church must learn where to place her ear if she hopes to actually hear whatever answers God might graciously provide. So, again, happy/sad.

Third, and Wilhelmina is fast melting, I witnessed something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in a church—any church—and I’ve been in more than I can count. This year, like every year, this local synagogue was beneficiary of a sizable number of orthodox Jewish visitors—non-members, as we Christians might say, but unusual visitors by any reckoning. For they were not spec-ing out the joint, not considering a transfer of membership, not members of the same “denomination,” not there to pass judgment on the ignorance or inadequacies of the small group this shul is able to assemble. No. These visitors—I figure there were about 20 or 25—making them about half of the attenders or a bit more than 50% if just the men are counted—these visitors were there for a single purpose: to do all within their power AS FELLOW JEWS to insure that that synagogue on this hallowed evening would be a place sanctified by infectious joy, derived from being of that number called by the only God for a purpose. THIS IS LIVING COVENANT, and while I’ve seen abounding evidences of true and holy love in any number of wonderful churches, I’ve never seen such institutional indifference as was tonight exhibited (just as it was last year and the year before and…).

The visitors ranged in age from about 12 to (I’d say) 40, but the majority were just into theirs. These young people trailed the leading, bobbing, circling Torah scrolls, while reaching out their hands into every pew, taking both hands of this most senior member, then that quite advanced attender, and any others who needed help or encouragement to do what is for many not easy to do. A boy who appeared to be the youngest of the visiting Chasidim tried to coax/drag me and my buddy out of the pew on one of the circuits. So I punched him in the face. Just kidding! I mention it only to show that individuality may survive even in such settings, for I did lovingly decline the urging of this young man—initially (Jews have lots of practice saying no to other Jews—and it happened that I was then trying to understand something about the service and needed another minute). These kindly joy-mongers would help men gently to their feet, while virtually forcing smiles by contagion and example, then lead or just join seniors and juniors and youngsters into grand and fitting activity—at customized and sensitive paces—all natural, as they say—in celebration of having in their possession the actual and real will of God Almighty. Would that they did! But if this is how those with blinders can rejoice, albeit once each year, but still—is it never meet for us so to do? Balderdash! But as I hinted a moment ago, what really twists me is how—with the church charged with the task of provoking Israel to jealousy, it is Israel who keeps coming up to the plate and hitting ’em out of the park. These people—vilified by Christians as the incarnation of blind provincialism—leave their comfort zones with no greater agenda, no gain in view beside enabling a fellow Jew to be joyful before God. Where is anything close to this among those upon whom has come the Fulfillment of all these things? Just who is provincial?

I do love this festal day, you know? O, how I hate it! Know what I mean? Fischtay?

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