TUPELO – At each mention of the villain’s name, the temple members spun their noise makers to drown out the sound of the speaker saying “Haman.”
Pouring himself into a dramatic reading of the Book of Esther, Bob Schwartz recounted the heroics of the noble Mordecai, who foiled the plot of the evil counselor who meant to deceive the king into exterminating the Jews.
Hisses and boos rose up from the members of Temple B’Nai Israel, even as they smiled and laughed, all the while jeering the malicious Haman until the story said he swung from the gallows.
In the Hebrew Bible the story of Esther, Mordecai and Haman, the reciting of which provides the backdrop for the Jewish feast of Purim, stands by itself, a singular example of a story without one reference to God. It’s a triumphant and very human Jewish story.
In Bibles used by Catholics, such as the New Jerusalem Bible, two vignettes that aren’t in the original, Masoretic text appear in which Mordecai and Esther each pray to God.
Including the prayers, which appear in some other translations of the Hebrew scriptures, like the Septuagint, reflects a desire to make sure God was expressly included in the story, Schwartz said.
Each spring Christians in the West turn their attention toward the final days of Jesus’ life. The six weeks of Lent serve as the rising action to events the Bible says took place around the Jewish feast of Passover.
Perhaps at no time during the year are Christians more aware of the correspondence between their own faith, including the holidays that it holds sacred, like Easter, and the feasts and traditions of Judaism.
“We’ve discovered a wealth of knowledge and history that has enriched our understanding of our own faith,” said Lee Oswalt, who has helped facilitate a class at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo in which parishioners have explored the Jewish roots of many Christian holidays.
The text they’ve used is “The Feasts of Judaism” by Stephen Binz, and Wednesday night they invited Schwartz from Temple B’Nai to speak to the class.
“Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year,” said Schwartz, quoting Jewish intellectual, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
As Schwartz spoke, one of those listening pointed out that Catholics and many other Christians have also marked sacred time throughout the year with the liturgical calendar.
Readers of the Bible recognize the names of Jewish feasts as the backdrop for many of Jesus’ actions in the gospels, such as the Feast of Tabernacles where, in the seventh chapter of John, Jesus promised living water to those who believed in him.
In some instances Christians have drawn a direct parallel between a Jewish feast and what they believe to be its New Testament fulfillment, as with Shavuot, which for Jews commemorates the giving of the Torah in the Book of Exodus, and Pentecost, or the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in the Book of Acts.
Other Christians, some of whom identify as Messianic Christians, go a step farther.
“Most Christians make the fatal mistake of calling them the laws of Moses, but Moses didn’t write them, Yahweh did,” said the Rev. Terry Beam of Fulton, a minister whose background is in what used to be called the Worldwide Church of God, a rather small, evangelical, Protestant denomination that has undergone some tumult and transformation in recent years.
Beam celebrates neither Easter nor Christmas because he’s convinced they represent the laws of man and not the eternal truths of God. He traces many of his grievances with contemporary Christian practice to the 4th century, to the era of the Roman emperor Constantine, when he believes the integrity of God’s plan for human worship was compromised by the marriage of the church and state.
Like Jews, Beam observes the Sabbath on Saturday, and he observes all the major, Jewish feasts as well, like the giving of the Torah, which he also believes has direct correlation with the descent of the Holy Spirit. Last September he went to Israel for the Feast of Tabernacles.
“These are not just Jewish observances or feasts per se. These are God’s feasts,” said Beam, adding that there are growing numbers of Christians who believe as he does.
“Saturday isn’t the Jewish Sabbath, it’s God’s Sabbath,” said the Rev. Ray Elsberry, pastor of Tupelo First Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Last Friday a roofing contractor called Elsberry at his home in Alabama after sundown. The pastor refused to talk business until after sundown the following day. That’s the same way Jews measure the Sabbath.
“In Heschel’s view, the Sabbath is the crown of all the Jewish observances of sacredness in time, not simply a time not to work but a time set apart,” said Schwartz. “It’s one of the sublime, great ideas of all time, and the Sabbath belongs to nobody. The Sabbath is good for everybody.”
Elsberry and Beam also both follow many of the dietary laws set forth in the Book of Leviticus. Beam refers to his practice outright as kosher eating. Some Christians have questioned Beam about his Old Testament practices, wondering why, if he believes Christians are now under the economy of grace and not the law, he still observes many Jewish customs.
“Grace doesn’t do away with righteous standards,” he said.
Temple B’Nai is a Reform Jewish community and as such, most of its members don’t eat kosher all the time. The meal they shared after the dramatic reading of the Book of Esther included a table full of delectable treats that hadn’t been blessed by a rabbi, like hamantaschen, or triangular, sugar-dusted pastries made to resemble the villain Haman’s hat.
Schwartz didn’t find it all that strange that some Christians would eat kosher. Like resting and praying on the Sabbath, he said, eating well helps everybody.
“Hey,” he said. “A good idea is a good idea.”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal