Old Stuff: Torah and Eucharist

I don’t actually have readers–as well I shouldn’t, since to date I’ve been using this blog to pretty much back up my hard drive, but if I did, I could just imagine them saying to themselves, “Ourselves, we wonder if Jeff ever wrote about the relationship between the liturgical celebrations of the Torah and the Eucharist, maybe in the context of a graduate course in Liturgical Theology, say, in 2011?” To which I answer, “wonder no longer, dear reader, for I did just that, and it went a little something like this.

Torah and Eucharist:

The Celebration of the Divine Presence in the Liturgical Life of Synagogue and Church

Jeffery E. Childers

17 October 2011


With common origins in late Second Temple Judaism, the Rabbinic Jewish and Christian communities, for all their too often tragic divergences, retain certain essential commonalities.1 Despite varied emphases and historical antagonism, each treasures as its raison d’etre the mystery of the presence of God among his people. Their liturgical lives celebrate the divine presence most profoundly in, respectively, the Torah and the Eucharist, between which many parallels are evident. These can be discerned in the catalytic roles of Torah and Eucharist in the origins of synagogue and church, in the respective liturgical treatment of each, and in the theology that developed through centuries of reflection upon that treatment. Recognition of these parallels can increase mutual Judeo-Christian understanding, enrich Catholic self-understanding, and increase awareness of commonality between Christians of different communions.

The origins of the synagogue are obscured by a lack of extant evidence, though a general convergence toward communal houses of prayer and study can be traced to the Josian reform of the seventh century B.C. Josiah’s centralization of Hebrew cult in the Jerusalem Temple led to the eradication of the bamot, or high places, which were “were present in both rural and urban settings, probably for clan religion, as opposed to sanctuaries and temples, which operated for higher levels of social complexity (tribes and nations) under ‘higher’ authorities.”2 Deprived of cultic centers outside of Jerusalem, the gathering place at the city gates took on greater meaning for the people, as “the main communal setting in cities and towns in the biblical period…as well as a setting where…prophets would speak (I Kgs. 22:10; Jer. 38:7).”3 Already at this early stage, pre-dating the redaction of the Torah, the proclamation of the Word was a constitutive element of daily communal life.4

Gatherings of the people continued during the Babylonian exile, under the guidance both of charismatic prophets and the exiled priests “for the purpose of keeping alive the memories of and hopes for a restored Temple,” to which end the Torah was most likely composed in its latest elements, compiled, and redacted.5 Upon return from exile, the people of the Second Temple period maintained the tradition of gathering locally for prayer and study, now focused on the written Torah.6 While the temple remained the central focus of the Jewish religious imagination, it was in local assemblies that the people were formed in their lived experience.7 The location of Torah assemblies was initially a matter of practicality; assemblies would meet at the city gates, in private homes, or in multi-purpose community centers.8 Clear evidence for the concretization of synagogues as formal liturgical centers dates from the first century A.D., with archeological discoveries in Galilee and Jerusalem, though by this time the synagogue was likely a firmly established institution.9

Following the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., “it was only natural that the synagogue would assume an even more important role than before.”10 The synagogue, which has centered around the proclamation of the Word as its constitutive element in every stage of its origin and life, has since 70 been the liturgical heart of Judaism. “The synagogue was not the preserve of any one group of people. It was a layman’s institution…The house of study, the bet midrash…really belonged to the people.”11

The role of the Torah in the origin of the synagogue is parallel to the role of the Eucharist in the origin of the church. Christianity was born within late Second Temple Judaism; the earliest Christian assemblies were communities within the larger synagogue. “All who believed were together…day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”12 What distinguished communal life of the early church from the wider community was the “breaking of the bread,” initially in the context of a shared meal. This same distinction would inevitably lead to schism with the synagogue.13 Much like the synagogue, the church initially met wherever convenient, most often in homes.14 Churches as formal houses of worship became the norm in the fourth century after the Edict of Milan.15 Just as the Torah defines the purpose of the Jewish worshiping community, so the Eucharist does for Christians: “(T)he Eucharist makes the Church.”16

In their formative years, both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were forced to adapt to the displacement of the Jerusalem temple as the locus of the divine presence. The synagogue liturgy developed an understanding of the Torah as a continuation of the cultic life of the temple. “Postexilic Judaism had created the synagogue, prayer unconnected to sacrifice, communal study, and a nonpriestly group of leaders and teachers…These now stepped in to fill the void left by the absence of the cultic center…by symbolically incorporating the Temple and its service…(T)he Sages taught that the reading of the biblical portions describing the sacrifices could substitute for them when the Temple no longer existed…(On) holidays the biblical portion describing the sacrifice for that day is read as part of the Torah service.”17 To further emphasize the cultic aspect of Torah proclamation, it is customary for the first reading during liturgy to be performed by one of the kohanim, a descendant of the ancient Jewish priests, in an atmosphere that is otherwise predominantly lay-led.18

Parallel to this development, the Christian community came to understand the Eucharistic meal in a cultic sense, as a true sacrifice, and the overseers and elders of the community as priests.19 In the Eucharist, the worshiping community is united with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the culmination and fulfillment of the Temple sacrifices.20 In proclamation of the Torah and celebration of the Eucharist, Jewish and Christian liturgies make present the same reality that was once celebrated in the Jerusalem Temple.21

The treatment of the central physical elements of liturgy within the Jewish and Christian communities also developed along parallel lines. Torah scrolls were initially reserved within synagogues for practical purposes, with little fanfare beyond a shelf on which to store them. A chest in an adjoining room became customary, and a curtain, patterned on the veil separating the Holy of Holies within the Jerusalem Temple, was added. In time the Torah ark, or aron ha-kodesh,

made into a fixed part of the synagogue structure. The scrolls were appropriately adorned and were arranged in a standing position so that they could be seen when the ark was opened. The doors of the ark, too, were ornamented with lions and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The curtain in front of the ark, known as the paroket, became an essential adjunct of the ark…Another symbol that was transferred from the ancient tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple was the eternal light…(made of gold, silver, or burnished brass, depending on the opulence of the donor) hung in front of the ark and burned constantly. It symbolized the spiritual enlightenment which is forever emanating from the Torah.22

Likewise, reservation of the consecrated Eucharistic species originated for practical purposes; the consecrated Eucharist was reserved for the sick and others in the community who were unable to be present.23 Recognizing the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a communal meal yet “not common food,” from the most ancient times, the Christian community reserved it in the tabernacle which, like the aron ha-kodesh, is patterned after its namesake, the nomadic sanctuary of Moses, and the Jerusalem Temple.24 Within churches, tabernacles are

truly preeminent…(in a) place…suitable also for private adoration and prayer. This will be achieved more easily if the chapel is separate form the body of the church…The holy Eucharist is to be reserved in a solid tabernacle. It must be opaque and unbreakable…(which) may be placed on an altar…The presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle is to be shown by a veil…According to traditional usage, an oil lamp with a wax candle is to burn constantly near the tabernacle as a sign of the honor which is shown the Lord.25

Numerous parallels also exist among the acts of veneration within synagogue and church involving the Torah scroll and the Eucharistic species. One could easily draw connections between the ornate decorations of Torah scrolls and the decorations of tabernacles and monstrances. Both Torah scroll and Eucharistic host are elevated and displayed to the people to inspire the worship of God within the liturgy; both are elevated again in gestures of priestly blessing.26

Eminently worthy of exploration, but beyond the scope of this study, are missionary and eschatalogical aspects of Torah and Eucharist. The proclamation of the Word of God and the celebration of communion each call participants to order their lives in a radically converted fashion. Likewise, both point the worshiping communities beyond themselves to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises to his people.

Recognition of these parallels can serve to foster greater mutual understanding between Jews and Christians. Without relativizing the important differences in emphases, particularly the salvific work of Jesus Christ, Jews and Christians can celebrate that their divergent communities are constituted by engagement with the same mystery: the presence of the one true God among his people by his own free and loving choice.

The unfortunate history of Christian antagonism toward Judaism, along with the contemptible suffering inflicted on the race of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, has limited Christian self-awareness, all too often blinding Christians to an essential element of their own heritage. Embracing our common heritage and exploring the insights developed by the Jewish people over the centuries as they continued their living communal engagement with the God who first called them can only serve to make Christians understand their Christianity better.

The Church has always recognized the presence of God within the proclamation of the written Word. However, in certain eras that mode of presence has not been emphasized. While the presence of God within the Eucharist is “real par excellence,” a proper understanding of Christian heritage calls us to recognize that the Eucharist is not just the species itself, but is the entire liturgical celebration of the people of God gathered in community, never separated from the proclamation of the Word.27 The practices of private adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and other forms of ocular communion are beautiful expressions of Christian faith, which must always serve to direct the worshipers’ hearts to the communal celebration, including the proclamation of the Word, as their “origin and goal.”28

A renewed emphasis on the presence of God in his written Word can only serve to build bridges between the Roman Catholic Church and other churches of the West. Likewise, presenting the Eucharistic presence as parallel with the biblical presence may serve to increase understanding of Catholic practices among Protestant Christians. One example of progress in this movement toward mutual understanding within the fractured Body of Christ can bee seen in this statement of the International Disciples of Christ-Roman Catholic Dialogue:

(Roman Catholics and Disciples of Christ) are one in the conviction that the communion willed by God takes on a specific reality at the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the celebration of the Eucharist renews, makes real and deepens visible fellowship with God. In the Eucharistic gathering, they celebrate God’s salvation given through Christ as a gift, a gift which empowers for service. To participate in the Eucharistic celebration is to be reaffirmed in membership of the people of God, to be empowered by Christ through the Holy Spirit and so to be made a part of the work of reconciliation in the world. 29

The Jewish and Christian communities diverged from their common origin to cherish, ruminate on, and liturgically celebrate the mystery of God’s faithful, covenantal presence among his people. In Judaism, this is given liturgical expression in the rites surrounding the Torah; for Christians, it is the Eucharist—the communal celebration of the sacrifice of Christ in response to the proclamation of the Word—that is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” which is nothing more than life lived in response to that presence.30 By allowing these divergent approaches to mutually inform one another, Christians can only experience more deeply the mystery of the Word, by which God spoke creation into being, which condescended to take on flesh and dwell among us.

1The scope of this study does not allow for an exploration of the diversity within these communities. We have attempted to synthesize a picture of Judaism in which can be recognized Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform communities alike, though one will find greater divergence among Reformed Jews. Unless otherwise noted, references to Christianity refer primarily to communities of the Roman Rite.

2Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 161.

3Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 30.

4For a discussion of charismatic prophets leading communal gatherings of prayer and proclamation of the oracular word, see Louis Finklestien, “The Origin of the Synagogue,” in Harry M. Orlinsky, ed., The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archeology and Architecture (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1975), 3-13. Of particular interest is an etymological study of the word midrash, arguing that what now refers to the study and interpretation of the Bible is rooted in the term darash, conveying the sense of “communion with God.”

5Joseph Gutmann, “The Origin of the Synagogue: The Current State of Research” in Orlinsky, 74.

6Abraham Millgram, Jewish Worship (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971), 67-70. See Nehemiah 8:5-8.

7Unlike the earlier high places, local lay assemblies of the Josian, Babylonian, and Second Temple periods were not in conflict with the temple, but were supplementary to it. One might explain this harmony by recalling the generally Deuteronomic point of view of the prophets, the priestly oversight of the compilation and redaction of the Torah, and the dispersion of off-duty priests and Levites throughout the populace. On the harmony between temple and proto-synagogue, see Levine, 44.

8Known as “proseuche,” the latter was particularly prominent in the Jewish population of greater Alexandria, with archaeological evidence confirming their existence by the 4th century B.C. See Anders Runesson, The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001), 33.

9Runesson, 174. From the diversity of Galilee and Jerusalem, one may likely safely extrapolate the presence of synagogues throughout Judea.

10Reuven Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer (New York: Schoken Books, 1994), 73.


12Acts 2:44,46 NRSV

13By asserting the inevitability of a separation between Christianity and Judaism, particularly because of the inclusion of Gentiles as full members of the Christian community, it is not meant that the shameful and pathetic way in which that schism has played out over the centuries of Christian anti-semitism was also inevitable; should the oppression of Jews at the hands of dominant Christians ever cease to scandalize disciples of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, may our right hands whither.

14Charles Freeman, A New History of Early Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 40.

15Freeman, 271.

16Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC]1396, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997). Emphasis in original.

17Hammer, 84.

18Millgram, 84.

19See E. O. James, The Nature and Function of Priesthood (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1955), 167-175.

20See Hebrews 7-10. In light of the history of Christian anti-Semitism, it is important yet challenging to avoid both extremes of relativizing the sacrifice of Christ and supercessionism. Much work remains to be done in this area, but one might begin by framing Calvary and the Eucharist not as a rejection of and replacement for the Levitical priesthood, but as the opening of the reality celebrated at the Temple to the Gentiles, a theme not absent from the Hebrew Bible.

21It is quite telling of the often forgotten commonality between Judaism and Christianity that the earliest reference to Christian ministry as priesthood, and the only biblical one, is St. Paul’s “grace…was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God” (Rom. 15:15-16 NASB), which associated sacerdotal identity not with Eucharistic presidency but with the proclamation of the Word.

22Millgram, 338.

23Nathan Mitchell, O.S.B., Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982), 11.

24Justin Martyr, First Apology.

25“Excerpts from Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass” in Thirty-One Questions on Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament [TQA] (Washington: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004), 26-27.

26See Hammer, 232; Solemn Exposition of the Holy Eucharist (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1996), 6; and “Elevation of the Host” in New Catholic Dictionary, http://saints.sqpn.com/ncd02968.htm (accessed 27 September 2011).

27Paul VI, Mysterium fide, in TQA, 26.

28Congregation of Rites, Eucharisticum mysterium, in TQA, 24.

29The Church as Communion in Christ: Report of the Second Phase of the International Disciples of Christ-Roman Catholic Dialogue, 1983-1992, http://www.pro.urbe.it/dia-int/dc-rc/doc/e_dc-rc_1992.html (accessed 4 September 2011)

30Lumen gentium 11 in CCC 1324.


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