Washing each other’s feet
A rabbi learns about love in a Catholic church

by Rabbi Paul Jacobson

Pesach is not usually the season of confessions. We Jews usually wait until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to admit our lesser inclinations, but here goes.

Sometimes I find it really difficult to connect with God’s presence in the synagogue. Fair enough. Every person’s kavannah, his or her focus or intention during prayer, may wax or wane from time to time.

It’s only logical, when we are in search of that deeper, more profound spiritual connection, to go searching. We humans, whether we will admit it or not, are seekers. We yearn to make meaning out of the madness, the magnificence, the meshugas, and the misery of life. Some of you know that my favorite places to go in search of God are nature, the symphony hall, and even a baseball stadium — or 20 of them.

On the evening of Thursday, April 13, in the middle of Pesach, I found God at the Holy Thursday Mass at St. Peter’s Church, just up the street on Fifth Avenue, here in River Edge. For four years now, I’ve been privileged to build a loving friendship with both Father Michael Sheehan and Father Camilo Cruz. Two years ago, I shared a deeply emotional and moving moment with Father Mike, as Holy Thursday fell on the same night as the search for chametz before Passover, and Father Mike graciously invited me to sell our chametz during the congregation’s Holy Thursday mass. I remember being shocked to the point of speechlessness at the applause that Father Mike and I received.

At the time, I wrote, “They were clapping for two men, standing in respect of one another’s tradition, finding a way to create a bridge and celebrate their differences at a most profound and holy juncture in both our calendars. They were clapping for goodwill, love and most of all — hope.”

Last week, Father Camilo invited me to participate in their Holy Thursday mass, proclaiming the first reading of the evening, from Exodus, Chapter 12. Father Camilo also requested, as is Catholic custom during the Holy Thursday observance, to wash my feet. He wrote, “Probably all of this sounds like a lot to you, but it is very simple and meaningful for both traditions to create bonds of solidarity and friendship, in order for us to become more effective in our communities, especially during these days in which we experience some political and social madness.”

I will admit that I was initially hesitant to accept Father Camilo’s invitation. I don’t see the world as a Catholic does, so how could it be appropriate for me, a Jew, a rabbi, to proclaim a reading in a church during one of the holiest times of the Christian calendar year?

Reading from the book of Exodus? Okay. But washing my feet? Wait a minute. Two years ago, I was a visitor to the Holy Thursday mass, seeking the fulfillment of our community’s ritual need. This time, my colleagues, my friends, gave me the humbling honor of fulfilling their community’s ritual need. Recognizing the depth and the significance of this trust, I said yes.

Father Camilo had explained to me that in interfaith gatherings with other religious leaders, Pope Francis, as a gesture of brotherhood, has washed the feet of people of other faiths. I explained to Father Camilo that if we were intending this ritual as a symbol of humility and brotherhood, as a symbol of the common bonds we share amidst our differences, then it would only be fitting, if after washing my feet, if I could return the favor and wash his feet.

And so we did.

He wished me a joyful Pesach; I in turn wished him a joyful Easter. Looking into his eyes, I recited Shehecheyanu, giving thanks to God that both of us had been brought to this time and place, to share in this moment of friendship, awe, humility, and respect together.

I spent the rest of the night as a listener and an observer, roles that I rarely get the opportunity to appreciate. I delighted in hearing 500 people raise their voices in joyful song together. I marveled at the procession of these hundreds of people to accept communion — men and women, some short, some tall, some old, some young, of different ethnicities and backgrounds — all in search of a connection with faith, with hope, and a sense of eternal love greater than what human beings might provide.

But more than anything, I spent the evening watching and learning from my friend, Father Camilo. I smiled when he said, “We are here to embrace one another in celebrating the mysteries of our faith.” I listened during his homily as he spoke openly about the brokenness that he has encountered in his own personal life, and the brokenness that he is called to navigate in the church community that he serves. I watched as he presided over the mass, and over the conversion of a new Catholic in the community.

I could see Father Camilo’s sincerity and his awe, his joy and his pain, his humility and his love, his openness and his longing, the remarkable fragility and vulnerability with which he placed himself before God, a fragility and vulnerability that could only be expressed with one word. Human.

We can go into detail about the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt and its significance for the Jewish people. We can go into more detail about how this narrative has been incorporated into Christian liturgy, specifically as it relates to the Christian understanding of the events on the night before the crucifixion of Jesus. We can go into even more detail about whether Jews should participate in other people’s rituals, like the washing of feet.

But the shattering truth is that we can get lost in the details. As a student of Talmud, believe me when I say that sometimes our people gets lost in the details and misses out on the big picture. And when we forsake the big picture to focus on the details, we have a tendency to miss out on a tremendous amount of sentiment — and even the presence of love.

Ritual always will mean different things to different people. That’s part of its mystery. But when we embrace that mystery, or even go so far as to embrace another person’s mystery and ritual, the world doesn’t end. It may just be that the world renews itself and begins again.

Thursday night reaffirmed a necessary truth. We must continually create moments where we can share with each other in ways that respect one another’s traditions, without compromising each other’s practices. We have to willingly entrust what we cherish as individuals and as peoples to each other, in friendship and in love. In this world, where everyone among us can simply become “the other,” God asks us to reach out and see the basic, fundamental humanness that exists in the very core of our hearts and souls. And God invites us to see this very humanness in everyone else too.

On the Shabbat during Pesach we read from Exodus 33 and 34. It is a passage where Moses catches a fleeting glimpse of God’s presence. It is in the portion where, after having shattered the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, God provides Moses with an opportunity to carve a second set of tablets. Each and every one of us walks through life with our own broken set of tablets, tablets in need of healing, tablets in need of new inscriptions and new beginnings. When we are privileged to share and bear witness to each other’s broken tablets, as I had the sacred opportunity to do that Thursday evening, it is in moments like these that we are treated to the potential and the possibility of God’s presence in our lives, however fleeting a glimpse we may be privileged to receive.

We must always remember that the world that we want to live in is a world of kindness, of love, of sharing, of trust, of friendship, and of peace. In covenant with God, and in covenant with one another, we know the world that we must continue to create together.

Paul Jacobson is the rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge.