Tuesday, October 18, 2005

TWAJ: The simplicity of religion

Every year for as long as I can remember, I stand outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur talking to my "twin" Wolfin (born on the same day) about the imminent demise of Anglo-Jewry. This year, Jerry The Wegie stepped into the breach left by Ben's marriage to Philippa (mazel tov!). Different face, same topic of conversation. This year though, I have the bit between my teeth on formulating a real plan of action.

So another Yom Kippur passed; another 25 hours of fasting, offset by 25 minutes of fressing. But after a late night and not feeling too well even before yom tov, I slept in and got to shul at midday, neatly timed to have to stay out during the rabbi's sermon and yizkor. Still feeling a bit lousy and generally underwhelmed by the ambience, I traipsed home and found Bodie was already there. She was also tired and not feeling particularly in the mood for communal atonement.

We wondered why Yom Kippur this year was such a drag. I mean, of course it's not meant to be a joy but some years it inspires to really search your soul, and makes one feel the awe and splendour of the day. Others, like this year, it inspired me to search the leaflet stand outside for something worthwhile to read, and made me feel the emptiness and tiredness of an empty stomach and a long week.

Same chazzan, same rabbi, same shul, same machzor as every other year. Totally different effect.

On the other hand, today was Succot. Usually it's like any regular service with a few paganistic fertility rituals thrown in. But this year it was something more. I read a nice comment in my Artscroll machzor, about how the succah itself represents how we are ultimately at G-d's whim, despite the advances we have made, and that we should build succot and live in them with a cheerful acceptance of this state of affairs.

I also enjoyed the hakafot and shaking the lulav, appreciating them for the earthy physical rituals they are. So much of our other services have been rendered into words instead of actions that they lose some of the sense of awe and splendour I enjoy.

This is something endemic in Anglo-Jewry today; we hide behind what one member of our shul calls "ortho-mumble", the muttering of incomprehensible words in an alien language. It is a practice which perhaps suits both the institutions that devised, imposed and propagate it, and the lazy layman who prefers to read (usually quite poorly) what is put in front of him rather than have to go on a spiritual and intellectual voyage of discovery.

So how much of what we say in a service is halachically necessary and should be said in its original language? An answer can be found by looking at some alternatives to the United Synagogue. At the Shir Chadash synagogue in Jerusalem (hat tip: adaminisrael), they have taken the outer bounds of halachah and designed a service that is a lot more compact, puts the bimah on the mechitza, and allows women to participate much more fully.

I have no problem saying everything in Hebrew as long as it's comprehensible. This means three things have to happen:

1. Much more importance should be placed on the teaching of modern and classical Hebrew so children grow up with the tools to evaluate and understand the texts of the "People of the Book"
2. We could consider alternative layouts of prayerbooks themselves so that as one reads the Hebrew, one can glance at the English, much as the words are printed below the staves of sheet music.
3. Every service should contain more explanatory elements, and more imaginative methods of teaching the various age-groups and knowledge levels need to be used.

Perhaps Succot is a timely reminder, full of metaphors for how we should be thinking. The succah shows that we should expose ourselves to the elements around us rather than stay safely in the shelter of the claustrophobic house we have built for ourselves. The lulav brings together disparate species and propels them together to every corner. The hakafot teach us that as a community we can go round in circles asking questions, but that this is the way to redemption.

I believe in a Judaism that, true to its roots, values the asking of a question as much as the answer. Profound intellectual curiosity as a core component of our cultural identity is what I believe has separated us from the masses and driven us to disproportionate achievement. To return to this level, we need to give people the tools - and the institutions - to tackle dogma and spur a rekindling of innovative Jewish thought and development.

Maybe I will find my own answers in developing those tools; that is why I started out on TWAJ in the first place. Maybe it will do some good, stimulate some debate, or maybe it won't. But it's a start, and in the absence of anyone else's version of Judaism really satisfying me, it's cathartic.

Rabbi Hillel says in Pirkei Avot: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

Good question.

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