Because of a scheduling conflict Sunday morning, we decided to attend the synagogue Friday evening. Temple Beth Shalom had been on our list of services to attend, and the scheduling worked out well this week. We had dinner with Elaine beforehand, who then attended with us, and may add a guest column for this week later.
Temple Beth Shalom is a Conservative Jewish congregation, affiliated with the USCJ. I’m not that familiar with the practices of Conservative Judaism, and was surprised to see both men and women wearing kippot. Years ago, when I was a student, I spent a year attending a Reform synagogue, but my experiences there largely failed me last night. I think we missed the mark, and didn’t don kippot or chapel veils . . . the usher didn’t point us in that direction, and we weren’t sure what to do, so we erred on the side of inaction. The Kita Gimel class (of roughly 5th graders) led the service, and the children did a good job of anchoring us to which page we might be on. The prayer book is in Hebrew and English, and the transliterations are largely printed in a second, spiral bound book, but being unfamiliar with the service (and having to remember to turn the pages of both “backward”) we had difficulty keeping up. Added to the confusion were the portions where the songs or chants repeated words or phrases, but we weren’t familiar with where that happened, and it didn’t seem to be printed with any kind of notation to let you know which words or which phrases to repeat — or how often. There was a woman behind us with a strong and beautiful voice, who really made it easier to follow the service.
The Rabbi’s sermon was on Rabbi Hillel’s saying: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” He grinned and said, “There was another fellow around the same time, saying much the same thing,” and he asked the kids on the bimah if they knew who might have said, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”* And he went on to talk about how most everyone had Christian friends, and how Christians were obliged to ask themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” when they encountered awkward situations and others, and how would the congregation want to be treated if they were new at Temple Beth Shalom, and encouraged them to act on that answer.
At that point, I thought, “Great, we’re going to be mobbed after the service, and I’m not sure I’m up to trying to explain the project.” Simultaneously, I thought, “Cool — we can meet folks and ask questions.” My fears were mislaid, as no one talked to us after the service at all, about which I will admit a bit of relief. We’d also already eaten, so we weren’t really inclined toward joining the Oneg Shabbat (reception/coffee hour) after the service, though I think the Rabbi would have welcomed our presence, based on his hospitable comments during the service.
Of course, Judaism isn’t an evangelical religion, and I spent an entire year in the early 90s attending an extremely small synagogue without ever meeting anyone at all, or even having anyone ask my name — which was fine that year. I always kind of wondered what those folks thought of me, and if they wondered what happened to me when I moved away. I only owned one skirt at the time, a hand-me down from my mother, and I always wore that same skirt to the service. I might have been known as “the girl in the blue skirt**.”
It was a good year, because the Rabbi there was very knowledgeable, and his sermons on the Torah readings encapsulated all kinds of information about history, ties with other religions, American culture, universal and local Jewish practices. Instead of feeling the anxiety of the spiritual bulimia I was suffering from, coming on the heels of 4 years of “Christian” college, that year in the synagogue gave me a place to reflect and rest, which I think is very much in harmony with the Jewish spirit of the Shabbat.
We were reflecting last night on the restfulness of the Shabbat, and its contrast with the often hectic “work” of Christian worship . . . it wasn’t a long reflection. But in a tradition where the things left undone Friday afternoon remain so until the Shabbat ends, where there is a conscious tradition of not carrying the tools of work (keys, pens) in order to not accidentally do work, where many families shut off all electric appliances, and slow the day’s rhythms by walking, and rest, and study, and community gathering . . . there is greater emphasis on the Sabbath as a day of rest than there is in a tradition where obligation to communal worship is a punctuation mark in a weekend of other activities. For example, on Saturday, Michael spent the day in the last set of meetings for organizing the religious retreat he’s the music director for in mid-May. This morning, we came down the hill to deliver Farmergirl to her ballet class (an extra led by one of the kids from the off-Broadway production of High School Musical that’s in town this week), are sitting at the Rocket Bakery having coffee (well, tea for the no-cream-no-bean guy), and then will likely hit the Staples and grocery store on the way home. At home, he’ll likely work more on the computers and house plans, we may go move some earth around on this lovely spring day, and I have some designs on getting everything out of the pantry, and reorganizing the kitchen so I know what we have, and can do some canning and make some pasta.
And part of the thought on doing all this running around is that we live in the country, and we try to make every foray into town “count.” We even couch that in religious terms: we’re trying to practice good stewardship of what we have. But the one thing we don’t have much of (especially Michael, who’s often gone all week) — time — we don’t spend on rest. And it’s not like Christianity doesn’t embrace the same idea of Sabbath Day rest that stems directly from Judaism . . . but its grip on the society in general and on the Garribers in particular is tenuous at best.
One last note:
I was taken aback that there was security posted outside the front door. It’s sad that it is necessary, in 2008, in Spokane, WA, to need security at a synagogue, or any house of prayer. When I was growing up, in Europe, in the 70s and 80s, nearly all churches were still sanctuaries — still places of refuge, not locked at night. That changed rapidly in the 80s, and churches here in the States are generally locked in the daytime as well. It’s a sad commentary on our world.
*Different versions of The Golden Rule.
** I wonder how many people in your congregation you don’t know by name, but rather by a physical descriptor. In one of our old congregations, we had “The Tall Smiley Guy” and “The Left-Siders” (which describes the half of a church which sits on the opposite side of the aisle assuming that, like us, you’re a “Right-Sider”).