May 19, 2006

It’s great that David Plotz wants to read the bible

Filed under: Judaism — marcstober @ 4:46 pm

It’s great that David Plotz wants to read the bible, but I have some issues with his assumptions about synagogue and those of us who go there more often. He writes:

I made a rare visit to synagogue for a cousin’s bat mitzvah and, as usual, found myself confused (and bored) by a Hebrew service I couldn’t understand. During the second hour of what would be a ceremony of NFL-game-plus-overtime-length…

Services really aren’t beyond the grasp of anyone who can understand a football game, and this is certainly the case for an educated journalist. I’m not a big sports fan and have felt “confused (and bored)” at a game. But you know what? I’ve found it’s better to show a little interest than to try and engage everyone in my own boredom.

It’s true that you do need to learn a little a bit to appreciate services (or football). It’s also true that what many of use learned (or didn’t) in Hebrew school wasn’t sufficient. However, I don’t think what I’d learned in English class and Social Studies by the time I’d reached bar mitzvah age was enough to appreciate Slate, either, and it frustrates me when otherwise well-educated people expect that they’re going to be satisfied (and fail to be) by what they learned about religion as a kid. Anyhow, here’s my standing-on-one-foot explanation of services:

  1. In the beginning things seem disorganized because, while there are specific prayers, this is a chance for everyone to warm up;
  2. The Barchu serves to get everyone on the same page, so to speak, in preparation for the Shema;
  3. Then the Amidah, which religious Jews say three times a day, is the ordinary climax of the service. If it doesn’t feel that climatic, remember that it was originally pretty dramatic but then we gave up animal sacrifices a couple millennia ago;
  4. The Torah reading isn’t really part of the service, at least in the sense that it’s not praying. It, along with the sermon, is like a little bible class we’ve ritualized to make sure it happens every week;
  5. On Shabbat, the Musaf (translation: additional) Amidah is, in my opinion, the real climax of the service, particularly the Kedushah during the reader’s repetition, when, as a community, you come closest to being an angel in heaven near God or something like that. In the Sephardic version of the service there’s the Keter Kedushah with even more mystical implications that I don’t understand but still think is pretty cool. (Note that Shabbat is the only time there religious Jews say the Amidah four times a day, including afternoon and evening services, and Yom Kippur afternoon there is a fifth Amidah, which I would contend is the most special/holy time of the year—as opposed to the more popular Kol Nidrei the night before.)
  6. Then there are some concluding prayers, like Aleinu, and by Ein Keloheinu everyone’s just singing and transitioning back into the slightly more mundane matters such as the inevitable announcements and what’s for lunch.

That, and a bit of the Hebrew, is most of what I know; it doesn’t make me an expert, and in a few months David Plotz will probably know the Bible better than I do. While he’s certainly free to read the Bible on his own terms, hopefully he’ll have moderated doing-so-as-rebellion-against-organized-religion, because those of us who think we can learn something from going to synagogue and reading the established commentaries can probably learn something from him, and he from us, too.

Oh, and since it’s that on a Friday: Shabbat shalom.

p.s. Etz Hayim was prepared by Conservative Jewish scholars, with a capital “C”; it’s the name of a movement that may or may not be conservative, depending on your perspective.