The Curmudgeon Goes to Shul

For lack of a better term, The Curmudgeon is a lapsed Jew.

While he is unquestionably Jewish and values his religion’s culture and traditions, the religious part – the whole g-d thing – leaves him absolutely cold. He is, depending on how you define it and his mood when you talk to him about it, either agnostic or an atheist.

He realizes that makes him a bundle of contradictions – something others have seldom hesitated to point out to him. He doesn’t believe in g-d but he observes Judaism’s major holidays and believes they’re important enough to use personal or vacation time rather than work on them. He has a high degree of disdain for reform Judaism, which he thinks is silly. On the other hand, twice in the last two paragraphs he has referred to his religion’s deity as “g-d” because that’s what the rabbis insist on and he believes they should be respected on this matter (although not on all matters).

The Curmudgeon’s negative feelings toward religion and faith are colored by specific things in his past, a combination of his childhood belief in science and the problem that poses when trying to contemplate and grasp the concept of faith; an orthodox religious school instructor whose teachings were wholly inappropriate for the impressionable children of the conservative congregation she had been hired to teach; and the incongruity of being compelled to participate in services in which you read and chant for two hours in a language you do not understand and the failure of those whose responsibility was to teach those children to make any effort at all to attempt to explain the meaning of those words and share and instill the sentiments they seek to express.

Part of being lapsed means not going to synagogue, or shul (but never “temple”: that word is part of the reform Judaism for which The Curmudgeon has such disdain). Sometimes, though, social necessity trumps matters of faith, so a few weeks ago The Curmudgeon found himself in a synagogue for the first time ever in a year that begins with the number “2” to attend a bat mitzvah.

And he has to admit he was pleasantly surprised.

The bat mitzvah was held in a part of Philadelphia where many people would be surprised to learn there even are any Jews, yet there they are, a visibly strong and proud and tightly knit congregation with a lovely facility that, while old, is immaculately maintained.

But what surprised The Curmudgeon was the service.

The first striking thing about the service was the number of people who participated directly in it. While the service was not especially well-attended, children were not segregated from adults, as was the case when The Curmudgeon was growing up, and they participated, they didn’t just observe: the rabbi called them to the front of the room to lead the singing of a few well-known prayers. As far as The Curmudgeon could tell these weren’t necessarily friends of the bat mitzvee: they were just kids, mostly girls, who attended the synagogue.

The second striking thing about the service was the physical location from which it was conducted: from the front of the room but not from the raised platform, or stage, that Jews refer to as the “bimah.” Historically the bimah is supposed to be used only for reading the Torah, Judaism’s holy scrolls, but over the years rabbis have taken up full-time residence on the bimah, a practice The Curmudgeon has always interpreted as symbolic of their belief in their moral and spiritual superiority over their congregants. This service, though, was led from the same level as the congregants, and it created a feeling of community even for The Curmudgeon, who was not a member of that community at all.

The real revelation – not a great word to use in this context, perhaps, but one The Curmudgeon will use nonetheless – was the rabbi. The Curmudgeon has attended services at numerous synagogues (okay, and temples) over the years and found that if there was one thing you could count on, it was a self-important and self-absorbed rabbi.

As a group, rabbis come across as pretty miserable people. The Curmudgeon once attended a new year’s eve gathering hosted by a husband-and-wife rabbi team and the husband half, who stationed himself at the door to greet his guests, was about as lively as a funeral director. The rabbi who presided over The Curmudgeon’s own bar mitzvah (November 21, 1970) was a miserable man who had no time for his congregants. He passed away less than a month ago at the age of ninety-six, and even his obituary, presumably written by a member of his family or based on information presented to a writer by his family, made not even a passing reference to his warmth or any positive personal feelings from or about the people in the congregations he led. Shortly before The Curmudgeon turned thirteen he was led to that rabbi’s study and had an audience with the man that lasted no longer than three minutes. The rabbi had nothing to say and acted like his visitor was an unwelcome interruption, an inconvenience. What The Curmudgeon remembers most about the visit was that the rabbi’s study was completely lined with books, and that’s the one quality his obituary mentioned, as if being a rabbi and immersing yourself in books instead of the spiritual life of your congregants is something worthwhile.

But the rabbi at this synagogue was amazing. He was warm and welcoming and engaging and even joyous, and his decision to conduct his service as a peer of his congregation and not from on high reflected a refreshing and most welcome egalitarianism. His interpretation of the week’s Torah passage was enlightening and positive and optimistic, his enthusiasm for his faith and his vocation and his congregants unmistakable and practically infectious.

This rabbi spoke of the bat mitzvah girl in a way that made clear that she was not someone with whom he’d had only a single, three-minute encounter: he knew her and her family well and he even revealed that he had communicated with her by Skype over the summer while he was overseas. Attending synagogue has always been an unpleasant experience for The Curmudgeon and that is never going to change, no matter how welcoming the rabbi is, but at least this visit was informative and interesting and optimistic and in some ways even satisfying.

At the reception following the service The Curmudgeon sought out the rabbi, introduced himself, and conveyed his high regard for what he had just witnessed. He described himself using the same term he used above – a lapsed Jew – and told the rabbi that if there were more rabbis like him, there might be fewer lapsed Jews like The Curmudgeon.

And The Curmudgeon meant it.

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  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On September 24, 2015 at 9:25 am

    It’s wonderful to see you embracing life in this manner-curmudgeon or not.

  • pastorbeetle  On September 25, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Oh, how I wish I lived closer! I would love to sit down and have a beer with you and discuss! What you say about “Shul” is really no different from what I hear often from those of my tribe about “Church.”
    Great post.

    • foureyedcurmudgeon  On September 25, 2015 at 10:17 am

      I can imagine. The language thing, though, is really huge: hour after hour of prayer in a language they took great pains to teach you how to read but no effort to teach you what it means. Despite my years away, I was able to recite much of what I heard at that service from memory – but without a hint of what any of it meant.

      • pastorbeetle  On September 25, 2015 at 7:15 pm

        The same sort of thing fueled the Protestant Reformation. Luther wanted the Mass said in German, and not Latin. Vatican II was all about leaving the Latin behind. Language should never be a barrier between the worshiper and the Worshiped (in my humble opinion).
        Along those lines, I co-officiated a wedding with a Hindu priest (Bride was United Methodist and the groom Hindu) last June, and had a blast! I asked the groom after the 2 hour ceremony if he understood any of the Sanskrit chants… no. To the priest’s credit, he did tell us what the meanings were, if not translating it for us. I have never enjoyed a wedding as much as I did that one!

      • foureyedcurmudgeon  On September 26, 2015 at 10:49 am

        Your wedding experience sounds…amazing.

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