This week I went to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. A little background on Orthodox Judaism:
- Jewish Law has 613 commandments that Orthodox Jews feel must be observed.
- Orthodox Judaism observes a very strict interpretation of these laws which include: prohibitions against many acts on the Sabbath, such as no work, no writing, no cooking, etc.; strict gender roles; observance of Kosher; etc.
- Use of Hebrew only in worship.
- Traditional worship passed down through the ages.
- Following the teachings of rabbis and rebbes. Rebbes are higher than rabbis and are similar in ways to gurus in Hinduism.
- For more information on Judaism in general, see my blog on Reform Judaism.
So how was the experience?
They forbid me to take notes or pictures. When I asked a member later, they told me it was due to the Sabbath restrictions. The synagogue is located in the district of Salt Lake known as Sugar House, strangely enough just a couple blocks down from the Scientology Church. The synagogue is located in a complex with several rooms for different functions, including a mikvah (roughly equivalent to a Christian baptismal font used for purification ceremonies) and a social hall. The synagogue itself was a smaller room. I found a picture of it online.
To explain this picture, the Orthodox tend to refer to the synagogue as "shul," meaning "school." As you can see from the setup, it is very much like a classroom, complete with desks. The front of the sanctuary has the ark, the chest covered by the tapestry which contains the Torah scrolls. In front of that is a small podium at the ground level where the prayers are recited, and towards the back is the bimah, the platform from which the Torah scrolls are read.
There was one part of the layout of the synagogue that really bothered me. I knew it was coming, I know about the tradition behind it, but it upset me. There is a partition that separates the men from the women called a mechitza. This is done for modesty reasons, but it was just so indicative of gender roles in this faith. You can see the partition in the photograph, and if you'll notice, everything of importance is on the men's side: the ark, the podium where they say prayers, the bimah, etc. and only men participate in the ceremonies. The women seemed to be literally pushed to the side almost as an afterthought. I understand this is a long standing tradition in Judaism and is part of their culture. But it was also part of our culture to keep women in the home and not to speak her mind. Some traditions have no place in the 21st century.
Overall, the atmosphere was traditional, but not as inspiring as the Reform synagogue.
The people were quite interesting. It was like something out of a movie or cliche, the men were dressed alike in the traditional garb you associate with Orthodox Jews, the black slacks, white dress shirts, black yarmulkes, the black, wide brimmed hats, beards, etc. In the synagogue, many of the men wore prayer shawls and swayed back and forth as they prayed.
I didn't really get a chance to talk with any of the women, only the men. They were all happy to have us there to observe them. I didn't feel like any of them were uncomfortable that we were there. A few asked if I had been to a synagogue before, when I explained I had, some seemed a little put off that it had been a Reform synagogue, others seemed happy and asked me a lot of questions saying some of their family or friends went to that synagogue.
Overall, I could tell that these people were very vested in their roots and traditions.
The service was an endurance test. The members even acknowledged this afterwards with us. It was a 3 hour service all spoken in Hebrew and divided into 3 portions, morning prayers, Torah readings, and Haftarah (readings from other scriptures) with a sermon.
The first hour was nothing but a long prayer chanted by the rabbi with a few acapella songs in between. There was an English translation of the prayers in the book, but it was hard to follow along with as I never knew exactly where we were in the service.
The second hour had them bring the Torah scrolls around, and everyone touched either a book or their shawls to the scrolls then kissed the book or shawl. They then did 7 readings from the Torah scrolls.
After that there was a reading from Ezekiel and a sermon, which I will cover in "The Message" section.
There was no passion or emotion in the service like there was in the Reform service. The rabbi flew through the prayers, at times sounding like a cattle auctioneer. I got the strong feeling from them that they were doing this almost exclusively out of obligation and tradition, and not with any real meaning behind it.
Overall, the service was very long, I was lost much of the time, and quite monotonous and boring.
The readings from the Torah were translated for me in the book into English. The verses were some of my least favorite in scripture. Verses talking about how if the daughter of a priest was found to have committed sexual sin, she should be burned alive and how those with physical defects are unworthy to be priests.
They somehow spun that into something positive. The rabbi stated in his sermon that the real message behind this is that even the worst of human traits can be used for positive things. He told a story about a family that was having issues with their son. He didn't go into many of the issues, but he said that the boy was in a treatment retreat and meeting with therapists. The boy told his parents that he wanted nothing to do with them if they didn't accept him as he was and he wasn't going to live the Orthodox life. His parents said he was out, but the Rabbi said that the family must absolutely accept their son because God gave him to them and human beings are imperfect paintings, but it is our imperfection that makes us beautiful.
As the service was ending, he read a poem about how we can learn virtues from even the thief. The thief is patient, the thief observes, the thief is thoughtful, but most of all, if the thief fails, he will try and try again.
The message was awesome, and I would love to see more messages like that from the pulpit in more religious communities.
This service was a learning experience, but it's not something I would do again. It was quite boring, the separation of the women bothered me a lot more than I expected, and it was just too strict and harsh. I loved the message, but there was a lot missing from it for me.
I am working on a few special projects which has been part of the reason the blog hasn't been as consistent. I will make a double effort to return to the normal schedule.
I am hoping you will be excited by some of the special blog entries coming up.
Until next time, peace be with you.