Impermanence and thanksgiving.
The ties that bind.

Is the Door Closed?

Over the last few years, I've been realizing how insular Judaism can be, especially compared with Christianity. It seems to me that Christianity is designed to be open-door, and Judaism isn't.

I'd argue that there are legitimate historical reasons for this difference. Historically Christianity has sought converts, while Judaism hasn't (though it's hard to say whether that's a cause, or an effect, of Judaism's communal insularity). Historically, Jews were often persecuted, and closed ranks to protect themselves, while (broad generalization alert) Christians weren't. One of these religions has been dominant, culturally, while the other is a subculture and has turned inward (with elaborate entry rituals) the way subcultures do.

Judaism's relative insularity makes some sense. But lately I'm more interested in the products of that insularity than the reasons for it.

The assumption of inward focus, of being an island of "us" surrounded by a sea of "them," permeates every aspect of Jewish life and culture. One of the ways that insularity manifests is in our liturgy: in the set prayers, orders of prayer, and conventions of prayer one finds in congregational worship.

This is a place where Jewish and Christian practices diverge radically, at least in my experience. Christian services are generally in the vernacular, and hymnals make the music plain even to first-time visitors -- while Jewish services require a surprising amount of foreknowledge (of Hebrew, of melodies, of each congregation's particular customs of standing and sitting, reading and chanting).

I think about this a lot. Because words are what I work with; because I care a lot about the prayers we use; because I think one of Rabbinic Judaism's coolest innovations is this idea that we don't need a Temple Altar in order to reach God, we can reach our Source by a combination of words and mindful intent.

I think the Jewish liturgy has a tremendous amount of potential: it can serve as a ladder towards a state of higher consciousness, towards a sense of connection with God. But too often people don't know how to use the ladder, and feel as though it doesn't reach the ground they're standing on. Is the problem with the ladder, or with the people who don't know how to reach its rungs?

Both, if you ask me. And I think that any workable solution to this dilemma needs to address it from both sides: fine-tuning the ladder of the liturgy so that it's accessible to the people who want to climb it, and providing teachings that help people learn to use the ladder better.

Changing the liturgy is a sticky subject, and my relationship to this issue is complicated. On the one hand, I'm relatively comfortable with Hebrew (and the odd bit of Aramaic now and then), and I love the prayers I grew up on. I know that the standard Jewish liturgy was developed over a long period of time, by rabbis who were deeply invested in both preserving and transforming what had come before them. I don't want to argue in favor of scrapping tradition: that's short-sighted and ultimately fruitless.

On the proverbial other hand, I know a lot of people who aren't comfortable with Hebrew or Aramaic. Who don't know the prayers or the melodies. Who don't feel that delicious, deep connection with the sounds of Jewish synagogue worship. Who find the set liturgy at best a little baffling, and at worst completely alienating. And although some of these people (like my spouse and his family) aren't Jewish, others are. I know plenty of Jews who find synagogue worship impenetrable.

The question, I guess, is this: for whom is synagogue worship designed? Is it designed to be an experience that anyone can gain access to, or is it designed for insiders who already know their way around?

Seems to me like all too often it's designed for insiders. Sure, anyone could theoretically become an insider; spend a few years learning Hebrew, go to shul every week until the liturgy starts to look familiar, engage in Torah study, yadda yadda. But that's an awful lot of work for a sense of religious community and connection, and given that a fair number of modern-day folks don't seem to miss religion when they don't have it, I think these hurdles are keeping people away. They're effectively blocking the doors.

Some might argue that this is okay. That Judaism is an elite kind of thing; that we don't need or want the active participation of people who don't care enough to learn how we do things.

Lately I find, increasingly, that I disagree with that viewpoint. The Jewish establishment is fond of trumpeting the fear that intermarriage and assimilation are going to ruin us -- to which I answer, "No, it's this habit of blocking the door that's going to ruin us, if anything will." (And I'm not convinced that Judaism is headed for ruination; I've had some exciting, vibrant, progressive, passionate Jewish experiences of late. Sometimes I think the doomsayers are being drama queens. But that's another train of thought, best saved for its own blog post...)