Thoughts on Tetzaveh
Book Schnooks: "A Simple Story"

Conservatism and commentaries

Last weekend I attended a nephew's bar mitzvah at a Conservative shul. My nephew shone; he is a bright kid with a strong interest in Judaism, and his hard work showed. He had a long maftir, and a long Haftorah, and he chanted both flawlessly. His d'var (Torah commentary) was so insightful and mature that the rabbi refrained from giving his usual Shabbat-morning Torah sermon. Aside from my nephew's stellar performance, though, I found the service frustrating, for four reasons: the cantor, the siddur, the insularity, and the commentary.

The cantor has a lovely voice, very operatic. If he were to give a concert of Jewish liturgical music, I would go. But when it comes to prayer? I don't want someone singing for me, no matter how pretty a voice s/he has. I want to pray for myself, singing in my own voice, along with everyone else in the room. I want to be a part of a community praying aloud together. What I got here, instead, was a cantor singing, and occasionally a few diehards scattered around the room joining quietly in. That's not my style, and I think it teaches a troubling lesson about prayer: that someone else, someone who is trained and who has a good set of pipes, can and should do it on our behalf. That's not the Judaism I know and love.

The siddur (Sim Shalom) also frustrated me. Admittedly, the Conservative movement and I just plain disagree about some things. For instance, their Shabbat morning custom calls for four repetitions of the Amidah, one silent and one aloud during shacharit (the morning service) and one silent and one aloud during musaf (the "additional" service); the custom I favor at the shul I attend now is to chant only one. To some the repetition is a mitzvah, and to me it's focus-draining, and we're probably never going to agree there. But even given these predictable differences of opinion, I was surprised by how uninspiring I found the siddur...and the people around me who don't have Hebrew found it nearly unusable. Once again, we ran into cases where there was no transliteration (or maybe there was, but it was four hundred pages away, and not easy to find). The rabbi didn't help matters; he never once explained what we were doing or why, merely intoned page numbers now and then.

Which leads to my third frustration: the insularity. I perceive an assumption that the worshippers already know what they're doing. That they already speak and read Hebrew; that they're familiar with the liturgy; that they know what the intent of each prayer is. In today's world I don't think that's right. In any given congregation, there is almost certainly someone who wasn't reared Jewish, an interfaith couple or two, a visitor who's unfamiliar with the customs. (This may be especially true at a big bar mitzvah like this one, especially when one branch of the family isn't Jewish.) Given this, I think it's part of the rabbi's role to educate people about what we're doing together. Why not pause and explain what was going on, or at least give an intention or focus for some of the prayers? Even someone who prays these prayers twice a day might benefit from being reminded of a new interpretation or kavvanah (I know I would), and someone who's unfamiliar with the liturgy would be thankful for the help. But no: that's not the way they do things. Because the service is designed for insiders, and if you're not an insider, too bad.

I've had these frustrations before, and I expected them. What I didn't expect was my reaction to the commentary in the Chumash (volume of Torah and commentary). During the Torah service I read the week's portion, and I came across some anti-intermarriage commentary which was so pointed that it made tears well up in my eyes. (It was a 1936 edition; I hope that this is no longer the prevailing opinion...but there's no shortage of Chumashim, so if they're still using this one, maybe they like what it says.) This edition also featured an essay on the differences between Israel and Egypt, which indicated that the Egyptians had no real religion, only primitive animism, and were only vaguely capable of learning, like the benighted Ashanti of the Gold Coast -- a set of assertions so offensive that they set my teeth on edge.

I didn't want to explain to my family why I was upset; I hoped they would assume I was merely overcome with emotion at my nephew's coming-of-age. I didn't want to mar his bar mitzvah experience by complaining about how the anti-Egypt essay verged on racism, or how the anti-intermarriage commentary made me feel unwelcome and out-of-place. But I felt embarrassed to be a part of a tradition which could derive such anti-Arab sentiment from our holy text (and would choose to focus on it); and the anti-intermarriage commentary reopened old wounds for me. It reminded me that for a lot of Jews, this is what Judaism means, and that makes me unspeakably angry and sad.

The thing is, I'm not a Conservative Jew. I don't have any right to complain about how they do things. I am a visitor in their community and their congregations, and as such it is my duty to thank them for their hospitality, find whatever I can to savor in their worship, and move on. But the outdated and offensive Torah commentary feels like my problem too, not just theirs, because the Torah is what we share, it's at the heart of Jewish practice and thought. What we read in and about the Torah shapes how we see our faith, our community, and our God. To me, the fact that this congregation continues to use that 1936 Chumash speaks of an unwillingness to move beyond insularity and prejudice into the Judaism I hope to help shape.

When my angry tears had subsided, my husband leaned over and whispered, "You're the only woman I know capable of being brought to tears by bad footnotes!" I laughed, and felt better, and was able to listen to my nephew's d'var with a clearer head and heart. But the imprint of the experience lingers.

Yes, I'm a geek who reads footnotes. Yes, I care what they say, and that may make me unusual. But I wish more people would actually read the contents of the religious books they use. And if others find this troubling, I wish they would speak out, too. Because we can do better than a Judaism which derives its strength from excluding those who marry out, from insulting the histories of other peoples, and from maintaining an insularity which is designed to create boundaries between insiders and outsiders, between "us" and "them." My Judaism is about forging I-Thou relationships with other people, with my holy text, with the world, with God. But it's a real challenge for me to react to this particular edition of the Chumash, and to the people who espouse its contents, in an I-Thou way.