During the fall Jewish holidays, I often explore different options near my home in Cambridge, MA, trying various services and communities. I don’t belong to a synagogue and do not participate regularly in any particular Jewish group, but I’m open to changing that. Though I don’t normally gravitate towards organized prayers and religious services, particularly when they’re in Hebrew and the meaning eludes me, I hear so many Jews discussing their synagogue plans during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that I feel a kind of… not obligation: I’ve never been one to feel I should do something just because many others are doing it. More like… a calling.
I fancy myself someone who is driven by spiritual questions, right? For that matter, spiritual communities fascinate me. And while my spiritual quest has taken me far beyond Judaism, I continually shock myself by feeling a particular connection to Jewish groups. If so many Jews around the world are spending time in synagogue — if it’s reached the point of being a thing for my parents, and even for my father, who insisted on keeping a stash of bread in his relatively observant parents’ basement throughout his childhood Passovers because he couldn’t bear to give it up for a week — I feel like I should be a part of things, somehow.
I’m sure I’d get over that feeling if I had to pay for expensive tickets: I’d tell myself that hanging out by the river or even sipping tea in a café was a gloriously spiritual way to spend a Jewish holiday. And maybe it would be. But I have access to a range of high holiday services for free. When I hear non-affiliated Jews around the country complain that they can’t afford tickets to attend the holiest services of the year, I consider my own lucky combination of options and feel like I have to take advantage and at least try to enjoy it, even though I rarely relish being cooped up in a service that doesn’t particularly speak to me, and might traumatize me when it does capture my attention (Jewish high holiday services are filled with references to death and various misfortunes that might befall the living).
Because I’m affiliated with a Harvard University house (Harvard has a house system that allows undergraduates to live and eat in small residential communities) I can attend any Harvard service I want, and they all happen close to my Harvard Square home. For years, I went to the Reform services as a kind of default. Reform services include lots of English, so I understand what’s going on, and almost always incorporate an involved talk by the rabbi or a community member — and sometimes both. Guitar-playing and singing usually happen, and while that would surely upset stricter Jews who wouldn’t allow instrument playing on these days, I often find myself nodding along to the music and enjoying the tunes.
I like when communities come together to consider spiritual themes. I like hearing talks about deep issues like repentance and self-improvement. I like guitars. So these Reform services have always been quite pleasant for me.
But, for years, I’ve had a qualm. The services are geared towards students. Of course they are; they’re part of a university. I’m lucky to be included at all. Honestly, I never expect to be the core audience anywhere I go: I’m too much of an outlier for that, in all kinds of ways. I don’t remotely fit any demographic I can imagine. But part of me started to feel… I mean, I see myself as being maybe 24, and I do believe perception drives reality in all kinds of ways. But there are other ways in which… don’t ask me why, but observers who use typical metrics would say that I’ve moved quite far from being 24. And a piece of me — an increasingly vocal, agitated piece — started to wonder if I might find a community that would include more people who were somewhat similar to me — or at least more similar than the charming kid next to me at Reform services, who just left his parents in Minnesota to begin his college career, and whose main current worry is whether he will manage a high grade on his upcoming biology test.
A bit of research called up some new possibilities. One I knew but often forgot about: an earthy-crunchy community called Havurat Shalom: a short walk from Tufts University, where I teach. They’re not affiliated with any denomination, and they trace their lineage to the Havurah movement, with a focus on community closeness and gender equality during services and all other activities.
Their services are always free, even during the high holidays, and they tend to be a welcoming bunch: trying to accommodate allergies, disabilities, and other potentially difficult qualities as much as possible. They seem to pride themselves on making absolutely everyone, no matter how quirky, feel embraced. Chatting with members will always call up a fascinating range, with many working in fields that focus on helping people, like social work and physical therapy, and some who have had bad breaks and difficulties finding their niche: people who have long been out of work, or who can’t afford a permanent home.
People who cringe when synagogue services become fashion and car shows might find comfort here: jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers, and flowing ethnic garb are de rigueur at all events, including high holiday services — as is long, scruffy hair, for any possible gender you can imagine.
I decided to attend Kol Nidre, the service held the evening that begins Yom Kippur, at this congregation. The last time I did this, I arrived a bit late after teaching and wound up in the hall with no view of the actual service. This time, I raced over after class and snagged a seat with a view. People were friendly but not overbearing, and, while I missed English-based services that I could understand, I enjoyed that the congregation as a whole led most of the festivities. There were at least a few rabbis in the group, but they didn’t seem to take priority over anyone else.
Of course, it’s possible that a rabbi was guiding the service in a subtle way and I just didn’t catch that part. I frankly spaced out for most of the service and just kind of looked around. I’m not sure what kind of absolution from my sins I hoped to achieve by zoning out, not in the mood to whip out my rusty but real Hebrew reading skills to try to follow along, but I felt good that at least my body was present at a Kol Nidre service.
After Kol Nidre, a local Judaic studies professor was running a class, and I immediately decided to stay for it. The subject was, of all things, death. Those who know me are well aware that this is the subject that draws me to spiritual activities: I cannot bear the secular interpretation that death brings the end of all consciousness and am always looking for other views and relevant experiences. Non-Hasidic communities rarely seem to focus on this topic, so I was thrilled.
The professor, a genial guy who might be in his 60s or 70s, discussed a fascinating and eclectic group of sources on the subject, from Shakespeare and the psychologist Erik Erikson to Ecclesiastes. He seemed focused on death’s inevitability — and the unstoppable decline of aging. It struck me as existential angst for those of us who are far beyond our teen years, and I loved it. But I did find a potential opening to explore my essential questions in this realm: a window suggesting a spiritual solution to the deepest problems discussions like this suggest.
Some might say it’s bizarre to mention mystical questions during a discussion about aging, decline, death, and how we can put it all into some kind of realistic perspective, and I hesitated a bit. But then I thought: This is a synagogue, right? Synagogues are spiritual places, at least in theory. Where better to open a discussion to a spiritual theme?
So I asked: “What do you make of that line in Ecclesiastes about the spirit returning to God after the body dies? If the spirit returns to God, who presumably is immortal, does this suggest that the human spirit is somehow immortal?”
The professor kind of skipped over my question. He wasn’t rude at all; he did it with a smile, after catching my eye. But the topic didn’t inspire him, didn’t speak to him even remotely, and he didn’t want to waste our limited class time on it.
I looked around the room, at the mostly older crowd who had stayed after services for this class. No one seemed bothered that this question received no attention. They were much happier discussing topics like the cycle of nature: the beauty we can find there, despite the obvious inevitability of death. They were utter realists, but is it a foregone conclusion that their reality is the only one? Isn’t it at least possible that forces beyond their perception exist? And wouldn’t a group of Jews who are learning together on Yom Kippur seem to be an ideal audience to discuss those possibilities? Clearly not, and clearly I was the weird one here, but I was disappointed. In the class I envisioned, my question would have inspired people to consider spiritual angles and explore, at least for a few minutes.
The next day, I attended Yom Kippur morning services run by Harvard Hillel’s Worship and Study Minyan. I’d read and heard that this group tends to attract settled Cambridge residents more than the young graduate school crowd, and, much as it kills me to face it, I haven’t been a graduate student in quite some time. The crowd is indeed older: I’d say the most common age groups were 50s and 60s, and there were many elderly people. I saw a few teens, who seemed to be with parents or grandparents. I felt very young by comparison, and since I am very young psychically and emotionally (and maybe even actually since I tend to believe that consciousness controls reality, but let’s not get too bizarre in this essay) I enjoyed that aspect.
The service was pleasant enough, though there wasn’t much English and I spaced out as usual. I enjoyed hearing people read and chant in the background, and half-focusing on the stage, where the group’s rabbi and many community members helped lead the congregation’s prayers. Women and men took all the same roles, and it struck me as being more or less a Conservative Jewish service.
Instead of delivering a sermon, the rabbi asked the audience for their memories of Hilary Putnam, an eminent philosopher and mathematician who had taught at Harvard and was very active in this congregation. He died this past March, and had many loyal friends in this group who shared memories of a warm, caring, and brilliant companion. It was very Cambridge, with the focus on a Harvard scholar and not on, say, God. I liked that. I’m not sure how I feel about God — what I believe, or how open I am to the possibility that the Torah carries any special holiness — but I could certainly relate to people who loved a man who was fabulously gifted both in mind and in spirit.
When the service ended, I overheard a few people laughing about Chabad Hasidim: particularly their belief and hope that Moshiach — the Messiah — will actually come at some point, and is not just a metaphor for something more mundane, like harmony among nations or neighbors getting along.
I said: “Actually, I think that belief goes far beyond Chabad. Belief that Moshiach will come is one of Maimonides’ 13 principles of basic Jewish faith. Maimonides has been revered and followed for centuries far beyond Chabad.”
A lively woman with an Israeli accent looked at me, startled. “I highly doubt that’s true. Maimonides would not have said that about Moshiach.”
At that point, a retired rabbi backed me up: “Moshiach is all over the service. It is part of the mainstream liturgy.”
Here was my opening to… something. Maybe. “So what do you think about Moshiach? Do you think that’s a possibility for the future?”
The rabbi looked shocked and said: “Oh, no. It’s just something that’s there. For sure it’s not something I believe in a literal sense.”
I explained that I didn’t believe it either, but I was open to it in theory, as a possibility. “I guess that’s the sort of thing I’d love to discuss in a synagogue. You know, not as something you have to believe, just as an extremely interesting concept that might have some foothold in reality. Not just as a metaphor for something this-worldly, but something… spiritual.”
The Israeli woman gaped at me. “In this congregation?”
I said nothing more on that subject. I chatted with a few other people and all of them were friendly, but I didn’t see myself returning to a congregation that wouldn’t even entertain the notion of something like Moshiach. I’m not saying they should ram it into our faces as truth: that would be just as bad if not worse. But Moshiach has an enormous place in Jewish history: for centuries, Jews have longed for the coming of the Messiah. If you’re going to call yourself a Jewish institution and not explicitly bill yourself as secular (there’s a movement called Humanistic Judaism that avoids the concept of God and promotes Judaism as a culture that doesn’t need spiritual elements) you should at least be open to Judaism’s mystical side.
As usual, I left these communities feeling like I’d had a pleasant time, but with little desire to return, at least immediately. But what do I want in a Jewish community? Why do I keep seeking them out and then rejecting them?
A few nights ago, I shared my high holiday experiences with a friend who grew up in a modern Orthodox community and attended a modern Orthodox high school. Though she has moved past Orthodox belief herself, she said she found it odd that a Jewish community would “silence” mystical questions and concerns. Her use of the term “silence” really struck me. At bottom, I crave a Jewish community that silences no one: not the mystic, not the skeptic, not those who follow traditional lifestyles or those who have landed far beyond them.
When I ask myself whether I have ever enjoyed a Jewish community, my first thought is the Chabad Hasidim of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where I lived when I was writing about them. They had spiritual passion and a strong sense of mystical overlay to the world. They were friendly and open, providing me with parties and gatherings galore: with the teens I was studying and with women my age. They didn’t silence me… but I was an outsider. People who hailed from the community shared stories of ostracism from friends and sometimes close family when they lost faith or stopped following Jewish law, or even when they moved beyond specific Chabad expectations for dress or certain habits. It was a grand place to visit… so grand that I still miss it. But I could never be a full-fledged member of that community, with my complete lack of faith that the Torah has any special divinity, not to mention my lack of interest in marriage and childrearing.
Next, I remember a very special community that lasted for a brief time, spearheaded by a good friend of mine here in the Boston area. She had Shabbatons at her home periodically, inviting mostly Orthodox Jews who were a bit quirky, and some outside the Orthodox world who were also intense about their Jewish lives, and just as quirky. Since it was a somewhat diverse group, there was no particular expectation about belief or observance, though I think I was the only person there who makes no attempt to keep kosher or observe Shabbat.
We discussed spiritual issues, lamented our problems and insecurities, supported each other’s successes, read our poems and stories to each other… all under a kind of Jewish lens, since the whole point was that we were getting together for Shabbat. Particularly inspiring and even healing for me: most if not all of the regulars were single, and considerably older than the typical Orthodox marrying age. While most of them hoped to find a partner one day, they completely accepted my lack of desire for that lifestyle.
The Shabbatons eventually stopped: they were enormously difficult to arrange and just couldn’t continue in the midst of other obligations. But a thought just occurred to me: If those Shabbaton regulars constituted a synagogue community equally open to my lack of observance and many of the regulars’ Orthodox observance, I’d probably join. We got into deep mystical discussions, and no one attacked anyone else’s beliefs or lack thereof. But this was a group of friends, not a synagogue, and people traveled in from various areas around the country (mostly the Northeast).
I guess the problem is that actual synagogues tend to define themselves based on observance level, and places that are liberal in terms of observance and specifics of belief and lifestyle tend to pride themselves on rationality, and lack of interest in “outdated” mystical notions. For that matter, even Orthodox congregations beyond the Hasidic world often seem to look down on mystical notions, and interest in questions like Moshiach.
Jews, like so much of the world, divide themselves into niches that don’t make sense to me, or feel welcoming. I’d love a community that gathers people together to discuss mystical issues — open to all questions, all beliefs, any possible type of faith or absence of conviction. We could come together as journeyers: some standardly religious, some not. We wouldn’t have to pray together (I usually don’t enjoy organized religious services anyhow) but we could talk, share, and explore together, with curiosity and without judgment against those who see things differently.
Anyone else interested? Maybe throwing the question out there will spark some movement towards my dream.
***Image Credit: “Line Up” by lowbrow outsider psyched, April 18, 2012, flickr.com