Monday, September 19, 2011

A celebration of God, music, and partnership society in reformed Judaism

Friday August 26 was my second time ever attending a Jewish Shabbat service as a guest of the women’s interfaith group WISDOM. I knew that Temple Israel, which hosted this year’s World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation interfaith service in January, has an open and cooperative view toward people of other faiths, so I was intrigued by the prospect of attending an actual Shabbat service there—particularly an outside one, because I’m a nature-lover who had never attended a worship service of any kind outdoors.

Before the service, Gail Katz, one of WISDOM’s co-founders and a member of Temple Israel’s congregation for about a year, gave a 45-minute presentation inside the sanctuary to introduce the guests to some of the most important Jewish prayer and devotional practices and ritual objects. Throughout her discussion she also gave some comparison and contrast between orthodox and reformed practice.

I had already noticed on the way in that Temple Israel is a more egalitarian congregation than any other Jewish or Christian congregation I’d seen. Both the brothers’ group and the sisters’ group seem to have equal status in the congregation, and carry out equally as important services and activities for their community, as evidenced by the informative posters in the lobby. The fact it was a woman who brought out the Torah scrolls for us to see—which it was a privilege for guests to be able to get a close look at—toward the end of Gail’s talk also said a lot.

One of the most important steps that reformed Judaism and newer Christian denominations have taken is bringing women closer to equality with men. Gail’s talk, coupled with what I heard at the Shabbat service later, reaffirmed for me that the old religions need not be thrown out and completely replaced with something new.

If you read my post about Riane Eisler’s work regarding partnership and dominator societies, you’ll see why this is so important to me. While listening to Gail’s talk before the service, it popped into my head that in The Chalice & the Bladethe latter book Riane Eisler identified herself as a Jew. Eisler’s reverence for the faith she was raised in is evident in her writing, and I thought to myself that what I was hearing about and experiencing at Temple Israel must be Riane Eisler’s kind of Judaism.

With that in mind, it was almost spooky (in a good way) when I heard the term “partnership” used in the context of marriage between man and woman in the Shabbat service’s talk, which was given by a woman. She told us that this evening was the anniversary of the granting of women’s suffrage in America, and she spoke of how she was raised by parents in a Jewish tradition to see herself as no less capable of being independent and being successful in a career than a man. She even commented that she preferred to keep her own last name when she married, and said the fact she’s often given a hard time about that when it comes to conducting personal business for her family shows that women still do have a long way to go.

That being said, how far we have come is something to celebrate, and this evening was definitely a celebration of not just God and Jewish tradition, but of the partnership between the two halves of humanity. An engaged couple was then invited up for a pre-nuptial blessing, and I heard the same partnership message emphasized in this blessing.

The setting for this message couldn’t have been more perfect. The yard—or garden—of Temple Israel looked and felt like what I imagine the worship grounds of ancient peaceful agrarian societies to be like. At one point I looked down at the concrete courtyard the chairs were arranged on, and saw the colorful inlaid mosaic depicting different fruits, with their names written in shiny mosaic glass next to them. The open concrete area was divided into sections by hedges, and surrounded by lush trees, grass, and a large pond over which we saw the beautiful sunset.

Another personal passion of mine is music. Music has always been more than entertainment for me—good and uplifting music is a spiritual experience that inspires my art, my writing, and my life in general. Experiencing music as the focal point of a worship service was thus a profound experience for me. The outdoor Shabbat service was full of music, and in Temple Israel’s illuminated manuscript-style siddur (Jewish hymnal), which featured both traditional and contemporary prayers, music was described as the language of prayer, a gift from God, and a way to praise God.

Not only did I feel profoundly that I was on sacred ground and having a great spiritual experience, it also had the same impact on me as attending a magnificent concert. The musicians and the cantors were amazing, the primary singer sounding as good as any classically-trained opera singer.

At one point I looked over to the grassy area at my left and saw a woman dancing with her child in her arms. Children freely moved around during the outdoor service, and watching them made me wish I’d been raised in a tradition like this, rather than being expected to sit and be quiet while someone droned on from a podium saying stuff that meant nothing to me because I was too young to appreciate or understand it. Temple Israel’s outdoor Shabbat service will go down in history as one of the most enchanting and uplifting experiences I’ve ever had of worship as a celebration.

Lately my thing when walking around sacred ground is taking off my shoes and walking through the grass barefoot. To get back to my car, I intentionally took the long way around to the temple’s parking lot so I could delay putting my shoes back on for as much of the walk as possible.


Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2013; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker

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