Friday, September 30, 2011

800 Words: Seriously Unserious Judaism

It’s Rosh Hashana. The last two days have been spent, as they have for the last twenty-eight years, in shul. It is shul for us, not synagogue or temple. It’s a fifteen minute walk from our parking place on Old Forest Drive to the main sanctuary of our shul in Pikesville, Maryland (which shall remain nameless). Upon our arrival, my father, brothers, and I descend to take our seats with my uncle Harold and his sons in the second row of the men’s side. Meanwhile, my mother and my grandmother must walk the length of our cathedral-size sanctuary to meet my aunt Robin and female cousins in the third row of the women’s side. To reach our seats, we each must pass through a cast of thousands. Some of this cast we know very well, some of them we know not at all, some of them we only know from having seen them every year at the High Holidays. I exchange friendly greetings with people whom I’ve never met outside of this building. I see faces so familiar that I can spot new wrinkles on their faces: faces that I’ve seen every year of my life, though never anywhere else but shul. Sometimes these faces, usually the older ones, disappear. Sometimes new, younger faces appear next to them.

If we were Christian, this service would seem like something right out of the Russian Orthodox Church or Pre-Vatican II. Our (nameless) cantor, brother-in-law to a famous Israeli singer and who could easily be a Verdi Baritone himself, stands at the front of the stage (or bimah) with his back to the congregants so that he may wail four hours worth of obscure Hebrew prayers in minor keys while accompanied by a scarcely less operatic sounding male choir. Occasionally, the awe and dread are interrupted by more upbeat Chasidic melodies. But this cantor - and his predecessor even moreso - sets a mood for religion that always involves awe and dread. If you ask me, if you can’t picture Dracula appearing in the middle of the service, it’s not religion.

Our shul is, so I hear, the largest Orthodox Synagogue in America. Perhaps it has been for half a century. During the High Holidays, it hosts two main services, an even more orthodox service, a service for teenagers, and services for every age-group of children. Among its congregants are real estate tycoons, construction magnates, some of Baltimore’s most prominent doctors and lawyers, the majority of the state delegates from our district in the last forty years, and a United States Senator. There are also some blue collar types - contrary to popular belief, blue-collar Jews do exist and occasionally they’re the most devout people in the Shul. It is often repeated, there are two power centers without which nothing gets done at our shul: the millionaires and the minyanaires (if you don’t know what a minyan is, ask a Jew).

How does it manage to keep up this level of success for so long? The answer is all too simple:

Nobody cares.

There are few things in life as unattractive as people who insist that others act as though they believe in what they do. Everything about our shul is a hypocrisy, but it’s a benevolent one that grows more necessary with every year. The High Holiday services at our shul are easily the longest in Baltimore. Most shuls get out on Rosh Hashana by noon, ours is lucky to get out by 1:15. The reason they can afford to keep us that long? Because everybody talks right through the service.

There are Reform Jewish services in Baltimore that are far closer to the spirit of true religious orthodoxy than at our shul. Except for a mechitza (which in our case means a six-foot transparent glass wall which technically separates the men from the women), there is barely a pretense to real orthodoxy. The men wear $500 suits to shul, you’re as likely to hear talk about the Orioles or the particulars of a business deal discussed as to hear the cantor clearly. The women are decked out with their finest pearls, the younger ones in incredibly revealing dresses. The Rabbi’s sermons are loaded with constant appeals for money and the Rabbi makes sure to pepper the service with entertaining asides. And I suppose that’s the real reason for our shul’s hold over people: the utter charisma of the Rabbi, whom it would not surprise me to learn was voted the most charismatic in America.

Our Rabbi (who shall also remain nameless) is a spiritual leader to the manner born. While he speaks with a Brooklyn accent on steroids, he is totally bereft of the sing-song Rabbiisms that turn most of us off from religion. From my earliest age, this Rabbi’s sermons have spoiled me for every other Rabbi I’ve ever heard. His secret? He never talks about religion.

Don’t get me wrong, he does. But unlike so many clergy, he realizes that religion alone cannot answer people’s spiritual needs, and theology is always of secondary importance to real human concerns. The sermons are about the World, about community, about family, about ethical values, about doubt, about what it means to be human. I can’t think of how many times I have caught a lump in my throat from his sermons, only to look down the row and find that tears are streaming from everyone else too. Short perhaps of Barack Obama, you will search in vain for a contemporary politician who speaks with such eloquence. I have learned more from his sermons about both ethics and the craft of writing than I ever did in any classroom. Yes, he’s too supportive of any Israeli policy for my taste. He’s too unforgiving of intermarriage. He’s too critical of ethical lapses in politicians. He’s clearly a tad vain. But I don’t care. He is my Rabbi, and until he retires he always will be.

In recent years, it’s become increasingly apparent that this shul is the center of Jewish life in Baltimore. It is the one place in Baltimore which observes all the traditional forms of orthodoxy and still tolerates all deviations from orthodox belief among its members. For all the orthodox traditions, the shul tells its congregants that you don’t have to observe Judaism in a traditional way to observe the values which Judaism espouses: family, community, intellectual engagement, the preservation of history, the importance of law, the necessity of ethics. And if you don’t particularly believe in those values, well...that’s ok too.

A place like our shul is more necessary now than at any point in American Jewish History. Like everything else in America, the center of Jewish life is falling apart. Today’s world grows ever more polarized, and Jews are increasingly forced to choose between orthodoxy, reformation or assimilation. In a generation or two, Secular Judaism could sound like a complete oxymoron. It’s all too apparent that the days of Secular Judaism in America are numbered.

For what it’s worth, I very much support the right of people to marry outside the Jewish faith without becoming ostracized by their communities, as still happens all too often in America. But the rate of intermarriage among Jews now stands at 1 in every 2 marriages involving Jews. And of those couples in which the spouse does not convert, only 4% choose to raise their children as Jewish. A Jewish culture without orthodoxy simply cannot sustain itself in such an environment. Even if one counts all the spouses of all intermarried Jews as part of the total American-Jewish population, the number of Jews in America can be no larger than 6.7 million.

The fertility rates speak for themselves. The birth rate in secular Jewish households is 1.29 children. In Reform Jewish households it is 1.36 children. In Conservative Jewish households it is 1.4 children. In Modern Orthodox Jewish households it is 3.39 children. In Orthodox Jewish households it is 6.72 children. As has happened in every Jewish diaspora since the Babylonian era, acceptance can only last for so long. Eventually, the Jewish presence of every liberal civilization becomes such an accepted part of the culture’s fabric that Jews can marry into non-Jewish families without stigma. When they do, the liberal faction of the Jewish community dwindles inevitably to nothing. All that is left is a community of orthodox Jews whose customs put them utterly at odds with the Gentile majority. All that prevents such a community from being ostracized, ghettoized, imprisoned or slaughtered is the presence of a government liberal enough to refuse to demonize Jews for their differences - a presence that can never be guaranteed. At the moment, the ultra-Orthodox are darlings of the Republican Party, feted as the true guarantors of Israel’s continued existence; which Evangelicals view as absolutely necessary to presage the Second Coming of Christ. But the day may come when the Tea Party or the Evangelical Right asks Orthodox Jews to turn on Reformed Jews for being so unsupportive of their agenda. It wouldn't happen for a while, but the day might come. I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that Orthodox Jews would never do anything dishonorable to other Jews. If Judaism in America ever turns to such dire straits, the final bell will toll when Orthodox Jews opt for principle over convenience, as they always have throughout history's darkest chapters.

I do not believe in Judaism, but I believe in being Jewish. For me, the only importance of religion is that the option is always there. Even if you don’t believe in religion, there is enormous comfort in knowing that your family is always there for you. Not just your nuclear family, but the religious family from whence you come - ready to receive you with open arms if you ever decide to devote yourself to it. I don’t ever want to be forced to decide between the Jewish world and the secular world, because I can’t imagine my life without either option. But I worry that one day I, or my children, will not have that choice. And that frightens me.

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