I went back to Beth Shalom this morning. My previous visit, over a week ago, was at a morning prayer service, and it didn’t have enough substance me to give a fair grade.
Today is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month. If you thought it was the 8th day of the month, you would be wrong. Well, you’d be wrong if you were using a Hebrew calendar. Today is the 1st of Tammuz, in the year 5773. So if you’re attending a synagogue, you have to set your watch ahead by about 3760 years. Give or take.
As a special treat, Beth Shalom had a guest Rabbi doing the lesson, a fellow named Ira Stone. He was apparently the very first Rabbi of this particular synagogue, but has since moved to the East Coast.
As usual, I got there a little early. The doors were locked, but there was a man greeting people and letting them in as they approached. I imagine this practice is part hospitality and part security. I was let in, and I walked towards the sanctuary. I knew from my last visit, that I’d have to cover my hair, and so I fished through a bowl of complimentary kippas. I chose one that was brown corduroy.
Then I went in and sat down my backpack, but realized I didn’t have a holy book or music book from which to read, so I went back out of the sanctuary, and in the foyer was a bookshelf with lots of books on it.
As I pondered over them, a woman asked me if I needed help. I explained that I wasn’t Jewish, and that I was here to listen to the message and write about it, and so she picked out a book for me that had the Hebrew translated and transliterated so I could follow along. She said that the page numbers they’d tell the congregation to turn to were different in this book, but there was a handy conversion chart in the back.
Turns out she was the Rabbi. She paired me up with a nice older woman named Nancy, who sat with me and helped explain things. Nancy was nice. Nice enough to give me permission to use her first name here. Her husband was the page turner guy. He sat up on the dais and had some cards he’d flip over which told everyone what page to be on.
Nancy explained that the place would start off empty, and fill up as the service went on. At first, there were maybe a dozen people there. A young boy who was about to go through his Bar Mitzvah started off the praying and the chanting.
Like my experience at the minyon, the praying and chanting was sung. And it was very pretty. In fact, everything they read aloud in Hebrew was done as a song. It’s hard to describe just how musical the whole thing was. It was like being at a choir concert.
I didn’t sing, but followed along as best I could in the book with the English translation. The prayers, chants and songs were pretty much cut of the same cloth as every other prayer, chant, and song I experienced at other places. Mostly, it was “Hey God, you’re awesome, thanks for being awesome, and please continue to be awesome.”
Here, though, there was a little more to the message. Some of the prayers were about the perils of not being obedient. For example, God would keep the water up in the clouds and prevent your crops from being fruitful if you disobeyed. There was also a little bit of enemy smiting, and a little schadenfreude concerning some chariots that chased after Moses and company, but got drowned when God un-parted the Red Sea.
I want to stress again how beautiful the singing was. It really was a treat to be there and hear the music. There was no accompaniment, just one person singing into a microphone, and the gathered congregation singing along, or sometimes singing in response. One of the singers tapped out a beat while he was singing, and it sounded great. And not just because of the quality of the singing, but the songs themselves were catchy and easy on the ears. I’ve never been a great fan of most Christian hymns. They’re all boring, and a little droning. This was entertainment.
I can imagine a desert scene, at night, a campfire burning, some tents and camels in the background, and colorfully dressed desert worshipers dancing and singing.
At one point, they opened the ark, a large wooden-doored cabinet behind the podium, and took out the Torahs. As they did so, they sang words of praise and glory to them. They took the torahs on a little tour through the sanctuary, with people touching their books, or sometimes the tassel hanging from the traditional shawls they were wearing. Often, after touching something to the torah, a person would then touch the book or tassel to their lips. Nobody touched a torah with their hands.
After the procession there was more singing and praying, and the torahs were placed on a table, their covers removed, and the scrolls opened a little.
Someone would read from the torah, and we all followed along in our books. Different people read different parts at different times, and the reading was all singing in Hebrew. They read from Numbers, and from Isaiah. I followed along in English, and read the message. It was, as you’ve come to expect by now, mostly glory to God, and a little glory to Moses.
There was, however, a few things in the torah reading that I haven’t yet seen anywhere else: There was a bit about tithing, and a bit about how to sacrifice animals. There was also more smiting of enemies.
Finally, we came to the whole reason I was here: The lesson.
Rabbi Ira Stone, the guest lecturer, gave an interesting, if somewhat logically flawed philosophical and theological discussion about the oneness and “two-ness” of the universe. The basic premise is this: God isn’t part of Creation, because he is the Creator. He exists in addition to Creation. Some religions, he didn’t say which, consider God to be part of creation. But this is false, and even “rebellious.” The universe is “one” and God is “two.”
He made the claim that scientists at the very small scale (presumably quantum mechanics?) and at the large scale (presumably astronomy?) are also coming to the conclusion that the universe is not one, but two.
Now, I’m no theologan, nor am I a physicist, but I’ve heard of “wave particle duality.” In fact, my high school physics class did a little experiment concerning the dual nature of particles, and so I think that might be what he was talking about when he mentioned “very small scale.” My understanding of this might be a bit compromised, as I had that class over twenty five years ago, and my memory of it is probably not perfect.
He went on to say that it was folly (my paraphrasing, not his words) to search for the Grand Unified Theory, because it was impossible to tie the whole universe into one thing. Because it is two. He used the word “rebellious” again to describe this.
I think it’s kind of neat that anybody talks about this kind of thing in a religious institution, but I don’t see how it actually encourages people to be good people or do good deeds.
When I hung around after the minyon and talked with the attendees about what I was looking for, I was told that the Rabbi’s lesson would include these things. But then, I’ve been told that by attendees from every place I’ve been, and it hasn’t really been true.
After he gave his talk, there was more singing and chanting, which was, of course, beautiful, and the torahs were tucked away to great fanfare and music after making another tour around the sanctuary.
At one point, there were prayers for the sick, and some mourning for lost loved ones.
The only time anybody hit on any of my criteria was during the announcements, when the current rabbi, Jill Borodin, mentioned their blood drive and encouraged everyone to donate blood. Now that’s something I can give a point to, but only one.
The service was beautiful, the music was excellent, and the lesson was interesting to hear. I wish I could give them a decent score, but they just don’t deserve one.
Being good to your fellow human: 1 (donate blood)
Help your community: 0 (no mention)
Be good to yourself: 0 (no mention)
Good and timely advice: 0 (no mention)