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Rosh Hashanah

September 18, 2009

Rosh Hoshannah starts tonight, and E and I will be celebrating it in our home. Tomorrow, we’ll be going to services at the Jewish Center at Georgetown. Much discussion went into where we’d be going for these services. In years past, E has gone to a more conservative congregation, one that has a mehitzah. This year is the first year I am attending services with her and she worried that while the service itself is likely to be confusing, it’d be even worse if I was all alone through it. So, we’re off to the more reform synagogue, if it is awful and E can’t stand it, we’ll be back to the more traditional service for Yum Kippur.

The mehitzah thing is one of the many, many issues I imagine we’ll have as we go through this process. While I have a lot to learn about Judaism, I am uncomfortable with the idea that men and women can’t pray together. The idea that the separation of the sexes will lead to less distraction seems to both deny the existence of homosexual desire and the fact that the separation may make the mystery of the opposite sex even stronger.

On the other hand, I am a big believer in tradition and seriousness in religious practice and am frankly not all that interested in hippie dippy reform stuff. I am hesitant about all water down versions of faiths. If the mehitzah is part of the service, who am I as a new comer, and, as of now, a goy to disparage it? Then again, can’t we find a balance? Can’t we have both tradition and equality? Is there some way to be egalitarian and not also have acoustic guitars? These are the questions that E and I talk about as we wrestle with what our place is going to be in the spectrum of Jewish observance.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. The Sikh Geek permalink
    September 22, 2009 5:46 pm

    Gudwaras have men and women on seperate sides. I don’t know if it’s for similar reasons, but after talking with some Sikhs my ideas about it being for “unsexing” the space were mostly my own. (Thanks baggage of childhood guilt!) Now I don’t mind it and see it as another part of the ritual that helps to take me out of the everyday world and closer to a place where I can pray and meditate totally alone within a large group of people.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      September 22, 2009 5:53 pm

      I’d be curious to hear more about the rational behind the separation in the Sikh faith. In my (admittedly limited) knowledge about the Jewish practice it is definitely about unsexing the space since the separation of the sexes is supposed to lend itself to an easier ability to focus on praying.

      You point about taking you out of the everyday world is a good one though, maybe it does make it easier to focus. I’m not so opposed to it if the barrier doesn’t isolate the women (sometimes the barrier runs down the middle of the synagogue; sometimes women are in a cage like enclosure in the back), but still it makes me uncomfortable that in some places, the women are not even allowed to touch the Torah.

      • The Sikh Geek permalink
        September 22, 2009 10:38 pm

        Ideally, women have parity with men in Sikhism, although it’s rare to see that in practice. The musicians in the temple are usually men, the head reader is male and those that make up the committees that handle everything from the money to the organization are almost always male. Women do most of the cooking. There’s plenty in Sikh history to support a different view of women. They were warriors and upheld Sikh society when it was being torn apart. I don’t know if this is all due to the greater influence of Hindu culture in India (unescapable for every religious minority there) or what. We were lucky to get into Sikhism through a school that is much more mystical and practical than mainline Sikhism, so I’ve always been taught that the men on one side and women on the other is a reflection of yogic anatomy where the left side is feminine and the right is masculine. Esoteric, but it works.

  2. Rachel permalink
    October 1, 2009 7:32 am

    Hi there. I attend a progressive synagogue here in the UK, BUT, it is deeply rooted in tradition, thanks to our rabbi. No, we don’t have a mechitza, and my opinions on that are quite firm – I don’t agree with it *for me*. But if it works for other people, then that’s fine. ‘Hippy dippy reform stuff’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the faith and commitment is watered down – it really does depend on the specific synagogue you attend… enjoy your journey!

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 1, 2009 2:47 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Rachel. You’re right “hippy dippy” doesn’t mean less of a commitment to the faith, but for me, a certain level of tradition is important. Even though at this point I barely understand most of what goes on during services, I enjoy the ritual of it, and I enjoy the fact that to participate I have to learn. Maybe this has something to do with my being raised Catholic, but I am definitely looking for a synagogue that balances a tradition service with a more progressive view in regards to gender and sexual orientation.

  3. rachel permalink
    October 1, 2009 3:43 pm

    Excellent. I too agree that tradition is very important. Again, it does depend to a certain degree on the particular rabbi, as they do have a certain amount of discretion as to how they run the services, the education and so on (albeit under trhe scrutiny of the shul’s Council). For instance, I would be severely put off if the services were accompanied by an organ – too churchy for me. Happily, that s not something on the agenda for us!

  4. seanv2 permalink*
    October 1, 2009 5:17 pm

    Yeah, I am not at all interested in an organ. I am not even ready for a guitar!

  5. October 1, 2009 8:08 pm

    This blog looks to be a great read. Thank you for it!

    I’d second Rachel’s stress (above) that many Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues are not “hippy dippy.” Moreover, because many Jews live in areas without many synagogue options, often Jews looking for a welcoming, progressive community makeup are offered only the Reform option.

    Certainly, many – perhaps the vast majority of – Reform Jews are not really observant (outside of the Yamim Noraim), but a growing number are returning to traditional ritual and attempting to be halachically observant, at least in a spirit-of-the-law fashion. For example, many liberal Jews are embracing Magen Tzedek Hechsher, a contemporary kashrut, instead of traditional kashrut. I see that as a good thing, though I realize that many Jews do not.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 1, 2009 8:22 pm

      I perhaps should have been more considerate before I labeled all of reform Judaism “hippie”. I’ll just say that some of the services I have been to were less than rigourous in their attention to Jewish tradition and attention to tradition is something that is important to me.

      That said, I love developing on and updating traditions. I hadn’t heard of Magen Tzedek Hechsher. Seems really interesting.

      Thanks for commenting, I hope you’ll continue to check back!

      • October 1, 2009 11:22 pm

        I will definitely be back. This blog is an exciting window into another JBC’s journey. I’m grateful to you for providing it.

        Indeed, attention to tradition is important to me, too. I waver between a Conservative and Reform approach, but intellectually and philosophically, I gravitate to the waters of the Conservative stream. The denominational banner that I choose to convert under will really have more to do with the individual congregation and rabbi.

  6. seanv2 permalink*
    October 1, 2009 11:41 pm

    Glad you like the blog, I hope that I can include the stories of other people converting or considering conversion, perhaps yours!

    I think choosing the congregation and from that the denomination is a good idea. However, in my case, I will definitely be moving soon and won’t be staying in any of the synagogues E and I are visiting now.

  7. October 2, 2009 1:28 am

    That’s interesting, Sean(v2). I’m facing the same dilemma. I plan to move within the next year, and have not, as a result, wanted to begin conversion classes (because I couldn’t finish them with the same rabbi and congregation). In fact, I’ve been looking at different congregations in the area to which I plan to move, trying to assemble a short-list of possibilities.

    I’m also dragging my feet a bit so as not to “weird out” my girlfriend’s family. My interest in converting is not just attached to my dating a Jewish girl – it’s a (loud) “calling” – and I worry that this will be difficult to explain to them. My girlfriend, though, is quite supportive.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 2, 2009 1:45 am

      And it is interesting that you feel it would weird out your girlfriends family. E and I haven’t told her family, but they’d be extremely excited if they knew I was pursuing this.

  8. October 2, 2009 12:12 pm

    Well, I should preface my response my stressing that it is I who feels that it might weird them out. They might also respond with unconditional delight.

    In fact, I presume that they’d be generally thrilled. My worry has to do with their relatively casual attachment to religion. They are nominally observant – they light Shabbat candles and attend High Holy Days services – but are near the secular end of the spectrum in most respects. Cultural Judaism is important (political and intellectual discussions related to contemporary Jewry), but the religious aspects of the inheritance are, it seems, largely ignored, even sometimes mocked.

    One relative of my girlfriend expressed some surprise when I seemed to know a good deal about Jewish history. She was even more surprised when I allowed as how, were I to convert, I would want to convert under a banner and with a rabbi that were aligned with my core values and that would appreciate my particular Jewishness. She exclaimed, “But people just convert for marriage! It’s not like you even have to know anything. It’s for familial integrity and tradition.” When I expressed a desire to observe all the mitzvot (at least in spirit, if not to the letter) that I felt were not truly at odds with my values, I could almost see her eyes glaze over. Oh, no…we have a zealot in the making!

    But even if some of the family reacts with skepticism to committed religious Jews, I also understand that they like me very much, and so would accept me at least on my terms, as an individual apart from the religious identity as an observant ger.

  9. seanv2 permalink*
    October 5, 2009 5:47 pm

    Yeah, this is a difficult line to balance. How does one weigh being excited and interested in the religion without coming across like a crazy zealot? I’m not sure. I’m lucky in the E’s family department that they’re all very interested and knowledgeable about judaism and interested in talking about it.

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