Harmonics of the Soul, Part 2: Judaism

The religion with the second greatest impact on my life has been Judaism.  Again, I don’t intend to go into a detailed religious history.  To summarize:  I grew up considering myself a Messianic Jew.  I was circumcised in the Jewish manner, we celebrated only the Jewish holidays, we attended Conservative Jewish services occasionally, and I was bar mitzvah’d at  age 13 like all Jewish boys.  Today I still celebrate the Jewish holidays, and with my recently converted wife I occasionally attend services at a Reform shul.

Aspects of my experience with the Jewish faith tradition that have struck a chord with me:

  • The emphasis on the here-and-now, rather than the hereafter.  Unlike some religions, Judaism encourages engagement with the world.  Jews see everyday life as an opportunity to practice their faith.  With it’s hundreds of mitzvot (good deeds/commandments),  it’s myriad blessings over everything from waking up to washing hands, it’s concept of tikun olam (healing the world), and it’s de-emphasis of the afterlife, Judaism seeks to sanctify every aspect of daily life.   The quintessential Jewish toast, “l’chaim!”, says it all: “To Life!”
  • The sense of tradition.  When I’m chanting the blessings in Hebrew, there is a sense of timelessness and connectedness to the past.

Aspects which have turned me off:

  • The blessings, ironically.  As much as I like the way they add sanctity, and therefore meaning, to everyday activities, they’ve never really spoken to me.  “Blessed art thou, oh lord our god, king of the universe, who brings forth bread form the earth” – it’s the wording, I guess.  And the god-centricity.  It goes back to the problem I had with Christian worship services.  Why does God need to be blessed?  He’s already blessed by definition!  I know, I know, it’s really just a way of giving thanks.  But why not give thanks to the farmers and bakers, not to mention investors and shelf-stockers, without whom the bread would not exist?  Again, my humanism shows.  To me there is far more meaning in a simple “may you never thirst” than in the hebrew blessing over wine.  It’s the fact that attention is drawn to the essential human meaning of the activity, rather than towards a removed diety.
  • The liturgy.  I am slowly coming to an incomplete understanding of the importance of liturgy.  For myself, I have never had much use for it.  I see now how it can offer a sense of rootedness in tradition.  But Judaism, in my experience is all tradition.  There is no sponteneity in the hoilday observances.  They are wrote services, that the congregants can (and sometimes probably do) recite in their sleep.  For me, it is too easy to lose track of the point of such services.  My mind wanders, and it becomes an exercise in patience.  In short, liturgical services are not conducive to my spiritual renewal.
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  1. OK, you have my rapt attention

    For reference, I was baptized in a Conservative Baptist church (the western strain of Southern Baptist, sort of), blew off faith for my late teens for reasons I shan’t detail, and returned to worship as an undergrad.

    Ironically, in my Northwest home, I had read of the Holocaust and such, but had no experience of Judaism until college, when I was vaguely surprised to learn that the Pharisaic tradition had become Talmudic Judaism, and is still practiced today. It had seemed so purely historical before then, somehow.

    Made a trip to Israel as a college senior. The reality of the place scuttled a lot of my immature thought about everything, and taught me that anything besides tolerance is stupid.

    I advanced another notch when I dated a Russian Orthodox girl. OK, dated is too strong–we did lunch a couple of times. But there is an expression of Christianity that is as sensual as my Calvinised Baptist tradition is (physically) sterile. Mind still blown.

    Further taking me afield is a lot of reading of Paul Tillich, who really serves up a bagel for the mind.

    Anyway, I appreciate Judaism–it’s thought provoking. Christianity, far from freeing the mind, seems to imprison it in a lot of cases.

    OTOH, I have a similar problem with Judaism that I do with the Roman church; too much has been added to the Word. My college roommate, a Catholic, and I would debate the value of Tradition. He pretty much lives by it. I like to learn from it, enjoy the sense of connection as when chanting the Hebrew (someone at the Synagogue was shocked to discover that I’m not a Jew) without having it become a barrier between me and the object of worship.

    Now, my wife is from Germany, and a rather evangelical family. But the rather spartan feel of the Baptist church here leaves her unfulfilled. So I dunno. Sure enjoy your posts, though.

  2. One of the things I like about Judaism is that it is passed on through the maternal line, not the paternal one.

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