Friday, April 2, 2010

My Jewish Experience So Far... [Pt. 1]

This blog post is just an update on my experiences with Jewish culture so far, hope y'all enjoy :)

So, for those that don't know, I have been attending Jewish services this semester at a small synagogue in Greenville called Beth Israel. It is a conservative temple and as such it allows for men and women to worship together (in orthodox temples the men and women are separated by a veil) so it has really not been that different from going to Church.

A little bit more on the temple since I don't have any pictures of it right now (tomorrow morning I will try to take some picture both inside and outside of the Temple before service)... The temple is very modest with a few windows of stained glass and wood paneling on the walls. The one thing that I think is really cool about the temple (and I assume this is something common to all Jewish temples) is that behind the pulpit area (I cannot remember what the hebrew term for it is) there are two sliding doors, each with half of the stone tablets that Moses brought down from the Mount with him. (This probably sounds pretty confusing, so I will try to get a picture of it tomorrow.) But anyway, behind those sliding doors they keep the Torahs. The doors stay open throughout the service, but then at the end of the service they close the doors while saying a prayer and it is a pretty cool ritual. Another interesting thing is the name of the temple. Beth is the hebrew word for house, so the place is literally called House of Israel. This is a common naming scheme with Jewish Temples (to include "Beth" in the name) as the household is a very important part of the Jewish culture. (The two centers of worship in the Jewish life are the house and the Temple, and to some the Temple is like a house, reemphasizing this point.

I have met a few people in the local Jewish community, but this has mainly come from sitting beside people at the different services that I have attended. However, one thing that I have noticed is that they are all very kind and helpful to visitors. I have sat beside several different people and each time they have helped me to follow along in the service (as it is about 95% in Hebrew) so I have been very glad for that. One person that I am looking forward to meeting and talking with more (and have been thinking about interviewing for my final project) is Dr. Lasser, head of the Honors College here at Clemson. His family actually attends Beth Israel and a few weeks ago was his daughter's bat mitzvah. That was a very interesting service, and I will talk about it a little later in the post.

Because of school I have not been able to attend many services (only about four or that I went to was not a full service) but I will be attending services for the rest of the school year and I plan to continue into the summer. Although I haven't been able to attend a lot of services I have been studying a lot about Jewish life and community in my class, and I have learned a lot which I have seen from my experiences with the community. I would like to put in a few quotes from a text we read in class that really do a great job describing the Jewish mindset:

"The Jew does not merely want to do the right and lawful thing, and to avoid sin. He positively wants to do God's will and therefore desires that every act should be a divine commandment."

"There were thousands of problems of this kind [dealing with minor house hold tasks], because the whole of life had to be sanctified by being made subject to the Law [of Moses]."

These two quotes really tell a lot about the Jewish mindset - it is one of a sanctified life, acceptable in God's eyes, and different than the lives of people around them. This has always been the major characteristic in Jewish life, as we can see in another quote;

"In the eyes of the pagan gentiles, the Jewish worship of an invisible and imageless God was tantamount to atheism, and Jewish cohesion and aloofness was considered a symptom of anti-social misanthropy."

This shows that the Jews have always been different, been separate, been the "other people" but that is part of what has given them the resilience to survive as a people and as a religion to this day - they did not back away from that role of being the "odd man out" - they embraced it and made it a part, a key part, of their cultural identity as a people set apart from others, picked by God himself for a special role in the human story.

This feeling really comes across in the services (of being a special people) and it is really unlike anything that I have been a part of until now. The average service lasts about two hours (a little more than that usually) and is roughly divided into two parts. The first part is full of prayers and praises sung/chanted to God while the second half is the sermon/lesson/reading from the Tanakh. All men are required to wear a kippah (כִּפָּה), you may know it as a yarmulke, and women can wear them if they like (this is only in reform and conservative traditions thought, in orthodox Judaism only the men wear them). I am not sure where the tradition came from (there is some debate on the matter where some traditions date it back to the time of the Babylonian exile (587 B.C.) and others don't date it until much later at some time towards the end of the middle ages (c. 17th century) but here are a few reasons (from wikiepedia) about why people wear kippahs:

Reasons given for wearing a kippah today include:

  • Recognition that God is "above" mankind;
  • Acceptance of the 613 mitzvot (Torah commandments);
  • Identification with the Jewish people;
  • Demonstration of the "ministry" of all Jewish people.
Another thing that is unique about the service (or that is very different from a Christian service) is that when they take the scrolls out of the Holy of Holies (out from behind the doors that I talked about at the beginning of my post) they parade it around the synagogue. They also keep them dressed up as you can see in the pictures below.

This picture came from a bat mitzvah website so that is why the little girl is there, but it is a good picture of the scrolls decorated in the Holy of Holies.

Honestly I am not sure why they do this, but I plan to ask the Rabbi tomorrow if I get a chance to catch her after service.

The last thing that I want to talk about in this post is Dr. Lasser's daughter's bat mitzvah which I mentioned towards the top of the post. It was really an interesting service to go to as the bat and bar mitzvah times are extremely important to the Jewish people. "Bat" (pronounced bot) and "Bar" are the Hebrew words for daughter and son, respectively, and mitzvah is the Hebrew word for covenant; so, bat/bar mitzvah literally means daughter/son of the Covenant - the agreement between God and his chosen people, the Jews - and this time in a young Jewish person's life is symbolic of them becoming an adult and being accepted into formal Jewish society. I did not actually go to the party (though I plan to go to one sometime this month as there are going to be quite a few more this month) but the Saturday following her celebration, Dr. Lasser's daughter helped lead the service and it was quite an enjoyable time. Everyone was very cheerful and happy as they were formally accepting another "adult" into their ranks, and we even threw candy at her at the end of the service to symbolize what a "sweet" time in her life it was. Definitely something that doesn't happen everyday at your local Southern Baptist church.

This post has gotten kinda long so I am going to cut it off here. In my next post I will talk more about the different attire and other archon associated with the typical Jewish service and speak more specifically about each of the other areas of cultural literacy (Nomos, Mythos, Ethos, and Techne), so until then,


All quotes from Historia Religionum: Handbook for the History of Religions, Volume II: Religions of the Present, Section on Judaism by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky

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