Saturday, July 14, 2007

Are Jewish services more participatory?

A few thoughts and tidbits, following a friend’s post speculating on what makes Jewish religious services more participatory than Catholic ones. (It really is better if you read her post first.)

1) The language thing: Dane highlights that both Catholic and Jewish services make use of languages (Latin, Hebrew) that most congregants do not speak or understand. True. I’d add that Jewish congregations vary enormously in the proportion of the service that's conducted in Hebrew (as I gather Catholic congregations vary in their use of Latin). As a teenager I attended some services where none of the service went untranslated - much was in English, and the rest in Hebrew, Aramaic, or occasionally Yiddish, with immediate English translation. (Well, on second thought, sometimes some Yiddish did go untranslated - in the spirit of "speak Yiddish so the children don't understand" - but that's different.)

1 ½) Random halachic insertion: I learned last week that the sh'ma - a central part of almost every service - is supposed to be said aloud, by every single congregant, at least loud enough so the speaker can hear themselves (since sh'ma means "listen"), in whatever language that person understands best. I don't make this shit up, it's halacha (religious law). citation: Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 13a.

2) On praying silently: Dane also points out that the Amidah, a central aspect of most services, is conducted silently, which may discourage active participation of some congregants. In some services the silent Amidah is followed by a unison reading aloud of the same set of prayers. Is this for certain holidays only, or is it just a matter of how long a congregation wants its services to be? I'm not sure. I believe I remember being told that the reading aloud was so that non-literate congregants would also have access to the prayers. But even when the Amidah is conducted silently, people can "participate" by meditating, praying in their own words, reading along in Hebrew or, often, the vernacular, or by reading vernacular commentary and artistic re-interpretation.

3) And speaking of interpretation: For me this is the essence of participation. In a catholic mass, regardless who's doing the speaking, the text is suppose-d to mean one thing and one thing only, and the Pope gets to decide what. (Not to say it really happens this way for all Catholics, but that is the official idea.) In a Jewish service, there is no official correct interpretation. We may all recite "sh'ma yisrael" together, and we may translate it, legitimately, in dozens of different ways, and understand it in infinite more ways. The guy on my left is thinking, "Believe, you assembled Israelites about to enter Canaan …,” and the guy on my left is thinking, “Listen here, Sharon, you no-good-nik …,” and another person means, “Remember, Jews ...,” and another, “Be open to each other, you doubters who wrestle with G-d …,” and our praying in unison in a language none of us particularly understands does nothing to quash our enacting different intentions with the prayer. We participate my making meaning, which is for me one of the highest forms of engagement.

4) Congregations?: These days, and perhaps always, a whole lot of Jewish praying does not take place in a shul. It takes place at home (this used to be the great majority of Jewish praying), or in small chavurot (gatherings of friends/colleagues) that may or may not accomplish a minyan, have a leader, or follow any of the various halacha (religious law) and traditions regarding Jewish prayer. So, Dane, when you cite facts about how it’s done in Jewish services, you are being fairly specific about the kind of prayer you include in your comparison – that is, prayer that occurs in a synagogue, with a rabbi or chazzan, with sidurim, etc.

5) Which Jews?: I agree that most Jews who participate at all in religious ritual tend to be rather more active participants in it than most Christians, and especially than most Catholics – which is not to say all, so don’t jump down my throat about it. That seems like a logical effect of the structure of services in those traditions, which is the main point of Dane’s posting. On the other hand, there are a whole lot of Jews who do not participate in religious ritual, period. Many Jews are secular because their parents and grandparents were, and lots more are excluded from mainstream Jewish religious services for some of the very reasons that make these services so participatory – for example, the expectation that everyone in the congregation is able to read Hebrew or at least transliteration with fluency, has studied Torah enough to have an opinion about the leader’s interpretation, knows when to stand, when to bow, when to kiss what, is familiar with most if not all of the tunes used in a standard Shabbat service in that congregation, and so on. For Jews who do not share this basic cultural capital, attending Jewish services is no more participatory than watching a movie, and can be considerably more embarrassing.

So, good, let’s congratulate ourselves on having a religious tradition that values and encourages active participation. But let’s also continue wrestling with the various divisions that oppression and history have made in our communities – divisions of class, ethnicity, geography, language, politics, gender, class … - and let’s think hard together about what truly broad participation would look like.

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