Shabbat: an epiphany

I had long planned to someday visit Temple Beth Israel. The website calendar listed a class with the rabbi on Thursday followed by Shabbat on Friday, so I emailed to say that I would like to attend both. I arrived at the synagogue behind another man. The door was locked, so he rang the bell, told a disembodied voice why he had come, and was buzzed in. After the door closed behind him, I went through the same procedure. I thought my bookpack might invite inquiry, but it didn't.

At the start of class, the young female rabbi asked me pointedly why I had come, and a kindly woman named Gail said, "Nothing like being put on the spot." I said that I enjoy interesting religion classes. I added that I last attended a synagogue in 1969, and that despite both the synagogue and the rabbi's home being bombed by the KKK two years earlier, I received a warm welcome. I told about my grandfather having arrived in Mississippi with a wife, two kids, and no money in 1908, and how Samuel Abrams of Abrams' Mercantile extended him credit when no one else would. I told of a dream I had as a teenager in which I entered my town's synagogue and found it beautiful beyond imagining.

The rabbi said that I was welcome to come to any of the synagogue's events without giving prior notice, and Gail offered to sit with me at Shabbat. The class was over my head, but I participated as much as I could. When it ended, the rabbi said that there was nothing on the handouts that couldn't be recycled. I asked her what would have happened if there were, and she said they would have to be buried.

I was so tired on Friday evening that I wouldn't have attended the two hour service had Gail not expected me. This time the door was unlocked, but a man was sitting just inside. As is my habit for most things, I arrived early, so upon seeing a courtyard adjacent to the sanctuary, I went in and immediately spotted a large and distressed jade plant. Upon finding that the soil was bone dry, I went looking for something to carry water in. The man at the door found a bucket. I thought that the plight of that plant cast the synagogue in a bad light.

On my way into the sanctuary, I donned a yamulke and was handed a hymnal. There was a box of tzitzis, but the service didn't require one. I  took a seat in the back, but Gail, who was down front, looked for me and motioned for me to sit with her. When the rabbi walked over, I stood-up, thinking she would welcome me, but she ignored me entirely while speaking to Gail. Gail told me as much about the service as she could as fast as she could, but I was too busy soaking in the atmosphere to listen.

Nearly all of the service consisted of singing joyously in Hebrew to the music of banjos, guitars, and mandolins. Some people danced. I knew that Hebrew was read from right to left, but I was momentarily thrown by the hymnal's page numbers running from what is normally the back of the book toward the front. Alongside the Hebrew text, the hymnal contained English translations and an English guide to Hebrew pronunciation. Christian songs tend to focus upon sucking up to God, but these were love songs of trust, tenderness, and longing, and I was unprepared for how beautiful they were. My tears started to fall with the first song, and they kept falling throughout the service. Because I sitting in the middle of a row in the front of the sanctuary with the pews being arranged in a semi-circle, I was in view of many eyes, and because I had no handkerchief, the tears ran down my face and onto my shirt. I wiped my nose on my fingers and wiped my fingers on my pants. When I noticed that my pants were glistening, I asked Gail if it was an appropriate part of the service to excuse myself to the bathroom.

When I returned, I sat in the back, in a chair that was at the end of a row. I thought I had regained my composure, but I was wrong. When I leaned my hymnal against my chair leg to wipe my eyes, a woman crossed the aisle and handed it to me, saying that putting a hymnal on the floor was not permitted. I later thanked her, and she said that it had been hard for her to say anything. When I got home, I learned that, while I was at synagogue, a man 300 miles to the north had intentionally crashed a plane onto an island after telling air traffic control, "I'm just a messed up guy." I found it harder than usual to grasp the fact that such extremes of happiness and misery can co-exist. 

Why did I cry? I cried because I have never experienced a more beautiful service. I cried because the seemingly ancient music was filled with romance rather than abasement and supplication. I cried because Gail was alive with love for her religion. I cried because those with whom I stood retain the courage to be happy despite the suffering of their people. I cried because Jews live under an increasing threat of violence, and I cannot protect them. I cried because I grew up being told that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is coldly legalistic, yet I had never experienced such passion and adoration.

The next evening, Saturday, I attended an Episcopal "circle communion" for the first time since December 15, 2012 (I remember the date because the Connecticut school shooting occurred the day before, and the group was consumed by grief). In an ordinary Episcopal mass, the priest and one or more attendees serve the elements. In a circle service, each person serves the bread and wine to the next person in the circle. It's the kind of small group atmosphere in which I thrive, and I only stopped going because I was expected, while serving communion, to say a single sentence in which I didn't believe. I shared my dilemma with someone I trusted and, in her outrage, she told others, the result being anger on their part and a feeling of betrayal on mine. For years, I wanted to return, but I knew I would be unwelcome. Now, I think of the words that I objected to as a gift rather than a statement of faith.

The group recited, "When I searched for Love, the Beloved answered within my heart. Look to the Beloved, and your face will radiate love," and I was again overwhelmed by emotion. The songs of the previous night, the words of that night's circle service, and the writings of Anglican bishops John Robinson, James Pike, and John Spong, all emphasize the concept of the God-Within to the point that the God-Without disappears. It's theology made poetry. It does not believe; it awaits. It does not fear external hell; it fears internal emptiness. It does not obey dogma; it obeys conscience.

As I cried, the woman to my right, a stranger to me, laid a comforting hand on my leg, but I couldn't return her touch because I was in the latest throes of a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years. On the one hand, I need church, which is to say that I need the Episcopal Church, but on the other, I feel that I have to renounce my integrity to attend. 

During the Shabbat celebration, and then the circle communion, I realized that I simply must find a middle ground between being true to my intellect and being true to my heart because this internal war is becoming unbearable. The mere fact that I can be so moved by the beauty of worship that my life doesn't work well without it, suggests that I have an unalterable need to attend, and that no compassionate person, including myself, can deny me that right.