...rambling and unconnected thoughts on Jewish culture
We are the people who don't mind disorder and disarray in our synagogues. Many of our shuls are cramped and poorly lit, with books, flyers and pamphlets littering the tables. We make no effort to beautify our places of public worship. No one minds if someone comes in and on his own authority rearranges the chairs. No effort is made to coordinate the design of the shelves with the design of the tables. The architecture of these places is at best boring, but more often thoughtless and at times sadistic. No attention is paid to how sound carries or how lighting can add atmosphere. Women and their place in these buildings are often afterthoughts. We claim to long for the re-establishment of what our books call the most beautiful building of its time and place; but for now we wait in squalor.
We are the people who swear that prayer succeeds, but our behavior belies this claim.. Day after day we receive messages from clerics who beg us to rattle the heavens with our chants and shouts. But actual services are taken less than seriously. You're not only permitted, but sometimes encouraged, to pick up something to read (sorry, I mean learn) during less important parts of the service. No one objects if someone sits in the back during with a cup of coffee. At a set point, during Shabbath prayers, all the men rush out to get their hats. At another set point, a minority of the men go out for a drink. When the gabbai personally beseeches God to heal our sick, we catch up on current events and nearly drown out his supplications. When its our turn to pray, the words are chanted, rather than said. No one tries to understand the magic formulas; the prayers aren't read the way one ordinarily tries to read something important and they aren't said the way one would recite a real supplication made to a real person; even the very best, most serious daveners only attempt to say the words fervently, preferably with brows furrowed and bodies swaying.
We are the people who claim to worship tradition and the old way of doing things. More often this means privileging one particular moment and one particular style or approach, over all the other moments, styles and approaches. Thus, some authorities are un-repentantly declared "not from our mesorah" when their ideas are found to conflict with the things "everybody knows" We make a fetish out of new things like upshurin and kabbalas shabbas while very old things like B'hab are neglected and forgotten. We think shabbas is about cholent, without seeming to realize its only a mess of peasant ingredients prepared rustically. The Talmud is full of examples of how the Sages were different in their behaviors and beliefs but the fantasy persists that men like the shockingly creative Rabbi Akiva and the profoundly humane Hillel were culturally heredim such as the type you might expect to find this afternoon in Beni Brak. We read of Jews who were still conducting business at the very second that Friday turned into Shabbos, of other Jews who were too drunk to keep the Rosh Chodesh signal fires burning, of Rabbis who forgot or misquoted or amended Tannaic material and still we tell ourselves they were all frumer than we are, when the very idea of "frumness" hadn't infected them at all.