My daughter is about to become a bat mitzvah, literally translated, daughter of the commandments. It’s odd, if not ironic, because she’s already literally the daughter of two nonbelievers, as well as the granddaughter of two agnostic grandmothers and a quietly believing grandfather who hasn’t been to shul for the high holidays in more than a dozen years. And then there’s the matter of Serena having gone to Catholic School since she was three. (Free ham may be a stereotypical dilemma in that old joke, but believe me: for a Jew in Baltimore City, free Catholic school is no dilemma; it’s a no-brainer.)
I was never a bat mitzvah; I think my continued expression of doubt about a god who would allow the Holocaust got me invited to leave Temple Emmanuel’s Sunday school when I was eleven. I never looked back, never pined for any sort of god—other than the pine itself, which if not a deity is certainly omnipresent and tall enough to provide a foreboding reminder that someone big can whoop your ass if you’re not good. And that eternal can of whoopass seems to be humankind’s do-good motivator, else what’s a hell for?
But a few months ago, when my parents offered Serena the chance to learn some Hebrew for thirty minutes a week and have a party at the end of it, I left the choice up to her, with the caveat that once made, the choice could not be undone. If she has had any regrets each week when Norman comes to teach her a new part of the Hebrew she’ll read at the ceremony, they’re all vanished now.
We met Rabbi Geoff over dessert and coffee at my parents’ house. He informed us then that he wasn’t any kind of rent-a-rabbi, and if that’s what we wanted, well, we’d need to find somebody else. He expected more of a familial commitment—weekly, every other week at least. I worried whether Marty, who is already oversaturated with organized religion as a Catholic-school teacher, would balk. But we learned that evening about this new kind of Judaism called Reconstructionist, and we were interested. Though it seems a bit closer to Conservative than to the pick-and-choose Reform we’re used to, its secular humanism focus seemed to light a fire under us all. Instead of concentrating on the worship of a capital-g God, the Reconstructionists concentrate on how we can nurture our lower-case-g godliness. And so we return, once more, to the notion of doing unto others, simply because it’s the right thing to do, rather than because you fear eternal damnation.
September was such a busy month—what with Serena’s band, the Oxi-Morons, practicing five days a week to play out three times—that we could only commit to two meetings. Now we’re all practically begging to see Rabbi Geoff weekly.
I can’t describe what goes on in the large sitting room, which holds two sofas, a bunch of chairs, a coffee table, a piano, a couple of Jewish paintings, and a small table set up for coffee, which Geoff brews fresh so that the whole place smells good when we get there. I just know that we talk. We have a guided discussion about our participation in the world, about the things we love and the way we engage others, and we leave feeling lighter and refreshed, like we’ve sloughed off some dead skin.
Rabbi Geoff gives Serena homework—what’s a tallit? what’s a mitzvah?—so we usually start with a discussion of that. We go over points on a handout, like it’s school, and Serena’s not the only one who participates. But dang, is she ever smart. We discover things about each other (Marty is a thinker, Serena is a feeler, I’m a doer), and we continue our discussion on the drive home.
This week’s lesson was about the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, and what they mean and what are good and bad reasons for following them. Because it’s not so much the commandments (we’re not going to light any Sabbath candles; that’s not who we are) but the intention behind them (lighting those candles says stop, breathe, reflect; work is done).
During our meeting, a black father and son came into the church-slash-synagogue (even the shared building is more than symbolic). They were about twenty minutes early for their discussion group with the rabbi, but Geoff invited them to hang out and wait anywhere in the building. Instead of wandering around, they pulled up a chair and joined in, obviously unaware this was our time. I was initially taken aback—that they just came in and joined us and that the rabbi didn’t tell them he meant anywhere else in the building—but I realized this is exactly what I love so much about being there. Intention. What better way to understand people than to discuss, together, the intention to be good people in the world.
We left the second meeting feeling the same way as the first, looking forward to coming back for another 90 minutes of philosophical thought. It’s luxurious to think! It’s luxurious to discuss, to marry abstract thought to concrete action. It’s luxurious to put away all the technology and think and talk, to have this preplanned time, like a massage appointment, without feeling the need to rush away to the next chore. For that hour or so, we engage each other, and our minds meet. It’s as if they are holding each other’s hands and singing Kumbaya. I’m not being sarcastic. I mean Kumbaya, “come by here,” as it was traditionally sung to represent both a human and a spiritual meeting. I wouldn’t mind adding a guitar and a fire, maybe a beer, but it’s delicious as is.
Look, I’m not ready to run off and join a synagogue; I still have my doubts as to whether organized religion, even one that seems to focus on a secular humanism, albeit with a Jewish bent, does good. But I don’t feel any kind of conflicted about my daughter becoming a daughter of the commandments, especially when some of those commandments can be expressed with a commitment to recycling and giving to charity.
And I like the idea that my daughter now has some sort of spiritual guidance available to her. For almost thirteen years, we’ve answered Serena’s religious questions and educated her about traditions and customs as openly and without prejudice as we could, but I want her to come into her own beliefs the way I came into mine, and I am grateful, and somewhat relieved, that she now has someone who can coax her gently into godliness. And she’s excited, too, because she has always felt apart from the Catholic community, in whose buildings she spends so many hours a day.
I am especially proud to be the mother of this daughter of the commandments.
I've never heard of that branch (sect? denomination?) of Judaism, and if there was ever a way of "doing" religion with which I could really get on board, that would be it. Stop. Breathe. Learn.
I actually just used your family as an example the other day to my husband — his whole side of the family is awash in big-G God and big-R Religion, and I was saying how I just can't do it. I told him: "My friend Leslie; she's a nonbeliever, and she's spiritual." I hope you don't mind. But see? This was exactly what I meant.
Rabbi Geoff sounds wonderful. And congratulations to Serena. For so many things. And to you and Marty. For Serena.
My own experiences with the song kumbaya are much like Marty's with Catholic school, I think. I grew up with meaningless ritual, and later with an explanation of the song that failed to satisfy me – I didn't like the idea that God should "come by" like a visitor – drop by on His way somewhere else.
But I feel eloquently rebuked by your blog entry. if you who don't even believe in a "capital-G God" can find good in Kumbaya – if you can sing along – then I who profess to believe in God should be able to, too.
I agree that an "eternal can of whoopass" isn't worth following, much less worshipping – and fear is a terrible motivator, at least a terrible motivator for doing good. I'm sorry that that is all you've ever seen the capital-G God to be.
But glad that you're able to find some good in the synagogue nonetheless. I hope it goes well for Serena – may she be the possessor of that peace that her name suggests!
(ha ha, my kids turned on the spell checker and it just 'fixed' whoopass to 'whoops' and I had to un-fix it!)
@kelly Still, with so many so-called godforsaken places, that's exactly what people want—for God to come by here and see what man hath wrought upon man. For me, though, "Kumbaya" is a song about peace and unity, and that's what it will always represent for me.
And yeah, I really do still believe that religion is all about rules to follow, and that some people really need magical consequences in order to treat each other with kindness and respect.
That sounds like such a great experience for all of you.
Gosh, I love your writing. 🙂
What a gift those sessions are…if for nothing else but the time to communicate with one another! Serena is a remarkable child, no doubt, and you and Marty are wonderful parents to open things up to her the way in which you do.
Good, for goodness' sake, is a tenet I can get behind. It's funny, at first the way you were describing how you all felt lighter after the meeting reminded me of what I get from AA meetings. Makes sense, since AA is where I get my spirituality.
I have friends who attend a Reconstructionist Synagogue and they love it. The Synagogue that we attend for the High Holy Days only, has no such label, but I feel that brotherhood, charity, acceptance is their message. I love the Rabbi, because, not only is he interesting, but he's also one of the funniest people I've ever heard speak.
Barry and I would not be considered observant Jews. Okay, we observe some things and not others, based, maybe, on a combination of what we learned growing up and a bit of mishuganism – I made up a word.
But I love being Jewish. I am proud of Jews as a whole. I don't know what to believe about a Deity and an afterlife, but I wouldn't give up being a Jew for anything.
@Sarah Thanks, Sarah, I definitely felt a little bit of recovery.
@Aunt Teena Me too. Especially when Jews do some really good things in the world.
This is really cool. I'm so glad you're having this experience. I've been thinking more lately about how I don't really want religion in my life the way it was when I was a kid, yet when we ignore any spiritual aspect of our lives, things start to lose context and get more confusing … for me at least. This sounds like such a nurturing experience for all of you guys.
I liked the post and comments as well. A refreshing tone.
Reminds me a bit of Annie Dillard's book "For The Time Being"
"I never looked back, never pined for any sort of god—other than the pine itself, which if not a deity is certainly omnipresent and tall enough to provide a foreboding reminder that someone big can whoop your ass if you’re not good."
Ha, what a sentence!
Also for me, inner godliness pretty much gets it. That's where my God is, if anywhere. Didn't someone say the kingdom is within?