I had an invitation to attend a young womans Bat Mitzvah at Beth El Synagogue last Saturday, with my wife, Judy. I approached it with a bit of dread, three hours of the unknown. I had been exposed to some reformed Jewish ritual practice, A Seder and Passover rite, transformed to accommodate a secular world. This experience was a complete surprise.
This is just an account of what I experienced, with my insights and the ‘technical’ information at the end as footnotes.
We were welcomed and made to feel comfortable in the foyer, and given a ‘program’ of the service. Invited to just, walk in and find a place, it was no interruption. We entered just in time to see Maddie, our twelve year old friend, speaking to the congregation with sincerity and reason. She offered her interpretation of the meaning for her, of the days Torah reading. People seemed to listen attentively as this maiden spoke of the symbol of a rainbow, after Noah’s adventures. She made her case, for the lesson she had found there, with such sweet demeanor and passion, way beyond her years.
The focus then shifted to the Torah, two different scroll copies opened to each of the two relevant readings of the day. Barely visible on the altar from which they were hovered over, they were approached with reverence. Songs were sung to mark each transition in an unintelligible foreign tongue. There was an eerie sound within them, and like some secret unknown to me ‘pop songs’, some were supported by the congregation and some left to the voices surrounding the altar. The family members of those with life passages honored this day, were also honored to approach “The Book”.
Under the watchful eyes of the Rabbi, they in turn read passages. One could read the English translation of the passages in the supplied books, but here was a story from Genesis, in the tongue that the unspeakably named God gifted it. It was distracting to listen to anything but the sound. Some read with a confident meter, like a poem well memorized and familiar. Some read haltingly, struggling to interpret the vowel-less writing, and form it into words. Even when difficult, the speaker took whatever time was needed to wrench each and every word in its exact vocalization, for here was the word of God, and ‘good enough’ was not an option. I watched for the Rabbi to prompt or whisper help. With the patience of Job, the congregation remained attentive, with no looks of disapproval or boredom, for this was clearly an honor to on this day touch and read from the Book.
There were was a casual air through out this. Children whispered complaint and some came and left with the nod of a parent. When friends passed on arrival to find a place, a touch, a nod, a few whispered words of greeting took place, seemingly to no ones distraction. All men wore the head disks, but some elder men had woven shoulder shawls, which they adjusted with effortless grace, sometimes in unison, other times maybe just for comfort. A younger congregant with a flair for direction. flitted from family groups, to choir, to speakers, directing them in their time to the “bimah” raised area, or back down with a whisper or hand movement. It seemed like an endless procession to the dais, and an ‘on deck’ couch near by. The maiden waited there, comforted by relatives as they took their turn reading. Maddi approached the Torah, her slight frame barely visible above the altar. She read with confidence, as one fresh from Hebrew school, and with that high voice of one that age. The microphone was adjusted by the Rabbi so her soft voice was heard by all there for the ancient story. People quietly teared knowing the tribe would be sustained by the dedication of this young voice.
By some unknown cue, at times during the ritual, each of the three betrothed couples present came forth for a blessing. Words of praise of their love and commitment, and then suddenly a shower of candy, symbol of the sweetness of their love. Quick behind, a rush of children scrambling for the sweets. Joyous laughter at the sight and sounds of the children. They respectfully lounged there, suddenly a featured addition, as the couples honoring concluded.
Now a speech, in English, by the maiden’s distant relative, a renown visiting Rabbi. She praised Maddie, for her dedication, schooling, and service to the Temple and community on the path to this day. She made connections to the message from the Book, and wove it all together with this familiar analogy. She had the immediate family raise hands, and those who were related in any way. Then those who knew her from the Temple, who taught or supported her. Then those present connected to the betrothed couples, and on, until the whole congregation was knowing their connection. She concluded that here stood the Maiden, the hope for the future, that the Book, and the tribe would go on.
Maddie returned to the altar for the Torah must be closed before returned to the Ark.. This was clearly important as shawls were shuffled and an apprehensive feel came over the room. A radiant young woman began her reading, and at each phrase the congregation offered response. A dedicant was now becoming a member of a spiritual community. She glowed in pride as she led the whole room in its prayers.
A time for just her parents to speak from their heart to their now, young woman of the tribe. Dad’s voice broke often as he did most of the speaking, of pride in her, of her amazing nature and gifts, of the love people felt from her. Everyone not crying at least sniffled. Mom added a few sentences, but was clearly glad she had let her words be spoken by him, as the love of a Mother overcame her voice. Sacred gifts were presented, and she joined the family with the congregation.
The closing of the Torah appeared ritually familiar to all. Silent lips moved to the readings, and all joined in the songs. At time the lead singer would be echoing in song the words of prayer. At each step in closing and securing the Book, another action, words or song marked the ritual closing. Suddenly the large enclosed scrolls were hoisted and carried in a slow procession through the congregation. The people crowded them as the two scrolls passed, each reaching to reverently touch their shawl or book to the Torah. That portion so blessed was immediately kissed in recognition of the honor the touch bestowed. It was similar to any parade of a shrine anywhere in the world. Though occurring every week the return of the Torah to the ark was clearly an intense moment. Men on the dais and elders began bowing slightly forward and back, in trance like prayer. Their shawls wrapped fully round them now, as if to offer some privacy in direct communication with the unseen.. Song and words continued and finally shawls were pulled over heads.
What I remember was the service ended with announcements, and the sponsors of the awaiting feast, but frankly I was in a daze by then. What I did note, the whole service and the exit of the congregation was there seemed to be no sidelong or hostile glances. No avoidance of each other, only words and touches of acknowledgment, laughter and conversation, and many tears of joy surrounding the families most involved that day. I don’t doubt that the temple may not have been the peaceful kingdom in private, but here, the focus was on worship and the commonality and united history of this tribe.
I have no real knowledge of the subtleties, or depth of Jewish practice, but it left a deep impression upon me, and some insights into Pagan culture. There was the same relaxed reverence I observe in many public Pagan rites. Certainly there were portions that demanded more solemn attention. People wandered in and out of the service, a Shabbat, seemingly at will. No formal boundaries to contain what took place except in regard to the Torah. Here absolutely everything seemed to be all about a traditional rite, but these are people of the Book. I loved the rites of passage honoring and blessings just mixed right in. It served to bind everyone as a large family. People seemed to sit in family groups but the joy and tears were shared equally for each other around the room. It was so familiar, a 52 week wheel of the year, only centered on biblical reading. A 52 week life lesson plan with a hundred possible themes within, each week.
God- Goddess centered worship revolves around the Moons and Sabbats, and while they offer a multitude of possibilities in deities and interpretations, Pagan worship seemed more limiting…NOT, just different. I liked the sermon. It feels like we gain a lot, with our freedom to interpret, but the value of moral and ethical lessons, within our spiritual process is something we Pagans often lack. If not within our spiritual practice, where will we get it? “And Harm None” doesn’t go very far in a complex world of hundreds of inter-relationships. More than anything I was impressed with the sense of community. I am sure as a weekly routine, such a long service would make most Pagans run screaming. I got the sense from visiting reformed Jews that even they had little patience for the lengthy Hebrew service. As a visitor looking into a new world, this was a deeply emotional and reverent experience personally, and yet light-hearted in its form and ambiance. I highly recommend visiting different faith’s services, it is an eye opener,and you never know what you’ll bring back with you!
We had missed the traditional opening, the Shaharit, a series of psalms and prayers. We entered just in time to see Maddie, our twelve year old friend, speaking her D’var Torah, This as her interpretation of the what the weeks Torah portion meant to her. Then the actual Torah reading portion begins, this week was the Parashat Noah. After that portion and the Torah is returned to the Ark, Maddie recited her Haftarah. This is the lesson that corresponds to the week’s Torah reading from the Book of Prophets. The final section is the Musaf service. It contains special prayers emphasizing the uniqueness of Shabbat. The call and response portion was Maddie reciting the Kiddush (wine blessing) and the Hamotzi (bread blessing). The betrothed couples. to be married in the next week, received an “aufruf”, Yiddish for “calling up”. The candy throwing is a community Mazel Tov blessing. The shawl is a hand-woven “tallit”, often a Bat Mitvah gift, or handed down by relatives. Congregants are called up, based on the day and events, for Torah Honors, the reading or handling of The Book.
This temple, Beth El, is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever entered! It has large sweeping beams that swing to one corner, high over the Ark where the many copies of the Torah are kept. Glass, light, symbols, all adorn it. It is worth a visit just to see it. Located NE along Highway 100, just off the Minnetonka Blvd. Exit in St Louis Park, MN. Adjoining buildings are under renovation but the Temple itself is open.