Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Tale of Two Shuls

Last Shabbat, I had a very interesting experience at two different synagogues, which made me think a lot about what moves me in a service.

Friday night, we enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat dinner with friends who are modern Orthodox. Afterwards, we went with them to their shul, Shira Chadasha.

Shira Chadasha is a unique and fascinating place. It is as liberal as it gets within the Orthodox world. For instance, while they still require the traditional ten men, they have added their own policy, requiring ten women as well before they constitute a minyan. Women lead a great deal of the service, though certain sections, such as the Amidah, are led by men. Most interestingly, Shira Chadasha has a retractable mechitza, which runs straight down the middle aisle. As a result, women and men are separated for much of the service--but the women are alongside, rather than behind, the men, so they pray as equals rather than as subordinates. And in non-halachic parts of the service, such as announcements and celebrations, the mechitza is retracted.
They are, in other words, pushing the boundaries of traditional Judaism, while still staying inside those bounds.

Their name, Shira Chadasha, means "new song" and it is apt. Metaphorically, of course, it refers to their innovative approach. Literally, the congregation employs many new and original melodies, and they are wonderful singers. There is a very strong spirit, and people pray here with all of their hearts.

And yet. . . something about the experience was disconcerting and uncomfortable to me. I admire their innovation and their commitment to the tradition--and at the same time, I find the mechitzah--even their "progressive' version--deeply offensive. I don't even think it has the desired effect, which is to help men concentrate more by avoiding the distractions of looking at the women. To begin with, this assumes heterosexuality. And even for straight men, it's pretty easy to look over the mechitza and try to figure out what the women are doing.

More importantly, though, the segregation by gender creates a very different energy on the men's side. The boisterous singing has a kind of competative element. In this male-only environment, everyone is trying out "out-holy" his neighbors. I have seen this very frequently in frum settings. There is a kind of religious one-upsmanship that just doesn't feel very spiritual to me.

So Saturday morning, I went back to my usual shul, the Reform Kol Haneshama. I was very, very happy to be able to sit with my wife again! And I was moved to tears when the rabbi, Levi Kelman, called up a couple for a baby naming and embraced both of them together, with all of their family, on the bimah. There was no competition at this service; the singing was filled with male and female voices, harmonizing beautifully.

In the end, wherever it sits, and however it retracts, a mechitza is a wall. And I believe that shul should be a place for tearing down walls, for togetherness rather than separation.

I am, in short, proud to be a liberal Jew.

We're off on tiyyul (tour) this week, in the Galilee. I'll have more on that soon!


jbonawitz said...


I thought of Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall." The lines most often quoted are "good fences make good neighbors," but Frost begins with the essence of the poem: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

The walls that we create to separate ourselves are no more natural than the abstractions we create (race, economic status, education, etc.). Frost says it better, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence."

My best to you and your family,

Jack Bonawitz

Karen said...

What a wonderful response from jbonawitz. I can't do better than that. Robert Frost is my favorite poet.

I loved talking with you and Janet today. I also enjoyed reading more about Amirim on the internet. It looks like a great place. I regret not making plans to come to Israel.