You may not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway / Under one of those old familiar names / Like New Orleans, Detroit City, Dallas, Pittsburg P.A., New York City, Kansas City, Atlanta, Chicago, and L.A.
-James Brown, Living in America
“We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build…”
“And then what?” said her Dæmon sleepily “build what?”
“The Republic of Heaven.”
-Phillip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass
People grapple with how to make something larger than themselves significant in a personal context all the time. Obviously, religion is no exception. And when one tries to extrude one’s own understanding of a concept such as religion onto others, the consequences are disastrous.
That being said, I personally have found it extremely productive to learn more about other people’s approaches to difficult concepts. I struggle to maintain a balance of originality (i.e. not adopting someone else’s viewpoints) and applicability (not becoming so caught up in my own opinions that I become insular and self-centered) in my opinions. I talk to experts, I weigh their opinions, and I try to form my own based on a hopefully well-informed view of the situation.
So it was when I started wearing tzitzit and covering my head after freshman year. I spent time with some Modern Orthodox Jews, I talked to some more Reconstructionist-ish rabbis, I talked to friends and family, and I spent time just thinking about it myself. I ultimately came to the conclusion that it was something I wanted to do, to help provide me with the sense of constant responsibility and Jewishness that I felt I had been missing.
I knew then that that wasn’t at all a final step in my religious deliberations, but I’ve definitely gone in some directions since then that I didn’t anticipate. One in particular seemed to me a good topic for a post; my recent attendance of the weekly Quaker meetings in Northampton. My father was raised Quaker, although his family was Jewish by blood, so the RSoF was always on my radar in a vague sort of sense. I knew that Quakers worshipped in silence, and that one stands up and just speaks if one has something to say. I suppose I had thought a bit about the theological implications of this form of worship, but not extensively. So, about a month ago, I went to a meeting.
I have quite a few Quaker friends, so I had a bit of an insider view on the community from the beginning; I could sort of see it through their perspectives. There were not that many people at the first meeting I went to, owing to a annual meeting elsewhere in the area that drew a lot of regular members, but it was still very interesting. There were a couple “messages” given over the one-hour period. One woman spoke about a trip she took to Austria, and an experience she had in a small village where no one spoke English. She had a hard time understanding the local dialect, but she did know that everyone was very friendly, because whenever anyone passed anyone on the street, they would greet each other familiarly. It took her a while to figure out that what they were saying was Gruss Gott, which translates as “Greet G*d”.
The format of Quaker meetings can be taken in a lot of different directions. Some of my friends informed me that there’s a name for when too many people are giving messages at a meeting. They call it “popcorn”. So there’s a subtle stigma towards talking too much. But my perception was that that’s not because they don’t encourage thought. It’s that they encourage room for thought. The format of the meeting is deeply rooted in the Quaker belief that [email protected] is within everyone. The meeting is designed to provide space for you to clear your thoughts and share them if you feel that it’s appropriate.
My father remembers the meetings feeling very oppressive as a child. I can see how this would be true. A woman I talked to last Sunday told me about the childcare service the Northampton Friends’ Society provides; they bring the kids in for only the last ten minutes. Clearly, it would be difficult for a lot of kids to sit in silence for an hour. Even for adults, it’s difficult in some ways. But I’m continually surprised at how subtly natural it feels to just be with people. I find it refreshing. As much as I like to think that I’m unflappable, that I’m capable of forming rational opinions and coming to valid conclusions under even the most pressing and stressful of circumstances, I’m not; I’m only human. And since we live in a not-exclusively-Jewish community, my family has sacrificed any kind of Saturday Shabbat worship, instead focusing on being together Friday night. Thus, Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings is ironically enough my Sabbath.
I was taught in dayschool (before I dropped out) and then Hebrew school (before I dropped out of that too) that Go_Od is everywhere. The Friends’ Society embodies that fully and faithfully.
Like the progressive Judaism that I have tried to form for myself, Quaker meeting embraces the notion of humanity, rather than denying it. Instead of condemning personal flaws and limits of ability, it recognizes them and calls on me to work within those constraints to fashion something useful and beautiful.
Cross-posted to my blog.