Identity, Religion

Quaking before G-d

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 G@d 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.

20 thoughts on “Quaking before G-d

  1. “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.”
    I’m sorry you feel that way. I obviously don’t think these ideas are contrary to Judaism (though there are different focuses among different Jews). Owning and internalizing different aspects of Judaism is encouraged but I wouldn’t know about forming yourself a system.
    While i don’t know the extent of your research/learning It is amazing you reached a point where you made Tzitzit your own. I cant help but wonder if and when you will look into another Mitzvah as you did with Tzitzit. It’s OK to learn about other ideas and religions but i would say more important to know more about what already belongs to you, waiting to be claimed.
    A nice story I came by which i feel is related.

  2. Thanks for the interest Anony-mouse. What I meant by the last paragraph, though, was that the Quaker philosophy complements my Jewish philosophy.
    And I definitely think that there’s a lot of religious precedent to show that traditional interpretations of religion (Judaism being no exception) resist the kind of personalization that we’re talking about.

  3. I am saying that there are Jewish philosophies that compliment your own. I can relate that theres something refreshing about participating with a different group, but i think the “The Palace and the Pigeons” story summed up my meaning.
    What is our own is the experiences that get us there. I am by no means trying to throw you off your path, just adding to it.

  4. Great post, Harpo. And I do appreciate the various spellings of GeeOhDee. I accompanied a Quaker friend to many meetings, years ago, and was surprised to see that the majority of folks there were Jewish (by blood, by practice, by ethnicity, by… any number of definitions). But it also made sense to me, as a pseudo-meditative practice that could compliment Judaism.

  5. Once a Rabbi and a clerk of a Quaker meeting were discussing the number of Jews who were attending the meeting. The Rabbi said “I know. Some of my best Jews are Friends.”
    I wonder how many of the Jews who attend Friends meetings do so because they believe in nonviolence and have been misled to believe that Judaism is incompatible with religious nonviolence, or that they just have not been able to find a practicing Jewish community that is welcoming of nonviolence. Part of the purpose of Shomer Shalom is to be such a community. However we founded it without really knowing if nonviolence is the reason for the large number of Jews who participate in Quaker meetings or if it is for liturgical or other reasons.

  6. I was pretty active in the Philadelphia area Young Friends when I was in high school (trying to remember how I got into it in the first place, I think there was, as there usually is, a boy involved). I didn’t attend meeting on a weekly basis, but went to four or five weekend retreats throughout the year and a week-long summer camp. It was very important and meaningful to me at that stage in my life, but when I went away to college and attended a few meetings in the Chicago area, it didn’t have the same draw without that same group of people around me.
    I don’t recall there being any other Jews there, but now that I am thinking about it, I had a friend in high school, a Cohen with a Quaker mother, who grew up attending a Unitarian Church but who identified strongly as Quaker, several Jewish college friends who attended Quaker day schools, and another, more recent friend, also with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who grew up in the Unitarian Church and now is a dedicated practitioner of meditation. (It was he who told me the line “Unitarianism: That Great Jewish Religion,” which I had not heard before.)
    So I think there may be a there, there, but I don’t know that it’s the non-violence. I think it’s the quiet. I think it’s the same thing that attracts so many Jews to Buddhism (which is also non-violent, but again, I think it’s the quiet – if you have never attended a meeting, it might be hard to convey the feeling that comes from it).
    And Quakers tend to be the least Christ-oriented Christians I’ve ever known. In three or four years of participation in meetings, I don’t know that I ever heard Christ mentioned. I was on several occasions surprised to learn that Friends I had known for years were actually devout Christians, because I never heard them talk about Jesus. That makes it a comfortable place for a Jew to be alone with people and think about and very, very occasionally talk about God. (And my understanding is that the Philadelphia area meetings that I was familiar with are particularly not Christ-centered and in other parts of the country, Quakers are more explicitly Christian. And apparently there are even Quakers who have services, with a minister, which to me just seems like the antithesis of Quakerness.)

  7. Two bits of trivia.
    My high school friend told me a great line, that the Quakers came to Pennsylvania to do good, and they did well.
    Nixon was a Quaker. When I think of all the Friends I have known, I just cannot wrap my head around this.

  8. Friends: There is no such thing as Jewish blood. Please do not spread this misconception; if you mean you were born into a Jewish family, or one of your parents was Jewish, please say so. There are too many eyes on this blog that belong to people who will take this shorthand as support for their racist beliefs. (And just to pre-empt the genetics argument, there are non-Jews who carry the “Cohen gene” — it does not make one a Jew.)
    Good luck exploring Quakerism. If you read the history, you will see that it began as a gnostic/mystical sect of English Christianity during an era (1600s) of great social change in Europe. A famous Sephardic Jew, Menasseh ben Israel, is known (that is, letters and other writings survive) to have corresponded with Margaret Fox and other foundational Quakers. Although he lived in Amsterdam, ben Israel was lobbying the English government to re-open England to Jews, from whence they had been banished c. 1300. There is also a theory (and not a crackpot one, either) that Quaker literature aimed at Jews (for conversion) was circulating in Turkey — the Quakers were very entrepreneurial and set up trade routes through Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas — and may have influenced the (in)famous Shabtai Tzvi.
    Note, by the way, the similarity between the Quaker teaching of “that of God within” and Lurianic kabbalah (began c. 1550s), which speaks of the spark of divinity within each person. Lurianic teachings were spreading through Europe prior to and during Quakerism’s rise; intriguing to consider there may have been cross-influences there as well.
    Northampton, where I also live, is a very liberal neighborhood. Many Quakers in other areas are very Christian. You may also want to check out the several opportunities for Jewish silent meditation at Congregation B’nai Israel in N’hamp, and the Jewish Community of Amherst. Just sayin’. Good luck with your explorations.

  9. em-
    Good point about Buddhism. I don’t have any personal experience with it as a practice, but I do know that it’s something a lot of Jews are involved in.
    In Northampton, we call Unitarians Jewnitarians, because so many of them are Jewish kids with one Jewish parent (usually their father).

  10. I have been waiting for a way to naturally mention that Makom Shalom is offering free high holiday services this year. Now I have it. At Makom Shalom in Chicago (which is having free high holiday services this year! many treat the Amidah as a time of silent meditation.

  11. i went to a quaker college with a jewish community that far from met my needs, so i too spent a good deal of time in meeting and learning about quakerism. it definitely was very important to my spiritual development, even as i was with quakers in indiana, who have programmed worship and are much more explicitly christian than the east coast unprogrammed friends.
    just thought i’d note that just as there are many kinds of jews, there are many kinds of quakers and the silent worship of the east coast (friends general conference) is quite different from the programmed (more) christian worship of the midwest (friends united meeting) and from the evangelical quakerism of the west coast (evangelical friends international). when i took my quakerism course in college (spring 2001, i believe), 3/4 of the quakers in the world were evangelical and the country with the largest quaker population was kenya. just some trivia that i always found fascinating. and i guess a bit of a warning for folks who might come from philadelphia-type meeting settings and be surprised in encountering the other types. i have known and respected and engaged in meaningful explorations with folks from all branches of the quaker world, so i am in no way trying to put down any one of them.

  12. leah-
    That’s really interesting. I don’t have any experience with Quakers outside of my area, nor do I have extensive knowledge of the current state of the sect, but it still seems odd to me that a religion that came from a place of tolerance and reaction to the status quo of hyper-conservativism would go in that direction, or wouldn’t move farther from it. I’d be interested to learn more about the way the RSoF has changed over time.

  13. I had a Quaker hevruta (study partner) last semester for an interfaith class I took at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. He told me that the evangelical strain of Quakerism was the result of calculated infiltration from evangelical (non-Quaker) Protestants and has caused quite a bit of schism in some communities. (I know nothing about this beyond what he told me.)

  14. I wish I remembered more about the evolution of Quakerism. I don’t think I’ve packed those notes yet, but I’ll have to see if I can get anything from them 8 years later. I am not always the best note-taker and I seem to recall that we focused a lot more on the early history of Quakerism than the recent evolution in the US.
    Wiki says only 40% are evangelical. I definitely remember 75% but have no documentation at the moment.
    I will say this though–I also read parts of George Fox’s diary for that class and he was most definitely an evangelical Christian. His life was about spreading his new understanding of how to be in relationship with Christ in order to help people be saved. (Not surprisingly, the largest evangelical Quaker college that I am aware of is called George Fox University.) So I don’t know about evangelism being far from the religion’s origins.

  15. I have now looked up my notes–thanks for the prompt, Harpo! There’s all kinds of stuff in here that I completely forgot about ever having learned. And thanks generally for bringing this up! On the ride back from Rindge, Lisa and I were actually reflecting on how our lives were both pretty affected by going to (different) Quaker colleges.
    But to the point, right there in my notes: “No Quakers worship the way the original/traditional [sic] Quakers did. Both [Liberal & Evangelical] branches are hybrids, similar and different from their origins. A painful division resulted in these two branches.” And somewhere else, I wrote something about how each retained some parts of the founding principles and jettisoned other parts.
    I am now going to stop talking about Quakerism publicly, since I am certainly no expert and I feel weird acting as if I might be one. I recommend my professor’s book: _Portrait in Grey: Short History of the Quakers_ and wish I had my copy with me here.

  16. Just wanted to mention that there is a good deal of unprogrammed worship going on all over the country, not just on the East coast. For example, I live in Arkansas which is part of South Central Yearly Meeting, which takes in unprogrammed meetings from Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and a bit of Missouri. Anyone interested in locating Friends Meetings in their area could check out
    Dave Carl (a Quaker whose Dad was Jewish, though non-observant)

  17. The various strains of Quakers have concentrations in certain geographic areas but they are pretty much spread out over the US (and, if anyone is interested, OH likely has the greatest diversity…..).
    A very simplified explanation:
    Largest group (strongest in the Midwest and North Carolina) is Friends United Meeting – think mostly mainstream Protestant in orientation; primarily but not exclusively pastored ‘churches’ [although many individual meetings and/or yearly meetings have dual membership in this group and the liberal group].
    Two other groups are about equal in numbers: the liberal wing (traditional unprogrammed worship; likely not Christian in theology) are strongest on the two coasts and in larger cities. Evangelical wing strongest in Ohio and on the west coast: evangelical {bordering on fundamentalist} Christian in outlook, these are all pastored churches and the least ‘Quaker’ in terms of the pacifist belief/other public image of what a Quaker is/believes.
    Also three small traditional yearly meetings (OH, NC, IA — OH is the most conservative by far) are overtly Christian and have traditional silent unprogrammed worship.
    So 25% or so evangelical but 75% Christian in the US……
    The evolution of pastored churches in the late 19th century was complicated and actually fairly homegrown, although obviously influenced by non-Quaker Protestant interactions (esp. with Methodist circuit riders in the Midwest).

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