August 2010

A Synagogue Guide for Non-Jewish Visitors

On any given Friday night, most if not all the people in a synagogue are Jewish. They either grew up experiencing the rituals and traditions of the faith or they were diligently taught about them during the process of conversion. Occasionally non-Jewish visitors go to a synagogue as guests of congregants or as curious outsiders of a different faith who want to participate in a cultural exchange. For these newcomers the experience of services at a Jewish house of worship can be strange or jarring. This is a quick guide to demystify some of the unique aspects of ritual at the average synagogue for those who have never visited one before.

Mysticism Demystified: 10 Sephirot

Jewish mysticism, commonly referred to by the name of its collected text Kabbalah, is a subject of contention and much misunderstanding. Much of it came out of the teachings of Judaic scholars in the Middle Ages who attempted to create a deeply spiritual component of Judaism in conjunction with the daily rituals of Halakha and the rabbinic law of Talmud. These scholars were travelers and students of many different modes of thought throughout Europe, North Africa and Muslim-controlled Asia, so their mystical concepts often reflect those influences. It is most important to remember that Kabbalah was never intended to be a system of magic or an explanation of natural phenomena. Rather, it is a deeply metaphorical set of concepts that require an understanding of many Jewish topics and texts in order to apply properly. One of the central concepts in Kabbalah is the Ten Sephirot.

A Brief Introduction to Talmud

In the modern day we take the practice of non-geographic religion for granted. While there are still a few so-called "holy cities" left in the world, there is no such thing as a religion that is bound to any one locus. In ancient times, the inverse was true. Few religions that existed two to three thousand years ago could be fully observed in literally any location. Polytheistic faiths, like those practiced by the Greeks and Romans, were dependent on temples and the priests who were bound to them, mobile only insofar as an individual's ability to properly build an altar or in the form of quasi-religious Mystery cults. This was even further pronounced in the earliest Near Eastern cities where the worship of a particular god came and went with the city itself. It's not entirely certain how mobile the earliest incarnations of Judaism were, but by the time the Judaic kingdoms in Canaan were established, Judaism was solidly anchored to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was only after two periods of exile that Judaism became a traveler's religion.

The Song of Songs (part nine)

The eighth and final chapter of The Song of Songs is also the most opaque. Its language is removed and full of stacked metaphors, a nigh-exhausted conclusion to the emotional rollercoaster of Rayati's fight for love and personal liberty. It is at once sad and hopeful, finding our heroine having learned the complexity of the world and fully coming of age as a result.

The Song of Songs (part eight)

Chapter Seven, the penultimate chapter of The Song of Songs, is generally considered the moment in which the two lovers physically consummate their relationship. As with the rest of the poem, it isn't entirely clear whether or not the events therein actually occur. All we really see is Dodi and Rayati making plans together. That, however ambiguous, is actually a major development.