September 5, 2012
Shabbat without religion
How do you talk about Judaism in a way that's not too "Jewish"? How do you convey Jewish ideas to Jews who might get turned off by religious ideas? Is it possible, in other words, to talk about the Jewish religion in a nonreligious way?
Those questions were on my mind last Friday night when I was asked to speak to a group of Jews who had gathered for a wedding weekend. Because many of them were disconnected from the Jewish religion, I thought: Why disconnect them even more? A "religious" talk on the parasha of the week would surely have risked doing that.
Still, I confess, I had an agenda. I wanted every nonobservant Jew in the room to come out of the evening thinking: "Wow, we ought to try this Shabbat thing ourselves once in a while. It was quite enjoyable and it made a lot of sense — religious or not."
Knowing that their minds were already tainted by the idea of anything too "religious," I had to find ideas that transcended religious language.
So, I focused on two ideas: gratitude and peoplehood.
The gratitude part was easy. I spoke about the annual American ritual of Thanksgiving and how Shabbat took that great idea and made it a weekly ritual.
The weekly Shabbat meal, I said, was a time to gather with family and friends and thank our Creator for all our blessings. No matter how difficult or complicated our lives can be, Shabbat comes to remind us that there are always reasons to be grateful.
I could see many heads nodding. Gratitude is one of those great universal ideas. And a meal of gratitude works on so many levels: It brings families together, adds warmth to our homes and injects meaning into our lives. How can anyone be against that?
By the time I brought up specific Shabbat rituals — lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, the blessing over wine, washing our hands, blessing the bread, etc. — each ritual glowed under the umbrella of a universal idea.
The rituals were not in the service of "religion," but in the service of the human idea of gratitude.
The next part is where it got trickier, because I connected the rituals to Jewish peoplehood.
Why was this tricky? Well, because Jewish peoplehood can easily be interpreted as a religious idea. If Jews gather to do religious things like pray in synagogues and make blessings at a Shabbat table, doesn't that mean that being Jewish is, first and foremost, a religious idea?
And if I'm not crazy about the idea of "being religious," why should I be crazy about belonging to a people that worships religion and religious rituals?
So, I decided to go Hollywood and speak about a mind-blowing miracle: How is it possible that the Jewish people could be scattered around the globe for about 1,900 years — since the destruction of the Second Temple — and then, when they finally meet up in a place like, say, Pico-Robertson, they discover that they're all still using the same holy words?
How could it be that after not seeing one another for 1,900 years, we're still reciting the same blessings at the Shabbat table and reading from the same Torah? How is that possible?
"We probably do more editing in one day at The Jewish Journal than the Jews have done to their holy texts in 2,000 years," I told them, only half in jest.
Again, I saw many heads nodding. The idea that we were all there, gathered at a Shabbat table, doing what our ancestors have been doing for centuries, was not a sermon or a religious idea.
It was simply a moving historical fact.
I spoke about how, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews became a "people of software rather than hardware," and how the Shabbat table became the weekly centerpiece of this idea, serving to honor "software" ideas like gratitude, holiness and family togetherness.
The rituals of the Temple evolved into the rituals of the Shabbat table, and without this Shabbat table, it's hard to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived.
Our gathering on that Friday night, then, was a continuation of this miraculous story of survival.
The two ideas had merged: We were gathered in a joyous atmosphere to express our gratitude for all our blessings, and one of those blessings was the very idea of Shabbat.
In the same way that the Shabbat ritual has helped to protect and nurture individual Jewish families, it has helped to protect and nurture the Jewish people for centuries.
And, as far as I could tell from all the head nods, you didn't have to be too religious to appreciate that miracle.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.