On one of the first days of Rosh Hashanah, which is THE (or one of many, depends on whom you ask) Jewish New Year, I tried something new. Part of this graduate school time is to work and study and play among people of many faiths. Develop chances to visit, to dip my toe, into other experiences.
Along the way, perhaps to better understand and embrace different traditions as something akin to my own cultural identity … connected, related … though not the same. I’m learning to make that distinction.
Yes, we can share many facets of history, belief and experience in common. Yet we don’t have to be one homogenized, same-everything confluence of cultures. The days of the immigrant melting pot, when we shed our pasts, changed our names, and tried to be like everyone else (usually in a white American-European-Protestant-Christian context) are over. In the past several decades, it has become increasingly safer for people to claim their roots, their ethnicity, their language, their religion, their race, their gender identity, their individuality. That should be okay.
Does this sound idealistic? Yes. Possible? Yes. Easy to do? No? A work in progress? Always.
We should be able to live side by side, yet be different from each other. Coexist in a pluralized society that respects and wrestles together with constructing a civilization that accommodates and welcomes diversity in many forms.
As part of this journey, I want to de-mythologize other faiths. Remove the stereotypes, biases and assumptions that I have internalized, or at least carried with me as an unconscious filter.
One of the forms of education I am receiving is to recognize other religions, practices and beliefs as different, but not as something that occurs “outside” a spectrum of societal patterns. Not “apart” from what we define as culture and civilization. Not “other” or “alien.” Not wrong, bad or in any way unacceptable.
One way that I’m grappling with this goal is to take classes. To study other religions through their history, art, development in different nations and languages, their connection to governments and politics, and through a glimpse into their sacred revelation. To understand each religion in its role as part of our broader American (Western) tradition, as well as its presence in other parts of the world. To this end, I’m taking two classes on Islam. It makes me look differently, already, at world events and the media coverage of them, political rhetoric, and our responses to them.
On the other hand, it’s best to get to know diversity up close. To form relationships with people who identify themselves in association with a variety of race, ethnicity, nationality, religious tradition, gender association, cultural affiliation and other characteristics. To make friends. To get to know each other, and put a face on “differences.” To study and learn together. Ask each other questions. Share each others’ traditions. I can do so with my classmates. We all learn and share with each other, and it’s safe to ask questions and explore diversity in this setting.
Back to the “new thing” I experienced.
Yesterday I attended a Rosh Hashanah New Year’s service. It was an improvisational service led by one of the students, Jeremy. It included many readings and songs in Hebrew. Jeremy’s voice rose, rich and redolent, to the rafters. His face shone with happiness to share this time with us.
We participated in some responsive readings in English. We recited a statement of faith (This rarely happens in the annual Jewish tradition, since this is a religion of practice versus creed, unlike Christianity, but much like Islam. In fact, it may only happen in this service each year.) We remembered the departed. We considered and let go of our trespasses from the past year, since this is a time of letting go and starting anew.
Side note: My friend Miriam, however, celebrated somewhat differently. Among other rituals she and her children participated in Tashlick, which is the act of releasing crumbs or pieces of bread in a moving body of water. Naming regrets or transgressions, and letting them go. Setting new intentions for what you can do right, better and with more integrity in the coming year.
At the end of the worship service Jeremy sounded the shofar. This is a ram’s horn. It makes a blatting cry. It resounded through the chapel. We all listened to its echoes fade.
I cannot say I understood or connected with all aspects of the service. The parts in English resonated with me. They’re akin to my own statements of faith, and align with my beliefs. I felt bound in community.
Here’s the frustrating part. Admittedly, I was restless, listening to long passages in a language I don’t understand, regardless of how beautiful they were. I felt, right then, like a little kid attending a classical orchestral concert, with no education or appreciation for what I’m listening to, and a tendency for my mind to wander, even while I try to pay attention and let it all soak in. * sigh *
A fellow student Lauren explained that much of the language (Hebrew, so I didn’t understand some of it, though we were provided with translations) of the service is a metaphor from archery. The intention is to recognize where we have “missed the mark” and improve our “aim” through our actions and intentions, so we will be “on target” in the coming year.
Another student, a Muslim peer, also attended the Rosh Hashanah service. Like me, she’s trying to learn. To expand her understanding on an experiential level. She asked permission to record Jeremy’s recitation. I haven’t asked her why she wanted to record it, although I suspect that the Hebrew chants echo with the art and practice of oral recitation of the Qur’an.
The echoes fell silent. The year has begun. It is a sweet time, these High Holidays, in the Jewish year. We dipped apples in honey. Left the room, a little lighter in spirit, and perhaps a little wiser … or more foolish and opened-up … than we’d arrived.