What is there actually in it, apart from its large abstract attractions? I joined having read old books and expecting therefore to meet old stereotypes, characters out of Tales from the Hasidim, filled with joy. I met nice ordinary people heroically fitting their children’s b’nai mitzvot preparations into their busy lives. I met mostly the very elderly.
For me for a while there was a lot in it. When you consult only your own right reason plus personal study to make a dramatic interior change in life, you can hum along for quite a while thinking “I’ve joined.” I’m now authentic, doing new things, cooking new foods, deciphering the base text under all the others. I now believe what is true. The new experiences and the learning resemble slow-growing technical proficiency at a job. You can be reassured you will build memories, which is exactly what might be said to a new hire anywhere.
However, years of observation and even very enthusiastic participation taught me what my grandmother, anybody’s grandmother in any previous Western era, could have told me instantly. Judaism is for Jews. It exists as a perpetual motion machine to keep them Jewish, united, and practicing, which is fine. But if, by any chance like me, you find after all that you do not wish to keep kosher or observe what seem rather bleak holidays, largely unrelated to the seasons; if you do not have a Jewish family and lack the memories, the “support networks” and anyway the desire, to name one item, frenziedly to prepare for and then rest on every Sabbath; if you find you instinctively and even childishly believe things which Judaism does not very vigorously address (“we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”); if in sum you learn a sort of negative print of the convert Ruth’s lesson, that to convert must be to marry and go to the land, no more and no less; if you learn also that most of the rest is fierce liberal politics, to the point of such moral bankruptcy that you sit in a sanctuary knowing that while God may be loving and everywhere and these are excellent people, you would never dream of consulting this denomination’s authority on any question; then you might find you have had enough. Remiss though it was not to explain yourself, you might slip gradually away.
A curious change did come, just shortly before. The Reform movement jettisoned its old prayer book, Gates of Prayer, for a new one called Mishkan T’filah. I got to see firsthand what it looks like when a group of far off intellectuals, who know thoroughly the language and the rubrics they are changing, impose their changes on a faithful who lack the tools to understand what’s been done. It was kind of like seeing a little Vatican II imposed on someone else. “It’s memory-erasing,” even I, who had no real memories, commented to another woman as we looked at the open book. “You’re right,” she said. Not that anyone except the very keen knew much what the old prayer book had been about. Thick lines of Hebrew stood mystifyingly over translations you trusted were accurate. “I want to know what the Hebrew says,” an old lady once complained. The English made for “a synopsis,” her scholarly man friend replied carefully, of a still older prayer book. She wasn’t satisfied. Palimpsest upon palimpsest, dilution after dilution. Will a future time look back on this as the era when intellectuals and priests stood like angels with flaming swords, blocking the peasants’ path to religion? Except Muslims, who open the gates wide and want all crammed in.