Maybe doubt is my religion. But… I’m not certain.

In August challenge, Religion
August 15, 2009

So today’s visit, it would be fair to say, brought up *some stuff* for me. Which I’m still processing, but I’ll try to explain it as far as I can.

I went to the Liberal Synagogue in St John’s Wood – here’s its website.

I’ve never been to a Liberal Synagogue before. Frankly, growing up Orthodox I was taught to look down on Liberal and Reform Jews. Some of the messages, both direct and implicit, I received were things like: “well of course, they might be Jewish but their children will marry out”, “they’re ignorant, they don’t even know the law, most of them can’t read Hebrew”, “they’ve changed the law to make it more convenient for themselves, but they’ve lost all that’s good about Judaism – the sense of community, the dedication to God”. 

It wasn’t until my late 20s that I really started questioning the ideology I’d grown up with. To be fair to my parents, I think a lot of these attitudes didn’t come from them but from teachers and Rabbis. The Ba’al Teshuvah (return to Orthodoxy) movement has been growing in strength over the past 30 years and a lot of the Rabbis whose sermons I heard were part of that ideology, insistent that it wasn’t even OK to feel *tolerant* towards non-Orthodoxy.

However, I have done a lot of thinking about this stuff in the past six or seven years – and I’ve changed my mind on a lot of issues. I’ve come to think that it’s foolish and divisive for Jonathan Sacks to insist on our having the toughest conversion processes in the world. That most Jewish people in the UK are not Orthodox, don’t want to be, and to tell them that they ought to be is just stupid. That, as I’ve said here before, we could really do with more organisations that promote Jewish culture, learning, and simply having a little bit of Jewish activity in one’s life rather than those which insist that you have to be on a conveyor belt taking you from pork-eating all the way over to shatnez-testing as quickly as possible.

So that’s quite a lot of baggage to take along on a little visit. At the very idea of going to a Liberal Synagogue half my brain was going “no no no!” while the other half was trying to talk it down gently. (Notice I had none of this when visiting the Hindu Mandir.) Plus, I was a bit nervous that someone would go “oh! Are you Naomi Alderman?” (This isn’t (for the most part) arrogance – it’s happened to me in synagogues before, and once even at a funeral…) Which I felt would just add needless complication to an already fairly fraught visit. But anyway, the latter didn’t happen.

The building itself is very lovely – from the frontage I was expecting a gorgeous turn-of-the-(last)-century interior but in fact it was a bright modern building at the back – I wonder what they use the front for. The service starts at 11am – extremely civilized, Orthodox services start at 9 in the morning, and some even earlier. I thought I’d be most inconspicuous by arriving a few minutes after and slipping in at the back but I was *completely wrong*. I missed the handing-out of books (in an Orthodox synagogue you can just pick them up from a shelf at the back at any time) and a kind lady had to give me hers.

One thing I must say – it was a very friendly congregation. Really, I think, much friendlier than the typical London Orthodox shul (shul means synagogue, forgive me if you know this already). There’s a certain amount of aggressive piety in some frum (means Orthodox) shuls. People feel the most important thing is to *concentrate on the prayers* and that giving a hand to someone who looks lost will *lose them their concentration on God*. So I was impressed by the smiles and helping hands I got.

Another thing I liked: mixed seating. I wondered how I’d feel about it, but it felt completely natural. Plus, probably contributes to the sense of friendliness. A nice smile and a ‘Shabbat Shalom’ (Good Sabbath) from the man sitting next to me made me feel welcome. I’ve had enough stern frowns from young married women in frum shuls (see, you’re getting it) to feel very grateful for that.

Also liked: the gender inclusiveness. The prayers mentioned not only “our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but also “our foremothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah”. The Rabbi was a woman. Women did some of the readings, opened the cabinet containing the Torah scrolls, read from the Torah. It was strange (for me) but lovely.

Things that weirded me out: there was an organ. This, to me, is very very Christian, and reminded me of another of those things I heard about Liberal Jews when I was a child, that “they’re just trying to pretend they’re Christian”. Also, some call-and-response elements of the service reminded me much more of a Christian service than a Jewish one. There was a soprano doing most of the singing, which I don’t like – but I can’t blame Liberal Judaism for that, because I feel just the same about the (men only) choirs in some frum shuls. I think having professional singers in a shul discourages people from joining in, and detracts from the wonderful spirituality of a congregation of untutored voices raised in song.

After the service, we had the traditional ‘kiddish’ – a little spread of biscuits and snacks, some wine and bread, to fortify you for the journey home. I got chatting to some of the congregation there – they really were very friendly. This was where I had a big awakening, though.

Several people asked me why I’d come and what my background was. I said, honestly, “I grew up Orthodox and now I’m on a bit of a spiritual journey, so I thought I’d come and see what a Liberal Synagogue was like”. Perhaps this was somewhat too honest, because several people came back to me with comments along the lines of: “oh yes, I can’t stand the Orthodox! All that sexism, all those terrible old-fashioned practices, imagine telling an elderly man he can’t drive to shul, their old people are all so isolated, they’ve lost the sense of community and spirituality that is really *important* to Judaism.” I should emphasize again, they really were lovely, kind, welcoming people. But they clearly disliked Orthodoxy as much as I’d once been taught to dislike Liberal or Reform.

This makes me sad. I didn’t really think of myself as being on a ‘spiritual journey’ (sounds much too pretentious) but I suppose I am in a way, in that I don’t think religion is *nonsense* but my approach to it does keep changing. It doesn’t feel a particularly urgent journey, just something I ponder sometimes. But one thing seems clear to me – I don’t any longer want to subscribe to a form of religion that says all other forms are rubbish. I just don’t think any of us will get very far by saying “my way of thinking is the only way of thinking, and if you think differently that means you’re stupid”. My Orthodox friends have sometimes called me a wishy-washy Liberal, but apparently, as I discovered today, I’m a bit too wishy-washy even for them!


In a random piece of synchronicity, I looked at the shul’s newsletter, in which Matthew Lewin, ‘former editor and restaurant critic of the Ham & High’ advises which restaurants in the area are good and which to stay away from. High on his ‘Avoid Like The Plague’ list is The Warrington. I sort of wish I’d read this before I went, but then in a way it was good to see it with my own eyes. I get more appalled by the restaurant the more I think about it. I was very tired that night and not in the mood to start arguing, but thinking back and looking at the pictures… the paintwork was chipped, the room was way too hot, the food wasn’t attractively presented and didn’t taste great. The banoffee pie tasted of salmon. The only good thing was the service. I’ve been to dozens of better restaurants in London, many of them cheaper. I’m calling it. Gordon Ramsey, your brand is over-stretched. I’m the sort of person who will occasionally stump up for a Michelin starred meal, but after The Warrington I won’t be doing it at any of your more expensive restaurants. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

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