Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The Mystery Worshipper goes to shul
A few months ago I accompanied a friend of mine who was raised in a secular Jewish family and has been looking for a congregation to visit. We first tried out Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday evening vigil of the Sabbath, at Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto's Reconstructionist synagogue. While we received a warm welcome, a hearty vegetarian supper, and a lengthy introduction to the building from a gentleman active in gay and lesbian Jewish causes, we were a bit put off by the guitars and hippie-beaded kippahs: it all seemed rather like the United Church of Judaism. As my friend remarked to me afterward, "But I like tradition."
And so our next destination will be at the other end of the spectrum: we shall go to First Narayever Congregation, downtown Toronto's largest shul. Founded as an Orthodox congregation prior to the Great War, it experimented with gender-neutral services using the modern Orthodox Birnbaum edition of the prayer book in the 1970s. In the 80s the "alternative" congregation moved upstairs and became the main congregation, the old guard dispersing to other nearby congregations such as Kensington Market's Congregation Anshei Minsk and Shaarei Tzedek just down the street from St Mary Mag. Today they continue to adhere to a traditional understanding of Jewish law save for the full participation of women in prayer and the celebration of same-sex marriages. They are unaffiliated with any Jewish movement but describe themselves as "traditional-egalitarian."
After that, I suppose we will have to check out Holy Blossom Temple ("the reformiest of the Reform!" as it has been described to me, but a Toronto institution nonetheless). Their original building downtown is now St George's Greek Orthodox Church. I've been inside only one Conservative synagogue, Beth Tzedec, but there's another one that's not so far from me. I'd be curious to visit the Minsker, but I don't know if I'd be comfortable having to be seated away from my friend during an unfamiliar religious service.
But what makes these guys fascinating to me is that they seem rather like spiritual cousins of Affirming Catholicism, and a model for success. In a sense, finding a congregation where the rabbi can marry same-gender couples and perform bat mitvot and prints a form in the congregation newsletter for members to fill out in order to authorize him to sell the leaven in their homes, strikes me as analogous to my dream of a female-priest celebrating a Pontifical High Mass for a same-gender wedding. Perhaps the closest to this vision is the Church of the Advent of Christ the King in San Francisco, where a Missa Cantata is offered in ad orientem in Latin according to the Standard Book of Common Prayer.