There are limited opportunities for lovers of choral music to attend recitals on a Saturday morning. The Wigmore Hall is famous for its lunchtime concerts but for those whose tastes are, to put it as delicately as possible, a little less sophisticated, I can heartily recommend your nearest Reform or Liberal synagogue where a group of mixed voices (and I mean that in terms of quality rather than equality) add all-important terpsichorean accents to the proceedings.
And by “accents” what I mean is: sit back, enjoy the show and keep schtum. This is not an opportunity to step aside from the mundane, corporeal week and into the spiritual realm. You are not invited to find solace and peace, or search for a sense of perspective and place in the universe. You are not there to consider how you have behaved in the week just gone or what you can do for others in the week to come. You’re at a serious concert performance and you are there to appreciate how hard the choir has worked on singing vaguely in tune and time with each other.
I attended a bar mitzvah at a Liberal synagogue this Shabbat past. Regular readers will be fully aware that visits to shuls other than my own are not made in order to deepen my understanding of Anglo-Jewry, they are made in order to placate Mrs J, for whom any opportunity to see behind the doors of someone else’s ark is not to be missed. Personally I’d be much happier going to my own place of worship and sending the kid a £10 book token.
Apparently I should be flattered. Mrs J tells me that she enjoys talking to me when we sit together in a Liberal or Reform synagogue. She has completely failed to pick up on the fact that an orthodox service separates men from women for one very good reason. That reason is not, as commonly perceived, to stop men from being distracted by women. On the contrary, it is to enable men to be distracted by women, without being distracted by their own women. Wives should understand that Shabbat is the day of rest for our ears as well as the rest of our overworked bodies.
Another aspect of the progressive service that I struggle with is the amount of English used. Again, there’s a very good reason for the orthodox sticking to Hebrew. It’s because nobody really wants to know what they’re actually saying. It’s all a bit too religious and mentions God more than most people are comfortable with. Couple all that embarrassing English with the rather melancholic droning and we end up with what might happen if an airport announcer was drafted in to present Songs of Praise. This isn’t so surprising because I’m bound to say that I find Liberal and Reform synagogues to be indistinguishable from churches except that they have radiators.
Something else I find somewhat disconcerting is the way men are excluded from participation in any religious aspect of the service. I understand this is because progressive synagogues have fully embraced egalitarianism. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do draw the line at forcing the men to give over their tallises and yarmulkes (or ritual prayer shawls and skullcaps as the more assimilated prefer to call them) to the ladies. Sorry, women.
Whenever I write about progressive synagogues my inbox overflows with a letter from someone complaining about my lack of tolerance towards Liberal and Reform Jews. So, just to show that I’m not completely against them I want to end on a positive note about their services: they’re thankfully very short. If only they’d start at nine o’clock instead of eleven I’d have time to nip down to the Wigmore Hall to enjoy a lunchtime recital.