Judaism isn’t a religion of nuance. It’s filled with ancient rituals, prayers and detailed laws that govern every waking moment in the lives of the faithful. Observant Jews thank God for waking them in the morning and returning their souls to them after a good night’s rest.
Many spend their days in prayer and study, then whisper the Shema, the seminal statement of belief for Jews that “God is One” as they slip off to sleep. It’s all heady stuff for those who believe, a system that offers up structure, rules and peace of mind.
Truth to tell, however, only a fraction of the 13 million Jews around these days – 6 million in the U.S., 6 million in Israel and another million or so spread around the globe – actually live such a life. Most Jews don’t know the difference between the Amidah and an amoeba, see nothing wrong with enjoying a milkshake with their, um, cheeseburger and aren’t sure a Magen David is for drinking or wearing!
I’d quickly add at this point that I offer this intro only to provide context to the little story below. It would take a book – well, actually, several books – to detail what it really means to be Jewish and that religion and faith are only a small part of the franchise.
That said, a friend recently back from Israel told me he attended Shabbat services at a Masorti synagogue in Tel Aviv, the guest of a relative who had made aliyah years earlier. My friend – really an acquaintance – is Jewish and loves all things connected with the Jewish homeland. But he has only a passing familiarity with the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So it was that when he entered shul and was asked to take off his shoes, he thought the request a bid odd, but wasn’t at all certain about the local customs. His relative explained that on this very special Shabbat, Jews around the world were celebrating the miraculous deliverance of the Children of Israel from Egyptian captivity and to commemorate the crossing of the Red Sea, congregants remove their shoes and socks, then walk across a bit of sand before dipping their tootsies in a bowl of water.
Nudged along by his cousin, my friend followed the lead of other members of the synagogue, unaware that he was in fact being toyed with and that the ritual he was taking part in was actually an elaborate joke.
It was, as they say, all in good fun. Members of the small congregation had a little laugh, my friend was a little embarrassed but immediately embraced as a “good sport” and welcomed by everyone. I initially thought the entire episode absurd and continued to wait for an additional punch line, thinking that perhaps my friend was, um, toying with me.
Then I recalled a story my rabbi – the guy with the white beard who likes to tell jokes from the bimah – shared years earlier. Our synagogue was being expanded and the power had been cutoff on one side of the main sanctuary during Shabbat services.
Asked by several congregants why there were no lights in that area, the rabbi offered up a totally bogus explanation having to do with some sort of esoteric ritual – after weeks in the Judean desert, the Children of Israel cried out to God to hide the sun and, miracle of miracles, the orb grew dark. So, the rabbi added, on this special Shabbat, we dim the lights … well, you get the idea.
This, then, is the lesson I’m providing this Shabbat. Always keep your shoes on when attending Jewish services and make sure you bring along your sense of humor when entering a synagogue. Of course, don't hesitate to wrap a leather strap around your arm and head during morning prayers. But that's a topic for another day.